|Kim Williams Nature Trail along the Clark Fork River
Situated in a valley, Missoula is ringed by mountains. Hiking opportunities abound - many boasting trailheads right inside the city limits. With an entire day to spend together, my son suggested hiking the trails on Missoula's iconic Mt Sentinel.
|Cool looking mystery flowers
Mt Sentinel is a small mountain that rises directly east of the University of Montana's campus. A large whitewashed concrete letter "M" occupies it's western face (the "M" of course placed in honor of the University). Prominently viewed from all over town, the mountain and it's "M" are Missoula landmarks.
|Arnica blooms lined the Hellgate Canyon Trail
A steep trail zig-zags 3/4 of a mile up Mt Sentinel's west face to access the "M." It's a popular route for students, tourists, runners, and folks wanting a good workout. Throughout the years my son attended college at the University I'd made several ascents of this trail. But today my son had a different access route in mind.
|Taking a breather
An entire network of trails link Mt Sentinel with nearby mountains and natural areas. My son suggested accessing Mt Sentinel via some of these trails. We'd start out following the Kim Williams Nature trail, then climb up Hellgate Canyon via a trail of the same name. Eventually this trail would intersect with Mt Sentinel's trail, which we'd follow to the top and then descend the opposite side.
|Grand views of East Missoula and I-90
The morning of our planned hike, we awoke to heavy clouds and rain. The day's forecast, which called for showers, didn't look promising. But we're both from Oregon - what's a little rain? After grabbing our rain jackets and pack covers my son drove to the east side of the University of Montana campus, the trailhead location.
|Crazy Canyon sounds like my kinda place :)
Lucky for us, by the time we parked, the rain had let up. Not one to waste a dry spell, my son and I quickly grabbed our backpacks and headed towards our starting point at the Kim Williams Nature Trail.
|Patiently waiting for mom to finish taking pictures...
The Kim Williams trail started out paved, but quickly transitioned into a gravel road paralleling the beautiful Clark Fork River. Before long, my son and I had left the city behind and were walking beside this peaceful, forested waterway. Birds chirped, and I spotted several varieties of colorful wildflowers.
|Looking across the canyon to University Beacon Hill
The Hellgate Canyon trail junction was supposed to be a mile down the Kim Williams trail, but it wasn't marked, so we walked right it by the first time. Luckily, my son quickly realized our oversight, and we didn't have to backtrack too much.
|Nice patch of Indian Paintbrush
Let the climbing begin! The Hellgate Canyon trail rocketed steeply uphill. My son didn't have any trouble, but I huffed and puffed behind him, trying to keep up. Happily, there were lots of colorful wildflowers to distract me from my discomfort. Copious amounts of sunny yellow arnica blooms lined our trail, brightening the forest floor.
|Three shades of orange paintbrush!
The clouds began thickening again. It appeared to be raining on an adjacent mountain. I was getting concerned we'd get wet. But the rain stayed north of us. However, I thought I heard a distant thunder boom, which worried me immensely (last thing I wanted was to be high on a mountain during a lightening storm). But my son denied hearing anything, so we continued our upward trek.
After a long climb, we finally arrived at the Mt Sentinel Trail junction. And unlike our lower trail, this one was well-marked with a large wooden sign. Noting a "Crazy Canyon trailhead" written on one side made me chuckle. I'd love to hear how that canyon got it's name!
|Flowers decorate this fallen tree
Only a half mile to the top of Mt Sentinel from here. Piece of cake! But this trail wound through some of the loveliest wildflower meadows. Lupine, Indian paintbrush, yellow balsamroot all bloomed thickly on the forest floor. My poor son had to do a lot of waiting for his mother while she attempted to photograph it all.
The Indian paintbrush here sported three different hues of orange - a dark orange, a medium (normal) orange color, and a light peach shade. It was unusual and beautiful.
But my son was eventually able to tear his camera-toting mother away from all the colorful meadows (reluctantly, I'll add!).
|The best flower fields were right below the summit
The final trail to the top was a extremely steep trudge up a rocky road. I didn't think I'd ever arrive, but suddenly up ahead my son stopped. He'd made it to the summit. I got this great shot of him taking in the view.
|Mt Sentinel summit
And what a tremendous view it was! Looking west, all of Missoula spread out below. Despite cloudy skies, we could see for miles across the valley.
Mt. Sentinel's summit sits at an elevation of 5,158 feet, nearly 2000 feet above the valley below.
|Photo op with my son
There wasn't much to see at the summit itself, so my son and I hiked a short distance down the other side before posing for the obligatory "We made it" photo.
|Descending the west side
Then.....what comes up must go down. And down we went, descending another steep trail. Good thing I brought my trekking poles, they saved my knees!
|Lupine was everywhere!
But of course this trail had more floral distractions, in the form of lupine and larkspur. Oh was the lupine thick and such a deep shade of purple! My poor son had to wait for me once again.
|Abandoned copper mine
My son led me through the wide-open grassy meadows of Mt Sentinel's west flanks. With no trees, the views were tremendous. We could see clouds gathering all around us, but so far none of the wet stuff had traveled to our location. We passed by an old, long-abandoned copper mine, which I thought unusual to see so close to town.
|I spied some bitterroot blooms!
Passing by a rocky outcrop, I noticed a few pink petals. A dozen bitterroot flowers were pushing out from between the rocks. Montana's state flower, their petals were a lovely shade of pink. Rare to see - I was psyched to have discovered them.
|Views for miles
As the trail descended through Mt Sentinel's grassy slopes, my son and I were treated to birds-eye views of the University of Montana's beautiful campus. It was fun to point out the dorms he'd lived in, the campus quad, and the football stadium. Go Griz!
|University of Montana football stadium
The University's concrete "M" sits about halfway up Mt Sentinel's slopes. As we approached this landmark, I noticed clouds to the north getting extremely dark. It looked like rain was hovering over the adjacent mountain range. Our dry weather luck was running out.
|Bad weather moving in
Upon reaching the "M" I paused to snap a couple of photos, but lacking a wide-angle lens, they didn't come close to capturing the immense size of this letter.
|Extreme close up of the "M"
But a storm was definitely moving in, so after getting my images, I packed the camera away and hightailed it down the remainder of the trail. The final photo I captured showed clouds lowering ominously over the valley. Surprisingly, we met quite a few people going the other direction, either not aware or not caring about the approaching rain.
|Racing the storm to the parking lot
Timing is everything - we just barely got inside my son's car when the heavens opened up. It rained hard for the rest of the day. Lucky us, we got our hike done during the only dry weather window.
It was fantastic to have a day to hike with my son. Between me forgetting my gps, and his phone battery dying we weren't quite sure of the total mileage, but after consulting his hiking book, I'm going with about 7 miles and 2000 feet elevation gain. And lots of wonderful memories.