Weekend Wheeling: Missoula
Riding in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area is one of the great pleasures of being a cyclist in Missoula. The trailhead is a mere four miles from downtown and has some of the best single-track around. Hikers, joggers, horseback riders, and mountain bikers all use these scenic trails, but once you are about a half-mile from the trailhead you still get a solid dose of the peace and quiet of the forest. Trail use is much lower during the week, so you might want to plan your trip then.
The "Snake," as it is fondly known, is home to a variety of wild creatures. Mountain lions, black bear, mule deer, and elk all inhabit the area. Stay alert as you ride and you may be lucky enough to spot some of the local wildlife.
The Rattlesnake Recreation Area has a variety of trails that loop in and around the woods and streams but Sawmill Gulch Loop is a great place to start. Afterward, if you are ready for more riding, check out the information board for a map of the trails and head out again. Or, if you're ready for a rest, head back downtown for a well-earned microbrew at one of Missoula's many brewpubs. Enjoy! You earned it!
From Missoula, at the junction of Van Buren Street and Interstate 90, take Van Buren north (Rattlesnake Dr.) about four miles north to the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area trailhead. Turn left off Sawmill Gulch Road to get to the ample parking area. Information board with maps and restrooms are available.
At 8.6 miles, this is a relatively short but moderately difficult ride that most riders can finish in around an hour and a half. The ride follows a series of forest trails, most of which are on intermediate single-track or old roadbeds that have basically become single-track. You will be treated to views of the Rattlesnake Mountains and surrounding valleys. Lower elevation riding is through grassland, meadows, and pine savanna. Elevation gain is about 1,000 feet.
0.0 From the Rattlesnake Trailhead, proceed north up the main Rattlesnake Trail. You can stop at the information board and view the maps of the area.
0.10 About 100 yards past the information board, there will be an old roadbed that switches back sharply to the left. Take that old road. It will parallel the paved Sawmill Gulch Road.
0.75 Trail turns to single-track.
1.50 Single-track trail dumps out onto the Sawmill Gulch Road (dirt). Proceed uphill to the gate, which is visible from this point.
1.59 Gate. Proceed west past the gate. This is the start of the Sawmill Gulch Trail.
1.86 Turn right onto old roadbed. There is a signpost here, but the sign is missing. This is a narrow double-track. The road is pretty much filled in, giving it the feel of a single-track. You will have a steep uphill climb through an old burn for about three quarters of a mile.
2.91 Junction of Sawmill Gulch Trail. You will notice a sign on a tree at this intersection. Bear right, continuing uphill, following the arrow on the sign for Curry Gulch. The next mile follows a double- and single-track with semi-open views of Strawberry Ridge and Curry Gulch.
2.95 Veer left at forks, continuing uphill.
3.05 Bear right at fork, remain on main trail.
3.14 Single-track veers left, stay right on main trail.
4.10 Junction of Stuart Peak Trail. There will be a small wood sign here. Turn left onto the single-track. Gear down; this is a steep but short stretch.
4.23 Trail comes to a "T." Turn left, following sign on tree for Sawmill Gulch. This next section provides relatively flat ridge-top riding on single-track.
4.50 Bear right at intersection. Follow sign for Sawmill Gulch proceeding downhill.
4.75 Bear right at intersection. Nice single-track through pine savanna.
4.85 Big downed log. Start very steep, loose downhill segment.
5.24 Single-track crosses under power line.
5.50 Single-track trail follows fence line.
5.78 Bear right, continue to follow fence line.
5.90 Trail veers left leaving fence line and goes through Douglas Fir forest. Begin long descent.
6.62 Trail veers sharply left. You are now in grassland, with one more short stretch of timber to pass through. At this point you are looking at the burn you rode through at mile 2.0.
7.17 Junction of main Sawmill Gulch Trail. Turn right. You can see the gate you rode past earlier. Head downhill back to the trailhead. When you hit the road you can take this single-track you rode on earlier, or the paved road, which will allow you to reach speeds of 35 miles an hour.
8.58 End of ride at Rattlesnake Recreation Area parking lot.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication