Little Belt Mountains

Photo of LIttle Belts Geographic Area

Portions of this sprawling mountain range are located in Meagher, Judith Basin, Cascade, and Wheatland counties. It is surrounded by predominantly treeless foothills of prairie and sagebrush steppe. The city of Great Falls is 50 miles to its northwest, Judith Gap to the east, Harlowton to the southeast, and the town of White Sulphur Springs is on its southern edge. The Little Belts Geographic Area is bisected north-south by the Kings Hill scenic byway (US Highway 89) along which the small communities of Niehart and Monarch reside. Most of the Little Belts can be described as remote but accessible by a well distributed transportation network.

This range is the largest of the isolated island ranges in central Montana. It measures approximately 60 miles southeast to northeast and is 30 miles across. The landmass generally has a rolling curvature that lacks much sharpness. Evidence of glaciation is infrequent and patchy. The geology of the Little Belts is rich in limestone with pockets of metamorphic and igneous rock. Bands of limestone bluffs break up uniform expanses of evergreen forest. Stream courses have carved beautiful exposed escarpments and palisades. The many streams of the Little Belts are picturesque and ecologically rich. Drainages typically flow outward, radially from the center of the range. Those in the west drain to the Smith River. Those to the south and southeast drain into the Musselshell River. Those to the east drain to the Judith River. Those to the north drain into the Missouri.

The Little Belt’s vegetation reflects the gradient of moisture and elevation. Grasslands, sagebrush steppe and open woodland circle the outer fringes with trees clinging to drainage bottoms. Thick stands of conifers cloak the interior. Some mountain summits lack vegetation, revealing gentle sloping, broad ridges. The geographic area is also characterized by its many parks that punctuate the forests. They are rich assemblages of predominantly herbaceous plants. Past timber harvest is a visible component of the landscape.

First peoples used the area ever since immigrating into this part of North America. They utilized quarries for tools and weapons, such as projectile points. They created art on rock shelters and overhangs for cultural reasons. They left rings of rock used to secure tepees for shelter. The geographic area was quickly inhabited by Euro-Americans after Missouri river travel was established and rich deposits of minerals were discovered. Mining infrastructure and tools are frequently encountered throughout. Many communities also sprang up quickly and then disappeared. A few former community names are Galena, Summit, Silver Dyke, Carbonate, and Hughesville. Homesteading also occurred. A history of timber cutting is evident andlookouts remain in various locations and conditions.

The Little Belts Geographic Area offers diverse recreation opportunities. Some of these include developed campgrounds, developed trailheads, a downhill ski area, a winter recreation area that includes groomed cross-country ski, snowmobile, snow shoe, and dog sled trails, cabin rentals, and interpretive panels. Dispersed recreation activities include motorized and nonmotorized trails, snowmobile trails and snow play areas, caves, and dispersed camping. Also, the Little Belts Geographic Area provides access to and dispersed camping along the Smith River.