Bushwhackers hiking group tours Chicago and Collar gulches

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Submitted by the Bushwhackers hiking group

The blue line on this map shows the portion of the hike that took some of the Bushwhackers all day to complete.
Map and photos courtesy of Jeff Sheldon

Members of the Bushwhackers hiking group carefully descend a particularly steep slope.

Hans Stokken cooks up the idea to “bushwhack” out of Chicago Gulch and back up Collar Gulch.

Susan Valach, a committed bushwhacker, has for some time suggested a hike to a mining claim owned by her family in Chicago Gulch, on the upper reaches of Ford Creek. So, with a sunny day and scattered clouds in the forecast, Sept. 14 seemed like a good day to check Chicago Gulch off the bucket list.
The agenda was simple: down to the Valach claim via a route off the road to Red Mountain, and back up the trail to the vehicles. ETA for a return to the vehicles was about 2 1/2 hours; plenty of time to map out chores for the rest of the day.
Sometimes a hike can get off to a false start, and this was one of those times. We parked the vehicles and plunged off the side of the road onto an obvious trail. After a steep descent of several hundred yards, something didn’t feel right to our guide. She reined us in, and we reversed course, ascending back to our starting point. It’s likely this precipitous trail would still have taken us to our destination, and provided fodder for a future hike as it was peppered with evidence of past mining, perhaps the old Gies claims.
We re-launched the expedition back down the hill a little, where an old jeep trail veers off the main road to Red Mountain. The jeep trail proceeds at a moderate grade and provides an excellent path down into Chicago Gulch.
Shortly after, we were at our destination, or at least the prelude to our destination, a mine like many others in the Warm Springs District (aka Gold Hill) staked after the first gold strike on Anderson Creek in the spring 1880. Mines dot many of the drainages in the Judith Mountains in addition to Ford Creek. An abandoned mine car, its carriage, a broken up stove and other equipment littered the ground near the mine site.
We pushed on as a group about a quarter of a mile past the mine ruins to the forks of Ford Creek, where a sunny bench provided the perfect spot for lunch. It was here Hans Stokken rolled out his plan for the rest of the hike; the plan he had hatched on the way down while surveying the lay of the land. He decided to hike out the bottom of Chicago Gulch and back up Collar Gulch. His thought was this would provide a shortcut back to the vehicle we left at the Girl Scout Camp. Hans felt confident he could beat those of us retracing our route up the hill to that vehicle.
Normally dividing a party up mid-hike is not a good idea, but we didn’t see the appeal of Hans making the balance of the hike solo. So, we divvied up keys and the party split up, not unlike Lewis and Clark at Traveler’s Rest. The party returning up the trail had the benefit of having just traversed it. The party venturing downstream had no map (other than Susan’s very useful “Map My Walk” app on her phone), little water and little food. But what the heck—we are the Bushwhackers, and sometimes you have to take action to support your reputation!
There was no trail for perhaps a quarter of a mile, and we crossed a lot of boggy ground, but eventually we came upon evidence of a track. The further down the gulch we went, the clearer the track became, eventually carrying traces of cows, and finally, vehicles.
Fall colors were beginning to invade the drainage when we exited out of the mountains. Here on Ford Creek we were within sight of the Ft. McGinnis cemetery, and perhaps 3 miles from where Granville Stuart had his ranch. We made a long loop around the toe of the ridges separating Chicago Gulch from Collar Gulch. A map would have been handy at this point, but we stopped to visit with some welders from Bozeman building a corral, and they called the caretaker of the ranch, an acquaintance of Hans’, who confirmed we were on the right track. They gave us some ice-cold water and let us re-fill our water bottles.
There is no active track leading up Collar Gulch from below, only traces of the former road. However, after a couple of miles, the track has been cleared by ATV’s descending from above. The walk, other than being up hill, was easy from here on out.
The ruins of the Collar Gulch mill are impressive. The walls are 12 to 15 feet high, and 4 feet thick—all made of native stone and locally produced lime mortar. This wall extends well over 100 feet, and is buttressed by several perpendicular rock walls.
At this point and time, roughly 5 p.m., our party divided for the second time. Two opted to hike up the road that ascends quite steeply to the bench where the Girl Scout Camp sits, and where our vehicle was parked. Hans and I trailed, at a more leisurely pace, admiring the forest, the fall colors, the mountain ash, and the gentle rain that had started to fall. After a period of time, we crested the top of the trail, and mere moments later Susan’s white SUV pulled up in front of us. The timing couldn’t have been better, and saved us a mile’s walk across the bench to his truck which we reached just before 6 p.m. Needless to say, the others had beaten us here by about four hours, and were back in Lewistown, contemplating a search and rescue effort.
This hike was quite an adventure. We covered 10 to 12 miles for the day through quite varied, beautiful and historic terrain. Next time, though, I’m taking a map, a little more food and water, and perhaps settling on the itinerary enough in advance to prepare. Bushwhackers rule!

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