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Hidden Havens: Finding Seclusion in the Missoula Valleys

Missoula, Mont., is often referred to as the hub of five valleys. Heading in any direction will reveal hundreds of hiking, fishing and camping destinations nestled in the surrounding mountains.

No matter who you are, there are countless places to find seclusion near this mountain town. The opportunity to escape the hustle and bustle of American life sits on the doorstep of every Missoulian, if you know where to look.

Nate Richardson, 21, is a forestry major at the University of Montana. He transferred in from Montana State University in 2014 to have better access to the public nature reserves that he loves.

One of Richardson’s favorite retreats is the Bass Creek trail near Stevensville. The 7.6-mile-long trail runs deep into the Bitterroot National Forest. Hikers pass a massive waterfall just before entering the 1.3-million-acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

A small pond begins freezing along the Bass Creek trail. Photo by Brad Lambert.

“These places are here for us to use them,” said Richardson as he tromped through the snowy trailhead. “They let you leave everything behind; they give you room to breathe.”

Richardson breaks off the trail some three miles in, descending to the side of a large, frozen pond. He points to a massive fallen tree where he sits in the summer to fish for trout.

“This place is so good. You never know what makes it so good, but it’s just so good,” said Richardson. “We’re lucky to live so close to these spots.”

During his two years in Missoula, Richardson has hiked almost one third of the 33 trails in the Bitterroot National Forest. He hopes to make his way through all the trails before finishing his undergraduate studies.

The Bitterroot isn’t the only place to go for a break from your busy life. With the Rattlesnake Wilderness to the north and the Blue Mountain Recreation Area to the west, Missoula is the ultimate crossroads for nature-lovers.

Anna Kelly, 22, is always on the prowl for unique, secluded places. As a student of the University’s environmental studies program, Kelly has a knack for discovering nature’s more secretive retreats.

A mysterious structure sits next to Ninemile Road just outside of Huson, Mont. Photo by Brad Lambert.

“There are so many places to go. It’s not time-consuming, it’s not even a day trip. You can just pick up and go,” said Kelly.

One of Kelly’s favorite spots to find solitude lies just off I-90 to the west of Huson, Mont., overlooking Ninemile Creek as it runs into the Clark Fork River is massive abandoned structure.

“I have no idea what this thing is,” Kelly said as she scaled the muddy hillside. “Maybe it was supposed to be a bridge, maybe a railroad. All I know is it’s awesome.”

Anna Kelly looks out upon the Clark Fork River from the Ninemile Overlook. Photo by Brad Lambert.

The view from the Ninemile Overlook goes on for miles. Dozens of cement beams are scattered across the manmade elevation. Kelly points out how it’s a perfect place to sit and think.

“I love when you can spot beavers down in the river. Places like this are everywhere,” said Kelly.

Many of Missoula’s riverside parks provide the chance to get away from the city without leaving it.

The Clark Fork Natural Area next to the Orange Street bridge is popular among bird-watchers and picnickers alike. The park is just off the river trail and features dense trees in all directions to increase the feeling of seclusion.

“This is the only place where I can count on spotting kingfishers,” said amateur birdwatcher Amelia Essex, 38.

While most think of Jacob’s Island Park next to the VanBuren footbridge as just a useful dog park, others can be seen reading and relaxing on the far eastern tip of the island.

The five valleys that collide in Missoula give residents access to hundreds of locations to hike, fish, mountain bike or relax. Whether right here in town or just down any highway, it’s easy to find adventure for those who look for it.

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