A member of the subtle Sapphire Range, 5,158-foot Mount Sentinel can seem almost domesticated in its role as Missoula's urban overseer, at least until it periodically runs rampant with flame (it was originally called Mount Woody, but that name would make little sense today). The white "M" 620 feet up the mountain's west face has been there in one form or another (whitewashed rocks, wooden panels, concrete from 1968 onward) since 1908, the same year the former Milltown Dam was built on the Clark Fork river just upstream of Hellgate Canyon, of which Sentinel forms the southern flank. (Mount Jumbo forms the northern).
The hike to the M, along with picturesque hang-gliding off of it, daredevil ski runs down it, and regular message-oriented modifications of the M itself are an ingrained part of Missoula's visual and recreational life.
The M, by the way, stands for the University of Montana, whose campus is nestled at its base. The Northern Pacific Railroad Company donated 40 acres in 1902, and a subsequent act of Congress gave UM most of the rest of the mountain (the Forest Service and City of Missoula also own portions of the turf).
Like neighboring Mount Jumbo, Sentinel is home to the visible relic shorelines of Glacial Lake Missoula, which once submerged the entire Missoula valley; whitetail deer, mule deer, falcons, and black bears; and an invasive weed problem horning in on the native bitterroot plant, balsam root, paintbrush, prairie smoke, penstemons, Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir.
Sentinel-connected trails include:
- the Kim Williams Nature Trail along the Clark Fork River at Sentinel's base
- the Hellgate Canyon Trail from the Kim Williams Nature Trail to Sentinel's peak
- the Mo Z Trail from Pattee Canyon Road and the UM Golf Course to the Sentinel Fire Road and Pengelly Ridge Trail
- Pengelly Ridge Trail, from the end of the Mo Z Trail to the peak of Mount Sentinel
- Crooked Trail, from the end of the Mo Z Trail east along the back side of Mount Sentinel
- The well-trod "M" Trail from the base of Mount Sentinel at the University of Montana campus to the "M"
- The Sentinel Fire Road, from the end of the Mo Z Trail to the "M"
Take them all, and take them to their tops. The views are lovely up there.