The Scratchgravel Hills in the Helena Valley have a surprising amount of area to explore.
At 5,800 acres and dotted with old mining claims, the Bureau of Land Management-owned recreation area has seen a number of management changes that have made it a hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking destination.
Unlike other developed trail systems in the area, traveling through the Scratchgravels is concentrated on the relics of motorized recreation, which was prohibited in 2009. While BLM offers five trailheads, the trails themselves are typically old roads or user-created paths that often dead end. It can take a few failed hikes to learn where trails link to provide loops or to find destinations like Scratchgravel Peak.
The peak can be accessed from several trailheads. The most popular starting point is from the Head Lane Trailhead, located at the southwest end of the recreation area.
From the trailhead hike north up the gated road for about half a mile to a prominent ridge. From there travel east through a ponderosa forest, shady enough to keep the sun at bay but open enough to provide good views. The road turned trail remains fairly easy to follow, but unlike trails designed with hikers in mind, tends to climb steeply up the hill at times for about a mile.
Finally the trail reaches the main ridge with good views to the east and west and a flatter climb. Continue on the trail for a half mile until arriving at the peak and the payoff vista over the Helena Valley.
The Scratchgravels offer a number of other trails and loops, some short —such as Tumbleweed Trail through a disc golf course — to the Iowa-Butcherknife Loop that goes for seven miles. While still popular, the area tends to see less traffic than Helena’s South Hills.
BLM has a planning process underway for the future of the Scratchgravels. The agency is considering potential development of a managed trail system that will provide a good visitor experience while better protecting the area.
The agency recently closed its initial round of public comment and is expected to propose plans and alternatives in the coming months.