Hiking through the foothills of the Elkhorn Mountains south of Helena tells the story of seasonal change.
Green up is fast underway by late May for the valleys and creek bottoms, while the skyline is dominated by snow-caked peaks and ridgelines. Willard Creek is a fantastic early hike for the spring, providing a sturdy trail, diverse scenery and the chance to observe the ecological rejuvenation post-wildfire.
From the trailhead near Clancy, Willard Creek travels into the heart of the Elkhorns. Mountain meadows flush with aspen break up the regrowth of the 1988 fires that ripped through this country, and now pine and fir grows thick once again. Even after more than three decades a few relics of the fire still stand interspersed in the greenery, their bark gone and wood turned white.
Willard Creek is a generally easy in-and-out hike of about three miles. It was once an interpretive trail coordinated by local high school students, and the steel markers still remain along the trail.
The first section stays high on the hillside, wrapping around a few openings and marshy areas choked with willows. Glimpses of Casey Peak are an added bonus before the first section drops into the valley at about the half-mile mark.
The trail continues in predictable fashion through old burns and stands of trees that survived the fire. All the while close and distant meadows should be monitored for the mountain range's legendary elk herd, or the occasional black bear, moose or deer.
The typical turnaround spot is the Willard Creek Trail's intersection with the McClellan Creek Trail at 1.3 miles, but a longer hike can be made by continuing on McClellan Creek toward Casey Peak.