July 3, 2014

The Other 'El Capitan'

I can't stress how much the Bitterroots are under appreciated. There are so many great trails, alpine lakes and peaks that it is often hard to choose where to go.  Most people are put off by the 30 - 60 min drive down highway 93.  Having lived on the east coast for most of my life, I haven't had the luxury of mountains out my backdoor, so I am used to driving several hours to get back into the mountains for a single run.  After a full week of running in the Sapphires and Rattlesnake mountains, I want to venture out to new trails and mountains.  Almost a year ago now I set off with friend, ultrarunner and bouldering phenom Justin Yates to a very remote peak in the Bitterroot mountains - El Capitan.

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Out and Back Route for El Capitan Summit

No, not the El Capitan but the Montanan's El Capitan.  Every state with mountains has an El Capitan peak.  I've hiked several over the last few years.  None are quite as impressive as Yosemite Valley's El Cap but climbing a peak with that name usually involves a long day of  climbing with ample opportunities to scramble and bushwhack.  Justin and I set off before dawn to give ourselves plenty of time to make the summit and be home for dinner.  *Side note - Every foray into the mountains is carefully planned as to how long you can be out in the back country before you have several missed calls and voice mails from your significant other.  You know what I am talking about...

Western end of Lake Como from Little Rock Creek Trail Head

On Saturday morning we hopped in the Jeep and headed about 60 miles south on highway 93 and hooked west into the Lake Como recreation area.  Once you get past the artificial Lake Como beach resort you follow a slightly maintained jeep road for a few bumpy miles up to the Little Rock Creek trail head.  The sun was rising and just starting to illuminate the tips of the surrounding peaks.   I love early summer mornings in the mountains... the air is so cool and crisp and everything is dead quiet. 

Eastern end of Little Rock Creek Lake

The first section of Little Rock Trail is mostly single track that meanders alongside Little Rock Creek.  Every once and a while the trail dead ends into very sharp and awkwardly placed boulders.  Each bouldering session would last for 5-10 min and then the trail would pick up again.  Eventually the trail spits you out on to a mountain of driftwood signifying the start of Little Rock Creek lake.   

Justin taking in our first clear view of El Capitan Peak

Shortly after Little Rock Creek lake the trail just fades away into a creek.  Justin and I ended up pushing south along the lake shore and then bushwhacking along a creek up to base of El Capitan.  This section was pretty rough and annoying so I would recommend skirting north around the lake instead (which we did on the way back).

El Capitan reflection in an unnamed lake 2000+ ft below

Eventually you come up on three unnamed lakes at the base of the mountain.  The water is crystal clear and provides great reflections of the beautiful scenery surrounding you.   Once you take in the beauty of the remote lakes you can start to plan how you are going to approach the summit.  There are several colouirs to pick from and none of them are particularly pleasant.  Though we did find one that was easier than the rest...

Justin leading up the colouir

We had already been hiking for a few hours when we hit this massive colouir.  The first 100 yards were fun then we hit the shadow of the mountain...  Really steep pitches with loose rock, mud, snow and ice.  It wasn't a particularly long stretch by any means but it took the longest for us (me) to get through.  Justin quickly bounded up the scree while I was slipping/struggling behind in my Hokas. Don't ever where Hokas on technical or wet terrain. 

The wet, snowy, muddy top of the colouir

Once you get past the top of the colouir the rest was easy.  Immediately you are rewarded with views of what is referred to as the cathedral consisting of several surrounding peaks in close proximity including El Capitan, Lonesome Bachelor, the Como Peaks and a few others.  We weren't even at the summit and the views were already incredible.

The Cathedral

The Final Approach/Slog to the Summit

The last few pitches up to the summit look pretty steep but they aren't bad at all.  The rocks are really unstable near the top though and you never know when your tired legs are going to crash through some loose boulders.  You can also start to feel the altitude as  you make your way up to nearly 10,000 feet.

Justin peering into Idaho from Montana on the summit of El Capitan

This hike saves the best for last.  To get to the actual summit you have to pull yourself up 20 feet of loose crumbling rock.  It requires a good amount of upper body strength and some nerves.  The drop down either side is a few thousand feet so if you have trouble with heights or vertigo you might now want to climb the last 20 feet.  It felt really unstable and uneven up there.  Have to wonder how long that loose rock will stay up like that!

Video I shot from the summit

Looking north at the Bitterroot range 

To the north you have wave after wave of 9-10,000ft mountains running east to west with creeks and valleys separating them.  To the east you can see the famous Bitterroot valley, the Sapphire range and you can even see the Anaconda-Pintler range off on the horizon.  Fall is fire season in mountain so the views are a little hazy.

Looking east toward the Sapphire and Anaconda-Pintler Mountains

After 15-20 min on the windy cold summit we descended back down to the colouir.  Except that when we hiked back all of the colouirs looked the same!  We went back and forth between 3 or 4 different colouirs until we just went with one.  It wasn't the one we went up and ended up being pretty dicey but we made it down ok.

Descending the colouir towards the three unnamed lakes

We took a short break at the lakes and plotted our next move.  The vegetation/creek bushwhack was a slow slog so we decided to go north around the lake.  Moving along the north side of the valley was so much easier.  There were beautiful, open meadows with fire red wild flowers.  So much better than the way out.

Beautiful wild flowers of the Bitterroot mountains

I really liked the western end of Little Rock Creek lake.  The thick grassy meadows with virgin pine trees were so beautiful.  The temperature was starting to drop as the sun was starting to retreat which made the hike back much cooler.  As expected the hike back to the car always seems to take longer than the way out.  With the excitement of summiting El Capitan hours behind us all we had now were achy muscles and hunger!  The section from Little Rock Creek Lake to the trail head seemed to go on forever.  Eventually we made it to the Jeep, grabbed some food and headed home.


El Capitan is a pretty remote peak but it is doable as a day hike.  We had plenty of sunlight to spare even with making a few mistakes along the way.  The views from the top were simply stunning and a little different than some of the northern peaks in the Bitterroots.  Definitely one of my favorite hikes in Montana. I definitely underestimated the effort required for this summit. Justin and I were in pretty good running shape going into this and we were both feeling tired at the end.  About 6,500 feet of climbing on the day.  Nothing a few gas station chocolate bars and gatorades couldn't fix though!

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Elevation profile for our El Capitan hike about 6,500 of climbing

March 2, 2014

Searching for Ch-Paa-Qn Peak


I've been in Missoula for almost 2 years now and have run / climbed almost every major peak in the Missoula area:  Sentinel, Jumbo, Sheep, Blue Point, University, Radio Towers, Dean Stone, Blue Mountain, Lolo, Point Six, Stuart, Murphy... etc.  The one last major peak (Black Mountain is still on my list) I had not climbed was Ch-paa-qn or "Squaw" peak. Ch-paa-qn is Salish for gray, treeless mountain.


Ch-paa-qn is roughly 25 miles west of Missoula.  A quick drive down I-90 to the nine mile drainage and then about an hour drive up a rough, old forest road via Edith Peak Rd and you are at the edith peak trail head.  Since I am injured I decided to ride my bike up instead of driving.  I didn't see anyone on the way up until I hit the trail head.  There was a couple inside a car who looked at me like I was in idiot for riding my bike up there.  Pretty standard.


The trail leading to the peak is around 3 miles and heads west the entire way to the base of the peak.  The first 2 miles of trail are heavily vegetated and not regularly maintained.  It was a bit nervy during the first 30 min because the vegetation was over my head and I was hiking alone.  My expired bear spray was locked and loaded and fortunately never called for action.  The bear spray was in the front of pack because I've heard that two male grizzlies live somewhere on this mountain.

After swimming through a sea of vegetation for the first two miles I was happy to exit into the first clearing.  The grassy meadows were so peaceful with only the birds occasionally interrupting my well earned silence.  I did sneak up on a few sage grouse but instead of surprising me with their deafening flutter, they turned to stone and let me pass in silence.


Then out of nowhere long rock chutes appear from the North.  From this point on it's your choice as to when you want to head up to the summit.  I chose to walk for a while on the trail before bouldering to the summit.


The initial part of the climb weaves through small pockets of forest.  About half way up you clear the tree line and enter shrub country.  However, there are a few old, dead trees swaying and creaking with the summit winds.  I would be lying if I didn't say it was a bit ominous.


After 9 miles of biking and 3+ miles of hiking I finally reached the summit at 7,798 ft.  I hadn't seen anyone since the couple in the parking lot - who were debating whether or not they should hike or just go home.  Only 5 minutes on the summit and I could already hear people approaching from the south.  They had taken the alternate route via the Reservation Divide Trail (3.5 miles 1,800 ft ascent) which they claimed had quite a bit of traffic.  That validated my decision to take the less traveled and more climbing option via the Sleeping Woman Trail (3 miles 2300ft ascent).


Ch-paa-qn can be seen from almost anywhere in the Missoula Valley.  The nearly 8,000 ft peak prominently towers over the nine mile drainage with no other peaks challenging it.  Needless to say the views from Ch-paa-qn are incredible.


The best views included the Bitterroots and the Missions.  This particular summit provides a really unique perspective of the Mission Range.


After chatting with the guys on the summit and a quick snack I headed back down to the trail.  I took a different route back and was rewarded with beautiful meadows full of bright red shrubs.

Ironically, I passed no fewer than 5 groups on the way back to the trailhead.  Thought it was kind of strange since I was late getting to the summit myself and these folks had a ways to go.  Hiking this trail at night would be fun with a group but the vegetation and rock slides would make it interesting!


I took one final glance back at the summit while cruising back down Edith Peak Rd on my bike.  My last major summit in the Missoula area did not disappoint.  If you are willing to make the drive from Missoula this is very easy hike, if not the easiest hike I've done, for the area.  This trip would be amazing on skis during the winter.  For those who want to break away from the Rattlesnake, Sentinel and Blue Mountain crowds this is a great day hike option that provides unique views of the Missoula and Mission Valleys.  If you bring binoculars you can just see the South end of Flathead Lake!  

November 3, 2013

A Step by Step Guide to the Mt Sentinel Hill Climb

Course Preview

Mt Sentinel towering over the University of Montana.

After reading our previous post you know all about the history behind the race and who will be toeing the starting line.  Now lets talk about the actual course.  There are only a handful of trail races that let you decide which route you want to take and lucky for you the Mt. Sentinel Hill Climb is one them!  Ok, let's keep that excitement bottled for a minute while we take a deeper look into your options for Sunday.

sentinel hill climb
GPS Routes and Mile Markers for both Options (Blue = Northern Route  &  Red = Southern Route)

Before we get into your personal preference of pain and trail surface, lets take a look at the facts.  Above is a GPS layout of the course with both options mapped out for you (i.e., the North "Ridge" route in blue and the South Route in red).  Below are the elevation profiles for each route.  If you elect to take the Northern Route you are looking at a total distance of 1.6 miles, 1,934 ft of elevation gain, an average slope of +23% and a max slope of 51%!  If the Southern Route is more to your liking, you will be facing 2.4 miles with 2,135 ft of elevation, an average slope of 18% and a max slope of 37%.   

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Elevation Profile for the Northern "Ridge" Route 

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Elevation Profile for the Southern Route 

So now that you've got the numbers, what should you do on race day?  Well that depends on your preferences for trail surface, scenery and pain!  For those of you who enjoy a solid, compact trail surface, like to keep the legs ticking over and don't mind the extra distance and elevation gain then the Southern Route is for you.  If you live for challenge, don't mind loose dirt and rock in your shoes and aren't afraid to hike or walk when you hit that 51% slope then keep left after the "M" and try your luck on the Northern "Ridge" Route!  No matter which way you choose to go on race day, your journey begins in the same place.

Section 1: The "M" Trail  
(0.75 miles and 680ft elevation gain)
Entrance to Mt Sentinel and the "M" Trail Switchbacks

Let's imagine it is Sunday and race day is here.  You woke up your in own bed (nice), ate a light breakfast, put on your lucky race day gear, rode your bike to the start (awesome) and RD Mike Foote, who hates Sentinel repeats, is barking instructions at you.  You look back at your family one last time, who are supporting you but quietly thinking "glad its not me running up that thing", as you prepare mentally for the oncoming roller coaster of excitement and struggle.  Everyone nervously tucks into the long line that is now pointing upward towards the summit.  You're running through your strategy, checking your shoe laces and all of a sudden we're off...  Immediately your nerves calm and you start to think about this course preview... wait where was the North "Ridge" turnoff again?

First Climb of the Day on the Gentle but Rocky Switchbacks of the "M" Trail

Now you're steadily ascending the easier slopes of the "M" trail, you find that perfect gear and you settle in with what seems like a good group.  Several runners have tore off the front, they must be crazy, while others are quietly humming along behind you.  You're focusing on foot placement because this section has many sharp, awkwardly angled rocks that can catch even the most hardened trail runner (see image above).  On the turns you enter wide and then cut back sharp but not too sharp because those metal poles are unforgiving! 

Looking Down the "M" Trail towards the UM Campus

Just like that, your past the half mile mark and you're starting to feel the climb in your legs as you sneak views of the runners zig zagging behind you.  You've reached the point now where we all start searching for that metal sign post that sits right in front of the "M" but its still several switch backs up.  So you put your head down and keep climbing, you'll be there soon enough.

Really Comfortable Benches with Great Views of Missoula Strategically Placed to Keep You from the Summit

The newly built benches seem like a great idea but you avoid them because you want to make it the entire way without stopping.  Smart decision!  Why make this any longer than it has to be, right?

The Final Switchback before the "M".  The Metal Sign Post is Actually a Map Donated by the 2012 UM Senior Class.

Finally, you catch a glimpse of that metal sign post! You swing left at the last switchback and come face to face with the first and last stretch of flat trail on your way to the summit.  Nice work!  Enjoy the short reprieve, take in the well-deserved view of the Rattlesnake Mountains to the North and get ready to make the most important decision of the day...

Section 2:  Glacial Lake Missoula Rock
(0.5 Miles and 695ft of Elevation Gain)
"M" Trail Sign Pointing to the Sentinel Fire Road Just above the "M"

This next section is critical to your race experience so pay attention.  You've now climbed up over the "M" and you notice something odd.  The other racers in front of you are going in different directions.  Despite the growing inward fear that you are lost, you think back to this post and remember that this is the critical trail junction where you must choose between the Northern and Southern routes.  The beautiful weather coupled by your eight hours of sleep and 2 shots of espresso encourage you to go for the Ridge.  Gutsy, I like your style!  Now it's time to focus.


So you've committed yourself to the shorter but steeper route, nice, there's no turning back now.  You're focused and looking at the rocky, narrow trail about 3 feet in front of you, scanning for rocks and turns.  Yes, there are some gnarly climbs just ahead but you're not worried about them right now.  Keep reminding yourself that this is what trail running is all about.  This definitely hurts but its kind of fun!

Junction of the Sentinel Fire Road and Ridge Trail

Now you've made it over the first of a series of unbelievably steep climbs and your confidence is up.  The trail is technical but you've got it today.  Even with your new found confidence, you are still cautious because there is still 3/4 of a mile to go and there is a rather steep drop off to the Clark Fork on your left!  Steady.


The race has really spread out now.  You just passed a few of the runners who gambled on the all out sprint to the summit strategy and of course there's that guy who has been right behind you since the start.  Even your best surges just can't seem to shake him.  Don't worry about him, focus on finding the Glacial Lake Missoula rock to your left.  No reason why you can't take in a little history on your way to the summit.  

The Glacial Lake Missoula Rock Resting at 4200ft Just before the 1 Mile Mark

Section 2 is rapidly coming to a close now.  Sure you've had ups and downs, sprints and walks but you made it over that nasty 51% slope and you're now preparing for the very runnable section to the finish.  Don't be confused by the runners to your right snaking in and out the trees.  They chose the Southern Route.. do not, I repeat, do not follow them into the trees no matter how tempting that beautiful, soft single track looks as it gently cuts into the canopy.  

A Junction from the Ridge Trail Leading into the Woods and the Gentler Southern Route to the Summit

                                            Section 3: Paraglider Wind Sock
                                                                  (0.37 Miles and 490ft of Elevation Gain)
Looking West from the Ridge Trail to Mt Jumbo and The Rattlesnake Mountains

Less than a half mile to go!  Mt Jumbo looks so small from up here, God I love this place.  You've earned this view so certainly take it in but don't linger.  Remember, the last section is where you are going to pull back that group in front of you and finally break free from that stubborn guy who is breathing heavy behind you.  Yeah, he stills there!

First View of the Mt Sentinel Summit 

The trail now looks more like a jeep road than single track.  You have been patiently waiting for this semi-flat section to begin your final push to the summit.  If you squint you can just make out the inflatable finish line arch that someone from the Runner's Edge drove all the way up to the summit...nice touch guys!


Well, that little push paid off.  You passed an entire group of runners and you're still holding that last gear for the final pitch to the summit.  Remember to watch out for the water bars on this last steep section.  Also, don't forget to enjoy the narrow single track here because this is the last of it.


Ah yes, the final turn to the home stretch.  There is a beautiful view just off to your right, of the jagged Bitterroots, the snow capped Lolo Peak and the distant peak of Cha-Pa-Qnn but you don't look, instead you climb hard to the left.  So close!

The Infamous Paraglider Wind Sock - A Beacon of Trust for All Sentinel Recreationists

Yes, the Wind Sock, finally!  You now have undeniable proof that the summit is just a hundred yards or so away.  The trail really expands here and the overlapping braids can be a bit awkward.  Pick a straight line and stick to it.  You swear you can hear voices up ahead but you still can't see the finish yet.  Time to throw caution to the wind and explode into that that last gear you've been saving.  Don't be fooled or discouraged by the false summit here, there is a little dip and then just a short climb to the finish!  

The Summit of Mt Sentinel.  You Can See Mt Dean Stone and the Bitterroot Mountains off in the Distance.

A group of runners are excitedly cheering for you as your approach the now swaying, inflatable finish line arch.  You catch a quick glimpse of the finish line clock as you hit the summit and hunch over to collect your thoughts and breath.

Congrats, you just finished the 2013 Mt. Sentinel Hill Climb!  A sense of achievement sweeps over you as you snag a water and banana and gaze back down to the valley floor.  You gather with friends on the summit, share that all too familiar story about how you almost face planted off the side of the ridge and then come to the inevitable conclusion of this race which is "how do I get down now?" Personally, I recommend the Smokejumpers trail as it will be covered in ice soon until next June and the grade is just gentle enough for a nice cool down back to the Kim Williams and the awards ceremony.

Just think, most Missoulians are still sleeping on this cool, crisp Sunday morning but not you.  You chose to climb nearly 2000ft up Mount Sentinel to support the UM Tri-Team!  Even though you are tired, hungry and in desperate need of a jacket you can't think of a better way to spend a beautiful Sunday morning in Missoula, Montana!

See you guys on Sunday!

September 26, 2013

Lost in the Swans

(The GPS of our route - affectionately named Tyson's Holland Peak Loop)

It is strange how forays into the backcountry begin.  They usually start as an idea thrown out when we are all sitting around together.... or browsing summitpost.com.  This particular trip began when my coworker Chris Dundon started emailing Justin Angle and I pictures of Holland Peak.  Justin was immediately in and so was I.  Despite living in Montana for two years, I had never ventured into the Swans.  Then the night before left - plans changed.   Justin was now out but Chris and I were still in.  So I was a little surprised to see Justin waiting inside the Eurovan as I crept through the early morning shadows of the Ace Hardware parking lot.  Through a series of events during the night, Chris was now out but Justin was in.  The scenic 90 minute car ride north on 200 and 83, past Seeley Lake to the Rumble Creek trailhead, flew by.  As each mile passed by, I patiently waited for the smoke from the Idaho forest fires to lift and allow us to see the towering Mission mountain range to our West.  The smoke never did clear.  We rumbled into the Rumble Creek trailhead parking lot, just after 7am, where we met Tyson, Dan and Dan's brother from Tennessee.

(Rumble Creek Trailhead) 

Another small group hit the trail a few minutes before us.  They were heading up to Holland Peak as well.  So we set out towards the summit with the confidence that Tyson had hiked this trail twice before and we had a group in front of us to lead the way.  What could possible go wrong?  Easy out and back, tons of trail experience between us, we got this.

(Tyson staring at Dan's iPhone in disbelief!) *Photo by Justin Angle

Tyson was 100% certain that we shouldn't cross the South Fork Rumble Creek drainage.  He recited how he and Mike Foote ran past the trail and had to retreat back north of the drainage to hit the correct trail.  So walked up to the bridge over the drainage and turned around.  Justin and I would later find that we were no more than 50 feet from the correct trail when we turned around.

So we back tracked, found a "climbers trail", with two logs laid a-crossed it (first warning), and up we went.  This particular stretch of trail was very steep and we started to string out across the mountain.  Then in mid sentence - the trail disappeared.  I was leading at this point and stopped.  We debated whether we should go up the mountain or continue on alongside the mountain.  Tyson was still convinced we were on the correct side of the drainage, so we headed straight up the mountain.  At this point we all knew were were lost but we continued on anyway.  Who likes to admit they made a mistake and turn around?  Tyson, in a last ditch attempt to find a.. I mean.. any trail, tore off up the mountain.  From this point we mostly followed game trails and wandered aimlessly through the back- country of the Swans.  Our movements were now being dictated by Dan's iPhone and cellular data plan.  What had happened to that group in front of us?  We joked that they were probably across the drainage and nearing the base of Holland Peak at this point!

    (Looking South towards the South Fork Rumble Creek drainage and the Holland Peak trail)

Dan and Google Earth lead us to a clearing where we scrambled across rocky, side slopes while ingesting some much needed calories.  It was amazing how our attitudes had changed, for the better, since we had left the forest canopy and entered the open grassy meadows.  The views looking back into the valley were incredible, even with the thick gray smoke still blocking any view of the Missions.  At this point we were all concerned that we'd hit a ridge and be forced to return on that horrible route we had taken up the mountain...  Dan's iPhone indicated that a small alpine lake was not too far north from where we were cutting across the mountain.  There was still slight hope that we'd gain access to Holland Peak.

(Tyson disappearing into the shrubs and grasses near North Rumble Creek Lake)

We eventually ran into a dried-up creek bed and followed it up to North Rumble Creek Lake.  The jagged rocks surrounding the lake were incredible!  Tyson dove into the chilly, clear water as Dan and his brother caught up to us.  Spirits were high again as we climbed up another creek bed towards Upper Rumble Creek Lake and the base of Holland Peak.

(Dan and Tyson climbing up from the north Rumble Creek Lake)

(Me scouting a route to the base of Holland Peak)  *Photo by Justin Angle

The creek bed abruptly ended and spit us out into a beautiful meadow full of wild flowers.  Out of sheer luck we had managed to hit the base of Holland Peak.  While skirting South along the lake, we could hear that other group making their way up to the summit.  Every few minutes we would hear loose rock crashing down the ridge towards us and the lake.



Before I could get my pack off, Dan and Tyson were already fishing.  We could see several trout swimming lazily near shore.  Watching Dan and Tyson cast into this beautiful, blue alpine lake was surreal.  Minutes later Dan and Tyson had caught their dinner and were projecting the glow of kids on Christmas morning.  At this point none of us were interested in summiting.  The intoxicating atmosphere created by Holland Peak and Upper Rumble Creek Lake was reward enough for our early efforts.

(Dan posing with his freshly caught cutthroat trout at Upper Rumble Creek Lake)

After absorbing the beauty of Holland Peak and Upper Rumble Creek Lake, Justin and I decided to head back down via the actual Holland Peak trail.  It is always difficult to leave such beautiful places. Fortunately, Montana has so many!

(Holland Peak - 9,356 ft)

Justin and I quickly down climbed the steep, rocky trail towards yet another rumble creek lake.  By this point, the clouds had slid north leaving us to bake in the afternoon summer sun.  The temperature had to be hovering around the mid 90s.

(Lower Rumble Creek Lake with Holland Peak towering in the background)

Alas, we finally stumbled upon our first wildlife of the trip.  A family of mountain goats had congregated on some rocks just off the north shore of Lower Rumble Creek lake.  It was strange that we didn't see any wildlife while off trail for two and a half hours but only during our short stint on trail.  


Looking back I find it comical that we turned this simple out and back into a loop but I guess that is what makes being out in the wilderness so much fun.  Montana's backcountry is unpredictable,  unrelenting and exciting.  This particular trail is moderately difficult with some steep early climbing and exposure near the summit.  Our route ended up being around 8 miles long with 4,500 ft of climbing.   Holland Peak makes for a great day hike for those who start early.  My first experience in the Swans really impressed me.  The Swans have a different feel than other mountain ranges near Missoula.  I look forward to spending more time exploring them.

Originally from Strongsville, OH, I spent 8 years in Raleigh, North Carolina and have since recently moved to Missoula, MT. I have been a runner all my life and have recently started pursuing ultra marathons. Any excuse to be outside and on the trails.