Sluice Boxes State Park
Interpretive panels explaining Sluice Boxes State Park on Kings Hill Scenic Byway
Sluice Boxes State Park is a primitive state park accessed primarily from Riceville Bridge on US Highway 89 (aka Kings Hill Scenic Byway) about 8 miles south of Belt. The park itself encompasses some 1,454 acres at a mean elevation of 3,312 feet. There is another access point upstream where Logging Creek Road crosses Belt Creek but there's a lot of private property in that area, no public facilities and the only parking is along the road itself. Even at the primary entrance to the park there is only a parking area, vault toilet, map panel and a trail that leads along the abandoned rail grade into the park interior. And the trail: most of the railroad trestles are down, which means hikers often need to scramble across rocky places and cross Belt Creek regularly. Depending on the season and level of runoff, crossing Belt Creek can be life-threatening.
Rafting Belt Creek calls for advanced whitewater skills, especially in late spring and early summer. Spring runoff makes the creek a bit of a death trap for folks who don't realize the nature of the stream... and by mid-summer the water level is usually too low for rafting.
Visitors to Sluice Boxes State Park need to be well prepared for "primitive:" rain gear, a good topo map, plenty of food and water and be in good physical shape. They also need to be on the lookout for large patches of poison ivy along the trail.
Hiking the length of the park is about 7.5 miles one way and requires 12 fords of the stream. Best time to make the trip is between mid-July and October.
What you'll find:
Silver and lead were first discovered in these mountains in 1879 and within a year there were at least 100 miners working claims in the area. Their ore was shipped to Fort Benton by wagon and loaded on steamboats there for the journey to the smelters in Great Falls.
William Albright established a limestone quarry in the canyon and by 1890, there was a small town had grown up around the quarry. In 1891, the Belt Mountain Branch of Great Northern Railway was built through the canyon and the population reached about 500 hardy souls. Upstream of the quarry were several silver, lead and zinc mining districts in the Belt Mountains. The railroad line went 56 miles up the hill along Belt Creek. The run through what is now known as "Sluice Boxes" was an engineering marvel as the gorge is extremely steep (essentially vertical walls, most rising as much as 500 feet above the river) and narrow. Most of the construction was done by Chinese crews, blasting their right-of-way across sheer cliffs and building dozens of trestles, several tunnels and enormous rock retaining walls.
The Amalgamated (Anaconda) Copper Company bought the quarry in 1911 and started shipping tons of limestone out of the area by rail. The limestone went to the big smelter in Great Falls to be used as flux. Upstream from the town was a large sawmill, kept busy by logs cut and floated down Logging Creek in times of high water.
In those years, the area saw regular tourism and summer cabins, a guest ranch and a dance hall sprang up around Logging Creek. The fishing was legendary... until runoff from the mountains leached heavy metals from the mine tailings in the area and killed off most of the insects and the fish that fed on them.
During the Great Depression, the mining and tourism activities dropped off, the last mine closing in 1943. The train made its last run in 1945 and the tracks were removed in 1946. Since then the water quality in the stream has improved greatly and Belt Creek is once again a premier fishing stream, growing some excellent rainbow, native cutthroat and hybrid trout.
At Albright is a ghost town with many of the old buildings completely collapsed. The two lime kilns still tower over the town site but they are also obviously wearing with the passage of time.
Sluice Boxes State Park map: Watch the map direction: north is to the bottom
Kayakers photo courtesy of Matt Mendelsohn, Montana State Parks
Map courtesy of Montana State Parks