MacLay Flats Nature Trail

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.

A Short Walk to a New State of Mind


It was a quiet Thursday evening and after a long week I knew that a hike was not only a wanted but a needed. As I drove to the trailhead I listened to John Mayer, one of my favorite artists. His soothing voice eased me into a better mood. Two midterms earlier in the week had caused me a lot of stress.

As I pulled in to a parking space and opened my car door, the world looks a little different. The sky a little bluer, the trees a little greener, and the air a little fresher. Because I live on campus and go through the same routine day after day, it is nice to get out and away from everyday life, even if only for a brief evening.

Bitterroot River at Maclay Flats. Photo by ©

Bitterroot River at Maclay Flats. Photo by © Mallory Wells

As the name says, Maclay Flats is a flat floodplain trail that follows the Bitterroot River. The plain is home to a plethora of animal and plant species. About halfway through the two-mile loop, the trail follows right alongside the river and there is a gorgeous lookout to the entire flats. Until the early 1900s, Salish families used Maclay Flats for its natural resources. Now it is sed for its natural beauty by many hikers and picnickers.

I walked along the gravely path and smell the crisp leaves and needles scattered along the path. The pine and cottonwood trees are abundant growers, their needles and leaves absorb sound and all heard was the distant ripples of the river rushing and my feet hitting the trail in a monotonous rhythm that I begin to enjoy. A hiker and her friendly Labrador greet me. The dog’s cheerful personality is exactly what I need after the week I endured.


Sun Branch at Maclay Flats. Photo by © Mallory Wells

Occasionally a hiker or jogger passed by me and offers a smile or brief wave, they seemed to be experiencing the same feeling of peace from the trail. After about a mile the trail reaches the Bitterroot River and it is as if the world opens up a little bit more. I could see the entire landscape perfectly. As colors of red, orange, blue, and purple paint the horizon I looked out and recognized the beauty of our planet. There is more to life than studying and going through the same activities every day. Sometimes, as human beings, we just have to break our daily routines to be reminded of how great it feel to simply go outdoors.

On my way back I decided to sit on a bench, not because the two-mile trail is difficult, but because this glorious walk was too wonderful to be cut short. Just as I am about to snap some pictures hoping that they can even slightly convey how great the hike is, a man dressed in full motorcycle gear walks past and stares directly at me. I’m unsure of how to react, thrown by his attire. He is obviously not prepared for even this small hike. Even though I did not except this strange hiker to walk by I soon realize that it doesn’t matter what you wear or how you look when out on a hike, the only thing that matters is how the hike makes you feel.

I felt completely relaxed I breathed a big sigh and all of the tension and stress that had been bottled up completely washed through me. Strange as it sounds, but I felt changed by my hike. Some part of me had grown. An hour of time changed both my mood and state of mind, simply by deciding to take a walk.


Maclay Flat Nature Trail

Length of trail: Loops of 1.25 miles and 1.8 miles

Difficulty: Easy

Elevation gain: None

Trail surface: Packed earth and sand

This mellow riverside trail passes through a sparse mixed forest as it follows the Clark Fork River. The trail is good for a picnic, bird watching and unwinding. There are benches along the path for simply sitting.

Directions:  Take Higgins Avenue south until it bends and turns into 39th Street. Take a right at Reserve Street, then an immediate left at the light onto Hwy. 93. Follow that out of town to the signal at Blue Mountain Road. Turn right and go west 2 miles to the Maclay Flat Nature Trail.


Wells_MM-SelfieMallory Kerensa Wells studies Environmental Studies at the University of Montana. Since she was a child, Mallory has had a passion for the outdoors. She enjoys hiking in Canadian national parks and photographing natural scenes. In her free time, Mallory likes to go on bike rides with her two younger sisters around her hometown, Bakersfield, CA.