Relief from the heat on Mill Creek.
It’s hot. Our house doesn’t have A/C and the weekend forecast calls for unpleasantly high temps. The thermostat hovers around 85 degrees indoors and it feels like our blood is about to boil.
It’s time to escape.
Cool, clear water is the only thing on our minds as my girlfriend Pico, dog Hank, and I bump along Trail Creek Rd. over to Paradise Valley. We’re hoping the idyllic moniker holds true and that the relief we’re seeking is only a few more miles away. At the very least, we’ll be able to take an evening dip in the icy waters of Mill Creek before guzzling a few cold ones.
Immersing ourselves in frigid spring water is about the only way to relieve the malaise brought on by the late-summer heat. Now, you might think setting up a weekend basecamp in the heart of a burned-out canyon with almost no shade is a rookie mistake; but upon closer examination, and with a little creative planning, this fire-scape is actually the perfect place to beat the heat for the weekend.
First of all, the Mill Creek drainage has tons of water, so you’re always within walking distance of a soak. There are also loads of trail options with creeks running alongside, so you can cool down even during the hottest parts of the day. Mill Creek is centrally located within Paradise Valley, so no matter what the weekend’s recreation agenda calls for, your drive time is limited. And that agenda is only limited by one’s imagination. We did a little of everything.
We arrive at our campsite along Mill Creek Rd., past the Passage Falls trailhead, but it’s still too hot to hunker down for the evening. Marmots call from across the creek, or so we think. Turns out, our tent site is the roof of a marmot den, as we later discover when Hank comes face to face with a beefy whistle pig. The standoff is intense, but luckily Hank is a softie and violence is avoided. It doesn’t hurt that the rotund rodent has chosen well and placed his abode on the side of a ten-foot cliff dropping straight to the boulder-laden creek.
Mill Creek lies just outside the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, and like much of that dynamic landscape, its surrounding hills are deeply charred by wildfire. The result is a lodgepole-and-fireweed-covered canyon that leaves the creek’s path exposed at every turn. Looking upstream, we catch the setting sun’s reflection along the waterway’s entire course.
Knowing where the creek wanders is a tease, and now we have to follow it to its source—or at least as far as daylight will allow. Which isn’t terribly far, as the sun has just about gone down behind the Gallatin Range, dimming the canyon and bringing the temperature to a bearable level. It’s finally cool enough to stand over a stove, so we return to our camp and prep dinner: Korean barbeque skirt-steak fajitas. And more beer. We’ll sleep easy tonight.
In the morning, it doesn’t take long for our tent to become a sweat lodge, so it’s up and at ’em with the sun. Hank and I walk Mill Creek’s banks, aimlessly casting to hidden trout in slow-moving pools of crystal-clear water. It’s not even 7am and sweat runs along the rim of my sunglasses before dropping into the creek. I need to get out of these waders. Why am I wearing them in ankle-deep water with air temps in the 80s, anyway?
With fishing checked off the list, we’re on to the next activity in our multi-sport-weekend agenda: trail running. I’ve always wanted to explore Big Creek, across the river in the Gallatin Range, and the stream’s name alone is inviting—especially to Hank, who hasn’t stopped panting in about two months. Looking at a map, it seems the trail stays close enough to the creek that there will be constant heat-relief, plus there’s far more shade than anywhere in Mill Creek. I’m secretly planning to make a post-run pit-stop at the Old Saloon for burgers and some air conditioning, and this is the perfect setup for my scheme.
Big Creek is a straightforward trail, literally; it runs in a nearly-direct line all the way to the Gallatin Crest, with its namesake stream always nearby. There are fish in the creek, and we did see some anglers, but this outing was strictly about breaking a sweat and working up an appetite. Which we did, with no problem at all.
Along the trail, dense shrubbery gives way to open parkland flecked with sage and juniper. The creek bends and falls, penned in by towering walls of rock in some sections and ambling lazily through deadfall in others. Big Creek doesn’t have the postcard views of say, Pine Creek, but it’s a welcome change of scenery and far from the typical crush of summer tourists, although horsemen usage is evident in the eroded stream banks and rock-hard hoof prints left in the trail’s dried-up mud.
Our high-output exercise accomplished for the day, it’s time to negate any gains with fat-infused red meat. And maybe some twice-fried poultry. And probably a side of French-fried spuds. The Old Saloon delivers in spades, from the throwback bartender to the juicy beef sliders. There's an IPA on tap, which means it’s on my tab; I gulp one down, squinting into the inescapable mid-afternoon sun. Normally, this close to Chico, a soak is mandatory, but air conditioning is winning out in the battle between comfort and tradition. There will always be cool nights in the hot pool and live music in the bar later in the year.
Hunger and thirst satisfied for now, we bravely step back into the heat, but our next activity promises to keep us cool. We’re going to hike along Passage Creek to Passage Falls, another leisurely jaunt starting from Mill Creek Rd., this time into the Wilderness on Paradise Valley’s eastern flank. While many hikes around Bozeman are defined by steep climbs and steep descents, Passage Creek is a moderate up-and-down. The trail steepens and climbs once you’re above the falls, gaining an alpine ridge and continuing deeper into the Wilderness, but for now it’s nothing more than a walk in the woods—or rather, a walk in the burn.
Along the way, Hank chases squirrels and unseen marmots. He’s not yet two and hasn’t learned that he doesn’t stand a chance among the deadfall, brush, and boulders. Pico and I chat, mostly about the landscape. With a master’s in Earth Science, she explains the process of fire and rebirth. The depth of her knowledge adds to my understanding of this place and convinces me that fire and heat are not all bad, no matter how persuasively my feet argue the opposite. Luckily, there’s creek water to settle the matter.
Back in camp, as we’re preparing another fireside feast, a breeze kicks up. It blows itself into a stiff wind, and within minutes, previously unseen thunderheads roll into the canyon. Lightning strikes the ridge across the creek and directly above our site. Suddenly, our walled and roofed 85-degree domicile seems inviting, and we decide to ditch our pride and make for home. Hank is confused but complacent as we usher him into the back seat. Rain patters against our tent and the wind blows air into the unsecured fly, nearly carrying Pico over the marmot’s cliff-side fortress. With the car packed, we bounce down Mill Creek Rd., windshield wipers working hard to cast the liquid onslaught from our view.
After a day full of activity and a meal now missed, our stomachs are rumbling and Bozeman feels too distant—Livingston is calling. But first, a pitstop at the refurbished Pine Creek Lodge for some victuals. There's something on the menu called "tot-chos" and I know immediately I have to have them. (It is what you think: tater-tot nachos.) Live music from the lodge's stage drifts onto the outdoor dining room as we sip Pine Creek Ale, safe from the storm and away from the heat.
It would be easy to plant ourselves in a camp chair around the stage and listen to the tunes all night, but again, Livingston beckons. Southwest Montana's Windy City is usually just far enough away to overlook or postpone. But we're here, so we decide to go all the way. "Your finest room!" we say to the imaginary hotel clerk riding along East River Rd. with us, but we're only half-joking. Livingston's signature accomodation, the Murray Hotel, has always just been a favorite watering hole; tonight, we'll make it home. That means no pacing ourselves at the bar or leaving after the first set. We're closing the place down and we'll deal with the consequences tomorrow.