The Blue Mountain Recreation Area at the southwest corner of Missoula is an incredibly popular, and necessary, recreation resource. Trails are open and consistently used by hikers, bikers, runners, dirt bikers, equestrians, and dogs. Lots and lots of dogs. With East facing slopes the lower down trails melt out early in the winter, and are typically a gentler grade than can be found on other trail systems in the City.
Because Blue Mountain is such a popular destination for recreationalists there is a mess of trails on the lower half of the mountain. They all weave in-and-out like a ball of spaghetti and would take an absurd amount of blogposts to accurately describe. So I'm going to skip over the convoluted mess of trails (although I highly recommend exploring them because they are fun!) and focus on the Blue Mountain Equestrian and Hiking National Recreation Trail (official name) and a loop up to the summit of Blue Mountain.
You're never alone! Like every Montana outing, you may encounter wildlife.
From the main trailhead of Blue Mountain we'll begin by taking the trail that heads North, number 3.01. Remember that number and when in doubt follow 3.01. The trail begins by traversing the large meadow that separates the foothills from the road. From here you are elevated above most of Missoula and can see the deep cut of Hellgate Canyon and the far reaches of Pattee Canyon. In the spring this meadow turns a lush green and has some of the loudest meadowlarks I have ever heard.
After a mile of negotiating trail junctions (remember to follow 3.01!) cross the dirt road and head into the trees. You'll see this road a couple more times as it winds its way up to the lookout on the summit.
A quick drop of the trail to visit the disc golf course is followed by the climb. Put your game face on; if your goal is the summit, it's about eight miles of consistent climbing from here to the lookout. Within the next mile or so the trail will take you into a burn area. While the shade is missed in the summer, the lack of full needle growth allows for excellent views of the valley, and on a clear day the stunning peaks of the distant Mission Mountains. The burn area also allows this trail to melt out much quicker in the spring. Enjoy those silver linings!
When the trail gets close to road switchbacks just stay on the uphill path and you'll be okay. If the summit is not your goal the road sightings at 2.2 and 4.5 miles allow you to jump to other trails to complete shorter loops. After the road at 4.5 miles, however, you're pretty much committed to staying on trail 3.01.
My favorite section begins around mile six because this is where I start to really feel like I'm getting somewhere. Then, when the trail crests onto the shoulder at mile 6.5 it changes and mentally becomes more of a traverse to the summit, rather than a climb (don't be fooled, you're still climbing!). I love the expansive views from here, which are actually better than on top unless you want to look at Lolo Peak.
The Lookout on top
The road crossing at mile 8.2 is the last checkpoint before the summit, you're almost there and a couple of big switchbacks in the trees is all it takes. But, because the aspect shifts to the North side of the mountain, and it's in the shade of the unburned trees, and the elevation is significantly higher than when you started, there will be snow on this section of trail much longer than lower down. Most years there is significant snow into May with patches into June.
Right about the time you start wondering where the summit is blue sky will appear through the trees. A last long switchback pops you out onto the road bed with a short jaunt remaining to the lookout tower. Take some time, you earned it!
To loop the route follow the road straight East and this will turn into trail number 6.05. Now is the time to forget 3.01 and think 6.05! Since it's on an East facing slope this trail melts out much faster near the summit, but dirt bikes and erosion on this steep trail have created numerous places where paths dart off into the trees only to return a minute later. Threads of the trail weave across the width of the ridgeline. As long as you keep heading downhill on the ridge you'll be fine. This trail is much steeper which is why I prefer to descend here rather than reverse the loop.
Lolo Peak from the summit of Blue Mountain
Stay on 6.05 until you meet with 6.02 descending to the left. This drops you down into the bottom of Hayes Creek. Once you cross the creek you're back into the mess of trails on the lower slopes. It's now time to choose your own adventure! The initial climb is rather painful, but my choice to get back to the trailhead is via trail 6.05 then 3.05 and down to the vehicle.