As the sign says, you can’t drive a recreational vehicle off-road in Thompson Park. You aren’t supposed to shoot anything inside the park, either. But apparently it’s okay to leave your dog’s droppings all over the place.
At least that’s what I learned, the hard way, during my visit to the park in Butte, Montana, last week. Twice — not once — I got out of my car to walk the park’s trails. And twice I got back in the rental, fired it up, and was greeted by an unmistakable smell wafting up from the floor mat.
The experience marred what was otherwise a delightful visit to the park, which was given to the federal government in 1915 by William Boyce Thompson as a memorial to his father, William Thompson, the mayor of Butte from 1895-1897. He also gave the city $33,000 for improvements to the land. Thompson Park is one of the only congressionally designated city parks within a national forest in the United States.
It’s easy to get so taken up with the beauty of the place–gazing at the Douglas fir, the lodgepole pine, the alpine fir–that you forget to watch where you are stepping. The 3,500-acre park was established on mining claims formerly owned by William Boyce Thompson. It is now jointly owned and managed by the Forest Service and Butte-Silver Bow.
Thompson Park made headlines two years ago when a $1.5 million rehabilitation plan was announced. More than five years in the making, the plan drew some local objection from critics who wondered why taxpayer money should be used to fix a place that the government hadn’t taken care of.
The work was supposed to be complete in September, but it hadn’t been finished when I visited in October. Several roads were blocked so that park-goers wouldn’t interfere with construction. Never having been there before, it was tough to imagine the scope of work. And there are no pictures on the Internet to help.
The grant money will be used to replace several facilities at Eagle’s Nest, Lion’s Den, Nine Mile, and the archery range. Several roads are being redone and three new bridges are going in over Blacktail Creek, wherever that is.
Moreover, many of the park’s trails are being reworked to make them less steep, a great idea considering the park is a 7,000 feet. I was out of breath after a short walk up one hill. The trails are also being connected with the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail and Milwaukee Road trail. They are also putting in some much-needed signs and toilets.
The park is quite scenic, despite the work of pine beetles that have destroyed some of the trees. Aspen groves like the one pictured to the right appear as you get closer to the ridge. But the park must have been an even grander site when it was first opened.
According to the Federal Writers Project in 1930, the park included a natural amphitheater, a toboggan slide, and a ski jump, 610 feet long with a descent of 229 feet.
The main road in the park, Harding Way, which leads to Pipestone Pass, is considered one of the best-engineered roads in the state. It certainly afforded a beautiful drive on this fall afternoon. But it pays to be careful once you get out of your car.