The “M” presides over Missoula from high on Mount Sentinel as the city’s most visible and well-known symbol. M is for the University of Montana, but also for Missoula and our surrounding mountains and the muscle power it takes to climb the hill.
And, of course, M is for the magnificent view of the Missoula Valley afforded by hiking that three-quarters of a mile up the M Trail’s 13 switchbacks from the trailhead just off Campus Drive. It’s a 620-foot elevation gain from trailhead to destination. Did you know that more than a thousand people make the trek on all but the gnarliest winter days?
The trail and the “M” date back to 1908, when UM students built Missoula’s first hillside letter out of whitewashed rocks. The more durable concrete “M” was built in 1968. It is 125 feet long and 100 feet high, stretching up Mount Sentinel’s 45-degree pitch.
The “M” has seen many a celebration over the years: homecoming lightings for returning alumni, Earth Day proclamations by the late professor Clancy Gordon, flashlight hikes, stadium-watching soirees and M-themed birthday parties, and thousands of photo shoots by locals and wish-we-were-locals.
It is also tended by legions of volunteers and university staff members who value the M Trail and Mount Sentinel for their native prairie environs. Come spring and summer, you’ll find blooms of lupine, paintbrush, arrowleaf balsamroot, shooting stars, blue penstemon and prairie smoke. Vesper sparrows nest in the bunchgrass. A fox makes her den near the trailhead, and the songs of Western meadowlarks ring strong. M, the songbirds say, is for our home.