Big Belt Mountains

Panorama view of Big Belt Mountain range.

The Big Belt Mountains are an island range primarily in Broadwater, Lewis and Clark, and Meagher counties with small portions in Gallatin and Cascade counties. The geographic area includes the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness, the outlying Dry Range, and the small communities of York and Nelson. The nearest population center is Helena.

The mountain range is located between the predominantly treeless Smith and Missouri river valleys and makes a long arc, approximately 75 miles long, on a northwest to southeast axis. The Missouri River clips the northwest boundary. This section of the river was named the Gates of the Mountains by the Lewis and Clark expedition because the river is constricted through tall, picturesque limestone cliffs. An area of canyons adjacent to this stretch of river shares similar geology and has been designated as wilderness. The tallest mountains are found in the south central part of the range, Mount Baldy and Mount Edith Slopes are typically steep and rugged. Some of the highest elevations have evidence of localized glaciation, such as the cirque on Mount Edith. The mountains are characterized by many steep sided gulches and canyons that drain the mountains to the west. Another prominent local landform feature is the bar, which is a deposition of material by a stream body over time. Many have been productive sources for valuable minerals for placer miners.

The Dry Range is a distinct geologic unit to the east of the Big Belt Mountains and is included in the Big Belt Geographic Area because of its close proximity. This landform can be described as foothills to low mountains with elevations ranging between 4500-6500 feet. Ellis Canyon is a prominent, branching drainage network that runs south to north through the range. Most of the Dry Range and area of the Big Belts along the Missouri River can be characterized as partially forested foothills with large grassland openings.

The geology of this GA is predominantly sedimentary limestone. There are some pockets of rock from metamorphic and volcanic activity that are rich with minerals. Both the Big Belts and the Dry Range lack much water and are characteristically dry. They are in the rain shadow of the continental divide to the west. The underlying geology is porous, and many of the streams are intermittent. High elevation lakes are in basins east of Mount Baldy and Boulder Baldy. Gipsy Lake, a manmade reservoir, is also on the east side.

The Big Belts Geographic Area has a rich history of occupation beginning with prehistoric peoples. Many cliff faces and rock shelters bear their signature in the form of pictographs and petroglyphs. Artifacts such as projectile points and associated flakes are commonly encountered. The Flathead Trail, a historic travel corridor, traverses the southern Big Belt Mountains. The presence of valuable minerals has endowed the Big Belts with a robust mining history. Relics of historic mining infrastructure and tools are frequent. Many small communities have come and gone such as Whites City, Diamond City, Watson, Vista, Manger, Duck Creek, Blackwell, Cement Gulch City, and Trout Creek to name a few. Thompson Guard Station and Meriwether Guard Station stand as reminders of the US Forest Service history.

A large range program is active in the geographic area. Roads have been constructed for resource extraction and now fragment the geographic area. The road network now serves as the primary platform from which visitors experience the area. Past cutting of timber is evident. Communication towers have been constructed on high points. Utilities and transmission corridors transect the geographic area.

The Mann Gulch Smokejumper Memorial commemorates the tragedy of the Mann Gulch Fire, a sacred landscape for wildland firefighters. Many make pilgrimages here to pay their respects, strengthen internal relationships, and revisit lessons learned. Numerous trailheads and developed recreation sites are located within the Big Belts GA. Some of these sites support motorized use while others support more passive, nonmotorized use. As mentioned before, the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness is located within this GA. Access points along the Missouri River also provide unique recreation opportunities.