Rattlesnsake Recreation Area

Publisher’s Note: Make It Missoula is 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!



As soon as the glowing man appeared ahead of me I pushed off and was on my way. I was nervous. This wasn’t my bike, and it had been so long since I last rode one that I knew I was an absolute liability roaming the streets of Missoula. Above me, the sun shone warm and I felt its prickling heat on my shoulders as I ground along the asphalt one slow pedal at a time, steadily gaining momentum. The wind was cool and deafening as I careened around the curves of Rattlesnake Drive. Loose strands of hair blew across my face. With each passing car I felt a rush of adrenaline and fear, half expecting one of them to hit me. But I made it to the Main Rattlesnake Trailhead, locked up the bike, swung my beat up sack over my shoulder and started trekking along the old road that follows the creek.


Photo by ©Megan Franz

The Main Rattlesnake Trail is the gateway to the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness – 30,000 acres of wilderness just four miles from downtown Missoula. From the parking lot the trail didn’t look like much, but as I passed by the sign with the trail maps I entered a tunnel of crimson and gold foliage. The road was wide and flat, and as I continued the crackling of crickets jumping among the tall strands of dry grass joined the crunch of the rocks under my feet. It was a busy Saturday with mountain bikers zooming by and people chattering away as they passed me with their furry companions.

I caught glimpses of the glimmering Rattlesnake Creek and its rainbow river rock to my right. The sound of bubbling water seeped through the shadows of the overhanging leaf canopy, the background soundtrack to my footsteps and crickets. After walking along for a few minutes, I looked to my left and saw a steep hill rising out of the flat grasslands about a half mile away from me, and I could faintly make out a small path that carved up the side of it. I figured I would probably get lost trying to get to the base of the path, so I turned and headed directly toward it.

I cut my way through the untrammeled terrain, and although I felt I was headed in the right direction, I noticed that instead I was beginning to circle around the left side of the mountain, and then suddenly the path I was aiming for disappeared.

But I couldn’t give up. I had to climb to the top of this hill. It was clear that from that point I just had to start going up. So that’s what I did. But as I climbed up the side of the hill in the bright midday heat, it seemed that I was making no progress. Every step I took, I fell back two. The slippery blanket of dead pine needles covering the hillside made it impossible to get strong footholds. My breathing became heavy and I could feel the strain of aching muscles in my calves, but no matter how firmly I planted my foot I never gained vertical distance.


Photo by ©Megan Franz

My chest tightened in anger as sweat covered my skin and my hands forming closed fists. My frustration grew. I fell to my hands and knees and began clawing at the earth, grabbing fistfuls of long grass and causing dirt avalanches with my feet. Slowly, I moved up the vertical face of the mountain. The sound of my own rasping, desperate breaths filled my ears, and gradually wore away at any remaining hope I had of reaching the top. My arms and legs had reached a point of exhaustion so intense that my entire body was shaking with fatigue, but ahead I could see a small tree growing out of the side of the mountain. I recognized it as being near my original intended path. If I could reach it I might just make it to the path. As I got closer, hands filthy with dirt turned to mud by sweat, I reached for a low-hanging branch and wrapped just the tips of my fingers around it, and then eventually formed a solid grip.


The branch broke off the tree and I lost my balance. In a split second I imagined the horror of tumbling down the hill face and my heart nearly burst out my chest from adrenaline and panic. But I didn’t fall back. I didn’t tumble. Instead I immediately fell forward and flattened myself against the earth, cheek pressed to dirt, wide-eyed with panic. I lay there for a second and processed that I was safe. I was all right. After my breathing quieted, I pulled my face from the ground and looked across at the other side of the tree and saw it. Miracle of all miracles, it was the path! To say I was relieved would be an understatement. I crawled over to the path and carefully rose to my feet to continue to the summit. After only a few more minutes of much easier trekking I reached the top and turned around to see where I had come from.

I could only stand there, eyes unblinking, and try and take it all in. A panorama of overlapping hilltops coated with rich forest green pines, clear blue skies and streaks of soft white clouds filled the sweeping valley where the Rattlesnake Creek carved through the dry landscape below. In utter solitude, I stood atop the summit and soaked in the beauty. I felt a weight lift off of me that I hadn’t realized was there before. A light breeze brushed against my face and livened my eyes to the landscape, and I sat on a lone weathered rock atop the hill and embraced transcendence.


Rattlesnake Recreation Area

Distance: Trail continues for 15 miles, with multiple possible side trips and loops.
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
Trail surface: Gravel
Getting there: From Interstate 90 in Missoula, take the Van Buren Street exit and head north on Van Buren turning right as the road bends to become Rattlesnake Drive. The Rattlesnake National Recreation Area entrance is about 4 miles from town.


Franz_MM_SelfieMegan Franz was born in Arlington, Texas, but was raised in the suburbs of Portland, Ore. A frequent camper and adventure-seeker, she enjoys vacationing with her family at many of the scenic campgrounds back home in Oregon, and prefers “roughing it” in more rural environments as opposed to living her everyday, busy urban lifestyle. She is a freshman at the University of Montana where she is studying biology and exploring the vast and beautiful wilderness outside her back door.