Codger Tours

Early this past summer I had two small epiphanies:

Epiphany One: Bozeman is a great place to live and my garden is very satisfying, but if I’d stuck it out as a federal bureaucrat, I could afford a nice garden in, say, Washington, D.C. Resolution: Get out and have an “only in Montana” experience at least once a week.

Epiphany Two: My 86-year-old mother has lived in Montana all her life, and there are lots of places she’s never seen. Resolution: Take her along on my weekly adventures. Thus was born the Codger Tour. Most readers of Outside Bozeman are so spry they climb waterfalls and rappel down cliffs, but they may have a mobility-challenged friend who would like to get out into the Montana backcountry.

So here’s our first Codger Tour: The back way to Lincoln. Never been to Lincoln? Neither had I. It’s worth a trip—lots of scenery and a chance to brush past some bizarre recent history, Lincoln having been the hometown of Ted Kaczynski, the notorious Unabomber.

To begin, drive to Helena. And because bathroom breaks can be important on a Codger Tour, let me plug the McDonald’s at 1901 Prospect Avenue for its great restroom (just a few blocks west of the US 287-Interstate 15 intersection). Once you’re on Interstate 15, drive north five miles and take Exit 200, Lincoln Road. Head west on Montana 279 (labeled “Lincoln Road” all the way). There are two choices for crossing the continental divide. Flesher Pass (elevation 6,131 feet) on Route 279 is scenic and paved all the way. But the bigger adventure comes if you watch--after 16 miles or so on 279--for a left turn onto Stemple Pass Road. (My map says this fork is at Wilborn, but there’s not much to see other than the sign pointing to Stemple Pass.) A good gravel road passes some wonderfully photogenic abandoned buildings as it climbs to the pass (elevation 6,376 feet), where you’ll intersect the Continental Divide Trail and discover a fine picnic area and a very clean Forest Service restroom.

If you continue straight ahead, you’ll go directly down to Lincoln. I’m told this is the preferred route between Lincoln and Helena during the worst of winter because Stemple Pass Road doesn’t get as icy as Route 279 over Flesher Pass.

If you have four-wheel drive, it hasn’t rained recently, and fire conditions haven’t caused the Forest Service to close the back roads, there’s a real Codger Treat available at this intersection.

Take the left fork, labeled Marsh Creek. Bear left at the first fork and, if your tires are tough and your clearance is high enough, take the next left fork, toward Granite Butte. (I have a Subaru Legacy, but on this part of the tour I wished it were an Outback, which has a couple inches more clearance). A very steep rocky road will take you up to the Granite Butte fire lookout tower (elevation 7,600 feet) and incredible 360-degree views. In early July, the continental divide seemed distinct: browner, grassier terrain on the east, lusher green forests on the west. We counted eleven mountain ranges receding to the west, ending in what my Swiss cousin, who is very picky on the subject, acknowledged were “real mountains,” the Mission Mountains.

When you can tear yourself away from the view, return to the crossroads at Stemple Pass and take the main gravel road that’s the continuation of the one you came up on. It’s easy to imagine Ted Kazynski’s cabin tucked back here somewhere in the forest. Kaczynski’s defense attorneys carted it to Mather Air Force Base near Sacramento, where the jury could tour it to support a “cabin fever” insanity defense. Lincoln rumor says the cabin is now the property of the Smithsonian Museum, although I haven’t been able to confirm that. In any case, Stemple Pass Road is where the Unabomber rode his bike four miles to Lincoln to buy supplies or catch a bus or use the local library.

You’ll intersect Route 200 in Lincoln where it forms the Main Street of town. My local relatives recommend the dinners at the historic Hotel Lincoln, just a block off Main Street. Cindy Knowles, the new owner of the hotel, says many of their summer guests come for the fishing in the Blackfoot River; while in the winter, Lincoln is a center for snowmobiling and cross-country skiing with hundreds of miles of groomed trails. And, Cindy adds, the beef jerky factory just down the road a few miles to the west is a popular tourist attraction.

When it’s time to head back home, you can take Route 200 over Flesher Pass for another perspective on the mountains you’ve explored today as you head back to the Gallatin Valley’s familiar and beloved mountain ranges.

Fairy Lake
Fairy Lake is a great nearby adventure, a true only-in-Montana experience to get you out of gardening and housework. But it’s not fair to go there unless your codger friend is able to walk a short distance or you’re willing to push a wheelchair.

The road to Fairy Lake is an adventure in itself. Take Bridger Canyon Road (Montana Hwy. 86) past the ski area and bear left (but stay on the paved highway) at Brackett Creek. After cresting Battle Ridge you’ll head downhill; watch for the Fairy Lake Road sign on the left. Follow the rocky, rutted, but not overly steep, road to the campground (about eight miles). You can’t see the lake until you start down the trail. You have your choice of steps or a gentle switchback trail. My 86-year-old mother is not terribly spry anymore, but she made it down (and back up, the crucial part) without complaint.

A great place for a picnic and a refreshing swim (bring a suit, you won’t be the only folks there).

-Marjorie Smith