A staple for hikers, runners, and mountain bikers in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area is the Wallman Trail in Missoula, MT. It offers a moderately challenging Missoula trail run, late summer huckleberries, great fall colors, and the route is fairly easy to follow in the myriad of trails criss-crossing the lower Rattlesnake.
Traditionally this trail running loop begins from the Main Rattlesnake Trailhead in Missoula, but there is a straight-forward alternative that adds three miles. This post will discuss the alternative add-on route starting at the north end of Duncan Drive, which connects through the Main Rattlesnake Trailhead.
After parking at the end of Duncan, head towards Rattlesnake Creek and pick up the trail running down to the creek. After crossing the bridge turn left and you are on your way! A wide path leads you between the creek and a couple small farms before narrowing slightly and becoming more adventurous.
Just over a mile up the trail a paved road intersects the trail. This is the road to the Main Rattlesnake Trailhead. Hang a left on the road, cross the creek, then right into the parking lot. If you opt to park at the Main Trailhead then this is where you join our loop.
From the parking lot head north up the main corridor trail. This is still used as access for maintenance vehicles deep into the Rattlesnake. Originally it was built to access and maintain the irrigation control dams on all the lakes in the Rattlesnake Wilderness. There also used to be a USFS Ranger station eight miles back at Franklin Bridge, as well as a number of homesteads and apple orchards that this old road provided access to, but those days are long gone.Hiding well beyond the Wallman loop are numerous peaks with McLeod Peak the tallest.
0.6 miles from the trailhead is your decision time. Do you want to take the loop clockwise or counter clockwise? Going clockwise makes the climb more gradual, and the descent steeper. Today, let's go counter-clockwise and make the climb steep and the descent long and gradual. To do this we'll continue straight up the main corridor and return on Spring Gulch (the trails taking off to the left).
As you continue up the main corridor you may notice a series of trails taking off, merging, and winding along the right side of the path near the creek. Feel free to take any of these. Just keep heading up river and as long as you are on a trail you'll be spit back onto the main corridor trail before Wallman takes off.
Around two miles from the main parking lot look for a USFS wooden sign pointing to Wallman Trail on the left. It gives the distance to Spring Gulch, which is where we are headed. Here the trail becomes true single track and parallels an old irrigation ditch from back in the homestead days. When the trail t-s head left and gear down, your climb is about to begin!
A group of runners on the Spring Gulch Trail
The climb is challenging, but you do get glimpses out to the Missoula Valley every once in a while, and in the Fall the colors of the undergrowth in here are a variety of orange hues. The upper portion of the climb switch backs-and-forth before reaching the crest. There is plenty of space here to pull off to the side of the trail and catch your breath!
Descending the west side of Wallman is a joy. In the fall golden larch needles cover everything, and if you look carefully in late summer you can find some huckleberries. Fun switchbacks, a gradual grade, and the relief from being done climbing put a definite spring in your step.
Just over a mile into your descent you'll need to cross the creek running down Spring Gulch. In the fall this is a simple big step or short jump. But during runoff plan on getting wet. It's only a few steps and quite refreshing. There is a shallow ford so bikers don't have issue riding across. Pro tip: run this loop counter-clockwise in the spring so your shoes are wet for fewer miles.
From here continue downhill at all the trail junctions. It's a straight shot down the gulch. At one point there are two trails that head downhill, but they just parallel the creek on either side and get you to the same place. (The trail on creek left is shadier in the summer). Spring Gulch is part of most loops in the Rattlesnake so chances are you'll see other people through here.
When you reach the main corridor trail head right to retrace your steps to your starting point. This is a staple Missoula trail run for locals all year (yes even winter)!