Spring in western Montana is a glorious season, not least because of the profusion of wildflowers that burst into bloom in the valleys and across the hillsides. Starting in March, a little wandering in the right places will reward you with the vibrant pops of color our souls crave after the whites and browns and grays of winter. Here are a few of our favorite spots around Missoula:
Blue Mountain Recreation Area
With its diversity of ecosystems, from open grassland to mixed conifer forest, Blue Mountain Recreation Area is a wonderful place to seek out wildflowers, whether you’re looking for buttercups, pasqueflower, bluebells, arnica, death camas, and more.
How to get there: From the intersection of Reserve and Brooks (Highway 93), drive southwest. When you come to the next stoplight, at Blue Mountain Road, turn right and head west half a mile to the main trailhead. There’s a large parking area and trailhead where the road makes a 90-degree turn. This trailhead begins in the grassland, and connects to many miles of open and forested trails. If you’d like to start in the forested areas, take the 90-degree turn instead of turning into the parking area, and follow the road another 3/4 of a mile to Forest Service Road 365, where you’ll turn left. There are several trailheads and pullouts along this road. Visit the Forest Service website for a detailed map.
On one memorable June hike, one of our naturalists documented 61 blooming wildflower species. Woods Gulch, with its creek, higher elevation, and narrow valley, feels like another world—and is certainly a different ecosystem from the Missoula Valley floodplain. Look for trillium, fairy slipper orchids, woodland stars, glacier lilies, and more. It’s also a wonderful spot to see the western larches leafing out in the spring!
How to get there: From West Broadway, head north on Van Buren St. and go 2.5 miles, then turn right on Rattlesnake Drive. After 1.8 miles turn right on Woods Gulch Drive (just a little farther than the left turn to the main Rattlesnake trailhead). Drive another half a mile to the end of the road and the trailhead. Parking is limited.
The North Hills
The North Hills really can’t be beat. From the low pink cushions of douglasia to purply swaths of shooting stars to the bright yellow of arrowleaf balsamroot to the radiant pink petals of bitterroots, the North Hills glow with thousands of wildflowers from March to June.
How to get there: There are several trailheads. One is on north Orange St. – head towards the I-90 entrance ramp, and take a right turn into the parking lot before getting on the freeway. The new Waterworks Hill trailhead is a great place to start your wildflower wandering. From West Broadway go north on Madison St. When you get to Spruce St., take a slight right across the railroad tracks, drive under the freeway, and head up Greenough Drive. Take the first left (just a quarter mile up the road), and park in the lovely new trailhead.
Mount Jumbo Saddle
Two words: arrowleaf balsamroot. If you haven’t hiked the Jumbo Saddle to witness the peak balsamroot bloom, put it at the top of your to-do list NOW. They usually peak in mid-late May, and sometimes into June. The Saddle is also a great spot for douglasia, buttercups, lupine, paintbrush, prairie smoke, kittentails, and more.
How to get there: From West Broadway, head north on Van Buren St. In about 2 miles, turn right onto Lincoln Hills Drive. Follow Lincoln Hills Drive 1.5 miles through lots of twisting and turning to the gravel Lincoln Hills trailhead.
Did you know that the south side trails at Pattee Canyon are home to a veritable army of glacier lilies once the snow melts? Or that the meadow near the group picnic area blooms purply-blue with camas in June? You know what to do with this information.
How to get there: Go south on Higgins Ave., then turn left onto Pattee Canyon Road when Higgins curves to the right. Drive 4 miles up the road to the Pattee Canyon picnic area – there’s a small parking area on the left next to a gated road. In the summer the road is open and you can drive to the group picnic area…and the fields of camas. To reach the main Pattee Canyon trailhead, drive another half mile up the road, which will be on the right when the road takes a 90-degree curve to the left. These are the glacier lily trails, though there’s camas scattered here, too.
Clark Fork Native Prairie
You don’t have to drive to the hills or hike up a mountain to see native wildflowers—just walk down the Kim Williams river trail east of Higgins Ave., where buttercups, lupine, balsamroot, yarrow, yucca, serviceberry, and more bloom in the 2.5-acre Clark Fork Native Prairie.