Two storied rivers converge at Milltown State Park, and all the world can come to see them meeting.
Getting there might be a puzzler.
The opening of the park’s Confluence Area last June brought to three the number of entrances to the park, all a mile or more apart. Each has its own name, paved parking spaces, benches and a vault toilet. Each is reached by paved backroads that aren’t so easy to describe to the uninitiated, although brown state park signs point the way to all of them.
“If you think of it, there are more than 625 acres of the park along two rivers, spread over 2½ miles of the Clark Fork and a mile and a half of the Blackfoot, and there are different units to the park,” said Mike Kustudia, park manager.
One Milltown State Park sign across Highway 200 from the Bonner Town Pump Travel Plaza displays arrows pointing in opposite directions. To the right is the nearby Gateway Area by the county’s black pedestrian bridge over the Blackfoot. To the left is the Confluence Area access road a mile back toward Missoula on the old highway.
Milltown is the newest of seven state parks in Missoula County and the closest one to Missoula. As summer approaches and activity picks up, it’ll be good to have in mind what it is you want to see and do before you go there.
Plan, for instance, to go to the Overlook Area to help with spring planting on May 4, or to go on a wildflower walk on May 8, or to take a bird walk on May 11.
Kustudia said one of the last in a series of summer events at the Confluence Area will be the Aug. 25 revival of Community at the Confluence. The first such natural history and music festival, put on by the Friends of Two Rivers, was in 2005 when the Milltown Dam was still in place. The most recent one was in 2016, at the Overlook Area and below.
Overlook Area, 1353 Deer Creek Road: Construction began on the first unit of the park in the summer of 2011. Adding to the directional confusion is the fact that in the last 10 years, what was Highway 10 East through East Missoula is now Highway 200 East. To get there from Missoula, go through East Missoula on 200. At the bottom of Brickyard Hill is Sha-Ron Fishing Access and the right-hand turn to Canyon River Golf. Take that on Speedway Avenue and a left on Deer Creek Road a couple hundred yards later. Cross Deer Creek Bridge and pass the golf course. Nearly 2 ½ miles later you’ve climbed the hill to the Overlook Area parking lot.
“It’s just a great view of the two rivers coming together. That alone is worth coming out for,” Kustudia said. “Especially in early summer when everything is green, it’s just spectacular.”
A paved trail on a gentle slope leads to the overlook itself, where interpretive signs describe the Salish presence on the landscape, the building of the dam by Sen. William A. Clark and the effects of the 1908 flood on it, as well as the Superfund process that removed Milltown Dam in 2008 and restored the rivers. Trails down a fairly steep path to the river bottom are the most extensive walking paths in all of Milltown State Park, if that’s what you’re looking for.
“People go down there to take runs, walk dogs, fish, birdwatching, all of that,” Kustudia said.
The trail drops almost to the mouth of Tunnel 16½, which the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad added to its new line after the Flood of 1908. The longest trail follows the old railroad grade upriver, veers into a grove of pine trees and ends at what used to be Bonner Junction, where a spur line of the Big Blackfoot Railway Co. led across the Milltown Reservoir on the wooden Duck Bridge.
Confluence Area, 7363 Juniper Drive: Again take Highway 200 through East Missoula, this time past the Canyon River/Overlook Area turnoff on Speedway. After a couple of miles turn right on Tamarack Lane, the road that once led to Milltown Dam. Tamarack turns to pass under the interstate, and somewhere in there it's renamed Juniper Drive. Look for the sign at the entrance to the gated park, which in April is opened daily at 9 a.m. and closed at 5 p.m. The hours are extended next month.
This is the place at the park to go to get on the river. There’s no boat ramp, but a rough trail leads to the Blackfoot just above the confluence and below the eastbound I-90 bridge. Tubers, rafters, canoeists and kayakers use that.
“There are probably about 80 parking spaces there, built with floaters in mind,” Kustudia said.
Here too is a close-up and contemplative view of the confluence, with interpretive signs, benches and a pavilion.
“Come June it’s a gorgeous spot to go out there for a picnic or just walk the trails,” said Kustudia, whose staff has expanded this year to a groundskeeper, ranger and Americorps volunteer.
Gateway Area: It’s on Anaconda Street that crosses the county pedestrian bridge (the Black Bridge to locals) and into Milltown, but it apparently doesn’t have an address. From Missoula take either I-90 to the Bonner Exit and the stoplight in front of Town Pump, or continue on Highway 200 through East Missoula to West Riverside.
Kustudia said he’s inclined this year to draw attention to the Overlook and Confluence areas.
“Gateway’s kind of a work in progress,” he said.
When completed, it’s where you can go to walk along the Blackfoot. The upstream trail isn’t built yet. The downstream path passes under five bridges and connects with the Confluence Area a half-mile below. But that’s closed at I-90 this year for the final year of Bonner Bridges reconstruction to remove midstream piers in order to make for safer river navigation on the Blackfoot.
The three-headed state park will be growing even more in coming years.
Kustudia said a fourth entrance off Deer Creek Road west of and below the Overlook Area will be the trailhead to a crushed gravel path across from the Western Montana Fish and Game Association shooting range. A trail will be established this summer from the Overlook down to the bottom. The state park hopes to have the tunnel itself fortified and opened to the public in 2020.
Negotiations are underway for the state park to acquire the old Bonner Development Group park upstream and east of the Confluence Area. Kustudia said the transfer could be made this spring or summer. The 33.5-acre property, which includes a wood and concrete pavilion, a loop trail and memorial benches, has been closed to the public since dam removal began more than 10 years ago. A parking lot, also long closed, is marked by an orange Milwaukee Road locomotive and accompanying interpretive sign.