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University Peak – The Joys of Being Growled At

October 1, 2010

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.

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