The M Trail: A Journey Through Missoula
The M Trail, an essential part of the Missoula landscape, is an iconic symbol that connects the city’s past with its present. Lying on the face of Mount Sentinel, the M has been a beacon for locals and visitors alike since the early 1900s. This article aims to offer an in-depth exploration of this beloved site, its history, and the unique experience it offers to its visitors.
The Journey Begins: Trailhead
The journey to the M begins on the University of Montana campus, a place buzzing with educational pursuits and youthful energy. Here, a marked trailhead invites hikers to embark on an ascent that promises breathtaking views and a healthy dose of Missoula’s history.
The Trail’s Path
The M Trail is a grueling yet rewarding 3/4 mile hike. The strenuous climb includes 11 switchbacks, each one taking you higher above the Missoula Valley. The trail’s zigzag path is a testament to the tenacity of the Forestry Club members who originally forged it.
The History of the M
The M has undergone a series of transformations since its inception. Initially, the M was a simple construction of stone, a result of the hard work of university students. However, over the years, the M has evolved, first into a wooden structure and then into its current, more resilient concrete form.
“In 1968, the concrete ‘M’ we see today replaced the previous structure.”
A Local Favorite
A hike to the M is a beloved Missoula tradition. With every step on the trail, the view of the University of Montana unfolds, gradually expanding to reveal the entire city, the valley, the Clark Fork River, and the distant mountains. The trail’s popularity extends beyond casual hikers. Many local athletes and fitness enthusiasts include the M Trail in their regular training regimen due to its challenging terrain.
Beyond the M
While many hikers choose to make the M their final destination, the more adventurous can continue the climb. Another mile up one of two routes will take you to the top of Mount Sentinel. Here, the view is even more exquisite, offering a panoramic view of the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, the Bitterroot Mountains, and more.
The M Trail isn’t just a physical challenge; it’s also a gateway to Missoula’s stunning natural beauty. The path cuts through native prairies adorned with vibrant wildflowers like arrowleaf balsamroot, lupine, and shooting stars. Wildlife enthusiasts may spot vesper sparrows, foxes, and other migratory songbirds making their home around the trail.
The M Trail’s popularity has led to a constant battle against erosion. With over a thousand people making the trip most days, trail management has become vital to preserving its integrity. Hikers are encouraged to stay on well-established routes to prevent further degradation.
From the M, hikers can connect to other trails on adjacent Forest Service land, including the Crazy Canyon Trail and the Hellgate Canyon Trail. These trails offer additional hiking opportunities, including loop routes that tie in with the city’s park trail system.
Supporting the M Trail
For those who cherish the M Trail, there are ways to contribute to its upkeep. The Friends of the M Trail, a group dedicated to preserving this Missoula icon, accepts donations. These contributions are tax-deductible and go directly towards maintaining and improving the trail.
The M Trail is more than just a hiking route; it’s a symbol of Missoula’s spirit. The journey to the M offers a glimpse into the city’s history, its natural beauty, and its dedication to outdoor recreation. Whether you’re a local or a visitor, a hike up the M Trail is a Missoula experience not to be missed.