Missoula's backyard wilderness area, the Rattlesnake is 32,976 acres of mostly high country designated in 1980.
In addition to being the closest designated wilderness to any major city in the country, the Rattlesnake Wilderness is also buffered along its southern, more urban border with a National Recreation Area, also named Rattlesnake. The recreation area, with trailheads starting just five miles north of town—is heavily used by hikers, mountain bikers, and cross-country skiers. The interior wilderness, stretching north toward 8,620-foot McLeod Peak, is less frequently trod. North of McLeod is Flathead tribal land, and off-limits to nonmembers. On its western flank, the wilderness abuts the Montana Snowbowl ski hill.
Be aware of your boundaries in the Rattlesnake. Camping is allowed in the wilderness, but not in the recreation area. Bikes are allowed in the recreation area, but not in the wilderness. Catch-and-release fishing is allowed in some upper stretches of Rattlesnake Creek and certain trout-stocked alpine lakes, but not downstream. Rifle hunting is allowed in the wilderness, but only bowhunting is permitted in the recreation area. Check your regs.
In fact, check your plans thoroughly. The Rattlesnake Wilderness is a large, remote, challenging terrain, and visitors sometimes confuse its accessibility with domestication. The Rattlesnake is no pocket-sized mini-wilderness. Getting there from town is easy. Getting back to town isn't always so smooth.
A few grizzlies call the Rattlesnake home, and the occasional wolf. But the Rattlesnake is best known for its water. More than 50 creeks and 30 mountain lakes feed Rattlesnake Creek. Little, Worden, McKinley, and Carter lakes are popular fishing spots for westslope cutthroats and hybrids. Several of the high lakes are dammed and serve as a backup municipal water supply for Missoula. Camping is discouraged around water sources.
During winter, cross-country ski trails are maintained in the recreation area by the Missoula Nordic Ski Club. Other seasons, the recreation area tends to be crowded with cyclists, strollers, and dog walkers. Come fall, the cyclists will be towing game carts into the woods to harvest deer and elk. Keep following the well-marked trails north, though, and you can quickly get as satisfyingly far from city life as you care to go.