Pengelly Ridge

Publisher’s Note: Over the next few weeks Make It Missoula will be publishing the writings of University of Montana students enrolled in Nadia White’s autumn semester 2014 Adventure Writing class. Each student was assigned a Missoula area trail to explore and write about. Read more about Nadia White, this assignment, and the University of Montana School of Journalism’s Adventure Writing class. Enjoy!


A tough climb with a
head cold

I felt out of place and conspicuous hiking up the dirt road through private property. I kept looking to my right, wondering if the trail was down by the golf course and I was just walking up someone’s driveway. This fire road on the front of Mount Sentinel starts where Maurice Avenue ends and is the way to the Pengelly Ridge route to the mountain’s summit.

Walking up the road, I passed beneath a row of six chairs in different pastel colors perfectly positioned to enjoy a sunset over the city. It was a lovely idea, except that right then the sun was high and hidden by darker clouds steadily advancing.

I love hiking, but as I spun in circles running from class to class this semester, I just couldn’t find time for this hike. I found time for other hikes, but never the Pengelly Ridge Trail. When there was time, it was a hard sell to my roommate: “How about after running class?” I suggested doubtfully. I even found the perfect window of time right after returning from backpacking, but that felt crazy considering the seven miles hiked that morning, and another 15 in the two preceding days. I needed to not only hike this trail, but to know it. So on a mid-Autumn Sunday when 1,000 feet of elevation gain sounded more appealing than homework, I set off. Alone.

The Pengelly Ridge trail is named after David Pengelly, a local attorney, who passed away in 2003 in a climbing accident on Mount Reynolds in Washington. A stone plaque placed high along the trail in his memory reads, “Protect your trails, don’t take then for granite.”

Pengelly Hiking Trail, Missoula, MT

Photo by ©Carly Stinson

Hiking up the grassy slope, I noticed the purple flowers of knapweed growing abundantly on the hillside. An invasive species, knapweed was first discovered in the Missoula valley in the 1970s, and has grown to cover large areas of land. Knapweed likes to grow in disturbed areas, and sunny arid conditions, exactly the conditions present on the south-west flank of Mount Sentinel.

I reached the turnoff to the Pengelly Ridge trail a half an hour after leaving the University. Although the fire road was a steady climb, the trail itself headed even more steeply up. Soon, I was breathing heavily and I stopped to blow my nose. I had been sick for the past week, and the most active thing I had done was to walk to Albertsons for more tissues. Twice.

The wind was blowing stronger on the ridge, trying to steal my precious tissue. I kept hiking, pushed forward by the menacing clouds. With my nose full of snot and my lungs full of crud, my body cried out for more oxygen. I hiked, steadily uphill, just as fast as I could while still breathing. The higher I climbed, the stronger the wind got until it was forcing air down my throat, and whipping my hair into my face. Every time I stopped to breathe, I took pictures of the view, the dark clouds, and the hard packed dirt of the rocky trail going up and up the ridge.

Although mostly covered in beige grasses, a dark green hat of trees sits on top of Mount Sentinel. After hiking steadily up the open ridge, I was relieved to enter the woods, where the trail flattened out.  Almost an hour after I left Maurice Avenue I walked by a fence, and turned down a more prominent trail, while fainter trails headed right. Either way went down, which confused me since I was heading up the ridge to the top of Mount Sentinel. I had figured the summit would be pretty obvious, since when you are at the highest point of something, you can usually tell. Up ahead, I could see the ridge, still rising. I followed the trail left, however, steeply down.

A bit later, a runner came up the trail, so I asked him how to get to Mount Sentinel, aware of how obliviously lost I sounded, but I didn’t have a better question. I wasn’t lost, just unsure why I had to go down to go up. He told me I was on the correct trail, not to take a right when I came to it, and that a bit before the summit I would pass the best trail down. He even mentioned that the next bit of forest was his favorite spot on the mountain.

Continuing into the woods, the ground became wet and slick from past rains and my feet swooshed out from under me. With only a bruised ego, I continued on and quickly reached the top, a bit surprised by my orientation. Earlier, I had thought the mountain top was to my north when in fact I had already gone far enough north, and was behind it, to the east.

Pengelly Hiking Trail, Missoula, MT

Photo by ©Carly Stinson

Behind its simple face, Mount Sentinel was more complicated than I had expected. Having explored a new trail, and seen some good views, I headed down the recommended trail, looping around and down the grassy mountainside keeping the University below me. The best city views were along this section of trail, above the M. While the dark clouds swarmed the mountains, the sun shined down on Missoula and the Clark Fork River, and I headed down to dinner.


Pengelly Ridge


Length: 6 mile loop from campus, descending the M trail.

Difficulty: Moderate, allow 3 hours for a loop

Elevation Gain: 1900 feet

The trail follows a prominent grassy ridge, climbing steadily and offering beautiful views of both Missoula and Pattee Canyon. You will pass the high water line of Ancient Lake Missoula, which covered the valley during the last ice age. Towards the end of the trail you enter a wooded area, and will see a plaque in memory of David L. Pengelly, for whom the trail is named. “Protect your trails, don’t take them for granite” it reads.  Just past a wire fence, the trail takes a sharp left and descends through some pleasant woods. You will end up on a rough road leading to the summit of Mount Sentinel.

From the top you may either return along the same trail or descend to the M or along the Hellgate Canyon trail. If you chose to head down to the M, there is a trail that was on your left just before the final summit hill. This trail winds around the mountain for a gentler descent.

Directions: The trail starts by the intersection of the Mo Z trail, Sentinel Fire road, and Crooked trail, the closest trail heads are at the end of Maurice avenue and the gravel pit on Pattee Canyon road.


Stinson_MM_SelfieCarly Stinson is a freshman at the University of Montana where she hopes to major in environmental studies and change the world. Carly grew up in Washington where she discovered her love of hiking, running, climbing, photography and adventure.