The Rattlesnake Wilderness embodies the idea – and the reality — of compromise.
Start with the fact that it’s the only federally designated wilderness area where you can ride a city bus to the trailhead. Missoula’s northern boundary abuts the 22,000-acre Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, which buffers the actual 32,000-acre wilderness 2 miles farther in.
Then there’s the “cherry stem,” a 14-mile road grade that allows wheeled (and mostly non-motorized) traffic deep into the wilderness core. Bikes aren’t allowed off the corridor. But trucks servicing the reservoirs that store water for Missoula occasionally rumble up the road.
And still farther north, the Flathead Indian Reservation has a primitive area restricted to tribal members. But in between, there’s plenty to do and see in the Rattlesnake Wilderness.
Except rattlesnakes. The origin of the name remains in dispute, with some storytellers saying dens of snakes used to be prevalent in the valley. Others recall a tombstone near the creek memorializing someone nicknamed for or killed by a rattler. In any case, the “Rattlesnake” Creek name was on maps in 1853, before the name “Missoula” showed up.
Elk, mountain goats, cougars, occasional grizzly bears and bighorn sheep do live there. You can also find traces of old homesteads along the creek meadows. Several lovely waterfalls decorate Rattlesnake Creek at various points along the corridor. About 25 lakes (depending on your definition of ponds/lakes) hide in the cirques above the creek bottom, but they require lots of stamina to reach.
There are no designated camping areas in the wilderness, although it’s not too hard to find the more popular spots. Poe Meadows, just across the national recreation area border, is a favorite for first-time overnight campers thanks to its easy accessibility. Bicyclists often shoot for Franklin Bridge, 8 miles up the cherry stem. The route gets significantly steeper after the bridge, topping out at 6,920 feet in elevation near the border of the Flathead Reservation, about 19 miles in.
Location: Several trailheads at the north end of the Missoula city limits.
Distance/Duration: The main “cherry-stem” trail follows Rattlesnake Creek for 14.5 miles. Dozens of other mechanized and non-mechanized trails lace the mountainsides for 73 miles. Use ranges from daily joggers to weeklong backpack experiences.
Difficulty: The lower 2 miles of the cherry stem are suitable for baby strollers. The challenge increases by choice of route.
“A River Runs Through It” author Norman Maclean allegedly hiked the Rattlesnake from Missoula to Seeley Lake as an overnight homecoming, and his fans are developing a memorial trail commemorating the feat.