Sunday, September 27, 2015

Thoma Lookout

On a beautiful Sunday, September 27, Patti and I hiked to Thoma Lookout and later attempted to hike to Mt Hefty.  I had hiked to both before back on September 24, 2009.  Patti had never been to either.

It was time for a hike.  I hadn't hiked since early August before all the smoke from the forest fires.   The weather on Sunday was beautiful.  Sunny and warm after a cool start in the morning.

While Google maps shows the driving time as 2:23 in length, the time from my place (closer to Kalispell) was 2:15 driving up and 2 hours driving back - and Patti drives reasonably, and not like a speed demon.

Other than a few miles in the beginning, much of the North Fork Road had a chemical dust control treatment which has preserved the road quite well and made driving the road smoother and easier.  The treatment ended a mile or so north of Polebridge so the last miles on the North Fork Road was rougher, but manageable.

Six miles from the US/Canada border we turned onto the Trail Creek Road (NF road 114).  After almost 5 miles we turned off onto NF road 114A.  This one lane old logging road ends after 3 miles where the road was blocked off and closed decades ago.  An old map shows the road used to go up to brush along the US/Canada border.  Apparently Google maps knows of the closed 114A road as their alternate route in grey via Fortine is via the closed section of 114A.  One can drive the Trail Creek road across to Eureka/Fortine but the Trail Creek Road does not brush the US/Canada border.

Both the Trail Creek Road and NF 114A are in good condition - better than the un-treated North Fork Road.

The end of NF road 114A has just enough room to turn a vehicle around.  There is room for parking for only a few vehicles at the end of the road.  I have never seen another vehicle on NF road 114A.

The trail Patti and I hiked was trail 18: Thoma - Colts Creek Trail.  It is shorter and has much less elevation change than the Thoma-Hefty trail (15) that starts from the Trail Creek Road (114).

The elevation gain on trail 18 is still a good amount at 1700 - 1800 ft.

If you decide to also hike to Mt Hefty after hiking to the Thoma Lookout add in an estimated another 1000 ft of elevation gain and 5 miles round trip. Estimated as the forest service appears to be letting the Mt Hefty portion of the trail go and I do not have a GPS unit.

Getting out of the car the first thing one is aware of is the quiet.  Dead silence.  No vehicles.  No planes.  No far off people noises.  No animal noises.  Both times I have done this hike it has been very quiet.  This is one of the quietest hikes I have been on.  In the afternoon when the wind blew I could somewhat hear it.  Other than on the mountain tops in clearings, the trees screen out the wind.

The first half mile of the hike is on the closed off part of NF road 114A.  While the road is closed the forest service apparently does cut the alder trees growing onto the road.

The trail off the road is not marked with a sign.  A cairn of rocks marks the side trail.

Then you follow along Colts Creek.  The creek is small, but even in this dry year there was water in the creek.  The creek is also mossy and pretty.

The trail is good.  It is maintained, and other than a short section on Thoma, the trail is not brushy.

Thoma Lookout with the Whitefish Range in the background.

I first hiked to the lookout in 2009 the year they started refurbishing the lookout.  The outhouse was brand new.  Six years later it still looks brand new.  The view of the Glacier Park mountains from the outhouse are magnificent.

Patti and I spent some time at the lookout eating our lunch and admiring the views. The weather was almost perfect: sunny, cloud-free, warm and only a slight breeze.

The lookout was not shuttered yet for the year.  A sleeping bag was lying on a board in the lookout and stuff was out.  Lief, who has staffed the lookout since it was refurbished and re-opening in 2010, was not around.

In this article there is info on Thoma Lookout and Lief who staffs it each year:

Here is a 16 minute 34 second documentary on Thoma lookout and Lief:

After we visited the lookout and soaked in the views, we decided to try to hike to Mt Hefty.  That meant hiking a mile back to the saddle and then taking the trail that branched off to the north.  When we hiked up to the saddle we missed the branching trail and the trail sign.  Our heads were down as we climbed.  I had hiked to Mt Hefty in 2009 so I knew roughly where the side branch should be.

To the left (behind the pine tree in the foreground) is the Mt Hefty trail.  To the right is the trail to Thoma lookout.

The trail to Mt Hefty starts out good.  But as one climbs into grassy areas and places with more open than trees the trails fades unless you know where to look.  The route also goes over three mountains.  Just when you think you climbed Mt Hefty you look beyond to another slightly higher mountain.  Mt Hefty is right on the US/Canada border and the border "line" runs on its northern shoulder with one of the border monuments right on the trail.

Patti had been working 60 plus hour weeks the past month, was recovering from a cold, and hadn't hiked since early August, so she wasn't at full hiking strength.  She made it to the second mountain before she ran out of gas.  From the second mountain one has to go down to a saddle before climbing Mt Hefty.  Patti saw Mt Hefty and got an idea of the views so she definitely wants to come back and hike to Mt Hefty next year.

All along the trail to the saddle, then on the Mt Hefty trail we saw lots of horse hoof prints.  The border patrol monitors this area, especially as it is a easy hike to Mt Hefty and across the border.

By the time we got back to the car we had spent 7 hours hiking (and looking at the views) over about 10 miles.  The hike is not hard, just awesome.  Most people hike to the lookouts in Glacier Park, but the hike to Thoma Lookout and Mt Hefty is a secret undiscovered treasure of a hike in the Flathead, and one of the best lookout hikes around.

Here are 38 more photos from my hike: