#OptOutside this week! MNHC will be closed on Thanksgiving and Black Friday, and the staff are looking forward to some fun outdoor explorations…and we encourage you to do the same! Avoid the frenzy of holiday shopping on Black Friday and head outside with your loved ones to create connections with each other and with nature. Here’s a list of 13 fabulous places and/or activities in and around the Missoula area to explore with your friends and family, compiled by the staff at the Montana Natural History Center:

1. Waterworks/North Hills 
One of the best things about living in Missoula is how easy it is to walk or bike to multiple trailheads. One of my favorite trails is Waterworks or the North Hills, with two easily-accessible trailheads! Orange St. runs into one trailhead by I-90 while the other trailhead is on the left after Spruce St. turns onto West Greenough and goes under 1-90. This trail system offers stunning views of the Missoula landscape and gives you a great sense of how vast our green spaces are. This hike is especially delightful in the spring as the buttercup flowers start to bloom and light up the hill with their small yellow petals.
~Bailey Zook, Teaching Naturalist

Waterworks Hill in Missoula in the winter

Waterworks Hill on a wintry evening. Photo by Allison De Jong.

2. Biking the Bitterroot Trail
Bike riding is a great way to get the whole family outdoors! There are many great bike routes around Missoula, from short neighborhood jaunts, to mountain biking, to rail trails. Those looking for a bit more distance and adventure can enjoy riding to Lolo (or beyond!) on the Bitterroot Trail.  This trail, stretching from Missoula to Hamilton, allows bikers and walkers to enjoy the splendor of the Bitterroot Mountains and River while winding through Bitterroot Valley communities. You can choose to make a day of it and visit one of the many restaurants or breweries along the path—or take the Bitterroot Trail towards downtown Missoula, and stop by and see us at the Montana Natural History Center along the way (we’re closed on Friday, but come visit us on Saturday!).
~Stephanie Laporte Potts, Youth Programs Coordinator

3. Geocaching!
This year on Black Friday my family is going to check out geocaching. Who doesn’t like a treasure hunt? With geocaching, we want to start a tradition that we can take with us as we travel, allowing us to explore places in a new way. We will use information from the REI website to get us started. #OptOutside for Black Friday and try out geocaching, too!
~Lisa Bickell, Education Director

4. Crazy Canyon
Want to get outdoors but stay close to home? The Crazy Canyon trailhead is just a 6-minute drive from Higgins Avenue up Pattee Canyon Road. Depending on snow cover you may want yak-tracks, snowshoes, or cross-country skis. The trail winds just short of 3 miles uphill to the top of Mt. Sentinel with 1,258 feet of elevation gain. At the top you can see from East Missoula around to Lolo Peak. Observe the undulating North Hills made of Renova Formation gravel, Ch-paa-qn Peak carved by Pleistocene mountain glaciers to the northwest, and the Belt rock outcrop of McCauley Butte. Most of your travel will be on a gated forest service road. Its width and gentle slope are perfect for quick hiking and running. However, it is equally conducive to conversation and a leisurely stroll. Perhaps an evening walk with family and friends after a holiday meal sounds just right. As you hike you will pass through areas of Douglas-fir and Ponderosa pine managed by thinning and controlled burns. Toward the top you will find evidence of the 1985 Hellgate Canyon fire and a number of beautiful, large-diameter Ponderosa pines. Look for an abundant diversity of lichen on branches and trunks along the way (bring along Macrolichens of the Pacific Northwest and challenge yourself to identify them by genus or species with the key!).

Throughout the winter you can find corvids—I saw a a Steller’s Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, and Raven just the other day—along with other familiar conifer forest birds such as Red-breasted Nuthatches, chickadees, and Hairy Woodpeckers. Check eBird for recent sightings. Crazy Canyon has much to offer this time of year. Breathe in the evergreen-scented air and enjoy!
~Christine Morris, Community Programs Coordinator

5. Camas Lake
If you’re looking to get out of town without spending all your time in the car, Camas Lake is a great destination. The trailhead is located off Lost Horse Road just south of Hamilton, and from there it’s a low-key 5.5-mile round trip hike to the lake. Camas Lake is gorgeous any time of year, whether you’re looking for spring flowers, a summer picnic, or a winter snowshoe adventure. I particularly like the view in the fall, when the deciduous leaves have fallen and the green conifers stand out even more against the backdrop of the Bitterroot Mountains. If you’re feeling adventurous, check out a map and plan a longer hike to visit some of the other easily-accessible lakes nearby. Bonus: You can stop in Darby or Hamilton on your way home for an after-hike treat!
~Drew Lefebvre, Teaching Naturalist & Volunteer Coordinator

6. Find a Local Sledding Hill
When the snow starts to fall, our family enjoys finding a sledding hill off the beaten path. While there are several well-known sledding hills in town, there are also lots of great hills in our National Forests or open spaces around Missoula. We layer up in our winter gear, pack a thermos of hot cocoa and some cookies, and head out to the edges of town in search of a fun and safe spot to launch our sleds. This inevitably turns into an adventure in and of itself, as we tromp through snowy fields, have a few mislaunches, or dull rides, until….we find the perfect slope with the right pitch, speed, and snowy face shots that is sure to get the giggles going. The best part—we beat the crowded hills and often find ourselves making snow angels, having snowball fights, and enjoying the peacefulness of winter.
~Sarah Millar, Development and Marketing Coordinator

drinking hot chocolate after sledding on a snowy hillside

Enjoying a warm drink after an afternoon in the snow. Photo by Sarah Millar.

7. Greenough Park
Greenough Park, if you aren’t familiar, is nestled in the lower Rattlesnake Valley, and is an easy, 0.6 mile-walk from downtown Missoula. The park has 42 acres of very minimally manicured space and plenty of natural areas, including beautiful and bubbling Rattlesnake Creek that runs the length of the park. In the late fall, the wooded trails that wind along the creek are perfect places to spot woodpeckers, owls and nuthatches. And there always seems to be an American Dipper working the creek, looking for a tasty caddisfly nymph. This gem of a city park a perfect spot to spend 20 minutes or 2 hours.
~Thurston Elfstrom, Executive Director

8. Birding on Mount Sentinel
This time of year, I like to get out and look for some of the surprising bird species that show up in late fall and early winter in Missoula. Snow Buntings and Gray-crowned Rosy-finches are both “birds of extreme environments” according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds site, but over the last week, they’ve both been sighted along the M trail on Mount Sentinel in Missoula. Both species breed in the high Arctic, and they only venture south when the weather is amenable, i.e., cold. They love the cold so much that they’ll even hunker down and hide on warmer winter days, and as soon as the weather starts to warm in the spring, they head north. Imagine having a winter home on the top of Mount Sentinel, and fleeing to the arctic in the spring! If you also enjoy brisk weather, take yourself and your binoculars on a hike up Mount Sentinel this weekyou might be pleasantly surprised by the beautiful and rare birds you see. Remember, the colder, the better!
~Jenélle Dowling, Osprey Program Coordinator

Snow Bunting (l) and Grey-crowned Rosy-finch (r).

9. Blodgett Overlook
If you’re up for a little drive down the Bitterroot (or better yet, if you live in the Bitterroot!), Blodgett Overlook is a perfect spot for a post-Thanksgiving amble—for the whole family! Drive west of Hamilton to the Canyon Creek trailhead, but instead of hiking up the canyon, take a right onto the Overlook Trail. The trail ascends gradually, switchbacking through open Ponderosa pine forest with lovely views out over the Bitterroot Valley and to the Sapphires beyond. It’s a relatively short hike—just 1.5 miles to the Overlook—with a couple of benches along the way if you need to take a break! Whether sunny or rainy or snowy, the view is always stunning, with Blodgett’s steep cliffs to the north and a long look west up Blodgett Canyon into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.
~Allison De Jong, Communications Coordinator

View from Blodgett Overlook. Photo by Allison De Jong.

10. Lewis and Clark School, Outdoor Discovery Corps Garden
My boys, who almost 2 and almost 4, love heading to Lewis & Clark School and playing in their awesome outdoor garden. Evan loves to ride his strider bike around the path and hide from Olin and me under the trees or behind the bushes. No matter where he chooses to hide, his giggles usually give him away first. Olin loves to walk to the top of the tall grassy mound and stand there, very proud of his accomplishment. They both love turning over rocks, climbing over logs, and squealing with delight about whatever the squirrels or birds are up to. So, if you can’t make it out into the woods this Friday, head to your neighborhood school’s garden. If they don’t have one, give MNHC’s Nature Adventure Garden or our Native Plant Garden at Fort Missoula a try. I guarantee your kid(s) will love exploring it!
~Ramey Kodadek, Development Director

11. Tower Street Trail
The short, flat, kid- and dog-friendly Tower Street Trails are located in the Orchard Homes neighborhood, just off West 3rd St. Although the trails can be muddy or flooded during high water, the trails’ proximity to the river are the highlight. Over half of the main trail loop is along the river, with plenty of access to the shoreline. The entire trail is wooded, providing lots of habitat for birds, and welcome shade in the summer. eBird lists over 150 bird species, from woodpeckers to waterfowl, for this small, suburban riparian area. In early winter, the golden cottonwoods and aspens have shed their leaves, and clear views of many mountain peaks emerge across the river, including Ch-paa-qn. The main loop only takes about half an hour for a leisurely walk, so you can fit it in on a lunch break if you need a breath of fresh air.
~Heather McKee, Osprey Program Assistant

12. Maclay Flat
Nestled along the Bitterroot River, Maclay Flat is one of my absolute favorite Missoula natural spaces to explore. Managed by the Lolo National Forest, this nature trail is easily accessible for a wide range of visitors. Whether you travel the full 1.75-mile loop or just selected parts, great options exist throughout the year for people of all ages: birdwatchers, runners, walkers, families with children and strollers, photographers, artists. The river provides access for fishing, rafting, and canoeing. Depending on the season, bird watchers can find Bald Eagles, Great Horned Owls, waterfowl, Osprey, Pileated Woodpeckers, crossbills, and redpolls. Deer, beaver, and moose are some of the other local residents. I’ve visited this special place hundreds of times, and always leave there feeling renewed.
~Christine Wren, Teaching Naturalist

13. Christmas Tree Hunting!
Are you going to decorate for Christmas? Take this day to go on a Christmas tree hunting expedition. Visit your local Forest Service office for a tree permit (just $5 per tree!) and information on where to go. Pack up some warm clothes and snacks and head out for an adventure. Will you choose a Douglas-fir, or maybe an Engelmann spruce? Or perhaps you’ll find the perfect grand fir or subalpine fir to grace your living room this season. Take lots of photos and maybe make this an annual tradition!
~Lisa Bickell, Education Director