Ear Mountain is a giant promontory of granite jutting up from the Rocky Mountain Front into Montana's big sky, about 25 miles west of Choteau.

Ear Mountain's size, shape and color lend to its fortress-like appearance and the first impression that its sole purpose is to guard the Rocky Mountain Front from unwanted intrusions. It is this same size, shape and color that makes Ear Mountain visible from as far away as 50 miles, depending upon the often turbulent weather that shrouds the Rocky Mountain Front.

According to A.B. Guthrie Jr. (the Montana author who penned "The Big Sky," "The Way West" and "Fair Land, Fair Land") the mountain men who first spilled into this country in the early 1800s labeled this formation the "Elephant's Ear." Apparently to them, the slanting outcrop of rock protruding at an angle from the top of the granite slab truly resembled an elephant's ear. It became a guidepost for many early travelers through this country and a point of reference used in countless stories of furs, grizzlies, life and death and isolation told around the campfire.

Local Indian legend of Ear Mountain is fascinating. The imposing formation served as a fasting place (where Indians would stay without food, water or other comforts until they saw a vision that helped guide their actions) for thousands of years.

In his novel "Fair Land, Fair Land," Guthrie wrote of the Blackfoot Chief Heavy Runner as a young man climbing Ear Mountain's lofty heights, facing hurricane force winds and staying three days and nights atop the mountain, praying and fasting for his vision. As the story goes, Heavy Runner almost met his maker, but was spared from the elements on top of Ear Mountain when his newly found animal spirit medicine, a Great White Bear, lifted him up and carried him off the mountain and placed him gently on the Earth Mother in the Teton River valley below.

Whether one chooses to believe such legend, one cannot deny that the Rocky Mountain Front and Ear Mountain are special places. As a result of this history, lore and stature the U.S. Bureau of Land Management designated the 1,869-acre Ear Mountain area as an Outstanding Natural Area in 1986. Then in 1994, BLM built a trailhead, kiosk and trail at the foot of Ear Mountain to help the public to interpret and enjoy the great beauty of this area. The trailhead is open for the public year round and provides information about the area, a toilet facility and a short trail to picnic tables for those who want to spend a little more time here.

Between July 2 and Dec. 14 each year, you can hike, ride horseback or mountain bike on this trail for another three miles up the foothills and onto the plateau toward the "Ear." You may see big horn sheep, birds of prey, elk, deer, black bears or even grizzlies (all of which require distance and respect from visitors) on this trail. Even if you don't see any of these majestic animals, wild flowers abound during the early summer and the view are incredible enough to make any time here well spent.

This trail is closed annually from Dec. 15 through July 1 to protect raptors and other wildlife species during critical periods in their life cycles. Other guidelines pertinent to this are posted at the kiosk.

To get to the Ear Mountain ONA, follow U.S. Highway 89 four miles north out of Choteau; turn west on the Teton River County Road for another 16 miles; then drive southwest on the South Fork of Teton River Road for three miles.

(By Rod Sanders, Bureau of Land Management, Lewistown, 406-538-1905.)