The Highwood Mountains of Montana are a small, island mountain range located on the north end of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest. The closest mountain range to Great Falls, Montana, the Highwood Mountains rise out of the prairie and are a unique site in the middle of central Montana.
Geological history suggests that the Highwood Range is of volcanic origin. The Highwoods were once much larger, but over millions of years have been eroded to their current state. The hills are covered with pine and spruce forest and are a popular destination for hikers, mountain bikers, dirt bikers, and hunters.
The Highwood Mountains Statistics
- Highest Elevation: 7,670 feet (2,338 meters)
- Most Recognizable Peak: Highwood Baldy
- Season: Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall
Despite being one of the smaller mountain ranges in Montana, and its strange location at the confluence of four different prairie systems, the Highwood Mountains are full of recreational opportunities.
Because this mountain range lies within the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, there are more diverse options for recreation than in ranges located within National Parks or Wilderness areas.
Hiking in The Highwood Mountains
The Highwood Mountains have a small, but fun collection of hiking trails that range in difficulty from easy to difficult. The adventurous hiker will enjoy the Highwoods Mountain Loop or the trail to the summit of Highwood Baldy, the highest point in the range. Most of the trails in the Highwood Mountains are relatively short and are great for day-hikes.
The Highwood Range has one designated National Forest Campground, the Thain Creek Campground. This campground has 12 sites, and limited amenities. You will find two vault toilets at this campground, but no running water. Located along the Thain and Briggs Creek, trout fishing is easily accessible from the campground.
If designated campgrounds aren’t your thing, discrete camping is allowed on National Forest land and is the preferable option for folks in the area who have come to hunt or to enjoy the many miles of motorcycle trails. Before finding a discrete camping location, make sure to check out the most recent camping rules and regulations on the Forest Service website.
Snowshoeing and skiing are moderately popular activities in this mountain range. However, due to its location, this range often does not have enough snow at lower elevations to make for good cross-country skiing or snowshoeing.
Fishing is a fairly popular activity in the Highwood Mountains. There are numerous small creeks and tributaries to the Missouri River that are great spots for trout fishing. Before fishing in the Highwood Mountains, make sure to visit the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks for information on fishing regulations and to purchase a fishing license.
This area has a large population of elk and deer, making it popular with hunters. However, many hunters in the area prefer to hunt small game or game birds. As with fishing in the Highwood Mountains, make sure to read up on Montana’s hunting regulations and apply for a hunting license before heading out.
Motorcycle or dirt bike riding is another popular activity in the Highwood Mountains. Many of the designated trails in the range are open to motorized vehicles. Before heading out on a trail, check with the local ranger station to ensure that motorcycles are allowed. Also, remember that you’ll be sharing the trails with pedestrians, horses, and bikers so stay aware and ride safely.
Most of the designated trails in the Highwood Mountains allow for mountain biking. These short trails are fun adventures for beginner to intermediate riders. There are great single-track options and the area has plenty of dirt roads that can also serve as great mountain biking trails.
Because the Highwood Mountains are such a small range, there are not many designated trails. You will find that many of the trails in this area are heavily used, and do not have limited use. Many trails in the Highwood Mountain Range are open for pedestrian, bike, and motorized vehicle use, so be aware of your surroundings and travel slowly if you’re on a motorcycle or other motorized vehicle.
Windy Mountain Trail
A relatively busy trail, this easy loop is a favorite of day-hikers in the area. It is also popular with mountain bikers and motorcyclists. The loop takes you from the Thain Creek campground to the top of Windy Mountain. Along the trail, you’ll enjoy plenty of wildflowers and wildlife watching.
July through October is the best time to take this hike. It is also recommended that you start this hike early in the day to avoid afternoon thunderstorms that can roll through the area. The total trail distance is 8.8-miles.
Thain Creek Campground Trail
The Thain Creek Campground Trail is one of the busier trails in the Highwood range. This trail is really popular with dirt bikers, so if you are hiking you should be aware and keep your eyes open. Also because of the heavy motorized vehicle use on this loop, if you hike with your dogs, make sure they are leashed at all times.
The loop is a great hike with really nice views. It is most accessible from April through November. In the early spring, you will find that this trail can be a bit muddy. This is a really short trail, with minimal elevation gain. The total trail distance is 3-miles.
Highwood Baldy Trail
A difficult but not too difficult hike in the Highwood Mountains is the trail to the summit of Highwood Baldy, the range’s highest point. This 6-mile out and back trail is a great day hike that rewards you with amazing views of the Highwoods and surrounding prairies.
May through September are the best months to hike the Highwood Baldy Trail. This is another trail that should be hiked early in the day, especially in the spring and summer months to avoid daily thunderstorms.
Highwood Mountains Loop Trail
For hikers that want a challenge, the Highwood Mountains loop trail is a great option. This 14.5-mile loop offers great views across the whole loop but will challenge even experienced hikers with almost 3,000 feet of elevation gain. This trail is popular with mountain bikers, hikers, and trail runners.
You’ll not find many motorized vehicles on this trail, making it perfect for families and dog owners. Be advised that the start of this trail does have a couple of creek crossings, so be prepared with proper shoes, and extra socks, just in case.
Center Ridge Trail
If you just want a nice hike with great views and plenty of wildflowers, the Center Ridge trail is a great option. This moderate hike is an 8-mile loop trail that is relatively well used by hikers in the summer months. This trail isn’t terribly popular with mountain bikers or motorcyclists, so it is another good family and dog-friendly trail.
This trail has a moderate climb with a total elevation gain of approximately 1,400 feet. For the most part, this trail follows the ridgeline, and wanders in and out of the trees, so you get a nice mix of sun and shade. There are also a couple of creek crossings that make for a fun hike.
East Peak Ridge
Though not a technically difficult hike, the East Peak Ridge trail isn’t terribly popular or heavily used. For hikers that want to avoid crowds in the Highwood Range, this is a nice hike. However, because this trail isn’t as heavily used, you’ll find that there is a bit of bushwhacking to be done, and there is plenty of deadfall along the trail.
The out and back distance of the East Peak Ridge trail is 12.1-miles, and you’ll have a moderate climb with a total elevation gain of 2,900 feet.
Considered to be a more difficult trail within the Highwood Range. The Briggs Creek trails connect you to Kirby Creek from the Thain Creek campground area. This trail ascends sharply uphill through meadows and forests, making it a nice, shaded walk in the summer.
At the top of your climb, you’ll meet up with the Windy Mountain Trail. At this point, you can either take the Windy Mountain trail or descend to Kirby Creek. Total out and back distance to Kirby Creek is 6.2 miles.
This trail also tends to have more snow for snowshoeing in the winter.
North Fork Highwood Creek Trail
Start out on this trail from the Thain Creek campground area. This trail follows the north fork of Highwood Creek. As an out and back, the trail distance is approximately 16-miles and has a good amount of elevation gain.
While you’ll find yourself at a higher elevation at the end of this trail, there are few steep spots along the trail, making it a good trail for intermediate or even some beginner hikers.