Rattlesnake Valley: Wood’s Gulch to Sheep Mountain

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!

Mountains beyond my mettle


Deep royal blue with great splashes of gold needles amidst evergreens paints the hills below me. I lean up against Jasmine; my red, secondhand mountain bike and stew in frustration. The 11-mile ride from Wood’s Gulch to the top of Sheep’s Mountain was kicking my butt. The first mile up Wood’s Gulch had been nothing but muddy, rocky single track that criss-crossed a small stream between two mountains. In the morning my arms would be sorer than my legs because I spent more time pushing my bike than riding it.

When the trail finally smoothed out I had taken a breather, and groaned as the soft patter of rain on dried pine needles reached my ears. Later it had turned into hail, and I nearly laughed. My camera had died, my phone had died, I was almost out of water, my stomach dully ached with hunger, it was cold enough that I couldn’t feel my fingers and toes, and I was glaring into a head wind.


Photo by ©Rebecca Keith

Behind me, an older man in slick biking gear came up the Jeep road I had just reached.

“Hello!” He said, too cheerfully for my taste, “Are you all right?”

I grimaced a smile, “Yup! Do you know how far it is to Sheep Mountain?”

He continued pounding up the road by me as he spoke, “Phew, that’s a long ride! It usually takes me about five hours, and you’re about an hour into it.”

I kept my game face on, “Awesome! Thanks!”

“Yeah! You be careful!” He turned the corner and was out of sight.

Sheep Mountain rises above Missoula to about 7,646 feet. It’s a beautiful part of the Rattlesnake Wilderness that offers all around views of the Rattlesnake Valley and the Mission Bitterroot and Swan mountain ranges. In terms of mountain biking, it takes a good 5 or 6 hours, with minimal breaks. The trail starts in Wood’s Gulch, a lush, moist canyon about a mile and a half long, before it becomes a dry single track, tracing a ridge. There are multiple routes to Sheep’s Mountain, and this one is 11 miles one way.

The only reason I know all of this is because I read articles and blogs by other more serious mountain bikers who actually made it from Wood’s Gulch to Sheep’s Mountain. I am beginning to realize, I will not be one of these people. The section that I have already ridden is a confusing mass of crossroads and jeep trails, and I really only covered about an hour of the journey. I went with my gut at most turning points, so I probably won’t find the right trail if I keep going.


Photo by ©Rebecca Keith

As I stand here, I remembered the pictures I have seen of the serene summit of the mountain with its picturesque rock fort and big sky. I really don’t want to turn around. I’m the kind of person who never quits even when I should. I regretfully understand that my exhausted body and the looming dark clouds in the east are telling me to call it a day. I swing my bike around and point its nose to the tiny, bright green ranches on the valley floor. I poise on the pedals and grip the bike seat with my thighs. The horizon tips in my favor as I start down the trail.  I finish it in about fifteen minutes, each rock I bounce over echoing in my bike frame.

I am new to Montana’s mountains and it is clear that I am not yet prepared for a goal as distant as Sheep’s Mountain. But I did enough to have the chance to feel my heart race on way back down, which is what it’s all about when you’re on a bike. For now I am satisfied with the journey, even though I never reached my destination.


Wood’s Gulch Trail

Round Trip Distance: 4 miles with many longer variations, including 8 miles one-way to Sheep Mountain summit

Elevation: 3,846 feet to the summit of Sheep Mountain.

Directions: Exit I-90 on N Van Buren St. and head north on North Van Buren. Turn right after 2.5 miles as VanBuren becomes Rattlesnake Drive. After 2 miles turn right onto Woods Gulch and proceed uphill to the trailhead

Description: This trail to Sheep Mountain follows Wood’s Gulch for the first two miles as it rises steeply, then gradually continues along a ridge for the next nine miles. It offers a beautiful, panoramic view of mountains and valleys.


Keith_MM_WoodsGulchRebecca was born in Edmonds, Wash., and lived in four different states before settling in Missoula for college. She is a journalism student at the University of Montana and is enrolled in the Davidson Honors College. Inspired by the mountains around her, she enjoys documenting her travels and hopes to make a career of adventure writing.