Learn Local Hikers' Secrets in Montana's Lolo National Forest
Find the best wildflowers, dayhike, and more that this corner of Montana has to offer.
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In the stretch of mountains spanning northwest Montana up to the Idaho border, trout swim legendary rivers like the Blackfoot and the Clark Fork; wolverines, grizzly bears, and moose amble through the evergreen forests; and locals complain it’s too crowded if there’s one other car at the trailhead. In short, it’s paradise—especially in early summer, when wildflowers bloom and before August’s wildfire season rolls around.
If you live in northwest Montana and enjoy the outdoors, you either know Alden Wright or wish you did. The lifelong Missoulian holds (or has held) leadership positions in the Rocky Mountaineers hiking club, the Missoula Nordic Ski Club, and the Thursday Night Ride mountain biking group, amassing decades’ worth of knowledge about local trails. For most of the past 30 years, Wright has celebrated his birthday by leading an ascent up 10,157-foot Trapper Peak—this last April with 75 candles on his cake.
The proposed Great Burn wilderness area, a 275,000-acre zone straddling the Montana-Idaho border, draws its name from the catastrophic 1910 wildfires that torched 3 million acres in less than three days. Lucky side effect: The burn kept out logging and development for a century, preserving this now-recovered expanse of subalpine terrain, lush valleys, craggy cliffs, and glittering lakes. Wright’s favorite daysize sampler is the 7.2-mile out-and-back up to Heart and Pearl Lakes, a one-two punch of 6,000-foot tarns tucked in rocky cirques.
The best way to cover 45 miles in a weekend? Two-wheeled assist. Mountain bikes are allowed on the first 14 miles of the Main Rattlesnake Corridor (Trail 515) in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area. Pedal up the wide gravel path along Rattlesnake Creek to the Rattlesnake Wilderness boundary (a manageable 1,250 feet of elevation gain), then stash your bike and start climbing into the lake-dotted high country on foot. Follow Trail 534 along Lake Creek and switchback up to the trio of Carter, Roosevelt, and McKinley Lakes—all excellent spots to pitch a tent and cast for westslope cutthroat trout. Next day, swing south on Trail 517 to climb 8,057-foot Mosquito Peak for views of the wilderness’s rocky ridgelines and snow-speckled summits before descending to Wright’s favorite camp spot, Sanders Lake. The triangular tarn sits beneath a sharp ridge with infinity-pool views. (Find an established site near the shore.) To close the three-day circuit, follow a trail along Wrangle Creek back to your bike.
April through June, find a display of golden arrowleaf balsamroot, fuschia bitterroots, purple phlox and pasqueflowers, and magenta shooting stars on the hills around Missoula. But while you can hardly hike a trail within 10 miles of town without tripping over those blooms, finding Wright’s favorite flower—the rare, pale-pink steer’s head—takes a little more sleuthing. Best bet: Hit the Rattlesnake Wilderness’s Stuart Peak Trail “about two weeks after the snow melts on the peak,” Wright says (typically late May, depending on snowpack). Scan the meadow about 4.5 miles up for the curly-headed blooms that really do resemble horned cows (pictured below). Bag 7,960-foot Stuart by continuing another 4.5 miles.
There are no sure things in wildlife watching. But if you’re the betting type, chances are good on Petty Mountain in the Grave Creek Range, where a 150-strong herd of bighorn sheep frequents the 7,270- foot peak’s precipitous slopes. Scan for the bighorns across a narrow canyon just .5 mile in on the Petty Pasture Trail. Keep going and look for them again as you climb above treeline en route to the summit (13 miles round-trip). Bonus: You might also spy moose near Petty Creek or elk higher up on the arid slopes.
Wright favors the dark beers at Lolo Peak Brewing Company, a microbrewery in the small town of Lolo with a sunny timber deck outside and Norman Maclean quotes embedded in the bar inside. For something lighter, try the seasonal Cherry Kriek Lambic. And if your hike ends late, you’re in luck: Unlike many other Montana breweries, Lolo Peak has a license to serve past 8 p.m.
SEASON April through October; June is best for flora PERMIT None