Hello, The “M” Trail in Missoula, Montana

After making stops in Billings, Bozeman, and Helena, my final stop in Montana before heading west into Idaho and Washington was Missoula. I only ended up booking two nights in Missoula because hotel prices were high and there wasn’t much availability for my special promotional discounted rate that I’m eligible for.

On the day I made the two-hour drive from Helena to Missoula, I made a stop at the “M” Trail on the eastern side of Missoula to get in a quick hike during the time I had before check-in for my next hotel was available.

The trailhead is in the University of Montana campus, but I was able to get free parking in a lot on Campus Drive near the police department because I hiked on a Sunday, and restricted parking is not enforced on weekends. The trail itself is a series of fourteen switchbacks leading straight up to the big, white “M.” Because of the steep incline being built on the side of a mountain, there were nice views of Missoula on the way up, which progressively got better the higher I went.

The actual “M” itself appeared to be made out of some sort of stone (or possibly concrete?) painted white. I’m suspecting it could be concrete because it appears to have been molded into that shape (rather than assembled from smaller pieces), because I noticed that there was some writing engraved into the “M” in some areas.

The “M” isn’t the summit of this mountain—the summit was still a way’s away at the peak of University Mountain—but I hadn’t eaten enough that day and wasn’t prepared for a longer hike, so I decided to stop at the “M.” This was still plenty high enough to get amazing views of all of Missoula, as well as East Missoula and the interstate I took alongside Clark Fork River to get to Missoula.

And of course, with my luck with weather, it looked like some pretty gnarly storm clouds were fast approaching, so I hurried my way back down as to not get rained on or randomly struck by lightning.

The total hike was only a mile and a half, but the grade was high enough that it would leave me winded after doing a few switchbacks. My GPS tracker shows that I hiked 1.64 miles (2.64 kilometers), but I believe only about 1.2 miles of that was part of the straight ascent up and descent down; the rest was relatively flat as I went around to the other side to get another angle of the view. The total elevation gain ended up being around 650 feet (198 meters).

I’m looking at some of my past hikes, and I think this might actually be the highest intensity of incline that I’ve climbed. This comes out to an average of about 107 feet climbed every tenth of a mile, while I believe my previous steepest hike was Ensign Peak, north of the Capitol Hill district in Salt Lake City, Utah, at 94 feet climbed every tenth of a mile.

 

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Hello, Mount Ascension in Helena, Montana

For my second major hike of Helena, Montana, I went to Mount Ascension on the south side of the Helena Micropolitan Area. I had difficulty finding a day to go hiking again because of how much it rained during my stay in Helena, and it was still forecasted to rain on the day that I went to Mount As­cen­sion, but I figured that I would end up not really being able to do anything if I keep rescheduling things trying to dodge rain, so I went anyway.

Mount Ascension is near Mount Helena, which I already hiked—it’s sort of “across the street,” on the opposite side of West Main Street and past Davis Gulch Road. Mount Ascension had way more smaller trails leading up to the summit than Mount Helena, and it seemed like it would be a very nice pick-your-own-adventure style of hiking area for the locals who would make repeated visits.

I started heading southbound towards the summit on Pay Dirt Trail, after which I believe I connected onto the edge of Little Moab Trail, then went a­long­side Pail Rider Trail. All the paths had some nice wildflowers nearby.

When I say that there are a lot of smaller trails leading up to the summit, I mean that quite literally—there was a fairly obvious, clear path forward most of the time, but there were very many forks and splits in the road, and I even saw one path that seemed like it would be an extremely strenuous straight-shot up to the top, but there were signs saying that the trail is closed, most likely because it wasn’t trafficked enough and the vegetation covered and ob­structed most of the path.

As I neared the top via 2006 Trail, I reached its intersection with Entertainment Trail and Mount Ascension Loop Trail.

This was just as nice as the other hikes I’ve done in Montana, and there were some convenient rocks at the top upon which I was able to have a seat, take in the sweep­ing views of Helena and South Hills, rehydrate, breathe in the fresh air, and enjoy the serenity of nature.

After beginning my descent from the summit on a small side trail directly to the north of Mount Ascension Loop Trail, I ran into another lookout spot with an amazing view that I would have probably mistaken for the summit had I ascended in the opposite, clockwise direction. This spot had nice views of the city, and it’s looking like the view extended as far as East Helena on the other side of the interstate highway.

My luck avoiding the impending storm was running out, and it started raining. I was hoping to have an opportunity to go more east and explore the Bom­part Hill area as well if my stamina allowed, but I figured it wasn’t exactly the safest thing to be around a bunch of trees on top of a mountain while it’s rain­ing, so I just took a quick route back down to the parking lot.

Overall, my hike was just shy of 3 miles (which translates to a little over 4.5 kilometers), and the total elevation gain was approximately 930 feet (283 me­ters).

 

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Hello, Mount Helena in Montana

After having such a great time hiking in Billings and Bozeman, I wanted to get in a few more Montana hikes in Helena. Of course, the first thing I had to do was climb to the top of the mountain named after the city—Mount Helena.

On the way up, I started on Prospect Shafts Trail. The path was easy to follow, and there were some nice views progressively throughout the whole hike. The recent snow meant that the higher mountains in the back were still snow-capped.

On the way up, I ran into some wildflowers…

… as well as a pair of deer scavenging for food.

Usually when I run into deer, they keep their distance and are quick to flee when I get near to try and capture a photograph, but the deer I met here seemed to not mind that I was creeping closer and closer to try and get a better picture. That’s good and makes me happy, not only because I got a decent photo, but also because it tells me that the other people around here respect the deer enough that the deer have learned that people are not a threat.

I got pretty out of breath as I got closer to the summit; I’ve done hikes with a greater total elevation gain, but the summit of Mount Helena is 5,433 feet (1,656 meters), so the oxygen gets a bit more sparse up here than at the taller hikes I’ve done on the flatter East Coast.

I connected from Prospect Shafts Trail onto Hogback Trail for the final stretch.

Eventually, I made it to the summit and was able to take in the vast, sweeping, panoramic views of Helena and the surrounding area.

There were two guys already there at the top. Shortly after my arrival, an old man also made it to the top; he let me know that this was the first time he had made it to the summit in five years, and that he’s been really working on getting healthy and fit again.

On the way down, I switched over to Powerline Trail. The distance was shorter, which meant that the grade was a lot steeper, so it took a bit of extra focus and control not to trip, fall, and slide down the mountainside.

In total, the path I took was just over two and a half miles (which translates over to a little over four kilometers), and had a total elevation gain of about 1,100 feet (336 meters).

Needless to say, if you ever visit Helena, I definitely recommend hiking its namesake mountain. It’s a great workout, it has unobstructed views of the city and Lake Helena to one side, and amazing views of the mountains on the other.

 

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Hello, Drinking Horse Mountain in Bozeman, Montana

After my stay in Billings, I made my way two hours westbound on Interstate 90 to my next stop in Bozeman. Unfortunately, it was raining during the eve­ning I arrived and snowing on the day after, but I managed to squeeze in a hike at Drinking Horse Mountain next to the Bozeman Fish Technology Cen­ter and Montana Outdoor Science School.

I parked over by Bridger Canyon Drive and started my hike on Nature Trail, later connecting onto Drinking Horse Hill Trail.

One of the things that I enjoy about Montana is the presence of no-leash hiking trails.

I’ve mentioned this before, but the culture of the places out here where it’s less populated is much more pleasant than it is in big cities, and I’ve noticed that the people here are far more kind, integrous, and respectful towards each other. Considering my past experiences living in cities, I feel like a no-leash concept absolutely would not work in or near a major city, not only because inconsiderate people would release their untrained dogs to wreak havoc, but also be­cause there are a lot more sensitive people who would feel violated by the presence of loose dogs.

In Montana, all the dogs I ran into were extremely well-behaved, even including hunting dogs that their owners had proactively leashed anyway due to the fact that they may have underlying aggressive instincts. There are few things more joyful than seeing random dogs happily roaming round, and as you approach, they skip and bound up to your side and wait for you to pet them. This seems like a fairly small thing, but with my love of animals, this made my hik­ing experience much better.

The path up to the summit was clear and easy to hike. It ended up being a mixture of light forest and open trail with some great views in all directions as you got higher.

I used to only include photos of flowers and other close-ups of vegetation in the “continue reading” section below-the-fold of my blog posts, but I got some feedback that including photos like this adds to visual diversity, so I decided to include a few above-the-fold this time (or rather, there is no below-the-fold this time, as this ended up being a fairly straightforward hike and I don’t have an excess of photographs).

Long story short, I think Montana is one of the most underrated states in America. With multiple layers of mountains, tons of trees, and some of the freshest air I’ve ever breathed, making it to the summit and just sitting down and looking around was one of the most calming, soothing feelings.

Prior to doing this hike, I thought I was hiking up to the Col­lege M, before realizing that I was on the opposite side of the road. For some reason, the Col­lege M hike wasn’t on All Trails when I had checked, and I didn’t want to take a risk and do an impromptu second hike after Drinking Horse Moun­tain in case the elevation gain was unmanageably high and the distance was too long—I hadn’t eaten yet that day, and I had to make it back to my hotel with only an hour or so to spare to attend a conference call.

The Drinking Horse Mountain hike ended up being a little bit over 2 miles, with a total elevation gain of about 650 feet. I’ve done hikes a lot higher than that, but not at an elevation comparable to Montana’s, so the hike definitely got me breathing hard.

 

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Hello, Zimmerman Trail and Riverfront Park in Billings, Montana

After making a stop at Gillette, Wyoming, I was planning on making another stop at Sheridan, Wyoming before entering southern Montana, but because of a forecasted blizzard, I had to make some unexpected changes in my travel schedule. I ended up skipping Sheridan and going straight to Billings, Mon­tana, making it there early enough to dodge the snowstorm in northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana.

The weather wasn’t exactly the best in Billings when I was there, but there were still enough clear days for me to fit in two hikes. The first I did was Zimmerman Trail, starting at Zimmerman Park in northern Billings and stretching across along the Rims. This trail had some nice views of Billings fac­ing south, as well some snow-covered mountaintops in the far distance.

I met a friendly ladybug at the far west side of Zimmerman Park where the path turned into the private property of the homes on Arapaho Lookout.

On my way back, I saw a car wreck on the lower trail, closer to some of the homes on the northern tip of West 37th Street, which reminded me of the car wreck I saw at the Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park in California, and made me curious again about the story behind how the driver lost con­trol of the vehicle, and whether they survived.

Overall, the hike was a little bit over 3 miles and only had an overall elevation change of about a few hundred feet.

The following day, I went to Riverfront Park and took a leisurely walk around Lake Josephine and alongside the Yellowstone River.

This adventure was also a little bit over 3 miles and had nearly no elevation change. The far eastern side of the path I took, near the intersection of Wash­ington Street and South Frontage Road, ended up going through a bit of denser forest, but the rest of the trail was very beginner-friendly, with a lot of it even being paved with asphalt.

With two days spent indoors hiding from the rain, resting up, and playing some newly-released video game content; two days spent outdoors hiking; and the rest of the time in between filled in with work; that wrapped up my relatively short four-and-a-half day stay in Billings. Next up: Bozeman, Montana.

 

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Hello, Badlands National Park in South Dakota

Approximately 60 miles (or around 100 kilometers) east of Rapid City, South Dakota is Badlands National Park, a rugged and sprawling area under the National Park Service. Continuing on my journey to get as much value as possible out of my America the Beautiful Annual Pass and visiting as many national parks as reasonable during my road trip, I decided to stop by Badlands.

I mentioned this in a previous blog post, but my stay in Rapid City hasn’t particularly been optimal due to the weather—it has been unmanageably windy (up to the point where a box containing a large pizza—which isn’t exactly the lightest thing ever—literally nearly took flight out of my hand, and would have if I didn’t notice and clamp down on it with my chin), and I also got snowed in for a few of the days… not to mention the overall extremely cold temperatures.

Because of this, I was unsure how many more opportunities I would have to get out and explore, so I decided to assume that I wouldn’t be able to return to Badlands, and planned to be able to see as much as I could in one day.

Like usual, I took a ton of photos. I tried to take pictures of informative signs along the way, but it’s very difficult to remember exactly where each pho­to­graph was taken because my Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II doesn’t have built-in GPS, and I take a ton of stops.

With that being said, I took stops in this order, and the photos below are posted in chronological order: Hay Butte Overlook → Pinnacles Overlook → Ancient Hunters Overlook → Yellow Mounds Overlook → Conata Basin Overlook → Homestead Overlook → Burns Basin Overlook → Prairie Wind Overlook → Panorama Point → Bigfoot Pass Overlook → White River Valley Overlook → Fossil Exhibit Trail.

From there, I arrived at the Saddle Pass Trailhead. Because I had a plan to see as much as possible in a single day, I didn’t really do that many hikes—I would only take quick walks no longer than half a mile at each overlook and viewpoint—but I definitely wanted to hike Saddle Pass Trail because of how allegedly technical and challenging it was. With that in mind, I started climbing and realized that, yes, it was indeed extremely technical and challenging.

Then I arrived at a huge mountain. I had already scrambled up and scaled a bunch of rocks, and even crawled under some small openings in the rocks to get to where I was, and realized there was absolutely no way that it could get even more difficult—up to the point where you’re basically rock climbing now—and still be listed as a “trail.” My realization was correct—when I backtracked and looked around a bit, I discovered that I completely missed the real trail and went the very wrong direction. The real trail was much, much easier, and although it was relatively steep, it was completely manageable.

There was a very nice view from the top.

After Saddle Pass, I made a quick pass through Cliff Shelf Nature Trail, then arrived at my second “main” hike, Notch Trail. Although these trails that I’ve been hiking have been relatively short, I had completed a lot of them by that point, so the fatigue was very slowly building up. Still, Notch Trail was the one I was looking most forward to, as it was one of the top-rated trails on AllTrails for Badlands National Park.

If you look closely at the photograph below, you’ll see a wooden ladder in the middle leading up to the top of the hill. That was the most challenging part of the climb, and this trail is definitely not for people who are afraid of heights or have ankle or knee problems, especially considering that the lad­der was a little wobbly at some areas, but if you’re comfortable with your maneuverability and climb confidently, it’s definitely doable. There was a bit of traffic backed up there as people tried to get up and down, but everyone I saw eventually made it.

I feel like Notch Trail would’ve been fairly leisurely for the remainder of the hike, but the high winds during the day I visited made it a bit more tricky. There are some areas along the middle of the trail that has some pretty steep bluffs, so I had to be careful not to be blown off balance and risk falling. I eventually made it to the summit, which had some amazing views.

For some reason, I don’t really have too many great photos from the top that I find satisfying (either that, or there isn’t really much in the pictures to provide visual scale to see just how high up it was taken), but I think a big “wow” aspect of the hike here is the contrast between the climb and the sum­mit. Throughout the hike, you’re generally surrounded by a lot of rock and have fairly limited forward visibility due to the path winding between rock formations. However, once you reach the top, you suddenly have an explosively wide, vast view of Badlands National Park facing south.

After Notch Trail, I also walked the Window Trail, named as such because the end of the trail has a rock formation that looks like a window. … This photograph below clearly is not that window, but it was on my SD card chronologically during the time that I would’ve been at Window Trail, and it was unique scenery relative to the rest of Badlands, so I decided to share it.

My final hike of the day was Door Trail. From the parking lot, it leads down to an area where you can read about the Badlands’ badness via some in­for­ma­tional signs, and then take some stairs to walk out directly into the badlands. The trail takes you about half a mile out, and is named “door” be­cause it is supposed to be a door to the real badlands—the trailless backcountry badlands of over 300 square miles (or approximately 800 square kil­o­me­ters) surrounded by the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway, Interstate 90, South Dakota Highway 44, and South Dakota Highway 73.

For my final stop before reconnecting onto Interstate 90 and heading back to Rapid City, I took a stop at the Big Badlands Overlook, the location where a lot of the most signature photos of Badlands National Park are taken.

Badlands was very different than the other recent national parks I’ve visited—Grand Canyon, Zion, Canyonlands, Arches, and Wind Cave. Although Bad­lands might not have been as impressive or breathtaking as some of the bigger national parks, Badlands still had its own special charm to it—the charm of something being so rugged, yet still having its own unique kind of beauty.

I don’t have a map with GPS tracking because my walks and hikes were split up across many smaller trails, but according to my fitness tracker, my total distance was right around 9 miles. That ended up being very similar to my hike at the Grand Canyon this past December, but it was a lot less tiring be­cause this was nine miles split up over several hours with many driving breaks in between.

If you choose to make your own trip to Badlands National Park, I think a two-day trip is the minimum you’ll need to see everything there is to see, and still do enough activities to make it feel like you’ve experienced the true Badlands experience. I only took stops along South Dakota Highway 240, but there are many other paths you can take to see other areas of Badlands.

 

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