Discovering the Mission Mountains in Montana
The Mission Mountains are one of Montana’s crown jewels. Towering 6,000 to 7,000 vertical feet above the Flathead Valley (from below 3,000 feet to 9,820’ McDonald Peak), they present one of the state’s greatest vertical walls, striking awe and amazement into all who behold them.
Yet comparatively few people venture up into the Missions, perhaps intimidated by their sheer ruggedness and extreme vertical gain. That is simply too bad, because they present some of the finest scenery in Montana, second only to Glacier National Park. The Missions also harbor their own glaciers: McDonald, Sunrise, Mountaineer, Fissure, and Gray Wolf Glaciers, along with many other permanent snow fields, mostly on the northern and eastern sides of the crest.
Furthermore, the Missions are located within a unique division of land: between National Forest and the Flathead Indian Reservation. The eastern slopes, on National Forest land, comprise the Mission Mountains Wilderness and is more accessible, with easier trails leading to many gorgeous lakes.
The western rampart, on the Reservation, is covered by the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness and is deliberately left in a primitive state. Trails are narrow, rugged, often covered by growth or blowdowns, and the cross-country travel can be brutal.
Plus, a permit is required for non-tribal members to recreate on this land: $16 for a year (expires at the end of February), or $9 for a three-day pass, accessible from several stores and businesses in the surrounding areas. However, this section of the Missions comprises the highest peaks and the most sublime country, and so this fee should not prevent enterprising adventurers from accessing it.
See current regulations here.
Beginners to the Missions can start by hiking some of the trails in the National Forest. Probably the best-known one is the very easy walk to Glacier Lake, which is accessed by the good Kraft Creek Road near Condon, MT. It is a great walk for families, only about 1 1/2 miles one way, with a gradual grade and an outstanding view of the snowcapped mountains at the lake.
The trail then continues beyond via many gradual switchbacks, as far as Turquoise Lake, from which you must go cross-country to access even higher areas.
On the west end, Mission Falls is probably the easiest hike in the Tribal area; it is accessed by driving to the Mission Reservoir from Saint Ignatius and starting at the far end of the lake.
“Peakbaggers” have a veritable potpourri of different options to choose from in the Missions, ranging from the relatively straightforward, if still sustained, climbs along primitive paths and more open country to steep ice and snow climbing or difficult bushwhacking.
East Saint Mary’s Peak, the second highest summit in the range (9,425’), is probably the “easiest” of the big peaks. Even then, “easy” is quite relative, since the route ascends a vertical mile in only 3.5 miles, most of that in the first couple miles. It is, however, along a very good climber’s path, and so there is no bushwhacking.
Once on top, you can slide down the snow fields on the northern slope (bring an ice axe before August, or anytime the snow is totally continuous!) and explore Vacation Pass, along with Lowary Peak (Peak X) and Peak Y. Lowary Peak (9,369’) also happens to be the highest point in Missoula County.
Of course, we must eventually come to the grand prize of them all: McDonald Peak. McDonald is one of Montana’s great summits, and is probably one of the most under-rated mountains in the entire country. It is the second-most “prominent” peak in all of Montana (5,640’; see http://www.peaklist.org for full details on this measurement), due to its amazing vertical relief on all sides.
The truly unique fact about McDonald Peak is that it is quite difficult to climb, most notably for this reason: It is closed to all access from July 15 to October 1, the optimal climbing season, thanks to the sizable population of grizzly bears that make it their home during the height of the summer. Therefore, one must brave the peak when it is mostly snow-covered early in the summer (requiring ice axe and crampons), or cross fingers and hope that there is little snow at the beginning of October (which was not true at all this year!).
Yet the intrepid adventurers who seek to scale McDonald Peak will experience some of the greatest country the Rockies have to offer…….and have the privilege of gazing upon the entire Mission Valley 7,000 feet below, along with the sweep of Flathead Lake fading away towards the craggy heights of Glacier National Park. The following two photos, although they’re not from McDonald Peak, do show a small approximation of its tremendous view:
Even though they are a small and compact range by area, the Missions have enough to keep the explorer coming back for many seasons. Here’s probably the best basic page for information on them: http://www.summitpost.org/mission-range-mt/171043. Needless to say, if you intend to venture high up into the Missions, be thoroughly prepared in all aspects – in navigational skills, protective clothing, good boots, bear spray, camera, and an indomitable, explorative spirit.
This is a guest post written by Dan Saxton, November 2013. All photos are his.
Dan Saxton lives in Missoula, Montana. He spends plenty of time hiking, climbing, and exploring the marvelous country of the Northern Rockies.