Sluice Boxes State Park
All photos by Mathew Pea

Montana is one of those states with a huge variety in landscapes. As you drive across Montana, the state offers some stunning views with the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains and some that are really kind of monotonous as you cross miles and miles of open plains. That’s not to say that these areas have nothing to offer. If you look out your window for long enough, you’re likely to see antelope, deer or buffalo, and there’s something very charming about the farms and small towns you pass through. But what really amazed me about Montana was the truly beautiful spots you can find even in the more desert-like areas for hiking and fishing. It’s really just a matter of knowing where to look.

This last week I took a road trip over to Great Falls with my boyfriend to meet his brother and wife and do some hiking in the area. Never having been to this part of the state, I really didn’t know what to expect. Great Falls is a nice town that sits in an area of the state that is mostly flat and surrounded by fields on all sides. We got into town a little late Wednesday night after some very important stops at Big Sky Brewery and Dave’s Famous Barbeque in Missoula— what’s a Montana road trip without some beer tastings and ribs?

Sluice Boxes State Park

The next morning we packed up some snacks, swimsuits and, most importantly— for the boys anyway— fishing poles, and headed to Belt Creek Canyon in Sluice Boxes State Park. Here, nestled in the middle of open fields sits one of the most stunning landscapes and interesting day hikes I have ever taken.

Parking at Riceville Bridge at the top of the canyon, you begin the journey downward. You’ll know you’re at the right place because there is a sign that says, “Welcome to Sluice Boxes State Park,” and a little further down a warning sign with a little stick-figure man falling off a cliff to his death: very encouraging as you head towards said cliffs. The trailhead is called Riceville Bridge Trailhead and, if you take the whole trail, it comes out to 7.5 miles, but it is only about 1.5 miles to the river.

Sluice Boxes State Park

From the top, the hike appears to be rather daunting because of the distance down to the water, but it is actually a very gradual decline and not too difficult. I had no problem with the hike in my backless Chacos, if that gives you an idea of the difficulty.

As you begin the hike you can see the whole canyon; then you begin to wind down into a wooded area. For most of the hike, there is plenty of room to walk and the trail is well kept and easy. There is one small portion that got my heart pounding a little, however.

I wouldn’t consider myself super afraid of heights, but I’m also not their biggest fan. As long as I’m tied in or secured by something, like with rock climbing, I’m golden, but I have to admit my heart sped up a bit as we walked along the very skinny and close-to-the-edge part of the hike. On one side is a rock face headed straight up and on the other there’s about a 100-foot drop and, while there are a few small trees right at the edge, there’s really nothing significant to break your fall. There’s probably only about 100 yards of this, but I was as far away from the edge as I could be. If you’re seriously afraid of heights, this might not be the best hike for you— but if you can push through and tread carefully, I guarantee it’s worth it.

Sluice Boxes State Park

We stopped to fish once we reached the water. The first spot you come to on the water is a great swimming area, though the water is pretty cold, and there were even some cliff divers. We didn’t catch anything here, but it’s a great place to relax and take in the view. The limestone walls across the water have a brilliantly orange hue and, between the rock outcroppings, incredibly clear water and trees surrounding the area— it is a great place to sit and relax. Every direction you look is stunning.

Sluice Boxes State ParkTo get back onto the trail from here you walk up and away from the water slightly. The trail continues along the river so you have views of the water as you hike upstream. We found another spot less than a mile from the first and decided to give it a shot. Getting down to the water from the trail posed a bit of a challenge, as there’s no trail down— it’s rather steep and the ground is a mixture of dirt and very unstable rocks. You have to kind of walk/slide down. Once we got down to the water, we started fishing and continued upstream as we fished. Only one fish was caught all day, so maybe not the best spot if your looking for dinner, but a fairly easy hike to get away from the busy, craziness of life.

After fishing this spot we walked downstream in the river. The flow this time of year is steady, but not super intense. It’s fairly shallow most of the time with some deep pockets. I did slip a couple of times and got dunked to about my shoulders, so if you have anything that can’t get wet, it’s probably smart to put it in the top of your pack or stay on the trail and not walk in the water. We walked downstream until we got to the swimming hole where we first stopped and from there took the same trail back to the car. By this time of day there was a little shade on that side of the canyon, which was nice for the hike out.

Sluice Boxes State Park

The historical aspect of this hike also adds to the intrigue of the area. Completed in 1891, the portion of the Great Northern Railroad that ran through Belt Creek Canyon was used to connect Great Falls to various types of mining upstream. It was also used later as a “Fish Train,” running anglers from Great Falls to their favorite fishing spots in the canyon. The construction of the railroad was no easy task during this time and, with the help of Chinese immigrants, the limestone walls were blasted to make way for the railroad and several tunnels were built in the canyon. You can now see the remnants of the work done more than 100 years ago.

Sluice Boxes State Park

On the hike out we saw some interesting birds and a rabbit, and I saw a snake in the water (I think it was there by accident). There have also been moose, bear, elk, mountain lions and deer spotted in the area.

Sluice Boxes State Park

I would highly recommend this hike for anyone that is going to be in the area. It’s easily accessible, fairly easy and the scenery is amazing.

Getting there: From Great Falls, head east on Highway 200. Follow this highway for just over 22 miles and turn right onto US-89 S. Go another 9 miles and turn left onto Evans Riceville Road. Continue for 3.9 miles and take a left. Continue for .3 miles and take another left. Your destination will be in .4 miles. You will see the parking lot and trailhead on the left.

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