- Associated Press - Saturday, September 19, 2015

TWIN BRIDGES, Mont. (AP) - Rising on the western horizon and visible from city limits, the Tobacco Root Mountains provide the palette for endless summer sunsets. Hollowtop Mountain, the highest peak in the range at 10,604 feet, looms above the small town of Pony less than an hour from downtown Bozeman.

But for all their splendor, the Tobacco Roots don’t attract the large numbers of recreationists who head to the Gallatin, Absaroka and Madison ranges each summer. And it was for that reason that I set out to explore the range with friends this past weekend.

Take a look at the Montana Atlas & Gazetteer and you might be surprised by the Tobacco Roots. For a relatively small mountain range the Tobacco Roots pack a serious recreational punch. From the east, the Louise Lake National Scenic Trail and the Potosi Trail offer well-established routes from which to explore the mountains. From the north, the Curly Lake Trail presents mountain bikers with a true challenge. And from the west and south numerous Forest Service roads offer access deep into the hills.

I left Bozeman with Josh Bergan and Liz Juers, of Belgrade, at 10 a.m. Sunday. Kato and Bogues made up our canine contingent. We’d picked a route on the west side of the range that offered access to several mountain lakes reputed to hold cutthroat trout.

We began hiking just after noon following a rough and tumble ride up a 4-wheel drive road. For once, my instincts served me well and I pulled off the road before the radiator overheated or I bottomed out. We left the vehicles in a hollow along the road and donned our backpacks for the hike.

While the forecast in Bozeman called for highs in the mid-60s, the mountain air in the Tobacco Roots was considerably cooler. Fresh snow from the previous evening added drama to the mountain views.

The Tobacco Root Mountains have a history of gold mining. From the 1880s to 1930s the range was actively mined and numerous relics from the era exist in the Tobacco Roots. The range lies primarily within Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest and many mining claims still exist within the forest boundary. Along the trail we passed old foundations, log bridges and other evidence that offered a glimpse of the area’s mining past.

While the Corps of Discovery passed by the Tobacco Roots, Lewis and Clark did not name the range in their journals. The first reference to the range was made by geologist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, who led survey expeditions to the Rocky Mountains in the late 19th century. Hayden referred to the Tobacco Roots as the South Bowlder Range in 1873. Atlases in the early 1900s referred to the mountains as the Jefferson Range.

The first references to the Tobacco Root Mountains were in mining reports in the 1910s. By the 1930s, the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, forest and highway maps were using the Tobacco Roots name. The origin of the name is unknown.

The Tobacco Roots have 43 peaks over 10,000 feet. Steep trails in the range can make for some difficult backpacking and the incline on our hike quickly got the blood flowing.

After a half hour of hiking we reached a meadow that provided spectacular views of Sunrise Mountain. Snow swept down the talus slopes to the stands of whitebark pine and Douglas fir.

“That’s incredible,” Josh said as we gazed at the summit.

I looked hard to spot a mountain goat to no avail. The summit looked a heck of a long ways up and the snow made the approach all the more intimidating.

We pushed above the meadow to a small mountain lake. The outlet was dam controlled, undoubtedly for mining purposes a generation ago. The lake dropped off quickly and small cutthroat trout eager to take a fly came from the depths to oblige our offerings.

There are more than two dozen mountain lakes in the Tobacco Roots and many hold fish. The lakes were initially stocked by Montana fish and game employees and by miners in the early 1900s. Fish were packed in on horseback and released to provide a food source in the mountains and to create recreational fisheries. Many of the lakes in the range continue to see regular stocking today.

After catching a few cutthroat trout we put our packs back on and hit the trail. We ascended a steep section of rocky terrain before arriving at a ridge beneath Sunrise Mountain. On the backside of the peak a small glacier hung in the rocks over Sunrise Lake. The Tobacco Roots are a heavily glaciated range. Upthrust and folded sedimentary rock is visible below the ridges and peaks.

Josh set out around the lake to cast from a rocky point. Bear prints were visible in the mud around the lake shore. A hard wind ripped down from the summit of Sunrise Peak making casting difficult and freezing our fingertips. Despite the challenge, Liz hooked into several cutthroat along the rocks.

“It’s hot here right now,” she said, referring to the fishing rather than the temperature.

As the light began to wane behind the peaks of the Tobacco Roots we descended from the ridge to our final destination. At 9,200 feet, Twin Lake spends most of the year shrouded under a sheet of ice. For a few brief months in the summer the lake is open and the fish are on the feed. Of the few trout we caught before sunset most weren’t much bigger than 10 inches, but the out-sized scenery more than made up for it.

We spent a cold night in the hills and headed back to town the next morning with a new-found appreciation for the Tobacco Roots.

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The original story can be found on the Bozeman Daily Chronicle’s website: http://bit.ly/1OUUIO4

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Information from: Bozeman Daily Chronicle, http://www.bozemandailychronicle.com

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