The Rattlesnake Recreation Area and Wilderness are the closest wilderness areas to a major metropolitan area in the United States! They are comprised of 61,000 acres – 33,000 of which are designated wilderness. There are more than 73 miles of trails that are great for activities such as hiking, biking, skiing, horseback riding, fishing and more.
From the main Rattlesnake trailhead, head down the wide trail (a single-lane former logging road). After a quarter mile you’ll see Rattlesnake Creek on your right. At 0.4 miles there is a horse bridge that goes over the creek. If you’re lucky you’ll see an American dipper hopping around on the rocks below. This is a lovely spot for the kids to play in the water or to have a picnic.
At 0.6 miles, a small trail splits off to the right off of the main trail. If you take this trail, you’ll hike closer to the creek for the next mile. If you stay on the main trail, you can go another 15 miles! Take the smaller trail on the right that follows the creek. Here you’ll be hiking through Ponderosa pine/Douglas fir forest with an under-story of primarily nine-bark. Look for lady slipper orchids, buttercups and even trillium.
At 1.7 miles this narrow river trail meets back with the main trail. Stay on the main trail until you come to an outhouse (3 miles). From this point on, you are officially in the wilderness and permitted to camp. Turn around here or if you’ve got time for a deeper foray into the wilderness keep going!
How to get there: From Missoula, head north from Broadway onto Van Buren St. (near Eastgate Shopping Center). Cut under the freeway, and Van Buren will eventually turn into Rattlesnake Drive.
Continue about three miles until you reach the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area entrance.
2. Vista Point Loop
A pretty little loop in south Missoula with great views
Blue Mountain Recreation Area is in the Missoula Ranger District of the Lolo National Forest and is located only 2 miles south of town. This area was part of the Missoula Military Reservation until 1952.
There are 41 miles of trail here, including 9 miles of the Blue Mountain National Recreation Trail (NRT). Dogs are allowed to be off-leash, making this a favorite hiking area for folks with dogs.
From the trailhead, take trail 3.04 through the big field. This is a one-lane former road. At 0.75 miles the trail curves to the right then heads north along the base of the mountain.
After about 1.25 miles on trail 3.04, go left on trail 3.06. At 100 yards you’ll see a strangely bent tree. After passing the tree, you switchback up the hill for approximately 0.75 mile to Vista Point where you’ll have great views of the Bitterroot River and the Missoula valley.
From the top of Vista Point go down the backside (southwest). At 0.25 mile there is a junction of trails 3.06 and 3.05. Go right on trail 3.05 and head downhill. Hike 200 yards and turn right at trail 3.03. You’ll pass a very large rock sitting by itself. After 0.5 mile from the top of Vista Point you’ll join the original road/trail 3.04 (point “D” on map). Go right and follow the old road back along the base of the mountain and through the field to the trailhead.
How to get there: From Missoula, head south on Brooks like you are headed towards Lolo and the Bitterroot Valley, but just after leaving Missoula proper you’ll hit a stoplight at Blue Mountain Road. Turn right here and then head another half-mile to its junction with Forest Hill Road.
Turn left here and you’ll be at the parking lot.
3. Pengelly Ridge Trail
A heart-pumping hike to the top of Mount Sentinel
This is a challenging but rewarding route to the top of the south side of Mount Sentinel that is sparsely used, as opposed to the more popular hike to the “M”. It is named after David Pengelly, a Missoula lawyer who died at the age of 52 in a climbing accident.
It starts on the edge of the residential Pattee Canyon neighborhood and follows the short “Mo Z” trail before climbing the single-track trail to the top of the mountain.
The first 50 yards of the trail is very steep. At the top, the trail splits. Take the trail on the right, between the 2 Ponderosa pines. You will wind your way up to a gravel road in about a third mile. Make a right and follow the road until you see a major junction and the wood sign for Crooked Trail (which you will not take). The trail that you want is the narrow dirt single-track that heads up.
From here, you will climb up and up and up on a single-track dirt trail. You will still be in a native prairie habitat composed of lots of native bunchgrasses and some spotted knapweed. You may see whitetail or mule deer, hear western meadowlarks and see large raptors such as red-tailed hawks or turkey vultures overhead.
After about a half-mile heart-pounder, you will enter a small patch of trees and see some rocks at the base of trees that are painted with pictures. Keep climbing uphill along the trees on the narrow trail another third mile until you get to the stone plaque on the ground dedicated to David Pengelly. At this point, you can turn around and go back down the way you came up, or continue on.
Shortly after you find the stone plaque and you turn around and head back down the mountain the trail will split. Take the LEFT trail. If you take the trail on the right, you will head steeply down across the mountain toward the “M” above the University of Montana campus.
How to get there: From downtown Missoula, head south down Higgins Avenue to where it begins to curve west. Turn left onto Pattee Canyon Drive here, and head up about .6 miles to the parking strip on the your left.
The parking area is at a natural gas utility substation with a chain link fence around it. Look for the trailhead sign at the green metal gate.