St. Mary Peak

Friday, July 22, 2022

For our big July trip this year Greg and I went to Montana. We first stopped in Missoula and did a few hikes in the area.

On Thursday we made the LONG drive from Portland to Missoula, arriving pretty late due to a late start in the morning and losing an hour when we changed time zones. We stayed at the Missoula KOA in a cabin, which was thankfully air conditioned:

Missoula KOA

On Friday we headed south from Missoula and into the Bitterroot National Forest to do the hike up St. Mary Peak. There is road work happening on Road 739 so we were detoured 1319:

St. Mary Peak Hike

After following the detour for awhile we were back onto Road 739 and we continued up to the trailhead. Hey look at that, junctions are signed here! We don’t see that much back in Oregon:

St. Mary Peak Hike

It was 62 degrees when we arrived at the trailhead at 8:50, There were seven cars, all with Montana plates except for one Iowa plate. We set off up the dusty trail:

St. Mary Peak Hike

We soon passed this sign asking hikers to carry firewood up, so Greg and I each strapped a stick to our packs:

St. Mary Peak Hike

St. Mary Peak Hike

St. Mary Peak Hike

Most of the beargrass was done, but we saw a few stragglers:

St. Mary Peak Hike

St. Mary Peak Hike

And we saw some penstemon:

St. Mary Peak Hike

About a mile into the hike we passed a nice cold spring. Someone had put a beer in here, which was still there when we stopped on our way down later:

St. Mary Peak Hike

St. Mary Peak Hike

We crossed into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness:

St. Mary Peak Hike

Heather in bloom:

St. Mary Peak Hike

The trail continued to be dusty and rocky:

St. Mary Peak Hike

St. Mary Peak Hike

As we climbed we started getting views:

St. Mary Peak Hike

St. Mary Peak Hike

That lake below is not named on the map, but it’s the head of McCalla Creek:

St. Mary Peak Hike

St. Mary Peak Hike

There’s another lake a little bit further, below that snowy slope:

St. Mary Peak Hike

Greg kept falling behind to dawdle over wildflowers and I eventually got tired of waiting for him. Plus it was warming up fast and I wanted to finish climbing before it got too hot. So I pushed on, struggling a bit with the high elevation. Finally I reached a spot where I had my first view of the fire lookout on the summit:

St. Mary Peak Hike

St. Mary Peak Hike

The views were getting better and better!

St. Mary Peak Hike

Almost there:

St. Mary Peak Hike

St. Mary Peak Hike

I deposited my stick of firewood on the pile at the bottom of the stairs and wondered if this was all from today or if it was from the last few days as well:

St. Mary Peak Hike

WOW, the views up here were awesome! The view to the west and north encompassed the rugged mountains of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness:

St. Mary Peak Hike

St. Mary Peak Hike

St. Mary Peak Hike

St. Mary Peak Hike

St. Mary Peak Hike

Looking southwest:

St. Mary Peak Hike

Looking south:

St. Mary Peak Hike

Looking east:

St. Mary Peak Hike

This lookout was built in 1952-1953. It stopped being staffed in 1972 due to reduced visibility fromĀ  low clouds and because much of the viewshed encompassed rocky alpine terrain. It was staffed intermittently on an as-need basis, but fell into disrepair. It was repaired and restored and given a new roof in 2008. Since 2010 volunteers from the Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation have staffed the lookout in summers. I met one of those volunteers, a guy named Patrick. He said he watches for fires but his time was often spent being a guide/ambassador to visitors. He said he was up here for two weeks and the next volunteer would be up for two weeks, and so on:

St. Mary Peak Hike

St. Mary Peak Hike

You can see the footings from the prior 1931 lookout that stood here:

St. Mary Peak Hike

St. Mary Peak Hike

There were some nice hand-built benches for people to sit on:

St. Mary Peak Hike

The summit is a broad flat area and I went out to sit where those people are and wait for Greg:

St. Mary Peak Hike

There were some nice wildflowers blooming up here:

St. Mary Peak Hike

St. Mary Peak Hike

St. Mary Peak Hike

Looking back at the lookout from my perch:

St. Mary Peak Hike

St. Mary Peak Hike

Far below I could see a pond. I’m sure that water was very cold!

St. Mary Peak Hike

I waited so long for Greg that I thought something had happened to him. Most of the hikers were gone but a group of stragglers came up and I asked if they had passed him. They had and he was fine, just dawdling over flowers. After waiting for over an hour, when I was past ready to head back down, Greg finally showed up. So we sat up there in the hot sun for awhile longer before finally heading down. It was a hot dusty hike down because much of the trail is unshaded and looks like this:

St. Mary Peak Hike

We got back to the car at 4:20, many hours after I expected to. The locals were smart and had all skedaddled before the afternoon heat, so we were the only car left in the lot:

St. Mary Peak Hike

Tough hike, but beautiful views! I don’t know if I’ll ever get a chance to explore the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, but it sure looks enticing.

Gaia stats: 7.4 miles, 2,500′ elevation gain