July 05, 2010

High and Dry in Big Sky

We just got back from a week at Nature Conservancy's Pine Butte Guest Ranch on the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana. I've trekked around a bit in my area of PA in my Vibram FiveFingers but I wasn't sure how they would do on the rocky faces.  I was pleasantly surprised.  My daughter and I figured we were on the right track when the naturalists who guided us up the trails in the area also were wearing VFFs.  Our first hike was up Indianhead - a trail with lots of switchbacks through forest, then mountain meadows full of wildflowers, then onto a rocky, shale-y area at the top. In the pic below, we came up the back side of the mountain in the center and ended up on the edge overlooking miles of Montana.
Next, we did an all-day hike up to the top of Pine Butte, a butte that overlooks a swamp/fen area preserved by the Nature Conservancy.  Wildlife abounds there - moose, elk, black and grizzly bears, antelope, deer, and numerous birds including golden eagles, magpies, pelicans, and herons.  To hike up the Butte, you walk along the bottom next to the swamp, then up a series of rocky switchbacks to the top.  The top is amazing.  Fossils of clam and snail shells are everywhere.  We found evidence of bears and deer.  We saw a beautiful golden eagle harassed by magpies.  The VFFs easily gripped the trail.  What I noticed most is that while others in typical hike shoes slipped and rolled on loose stones, the VFFs allowed me to easily feel a loose rock and move my foot to a more secure location.  
Here we are at the top.  You can clearly see my daughter's VFF Sprints and one of my KSOs.  Here's a view of the Butte from another smaller butte overlooking the Preserve during a wildlife watch.  We saw "moose and squirrel."
The ultimate challenge of the VFFs was another all-day hike up to an area called Our Lake.  Our Lake is located over 7000 feet at the top of a tall mountain and up a very steep trail. I have to tell you that I am a bit of a wimp when it comes to certain height locations.  I am fine as long as there is something on the downhill side of me, even 3 inches of stone or grass, but the trail up to Our Lake contains my worst nightmare: a steep-slided slope with a 18 inch path dug into the side of it, with a sheer dropoff on one side.  It is pure scree - loose sharp rock.  The reward for crossing this 500 foot path across the face of the mountain is a beautiful waterfall falling from a hidden lake at the top.  I was very thankful for the VFFs.  I felt as if they were more stable than a hiking boot.  However, I was NOT comfortable at all with that path.  I got to the other side with a racing heart and opted to stay at the base of the waterfall rather than go up to the lake, which involved more of the same scree paths with the lovely addition of snow mounds across the path.  My daughter, who has no fear of heights, went on ahead scaling the heights like the mountain goats she found at the top.  I waited at the waterfall with a can of bear spray and my husband, who kindly hung around with me.  We did get a visit from a mule deer who casually grazed about 20 feet from us before moving on.  Here are pictures of the waterfall and a pic of the lake that my daughter took. It was truly beautiful but I don't regret missing the last part and using the time instead to screw up the courage to go back across that scree.

I think the only disadvantage of the VFFs during the week was the propensity of the toes to gather flower heads which was a source of amusement for other hikers.  My longest hike of the week in them was 8 miles (up to the Our Lake waterfall).  They are quiet, secure, protective, yet give you plenty of feel of the trail.  Later in the week it had rained a bit so I wore regular athletic shoes.  They were much less secure on the rocky trails and had a tendency to roll more to the side.  I much prefer the VFFs.

Finally, a word about the guest ranch.  The Pine Butte Guest Ranch is run by the Nature Conservancy.  They provide a wonderful range of adventures from horseback rides, which I also took advantage of, to hikes guided by knowledgeable naturalists.  The hikes and rides are quite challenging, though you can opt out and go for easier hikes if you want. Three meals a day are provided and they are quite good at catering to special requests.  I requested gluten-free for me and my daughter, instead of trying to explain paleo/primal, and the cooks and staff did a great job of asking questions and providing us with delicious meals.  We got lettuce wraps for hike sandwiches and sorbets instead of baked goods for desserts.  I didn't worry too much about other carbs - it was vacation and I didn't want to seem too much of a pain, but if I had asked, they would have provided anything I asked for.  Their meats and produce are local, grass and/or pasture fed and many of their fresh vegetables are grown in a solar-powered greenhouse.  It's an awesome place, very suited to a primal experience yet with all the amenities.  They do great work there (and they have a heated pool for swimming after those long hikes and rides).  Here's a link:  Pine Butte Guest Ranch


  1. love the vision of your VFF's with flowers between the toes!

  2. Hello Laurie, what a wonderful post. When I read it was there with you. We love our Vibrams too and agree with you 100% on stability. I bet that you also didn't hurt in your arches or knees... Thank you for this lovely piece. Have a great weekend. Jo

  3. Nope, no pain in the feet or legs at all. However, today I spent all day standing at a horse show with muck shoes on and my feet and legs feel liked I hiked 100 miles. I may have to start a new style at horse shows ;)

  4. That is good news on the VFF's for long hikes. I am going on about 16 days with VFF's and gradually increasing my trail times right now. Only up to about 2 miles of intense hiking/trail running, and twice now I have worn them for 4-6 hours while out climbing (which usually means scrambling around on rocks the whole time in between climbs). My calves get a bit sore, my arches at times, but nothing bad so far. My goal has been to get up to long hikes of 8-10 miles....so glad to hear you had positive results. Will also check out the place you stayed, we have talked about going up to Montana soon (in CO now). Thanks for the info!