Saint Mary’ Peak 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 storm front delivers zombies, wolves and orange juice


“Ooorrrrrhrhrhhh” I feel the rumble before I hear it. “Is that an airplane? I’m not close to an airport.” Then I feel it: it’s the wind.

As I clear the next switchback my bucket-like hat flies off of my head. To my dismay, upon looking up, I can tell the storm is only going to intensify. The great grey clouds are thundering in as the white snow falls. I grab my phone out of my right pocket and hold it to the sky, trying to take a picture. I press the unlock button four times, uh oh, it’s dead. I am in the middle of a six-mile hike and my damn phone is dead. I start to feel it, the dread creeping up my toes, it slowly progresses the length of my body. I look out and see the high, naked trees stretching out into the dark sky, like the fingers of death attempting to grab the clouds and pull them into the trail below.


A jug of OJ at the start of the trail. Photo by ©Chauncey Liston



How did I get into this fix? It started with my packing. That afternoon I decided I was going to climb the 9,300-foot peak that is Saint Mary’s in the Bitterroot Mountain Range. I had been up it once before, in September, when the weather was beautiful and the views were spectacular. That day had been a great day. The one I was about to embark on, not so much.

I loaded my hiking backpack with energy bars, water matches, fire starter, layers, headlamps, and my personal favorite: two industrial hatchets. I decided to pack all of these items based on what I had read early that day: that there was snow anywhere higher than 4,500 feet and that Saint Mary’s was right in the heart of wolf country. Both of these had made me skeptical about my hike but I still decided to embark.

I started my hour and a half drive to the trailhead, and it was not an easy drive. Thank God for a big truck with four-wheel drive. Once I turned off the highway, the next turn was unmarked and I drove past it three or four times. When I eventually found said turn, I embarked on a winding and twisting 15-mile dirt road to the trailhead. I bounced and fought my way up, only to be greeted by a nasty outhouse and fog that limited my visibility to 12 feet. I sat in the truck, waiting for the zombies to appear. None surfaced and I decided to set out on my long hike in the cold and rain.


St. Mary’s Peak Trail. Photo by ©Chauncey Liston


About four switchbacks into the forested hike,  I encountered something I have never seen on a hiking trail: a jug of orange juice. I had been hiking alone, just thinking about the world, and out of nowhere there appeared a jug of orange juice tucked in a log. This juice seemed to be a metaphor for my hike: a random object out of its element. Like me, this jug of orange juice was thrown to the wolves and plopped onto an unfamiliar trail.



As I continued up the trail, I sensed a nervous feeling running down my spine, the one you get when something is watching you. I remembered what I had read about the wolves and immediately grabbed my hatchet out of my backpack. I continued to hike up and up. I took as many pictures as I could. Then I found what looked to be either a kickass fort or the left behind structure of a long forgotten log cabin. This also seemed out of place on the side of that mountain. I went up a few more switchbacks after that log cabin and I pulled out my phone to take more pictures and it wouldn’t turn on.


Forest Floor. Photo by ©Chauncey Liston


So here I am, no phone, no communication, in the heart of wolf country. “How were you so stupid?” I didn’t have my charging pack with me. “I need to make it off of this mountain without getting eaten by hungry wolves,” I thought.

Turning on my heel, I take off, back towards the zombies and hopefully my truck. “Crack!” I think I hear branches break behind me and I speed up, thinking of becoming another statistic and what my mom is going to say when she hears the news. I hit that last turn before the parking lot at a full run, dive into my truck and careen down the hill to civilization and safety.


St. Mary’s Peak Trail

Elevation gain: 2,000 feet

Round trip hike distance: Six miles

Drive time: One hour from the University of Montana to the Trailhead

Hike Difficulty: Hard, because of the length of the hike and the steady climb

This hike is strenuous but worth the view from the top. It is a beautiful and vast landscape that stretches below you as well as other peaks around you. The drive up to the trailhead is treacherous because of the potholes. I recommend the hike if you have three to four hours to kill. The drive from Missoula take about 1 hour. The hike takes about 4 hours and is strenuous, but worth the view

Directions: From Stevensville, MT take the stevi cut-off road to Highway 93. Travel south for 2.4 miles and turn west (right) onto St Marys Rd/St Marys Lake Loop. Travel 2 miles and turn west (right) onto Lookout Trail. Follow for 7.1 miles and take a slight left (north) at St Marys Peak Rd. Continue 3.2 miles to the trailhead.


Liston_MM_SelfieChauncey Liston was born in Missoula, which is where he learned to love the outdoors and exploring.