The Big Snowies
“A Miracle of Rare Device”
As Montanans, we’re spoiled. Mountains aren’t a novelty here; we have so much high country it’s baked right into our state’s name, and we have enough gorgeous peaks to fill the Library of Congress with coffee table books. So we might be forgiven for overlooking some of our lesser-known summits and ranges. But to do so would be a mistake.
The Big Snowies lie smack-dab in the heart of the Treasure State, just south of its geographic center in Lewistown. And because the Snowies are an island range, they rise like a huge, broad dome above the central plains around them. From the sinuous ridgeline running roughly east to west along the range’s great spine, you can see perhaps more of Montana than from any other point. Far to the north, the isolated cones of the Sweet Grass Hills lie just a few miles from the Canadian line, and in the opposite direction the great Absaroka-Beartooth ranges straddle the Wyoming border to the south. Nearly all the other island ranges of Montana’s plains are visible as well – the Crazies, Castles, Big and Little Belts, Highwoods, Bears Paws, and others all float shimmering on the horizon on a warm summer day.
The view alone should make the Snowies worth your time, but there’s so much more to them. They contain some of the last intact wildlands in central Montana, and as such represent a tremendous opportunity for wilderness lovers now and forever. So it should be no surprise that the Big Snowies are home to a 98,000-acre wilderness study area, which provides prime access for backpacking, horsepacking, and other forms of quiet recreation in pristine spaces. That it’s a vast mountain landscape located in the middle of Montana’s plains makes it a huge boon to area residents, providing prairie dwellers the chance to climb, hike, fish, and camp in the high country following a fairly short drive.
And the sunny domes of the Big Snowies have an icing on the cake – their famous ice caves. A challenging hike from several approaches rewards visitors with a stroll along the Snowies’ crest and access to several small caves. From the Crystal Lake campground, it’s a five-mile walk gaining 2,200 feet in elevation. One you gain the range’s crest, those amazing views open up in all directions. Pause to gawk a while, then head west where you’ll pass across open ridge tops and stands of timber until you reach the ice caves trail. The porous limestone of the Snowies leaves them pocked with many small caves, and the combination of flowing water and cool temperatures in this particular pocket of stone means it holds spectacular ice formations year ’round. A short, easy scramble into the mouth of the cave reveals these formations and provides a pleasant break on a hot summer day.
Plan Your Trip:
Ice Caves in the Big Snowies
Seasons: Fall / Summer
Trail Surface: Rocky
Roundtrip Distance (mi.): 12.3
Elevation Gain (ft.): 2,200
Highest Elevation (ft.): 8,179
That this amazing place and the other untouched sights in the Big Snowies are available for all should inspire you to add it to your Big Sky bucket list. These mountains would be the main attraction if located in most of America’s eastern states, so do yourself the favor of not comparing them to their bigger cousins. Their uniqueness makes them irreplaceable, even in a place with so many amazing mountains. After all, when the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge penned his most famous work, he might well have been thinking of the Big Snowies: “a miracle of rare device, a sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!”
– Eric Heidle, southwest wildlands chapter