Located northwest of Missoula and just a bit southwest of Seeley Lake, the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area is one of the most popular recreation areas in Montana, especially for those who are visiting the Missoula area.
One of the more recently established areas, Rattlesnake National Recreation Area was approved by Congress in 1980.
The area, along with the Rattlesnake Mountains is located just a short 4-miles from Missoula, MT.
The Rattlesnake Mountains and surrounding Wilderness area are known for their rugged mountain peaks, densely forested slopes, and beautiful mountain lakes.
The tallest peak in the Rattlesnake Mountains is McLeod Peak which rises 8,620 feet above sea level.
The Rattlesnake National Recreation Area is separated into two areas, the recreation area, and the wilderness area.
The total area in the u-shaped Rattlesnake basin is fed by more than 50 small creeks that come from snowmelt, groundwater seeps, and natural springs. The Wilderness portion is home to pristine mountain lakes with crystal clear water.
The Rattlesnake National Recreation area is an ideal place for wildlife viewing, exploring lush meadows and forests filled with Douglas and alpine fir, lodgepole pine, ponderosa pine, and numerous other plant and wildflower species.
Rattlesnake National Recreation Area Stats
- Size – 28,000 acres
- Season – All year
- Largest Lake/Forest – Rattlesnake Creek
- Number of campsites – 0 designated sites
The main attractions in Rattlesnake National Recreation Area include:
The Rattlesnake Mountains rise up from the Missoula Valley and are home to some of the most impressive summits in Montana. Iconic peaks in this range include Stuart Peak, Sheep Mountain, and Mineral Peak.
McLeod Peak is the highest peak in the range at 8,620 feet, though it’s Stewart Peak that is most impressive.
At just under 8,000 feet above sea level, Stewart Peak is an easy spot from the valley and for the adventurous, offers amazing views of the Missoula valley.
A fairly large tributary to the Clark Fork River, the perennial Rattlesnake Creek is an important recreational and ecological resource in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area.
Flowing for about 23 miles, before it joins with the Clark Fork River, Rattlesnake Creek is popular for anglers but is also critical as a water source for wildlife.
It is also one of only four Clark Fork River tributaries that supports the spawning activities for the Bull Trout, which makes it a critical protected habitat as well.
Following the valley along Rattlesnake Creek, the Rattlesnake trail is one of the most popular hiking, mountain biking, and backpacking trails in the area.
Starting close to Missoula, the trail offers great views along its wide path with minimal elevation gain.
For the observant, look for evidence of old homesites that were constructed in the area during the 1930s. The trail runs for about 8-miles through the valley, where it ends at the Franklin Bridge.
You can travel further along the Upper Corridor Rattlesnake trail or take one of the many trails that branch off of the main Rattlesnake Trail.
Rattlesnake National Recreation Area provides plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation. It is quite popular with locals, and you’ll find that it has plenty of things to do for the whole family.
Anglers love to come to Rattlesnake National Recreation Area for the amazing lake fishing.
Most of the mountain lakes are stocked annually, or have great natural populations of fish, making for a nearly perfect day for fishing. Popular fish species in the area include cutthroat trout and mountain whitefish.
Rattlesnake Creek is also a popular place for fishing, but you’ll need to make sure you know where fishing on this creek is legal. As a spawning creek for the Bull Trout, a threatened species, fishing is not allowed in the spawning areas of the Bull Trout.
You can catch and release fish above the mouth of the Beeskove Creek, and you’ll find that this area is quite popular for anglers both local and visiting.
Like many other places in Montana, Rattlesnake National Recreation Area is a great place to see some iconic North American Wildlife.
The Rattlesnake Mountains are home to grizzly bears, wolves, bighorn sheep, black bears, moose, mountain lions, coyotes, deer, and elk.
Hiking is the most popular activity in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area. With over 73 miles of trails in the recreation area, you can hike for days and still not see every trail in the area.
Trails range from short easy hikes that are perfect for hiking beginners or families with small children to difficult hikes that will challenge even experienced hikers and backpackers.
Mountain biking is allowed on trails within the National Recreation Area. Most of the hiking trails also support mountain biking, as well.
However, do make sure you are aware of your surroundings, and you don’t cross into the Wilderness Area. This area does not allow for biking or motorized vehicles. The only way to access the wilderness area is on foot.
On the east side of the Rattlesnake Creek and just above the Stewart Peak/Spring Gulch Trail is the only equestrian-friendly trailhead in the National Recreation Area. The bridge over the creek in this area is even made just for horses.
One of the easiest rides and one that will allow you to get the feel for the area is Rattlesnake Horse Trail 517A. This is an easy relaxed ride that eventually joins with the main Rattlesnake Trail.
A word of caution, the main trailhead for Rattlesnake Trail does not allow horses.
Length: 33.9 mi Rattlesnake Trail is an epic trail, but offers plenty of opportunity for simple day hikes. The total trail length is 33.9 miles and will take around 14-hours to complete the total out and back distance.
Sections of the trail can be quite challenging, but that doesn’t stop visitors from making the trek. This trail is quite popular with locals, and you’ll find that it is pretty busy during weekends, especially in the summer months.
This trail is dog friendly, provided they are kept on a leash.
The trail is open year-round and can be used for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing in the winter.
Sawmill Curry Gulch Loop Trail
Length 5.2 mi This loop is considered to be a bit on the challenging side. Taking 2.5-hours to complete, this trail is popular for hiking, trail running, and mountain biking.
Located fairly close to Missoula, this trail can be busy in the summer months. While the Sawmill Curry Gulch loop trail is open year-round, the best times to access it are May through November.
Spring Gulch, Wallman Trail, and Rattlesnake Trail Loop
Length 8.9 mi Hit this trail on weekdays from April through November, for the best experience. This loop trail is popular with locals and is open for mixed use.
You’ll need to brush up on your trail etiquette before jumping on since you’ll be sharing the trail with horses and bikes. Expect this hike to take you around 4-hours to complete.
This trail is considered moderately difficult so make sure you’re prepared for a bit of a challenge.
Stuart Peak Trail
If you want to travel from the Recreation Area to the Wilderness Area, the Stewart Peak trail is probably your best option.
Though the trail is called the Stewart Peak trail, you’ll find that the trail doesn’t actually lead to the summit. If you’re interested in getting to this point, you’ll have to do a bit of bushwhacking.
This is a challenging hike and will take you most of the day for the out and back unless you’re planning on camping in the Wilderness overnight.
This isn’t the most scenic trail, but it is a good hike, and if you want to avoid the bikers and horses, the section of the trail in the Wilderness area is for hikers only which is a nice escape.
Length 4.3 mi If you are looking for a short but more challenging hike in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, hop on the Saddle Trail.
Though challenging, this hike should only take you about 2-hours for the out-and-back. It’s popular with mountain bikers and trail runners to mind your trail manners.
May through October are the best times to hike this trail so you can avoid muddy conditions.
Woods Gulch Trail
Length 4.4 mi This out and back trail is popular with mountain bikers and hikers. It is moderately difficult and has some good elevation gain. Expect this trail to take 2.5-hours to complete.
Because it’s so close to Missoula, it is quite popular with locals, so if you want a more peaceful experience, head out on the Woods Gulch Trail early in the day during the week.
Marshall Canyon Loop Trail
Length 8.8 mi Popular with birders and wildflower hunters, the Marshall Canyon Loop is one of the best places to find summer wildflowers in the Rattlesnake National Recreation area.
This loop trail takes around 4-hours to complete. It is a moderately challenging trail, with some good climbs.
This trail is popular with local mountain bikers, so do make sure that your dogs are leashed and that you are aware of your surroundings to ensure that no one gets hurt.
Sheep Mountain Trail
Length 14.7 mi This is likely the most challenging trail in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area.
The 14.7-mile point-to-point trail is a difficult hike and is best for experienced backpackers and hikers. You’ll start your hike at the Woods Gulch trailhead, and travel on a minimally maintained single-track.
The views on this hike are outstanding, though there are some pretty decent climbs that slow down the pace. Much of the trail is unpassable until June, so there is a short window of opportunity to hike this trail.