Rattlesnake Wilderness circumnavigation

Last fall I’d taken off for a day-long ramble through the Rattlesnake, starting from my house by the university and finishing at the main Rattlesnake TH. Even though I got turned around by deeper snow than expected, I had a pretty stellar day and covered 50 miles without seeing another person all day. It kind of lit a fire in me about how special it is that we in Missoula have this backyard wilderness in the Rattlesnake and how relatively easy it is to access these wild spaces right from city limits. 

With a more favorable weekend forecast this year I decided to try a more complete circumnavigation of the Snake over a two-day fastpack.

I left my house at 6am Saturday and walked to the Jumbo trailhead, shivering lightly by the time I got there. Be bold, start cold? My buddy Alex LeVan met me at the trailhead; he was planning on joining until we hit the trail again after Mineral peak and then he would run back out the main corridor. We caught sunrise from the top of Jumbo and made quick work up to Sheep on good trails. We did hit some crusty shin-deep snow a couple miles from the summit of Sheep, but it wasn’t deep enough to slow us down too much. 

The trails dropping off the north side of Sheep into the East Fork of Rattlesnake creek were alternatively dry, snowy, and wet/marshy — decidedly springlike for late October. We mostly managed to keep feet dry. We made a quick stop at the east fork creek to refill water, then pushed up to Mineral. We stopped for a half hour or so on top, eating some food and checking out the lookout. 

Mineral LO, looking back down main corridor towards Missoula
McLeod peak & much of the northern Rattlesnake wilderness, from Mineral peak

Dropping off the off-trail north side of Mineral was a little interesting with the crusty snow over boulderfields, but there was significantly less snow than last year and we could make decent time. Plus, this year I picked a much better line off the peak and ended up right at the west edge of the unnamed pond. Try to stay on the NW ridge of Mineral as you descend the peak. You can spot the small pond a couple times even as you get into treeline and that’s a good reference point. A trail follows along the north shore of the pond. Last year I drifted much too fast east and ended up in some marshes where I’d unexpectedly break through into icy ankle-deep water. Good to learn from past mistakes. 

 We refilled water at the pond, and met a hunter walking through; only the second person we’d seen. Alex and split up here and he dropped down to the main corridor to run back home, while I went east to hook up with the trail leading up to Boulder Point.

The Boulder Lake trail had recently been cleared, and I made quick work of the five miles to the lake. Nearly all of this section (and many others) are quite runnable, but I walked almost everything this weekend. I think I was a little mentally worked over still from racing and adventures earlier in the summer, and I felt very little desire to push myself harder. Walking seemed to fit my mood and the goal for the weekend.

End of day one

It was dark by the time I got to the base of Boulder Point, so I camped just off the trail about 500 feet below the actual point so I could see it in daylight the next morning. I tucked in early — think I was in my sleeping bag by 9pm — and slept well…and long. Woke up at 6:30am, but didn’t really start to motivate until 7. 

Morning from Boulder Point

While the night had been fairly warm, the walk from Boulder Point towards Triangle peak was the coldest of the weekend. Lots of north-facing crusty shin-deep snow made for slow going, but the brisk wind encouraged me to just get through it. 

I didn’t look at the map closely enough and ended out topping out on a point I thought was Triangle but was actually still a quarter-mile south of the actual peak. Dropping off that point to Rattlesnake creek requires some earnest deadfall schwackery. I imagine dropping off Triangle proper would be the same. Don’t expect that section to go particularly fast.

I climbed up the SE basin to the saddle just south of McLeod, dropped my pack and did a quick out-and-back to the summit. That country in the basin is super cool — all bedrock fins and hidden little ponds and creeks. 

Looking south from McLeod
One of the two class 3 unnamed peaks south of McLeod

After summiting, I got back to my pack at the saddle just after noon and feeling excited for the most interesting section of the traverse. I’d crossed the ridgeline from McLeod to Stuart two years before with Forrest Boughner, and I was excited to get back out on it. 

There are some fun class 3 scrambly sections on the two peaks just south of McLeod. Just difficult enough to keep things interesting, but not difficult enough to make things too slow or dangerous. 

Sanders Lake

The rest of the ridge over to Mosquito peak passed in a bit of a pleasant blur. There were some sections of knee-deep snow drifted on north facing hillsides, but overall the snow was manageable. It was a beautiful bluebird day, and I was enjoying moving at a good clip but not pushing myself in any way that I really had to think about it. I could turn my mind to other things and just enjoy spending a day on the move. I thought a lot about how special it is to live in a fairly big city like Missoula and have such access to wild space. Just a lot of the afternoon feeling grateful, I guess. 

After summiting Mosquito and Stuart (actually summiting Stuart twice, as I forgot my poles on top…like an idiot) I dropped down the Stuart trail for an hour before the sunset started to kick in. I felt better than expected through the miles down to the trailhead and jogged almost all of it. From the trailhead I took a series of trails alongside the creek so as to stay off the roads, ultimately coming out at the Duncan Drive trailhead. 

From there I detoured up to the top of Waterworks Hill as a fitting capstone to the weekend of exploring some of the public lands near Missoula. Alex met me on top with a heavenly slice of pizza, and we jogged together back to my house, finishing at 9:30pm or so Sunday night. 

Overall I’m happy with this experience and route. It was exactly what I needed in this moment, this weekend. I also think with a bit of modification it could become a cool testpiece of sorts for Missoula runners / mountain adventurers. It’s probably possible to string it all together in a single day with a light pack. This would be roughly equivalent to a 100k race effort as far as distance and elevation gain goes, though obviously there are substantial sections of off-trail and you’d be unsupported. 

The true dream circumnavigation I’d like to do someday is starting at the Jumbo trailhead and climbing Jumbo, Sheep, Mineral, Boulder Point, Triangle, McLeod, then back south along the ridge but taking the junction to tag Murphy and Point Six. Then probably backtracking along the ridge to get over to Mosquito and Stuart, and finishing either at the main Rattlesnake TH or back where you started at the Jumbo TH. This would be a big day… I’d guess somewhere around 75 miles and 25,000 feet of ascent. 

Stats / gear

My weekend turned out to be 66 miles and 18,000 feet of ascent. I spent 26 hours on the move over the two days. I used an Ultimate Direction Fastpack 25, and it weighed 15 pounds — which is just about the max I can run with, and even then it’s not particularly fun to run for long stretches. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s