Hiking Sawmill Gulch


The Rattlesnake National Recreation Area on the north side of Missoula is a wonderful opportunity to see majestic forest country within a half-hour’s drive from town.  It has delightful grassy open meadows, peaceful pine forests, and even some history from a hundred years ago.  Sawmill Gulch is located just west of the main section of the Rattlesnake and has a diverse array of trails frequented by mountain bikers, runners, and hikers.

After two attempts to get to Sawmill Gulch (one thwarted by thunderstorms and the other by a sign telling my friend that his dog was not allowed there), I finally got to see its tranquil beauty.  The trailhead is located at the beginning of a gorgeous meadow that stretches for at least half a mile; even in the latter part of July after a very hot period of weather, it was still lavishly green.

There are several paths in Sawmill Gulch, and you are free to take your pick; all of them have nice grades and allow ample opportunities to exercise your legs.  These paths are excellent for mountain biking, being smooth and narrow, and I saw several people enjoying this hobby.

Sawmill Gulch Hike

The beautiful meadows at the start of the Sawmill Gulch hike.

I’d recommend doing a loop hike; there are many different possibilities for doing that (Make sure to get a good map of the area first, like the one by Cairn Cartographics). You can start at the trailhead, go northwest through the meadow, and climb the forested hillside to the top of the ridge, where you are treated to some beautiful views of the Bitterroots to the south.

After ambling along on the crest, you’ll come to a junction with a trail heading down to Curry Gulch, a little valley with some fascinating history.  The “Curry Cabin” lies at the head of the gulch and is the location of a prospecting endeavor from about a hundred years ago.  There lie the ruins of the cabin, along with a couple other outbuildings, including a well-preserved shed.


The Old Shed structure at the Curry Cabin Site

The old shed structure at the Curry Cabin site.

It’s hard to believe that a century ago more people lived up in the Rattlesnake area than now!  It must have been a very intriguing type of life living up in the mountains, in a land where Native Americans had just recently roamed freely and dangerous wild animals potentially lurked around every corner.

I have a lot of respect for the pioneers, because they had to adapt to totally unfamiliar surroundings and wrestle to make a living in previously untamed country.  The Curry Cabin serves as a monument to these earnest, resolute efforts.

The way back, which traverses from Curry Gulch to Sawmill Gulch, goes along an old roadbed which probably served the different people who lived in this area. It makes for fine and easy walking, a great time to chat with friends.

This loop can be done in 2 or 3 hours, which is an excellent summer’s evening or half-afternoon walk. I highly recommend it as a great sampler of what the country above Missoula has to offer to the average person!

Missoula Valley and Lolo Peak

The Missoula Valley and Lolo Peak from the ridge above Sawmill Gulch.

Sawmill Gulch is reached by driving up the Rattlesnake Road from Missoula.  When you cross Rattlesnake Creek and reach the main recreation area trailhead, keep driving straight ahead on the narrow road.  This will take you to the Sawmill Gulch trailhead, where there is room for several vehicles to park.  Please be aware that dogs are not permitted in this particular area.


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!