Do you love history? Fishing? Waterfalls? Picnic areas with mountain views? The Clarks Fork River Valley along the Beartooth Highway offers each of these…from the same parking lot! Also the trailhead for the Flume Trail, the area has a small picnic area (two picnic tables), an interpretive trail that leads to a historic wooden flume area and an old power generation station, a trail to a waterfall, and a trail that goes to a fishing area. All of these are wheelchair accessible and less than ½ mile round trip, making them ideal as a stopover while traveling on the Beartooth Highway. It won’t take you long, but it’s worth a stop…especially if you need a rest break before heading up towards Cooke City.
From the parking area, you’ll be able to see two picnic tables. These are definitely picnicking areas, not just tables that were placed here by mistake. The one nearer the parking area is fine, but if you really want a great picnic, go down by the river. From the table, you can enjoy the view of the mountains over the river which is framed by pine trees. Nice! (This table may not be wheelchair accessible; I believe that the higher one is.) The children had a wonderful time playing in the river while we cooked supper—a trail leads upriver if you’re dying to walk along it.
The main Flume Trail is paved and turns away from the picnic tables. Signs posted periodically talk about the history and topography of the region (you can see Montana’s highest peak from here—pretty impressive since you can’t see more than half a dozen peaks (if that)). The area was mined in the 1920s, with gold, silver, copper, and other ores smelted nearby. A power plant was made, and, to power the plant, a flume was blasted and built out of wood to deliver water to the plant. The river was dammed and a headgate channeled the water into the flume. Pictures on the signs make the history come to life.
Not far down the trail, it splits, with the trail to the fishing area going left and the trail to the waterfall and power plant going right. We turned right, then turned right again a short while later, when the trail to the waterfall forked off on the left. At the end of this trail, you’ll walk out on a kind of catwalk to look down at the remains of the Western Smelting and Power Company’s hydroelectric power plant. Built in 1916, the plant was made to provide electricity to operate a copper smelter. However, since the smelter did not come into use until 1921, the electricity was used in mining operations and at nearby mining camps. A nearby boarding house, tramway, and blacksmith shop were also provided with power, and electric bulbs were used to light mine tunnels. Today, there’s not much left, except a pile of debris. Again, the pictures make the history come to life. You’d never guess, now, that the 250-kilowatt water plant used to generate enough electricity to light 2,500 100-watt light bulbs.
When you’ve enjoyed the power plant remains, turn around and walk back the way you came. When you come to the junction for the waterfall, turn right. A short trail leads down to a viewing area. During the time that the power plant was in use, almost all of the water was diverted into the flume, leaving little to go over the falls. However, torrential spring rains eventually broke the concrete low-head dam about ¼ mile upriver, and the water again flows over the waterfall. A wall of rock and concrete on the other side of the river is a mystery to visitors; we had fun hypothesizing why it was there (and we came up with some pretty reasonable ideas…as well as, “Hey, that would be a fun place to build a dam…”!) The viewing area is right on the edge of the riverbank, but a strong railing should keep any mishaps from happening. There’s also a good view downriver.
Return to your vehicle, or you can visit the fishing area. This can be used by just about anyone with a permit, since it’s wheelchair accessible. The area is peaceful and quiet, and would be a nice place to sit and relax and watch the stream flow by. You’d never guess there’s a waterfall so close by.
Return to your vehicle. I wouldn’t call this a must-do, but if you want a picnic area or love history, it’s well worth hiking the trail.
Getting to The Flume Trail Parking Area
The parking area is located across the road from Chief Joseph Campground. Both are located about 3.5 miles east of Cooke City along US 212. If you’re coming from the east, this is 1.3 miles from the Wyoming/Montana state line (Note that this is when you’re re-entering Montana…you’ll already have crossed into Wyoming not too far from Red Lodge). A sign will point down the north side of the road, indicating picnicking and fishing opportunities. The gravel road winds its way behind some primitive restrooms and then into the gravel parking area.
Key GPS Coordinates for The Flume
The Flume Parking Area: 45.017634 N / -109.869853 W (45N 1’ 3.4824” / -109W 52’ 11.4708”)
The Upper Picnic Table (approximate): 45.017903 N / -109.869236 W (45N 1’ 4.4502” / -109W 52’ 9.2496”)
Lower Picnic Table (approximate): 45.018047 N / -109.868919 W (45N 1’ 4.9692” / -109W 52’ 8.1084”)
Power Station Viewing Area (approximate; follow the trail): 45.017327 N / -109.867830 W (45N 1’ 2.3772” / -109W 52’ 4.1874”)
Waterfall (approximate; follow the trail): 45.017919 N / -109.867782 W (45N 1’ 4.5078” / -109W 52’ 4.0152”)
Fishing Area (approximate; follow the trail): 45.018101 N / -109.868243 W (45N 1’ 5.1636” / -109W 52’ 5.6748”)
Round Trip Trail Length: Less than ½ mile (1 km) even if you take all the trail spurs
Facilities: Picnic tables, fire rings, primitive restrooms
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Sun Feb 18
Generally cloudy. High 21F. Winds light and variable.
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