There’s no shortage of views across Central Montana, if you don’t mind a bit of a climb on the loop trail around Limekiln Canyon in the Judith Mountains.
Distance and difficulty:
According to trail signs, the loop is 7 miles long. Hikers will climb about 1,000 feet in elevation, mostly at the beginning of the hike. This trail is rated Intermediate due to some steep grades, the length of the hike and a few areas with unstable trail surfaces. The trail is maintained well by the BLM.
Hikers should keep in mind weather can change dramatically in Central Montana’s mountains, especially in the spring or fall. Dressing in layers is the safest approach for mountain trail hiking.
The Limekiln Trailhead is less than 10 miles from Lewistown. Follow Main Street east from 1st Avenue to Marcella Drive. Turn left on Marcella toward Judith Shadows Golf Course. The road changes its name to Rifle Range Road; continue to the “T” intersection. At the “T”, turn right onto Limekiln Road. Follow Limekiln Road to the trailhead parking area at the Judith Mountain Lodge. The trailhead offers unpaved parking with space for 4 or 5 vehicles, and a vault toilet. There is no drinking water on this trail, so bring your own.
The trail takes off from the southeast side of the parking area, and is marked by signs and a registration book for trail users.
This is a loop trail and hikers can travel in either direction. However, steep uphill grades are minimized by proceeding down the trail as it follows Burnette Creek northeast from the trailhead. The trail will intersect with a gravel road; turn right and follow the road up the canyon for about a quarter mile. Signs mark where the trail turns off the gravel road to the right. Follow the trail as it winds across a small meadow and into the trees.
The next section of this hike is predominantly uphill, with some steep sections but plenty of shade. Most of the altitude gain of 1,000 feet occurs in this section. In a few places, especially on the switchback turns, the trail surface of loose gravel is somewhat slippery.
The trail winds upward through thick confir stands. Listen for the “jackhammer” sounds of woodpeckers and note plenty squirrel signs, including pinecones with cone scales chewed off and tips of pine or fir branches nipped off at a 45 degree angle.
At the top of the ridge the trail splits. The Lewistown Overlook trail takes hikers to the right about half a mile to a rock shelf with grand views of Lewistown. For the loop trail, stay to the left where the trail shortly crosses a logging road and levels out, taking hikers through meadows and along the contours of the crest of the slope.
Look for signs of deer and bear in the meadows. From here the trail follows the upper contours of the slopes above Limekiln Canyon, winding north, then turning west and finally south back to its starting point. While there are short sections that climb or decline, most of the trail is relatively flat.
On the east and north sections, hikers will see a lot of downed timber, remnents of a wildfire some 20 years or so ago. Young pines are regenerating well, and the trail passes through sections of forest that resemble overstocked Christmas tree lots.
There are plenty of views looking out across the landscape of Central Montana as the trail winds along ridgetops and the outer slopes of this section of the Judiths. New Year Peak and Burnette Peak are visible from points along the hike.
As the trail turns south, looping around the top end of Limekiln Canyon, it leaves the timbered slopes and runs along more open hillsides where shade is at a premium. There are great views to the west from sections of this stretch, and plenty of bird life, including nuthatches, jays and the occasional grouse.
Eventually the trail comes down off the ridge through a series of switchbacks. Some of the downhill stretches are steep, with pinecones, loose gravel and pine needles creating a slippery surface. Hikers will pass the Judith Mountain Lodge and its outbuildings before arriving back at the trailhead parking area.
Please note: While every effort has been made to guarantee accuracy in trail descriptions, errors in recording mileage and trail conditions can occur. Also changes occur on the land; some descriptions that were accurate when written may be inaccurate later. One storm, for example can block a road or trail. The responsibility for safety while hiking is that of the user.
Ratings: Hikes are rated as beginning, intermediate and advanced. Beginning hikes are those which are mostly flat or with only short stretches of steep grades, and with well-marked, easy to follow trails. Intermediate hikes are those with very steep or long grades, or with trail surfaces which are somewhat unstable. Advanced trails are those with steep, or very unstable trails, those that require some climbing or those which are not well-marked or which contain stretches of off-trail hiking. None of these hikes requires technical climbing. Hikers should adjust these ratings for their own fitness and experience levels.