Making memories in the Missions.
This past Thursday (9/12/19) I hiked to the summits of East and West St. Marys Peaks on the Flathead Reservation north of Missoula. East St. Marys (ESM) is the second highest peak in the Mission Range (9,425 ft.), and West St. Marys (WSM) is not far behind at 9,372 feet. I left Helena at 5 am, drove 165 miles to the trailhead (11 miles east of St. Ignatius), and started hiking at 8 am. Every hike has something different to offer and this one was no exception – There are four things about this day that will stick with me.
Above: View of the southern part of the Mission Mtns. from the highway south of St. Ignatius – West and East St. Marys Peaks are labeled.
1. Hearing footsteps.
One memorable aspect of this hike was the ridiculous slope of the trail. The 4-mile trek over the summit of ESM to the top of WSM gains about 5,500 feet of elevation, with most of that coming in the first 1.8 miles. The steep grade at the beginning and end of the hike provided me with a couple new experiences, one on the way up and the other as I was coming down. About a mile into the hike that morning I decided to push myself really hard for several minutes. When I finally stopped to catch my breath I was startled by what sounded like an animal running very close by. After looking around, I realized that what I was hearing was the sound of my heart pounding! Then that afternoon as I made my way down the same stretch, I had to stop several times to calm my screaming 60 year-old quadriceps, which were literally quivering. Yup, that is one unforgettable stretch of trail.
2. Never a dull moment.
After 1.8 miles, thankfully the slope became more reasonable, the trail transitioned into an interesting ridge walk above the trees, and the weather started to change . . . often. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve been in a more dynamic environment. Playful clouds danced all around me, and every minute was different as patches of blue opened and closed, teasing me with fleeting views of distant mountains, the cirques below, and the two peaks I intended to climb. I layered up and enjoyed the show as I continued toward ESM.
3. The unveiling.
Unfortunately, by the time I reached the summit of ESM clouds had taken over and the mountain was totally engulfed – I couldn’t see anything. I worked hard to get there, so I added another layer, ate some lunch, and waited patiently to see if the clouds would dissipate. Finally, within the span of a few minutes the clouds cleared out, revealing all sorts of glacially carved features around me and a great view of the Mission Valley below. I’ve enjoyed many great views from mountaintops, but none quite so suddenly as this!
4. The knife-edge ridge.
The clearing skies also gave me a good look at the .7 mile-long ridge I needed to cross to reach the summit of WSM. It was intimidating, but knowing that hikers cross it frequently gave me the confidence to get started. I was VERY careful, and it wasn’t as bad and it looked – although if you’re not into exposure or scrambling, you might have to pass on climbing WSM. My motivation for reaching WSM is that I wanted a nice view of Mission Reservoir and the Mission Valley. I’m glad I didn’t chicken out – The scramble was fun and the view was worth it!
For more about the hike, including maps, a Google Earth image, directions to the trailhead, and lots of photos, take the Photo Tour – and be sure to read the captions. Happy trails! -Rod Benson
- Photo Tour of the 8-mile (round-trip) hike.
Best viewed on a larger screen – Be sure to read the captions.
- Map of the East and West St. Mary’s area.
Zoom in or out, scroll, drag, etc.
Below: This map marks hikes that have been featured on bigskywalker.com so far, including several in Glacier Park – Select full screen to expand, zoom in for more detail, or click on a marker for a link to the post.