One of the pleasures of living in the Missoula area is watching the changing of the seasons. It's fun to hop in the car for a drive to watch for new plants emerging in the spring or, in the fall, to watch the changing colors of the trees and bushes. And it's fun to catch a glimpse of weak-legged fawns and other young animals exploring their world. Sometimes it's just nice to get out and admire the blue sky, clear waters and flowers in the fields.
A winding, 14-mile drive along Blue Mountain Road No. 365 will take you to a fire lookout on Blue Mountain. The road is rocky and sometimes narrow but when you get to the top, you'll have a spectacular view of the Missoula and Bitterroot ranges and an uncluttered view of Lolo Peak. The lookout is staffed in the summer and company is welcome. The staff can explain the equipment that's used to spot forest fires.
Firefighting - Historical Visitors Centers
When fires burn throughout the Northwest, there isn't any place hotter than the Aerial Fire Depot and Smoke jumper Base on Highway 10 just west of Missoula. The depot pulses with incoming and outgoing airplanes ferrying firefighters and supplies to combat blazes from Alaska to Florida. Visitors are welcome to tour the depot and watch a video explaining smoke jumping.
For firefighting on a different level, a visit to the Ninemile Remount Depot (B-8) at the Ninemile Ranger District will explain the history of firefighting—using mules instead of airplanes—between the 1930s and the 1950s. The visitors center, 22 miles west of Missoula on Interstate 90 and four miles north off Exit 82, is open May through September. During the winter, the station shelters between 200 and 300 horses and mules that still are used in the Forest Service's firefighting efforts and other backcountry work.
For another trip into the past, Wagon Mountain Road No 33 follows an old trail that was used to drive sheep along a ridge top. The narrow road, which starts in the Petty Creek/Graves Creek area and is easily passable for cars, offers a couple of panoramic views but mostly winds through forested areas. It's a rare example of the ridgetop roads that once were common in area forests.
The Petty Creek/Graves Creek route offers an abundance of flowers and occasional glimpses of deer, bighorn sheep and birds. The dirt road, between Alberton and Lolo Creek, can be dusty in the dry summer and fall months.
Other scenic drives include the Pattee Creek/Deer Creek road; Butler Creek Loop and Rreis Pond near the Ninemile Remount Depot; Highway 12 to Lolo, and the Eastside Highway, which stretches from Florence to Hamilton and follows the foothills of the Sapphire Mountains. The Eastside Highway offers a less hectic and more scenic impression of the Bitterroot Valley as well as access to the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication