The 61,000-acre Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, part of the Lolo National Forest, is positioned at the northern city limits of Missoula. The beautiful topography features ridges, valleys, peaks, basin lakes, and a diverse array of orchids.
There are eight separate trailheads providing access to a labyrinth of linked trails. The Main Rattlesnake Trail runs adjacent to Rattlesnake Creek up the main corridor of the glacially imprinted drainage basin. From I-90 in Missoula, take the Van Buren Street exit and head 4.1 miles north to Sawmill Gulch Road on the left. Van Buren Street becomes Rattlesnake Creek. Turn left, crossing over Rattlesnake Creek, and proceed 0.2 miles to the main trail parking lot on the right. This lot is generally pretty well packed, but don’t be discouraged as most folks use only the first mile or so of the main trailhead. From there on, use is always light to moderate.
The Curry Cabin is a multi-room log cabin constructed in the late 1800s by a man called Jacob Curry. At the secluded cabin site are two additional log structures: an earth-covered root cellar and a former storage shed. Fading and rotting in peace, the remnants of these buildings may inspire respectful ruminations. The trail to the cabin follows the Main Rattlesnake corridor, and then heads up through Spring Gulch and Curry Gulch. Spring Gulch is an enormously popular descent for mountain bikers, so be alert, listen and watch for speedy cyclists.
Many of the Sawmill Gulch Loop trails were first created by prospectors, miners, settlers, ranchers and livestock in the 1800s. The trail follows a wide open meadow which passes the detritus – cement, nails, and rusty tins – of some original ranch buildings. Sawmill Gulch and Curry Gulch wend up a ridge to a 4,915-foot overlook. The views from the ridge, looking north into the Rattlesnake Wilderness, are impressive.
The Stuart Peak Trail heads up Spring Gulch parallel to Spring Creek. The Spring Creek Loop follows along well-trodden cow paths and a farm lane, spiraling around both sides of the creek. Spring Creek drains into Rattlesnake Creek, a municipal watershed for Missoula. The Stuart Peak Trail takes hikers into alpine lake country and ends with vistas of surrounding mountain ranges from the top of Stuart Peak.
Stuart Peak is 18 miles round trip and is quite strenuous at places. Its uphill gradient is around 4,000 vertical feet, not the ideal hike for first-timers, casual strollers, or those not in reasonably good hiking condition.