Cataract Falls

Cataract Falls: The One That Started It All By Lana Explores

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The first time I heard about Cataract Falls was when my good friend Elisha of Really Montana Photography raved about her first visit in early spring. She excitedly talked about the beautiful drive out and the waterfall that was still partially frozen, but she refused to show me any photos for fear that she would ruin my first view of the falls by giving me a sneak peak. She inspired me so much that I planned a visit for the very next day.

I took a friend with me and we had a blast exploring Cataract Falls. When I got back from our adventure, I sent a few photos to Elisha right away. I was so excited that she had prompted me to get out and see this outdoor gem that I couldn’t help but share. She fired right back with a challenge that changed all my outdoor goals for the year: “I dare you to see who can visit the most waterfalls this year!”, she said. Thus began the #waterfallphotochallengethrowdown, a crazy fun, surprisingly competitive and rewarding photo challenge that was all shared on Facebook and Instagram.

Cataract Falls was a worthy start to our year of hunting out waterfalls and Elisha didn’t exaggerate – it is so beautiful! Although you do have to own a vehicle capable of handling the rugged terrain of the Rocky Mountain Front and the several creek crossings and snow patches that you’re bound to run into, finding the falls is relatively easy. It is over an hour-long trip from Great Falls but the views the whole way there are worthwhile. Getting to drive through the friendly town of Augusta and seeing the large ranches with grazing deer is part of the fall’s appeal, not to mention the wildflowers that bloom in the springtime or the large round hay bales that get rolled and pressed in the fall.

The hike to Cataract Falls is short (only .25 miles from trailhead to waterfall) but it meanders around the creek and into some beautiful woods. The distant sound of the cascading water builds anticipation as the trail gets closer to the falls and once you step into the canyon clearing, you’re treated a magnificent view of the hundred-foot-tall waterfall. The peaceful and romantic rushing of Cataract Creek as it echoes against its granite backdrop is a sight to behold and a sound to be heard. Layers of red-toned rocks with black streaks and spots of gold and white sit behind the stream as it tumbles down.

I would highly recommend visiting in the late spring or early summer to catch the ice beneath the falls that remains a beautiful blue and makes for amazing photos. Those hoping to catch the falls in summer should be warned that the creek is much lower and even dries up some seasons, making the falls far less impressive.

For those wanting a bit more of a challenging hike after a stop at the waterfall, the Elk Pass Trail also departs from the same parking lot and connects to the Steamboat Mountain lookout hike. I have not personally explored this one yet, but I have plans to return!

To find our first photos of Cataract Falls and the 120 waterfall photos that were shared thereafter, simply search the hashtag “waterfallphotochallengethrowdown” on Facebook or Instagram or follow @lanaexplores and @elishamack on Instagram

Meeting Harold

Meeting Harold by Lana Explores

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To hear some locals talk about it, Great Falls is the ugly stepchild of Montana’s cities. Most people don’t speak of our city with the greatest admiration and even those that have grown to love it still would admit that although the mountain recreation is amazing, the plains our city was built on don’t have a lot to offer. I would normally apologetically agree, but this snowy winter has given me a new perspective on our city and it’s surroundings. Thanks to some new snowshoes and a furry friend I made one day, I have discovered the joy of the Great Plains of Montana.

Just outside Great Falls and past Rainbow Dam on Rainbow Dam Road is the start of the North Shore Trail system, a great piece of land that is open for hiking and biking in the summer and cross country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter. I wanted to test out the new snowshoes I received for Christmas and so I waited for a snowy day and suited up to spend an hour or two outside. I navigated around snow drifts that had piled up along the road on the way out, parked in the gravel North Shore Trail parking lot and strapped into my snowshoes. After putting some headphones in and tuning into some good hiking music, I took off across the snow and started a climb up the side of a ridge.

The wind was blowing steadily and the sun was starting to set, so although my cheeks were burning, I was so glad I picked the time to go out that I did. The sky was turning orange and I knew my chances of finding crepuscular animals were pretty high. I reached the top of the ridge and my prediction was immediately realized: I started a giant herd of deer across the ridge and they took off running down into the coulee below me. I grabbed my phone out of my pocket to snap a quick photo but it was so cold out that it died within seconds. My music shut off and I was left with the sound of the wind and the crunchy snow beneath my shoes. It was actually refreshing to be left with just my thoughts and I enjoyed the time to refresh my mind and continue my hike long the ridge.

I decided to drop down into the coulee that the deer had run down and follow the small frozen creek that ran along the bottom. As I made my way down the steep ridge, the howling wind died away and I was left with the peaceful rhythm of my own footsteps. I picked my way around boulders and bony dogwood shrubs as I walked towards a short pine shrub at the end of the coulee. I came upon the shrub and I suddenly saw one of the pine branches moving despite the lack of wind. I got closer and realized that it wasn’t a branch of the pine tree that was moving, it was a porcupine! I got so excited. I’d only ever seen one other porcupine before and it was a just a glimpse; that night I was suddenly within fifteen feet of one and it wasn’t even scared by my presence. I stepped carefully around him and sat down on a boulder to watch him graze for a while. I pulled out my phone again to try to revive it enough to get a good picture but it remained dead weight in my pocket.

I enjoyed watching him scratch around for food amongst the grasses and shrubs. He moved very slowly around the tree and I could tell he had set up camp underneath there. There was a little bed of pine needles underneath the branches and he had dug up the ground all the way around the shrub. I watched him repeatedly scurry around, stick his nose in the ground to hunt for food and then come back up to smell the air – I think he knew I was near and was keeping tabs on me with his sense of smell.

After that hiking experience, I have returned several times to visit the porcupine I have decided to name Harold. He’s shy but cute, and I’m always careful to not get too close. Since finding him I had googled “porcupine quilling” and was adequately terrified by what I saw, so I will not be getting close enough to Harold to put myself in harm’s way.

Just knowing that right outside of our town is a place where I can get away from my daily routine and see wildlife, enjoy some fresh air, and break in the new shoes gets me more excited about living in Great Falls. I really hope I can help others discover the joy of their surroundings now matter where they are. I really believe that our town has so much more to offer than what we see at first. I’m dedicated to finding more of those hidden gems as this long winter turns to spring and I hang up my snowshoes in favor of hiking boots. Hopefully Harold doesn’t feel as adventurous as I do; I look forward to more visits with the little guy as the days grow warmer.

Genuine Montana Stories

Ice Raft Snowman by Avbird August 2017

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Hitting the Grinnell Glacier trail at sunrise requires an early start but also ensures several hours of solitude since the water taxi isn’t running at that time. Although this adds several miles to the trail length, for my friend’s first time on the trail, it was totally worth it. Shortly after reaching the banks of Lake Josephine, only a mile into the 12-mile day ahead of us, we found fresh bear scat on the trail.

We had bear spray which we immediately took off our packs in favor of having them ready. I had been followed by a griz on this trail several years earlier. After another 100 yards, we saw them, two grizzlies in the meadow several hundred yards above us. They were too busy harvesting huckleberries to acknowledge us. After putting several hundred more yards between us we stopped to watch them busily eat the ripe berries.

We finished the climb up the Upper Grinnell Lake by 8 am and had the whole place to ourselves. Hiking along the shore of the Upper Grinnell Lake, you can reach the Glacier as it hits the lake’s edge. Large plates of ice break off here and float in the lake, powered by the wind. One large ice float was near the shore so we hopped aboard for a ride. It was a good spot for a short rest, knowing we would have to swim back in the 30-something degree water.

We even scraped enough snow together to make a small snowman to man the ice raft once we left. We were back on the trail by 9:30 only passing a dozen hikers or so on the way down. We stopped at the Lake Josephine boat dock where we jumped in to knock off the trail dirt. If you find a Kershaw lock-blade on the shore there, hit me up on Instagram, its mine.

Glacier Pirates

The Glacier National Park Pirates by Avbird July 2017

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If you find yourself in Central Montana, buying or renting a kayak is a great investment. The region has amazing water, both lakes and rivers.

We enjoy visiting Glacier National Park in the summer. Although not nearly as busy as Yellowstone, Glacier can be busy. The east side of the park has some of the best scenery and seems to receive a fraction of the visitors. A crazy thought had come up around the campfire the previous evening. We had kayaked in Glacier a lot but had never really thought of our kayaks as transportation. The forecast called for very warm temperatures the next day and we were close to Saint Mary Lake and it seemed like the perfect time for some fun in the lake. We had noticed on the park map that there was almost no access to the south side of the lake.

The next morning we drove our kayaks and two little ones to the boat docks near Rising Sun and set out across the lake. The lake is incredibly beautiful and fairly thin making it easy to paddle across. We coasted along the south shore with no one in sight; we couldn’t hear the road or see another person. We drifted by several amazing beaches where we saw animal tracks and tried to guess what they were from.

After exploring by water we decided to come ashore in an amazing little bay with a fun rock just offshore that was perfect for jumping in. It was the perfect picnic spot. There were at least a million good skipping rocks. The kids explored along the shore looking for treasure while drying out from a swim. It was the perfect crowd-free day in Glacier.

Snow Day

Snow Day by Avbird March 2016

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Winters in Central Montana can seem long. The best remedy is to learn to enjoy them. The crowds are gone that time of year and many of the easily accessible areas that are normally crowded with people offer great backcountry experiences.

On this Saturday morning, we drove up to the campground at Marias Pass across from Glacier National Park. There are forest roads here that make perfect backcountry ski trails in winter. I pull my daughter in an enclosed ski pulk that we affectionately call “the nap maker”.

Immediately after hitting the trail we crossed moose tracks and then wolf tracks. We stopped to investigate the tracks and discuss predators and prey. Climbing the ridge back to the south gains enough elevation for great views of the park.

When naptime finally came to an end, we stopped for a winter picnic. The nice thing about pulks is that it’s easy to pull plenty of gear so bring supplies to have a small fire, some hot water for chocolate and enjoy. It was unusually warm this day so we skipped the fire and built a backcountry snowman.