Lake loop through the Rattlesnake Wilderness

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After my final long run before a 55K race turned into a trying day, I decided to break my taper with a 29-mile loop through the Rattlesnake Wilderness with a friend.

Clear skies and lakes – and a trail mostly free of downed trees – were just what I needed.

Like the routes to Stuart and Mineral peaks, the Lake Creek loop starts on Trail 515 at the main trailhead at the Rattlesnake National Recreation. About two-thirds of a mile north, we turned northwest on Trail 517.1 along the shadier side of Spring Gulch.

At 2.4 miles, we crossed the creek and continued on Trail 517, passing junctions with the Wallman Trail and the trail back to Curry and Sawmill gulches. We rose steeply at first then more gradually as the trail switchbacked through thinner forest to the wilderness boundary at about 7 miles.

After rounding the top of the East Fork Grant Creek drainage – passing the Twin Lakes overlook and skipping the side trip up Stuart Peak – we reached the junction for Trail 534 at 9.8 miles.

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From there, we turned east and ran down into the Lake Creek drainage – all new trail to me.

In the next 2.4 miles, we passed McKinley Lake, an unnamed pond, a historic cabin and Carter Lake, looking back up to the rocky ridges to the west.

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After the lakes, we refilled our hydration packs at a creek crossing, then left the wilderness as we switchbacked down to a junction with Trail 502 at about 14.8 miles. From there, we continued half a mile over a bridge where Rattlesnake Creek makes a narrow cut through rock, then reconnected with Trail 515.

From the junction with Trail 515, it was a long, hot and dusty 13.6 miles south and west along the creek back to the trailhead – and by the time we were done, I was feeling more confident about my upcoming race.

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Here are more photos from the Lake Creek loop.

Long run from canyon to canyon in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness

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What was supposed to be a final long run – up one canyon and down another in the Bitterroot Mountains – before a 55K race turned into a day of navigating cold stream crossings, flattened forest and snow-covered trail last month.

While trying at times, the 27 miles between Fred Burr Creek and Mill Creek northwest of Hamilton offered plenty of Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness beauty.

After a couple of days of trying to check trail conditions that yielded few facts, two friends and I set out about 7 a.m. from the Fred Burr trailhead.

Not even half a mile down the trail to the west, we were surprised when a young bear fled up the brushy slope next to us. While it was the only wildlife we’d see all day, we’d find plenty of evidence other animals were around.

The trail continued above Fred Burr Creek on an old forest road, then diverted to the south side of it around private property and rejoined it again to cross the Bitterroot National Forest boundary at a gate.

From there, we continued up to the dam at the lower end of Fred Burr Reservoir at about 4.5 miles, the smooth surface of the water reflecting the surrounding mountains and clouds above.

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After a short break, we followed the trail through the trees on the north side of the reservoir, reaching the first of four creek crossings at its upper end. Determining there was no way to stay dry, I forded the cold water and my friends soon followed.

On the south side of the creek, we came to our first downed trees of the day. While getting past them slowed us slightly, it was nothing compared to what we’d find farther up the trail.

Just before entering the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness at about 6 miles, one friend who was rehabilitating an injury turned around. He planned to shuttle the truck to the other trailhead, go for a short run there, then wait for the two of us who were continuing on.

After the wilderness boundary, it was a short distance farther up the trail to the next creek crossing, which was wider but shallower than the first. Back on the north side, we occasionally encountered downed trees as we made our way up through the forest.

About 6.75 miles up, the canyon opened and revealed views of the surrounding ridges at the first of several meadows left from fires in the late 1980s.

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The next couple of miles were made easier by the meadows, though we still found a few downed trees in the forest. We also found two large, fresh piles of bear scat and tracks in the trail.

After two more creek crossings – the first cold and deep to the south side, and the second high and dry on a log back to the north side – the rock wall of the Bitterroot Divide rose directly to the west of us.

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At about 9 miles, we turned south with the creek and canyon and entered the forest again.

Soon, we found ourselves making our way over and around downed trees, zigzagging across the trail. At times, we stood on logs stacked 20 feet above the forest floor, and we twice waded up the creek because it was easier to go under the trees spanning it.

By the time we were through what clearly was a swath of forest flattened by wind – possibly in the big storm last August – we had covered just 2 miles in 1 hour 35 minutes. While we knew we’d have a couple of slow miles over the pass ahead of us, we weren’t turning back.

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After a break along the creek to eat and refill our hydration packs, we started up the canyon again through alternating stretches of forest and meadow.

At about mile 12, we turned up the western wall of the canyon and ascended the steep switchbacks to Fred Burr Lake, reaching snow as the trees thinned. After nearly a mile, we arrived at the lake, set in a rocky basin and still frozen.

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Standing near the lake, we could see mountains for miles around – as well as the flattened forest below.

The next section was the riskiest of the day as we continued west up a steep ridge to about 7,800 feet and traversed a snowy shelf to the south, the trail buried beneath us. The angle of the snow increased as we approached another ridge, and we decided it would be safest to scramble up and over the rocks above us rather than continue across to a notch where we thought the trail must be.

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Once over the ridge – in the Mill Creek drainage – we were on rocky ground again, but saw no clear trail. We made our way south, down to the shore of the frozen Lockwood Lake at about 14 miles, then continued across moose-tracked snow and down farther to the melting Heinrich Lake.

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At Heinrich Lake, we could see the open water of Mill Lake below us to the south, across boulder fields and rocky slabs interspersed with brush. A topographic map saved on my cellphone, however, showed the trail going over another snowy shelf.

Not having seen the actual trail for a while, we decided to continue off it and down the rocks.

After hopping across the lower part of a waterfall and descending through beargrass, we reached the trail again at about 15.5 miles, just above the junction leading to Mill Lake. We stopped here to eat and refill our water again, then started east down Mill Creek.

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The clouds above us darkened and it rained for a while, but the next few miles went by much more quickly as we were able to really run again.

At about mile 18, we slowed, however, as we started to encounter a lot of trees across the trail. Thankfully, it was nothing like the flattened forest of Fred Burr Creek, and four hikers we passed told us the trail would clear when it crossed out of the wilderness with five miles to go.

Near mile 23, my phone found a cellular signal and buzzed with text messages when we stopped in a rocky clearing left by the fires of 2000.

Our friend who was waiting at the trailhead was concerned – justifiably, as we had been out for 10 hours and were long overdue. We were all right, we assured him, but would likely be another hour.

With the sun shining again, we continued down the trail, skipping a stop at the small cascade and pool with three miles to go. After crossing Mill Creek on a new bridge, we quickly covered the final mile to the trailhead, glad to see our friend and the truck.

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In the end, we covered 27 miles with about 4,500 feet of elevation gain in 11 hours. On the way home, we stopped for dinner and a beer – and to explain our delay.

Here are more photos from the Fred Burr Creek-Mill Creek run.

Steep switchbacks to Ward Mountain

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Looking for a hike with some elevation and rocky terrain to prepare for an upcoming ultramarathon, I found myself atop 9,108-foot Ward Mountain last month, the ridges of the Bitterroot Range lining up into the distance to the north and south.

About 4 hours earlier, Jen, the dogs and I started up the trail where Roaring Lion Creek runs out of the mountains and into the valley southwest of Hamilton. The first 2 miles switchbacked west up through the forest and crossed a couple of grassy openings.

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At 2.5 miles, the switchbacks steepened and entered an old burn where lupine bloomed and we got our first views of the valley floor. Another 1.25 miles up, I stepped onto a boulder field along the trail to take in the view of the ridges rising to the north over Roaring Lion and Sawtooth creeks.

The switchbacks re-entered the forest and continued up the mountain until we reached Judd Creek at about 5 miles. After the dogs lapped up some water, we crossed the creek and stepped onto snow.

As the trail disappeared, we followed other hikers’ footsteps uphill for the next mile, the trees becoming more sparse. Eventually, we stepped off the snow and onto rocks at a cliff overlooking Roaring Lion Creek.

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While Jen and Gus waited there among blooming cushion plants, Josey and I continued up the edge of the cliff to the top of the mountain, 6.3 miles and 4,800 feet above for the start.

After taking in views up and down the valley, and west into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, we rejoined Jen and Gus. Back together, we descended to the trailhead quickly, getting in some glissading and running.

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Here are more photos from Ward Mountain.

Distance: About 12.6 miles round trip.

Trailhead: The Ward Mountain trailhead is 4 miles south of Hamilton on U.S. Highway 93 and 2.5 miles west on Roaring Lion Road. Park at the Sawtooth Creek trailhead on the north side of the road; the Ward Mountain trailhead is on the south side of the road.

Cooling off in snow-ringed Glen Lake

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In early June – on the first 90-degree day of the year – we decided to take the dogs on a short hike to cool off at Glen Lake, in the Bitterroot Mountains west of Victor.

The last time I hiked there was before a wildfire burned the area in 2006, and I remember it being fairly forested with few views out.

What a difference a decade makes.

Today, the forest is mostly bare, gray snags, but the views extend north and south along the Bitterroots, and across the valley east to the Sapphire Range.

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From the trailhead, we hiked gradually uphill to the northwest along the edge of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. A couple of quickly drying creeks provided water for the dogs.

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After about 1.3 miles, we reached a small snowfield at a saddle and crossed the wilderness boundary. From there, the trail dropped slightly to another saddle, turned west and started up a snowy ridge at about 2 miles.

From my previous hike, I remember trying to go through the trees slightly to get a view of St. Mary Peak across the drainage to the north, which proved difficult. Today, the lookout tower at the top the mountain is clearly visible.

After the trail reached its high point, we rounded a corner to the southwest and dropped slightly again to the lake at about 2.75 miles.

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Sitting in a rocky basin at about 7,500 feet, the lake was still mostly ringed by snow, providing a cold swim for the dogs – and for me after a short glissade down a slope.

After cooling off and eating a little, we backtracked out of the wilderness and returned to the hot valley below.

Here are more photos from Glen Lake.

Distance: About 5.5 miles round trip.

Trailhead: From U.S. Highway 93 between Stevensville and Victor, turn west on Bell Crossing and drive half a mile. At the Curlew Orchard Road/Meridian Road intersection, turn north and continue on Curlew Orchard for 1.3 miles. Turn northwest on Curlew Mine Road and drive about 1.7 miles. At the intersection with Forest Road 1321, turn south and continue about 8 switchbacking miles up the mountain to the trailhead.

‘Gem’ of a peak in the Sapphire Range

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Searching for a new place to hike with our dogs on Memorial Day, we were led up Palisade Mountain east of Corvallis by an online guide.

“A surprising gem in the Sapphires,” the description on the Montana Wilderness Association’s Hike Wild Montana website states.

Indeed.

I’ve always thought of the forested summits of the Sapphire Mountains as being less interesting than the granite canyons and peaks of the Bitterroots across the valley to the west. But the Willlow Creek and Palisade trails have changed my perspective.

From the undeveloped trailhead, we started east up a wide trail through the trees on the north side of the creek. After crossing a couple of tributaries, we arrived at a break in the woods at about 1 mile, with rocky outcroppings above offering a preview of what was to come.

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At about 2 miles, the trail began to climb steep switchbacks through dense forest. A few feet through the trees to the south, boulder fields looked back east to the Bitteroots.

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We reached snow on the last switchback, then crossed a creek at 2.5 miles and stepped out of the forest at the foot of rocky spires. Re-entering the trees, we continued up through the snow aided by a topographic map on my iPhone.

As we hiked higher, the forest grew thinner and wildflowers bloomed from melted patches in the snow.

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At about 4 miles, we reached a saddle where the Willow Creek Trail joined the Palisade Trail. There, we turned northwest and continued out the ridge on firm snowpack, following blaze marks on trees and the topo map on my phone.

We exited the woods where boulders rose from the snow, then climbed to the 8,451-foot peak of Palisade Mountain at about 4.75 miles. While our older dog Josey had no trouble, the blocky rocks brought a few whines from puppy Gus and he stopped just short of the top.

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After taking in the views west to the Bitterroots, north and south along the Sapphires, and east to the Flint Creek and Anaconda ranges, we made our way back down through the snow and along the creek.

We arrived back at the trailhead, our SUV still the only one parked there and having seen no other hikers all day.

Here are more photos from Palisade Mountain.

Distance: About 9.5 miles round trip.

Trailhead: From its intersection with the Eastside Highway in Corvallis, follow Willow Creek Road 10.5 miles east to the undeveloped trailhead. At about 2.3 miles, Willow Creek Road turns south where Coal Pit Road continues east.

On – and off – the Lolo Trail

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Memorial Day weekend started with a misadventure for me and a couple of friends.

After seeing a photo of another friend on the Lolo Trail – a section of the Nez Perce and Lewis and Clark national historic trails – we decided to try to run up to Lolo Pass and back as part of our training for the upcoming Beaverhead Endurance Runs 55K.

While our friend only ran a few miles of the trail, a U.S. Forest Service website and brochure, and a Missoula hiking guide all refer to it being 14 miles from Grave Creek southwest to the pass. Noting that the trail was described as “primitive” and “original historic tread,” and that it crossed a couple of forest roads near Lolo Hot Springs, I called the Lolo Pass Visitor Center for more information and was told it was well-marked.

If we started at Howard Creek, we thought, we could turn around at the pass after about 13 miles and make a 26-mile run out of it.

Long story short: The trail was miles longer than listed and appeared to lack markers in the middle, and  I should have asked when it was cleared last.

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From the parking area at Howard Creek, off U.S. Highway 12 about 18.5 miles west of Lolo, the trail climbed steeply up singletrack past a switchback then just below the ridgeline for about 3 miles. Wildflowers were in bloom and and views down to Lolo Creek and across the Bitterroot Mountains were abundant.

The farther west we ran, the fainter the trail became – but the route was easy to find for the most part, with numerous new-looking markers nailed to trees.

At 4 miles, the trail descended to the south, crossing a couple of old forest roads and switching back several times until we were at the highway. There, not even 6 miles in, we stood confused.

According to maps in the hiking guide, the trail was supposed to parallel the highway on its north side. Private property signs were posted there, however, so the best we could figure was the highway is the trail at that point.

After 1.75 miles southwest on the highway, we came to Spring Gulch, where, again according to maps in the guide, the trail turned west. Finding no trail, we ran up a nearby forest road that it crossed on the maps.

About a mile later, we found an old road where the trail was supposed to re-enter the forest. Comparing the map from the guide to a topographic map downloaded to my iPhone, it appeared to be the right way. About a quarter-mile south, however, the route disappeared in a tangle of downed trees.

Using the topo on my phone, we continued to the south until we reached Fish Creek Road, crossed a bridge and rejoined the trail. After about 1.7 miles along the ridge west of the Lolo Hot Springs, we crossed Fish Creek Road again, just off the highway, and followed the markers back uphill.

The return to the official trail was short-lived, however, as we could see numerous downed trees obscuring the way again.

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We made our way back downhill, crossed to the south side of the highway and followed it half a mile to the Lee Creek Campground, where we could run up the Wagon Mountain Trail and rejoin the Lolo Trail to Packer Meadows and the pass. Already about 11.5 miles in, though, it was clear we wouldn’t be returning.

From the campground, we followed the trail southwest up an old road for about 4 miles – over, under and around downed trees. The route was always apparent, and we saw markers again where the official Nez Perce and Lewis and Clark trails rejoined before the top of the mountain, but there were always more trees in the way.

At the high point on the trail, just below the 5,728-foot top of Wagon Mountain, we ran south down a singletrack trail through an area that previously had been logged and provided views west to the still-snowy peaks of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

After crossing the state line into Idaho, we navigated a short stretch of old road to Packer Meadows at 17.5 miles. There, we saw several varieties of wildflowers along Pack Creek, but were too early for the big bloom of blue camas.

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From the meadows, we ran the final mile of forest road west to the Lolo Pass Visitor Center.

After about 5 hours 40 minutes and 18.5 miles – and low on food and water – we stopped briefly in the visitor center before going out to the side of the highway to hitchhike back to our truck at Howard Creek.

The full, official Lolo Trail may exist, but I doubt we’ll try to follow it again.

Here are a couple of more photos from our run up the Lolo Trail.

Back on the run in Hells Canyon

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The Hells Canyon Adventure Run in March marked the start of my trail-running season this year and represented a return to form after a winter ankle injury.

The three-day weekend over the spring equinox was also the beginning of warm-weather recreation for us and our puppy Gus’ first camping trip.

With mostly sunny skies and wildflowers on the hillsides, we pitched our tent at Pittsburg Landing on the Idaho side of the Snake River on Friday, surrounded by several friends from Missoula.

In January, I had to stop running and see a physical therapist for several weeks after it became painful walking even a few blocks on my injured ankle. I started running again in February, going only 1.5 miles on a level, paved trail, but by the weekend before Hells Canyon was up 17 miles and back  in the hills.

The unofficial, self-supported Adventure Run along the Snake River National Recreation Trail has 15- and 25-mile options, so I was able to wait until that morning to decide on a distance.

When I woke before sunrise Saturday, I was feeling confident so boarded the boat for the longer ride upriver – and longer run back.

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After being dropped off below Granite Creek Rapids, several other Missoulians and I started running the rolling trail to the northeast, crossing creeks and passing historic homesteads in the first 15 miles.

As our group reached the bigger climbs of the day, we began to split into twos, threes and fours. At about 17.5 miles, Suicide Point offered the always-scenic view of the Snake winding upriver from 400 feet above the water.

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Up the steep switchbacks past the Kirkwood Historic Ranch at about mile 20, I met Jen, Josey and Gus as they descended to their turnaround spot and a stop for water. At the end of the day, Gus had about 11 miles on his paws – not bad for a 7-month-old.

After a high traverse across a steep hill and a couple of stretches on the edge of a cliff, we finished back at the trailhead with a total of about 25 miles and 4,300 feet of elevation gain.

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As has become tradition, the Missoulians staying a second night gathered for a potluck dinner and stories around a campfire before bed and the drive home Sunday.

Here are more photos from the Hells Canyon Adventure Run.