Mount Sentinel: The Landmark of Missoula, Montana


I don’t feel like I’ve truly “settled down” somewhere until I get a good geographical feel for that location.  The best way for me to do that is to climb the most prominent local mountains, and for Missoula Mount Sentinel perfectly fits that bill.  It is best known as the peak on the east side of Missoula with the prominent “M” on its slopes, symbolizing the University of Montana.

I climbed Mount Sentinel on the first Wednesday after I arrived in Missoula, via the “M” Trail.  The trailhead can be found on the east side of the U of M’s football stadium, where there are a few spots available for free visitor’s parking up to one hour (on summer weekdays it’s best to go after 5pm, when the rest of the spaces become open to the general public).  A good path immediately begins switchbacking up towards the “M,” which lies approximately 600 vertical feet above.  I did this ascent in about 20 minutes, but most may take longer!

As I slowly climbed higher, the marvelous scene of the city below grew more expansive.  First the U of M, then the downtown, then the Clark Fork, then the whole city of Missoula stretched out towards the distant rolling hills and mountains.  The panorama was already incredible by the time I reached the “M” and took a quick break.  The “M” itself wasn’t too impressive up close – just white-painted concrete – but the view was a magnificent enough reward.

View of Missoula, Montana from Mount Sentinel.Photo by Dan Saxton

Missoula from the top of Mount Sentinel.

Of course, for a “peakbagger” like me, the “M” was not enough – I needed to summit the actual peak of Mount Sentinel.  So I continued up, switchbacking past an interesting old mine shaft, then taking a more direct trail to the summit.  It’s a lot further to the top of Sentinel from the “M” than one may think; the “M” is only about 1/3 of the way up and the total elevation gain to the peak is 2,000 feet in approximately 2 1/4 miles!  For those who are reasonably fit, however, this is a great workout.

The view from the top of Mount Sentinel (5,157 ft. high) takes in a much larger amount of real estate.  I was particularly struck by how many of the residential streets of Missoula were perfectly lined up with the peak.  Over the mountain’s north side in Hellgate Canyon, the parallel ribbons of I-90 and the Clark Fork meandered merrily along on their long journeys to the sea.  Snow still clung to the higher heights of the Bitterroots and the Rattlesnake Wilderness.  This was a perfectly comprehensive view of the Garden City and its environs!

View from atop Mount Sentinel, Missoula, Montana. Photo by Dan Saxton.

Important landmarks like Mount Sentinel can be useful in laying out city streets!

I returned down a lesser-used trail that dropped into the ravine between Mount Sentinel and the unnamed bump to its south.  The top half went through a beautiful shady coniferous forest full of delightful scents and sights.  This path is not as well-used, so please make sure to bring a map if you try it out!  I would recommend the comprehensive map of Missoula and the Rattlesnake by Cairn Cartographics, a local company.

Walking path on Mount Sentinel, Missoula, MT. Photo by Dan Saxton

Tranquil and idyllic walking along the ‘path less traveled!’

The trip (via the “M” trail and down the other path) took approximately 2 1/2 hours; I am a good hiker so the average person should probably plan for 3 hours.  I’d encourage anyone who wants to fully perceive the size, beauty, and uniqueness of Missoula to make the climb up to Mount Sentinel – preferably on a nice balmy day with a little cool breeze.  It’s an excellent place to lounge on the grass and enjoy the splendor of Big Sky Country!


bio photo1Dan Saxton is a newcomer to Missoula.  He originally hails from New York, and spent the last four years in California attending graduate school in San Diego.  Dan was first introduced to Montana (and the West) at the tender age of six, and has considered it one of his favorite places ever since.  Although Dan is hearing-impaired and uses a cochlear implant, he refuses to view his disability as an insurmountable barrier.  Now he seeks to make a living in Missoula, spending plenty of time hiking and climbing along the way and sharing his experiences with many others!