A crisp of frost on the edge of everything, the trails and the mud beckon me once more…
For any outdoor person, there are touchstones that stand out – perhaps that campsite your family frequented growing up; that first mountain you sat, exhausted and at last, on top of; or that distant field far from the cities where you lay on your back and gasped at the sudden clarity of the Milky Way hanging above. The exact location is not as important as the mythology and distinct memories it imparts – certain locations become a part of you.
Returning to this blog – from Montana and other travails best left unsaid – I returned to a familiar site from my past: the low water bridge and primary canoeing put-in near the tiny city of Ponca, Arkansas…
It is different than I remember – the new bridge downstream, while not “shiny and new” – is improved and has the distinct advantage of not occasionally being feet underwater, and the road ends at the eastern side instead of continuing on towards Pruitt, and Jasper, and points downstream. It’s an odd dead-end, in some ways, yet it marks my starting point for the day: a simple out and back between my favorite canoeing put-in on the Buffalo River and my most frequented overnight camping site at Kyles Landing.
As a scout, we came here often, from Cub Scouts through Webelos to Boy Scouts and Explorer Scouts. It was relatively close to where I grew up and offered a distinct wilderness experience. Indeed, even today cell phone reception here is (almost) non-existent. I remember the 4 a.m. starts to get to this bridge; the chilly mornings where we would wait, anxiously and dry (at least for now) before putting in, before letting the drone of traffic transition into the sound of water in its banks carrying us downstream – to Hemmed-in-Hollow, to below Big Bluff, to Grey Rock – and other points beyond. Adventure awaited, and its pursuit was often started at this bridge.
I had always floated the Buffalo, so today I was set to hike the area instead – to set out on foot, climb well above the turgid waters below and see this beloved childhood memory from new vantage points.
This is a trail, I should say from the beginning, I would highly recommend. While rough, steep and rocky in parts, taking your time and shuttling to do one-way trips should satisfy most anyone’s hiking needs. If you like high ridge walks, amphitheaters of rocks and mud this trail is perfect.
The first section from Ponca to Steel Creek boats two drainages with very nice waterfall streams to cross. It also climbs a few hundred feet and is moderately rocky, but the two miles or so this section entails should fit most families’ hiking needs, so long as children aren’t too adventurous: make no mistake, there are areas along this entire trail where carelessness could result in serious injury or death, as there is some exposure.
Past the LONG and impossibly green scenery of the Steel Creek campsite (which boasts some nice views of some small, colorful cliffs), the trail follows Steel Creek upstream to what was on this day at least the one somewhat treacherous stream crossing (following several days of rain). After the crossing, the trail gains some elevation fairly quickly before reaching a nice overlook of the Steel Creek campground and the Buffalo downstream from it.
In this panorama shot, you can see the cliffs above steel creek and the Buffalo winding its way to the east (right side of shot). The drainage beyond the prominent cliffs leads to Hemmed-in-Hollow, a very pretty and tall (and difficult to photograph) waterfall which I’d highly recommend.
Past this point, the trail climbs fairly high and bypasses Horseshoe Bend and you get to see what I consider the high point of the trail: a cross-river view of Big Bluff, a stark cliff on a singular mountain rise which also boasts a trail along its upper cliffs (called the Goat Trail, also highly recommended, although that trail actually descends three miles to get to the upper bluffs).
From here, the trail descends to another, simpler creek crossing, then begins a very long climb to the western edge of the Indian Creek drainage – the real highlight of this trip for me came when I saw six wild boar, black as pitch, quickly yielding the trail to me as I climbed. I’ve encountered bear, bison, elk, deer, moose, mountain lion, porcupine and various sundry critters, but this was a first! Sadly, I wasn’t quick enough to grab a photo of these eastern javelinas, but I did find out that the colloquial term for boars is a “singular”… so you have a flock of geese, a pride of elephants, a parliament of owls and a singular of boars. Knowledge is power!
Of other note: while climbing to the high point of this section of trail, you will suddenly get cell service in the area marked as “Slatey Place” on some maps. This quarter mile section seems to be the only part of the entire trail with cell service, so if you have an emergency or just need to check reddit, this is your chance.
The trail from this point down to Indian Creek and Kyles Landing is not pleasant. For one, it crosses multiple seeps which, while I was wearing my trusty Asolos and had no issue with mud/water, still necessitated slowing down. Second – it’s pretty darned steep. It’s not Little St. Joe steep (one of the most amazingly steep trails I’ve ever seen, in the Bitterrots of Montana), and it’s not even comparable to the insane tribal trails of the Mission Mountains, but for the area – it’s noticeable, dropping nearly a thousand feet in a mile and a half. It’s not too bad to go down, but climbing back out I nearly hit my heartbeat roof.
And then Kyles Landing, in all its glory!
It’s really a fairly nice place to camp; I have fond memory of reading the second Garfield book growing up while camping here (shut up) and being evacuated at 3 a.m. after storms caused the Buffalo to rise insanely fast (I woke up in a puddle of water, which is one of my least favorite ways to exit slumber). It’s a neat little camp, and the hike up Indian Creek is highly recommended.
But for me, I get to turn around and head back to Ponca, stopping briefly to rest and take a photo of my good old shoes and Big Bluff once again, marveling at all of the puffy clouds flying over: “the sudden pageant of sky mating with hills”, as Richard Hugo once wrote.
First, yes, this is subjective, but now that I’ve climbed every mountain visible from the valley floor, I wanted to throw this out to see what I might have missed (I haven’t done many of the unnamed peaks (e.g., point 7549 west of Stuart), so please respond with any suggestions! And of course, encourage more people to get up to the high special places around here.
I would note all of these peaks are climbable currently without ice gear, except for Lolo, Mosquito and McLeod. The latter two may be possible, but would make for very long hiking days. I also haven’t included the Missions or Swans as they aren’t generally visible from the valley floor.
10) Stark Mountain, reservation divide. Stark is the peak that seems to float from south of I90 to north of I90 when driving west, and is situated on the west side of the Ninemile valley. The hike is steep but straightforward. Views across Ninemile to Cha-paa-qn, Blackrock, Three Lakes and Josephine Peaks are great, and while you can see more mountain ranges from this peak than any other (the usual Missoula stuff, plus north across the Bison reserve all the way to the friggin’ Cabinets on a clear day, and lots more peaks along the ID/MT border to the west. But, you’re a long way away from everything, so you really only get wowed on crystal clear days.
9) Mineral Peak (Rattlesnake). With a restored yet still scary fire lookout on top, Mineral is THE peak to climb up if you want a great view of the Swans and even a few peaks in the Bob. The view south to Sheep is good, but the view west of Stuart is what I really love about this peak. Most of the view to the northeast is nothing but a bunch of forest service roads climbing across open land – a bit of a distraction.
8 ) Mosquito Peak (Rattlesnake) – though higher than Stuart, you’re also closer to McLeod – which blocks most of your view north, obscuring most of the Missions. Stuart’s rough northeast face is interesting from this angle, and the large u-shaped valleys of the rattlesnake are nice to examine. The south and east faces drop quite precipitously and offer incredible views of the lakes just below. The cool stuff is mostly to the south – so bring a polarized filter for your camera.
7) Sentinel – The quintessential Missoula peak, and I love it mainly for the views of the city and Jumbo. But it’s rare to have the summit to yourself for more than a few minutes, especially on weekends. I highly recommend hiking up from Pattee Canyon and watching the sun rise from the top – it’s fun watching the shadows of Woody, Jumbo, Sentinel and the Rattlesnake in general shrink back east as the sun comes up. (And yes, the true summit is actually north of where people hike to, in some trees on a separate ridge – but Sentinel itself is really just a high point on the ridge from University).
6) McLeod – I hesitate to include this, as it’s a pain to get to (long day of bushwacking from the west, or a much longer backpack in for a slightly easier route up the southern basin). The view north is pretty solid – a few high points on reservation land obscure large parts of the valley (making it feel more wild than it is), and the views of the Missions are clear as day. But, you can’t see much of the city from McLeod (and vice versa) – the best way to see it is actually driving north on 93 from Lolo; it disappears by the time you hit the Missoula city limits.
5) Cha-paa-qn (aka Squaw Peak). The most distinct peak in the area also has some of the best views, with a great view of the entire Missoula valley (though everything gets compressed – Jumbo looks teeny from the summit). Like Stark, you can see north on a clear day to the cabinets, and sometimes (others tell me, and it seems reasonable) Glacier. It’s also one of the easiest of these peaks to climb, if you come over from Edith Pass. The scramble may be a bit tough (it’s on rough, broken talus that has some moss that makes it VERY slippery when wet), but you have great views while climbing.
4) Lolo Peak. The other major peak landmark. The highest point is the south summit, which is completely obscured by the north summit – which is lower but still given the official name Lolo Peak. And even THAT is obscured in most areas of the valley by Carlton Point. Regardless, at the highest peak around, you can see lots here you an’t elsewhere – the pyramid buttes, stewart Peak, the Heavenly Twins, the backside of the insanely massive Mount Joseph… it’s worth the hike.
3) Blue Mountain. The easiest of all the peaks to get to, as you can drive up to the fire tower on top (I recommend taking the trail, of course). Manned in summer months, the view is very well-situated and allows you to see everything from the Anaconda-Pintlers to the southeast all the way to the Cabinets and Glacier in the north, and the Swans and Scapegoat Massif are easy to pick out. The ranger manning the lookout (Gene) is very personable – strike up a conversation and bring him some chocolate.
2) Petty Mountain. Petty is a high peak west of Missoula that seems to hold snow for quite some time. Wha? Some of you might be saying. Even those of you familiar with the peak might be surprised by it being this high. It’s not a particularly high mountain (7270′), and quite a few of the ridges around it are around 7000′ and should obscure a lot. So why this high? First is a somewhat unlikely structure (I won’t spoil the surprise). But mainly it’s the view of the Bitterroots. While Lolo obscures the Bitterroots from Blue Mountain, from Petty, you can see the back side of them, and they’re wholly unrecognizable, even though you can basically see all the way to El Cap. Bring a map and see how many you can find.
1) Stuart peak. I so love the view, I was even up there again today just to drink it in on a cloudy day and watch cloud shadows play all over the landscape. There are more lakes visible from the top of Stuart than any other, and the two immediately (and sharply down from the summit) north are outstandingly clear, and blue. And you can see all the peaks of the Rattlesnake, the Missions, the Bitterroots, the Swans, the high peaks in Quigg and Welcome Creek, Sheep, the ninemile divide – what more could you want. Below is a pic from today looking almost due north – the peak in shadow is Mosquito; McLeod rise beyond that, then the Missions (Lone Wolf Peak is the one with the deep snow coulouir) and the Swans.
Not included: Sheep (not visible), Murphy (not visible), University (ugh, beacons!) Black Butte (interesting stuff blocked by Blue Mountain), Jumbo (actual summit hidden from Missoula), Point Six and TV Peak (more towers/manmade stuff), Dean Stone (more towers), Charity Peak (hidden by foothills), Cleveland (not generally visible), Woody (Wisherd Range blocks a lot, so it’s just a view of the hellgate), Bitterroot Peaks south of Lolo (generally not visible).
Your river has gulls and tugs. Mine has eagles and sky. – Richard Hugo, on The Clark Fork
With the weather finally cooperating a bit more I’m able to do sillier and sillier things. One to-do I’d been kicking around all winter was seeing what all I could do from my home – that is, what all hikes can I do and what all can I see without using my Jeep?
Today’s answer was a seventeen mile hike that saw me completely encircling Mt. Sentinel. Here’s the route for anyone who’s curious:
It’s a bit chilly but brilliant as I pass by the Lowes here west of Reserve. From this pic (1) you can see Mt. Jumbo on the left; University Peak and Mt. Sentinel rising on the other side of the Hellgate; and Mt. Dean Stone off in the distance. My route will take me up a trail between Sentinel and University and then back down the other side.
The hike through Missoula is uneventful, but I’m only a bit up the Kim Williams Trail heading up the Hellgate Canyon when I see an odd, large bird on a dead tree right beside the path. It looks unreal, but as I get closer, the bald eagle shrugs its shoulders and gives me a “wha?” sort of look. I manage to snag a couple of pics as I quietly walk buy. A few minutes later, a guy with a dog spooks the bird, and I get to watch it fly towards me, over me, then arc up into a side drainage. Ahh.
I soon get to the crux of the hike – the side trail up to the saddle between Sentinel and University some 1600 feet of so above me. I immediately get a taste of what is to come, as the steep, gravel trail is also mixed with ice. (The trail is on the north/northeast side of the massif, and so snow lingers here long after the southern and western faces are clear.
The trail is a bit breathtaking, but isn’t too steep; but the ice makes large sections pretty annoying and dangerous. As I move up, it stops being an icy trail and starts becoming an icy trail with two to twelve inches of ice/snow on top of it with what I can only describe as cornices in places. A bit nerve wracking as I hit the first switchback
The climb goes mostly without incident, though. It takes a full hour to get to the top, but given the distance/ice/elevation, I’m quite happy. From close to the top, here’s another good view looking north and down at Mt. Jumbo; it’s fun just watching cloud shadows cross this big lump o’ dirt.
The final nice little bulge to climb before I’m back on safe fire roads:
I had been thinking of bagging University Peak, but the ridge up looks icy, and from experience I Know it’s steep and a slip could be very painful. And since I don’t have crampons or trekking poles with me, I opt to head back home. The backside of Sentinel is laced with many trails, and I take the trail to Mosquito Gulch, which is pine-filled, mostly clear of snow and, once you are on the southwestern slopes of Sentinel, is wonderfully open and warm. I strip off my shell and gloves and enjoy the hike home.
It’s been a weird winter in Missoula; snow started a bit earlier (at least in terms of sticking around), and it came fairly heavy. Through mid-January, it was the fourth wettest in history, with several major storms, no major warm-ups, and even a few chilly days with -20 wind chills. Couple this with a few avalanche deaths, and my desire to get into cross-country skiing and getting out there has been somewhat muted.
But the last couple of weeks have been downright non-winterish. It warmed up enough to rain, clearing almost all of the snow, and though another few inches have fallen, temperature at or just above freezing for daytime highs has been the norm. Knowing the backside up is basically devoid of avalanche danger, south-facing an completely impossible to get lost on, I headed out today to get a look at the last of a somewhat snow-socked Missoula.
The trail up the backside is nice and simple – snow-covered, partially groomed for Nordic skiers. A bit slick in places, and a good workout for your ankle strength. It’s short, though, only about three miles and gains about 1,500 feet or so. Anyone in halfway decent shape shouldn’t have issues following the trail in dry weather; would still recommend picking up a free map at the trailhead, as there are a few trail intersections.
For some compare and contrast, I’ll offer a few views from the top from both late fall and today. First, a view of Missoula and the valley, with Ch-paa-qn way off in the distance (more prominent in the snow picture):
To the north, across I-90 and Hellgate Canyon, lies Jumbo Mountain (see previous entry for a hike atop its modest rise). As I mentioned previously on this blog, one of the interesting bits about this area is that it has been repeatedly underwater when, in a previous ice age, glaciers blocked he river to the west, forming a gigantic lake (Glacial Lake Missoula), before breaking, reforming, and breaking many times. In the winter picture, it is easier to see the various shoreline remnants. In the snow picture you can also see the prominence of Stuart Peak in the Rattlesnake, about 3/4ths of the way across the picture on the horizon.
Finally, to the southwest you can see the northern high peaks of the Bitterroot Range. The paks visible include St. Mary Peak on the far left and Lolo Peak/Carlton Peak towards the right, with the spires of the Bass Creek ridge, St. Joseph and Little St. Joseph also possible (the Pyramid Buttes are hiding behind Sweeney).
If this weather continues, I may be able to head to Sweeney Ridge, but not planning on getting any major new peaks until May at the least.
Most visitors to Missoula notice two mountains that loom over the city. The first is Mt. Sentinel – rising directly from the university and adorned with a large “M”, the grass-covered western face forms a brilliant yellow backdrop to the university. North, across the hellgate and adorned with the remnants of the shoreline for Glacial Lake Missoula (and sporting a big “L”), Mount Jumbo is also the most accessible of any Missoula mountain.
Jumbo has several trailheads, and numerous trails that crawl all over its south and western face (with others leading to the east, and to the north). There are also hundreds of game trails to potentially confuse hikers; however, as there are very few trees on the entire mountain, the danger of getting lost is practically nil.
My first foray, I hit up the Poplar Street trailhead (just north of I90 off Van Buren); the trailhead even has a very detailed map of the trail system, including connecting trails to the north hills and Rattlesnake. There are two easy options to the top – the direct west face, visiting the “L”; and the more gradual (and runnable) south face, which has the advantage of also being in sunlight early in the morning. I take the direct route, of course.
Hitting the trail before sunrise, one thing about Jumbo that strikes you is just how many elk and deer there are lurking on the outskirts of Missoula; I counted over a hundred in several large packs all around the mountain. I play tag with a couple of young deer as I take the direct line for the L, disturbing a few other packs as I head up.
The “L”, incidentally, stands for Loyola (or, more correctly, the Loyola Sacred Heart High School). Unlike the “M”, the L is concrete and has quite sharp edges. The trail continues up from the L near the upper left hand side of the L; I take a countouring trail and wind up having to cut straight up the mountain.
How much does Jumbo loom over Missoula? Well, the high ridges of the Rattlesnake and Hellgate form a nice wall on the Eastern side of town; you can even watch the shadows of the mountains retreat as the sun rises – here’s a view of Missoula, looking west, with the shadow of Jumbo and Sentinel hitting the mountains on the west side of town.
The elevation gain is moderate, and I’m able to see first light hitting Lolo Peak southwest of Missoula.
Sentinel is about a thousand feet higher; here’s a look at Sentinel and University Mountain near the top of the ridge with sunlight just hitting the grass up top.
Bob Geldof once remarked in song, “We are shadows of what we were; but we’re a long, long shadow.” Here’s a visual image of just that – my shadow at this point is roughly four miles long.
Any rate, Jumbo is a great place to watch the sun rise on Missoula, as there are numerous hills and valleys for the sunlight to play peak-a-boo with. A view northwest; Ch-paa-qn is the sharp point on the horizon; the north hills and other foothills play their grassy selves out in the middle ground.
Like Sentinel and Lolo, Missoula is not very visible from the true summit of Jumbo, which is back northeast of the main crest. However, you can see a large swath of the Bitterroots; on the left is St. Mary Peak, with the Bass Creek ridge, Little Joe, St. Joe, Sweeney and Lolo Peak easily visible (but tough to pick out in this photo). Mt. Dean Stone on the left peaks its head head above Mt. Sentinel.
You can make a lollipop loop by combining routes on the west and south face; overall, it’s maybe a five mile loop with maybe 1200 feet of elevation gain – easily doable for most people in halfway decent shape, and again, a great place to watch the sun rise.
Although Mt. Sentinel dominates the skyline above the University of Montana, it is but a high point on a longer east/west ridge that continues for a few miles to the east. The true high point of this ridge is University Peak/Beacon, which hosts a number of communication towers and is very visible floating on the horizon above Missoula at night. To reach the peak, you can either climb Sentinel like normal (see the previous hike of Mt. Sentinel), or attack it from the back/south side, up Pattee Canyon. As I had done Sentinel several times in the past, I decided to opt for the new route from the back.
Pattee Canyon has a huge network of trails that sprawl between Sentinel/University to the north and Mt. Dean Stone to the south. Fortunately, there are detailed maps of all of the trails available at the trailhead, and I pull one out as I begin the gentle trail heading north.
The grade is very moderate, and even rises and falls a bit as the trails climb up and down a few minor drainages. I see lots of evidence of animals and hear lots of birds, but see no large mammals through the sparsely populated evergreens.
After a few miles, the trail splits, with an old road heading up to Mt. Sentinel and a spur trail that heads to a high saddle between Sentinel and University. The grade becomes pretty steep from this junction up to the saddle; unfortunately, it gets even steeper as one turns to the east and begins hiking up University itself.
It was a pretty rainy day when I hiked this, and windy; as I make my way up, I get a decent but not thorough soaking as I trudge up the steep slope to get to the next high point on the ridge.
At the top of the first ridge, I’m struck by how windy this ridge is; it’s steep dropping back to the south, and to the north it drops a few thousand feet to I90 and the Hellgate canyon. The power of the winds is obvious; this two foot wide tree was broken about twenty feet up and thrown another twenty – glad I wasn’t there when it happened!
The climb up this ridge is the toughest; once you reach the top you descend a hundred feet or so and rise a hundred feet to the unmistakable signs of civilization on University Peak.
The view back to Sentinel (hidden in this pic) and Missoula is impressive, though, especially when you have several different cloud layers both above and below you.
The hike back was uneventful, until a half mile from my jeep, when I hear the quite unmistakable and bonechilling sound of a very angry bear growling and roaring at something a quarter mile away. I nervously make my way back to the jeep, and hear it roar and growl a few more times, but it stays thankfully out of sigh and upwind, down a side draw from the trail.
A good hike – definitely would recommend people with knee problems should take the Pattee Canyon route up to Sentinel; University is a bit tougher, but a good and manageable day hike.
So while waiting for my apartment to be cleaned and available, I had a day to kill. As I had been turned back by an unsure route after trying to tackle the North summit of Lolo from Mill Creek earlier this summer, I decided to tackle the peak again, along with its higher southern summit and a tarn north of both peaks. I decided to take the higher trailhead, however, to allow more time for off-trail scrambling.
The Mormon Peak Road to the trailhead at a high switchback is interesting; while many such roads are steep, narrow and a bit nerve-wracking, this road is unique for having virtually no switchbacks – only one! The trail just climbs clockwise, switchbacks once, crosses a ridge and gets to the trailhead. A pretty drive, but not for anyone afraid of heights.
The trail is very easy to follow as it climbs about a thousand feet or so to a nice scenic lookout. The route goes through a lot of old burn, and there is a lot of deadfall, some of it lorded over by the locals.
The vista gives a great view of the first part of the climb. I’ll climb the peak on the right first (referred to as Carlton Peak), climbing the ridge you see ascending from left to right; then descend a ridge and climb another ridge to the peak on the left (North Lolo Peak).
A dark sense of foreboding accompanies the overcast skies; a crow warns me to stay off the high peaks! Stay off! Caw!
Carlton Peak is reached via a very easy off-trail scramble – basically, climb to the ridgeline and head up. It’s a mix of talus and brush, not much more difficult than a regular trail. Anyone could climb this.
Missoula looks so small and faraway… it’s only about ten miles as the foreboding crow flies.
The ridge walk to North Lolo Peak is a bit more of a concern, though. The summit of Carlton is tree-covered, but the view from below the summit shows a wooded ridge followed by, holy crap, looks like a good talus climb to North Lolo!
It doesn’t look very promising as I reach the saddle… looks like climbing is in store!
It’s steep, but not too bad; the talus is pretty solid, so I’m able to scramble pretty quickly. Looks to be around a 30 to 35 degree slope – this looks pretty indicative:
It only takes me fifteen minutes or so to scramble the 800 vertical feet – a decent workout, but maybe not for everyone. Now, you can see Missoula still from North Lolo (again, the lower of Lolo’s two summits). You cannot see the true summit from Missoula (or Missoula from its summit). Here’s a view from North Lolo back to Missoula, with Carlton Peak in the foreground:
To the south, I can finally see the true summit of Lolo Peak, near foreground. From left to right, the peaks on the horizon are St. Mary; St. Joseph; the Heavenly Twins; Bass Peak; and Lolo (and then lots of stuff in Idaho I can’t identify).
You may notice the weather is looking dodgy; there’s no lightning or thunder anywhere, and while I figure I may get some occasional drizzle, I figure I’m probably safe and push on to the south! but not before grabbing a quick summit pic on North Lolo.
The ridge is an easy walk, with the saddle dipping maybe 200 feet or so. Looking back at North Lolo, indeed, you can’t see Missoula at all:
The summit is also huge – literally acres and acres of barren land. To the south, a few more Biterroot Peaks become visible. Heavenly twins are now on the far left; Bass Peak; Sky Pilot and Ranger Peak are visible.
The weather isn’t perfect, so I make a race back to the trailhead. Well, not a good race; I decide to head down the talus slopes, and it’s very loose talus. At one point, a large slab slides from under my right foot, releasing a nice large rock behind my left foot, rolling and pinning my foot for an alarming second. I make it down to Carlton Lake (where it’s just a simple hike back to the trailhead); a cute wittle pika welcomes me to the lake.
So I get rained on a little, find a few more ptarmigan, and go grab some Staggering Ox sammiches. Good times!