CDT Thru Hike: Helena to Butte and the Big Sky Alternate

As mentioned in our last post, Helena was our first zero since getting on trail back in June. Normally the goal of a zero, aside from getting town chores done, is to stay off your feet and give your body a break. We didn’t really do that as much as we probably should have, but lucky for us the next several days between Helena and Butte were fairly smooth hiking. This stretch was also one of those sections where the landscape changed quite a bit and kept things a little more interesting.

From Helena, a few of us got a ride back to the trail from a fellow hiker (their visiting friend had a rental car) while the rest of our group was dropped off by a local trail angel. Our reputation was already preceding us down the trail, mostly the size of our group and the uncommonly even gender split, and adding another hiker into the mix had us all laughing at what a sight we must be. The CDT has significantly fewer hikers than other long trails, and despite this year’s numbers being a record high, a group this size still turns heads.

The hike out of MacDonald Pass took us along many miles of exposed dirt roads, where the smoke from the fires to the west turned the sky a hazy orange in the late afternoon sun.

It wasn’t all desolate road walking though, by the end of the first day we were back in the forest. Most of the rest of the section was more enjoyable than that first day, with only one more 6 mile road walk. One of the real treats of this stretch was the number of springs we passed along the trail. The trough in the picture below may look a bit green, but the water flowing into it was crystal clear.

A little south of Butte we left the official CDT to hop onto an alternate route that would bring us farther east around the wildfires. It turned out to be one of our favorite sections so far, and brought us through a range we’re already planning to go back and explore more thoroughly after this hike. This alternate gave us a little bit of everything: open high desert, dense forests, a little road walking, challenging climbs, and even a little run in with some free range cattle.

The CDT motto is “embrace the brutality” and towards the end of this section we really got our first taste of what that brutality can look like. We had spent most of one particular day up on a ridge, and were just starting to drop down into the valley below when the rain started, quickly turning to hail. We didn’t think much of it, we’d been watching storms pass all day and nothing had been too bad. We found a few trees on the side of the mountain and sat underneath them to wait it out.

Not even a minute later the temperature dropped, the hail doubled in size, and the thunder and lighting started. We threw on our rain gear as fast as we could, chose a cluster of trees below us, and made a run for it. Once down there we found a large boulder blocking the wind, so we spent an hour and half huddled there while we waited for the storm to pass.

By the time it was safe to keep moving it was nearing dusk. I was beyond ready to be warm and dry, so we hiked a few more miles to the bottom of the next climb and set up camp. A few days later we were hit with more rain, but nothing as bad as this storm.

2 thoughts on “CDT Thru Hike: Helena to Butte and the Big Sky Alternate

  1. We’re really enjoying your installments as you go–looking forward to them like it was “Curse of Oak Island”! Looks like you have a large enough complement to practice and master the Roman Phalanx maneuver, massing yourselves in two very tight rows and using your backpacks as shields to form a wall, while presenting all those nice pointy sticks as spears–no stinking grizzly bear would think about it! Stay healthy!


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