Canyon Creek Charcoal Kilns
Spending the day on the Big Hole River is always super fun, but we enjoying getting out and exploring too. The foothills of the Pioneer Mountains feature lots of gravel roads, some leading to hiking trailheads and mountain lakes, while others lead to ghost towns and abandonned mining operations such as the charcoal kilns.
A Montana History Lesson
The Canyon Creek Charcoal Kilns were built in the 1880’s to produce charcoal to fuel the smelter in Glendale, Montana; just five miles to the east. The Hecla Consolidated Mining Company mined ore nearby in the Hecla mining district. Ore was brought to the smelter in Glendale, and the smelter was fueled with charcoal produced at the kilns and from charcoal produced in ‘pits’ in the ground.
Brick kilns produced a cleaner charcoal and more efficently than the ‘pit’ method. Masons were employed and the 23 conical kilns were built on the site. The shape of the kilns made them more stable than rectangular or round kilns as they resisted cracking from temperature fluctuations and allowed for more control during the burning process.
Self-Guided Trails with Interpretive Signs
Remains of Charcoal Kilns
Fueling the Kilns
Lumber operations were set up and timber was harvested from the hillsides near the kilns and in nearby Vipond Park. It took 27,000 cords of wood to make 1.2 million bussels of charcoal to fuel the Glendale smelter per year.
An acre of lodgepole forest produces approximately 14 cords of wood. A cord of wood yields 45 bussells of charcoal. It took nearly three square miles of lodgepole forest per year to fuel the smelter. During its operation, the smelter procuced $20,000,000 worth of silver and lead.
How it Worked
Charcoal is made when wood is burned in a low-oxygen enviroment. In burning, gases and water are released and what remains is nearly pure carbon. Charcoal burns hotter than wood and is much lighter to transport.
It required as much as 35 cord of wood, cut in 6-8 foot lengths, to fill the kiln. When full, shavings and kindling were added, bricks were put in the bottom vents, and the door was closed and sealed with mortar. Burning occurred from the top to the bottom.
The burning process took 15 days. One day to charge the kiln, 13 days of burning, and one day to discharge. The color of the smoke helped worked understand what was happening within.
For the first 3-4 days, thick, white smoke poured from the top vents. Then, smoke turned yellow then blue, as the kiln heated up. Top vents were closed, forcing smoke out of the middle vents. 12 hours later, middle vents were closed, bottom vents opened, thereby drawing the fire to the bottom of the kiln. Workers then judged when the burn was complete, all vents were then closed and sealed.
Inside a Charcoal Kiln
Remains of the Glendale Smelter
Visiting the Site
Park in the parking area and a path leads you through the kilns. There is also a couple of pit toilets on site which is a plus. Interpretive signs tell the story of the site. The Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest maintains the primitive site.
All the kilns are made of brick, however, on the site you’ll notice three which are white-washed. These were restored by the Forest Service along with volunteers in the early ninties. Visitors are allowed inside some kilns, but not all. The elements are taking their toll on the 100+-year-old structures and not all are stable.
Charcoal Kilns in Montana Wilderness
Short Video of the Kiln Site
The good gravel road that leads to the site is slow going. The kilns are only 11.5 miles from Melrose, MT, but it seems longer. Plan on 35-50 minutes to get there. The road goes through a tight canyon, through open meadows, and along a low creek bottom. And then at once, these huge brick structure appear out of the forest. It’s just amazing. They are so big!
Take Trapper Creek Road out of Melrose. It starts off paved, but quickly turns to gravel as you pass the Salmonfly Fishing Access. Follow Trapper Creek Road for 5.5 miles then turn right onto Canyon Creek Road. Take that for 5.6 miles and the site is on the right.
Hazzards in the Road
Rural Montana Road Signs
As you drive into the site, as an angler, you’ll notice the road follows the bubbling and tumbling, Canyon Creek. After exploring the kilns, Tim and I drove up the road just a bit further. Small, primitive campsites on the left gave access to the creek.
After a picnic lunch, I pulled out my fly rod, tied on a #14 beadhead flashback pheasant tail, and headed for the creek. Much of the creek gurgles under a full canopy of brush, but I did manage to find an open spot by a dog-leg corner, that offered up a small pool that had a little depth.
As you can imagine, first cast, fish on. A nice native cutthroat, small but feisty. Mission accomplished, I headed back to the car. With Tim and the dogs waiting in a hot car, my time was up.
Clearly, given the size of the stream, Canyon Creek is not a destination. But is sure was fun to plunk a fly in it. Small stream lovers with time on their hands, will enjoy the challenge here.
Catching a Cutthroat in Canyon Creek
If You Go
The drive to the Canyon Creek Charcoal Kilns is easy and can be done is a two-wheeled drive car when the weather is dry. On our first attempt, there has been a long rainy spell, and even though the day was sunny, the road was slick. Mud packed our tires and we had no control on the slick roadway. We turned around, waited a couple of days, and had no problems.
- Water, Snacks, and a Lunch
- Bear Spray
- Fly Rod and Tackle to Fish Canyon Creek
- Toilet Paper
- Plenty of Gas
I wet-waded Canyon Creek in my Tevas. I may not have even stepped in the water, it was so small. If you were going to fish more, I’d wear zip-off, quick dry pants to protect my legs from the brush.