You can see why they call that wall of mountains west of Great Falls, “The Front.”
It rises abruptly as much as 3,000 feet from the Great Plains, a true “front” to the sea of mountains behind it; the Rockies, the Continental Divide, the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat, and Great Bear wilderness areas.
This brilliant white and beige wall of limestone and mudstone is a gateway to those areas and a place to be explored in its own right; its rivers and reservoirs fished, its mountains climbed, its trails hiked.
Tourists rush past it between Glacier and Yellowstone national parks and through it on the way to the Bob Marshall complex, leaving it empty and largely unexplored. This is the home of the grizzlies that wander out onto the Plains.
Great Falls residents get a pretty good eyeful of it heading west out of town, or from where the Sonic Drive-In is on 10th Avenue South. If they know what they are looking for they can see it marching north to south in the distance.
On a clear day Steamboat, Scapegoat, Sawtooth, Castle Reef, Fairview, Ear, Choteau, Frazier, Old Man of the Hills and Walling Reef mountains are visible, all over 8,000 feet tall. Crowning them all is Rocky Mountain Peak, at 9,398 feet, the tallest peak in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Flowing from these peaks are major tributaries of the Missouri River; the Dearborn, the Sun, the Two Medicine, the Marias, the Teton, and Milk rivers.
The “Front” towns of Augusta, Fairfield, Choteau, Bynum, Valier, Heart Butte, and Dupuyer, have ranching, wheat farming, and Blackfeet Indian credentials and a literature which describes and sings their praises in trilogies from authors A.B. Guthrie and Ivan Doig.
It is a land most visible between Rogers and Marias mountain passes, where between these two passes there are no paved roads along the Continental Divide.
Drive west from Great Falls along U.S. 89 to Glacier Park for the best look at the Front. There are feeder roads into the Front from Augusta, Choteau, Bynum and Dupuyer to deliver you to trails.
For starters, try the Sun River Road from Augusta through the Sun River Canyon, where there are numerous hiking trails, the Sun Canyon Lodge, and Gibson Reservoir. Other jumping off points include roads to trails along Dearborn River, the South Fork of the Sun River, Elk and Smith creeks.
The Teton Canyon Road, seven miles northwest of Choteau, will take you to the Our Lake trail head where you can take a 7-mile hike to an alpine lake frequented by mountain goats.
Some of the Front country now lies within the boundaries of the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas, thanks to a citizen’s initiative several years. There are battles brewing to include more or simply save the Badger-Two Medicine area on the Blackfeet Reservation from future development.
For specific hikes I’ve written a 190-page book, “Discover the Rocky Mountain Front,” published by Riverbend Press in Helena and available at the Great Falls Tribune.
Tom Kotynski is the author of, “Discovering the Rocky Mountain Front.” He is a writer, a teacher, and an avid outdoorsman. Toms skill sets were sharpened during 36 years of daily newspaper work (Great Falls Tribune, USA-Today, The Times (a Chicago suburban daily)) and nine years in education as director of GFPS career and technical ed programs, and adjunct professor at UGF (now Providence) and Great Falls College. He taught writing, humanities and philosophy. Now retired, you can find Tom exploring the back country of Montana. His blog outtherewithTom.com hosts an extensive database of Montana adventure information.