The football stadium at the University of Montana in Missoula was built in 1985, funded by a grant of a million dollars from a wealthy Montana industrialist. At first it could hold 12,500 spectators, but after several extentions the number has doubled to 25,000. It is the home of the Montana Grizzlies, national champions in 1995 and 2001, and has also been used to host concerts, like the Rolling Stones on their sold out "A Bigger Bang Tour".
Sentinel is indeed the sentinel for Missoula – a stark open peak rising 2,000 feet of the valley floor, a backdrop for most photos of the city and a much-loved open space and recreation area. This is where Missoulians come to mountain bike in the morning, hike in the afternoon, and star-gaze at night. The peak itself is accessible by trails which start from the campus of the University of Montana, at the east end of South Avenue, from the Kim Williams Trail along the Clark Fork, and from two trailheads in Pattee Canyon. Yes – it’s steep. Plan on a heart-pounding hike, but in reality most trails get you to the top in just about an hour. Allow a few minutes on top and bring your camera to catch the afternoon views.
If you only take one hike while in Missoula, this will probably be it – and if you've just moved here, chances are you’ll be on this trail before your bags are unpacked. The “M” Trail climbs a series of switchbacks from the campus of the University of Montana to the M – the white painted concrete insignia of the university. The trail climbs nearly 700 vertical feet and has been the scene of much huffing and puffing, but all the same don’t be surprised at how many people pass you while they are jogging. The “M” itself has a storied local history, and plaques at the base of the trail describe it and also tell you how many calories you can expect to burn. You can continue past the M to climb Mt. Sentinel; note that just above the M is the high-water mark of Lake Missoula, which filled the valley and much of the Inland Northwest during the last ice age.
When people in Missoula say they are headed “to the lake”, a lot of the time they are referring to this mountain gem in the Swan Valley. Holland Lake has been a gathering point for ages, due in part to its spectacular setting at the base of a line of jagged mountains, and due also to its campgrounds, trailheads, waterfall, and rustic lodge. The lodge offers food and rooms, while the campground offers both forested sites and several larger group sites. There is also a picnicking area and swimming beach with boat put in. Summer homes dot the south side of the lake. The one-hour hike to the waterfall is the most popular destination: to find the trailhead, drive around the north side of the lake to the end of the road. Partway down the lakeside trail, a trail climbs up to the left into the mountains; the waterfall hike is mostly gentle and stays lower. Also on the south side of the lake is a popular trailhead which offers primary access into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. This trailhead is also open in the winter for skiers. There is a modest fee for camping. Picnicking and boating are free, though the Forest Service has plans to implement a small day use fee.
Don’t go to Snowbowl looking for groomed cruisers, fancy slopeside lodging, or on-mountain “cuisine”. That’s not what this place is all about. Instead, do go to Snowbowl for thigh-crushing steep fall-line descents, well-spaced trees, and a laid-back funky vibe. This mountain, just 20 minutes from Missoula, is the very definition of a “local hill”. The chairs are slow and creaky, the tickets are rock-bottom cheap, and most people know each other. On powder days, expect a good line for first chair, but then also expect the mountain to empty noon as everyone heads back to work. On (rare) stretches when there has been no new snow for a while, expect character-building conditions and no lines. Under all conditions, take care on the gravel access road, which claims carelessly-driven cars with some frequency, and also tag along with a local or check in with ski patrol before leaving the ski area boundary for wilderness turns to the east and north, as skiers get lost and spend the night in the woods with similar frequency. Snowbowl has been approved for a large expansion plan, which will add significant terrain and several new chairs.
Caffe Dolce occupies an enviable park-like stretch of Brooks, just out of Missoula's downtown. It's big and airy and refined, but also relaxed, as you can sit down or order from the counter. Best of all is its patio, but unfortunately a recent spate of cool weather put that off-limits. No mind -- Laura and I went in for a date warm-up, parking our bikes out front and sitting at a tall table (this was a Friday evening and we had not made reservations). The beer and wine list is extensive and surprising. Missoula is a beer town, for sure, but this menu went beyond the normal options. I stuck local, however, with an imperial stout from Big Sky; Laura got a light white. A half-hour of pleasant catching-up went by, and soon we were paying our tab and heading back to the bike rack.
Ask around Missoula about where to go biking, and you’re likely hear the name Sam Braxton come up. Braxton was an enthusiastic local biker and skier; he also built sturdy touring bikes with a rare triple-triangle design to support an integrated rear rack. Braxton’s legacy lives on in the Sam Braxton National Recreation Trail, which is just one of the gems in suburban Pattee Canyon. Primarily used by mountain bikers, this 2.5-mile trail starts with a stiff 400-vertical foot climb before lazing into a seriously sweet mellow and non-technical downhill spree. Hikers and dogs also use the trail, as well as some cross-country skiers (the trail is steep and narrow in spots, making it a tough ski outing). Federal designation as a National Recreation Trail means the Sam Braxton has premier icon status. The trail starts from the Upper Pattee trailhead on the south side of the Pattee Canyon Road. Picking up one of the free Forest Service maps can be helpful as this side of the canyon has a high density of marked trails – some with names, some with numbers.
“The Rattlesnake” is in a lot of ways Missoula’s backyard – it’s both a social spot and a kind of city park. You can find walkers, bikers, horse riders, toddlers in prams, scientists, skiers, and the mayor here on any given day. Rattlesnake Canyon is the main entrance into the Rattlesnake Mountains, a compact clumping of alpine peaks, high lakes, and burbling streams. While the lower part of Rattlesnake Canyon has a complex of trails, the majority of visitors stick to the wide, gentle Main Rattlesnake, a former road that led past scattered homes. While the lower part of the trail can be crowded, once you get about two miles in the crowds thin to nothing. Heading north, the canyon walls grow higher and the forest more wild; Franklin Bridge, at mile 8, is the usual turn-around point, but the road continues another 6 miles to the wilderness boundary, where bikers lock their steeds and take off on foot. In contrast to the park-like feel of the lower canyon, the middle and upper reaches of the Rattlesnake have a pristine and wonderfully remote feeling. (P.S. – don’t worry about seeing rattlesnakes here. No one is sure just how the name came to be, but any snakes you might see are of the garden variety. Now bears and mountain lions on the other hand …)
Pattee Canyon has been Missoula’s de facto backyard playground practically since the town was settled, and thanks to snow grooming and volunteer labor, that playground is open all year. The Missoula Nordic Ski Club grooms several loops at the head of the canyon, partly around what is a summer picnic area. Trails are groomed for both skate and traditional and generally follow summer roads, though one more ambitious loops climbs a few hundred feet up University Mountain. There are picnic tables and pit toilets. Use of the trails is free.
The west and south faces of Mt. Sentinel are typically the first spots around Missoula to melt off and dry out, so the Crooked Trail can be a good early spring option. This old road is open to mountain bikers and hikers. It starts roughly at the top of the Mo Z trail on the southwest flank of Sentinel and contours around the north side of Pattee Canyon, linking up to the Crazy Canyon Trail about 2.5 miles later. From the front of Sentinel, the city is apparent and occasionally loud, but as soon as you round the flank of the mountain the noise goes away and it's another world entirely.
In 1968, Rudy Autio sculpted the grizzly statue that marks the University of Montana's oval, and today Cooper is riding his balance bike around it. The statue is one of the city's better known landmarks -- I've met Craigslist vendors here as well as friends; I bike by it most days on the way to work. The grizzly is seven feet tall and weighs several thousand pounds and took a year to create. Most everyone who comes to campus eventually gets their photo taken in front of it, with Mt. Sentinel soaring behind and the clock tower in the foreground. But today, Cooper's happy to ring it a few times on his Strider, angling around students pausing at the statue for a break. Soon enough, we head on.
Three minutes -- Laura and I are pedaling furiously through the quiet Sunday streets. It's cool and breezy and threatening to rain and snow. Two minutes -- we cross on to campus but still have to dodge pedestrians and parked cars. One minute -- we arrive at the Oval and I throw the bike down while Laura quickly unstraps the canopy, unbuckles Cooper, and pull him out. Well, somehow, through all of that, Cooper had managed to fall asleep. Laura says, 'Cooper, we're here. Wake up!' And in that way that toddlers can, Cooper is instantly awake. 'Is this the next Easter egg hunt?' he asks. No time to explain -- the MC is in the countdown, and as soon as Cooper is lined up behind the rope with his basket in hand, the rope drops, and kids run screaming across the lawn toward the Easter eggs. He winds up with a good haul, as do most kids, and it's not until we are sitting down looking at his catch that we see he was on the wrong field -- hunting for eggs with kids twice his age!
It took Cooper all of about 10 seconds to realize what the deal was here. Sure, it's a small track, but the kid weighs 30 pounds and his bike does not have pedals. Big tracks we do not need. So he ran, and coasted, hit the small bumps, cruised the banked turns, and needed help up the two jumps. All around us, Sunday morning traffic puttered along. We had the track to ourselves. Eventually, 'Dad, you do it.' So I pedaled around with him, pedaling, coasting, hitting the jumps, cruising the turns, and going extra hard to make it up the jump.
On any random Saturday, you can find folks in here buying paint, trying on hats, or buying chicks to raise. I, however, was hunting leather gloves -- on sale, or so I had read. But this place is big, it was early enough that staff must have still been drinking coffee, and so I wandered a bit. Saddles and tack? No. Glue and paint brushes? No. Jeans and boots? Interesting, but no. Aha -- finally, a wall of gloves. Work and ranch gloves might seem like the domain of the garden and construction site, but most local backcountry skiers own a pair or three since they are durable, often warm, and always cheap. And here are mine, on sale for $9!
So suddenly Cooper, who is about an avid of a hiker as a 3 year old can be, decides he in fact does not want to hike at all. And that means one of us carries him -- Laura does it, this time. It's a short carry, though, because soon enough he spots the L and is all about hiking to it. The L sits midway up Mt. Jumbo and stands for Loyola High School, a private school in the valley. How did they get their own letter on the mountain? Only local lore explains this so far, but it's somewhat comical to look across the valley and see "L" on one hillside and "M" on the adjacent. Where is N, O, and P? Off the concrete block, arrowleaf balsamroot is in full bloom. It's a nice afternoon, even if it started with whining.
Cooper is acting like he wants to drop in, but mostly he's standing at the side, watching the others. That's OK -- he's 3, and they're teens, so I'm not expecting a whole lot. After a while he pushes off and rides back and forth on the gentle features, but soon he's out of sight. I walk around and find him peering into the small pool, pointing, and asking if he can go. Sure -- that looks safe, right? I help him ease his bike and then he's off riding rings around the deep end before realizing he can't make it uphill to the shallow end. I lend a hand and soon he's back up on the surface, semi-ready to go but also looking around for more.
The Special Olympics is in Missoula this spring and the next two springs, held on the week before Memorial Day. While only registered athletes can compete, of course, the events are open to everyone to volunteer, watch, or become a part of. Individual events include everything from bocce to bike races, but the opening and closing ceremonies are probably the funnest. Both events take place in the Adams Center at the University of Montana, and feature free food and drinks, music and dancing, and carnival-type activities. The opening ceremonies also features a school-by-school grand entrance -- a big deal for some athletes ve travel hundreds of miles from exceptionally remote communities to this event of a lifetime. For more information, see the web site.
Bleary eyed drive to Superior, downing coffee. Take the exit, under the freeway, back along railroad tracks, and into the forest. Forty minutes later the road makes a big turn to the right, and the Heart Lake Trail goes to the left. It's spring, so the water is high -- it takes a bit to figure how to cross the first creek, but that done, the trail is wide and easy. Four miles tick by as the forest grows and recedes, and soon you can tell you are getting somewhere. This time, that also means I've hiked into a layer of cloud. Depressions in the snow hint at the direction -- but is it. I navigate by GPS, the clouds thicker, light snow falling. The trees fall away, and now the world is white on white. It's totally silent. Five minutes, ten. The sky darkens slightly, and the clouds are lifting -- just enough so I can see the lake is slushy but still frozen. Then the clouds pull in again and the view is lost.