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Central Montana Hikes & Attractions

Judith Mountains and Their Ghost Towns

The Judith Mountains are a small “island” mountain range that lies just northeast of Lewistown, MT. There are a number of these island ranges in Central Montana including the Big Snowy Mountains, Little Belt MountainsCastle Mountains, Moccasin Mountains and others. While most of the island ranges are on National Forest, the public lands in the Judith Mountains are administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

The Judith Mountains

The Judith Mountains begin east of Lewistown and arch to the northeast for about 20 miles. In most places they are about 10 miles wide and consists of a number of low peaks broken by stream drainages. Pyramid Peak and New Year Peak, both on the southern end of the range are in the 6,000 – 6,200 ft range and when seen from Lewistown (less than 4,000 ft) they stand 2,000 ft higher than the surrounding area.

There are a number of peaks at about 6,000 ft in the range with the highest point being Judith Peak at 6,400 ft. This is rugged country but it has been significantly tamed. There are lots of roads in these mountains that are reminders of the mining and logging history of the area.

In the 1950s and 1960s the US Air Force operated a radar station situated at the top of Judith Peak. Today the road to this site provides a great opportunity to drive to the top of the mountains. Throughout the Judith range there are other roads that provide access to much of the high country.

The Judith Mountains are rich with human history. Significant gold discoveries resulted in a rich mining history and the ghost towns of Maiden and Gilt Edge make interesting stops for visitors. There’s a natural loop route through the Judith Mountains that visits these ghost towns and Judith Peak. The route can easily be extended to include a visit to Kendall Ghost Town in the nearby North Moccasin Mountains. This trip can be taken from any starting point and makes a great way to experience Central Montana’s mountains.

Gilt Edge Ghost Town

From Lewistown head east on Hwy for about 12 miles to the Gilt Edge Road. Turn left (north) and stay on this road for 6 – 7 miles until you pass through the old town site of Gilt Edge. Gilt Edge was founded in 1893 and, although gold seemed to be plentiful, it failed to thrive because of the illegal financial dealings of the mine manager. By 1899 things were sorted out and the town reached its peak at the turn of the century.

Today Gilt Edge consists of a couple of buildings and a scattering of ruins. The town site is right by the side of the road and you can easily park and explore the area. Two buildings remain standing in some semblance of the form they originally had. The very small building is the jail. Its easy to imagine that a stay in this tiny jail would not have been comfortable place.

Not much larger than a small shed, This long abandoned building is the original jail at Gilt Edge.

The other building is much larger and was the home for the ladies who entertained the miners at night. The building is picturesque and peering inside shows a complex building with many rooms. Unfortunately, its in very poor condition and no one should ever attempt to enter. If you explore the area around this building be very careful as there is an open well located in back that could be easy to fall into.

The old pleasure house in Gilt Edge still stands. Do not attempt to enter as it is in poor condition. If you explore this area be very careful to avoid the old well behind this structure.

Rubble piles and broken walls mark the places where other buildings once stood in the old town. In one place someone has erected a cross framed perfectly in the window carved by the fallen building. All of this is in an area where there are people living and working. None of the ghost town areas are posted but please be very careful to respect private property and take only pictures if you visit.

Just up the road is the very obvious tailings pile left over from past mining. The ore found around Gilt Edge was of low quality and the town never became prosperous. However, it had a very interesting history that has been recounted on a couple of other web sites. If you would like to learn more about the history of Gilt Edge visit:  
http://www.angelfire.com/ia2/flybee3/

Maiden Canyon and Judith Peak

Right at Gilt Edge the name of the road splits. Gilt Edge Road continues to the west while Maiden Road heads north. Follow Maiden Road as it travels up into Maiden Canyon. This is a picturesque drive on a well maintained gravel road. After about four miles you will come to a signed T intersection. Continuing on Maiden Road to the left you will quickly reach the remains of Maiden. However, a great side trip is to turn right at this junction and follow the Judith Peak road to the top of Judith Peak.

For years the Air Force operated radar station on top of Judith Peak. Today it is used for commercial telecommunications. You can get a sense of scale by looking at the man climbing near the bottom of the tower that is second form the left.

This well built and well maintained road takes you to the highest point in the Judith Mountains. As already mentioned, this road was built to service a radar station placed on the top of the peak. There is still a large complex of antennas and other telecommunications equipment here and the views are excellent. To the west and south are views of the rugged mountainsides below. Off in the distance are a few of the mountain ranges that break up the plains of central Montana. Looking north you see an endless expanse of flat terrain leading off toward the Missouri River.

The view from Judith Peak when looking south
From the top of Judith Peak you can see mountains to the south and west and prairie badlands to the north and east.
A photo of the view from the top of Judith Peak when looking north
Looking north from the top of Judith Peak you get a great view of the rugged badlands country.

Maiden Ghost Town

After you visit Judith Peak return the way you came until you reach the junction with the Maiden road. From here it is only a short distance to Maiden where you can see the ruins of a couple of buildings. The entire town site is now on private property so the only exploring is visual from the road and there is really not much to see, just a couple of tumbled down buildings viewed from a distance.

The Maiden of today is far different than when this was a busy mining area. Gold was first discovered in the general area in 1880 and miners quickly explored all of the surrounding areas. By 1888 Maiden was a thriving town of about 1,200 and many different businesses and services were found there. However, as the gold began to play out the population quickly diminished and by 1896 only about 200 residents remained.

Maiden was one of the first gold camps in the area and its commonly reported that its name came from one of the first miners, a man named Maden. He erected a sign that said Camp Maden and somewhere along the line the letter i was added making the town name Maiden. There is an alternate account that the town was named for the daughter of a friend of two of the original settlers. The youngster was fondly known to the men as “Little Maiden” and it is told that they named the town for her.

Warm Springs Creek

Heading past Maiden the road follows Warm Springs Creek. The Warm Springs drainage is very different in character than the Maiden drainage you have just traveled up. Maiden Canyon is a narrow confined canyon that quickly descends from the mountains. Its almost all BLM land and is unpopulated. Warm Springs Creek flows through a broad open valley that is almost totally privately owned. Its well populated with farms, summer homes and other residences. In the past it was the home to the three small towns of Maiden, Andersonville and Alpine. It also housed an air force station that later became a bible college. In short, Warm Springs Creek Canyon has seen a significant human history.

After leaving Maiden, the road turns from gravel to pavement. After about 2 miles you will pass the area of the old Air Force base. This facility was built to provide support to the telecommunications facilities on the top of Judith Peak. The base was located to provide an uninterrupted line of sight between the two points. Ultimately, the Air Force closed the facility. It then served for some time as a bible college and is now privately owned.

From this point it is about 6 miles to the intersection with Hwy 191. South leads to Lewistown to complete a great loop drive through Montana’s Judith Mountains. To explore another interesting old mining town cross Hwy 191 and continue on to Kendall Ghost Town.