The challenge, though, was getting out there. Camp on the Boulder, deep in the Absarorka Beartooth Wilderness, is nearly 15 hours and 1,000 miles of driving, with the last 14 on a poorly-maintained dirt road. That's two days of driving and a hotel stay in each direction. I tried to psych myself up by calling it a "road trip" because this term brings up feelings of adventure and nostalgia. But as soon as I found out that Chris had nearly enough airlines miles to get the seven of us to Billings and back, (and that there were direct flights) I decided the great American road trip was overrated (at least if it involves young children). So we flew - and it was wonderful.
We exited the airport in Billings, Montana and I remembered why the state has the nickname "Big Sky". The sun beat down on us from a cloudless sky, which somehow really did look bigger than the sky back home in Minnesota. I couldn't wait to get out and see some of state.
We stopped at a coop grocery store in downtown Billings to have lunch and pick up some extra snacks for the week. The cashier was friendly and chatty, so I told him we were from out of state and asked him what he liked most about Billings. Without missing a beat, he replied, "Leaving."
At our next stop, Pictograph Cave State Park, I asked the park ranger if he had anything redeeming to say about Billings. He admitted the city is considered the "red-headed step-child of Montana" because of the oil refineries, but he very enthusiastically talked about the city and region's highlights, such as the the arts scene and all the outdoor recreation opportunities. In addition to all the good things to say about his home city, he raved about Minnesota's state park system and gushed about it being among the nation's top three (along with Maine and Montana).
|Hiking the short loop trail at Pictograph Cave State Park.|
|A river literally runs through it.|
|Heading out on our first hike of the week!|
|One of my favorite places to the bring the kids to is the natural playground at the Tamarack Nature Center. The kids loved this playground they found on the trail.|
The kids were slow making it up the steep trail, but remained steady even in the spots that were difficult for little legs to navigate. We stopped for lunch at the Lookout, where we had a beautiful view of the Boulder River below.
|Snack time for five of the kids, nap time for the sixth.|
|Kelly, Jim and their kids were our guides for the week at camp.|
Matteo was so wiped out that he just didn't want to walk anymore, so I ended up having to use my pack as a make-shift Ergo and carry him down on my back. I hoisted him up onto my back, where he clung to me like I was giving him a piggy-back ride, and then Celina helped me put my pack back on and when I fastened the waist belt, Matteo was able to sit on the waist belt where it met my pack. I cinched my shoulder straps, which kept him snug against so I didn't have to worry about him tipping back. He seemed so chill that I kept asking others if he had fallen asleep. I couldn't have hiked the whole way with him on my back, but the backpack Ergo was a heck of a lot more comfortable than carrying him any other way and I was thankful we were able to make it down the mountain and back to camp in a timely manner.
|At the end of our hike, we stopped at the Boulder River to dip our feet in the water and cool off. And cool off we did! I'd forgotten how cold mountain streams are!|
I felt guilty about leaving our kids behind, and it's possibly the first time in my life that I was out of cellphone contact should an emergency arisen, but it was ultimately the right decision because the trail was tough! Long sections of the trail consisted of switchbacks up the side of the canyon and it was very rocky. It was on this trail that I realized that hiking in Montana is like learning to ski in Switzerland - there are no easy trails.
While the hike was the most difficult one we did all week, it was my favorite. The scenery was gorgeous and completing a hike of that difficulty was physically rewarding. We stopped for lunch along the Boulder River and could see the end of the Box Canyon and its majestic mountains looming before us. When I imagine Montana, this was one of those views.
Halfway to Big Timber, we stopped at the Natural Bridge Picnic Area, which has a beautiful waterfall on the Boulder River. After hiking up mountains, the trails, many of them paved or well-packed dirt, could barely be considered a hike, even for children.
|The only reason our kids are smiling for the camera is because we promised them fruit snacks.|
Some other treasures I found...
On the dirt road leading towards camp, we had a surprise bear sighting. Where we were in Montana is technically Grizzly and Black Bear country, but none of the regulars at camp had ever seen a Grizzly and Black Bear activity in the area is rare enough that the camp had open trash cans outdoors on the property. Our bear sighting was brief and from inside the safety of our car, but was nonetheless exciting for everyone.
We were back at camp with plenty of hours left in the day to relax and read a book, play on the playground or play board games in the dining hall. That's where Soren found his new favorite game, The Game of Life.
When we arrived on Sunday, the week seemed to stretch endlessly in front of us, but by mid-week, I realized how little time we had. Our simple schedule of meals, hiking and lounging around camp had been deceiving - a week wasn't enough time to do all I had wanted to do.
Thursday arrived and I really wanted to get the kids back into the mountains. I learned that the only trail folks considered easy was the Bambi Trail, which traversed the ridge line overlooking camp. I was warned the trail was overgrown, but that it would otherwise be obvious where to follow the trail.
Overgrown was an understatement. We bush-wacked our way through the first half of the trail and were never sure if we had found the trail, left the trail or had ever even been on the trail. We were excited to see a blue blaze, only to turn around and see blue "blazes" on multiple trees. The markings weren't trail blazes after all, but most likely trees selected for chopping down. I was relieved when we finally heard the roar of the Speculator Creek, because I knew once we arrived at the creek, we'd make a left and follow the "trail" up the creek.
We stopped at the creek for a snack and I marveled at how lush this area of the mountain seemed compared with the arid landscape around camp. Moss covered many of the rocks and tree stumps on the banks of the creek and I expected to see a gnome peak out from behind a tree.
|Much of the trail was overgrown or covered in debris, like this section, which looked like a giant game of Pick Up Sticks.|
Later that night we participated in the camp's Thursday night bingo. The kids were so excited to try to win. Celina ended up being one of the first winners though! She picked out a cool memento from Montana. The kids eventually won and were overjoyed to finally have their chance to look over the prize table.
|The mountains were just begging me to do a cheesy Sound of Music reenactment.|