Meandering Montana: Sluice Box adventures

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Collin Schmidt
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs
With 147,000 square miles of pristine forests, lakes and rivers, Montana is home to some of the finest outdoor activities nature lovers can experience. Scattered throughout the state are vast national parks, expedition centers and hiking trails, all of which are focused on providing those with an adventurous spirit an outlet to explore.

For Airmen looking for a little exploration close to home, Montana's Sluice Boxes State Park offers easy-to-navigate trails and panoramic views of Belt Creek as it carves its way through the limestone cliffs of the valley.

Forty-five minutes from base, the park offers people a place to fish, camp, float, hike, swim and even hunt during certain times of the year. Nearby, are the Little Belt Mountains and the Lewis and Clark National Forest, which also offer many of the same activities as the Sluice Boxes and even more opportunities for one to lose themselves in nature.

For this adventure, my expedition started at the top of a beautiful cliff, which overlooked the valley and river below. From there, I could see an abandoned cabin that no longer offered color to the surrounding countryside as its exterior had suffered countless years of neglect and exposure to the elements.

For a photographer, the park is a wonderland that offers Kodak moments almost every step of the way. For a hiker or even a beginning adventure seeker who is starting to find their comfort zone in the world of backwoods travel, the trails provide an easy trek while still offering the views most others risk life and limb for.

There are two main routes that lead into the Sluice Boxes - the easier of the two starts at the entrance of the canyon and follows the Belt Creek River almost the entire way into the park. For the second, a drive to the top of the main cliff on a gravel road will take you to multiple starting points that eventually link to trails on the river below.

As I hiked with camera in hand, a distance that would normally take someone an hour to traverse took me almost double the time. Everywhere I looked there was a photo opportunity. Personally, ever since learning photography, my eyes have turned into homing beacons that can't help but notice various angles and scenes that make my camera trigger finger twitch.

About halfway into the canyon, the trail that I had chosen was roughly 50 to 100 feet high above the river. My legs were sore from weight training and constantly going up and down in elevation was a challenge, but the lure of the trail kept me wanting to go farther and farther.

Before this, I never actually looked up the park online. I heard plenty of stories about fellow Airmen who decided to take a day and explore - every one of them positive and exciting. Though, had I known the specific trail I was on, I would probably have skipped leg day.

The most memorable part of the adventure was the pristine panoramic views taking the cliff-side trail offered.

Not enough can be said of the feeling you get when conquering a new adventure.

In total, the Sluice Boxes cut roughly several miles into the wilderness ending at an abandoned bridge. The hike can be completed in a single day and is a perfect venture for anyone who would like to learn the ropes before moving on to bigger and more intense trails.

The views are amazing. Dotted along the historic route are abandoned buildings and remnants of prospectors who lived day in and day out trying to strike it rich. There is a lot of history behind the sights.

As I made my way back to the vehicle, every photo I had taken and panoramic pictures' splendor was stuck in my head. Even now, the urge to just get up and go back still tugs on my adventurous side.

But I know - more is out there to be explored. That was just the beginning of my Montana experience.

For more information on Montana's outdoor activities, contact Outdoor Recreation at (406) 731-3263 or visit the Lewis and Clark National Forest visitor center at 1101 15th St North, Great Falls, Mont., or call them at (406) 791-7700.