By Sara Schroeder
There’s no shortage of great places to snowshoe around Missoula, Montana. Within an hour’s drive are the Bitterroot, Mission, Sapphire, and Swan Mountain Ranges. If you venture a few hours away, you can snowshoe at Yellowstone or Glacier National Park. It’s also easy to reach the Wilderness areas we’re lucky enough to have close by – Rattlesnake, Welcome Creek, Selway-Bitterroot, and the proposed Great Burn Wilderness area. This is why it may surprise you that the place I’m writing about today is not located in any of the above-mentioned areas.
My go-to spot for a morning or afternoon of snowshoeing lies just a few miles outside of Missoula, adjacent to an old, inoperative ski hill called Marshall Mountain. I actually discovered the spot on a summer day while out for a drive, looking for a new place to walk my dog, Jodi. On a whim, I got on the state highway that leads east out of Missoula and found a dirt road I had never been down before. A few miles on that road took me to a vacant ski lodge next to a rusting chair lift. I parked in the empty parking lot, and Jodi and I set out on an old dirt road that quickly turned into a trail which wound up a forested hill with conveniently located clearings providing views of the mountains to the south of town. We didn’t see a single other person that day. I catalogued this as a place to return to in winter.
I’ve returned to this same trail many winter days. Unlike my first visit, winter finds the parking lot fairly busy with skiers and snowboarders who spend their days skinning up the hill and making runs down. Despite the ski and snowboard traffic, the trail I found that first day remains a place for me to find solitude. On my numerous visits, I’ve rarely run into another human, minus those I’ve invited to join me. It would be much more likely to run into wildlife than humans here, and, in fact, I’ve found the tracks of hares, moose, and even mountain lions while out on fresh snow.
The trail starts to the north of the Marshall Mountain parking lot and quickly gains elevation as the trail curves continuously northwest through a coniferous forest. Two mountain streams intersect and parallel parts of the trail. Although this trail is just a few miles outside of Missoula, it’s often sunny even when Missoula has a cloud cover. This trail has so much to offer, and all within a 10-minute drive from my house. I’ve taken a number of friends to snowshoe at this spot, and each of them has been surprised and grateful to find such a quiet, lovely spot so close to town.
The snowshoe trail at Marshall Mountain has a lot more going for it than just its close proximity to town. With the elevation gain, it’s an excellent workout – especially given that you’ll most likely be breaking trail through deep fresh snow. The forest there is lovely, with tall pines and firs full of bird song. It’s an easy escape after a day at work. And although snowshoeing in Yellowstone, for instance, may sound more spectacular, you’ll most certainly find more solitude at Marshall Mountain. Everyone should be so lucky to have such a place practically in their backyard.