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Must-See Montana Recreation Areas

Montana in and of itself is a natural playground catering to year-round recreationists. Lakes, rivers, forests, and mountains combine to create one of America’s finest outdoor settings, and Montana takes advantage of these outdoor jewels in several designated recreation areas. From swimming to fishing to picnicing, the following must-see recreation areas provide something fun for everyone!

Pattee Canyon Recreation Area
The large picnic area and system of roads and trails make Pattee Canyon one of the most popular recreation areas close to Missoula.

The picnic area includes tables, fire rings, toilets (some handicapped accessible), parking and group Picnic facilities, but no running water,
electricity or shelters. Three group picnic sites, with their extra large tables, extra grills, and parking lots, can accommodate from 40 to 200 people.

Arrangements for using the group sites are made through the Missoula Ranger District office at 329-3814. Volunteer hosts are on duty in the picnic area during the summer. The Pattee Canyon Recreation Area is day use only.

Trails & Roads
The extensive year-round system of trails and roads is open to non motorized use. A person can get all the way from the picnic area to the Clark Fork river on these trails and roads. During winter some of the trails, like the Southside Ski Trail, are groomed and maintained for crosscountry skiing. The groomed trails north of the road were developed in the 1980s by the Missoula Nordic Ski Club and the Forest Service. Not all ski trails are groomed. The 3 1/2-mile long Sam Braxton National Recreation trail is an ungroomed loop featuring big, old trees and pretty views. In the 1970s, Sam Braxton and the University of Montana Ski Team developed a network of cross-country ski trails near the Larch Camp Road. These trails are no longer used.

Natural History
Besides being so close to town, the reason Pattee Canyon is so popular is because of its big, old trees. Most are ponderosa pine, or “yellow pine,” the Montana state tree. Photographs and surveys from the late 1800s show open, sunny meadows with a few big trees, large ponderosa pines spaced from 25 to 50 feet apart, with little but grass growing under them. A survey conducted between 1870 and 1900 recorded trees up to 5 feet in diameter! Research has shown that since at least the mid-1500s, low-intensity ground fires have burned this area about once every seven years. These ground fires killed brush and young trees, but the thick bark of the yellow pines protected them from serious harm. The ground fires have produced a “fire-dependent old-growth” condition here.

When people started fighting fires at the turn of the century, the ecology of this area changed. It’s been invaded by brush and Douglas-fir. The brush and young trees are a fire danger to the old trees, because they serve as fire ladders, leading ground fire into the tops of the mature trees, where it can kill them.

In 1977, the 1,200-acre Pattee Canyon fire killed many of the old trees in its path. This human caused fire burned intensely hot, largely because of all the brush and small tree fuels feeding it. You can see the result from Missoula, a large burned-over area at the southeast edge of town.

Human History

  • “Es Nin Paks.” The Nez Perce and Salish Indians used Pattee Canyon on their way to the plains for buffalo hunting. The Native Americans called it “es nin paks,” the crooked trail. They used it as a detour to avoid ambush by Blackfeet warriors in the narrow Hellgate Canyon of the Clark Fork River, where Interstate 90 now leads into Missoula.
  • David Pattee. The Canyon takes its present name from David Pattee, who in 1871 filed a homestead claim on some land near the mouth of the canyon. In 1856, he came to the Bitterroot Valley from New Hampshire, to rebuild saw- and gristmills owned by Major John Owen. (The Fort Owen State Monument at Stevensville is named after him.) Pattee was active in several local businesses, but sold out and moved to Tacoma in 1878.
  • Army timber reserve. In 1877, the US Army started building Fort Missoula. Since some of the largest trees in the area grew at the top of Pattee Canyon, it set aside a timber reserve of some 1,600 acres here. The old timber reserve is the basis of this recreation area. The Army pushed logging roads up every drainage and draw. The main road, now used as a trail, turned north up Crazy Canyon. In the 1920s, the Army built a rifle range in the meadow at the pass. The long loop of the Meadow Loop Trail goes around the old rifle range, where earthen backstops and concrete foundations still can be seen. The range was closed in 1945.

Opportunities & Facilities

  • Picnics
  • Toilets (some handicapped accessible)
  • Hiking
  • Horseback Riding
  • Jogging and running
  • Bicycling
  • Cross-country skiing
  • Group picnics by permit only - call 329-3814
  • Picnic area gate open from 9 am until sundown daily from Memorial Day until Labor Day
  • Campfires allowed in facilities provided
  • All trail open to a variety of uses yearlong, but no motorized vehicles allowed off roads
  • Day use only, no overnight camping
  • Shooting firearms and fireworks prohibited
  • No running water or electricity available. Leave No Trace.

Blue Mountain Recreation Area
There are three major access points off this road:

  • The trailhead for the National Recreation Trail, about 1/2 mile north on Blue Mountain Road.
  • Forest Road #365, turns left off Blue Mountain Road about 1.4 miles from Highway 93 South.
  • Maclay Flat turnoff, on the right about 1.5 miles from Highway 93 South.

The Recreation Area
Located just two miles west of Missoula, Blue Mountain Recreation Area is a great place to explore. Once a U.S. Army Military Reservation, the 5,500 acres of valley bottom and mountain top became part of the Lolo National Forest in 1952. In 1975, a number of civic groups joined the Forest Service in a major clean-up project. Abandoned vehicles and garbage were removed, a system of trails was built, and regulations were established to protect people from indiscriminate shooting. In 1986, Blue Mountain was formally designated a Recreation Area.

Maclay Flat Trails
At the base of Blue Mountain, two connecting loop trails at Maclay Flat offer an easy stroll through open grasslands and ponderosa pine. Parallel to the Bitterroot River, these trails (1-1/4 and 1-3/4 miles long) feature interpretive signs, benches, and wide wheelchair friendly paths. Maclay Flat also has picnic tables and wheel chair accessible toilets. Be considerate of
other users and wildlife in the area. If you bring a dog, bring and use a leash.

Mountain Trails

  • Blue Mountain National Recreation Trail — 8 miles long. This trail is for hiking and horses. Vehicles and mountain bikes are prohibited!
  • Blue Mountain Nature Trail — 1/4-mile-long loop trail. Wheelchair accessible up to the viewpoint. Information about the numbered posts along the trail is contained in a separate brochure, available at the trailhead or the Missoula Ranger District office.

Scenic Drive/Fire Lookout
A rare sight awaits those who travel to the top of Blue Mountain: a working Forest Service lookout. Open from spring through fall—depending on snow conditions—and suitable for passenger cars and trucks, the mountain’s gravelled road offers an easy climb and some great views of the Missoula valley and distant peaks.

During fire season, Blue Mountain visitors can climb the 50-foot lookout for a personal tour. Safety regulations, however, limit visitors to three at a time. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Remember, the lookout staff is on duty—the job of watching out for fires must come first! Please don’t disturb this important work. To reach the lookout, take Road #365 almost to the top, then continue on Road #2137 to the peak. Note: Road #2137 is open mainly in July and August.

Camping and Campfires
Camping and campfires are allowed beginning 4.5 miles up the mountain, west of Road #365.

Reprinted from U.S. Forest Service brochure

James Kipp Recreation Area
US Hwy. 191 near Robinson Bridge. 538-746

This is a key access point for the Upper Missouri National Wild & Scenic River. For centuries, Native Americans were attracted to this area to gather plants and hunt game. The Ancient camps and bison kill sites here are evidence of human dependence along the river corridor. Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery passed here on May 24, 1805, during the second year of their adventure. They camped just 2-1/2 miles down river. The members of the expedition averaged about 13 miles a day by sailing, poling, and mostly pulling their boats upriver against the formidable currents. In July, 1806, Captain Lewis and his party returned down the Missouri through this area.

Few names stand out in Missouri River history better than James Kipp. Born in Montreal in 1788, he was a fort builder, fur trader, and steamboat captain. In 1831, he established Fort Piegan near Loma, 128 river miles upstream from this spot. It was the first American Fur Company trading post established on the Missouri west of Fort Union. He made the return trip the following spring with more than 4,000 beaver pelts and other furs in tow. After 41 years in the fur trade business, he retired in 1859.

Today, this stretch of the Upper Missouri is a national treasure under the careful stewardship of government agencies and private landowners. 149 miles upriver to Fort Benton is designated as a National Wild and Scenic River. Downriver to Fort Peck, the land surrounding the river forms the heart of the C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.

The Pines Recreation Area
MT Hwy. 24 N., Fort Peck

The outstanding features of this recreation area are the tall ponderosa pine trees. This unique campground on the Fork Peck Lake offers a wilderness experience with the conveniences of a shelter building, fire grill, potable water, toilets, boat ramp, and access to untamed beaches.

Kobayashi Beach on Ennis Lake
McAllister. 683-2337

Ennis Lake is relatively shallow and acts like a giant solar collector. The waters in the lake can heat up to 85º (the temperature of a very warm swimming pool) in the summertime making it a great place to swim. Kobayashi Beach is a favorite locals hangout. Its sandy beach is managed by the BLM for Montana Power Company. It’s easy to find and makes a great place to take a break from traveling. At the tiny town of McAllister just north of Ennis, take the road heading east out of town for a little over 3 miles. After you pass through a housing area, you will see the signed beach.

Partially reprinted from The Ultimate Montana Atlas & Travel Encyclopedia

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