A “BYO” kind of ride (Build Your Own), Pattee Canyon’s Northside Trails offer a smooth, nearly level network of rides ranging from one-mile to three-mile loops or out-and-backs, with barely more than a 100-foot elevation gain.
To get to the starting point of this network, follow Pattee Canyon Road up from S. Higgins about four miles to the Pattee Canyon Picnic Area on the left side of the road. The Picnic Area offers 22 family picnic sites free of charge and group picnic sites (10+ people) for a $25 fee (reserved through the Missoula Ranger District – 329-3814).
One of the more popular short rides in this area is the Meadow Loop Trail, a 2.2 mile ride skirting the southern edge of a meadow then meandering north through a pine forest. This trail is marked as Trail 19.2, and it starts/ends in the Picnic Area. Look for Trail 19.2 leading out of the Picnic Area and at its split, take a left and follow the signs until you end up back at this intersection and the Picnic Area. You can ride in either direction for variety.
The Sam Braxton National Recreation Trail is a long-time favorite of Missoula mountain bikers. It is named after a well-known Missoulian, Sam Braxton, who loved to ski and bike (even owning the Braxton Bike Shop in town and being an expert framebuilder and wheelbuilder). Braxton passed away in 1988 after losing a year-long battle with cancer. This trail was named in his honor.
A 3.4-mile loop, this trail only has a 350-foot elevation gain, but with its twists and turns you will greatly improve your mountain biking skills with a few laps around the loop. To get to the trailhead, travel four miles up Pattee Canyon Road (via the S. Higgins/Pattee Canyon intersection) and look for the parking area near the top of the Canyon on the right side of the road. Beyond the gate, bear to the right and follow a short roadway to the Sam Braxton trailhead (Trail 9.0). You’ll find it among old-growth western larch and ponderosa pines (Montana’s state tree).
Take your first ride slowly, as there are a lot of intersections that may confuse you. The trail is signed, but it is possible to wind up on some old horse-logging skid trails if you’re not paying attention. Ride as many loops as you can, and try to best your time in each attempt.
Short, sweet and steep, the Crazy Canyon Trail climbs 1,258 feet in 2.9 miles. It offers a stunning view of Missoula and the surrounding mountains. This trail is actually a gated Forest Service road closed to traffic (unless you have a permit from the Missoula Ranger District). Hang gliders do travel this road with their gear to launch from Mount Sentinel’s 5,158-foot summit.
To get to the trailhead, travel 3.1 miles up Pattee Canyon Road to the Crazy Canyon trailhead/parking area on the left side of the roadway. Parking is limited to 12 cars and two horse trailers, and it can fill up during peaks times and on weekends (so biking up to the trailhead might be a good idea).
Once on the trail, you’ll climb steadily for the first 2.6 miles and pass along the edge of the 1985 Hellgate Canyon Fire. The last .3 miles of trail is a super steep climb to the peak of Mount Sentinel. It is so steep, you may have to ditch the bike and walk to the summit. Some hikers will then hike down the west face of Sentinel (past the “M”), but mountain bikes are prohibited on this trail. When you are ready, return the way you came.
Though not a technical trail, being able to ride up and down this steep incline is great training for building your mountain biking stamina and will reward you with being able to ride longer and harder on other Missoula trails.