Smokejumpers’ Trail

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!


From Hellgate Canyon we could almost see Tucson

We trudged up the steep and rocky path, leaving the Kim Williams riverside trail below us. Even though there was a great view of the Missoula Valley behind us and fall colors ahead of us, I felt uneasy. I started to feel tired and my calves began to ache. I thought to myself that it was probably a bad idea to start a hike as challenging as the Smokejumpers’ Trail so late in the day. There was a nagging thought in the back of my mind that we were going to encounter a bear. As I hiked, I realized that my aches, my pains, my worries, they didn’t matter. What mattered was that I was spending time with someone important and very close to me, my hiking buddy from home, Angel.

It had been weeks, months, since the last time Angel and I hiked together. Ever since our junior year of high school, we dedicated nearly every weekend to hiking and backpacking in the mountains surrounding Tucson. When we decided that we were going to different schools, we both knew that there would be a strain on our friendship. However, as we made our way up the Hellgate Canyon trail, it was as if we had never been apart.


Photo by ©Colin Brust

As we approached the final stretch up to the summit of Mount Sentinel we stopped to take in the scenery. What we saw was far different than any view that we had back home. The winding Clark Fork River and the peaks and forests of the Rattlesnake Wilderness were stark contrasts to the vast expanses of canyons, cacti and desert we were accustomed to.

While a scenic view such as the one we saw would normally be a talking point, we were caught off guard. We made our way over to a fallen tree, scorched by fire, and sat down. We looked around, took in the view, and thought to ourselves. From our perch on the ridge, we could see the larch trees turning yellow, we could see the trailhead hundreds of feet below, we could see osprey circling above the canyon. We were both undoubtedly remembering past trips, thinking about setting up camp in a thunderstorm, scrambling to the summit of a mountain to watch the sunrise, telling stories over a campfire and dreaming up adventures yet to come.

After a few minutes of silent contemplation, we stood up and made the last half mile push up towards the peak. More than once we were forced off of the ridiculously steep dirt road by a couple in a jeep, by bikers who came barreling down the mountain in our direction. After what seemed like an eternity, we arrived at the top of Mount Sentinel. As planned, we were just in time for the sunset. Angel fumbled with his tripod and set up his camera. It was a routine we had worked through countless times. He set the timer on his camera and we scrambled to an outcropping. Click. We had another photo to add to the collection.

Smokejumper's Trail. Hiking. Missoula, Montana

Photo by ©Colin Brust

We sat to watch the blazing sun dip below the horizon. Like so many times before, we watched the golden rays slip behind the jagged mountain tops, only this time, our fear that we wouldn’t continue to hike together was put to sleep with the setting sun. Although it was no different than any of the other sunsets that we had already seen, this sunset came with reassurances. We knew that although we now lived thousands of miles apart, we could make use of the time that we had together when life allowed us.

As we hiked down the trail, we talked about future expeditions, trips to New Zealand and Thailand, and what we would do along the way. With each step, our confidence grew. By the time we were walking down the M Trail, we knew there would be countless adventures to come.


Hellgate Canyon/Smokejumpers Trail

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 9 47 27 AM

Round Trip Distance: 5.5 miles

Total Elevation Gain: about 2,000 feet to the summit of Mount Sentinel.

Trail Difficulty: Moderate

Trail Surface: Rocky near the beginning, regular dirt trail about half a mile in.

The Hellgate Canyon Trail is a very scenic and exciting hike that leads up the backside of Mount Sentinel. The trailhead splits off from the Kim Williams trail about one mile east of The University of Montana. The trail very quickly begins to gain elevation and the trail steepens. 2.5 Miles into the hike, the trail meets a ridge, giving great views of the Clark Fork River and of Pattee Canyon. Half a mile further up the trail is the peak of Mount Sentinel. From there, it is an easy hike back down the west face of the mountain, ending on the M Trail.

Directions to the trailhead: Hellgate Canyon’s Smokejumpers’ Trail starts about one mile east of The University of Montana. Starting from the university, walk east along the Kim Williams Trail that parallels the Clark Fork River. After about one mile there will be a sign that reads, “For Day Use Only Closed 10 PM to 6AM”.  Immediately after the sign, a trail splits off to the right. This is the Hellgate Canyon Trailhead.


Brust_MM_SelfieColin Brust is a freshman at the University of Montana. Originally from Tucson, Ariz., when he is home, you can find him hiking and mountain biking in the Catalina Mountains or spending time with his friends at the pinball alley downtown.