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Blue Mountain Recreation Area

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The 5,500-acre Blue Mountain Recreation Area, just two miles southwest of Missoula, is another close-to-town area to explore. The Lolo National Forest worked closely with Missoula-area recreation groups to establish this area’s trail system and other recreational facilities.

Blue Mountain is one of the few peaks around Missoula that can be reached by road, and you’ll find breathtaking views and a forest-fire lookout at road’s end. The area also features off-road trails for hikers, equestrians, bicyclists, people in wheelchairs and ATV enthusiasts.

To accommodate this diversity of uses, recreationists helped develop trail “classes” that specify which type of use is permitted on each trail. Because of the variety of trail users at Blue Mountain, it’s especially important to follow the rules of trail courtesy.

Dogs area allowed in the area, but pet owners must pack out their waste.

Maclay Flat Interpretive Trail

Miles: 1.25 mile and 1.8 mile loops

Elevation gain: None

Dogs: Leash required; pack out waste

For an easygoing outing beyond the city limits, try the trail at Maclay Flat. The path is wide, level and surfaced to accommodate wheelchairs. It takes you along the Bitterroot River and through adjacent meadows, with some great views of mountains around Missoula.

You can learn a lot along the way: 16 interpretive signs describe the river system, wildlife, vegetation and archaeology of this area.

A cut-off trail gives you the option to go 1.25 or 1.8 miles. Traveling in a clockwise direction, you pass huge cottonwood and ponderosa pine trees. Be observant and you may see evidence of porcupine and beaver. Also look for wood duck nesting boxes attached to trees and for bluebird boxes on fence posts.

About a third of a mile down the trail, you’ll come to a flat grassy area along the river – a good picnicking spot (it even has a picnic table). There are also some fishing spots along this stretch of the river.

You have an excellent chance of seeing bald eagles, osprey, blue herons, mallards, red-tailed hawks and white-tailed deer at Maclay Flat. At the southern edge of the meadow, along the irrigation ditch, listen for the songs of meadowlarks and look for red-winged blackbirds. Depending on the time of year, you can see a variety of wildflowers and other plants.

The parking area and trailhead are a short distance west of the road up Blue Mountain. To get there, go about two miles south of Reserve Street on Highway 93, turn right at the Montana Athletic Club and follow Blue Mountain Road (County Road No. 30) for about 1.5 miles. You’ll see the parking area on the right.

You can also approach from the north on Blue Mountain Road. From this direction, the trailhead is about two miles south of Maclay Bridge.

You’ll find wheelchair-accessible restrooms at the parking area. There’s also a carry-in board ramp 200 yards from the parking area. The ramp is wheelchair-accessible. Note that horses and bicycles aren’t allowed on this trail, and you must keep dogs on a leash.

A number of community groups have cooperated with the Lolo National Forest over the years to develop this addition to Missoula’s trail system.


Blue Mountain Nature Trail

Miles: 1/4 mile loop

Elevation gain: 50 feet (from 3,650 feet to 3,700 feet)

Dogs: No restrictions

This popular trail is a stopping-off point on your way up Forest Road No. 365 to the Blue Mountain lookout. One of the few Missoula-area trails with interpretive information on-site, it’s also a popular destination for individuals, families, school classes and other groups interested in environmental education.

The path is on a fairly level grade, making it quite accessible to young children and people not interested in or able to take more strenuous hikes.

Numbered wooden posts along the trail mark points of interest, and a pocket-sized brochure furnishes corresponding interpretive information. You can learn about prescribed fire, Glacial Lake Missoula, forest “recycling,” Montana’s state tree, and about lichen, kinnickinnick, ninebark, serviceberry and many other plants.

Midway down the trail, you’ll come upon a rock outcrop where there’s a vista of distant mountains, the Missoula Valley and the Bitterroot River winding toward its confluence with the Clark Fork. There is wheelchair access from the trailhead to this viewing area. Be sure to stop at the sign showing a photographic panorama of this view – it identifies all the peaks in your range of sight.

The trail starts about two miles up Forest Road No. 365. Vandals continue to remove Forest Service signs that direct you to the trailhead, so look for it to the right (east) side of the road just before a switchback. You’ll see a trailhead sign a few feet down the path. There isn’t a parking lot here, but three to four cars can be parked along the road.

You can generally get one of the Nature Trail interpretive brochures at the trailhead sign – but because the supply is sometimes depleted, it’s a good idea to pick one up from an area Visitor Center. The Lolo National Forest Visitor Center is at Fort Missoula, just a short distance from Highway 93 and Reserve Street on your way out of town.


Blue Mountain National Recreation Trail

Miles: 7

Elevation gain: 3,260 feet (from 3,200 feet to 6,460 feet)

Dogs: No restrictions

There’s opportunity for both day and overnight trips on this trail from the base of Blue Mountain to the lookout. You can start from the trailhead on Blue Mountain Road or go up Forest Road No. 365 to points where the road intersects or passes near the trail. Remember, this trail is closed to mountain bike use.

Signs are scarce, but the route has been marked with “blazes” on trees. Be sure to look for these blazes – numerous old logging roads and skid trails crisscross Blue Mountain, and this can be a difficult trail to follow. You won’t find water along the way, so take enough to last your entire trip.

Don’t let these words of caution discourage you from trying this trail. It passes through some fine country with occasional views of the Missoula Valley and Bitterroot River. In fact, it’s a favorite of local equestrians. Backcountry Horsemen of Missoula sponsors an annual trail ride and clearing to help with maintenance. This group also helped develop the trail.

Hikers often take a one-way trip up or down the trail by arranging a shuttle.

You can camp and build a campfire west of Forest Road No. 365 above milepost 4.5 on Road No. 365.

The trailhead (also called the “horse-loading facility”) is on Blue Mountain Road, just one mile north of its intersection with U.S. Highway 93.


Motor vehicle trails

Miles: 12

Elevation gain: 2,460 feet (from 4,000 feet to 6,460 feet)

Dogs: No restrictions

Blue Mountain is one of the few places near Missoula that has off-road motorcycle and four-wheeled ATV trails. The motorcycle/ATV trailhead is three miles up Forest Road No. 365 on the left (south) side of the road.

An extensive network of trails originates at this trailhead, providing access to the southern portion of the recreation area. Like other Blue Mountain trails, those in this network are classified to accommodate different trail uses. ATV-ers can use four miles of trail here. Motorcyclists can use the ATV trails as well as another eight miles of trails. (See map on Pages 34-35.)

Bicyclists, equestrians and hikers can use all of the trails in this network, but many prefer other Blue Mountain routes where motorized vehicles are not allowed. One such trail begins at the motorcycle-ATV trailhead and continues east for about two miles to the National Recreation Trail trailhead at the base of Blue Mountain.

Several of the motor-vehicle trails pass over or near Hayes Creek, where you’ll find stands of western red cedar. Hayes Point is a popular destination in this part of the recreation area, and it can be accessed by both motorcycle and ATV.

Deadman Ridge Trail to Blue Mountain lookout is another favorite, but because of its difficulty, it should be used only by expert motorcyclists. ATVs are not permitted on this trail.

If you’re planning to try these trails, pick up a Blue Mountain Recreation Area brochure from a Forest Service or Chamber of Commerce visitor center. The brochure provides more detailed information on what uses are permitted on different trails in this network.

There’s ample parking and a loading ramp at the trailhead. Remember that if your vehicle isn’t licensed for street use, you must transport it to the trailhead with a licensed vehicle. During fire season, off-road motor vehicles must be equipped with spark arresters and riders must have a bucket and shovel. Helmets suffice for buckets and many people carry small folding shovels.


Forest Roads No. 365 and No. 2137 (to Blue Mountain Lookout)

Miles: 11

Elevation gain: 3,260 feet (from 3,200 feet to 6,460 feet)

Dogs: No restrictions

A drive on Forest Road No. 365 up Blue Mountain will give you some tremendous views of the Missoula Valley and, at the right time of the year, an opportunity to visit a working Forest Service lookout.

The road heads west off Blue Mountain Road (County Road 30) about 1.25 miles from the intersection with Highway 93 South. On the way up the mountain, notice the different vegetative zones. At first, you pass through open, parklike ponderosa pine stands, then Douglas fir-ponderosa pine, and, finally, Douglas fir-western larch.

Trailheads for Blue Mountain’s motorcycle-ATV trail network and a short self-guided natural trail are situated along this road. You can access the area’s National Recreation Trail from several points along the roadway.

At about the 9.5-mile mark, look for a road that branches off to the left. This is Forest Road No. 2137, which takes you to the lookout. The lookout is in service through the fire season (usually July and August). At other times, the gate is locked.

You can climb steps all the way to the top of the lookout during fire season – and if the lookout is on duty and has time, he or she will often give you a tour.

The scenery from this vantage point is breathtaking. You’ll have a memorable view of Lolo Peak, a landmark on the Missoula horizon, and the impressive pinnacles of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness to the south and west. On a clear day, you can see the Mission Mountains to the northwest.

If you take a tour, please remember that the lookout is on the job. Don’t overstay your welcome and be considerate if a fire emergency demands the lookout’s attention.

A gate a quarter-mile below the lookout is closed during the offseason, restricting motor-vehicle access to the lookout. However, you can still walk or bike up to the lookout.

In winter, the first mile of Forest Road No. 365 is normally open to provide access to skiers, snowshoers and snowmobilers, but no motor-vehicle traffic (except snowmobiling) is permitted beyond a locked gate at this point. A hill just below the gate is a favorite sledding and tubing spot for Missoulians of all ages.

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