When you’re looking for a great place to hang out while visiting Missoula, Montana you will want to check out Pattee Canyon Recreation Area.
This great recreation area has been a popular spot for locals since it was constructed during the 1930s. There are tons of things to see and do in Pattee Canyon, making it a great recreational spot for your next visit to Missoula.
Long before European settlers came to the Missoula area, the Nez Perce and Salish peoples used Pattee Canyon to avoid attacks from other native peoples in the area. In particular, the canyon was a safe route to avoid attacks from the Blackfeet Tribe in Hellgate Canyon.
Pattee Canyon was named for David Pattee, an early settler to the Bitterroot Valley, who filed one of the first homestead claims in the area.
For many years the area was a timber reserve for the US Military. In 1926, the US Forest Service acquired the reserve from the military and it was wrapped into what was the Missoula National Forest, and in the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps built the first picnic area within the timber reserve. This picnic area was the first developed feature of the Pattee Canyon recreational area.
One of the distinctive features that many visitors to the recreation area may note is the visible scars from wildfire.
Over the last 45 years, the area has been hit by a few significant wildfires that have shaped the environment as it is seen today. The first of these fires occurred in 1977 and the other occurred in 1985.
Set in the Lolo National Forest the 3,200-acre Pattee Canyon Recreation Area is located east of Missoula and is highly popular.
Pattee Canyon Recreation Area Stats
- Size – 3,200 acres
- Season – All year
- Largest Lake/Forest – Lolo National Forest
- Number of campsites – 3
The main attractions in Pattee Canyon Recreation Area include:
Pattee Canyon Disc Golf Course
Since 1979 the Pattee Canyon Disc Golf Course has been one of the most popular features within the Recreation Area.
Located near the picnic area and the parking lot, the disc golf course is beginner friendly despite being set in the woods. The course is fairly level but does provide a good amount of challenge for experienced disc golfers.
The course is open July 1 through November 1 of each year. It is closed during the winter and spring to protect the ski trails and delicate spring vegetation.
To get to the disc golf course, use I-90 to exit 105. Head south one block and take a right on Broadway. From Broadway, take a left on Higgins, and continue 2-miles where you’ll then take a left on Pattee Canyon Road.
Park in the picnic area and follow the trail from the northeast corner of the parking lot to the first tee.
Pattee Canyon Group Picnic Area
The Pattee Canyon Picnic Area was constructed during the Great Depression by men in the Civil Construction Corps.
These men traveled around the country completing projects for the government in exchange for a room and meals. The Pattee Canyon Picnic area is a highly popular spot for locals and visitors to enjoy a peaceful picnic in a beautiful place.
The picnic area sits 4,100-feet above sea level and is surrounded by forest. Amenities in the picnic area include picnic tables, fire rings, and grills. There are also accessible bathrooms and garbage receptacles.
While this is a fun area to spend the day, remember, this is a day use area only, so no overnight camping is allowed.
Lolo National Forest
For Missoula locals, the Lolo National Forest is the place to go for great hiking, mountain biking, camping, and wintertime recreation.
The area has many miles of trails, a couple of visitor centers, and even cabin and backcountry lookout and hut rentals.
With many amenities, the Pattee Canyon is a great place for recreation. With around 27-miles of trails that are open year-round, this area is a dream for hikers, mountain bikers, dog-lovers, disc golfers, and cross-country skiers.
The area is quite pleasant to recreate in, with large ponderosa pine providing shade and cover, and nice amenities like picnic areas, and trails that connect to town, so you can leave the car behind if you want.
It will take you a long time to explore every trail in Pattee Canyon. On most days (especially if you are out during the week) you’ll find that most trailheads within the Recreation Area are quiet.
There are a number of trailheads that branch from a single start and wander off in different directions. One of the most popular trails is the Crazy Canyon trail.
This trail has many starting points that come together to form the main trail. The Crazy Canyon trail takes you over Mount Sentinel, where you can then pick up trails into Hellgate Canyon on the Kim Williams trail.
From here you can turn back to your parking spot, or follow the trail to the University of Montana campus.
For novice riders, the Pattee Canyon Recreation area offers a bit of a “build-your-own-trail” sort of option. With smooth, easy-to-ride trails with minimal elevation gain, this area is perfect for those new to mountain biking.
Intermediate riders will love the Sam Braxton National Recreation Trail, which is a favorite of locals. Named for a local legend, bike shop owner, and expert bike craftsman, this fun 3.4-mile loop trail has a moderate 350 feet of elevation gain, but it has tons of fun twists and turns which will challenge your skills and help you grow as a rider.
Experienced riders will love the Crazy Canyon Trail. For hikers it is a piece of cake, for mountain bikers, this short 2.9-mile ride is a lung and leg buster with 1,258-feet of elevation gain.
The trail is a Forest Service road and offers some of the best views of Missoula and the surrounding mountains.
Open Memorial Day to Labor Day, the Pattee Canyon Recreation Area group picnic area, is a great place to enjoy a peaceful lunch.
This is a well-maintained picnic area that offers spots for families and small groups to gather and enjoy the area. It’s also a nice spot to hang out and relax if others in your group are heading out on the disc golf course.
Individual picnic sites in the area are first come, first served. The group picnic area must be reserved ahead of time at www.recreation.gov.
Bring your own discs and have a blast at the Pattee Canyon Disc Golf Course. With relatively new baskets, this disc golf course is highly popular with the locals.
Enjoy the course from July 1st through November 1st. The course is closed for the winter and spring for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing and to protect delicate new vegetation.
In the winter, skip the mountain bike, and strap on your cross country skis or snowshoes. The Pattee Canyon Recreation Area and its trails are a great place to enjoy some wintertime exercise.
The trails in the Recreation Area are maintained by the Missoula Nordic Ski Club, and there are rules and regulations you should be aware of before heading out.
A couple of big things to note are that there is limited parking in the winter and most of the area is closed to motorized vehicles.
Many of the trails are also groomed specifically for cross-country skiing, so make sure that if you’re snowshoeing you don’t cross the tracks, and make sure to leave your dogs behind if you’re skiing a groomed trail.
Length: 8.0 mi For a hiking experience that will offer great views and a bit more time on foot, check you the 8.0-mile Pattee Canyon Trail. This out-and-back trail is considered to be fairly challenging, but worth the effort if you want a quiet trail, and you’re not in a hurry.
This is a multi-use trail so expect to see hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders. The trail is popular with birders and wildlife watchers, and for people that just want a quiet walk.
Hit this trail between March and November for minimal snow, dry conditions, and a great hike.
Length: 3.4 mi This is one trail that you’ll want to take some time to research before you head out, and certainly make sure that you have a trail map with you as you’re hiking.
This trail is named for Sam Braxton, a Missoula resident and local “legend” in biking, skiing, and just all-around outdoor stuff.
This trail loops through the southeast portion of the Pattee Canyon Recreation Area, and can be confusing, so do consider picking up a trail map.
Along the trail, you’ll enjoy old-growth ponderosa pine trees and western larch. Keep your eyes open for the remnants of early homesteads, and mining claims.
Do remember that if you want to stop and explore these areas, they are protected as archaeological sites, so enjoy, take pictures, but leave the sites as you found them.
Pick up the Sam Buxton trail four miles into Pattee Canyon Rd.
Length: 2.9 mi Actually a gated Forest Service Road, this hike is steep but if you’re looking for amazing birds-eye views of Missoula and the Rocky Mountains, this is a great hike.
The great thing about the Crazy Canyon Trail is that you can follow the main trail for 2.9-miles, or you can take one of the many branches for other adventures.
For example, hike the “M” trail that leads to the big “M” on the side of the hill that is maintained each year by students at the University of Montana.
If that’s not your thing, try the Lolo Forest trail that takes you to the top of Mount Sentinel.
This trail also affords hikers and bikers a close look at the burn scar from the 1985 Hellgate Canyon Fire. The trail passes through the area that was burned.
Once you get to the top of the Crazy Canyon Trail, take some time to enjoy the views. From there, you’ll have a great perspective on Hellgate Canyon, the City of Missoula, Lolo Peak, the Rattlesnake Mountains, and the Bitterroot mountains and valleys.
A couple of things to note, horseback riders and mountain bikers are not allowed on the west face of Mount Sentinel. Because of issues with erosion, this part of the trail is for hikers only.
If you need a hike that has great views but is easy for your whole family, then head north of the picnic area campground. Most of the trails in this area are relatively flat and cross through wooded areas and lush meadows.
For history buffs, this area also offers a bit of unique history. Starting in the early 1920s and continuing until 1940, this area was used by the Army as a firing range.
The meadow along the Meadow Loop Trail has remnants of the firing range. Look for the earthen mounds that run north to south through the meadow, and another earthen mound with a wood retaining wall on the west side of the meadow.
These structures were made for soldiers to shoot into for practice. The wood retaining wall even has the names of soldiers carved into the wood.
Beyond history, the Meadow Loop Trail is a highly popular route. You’ll find plenty of people using the trail for hiking and mountain biking in the summer. IN the winter it is one of the many trails maintained by the Missoula Nordic Ski Club.
This trail is relatively short but can be lengthened by picking up the Crazy Canyon Trail.
Southside Ski Trails
Length: 2.4 mi Only open in the winter, and specifically created for great cross-country skiing, the Southside Ski Trails are perfect for wintertime adventures.
The main loop of the Southside Ski Trails is only 2.4-miles long, but for added distance, there are three branches that provide a bit more challenge for the experienced skier.
These branch trails are not groomed so they are more challenging, they are also OK for dogs and those that want to snowshoe. Do not snowshoe or take your dogs on the groomed trails in this area.
In the summer, the trails are great for easy hikes, mountain biking, or even horseback riding.