Welcome to the Trail Well Traveled!
Each Friday, in partnership with Montana Wilderness Association we will feature a new western Montana trail and then give you some helpful details and tips to get on your way!
This week, take advantage of the summer finale with a strenuous climb in the Sapphire Range east of Corvallis with serious views at the top.
Roundtrip: 9 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,973 feet
Directions: From Missoula, head south on Highway 93 to Corvallis. There, at the blinking yellow light, turn east (left) on Willow Creek Road. After 2.2 miles turn right to stay on the road – but be careful because this turn is easy to miss!
Continue following the paved Willow Creek Road as it winds through farms and home sites for another 3.3 miles, where it turns to dirt. After 4.2 miles on dirt you’ll stay straight at the fork – and not right – and then, just under a half-mile later, you’ll come to a hairpin switchback. Here, turn right (somewhat straight) and drive the final .2 miles to the small trailhead.
What to expect: The trail begins by following an old road bed for the first half-mile, which is wide and flat but growing in with vegetation. After that, the trail is narrower and sometimes steep. It passes through a forest of Douglas fir and crosses two Munson Creek tributaries in the first mile. The trail largely follows Willow Creek, though there are few stream access points. Just after one of the better stream access points, the trail crosses into an open wetland with views of the Palisades – rocky cliffs above the lush wetland.
After ducking into the forest once again and crossing the creek once more, the trail climbs more steeply up long switchbacks. At points the trail touches open scree fields, which provide excellent resting points with views of the Bitterroot Mountains. At the top of the switchbacks, the trail crosses a stream again, and then begins a deceptively long, gradual ascent to the pass. Along the way, the trail passes through grassy wildflower-filled meadows and ghosts of old whitebark pine trees. At 4 miles – and having climbed 2,500 feet – the trail arrives at a pass.
At the pass, turn left (north) onto Palisade Trail #44. This trail can be tricky to find in the meadow. If you lose it, walk to the top of the rocky outcropping, where you’ll see more clearly that the trail continues into the woods just to the right (east) of this rocky outcrop. The trail follows the top of the ridge another half-mile to an obvious rocky scree pile, which is the summit. Stay on the trail around the bottom of the scree slope until you reach the shoulder. From here, there’s a trail to the right that leads to the top of the summit.
From the summit, vast 360-degree views take in the Mission Mountains, Swan Range, Quigg Peak Roadless Area, Flint creeks, Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, the Sapphires Wilderness Study Area, and all of the Bitterroots from Trapper Peak to Lolo Peak. Alpine larch and beargrass just below the summit add to the scenic vista. Debris and rock construction from an old lookout are still visible at the top.
Throughout the trail, a wide variety of spring wildflowers adds color to the hike. In the lower sections of the trail, spring wildflowers include lupine, bleeding heart, and arnica. Up higher, paintbrush, shooting stars, phlox, larkspur, and forget-me-nots create a symphony of color.
Learn more about this trail, file your own trip report and photos, or check out some other great hikes at hikewildmontana.org. And don’t forget to tune in to the Trail 103.3 each Friday at 9:45 am for the next featured trail and your chance to win!
Big thanks to Rangitsch Bros RV for sponsoring the Trail Well Traveled. Proudly serving Missoula for over 56 years, whatever camper best suits your needs Rangitsch Bros has got it!