Refrigerator Canyon

Refrigerator Canyon north of Helena narrows to only a few feet wide with temperatures 20 degrees cooler than outside the canyon.

Refrigerator Canyon north of Helena is aptly named for the cool breezes running down its narrow limestone passageways.

The popular trail starts from Beaver Creek Road north of York, with the first half mile following a creek that runs down the middle of the trail at times. The spectacular first section leads hikers and equestrians along a canyon dotted with caves and hardy ponderosa pine latched onto the steep walls.

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Refrigerator Canyon

The Refrigerator Canyon trail leads up a creek bottom into the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area.

About a quarter mile up the trail, travelers meet the hallmark of a day in Refrigerator Canyon as solid walls stretch upward to the sky and the trail narrows to only a few feet wide. Even on a hot August day the sun barely touches this section of the trail. Temperatures can be 20 degrees cooler with the steady wind channeled through the passage and whipping across the stream.

From the cool confines of the valley floor, the trail begins to climb into the 28,000-acre Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area. Switchbacks take travelers up the hillside through a shady pine forest until the trail cuts north. From here it begins to open up with limestone pinnacles jutting from the forest and the valley opening up for some expansive views, including of Sheep and Candle mountains and the heart of the wilderness area.

The trail continues north to the intersection with Trail 252 that cuts east to west through the wilderness. The junction is about three miles from the trailhead and leaves travelers several options for continuing on or turning around.

Hiking east takes hikers down Porcupine Creek with a backdrop of 8,000-foot Nelson Mountain.

Traveling west goes farther into the wilderness area and offers several opportunities for through hikes. A second vehicle can be dropped off at Hunters Gulch (13 miles) or Big Log Gulch (15 miles) for some lengthy day trips. For truly ambitious hikers with a willing boat captain, Meriwether Campground on the Missouri River section of Gates of the Mountains is a grueling 18-mile hike.

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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