In the foothills that make up the southernmost boundary of Montana’s Swan Range, just outside of the Bob Marshall Wilderness area, lies Morrell Mountain. Long a popular spot for snowmobilers, this peak includes a historic fire lookout that was originally established in 1921 and then rebuilt in 1962. To this day, it continues to be manned during fire season each summer. Getting here is pretty straightforward, but absolutely requires a snowmobile if you’re trying to make it an in-and-out day trip.
Head east out of Missoula and take Highway 200 (after exiting in Bonner) all the way to Clearwater and then turn left (at “the Cow”) on Highway 83 North. Your next turn will be a right onto Woodworth Road, just past the halfway point when driving past Salmon Lake. This is a very sharp right and you’ll be on a dirt road until you park and get on your sled (approximately six miles).
As you follow Woodworth Road, you’ll want to keep an eye out for Cottonwood Lakes Road on your left after about 4 miles. Take this left and proceed another two-ish miles before looking for a good wide spot in the road to park your rig. There should be signs of other people doing the same thing and unloading snowmobiles in this general area. Once you’re geared up, its another 12 miles or so to the lookout. Keep left when you see another road “Y” into your route and continue on until you take a right at the far (north) end of the second (longer) Cottonwood Lake. This is where you’re nearly 2,900-foot ascent will begin. Stay on this main road all the way up.
While you’re heading up, watch out for any other skiers you may find along the way. They may be guests of Yurtski, a backcountry yurt business that markets to skiers/snowboarders with 2 different yurt locations in the area. This is Forest Service land and there are plenty of turns to go around.
Once you’ve passed a yurt (at a sharp left-hand switchback), you’ll want to pay close attention to the snow & slope conditions. Several sections of this road are pretty exposed to areas that avalanche regularly. You do not want to be below if someone were to kick something off above. Do your homework on the current state of affairs re: snow conditions and don’t be afraid to turn back if things look dicey. You may also choose to just park your sleds in a safe place (outside of the slide path) and skin up from the area beneath the main bowl.
If you choose to power on up, the road makes several other switchbacks (good for easy east-facing & lower angle laps) and then crosses behind the ridge before popping you back out on top. It’s a stunning view from up here and there are plenty of opportunities for good turns and even some fun smaller rock drops. Get some!