The Rattlesnake Wilderness north of Missoula

The Rattlesnake Wilderness north of Missoula has a network of trails that link mountain peaks, waterfalls, secluded lakes and old-growth forest. Bikes are allowed to use a “cherry-stem” road that pokes 14 miles into the core of the area.

ROB CHANEY/Missoulian

The idea of a federal wilderness area reachable by city bus sounds like a mix-up, if not an outright mistake.

But ride the Mountain Line’s Route 5 to its northernmost turnaround, and it will let you off at a trail leading into the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness. From downtown Missoula, the forested, rolling hills look nondescript – no wilder than Mount Sentinel’s piney backside. That’s just the Rattlesnake being coy.

In fact, Rattlesnake Creek carves a 14-mile canyon punctuated with cascades, pools and meadows. Near its northern headwaters, a circlet of lakes hide-in benches 2,000 vertical feet above in the suddenly craggy mountains.

Just a few hundred steps from the trailhead, little paths drop down to Rattlesnake Creek where kids can throw rocks in the water. A few hundred more, and ragged rock cliffs rise up along the left side, adding wild texture to the forest. Spur trails lead off to the west, following several gullies into a web of hard-climbing routes popular with mountain bikers. Real lovers of up-and-down hikes can continue to Stuart Peak — a nine-mile journey to the summit overlooking the whole Missoula Valley.