Dream trail 

Sapphire in the rough

Somewhere deep in the web of logging roads and clear cuts spread over the northern part of the Sapphire Range is a series of trails. Neglected throughout decades of timber harvest, it's now virtually nonexistent and hard to find. If local hikers and bikers have their way, though, the trail won't be lost for much longer.

Along with the U.S. Forest Service, Stevensville-based hiker Kirk Thompson is working on a route that would connect this long-ignored area southeast of Missoula with the Continental Divide Trail in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness area. Called the Sapphire Crest Trail, the project is waiting on only one thing: the right time for the Lolo and Bitterroot national forests to devote the resources needed to build it.

At this point, the Forest Service isn't prepared to do the work. Al Hilshey, a staff officer from the Missoula Ranger District of Lolo National Forest, says the first step is an environmental assessment. More than anything, the project requires money, manpower and time—three things the Forest Service is short on right now.

"That's a time commitment we don't have at this point," Hilshey says. "We have to get some of the other projects we're working on finished."

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  • Chad Harder
  • The Department of Agriculture, home of the U.S. Forest Service, has suffered more than $3 billion in budget cuts since 2010.

Most of the trail is already in place. The route connects existing logging roads and trails in the Sapphire Mountains, ultimately spanning about 100 miles from the Pattee Canyon Recreation Area to the CDT. Only about 20 of those miles would need to be created, since the majority of the distance is already covered by a trail that goes from Skalkaho Pass north to Ambrose Saddle, and by existing trails in the Pintlers.

Although it's mostly convoluted on the north end of the Sapphires, the trail does have a foundation near Missoula. About 10 years ago, local mountain biker John Weyhrich began single-handedly clearing a trail between Pattee Canyon and Miller Canyon. The Miller Divide Trail is tricky to follow, he notes, particularly because it's not marked in the lower sections and it crisscrosses logging roads.

"There's such a network of roads up there that ultimately don't go anywhere," Weyhrich says. "If you're not familiar with the area up there, you can waste a lot of time riding around."

With a little care and a lot of work, Thompson thinks the trails could be revived. He says he has hiked nearly every step of the route and helped survey the area for the Forest Service. He's committed to making the project happen.

"I've been interested for a long time in protecting the wildlands on the Sapphire Crest," Thompson says. "This trail was the perfect tie-in."

For now, however, the Sapphire Crest Trail is little more than a dream and a plan. Until the Forest Service can wrangle the funds and the time for an assessment, all Thompson can do is wait.

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