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 (406) 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 cross-country 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.
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.
“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.
Toilets (some handicapped accessible)
Jogging and running
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.