Look around. Our valley's surrounding hillsides are begging to be hiked. How can you resist a short trek to a giant cement letter? Or to a peace sign? And topping out a peak in the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area sure would make a great selfie. The following hikes plot a circle around Missoula. You can start with the Mount Sentinel and Mount Jumbo in the east, head northeast into the Rattlesnake, then directly north to Waterworks Hill, veer west to Blue Mountain, and finish in the southeast at Pattee Canyon.
1. Mount Sentinel: The "M" Trail
Miles: 3/4 mile to “M”; 1 3/4 miles to top of Mount Sentinel
Elevation gain: 620 feet to “M” (from 3,200 feet to 3,820 feet). 1,958 feet to top of Mount Sentinel (3,200 feet to 5,158 feet)
Dogs: On leash
The “M” on the west face of Mount Sentinel has been a Missoula landmark since 1908, when Forestry Club members forged a zigzag trail up the mountain and students carried up stones to shape the symbol of the University of Montana.
Time brought several transformations to the “M.” In 1912, a wooden letter replaced the one made of stone. When the wooden “M” was blown off the mountain in 1915, it was replaced with a more permanent, larger stone “M.” That structure remained until 1968, when it was replaced with the concrete “M” we see today.
A hike to the “M” is a favorite Missoula outing for people of all ages. After just a few minutes on the trail, you begin to get a bird’s eye view of the University of Montana. As you gain elevation, the view expands to include the Missoula Valley, the Clark Fork River and distant mountains.
While the trail is less than a mile long, the hike can be quite strenuous – you’ll climb a steep path with 11 switchbacks.
Most people make the “M” their final destination, but you can continue to climb for about another mile on one of two routes to the top of Mount Sentinel. The view from the top of the mountain is even more exquisite. To the north, across Hellgate Canyon, you’ll see Mount Jumbo and the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness. To the south, you can see the Bitterroot Mountains.
From the top of Sentinel, you can retrace your steps to the base of the mountain or follow the Crazy Canyon Trail into Pattee Canyon. For another option, follow the Hellgate Canyon Trail down to the Kim Williams Trail.
2. Mount Jumbo: The "L" Trail
Miles: 2/3 of a mile
Elevation gain: 500 ft
Dogs: Must be leashed Dec 1 - Apr 30. On leash within 300 yards of trailheads and on private property and where posted May 1- Nov 30. Pet owners must pack out waste.
Named after the world’s largest elephant and branded with a large white concrete “L” on its western face, Mount Jumbo rests on the north side of the Clark Fork River across from Mount Sentinel. The “L” stands for Loyola Sacred Heart Catholic High School. Shorter than Mount Sentinel, Jumbo stands 808 feet tall with an elevation of 4,772 feet.
Large herds of elk and deer winter on the steep hillsides. Elk feeding activity limits public access during the winter. The "L" trail is closed Dec 1- Mar 15.
The “L” trail is shorter, less steep and has fewer switchbacks than the “M” Trail, making it an easier hike. From there you can continue up the trail a ways to the 2.5-mile-long Backbone Trail which connects hikers to Jumbo's north zone trail system. If that's too far, then at the junction with the Backbone Trail follow the east-facing downward trail along the south face of Jumbo to loop back to the trailhead.
Access the trailhead from Van Buren Avenue in the Lower Rattlesnake take a right on Cherry St.
3. Rattlesnake Wilderness Area: Spring Gulch/Stuart Peak Trail
Few communities enjoy a place quite like the 60,000-acre Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness just north of Missoula. A well-developed trail network in the Rattlesnake’s lower reaches gives you a variety of options for day trips – or you can pack overnight gear and venture farther into the high-country wilderness. Despite its name, there have been no verified sightings of rattlesnakes in this area. You will, however, find ample opportunities to view many other wildlife species, including beavers, deer, elk, mountain goats and black bears. During spring and fall, you can see more than 40 bird species.
Miles: 16 miles round trip (7 miles to wilderness boundary)
Elevation gain: 3,838 feet (from 3,700 feet to 7,538 feet)
Dogs: No dogs are allowed in the area Dec. 1-May 15. During the remaining months, dogs must be on a leash from the confluence of Spring Creek and Rattlesnake Creek to milepost 1.3.
Stuart Peak Trail branches off the main travel corridor at about the half-mile mark. For the next three miles, you follow an old farm lane along Spring Gulch. After a winding, steep climb for another four miles, you reach the wilderness boundary, near Stuart Peak.
At 7,960 feet, Stuart Peak is one of the Rattlesnake’s highest points, offering great views of adjacent peaks and the Missoula Valley. There’s no designated trail to the peak, but you can reach it by traveling cross-country for about a mile. From this vantage point, you can drop down to Twin Lakes or get back on the trail and head farther into the high country.
The trail continues northward past the Lake Creek drainage, which contains six lakes, and then descends past three more lakes into the Wrangle Creek drainage, where it joins the main travel corridor 15 miles from the trailhead.
Most of the high-country lakes have been stocked with cutthroat trout. However, there are no fish in Twin Lakes or Farmer’s Lakes.
You’d be wise to carry plenty of water on this hike. It’s demanding, and you can’t always count on finding water along the way. If you do drink surface water, the Forest Service recommends that you boil or filter it first.
4. Waterworks Hill / North Hills Trails
Miles: From Greenough Drive trailhead, .3 miles to Peace Park, 2.17 to Moon-Randolph Homestead
Elevation gain: Varies
Dogs: On leash within 300 yards of trailhead and private property, and where posted
Hikers must cross private land to reach the public acreage on the hills that form Missoula’s northern backdrop. The main access points are a Mountain Water Co. utility road off Greenough Drive, a trailhead at the north end of Orange Street just past I-90, and a path opposite Mountain View Drive, farther up Duncan Drive.
The hillsides feature rare communities of cushion plants, including the Missoula phlox and bitterroots. They also provide birds’-eye views of the city’s railroad yards, downtown and into the Bitterroot Valley. Hikers are asked to stay on established trails and obey landowner signs and fences.
If you start at the Greenough Drive trailhead, it's a quick hike (.3 miles) up to the Peace Park, where there's a peace sign made out of white stones (replacing the iconic peace sign that was torn down in 2001) and a giant prayer flag-adorned bell.
Once back on the main trail you can follow the North Hills Ridge about 2.17 miles to the historic Moon-Randolph Homestead which is open every Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., from May to the end of October (fire danger and weather permitting).
Depending on your starting point, there are various opportunities for loop hikes. From the Greenough Drive trailhead, you can hike the North Hills Ridge Trail about halfway and then follow a steep downhill path into Cherry Gulch which will lead you back to the parking lot.
5. Blue Mountain Recreation Area
The 5,500-acre Blue Mountain Recreation Area, just two miles southwest of Missoula, is another close-to-town area to explore. The Lolo National Forest worked closely with Missoula-area recreation groups to establish this area’s trail system and other recreational facilities.
Pick up a map at the main trailhead off Blue Mountain Road. There are numerous trails that wind up and around the mountain, and no real "destinations." Blue Mountain is all about the journey, although you could say that the payoff is views of Missoula, spring wildflowers and colorful birdlife, including bluebirds, meadowlarks, grosbeaks, and crossbills. The trails are well marked by numbers, so just explore until you get tired.
Since dogs are allowed off-leash, Blue Mountain is an extremely popular dog walking area. Keep in mind that this is a multi-use area, so you'll be sharing the trails with mountain bikers and horseback riders, and - if you hike far enough to the west - ATVers and dirt bikers.
6. Pattee Canyon Recreation Area: Sam Braxton National Recreation Trail
Pattee Canyon has been a favorite Missoula recreation spot since the 1930s, when Civilian Conservation Corps members constructed the first picnic facilities. A downhill ski area was also in operation in the 1930s.
The Nez Perce and Salish once traveled through this area to avoid Blackfeet attacks in nearby Hellgate Canyon. Pattee Canyon was named for David Pattee, an early Bitterroot Valley settler and Missoula businessman. Through the years, the area has been a military timber reserve and target range, then part of the Missoula National Forest (today’s Lolo National Forest). It is now the Pattee Canyon Recreation Area.
The recreation area has pleasant picnic grounds shaded by large ponderosa pines and a well-developed network of foot, horse, bicycle and cross-country ski trails. Where dogs are allowed they must be under their owner’s control and all pet waste packed out.
Elevation gain: 350 feet (from 4,100 feet to 4,450 feet)
Dogs: Allowed under owner’s control and waste packed out
Named after a well-known Missoula skier, bicyclist and outdoorsman, this trail loops around the southeast portion of Pattee Canyon Recreation Area.
You might want to pick up one of the Lolo National Forest’s Pattee Canyon brochures before exploring this trail. While the trail is signed, you can be confused easily by old horse-logging skid trails and other paths that crisscross the area.
Look for giant old-growth western larch and ponderosa pine, Montana’s state tree, near the beginning of the trail. Careful observers will discover remnants of Missoula homesteads along the trail. Savor your journey into the past, but remember these artifacts are parts of archaeological sites protected by law. Leave for others to enjoy and study.
The trail begins four miles up Pattee Canyon Road, just off the south side parking area. Bear to the right beyond the gate in the parking area and follow the roadway to the trailhead.
7. Pattee Canyon Recreation Area: Crazy Canyon Trail
Elevation gain: 1,258 feet (from 3,900 feet to 5,158 feet)
Dogs: Allowed under owner’s control and waste packed out
For a spectacular bird’s-eye view of Missoula and surrounding mountains and river valleys, don’t miss this Lolo Forest trail to the top of Mount Sentinel. It’s a great alternative to the “M” trail up the mountain, which rises above the city just east of the University of Montana.
Crazy Canyon Trail is actually a road that’s gated at the trailhead. Motorized traffic isn’t allowed beyond this point without a special-use permit from the Missoula Ranger District. You might encounter some hang gliders who have permits to transport their craft.
You’ll climb steadily on the road for the first 2.6 miles, passing the edge of the 1985 Hellgate Canyon fire. The last stretch is a steep climb to Sentinel’s 5,158-foot summit. The climb is well worth the view of Hellgate Canyon and the Rattlesnake Mountains to the north, Lolo Peak and the Bitterroot Valley and mountains to the south, and the city of Missoula below you to the west. Only foot and horse travel are recommended the last quartermile because the terrain is so steep. Hikers who want to continue down the west face of Sentinel can follow one of two pathways that connect with the “M” trail.
The Hellgate Canyon Trail branches off Crazy Canyon Trail about a quarter-mile below the top of Sentinel. It traverses Sentinel’s north face and connects with Kim Williams Trail in Hellgate Canyon.
You might also want to explore several unmarked trails that branch off the lower reaches of Crazy Canyon Trail to connect with the Pattee Canyon Picnic Area.
If you travel 3.1 miles up Pattee Canyon Road from its intersection with Southwest Higgins Avenue, you’ll see the trailhead on the left (north) side of the road.