Dan and Hannah Hike Big “M” Mountain in Missoula, Montana (Archives – June 2011)

Six hour, 360-mile drive

Thwarted by three-foot snows in early June on the 7000′ lakeside trails in the Grand Teton National Park, Hannah and I head instead north from Pocatello, Idaho to explore the 3200′ Big Sky campus town of Missoula.  We have Big “M” Mountain (Mount Sentinel) in our sights.

Big M Mountain with Mount Sentinel beyond

With easy-to-negotiate switchbacks, hiking to the large concrete “M” is a satisfying challenge for families and sprint-hikers alike.  Camouflaged wire fences are nicely hidden in the grassy terrain and make trail cutting and trail eroding nearly impossible.  It’s a gentle 20-25 minute hike along a dirt trail to the top with satisfying views of the University of Montana campus, all of Missoula, and the mountains of the Bitterroot National Forest.  

Wanting more of the trail experience, we decide to venture beyond, on to the higher reaches of Mount Sentinel, a prairie restoration area with wild grasses and flowers along our way.   Our breathing is heavy, our stride purposeful for the skies are going from gray to black across the valley.  Undaunted, we press on.  Hannah and I confer, waiver, and wonder if to continue is a fool’s gambit.  Fools that we are, we press on, double timing our pace.  Spotting a windsock above us and thinking the top is nigh, we quicken our steps.  The top is not nigh.

Mount M with the campus below

At last, we hit the jeep trail to the top, see the threatening dark clouds on the horizon and bid a hasty retreat, jogging downhill in our hiking boots.  Some five to six years ago, after thirty years of daily running, Hannah and I gave up pounding the pavement due to creaky knees that squeaked every time we got out of bed.  Almost immediately once we stopped running, the creaking knee noises stopped.  But running is what is needed today under darkening afternoon skies.  

Feeling the strain on the interior of my thighs, I keep pace with Hannah’s relentless descent off Mount Sentinel.  And thankfully, still no rain as we return to pass the Big “M”. 

The U, that is the University of Montana in Missoula

At the lower levels, we encounter causal hikers in sneakers and iPods.  We pass mom and dad who are shepherding their two kids, maybe 4 and 6 years in age, up the mountain.  We hear the boys say, You mean we can’t throw rocks!  Coeds pass us, one wearing a tee-shirt that says make art not war.  Got to love college towns.  

Over the next three days I pay for our rapid descent as climbing steps and even more so coming down them or even down a street curb is painful.  I look like Walter Brennan as I awkwardly land on one foot and then the other.  Even so, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

January 2022 Postscript – Hannah and I have not returned to the northern Rockies in ten plus years. California has stolen our hearts, well, my heart (And hopefully JetBlue will keep their part of the bargain and fly us to LAX next Saturday). Our next trip to Montana will be with our grandsons, Owen and Max, and their parents in a few years. Later we’ll bring Will’s family here to this outdoor paradise of mountains, streams, and meadows.