Just beyond the Elk Park exit is a gem of a hike that packs a lot of challenge into a small distance. The Haystack Mountain trail is listed in the Forest Service recreation guide as a moderate hike to the site of an old lookout.
What the guide doesn't mention is that hikers will ascend 1,973 feet in just 3.6 miles; the majority of the hike is at a 14 percent average grade — no offense to my friends at the Forest Service, but I'd rate this hike a level above moderate, for sure.
To get to the Haystack Mountain trailhead, take I-15 north toward Helena, exit at Elk Park, turn right and then left onto the frontage road. At approximately the 4.7 mile point, you will turn right onto Haystack Road; keeping to the left, continue for an additional .7 of a mile where, if you have a low clearance car, you will want to park (and add 1.2 miles to your hike). If you have a high clearance vehicle, you can follow the road to the right (there's a sign that directs you to the Haystack Trailhead). My husband's Subaru made it just fine.
The trail takes hikers through a series of wooded switchbacks (with just the right amount of straight flatland to give the calves a needed break), and at the end gives finishers a bird's eye view of Delmoe Lake and mountain ranges as far as the eye can see.
My husband and I took our time ascending up the mountain and stopped frequently to stretch. After a brief rest at the summit, we made our descent, where we were quickly reminded of what Sir Isaac Newton taught us: what goes up, must come down.
The trip down was enjoyable, but we both felt the added pressure on our knees. A good friend of mine told me later that you can train for downhill hiking by walking up a hill backwards.
I guess the theory is that if you don't fall on your kiester, you will strengthen the muscles that support your knees. I'll have to get back to you on that one.
If you do find yourself hiking/walking downhill for a long period of time, focus on setting your feet down carefully, using your quadriceps to lessen the impact on your joints. And of course, watch your footing.
After this hike, Chris and I did a lot of stretching (while the muscles were warm) to make sure that we weren't dying of leg cramps later and then treated ourselves to a hearty dinner. If you decide to tackle Haystack Mountain, make sure you give yourself a big pat on the back afterwards — this is a huffer of a trail and was worth every butt-burning second getting to the Summit.
Whatever your hiking or walking preference, I hope you don't let this gift of an Indian Summer sneak past you without getting outside.
Until next week, keep walking.