STEVENSVILLE — St. Mary or St. Mary’s?
That’s a good question to ponder after you strap on your boots to begin the nearly four-mile march up the summit of one of the most accessible peaks in the Bitterroot Mountains.
The trail begins at a sizable trailhead that’s often filled with cars in the summer months and for a time winds through a pine forest that provides ample shade on a hot summer day.
About a mile up the trail watch for the nice little stopping place at a fenced spring, with its few comfortable places to sit while preparing for the nearly three miles of uphill that’s to come.
A mile later and you’ll officially enter the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness as the forest begins to falter and sweeping views of the mountains and valley below start to appear.
The last push to the mountain top takes hikers over a few steep switchbacks above timberline that offer glimpses of the bright white historic lookout tower standing tall on the 9,351-foot summit.
The lookout tower is actually the second to grace the mountain. The first took flight following a particularly high blast of wind in 1952. Some folks claimed that it actually hovered for an instant or two before it crashed into the ground.
On a clear day, visitors are offered stunning views of the Bitterroot and Beaverhead mountains to the south, the low but rugged Clearwater Mountains to the west, the Mission, Swan, Rattlesnake and Lewis and Clark ranges to the north, the Sapphires and John Day mountains to the east, and the Flint Creek and Anaconda ranges to the southeast.
In summer months, visitors wondering which range is which can carefully climb the lookout tower’s steps for a visit with the volunteers hosted by Selway-Bitterroot Foundation.
As far as the name of this popular hiking spot goes, even the Bitterroot National Forest’s website has it both ways.
The U.S. Geological Survey and the forest’s official map agree that its name is the singular noun – Saint Mary.
Or is it St. Mary?
Location: Travel 3.5 miles south of the Stevensville junction on U.S. Highway 93, and turn west onto Indian Prairie Loop. Continue west 1.8 miles to St. Mary’s Road, turn right and continue 1 mile to the McCalla Ridge Road and St. Mary’s Peak Road 739 junction. Travel on that road about 14 miles to the road’s end at the trailhead.
Distance/duration: 3.8 miles from trailhead to summit at 9,351 feet in elevation, with 2,500 feet of gain.
Difficulty: An easy first mile gives way to 3 miles of moderately difficult uphill travel. Bring plenty of water and something to cut the sharp, cold wind.