Trail of the Month: April 2011
Montana's Kim Williams Nature Trail
A fly fisherman casts into the shallows of the Clark Fork River as a tangle of tubers whisks along in the main current. On the riverbanks, a high school cross-country team beats out a run as the sun cranes higher over the Bitterroot Mountains. You're in western Montana, and Missoula is rippling with activity. And you can reel in everything—from the splash of the riverside to the cool shadows of Mount Sentinel—on the 4.2-mile Kim Williams Nature Trail.
Missoula is renowned for its walkability. You can pick up a bike lane, sidewalk or trail from nearly any intersection in the city of 60,000. Yet since pathways crisscross Missoula like plaid on a shirt, it can be hard to know where one trail ends and another begins. What you need is a visual anchor to help orient yourself. Around here, that anchor is 5,200-foot Mount Sentinel.
From nearly every point in the city, you can spot the concrete "M" on the west face of Mount Sentinel. The mountain rises sharply at attention, stark and treeless where it faces the sun; the "M" stands out like a cattle brand. Switchback your way up the short but steep "M-Trail" to climb more than 600 feet: You won't get a better view of Missoula than when you rest your tuckered legs on that "M," the valley unfolding below you like a picnic blanket.
Looking down, against the mountainside are Grizzly Stadium and the University of Montana. Just north of the stadium, curled between the campus and the Clark Fork River, is a narrow corridor that winds out of sight behind Mount Sentinel to the east.
What you're surveying is hallowed ground in railroad history. This corridor has a proud pedigree as part of the Milwaukee Road, which once stretched all the way from the Great Lakes to Puget Sound. The Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad began construction of the line in 1906, with the extension from the West Coast completed at Gold Creek, Mont., in 1909. (Later, the line became part of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad.) Because the Milwaukee Road had to cover rugged mountain passes, where winter temperatures dipped into the extreme negatives, more than 656 miles of the line used electric rather than steam locomotives. Today, the Kim Williams Nature Trail retraces 4.2 miles of this historical route through the heart of Missoula.
To pick up the pathway, you'll head just west of North Hickory Street to a small rotary of three paved trails. To the south, you could cruise out of town on the Bitterroot Branch Trail, which follows an active rail line toward Lolo. To the north and west, you could head off on short segments of the paved Riverfront Trail. It's not an entirely fluid system, and construction along some sections has created a gap or two—which leads to the issue of signage.
But for its mileposts, the Kim Williams Nature Trail is not clearly marked or differentiated from these other routes. Yet once you've located the rotary at Mile 0, you can continue east uninterrupted for the duration.
As you begin on the Kim Williams, you'll dip through a short railroad underpass and then a blink of a tunnel. North of you, if you spot the lights, is the stadium for the Ospreys of Minor League Baseball; they're a farm league team for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The trail soon buddies up to the riverbanks and heads into Toole Park's emerald fields. Later in the summer, you'll pass high school football teams hustling through preseason drills, and beach towels will quilt the riverbanks with sunbathers. (Highs in the 80s are common in August, even with overnight lows that can dip into the 40s.)
Ahead on your right is Grizzly Stadium, and just before it is a relic of the old Milwaukee Road: a restored railroad signal post. These signals were electronically connected to circuits in the railroad tracks, called blocks, located at regular intervals of two miles. Used like modern traffic lights, the signals announced whether a block was clear of trains.
Once past the stadium, you enter the Kim Williams Nature Area. Here, the paved trail transitions into a bumpier gravel for the final 2.5 miles. You're sandwiched between the sheer wall of Mount Sentinel and the drop-off to the Clark Fork, the largest river in Montana. This is suddenly much wilder country, home to a few mountain lions, and it offers a fitting tribute to the trail's namesake.
Kim Williams was a naturalist and writer who lived in Missoula in her later years. She had a local radio show about simple living, wrote a column on wildflowers and plants for the Missoulian newspaper, and she was a long-time contributor on NPR's All Things Considered program until shortly before her death in 1986. Today, Kim Williams Fellowships are awarded to graduate journalism students at the University of Montana who are interested in environmental reporting.
As you leave the city behind, a Missoula-based Montana Rail Link train chugs along—across the water and parallel to Interstate 90—on tracks originally built by the Northern Pacific Railway. The rail line eventually bridges the river diagonally and heads off the Kim Williams Nature Trail. An undeveloped dirt path continues ahead precariously close to the railbed, but trespassing along this route is prohibited. A road block is your cue to head back to town.
As sunset burns an orange halo over the western rim of the Bitterroot Mountains, Lolo Peak, at 9,139 feet, casts a hulking, hazy silhouette to the south. And as darkness falls, you'll find yourself already dreaming of sunrise and the start of a new day in Missoula's outdoors playhouse.
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