On a cold, quite December morning, Anna and I set out through fresh snow. Although we have driven just a few miles out of town, our snowshoeing hike starts on the edge of the 33,000-acre Rattlesnake Wilderness Area. And with miles of open trail ahead before us, this place feels like true wilderness. We make new tracks as we hike beside Rattlesnake Creek, breaking a trail up the valley through open meadows and forest alike.
Early in the morning, even this close to town, we are by ourselves. We turn off the main route, on a side trail up a small drainage area. Here, the trees grow closer together and hang over us as we make our way. The trail becomes steeper, and our pace slows. We don’t mind, though. We’re here for the forest, some light conversation, and the feel of the cold air against our skin.
A mile up, we finally meet our first fellow traveler – a Nordic skier – who smiles at us as he glides by. The trail crosses a small, frozen-over stream, and we stop to look out at the scene surrounding us. As we munch on a handful of trail mix and take a swig of water, we can’t help but smile ourselves. This hike is just what we both had needed: A long, slow walk through an undisturbed winter scene.
Missoula: Winter Wonderland
Tucked into a wide valley at the foot of snow-covered mountain slopes, lies Missoula, Mont. Here, the prairie grasslands of the valley run right up to the base of the mountains, where patchworks of pine-forests dot the hillside. Winter in Missoula is long, with crisp clear days and dry Rocky Mountain snow. It is the type of place you imagine when you think of winter – the holidays, warm fires, and exhilarating days spent outside. It is an ideal place to set up camp and explore the surroundings on a pair of snowshoes.
Missoula is a college town and is considered the cosmopolitan capital of this rugged state. A town of 95,000 people, Missoula supports an ideal mix of restaurants, coffee shops and a vibrant downtown area for visitors to explore. But Missoula is not pretentious or overly pricey, like some winter resorts. The fact that it is not a resort town is what makes it so appealing. You’re likely to find women knitting sweaters in coffee shops as they chat with friends, and locals continue to ride their bikes through town even when the temperature drops. Missoula is home to countless outdoor enthusiasts, most of whom thrive in the winter months. True to form, there are plenty of outdoor retailers in town to get all the gear you need for your excursions, or to pick up anything you may have left at home.
Snowshoeing in All Directions
The 61,000-acre Rattlesnake National Recreation Area lies just five miles north of downtown Missoula. The Wilderness Area begins three miles into the main trail. Here you’ll find a large network of trails, ranging in difficulty from easy to very challenging. The main trail is perfect for snowshoe running – mostly flat with gentle hills. It makes a great six-mile out-and-back run beside Rattlesnake Creek. If you would like to go further, you can continue into the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area. Other trails, like Spring Gulch, cut away from the main trail and head up side valleys and require a more leisurely pace.
One of the more interesting snowshoeing areas near Missoula is Garnet Ghost Town. Here, you can hike into the old town (six-miles) and even spend the night in one of two rustic cabins. Once your reach the ghost town, you have several other trails to choose from, most of which are fairly hilly. There is a caretaker who grooms some of the trails and can direct you to those that will suite you best.
Traveling south out of Missoula takes you into the Bitterroot valley. If you head to Lolo Peak, you can explore miles of trails before you head to the Lolo Hot Springs. If you’re looking for a challenging day, try the nine-mile (round trip) hike up Lolo Peak. You’ll need to climb 3,770 feet of steep trails to reach the 9,096-foot summit. Lolo Peak is a popular place to snowshoe up and ski or snowboard down. This hike is only for those who understand avalanche safety practices.
Also in the Bitterroot valley is Blodgett Canyon. While you can hike through the canyon, the Overlook hike is better suited for those looking for a scenic trip. It is a three-mile, easy to moderate trail. The highlight of the outing is the view of a large, rocky canyon. Ask anyone in Missoula where a good place to snowshoe is, and they’re bound to send you to Blodgett. In the warmer months, this is a popular area for rock climbing.
If you wish to stay in town for a day, the Kim Williams Nature Trail (Riverfront Trail) offers convenience you can’t beat. Start in the heart of Missoula and take this flat trail into Hellgate Canyon, following the Clark Fork River. You can go as far as seven miles round-trip on this very flat trail. When snowfall has covered Missoula, these trails make a great casual stroll or run.
When you plan your next winter trip, add Missoula to the list of places you’d like to visit. It is perfect for all ages, from college kids looking for adventure and nightlife to families in search of a welcoming town to couples looking for a quiet, romantic winter weekend. Prices are much more reasonable than in most winter destinations. The trails range from easy to very difficult, and the views are some of the best around. The trails are waiting and the snow is falling.
Location: Missoula is in western Montana, 475 miles from Seattle and 550 miles from Portland. There are daily flights into Missoula from Salt Lake City.
Gear: Pipestone Mountaineering (406-782-4994) and The Trailhead (406-543-6966) are both located in downtown Missoula.
Accommodation: Check out Foxglove Cottage bed & breakfast (406-543-5324) or Creekside Inn (1-800-551-2387); the Garnet cabins, in the Garnet Ghost Town (406-329-1031); on the pass, Lolo Hot Spring (1-800-273-2294) has easy access to trails and, of course, the tempting springs.