The idea of trudging uphill for miles at a time can seem exceptionally unappealing for the unacclimated softy in all of us. But here in Missoula, when the dog days of summer give way to cool autumn rains, snow-sifted peaks and green and gold landscapes of larch and lodgepole, there’s no better time to start gaining a different perspective on our valley’s distinctive topography.
Whether you’re a longtime Missoula day-tripper or a fresh-faced frosh looking to familiarize yourself with your new environment, we’d suggest the following four local landmarks where you’re likely to find just the right perspective.
They say it’s not the destination but the journey that matters most, and if there’s an omnipresent local example, it’s Mount Sentinel’s big white “M.” Chances are the M and its sister initial to the north, Mount Jumbo’s “L,” were the first landmarks you noticed when you looked around this great big valley. And if you looked closely, you probably noticed a stream of ants marching up the distinctive zigzagged switchbacks that ascend Sentinel’s west face. If you set off for the M from the parking lot on the University of Montana campus’ northeast corner, it’ll take you about 20 minutes of thrill-free trudging up those zigzags to reach the lower flanks of the giant letter. However, if you’re up for a more engaging in-town route that also provides great views of Hellgate Canyon and the Missoula and Bitterroot valleys, a nice aerial view of Mount Jumbo’s rolling golden hills, and the Rattlesnake Wilderness—including its primary precipice, Stuart Peak—then you’ll want to take the back way through Crazy Canyon, where you’ll hike about three miles through ponderosa pine forest and sloping meadows before arriving at the 5,158-foot summit. From there you can drop downhill toward campus and eventually arrive at the M from above. You’ll be glad you did.
How to Get There:
Drive up Pattee Canyon Road three miles from the Southwest Higgins Avenue intersection. The Crazy Canyon trailhead is clearly marked on your left. Park a shuttle car at the M trail for a one-way option.
The mountain formerly known as Squaw Peak is best known as the high, pyramid-shaped summit on Missoula’s western horizon. You’ve stared at it for years from town, so why not try it the other way around?
Most of the trail to the peak consists of relatively easy hiking through sub-alpine fir forests before opening up to a moderately challenging scramble to the 7,994-foot summit. For the greenhorn hiker, Cha-paa-qn provides just the right combination of altitude, scenery and hand-over-foot ascension to whet your alpine appetite, and with amazing summit panoramas of the Flathead Valley and the Mission Mountains. And even experienced mountain walkers will enjoy the bird’s eye perspective on a substantial chunk of Missoula’s neighboring geography.
How to Get There:
Take I-90 west from Missoula and exit at Ninemile Road. Drive approximately two miles and then head north just before Ninemile House Restaurant. Drive another two miles to the four-way junction. Proceed straight on Remount Road 476 for two miles, then bear left on forest road 5490 for 1.5 miles, then turn left (west) on forest road 456. Continue one mile and then turn north (right) on forest road 2178. Follow 2178 for approximately 6.5 miles to trail 707.
Jerry Johnson Hot Springs
The best perspectives aren’t always achieved from high-altitude vantage points. In fact, they can often be gained by simply sitting in one place for a very long time while studiously observing your immediate surroundings (or sucking down a PBR). Just ask the tree-stand hunter who spends countless hours perched in a Douglas fir waiting for an unsuspecting whitetail to saunter by. That hunter observes many of nature’s theatrics usually saved only for the most patient of outdoors enthusiasts.
There’s a spot just over the Idaho/Montana line that offers, perhaps, an even more appealing setting in which to spend hours sitting (or floating)…and it often involves naked people.
A flat one-mile hike through towering old-growth cedars along Warm Springs Creek brings you to the first of three sets of seriously soakable hot pools. If creek levels are just right, the hot water cascading out of a trailside cliff mixes in perfect proportions with icy creek water in a waste-deep man-made pool. A little further up the trail is a series of shallow pools that bubble right out of the earth. And just a little further up from there is a markedly cooler warm spring overlooking a lush meadow that’s frequented by moose. Stay long enough and you’re bound to see some of the finest sights nature has to offer.
How to Get There:
Take U.S. Hwy 12 over Lolo Past into Idaho. Drive about 10 miles past the Lochsa Lodge and you won’t miss the Warm Springs trailhead. Parking is on the right (north) side of Hwy 12 and a suspension bridge over the Lochsa River leads the way.
Note: Don’t bring glass, don’t litter and be considerate of fellow soakers at this popular (and often packed) hot spring.
You’ve looked at a map, so you already know how lucky you are to be planted smack dab in the middle of an outdoor recreation wonderland. One of the area’s geologic marvels is the Bitterroot Mountain range and all of its accessible peaks and drainages. You could spend the rest of your life exploring this craggy range of granite and never see all it has to offer, so you better get going.
At 10,157 feet, Trapper Peak, the Bitterroot’s tallest summit, is a good place to start.
Trapper Peak is no behemoth compared to the 14-ers of the Colorado Rockies, but it’s a formidable trek nonetheless. As you drive south on U.S. 93 from Hamilton, Trapper stands out as the tallest of a trio of peaks that together look like a mean, cavity-infested molar. It’s an impressive panorama that leaves the first-time alpinist wondering if the summit is achievable. Don’t worry, it is.
The trail leads hikers on a strenuous uphill slog that overtakes the tree line after about three and a half miles. The last mile or so is essentially an off-trail scramble past, over and around huge granite boulders. All told the trail gains about 3,800 feet in elevation, and there’s virtually no water, so make sure to bring enough with you. Once you reach the peak, you’ll be rewarded with impressive views of Montana and Idaho, and the knowledge that you’re on your way to becoming a bona fide peak bagger.
How to Get There:
Six miles south of Darby turn at Conner Cutoff then after one mile take a left and head up West Fork Road 473 for 11 miles to Trapper Peak Road 5630. The trailhead is at the end of the 6.5-mile road.