Missoula Day Hikes: Rattlesnake National Recreation Area


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.


Rattlesnake Hikes

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 Drive. Turn left – crossing over Rattlesnake Creek – 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.

Views from high in the Rattlesnake Wilderness. Photo by Brian D'Ambrosio.

Views from high in the Rattlesnake Wilderness. Photo by Brian D’Ambrosio.


Curry Gulch Trail, Curry Cabin

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 zippy cyclists.


Sawmill Gulch Loop

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 wends up a ridge to a 4,915-foot overlook. The views from the ridge, looking north into the Rattlesnake Wilderness, are impressive.


Stuart Peak

Some of the alpine lakes along the Stuart Peak route. Photo by Brian D'Ambrosio.

Some of the alpine lakes along the Stuart Peak route. Photo by Brian D’Ambrosio.

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.


Brian D’Ambrosio is the author of Montana Summer: 101 Great Adventures in Big Sky Country. It’s available now for $2.00 as an eBook on Smashwords.

Before you lace up those hiking boots, check out more posts about walks and hikes in and around Missoula or Hiking Glacial Lake Missoula’s High Water Mark, The Story of Missoula’s M, or visit the Make it Missoula hiking page.


Missoula writer Brian D'Ambrosio, his dog, and a beautiful view.

Brian D’Ambrosio is a Missoula writer, editor, instructor, and media consultant. D’Ambrosio’s recent articles have been published in local, regional, and national publications, including High Country News, USA Today, Wisconsin Trails, Bark Magazine, Montana Magazine, and Backpacker Magazine. His latest book about legendary vigilante screen actor Charles Bronson, Menacing Face Worth Millions, A Life of Charles Bronson, is available for purchase on Kindle.