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Rattlesnake Wilderness and National Recreation Area

Rattlesnake Wilderness and National Recreation Area

Rattlesnake Wilderness and National Recreation Area

Page Type: Area/Range

Location: Montana, United States, North America

Lat/Lon: 47.04077°N / 113.9333°W

Object Title: Rattlesnake Wilderness and National Recreation Area

Activities: Hiking, Mountaineering, Bouldering, Scrambling, Skiing

Season: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter


Page By: caverpilot

Created/Edited: Apr 4, 2008 / Jan 28, 2015

Object ID: 393952

Hits: 14490 

Page Score: 81.45%  - 14 Votes 

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Looking north from Missoula
The Rattlesnake from Missoula

The Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness (RNRAW) are in Missoula, Montana's back yard. The Rattlesnake is the closest Wilderness Areas to a major metropolitan area (2nd if you consider a "wilderness" area in the midwest). 

From the Missoula valley, the Rattlesnake looks pretty tame. It is only until one ventures into the high country that one can get a good idea of what this area entails - endless opportunities for hiking, biking, fishing, backpacking, skiing, are more. More than 73 miles of trails cover the area.

Many of the 30+ high mountain lakes are stocked with fish, and the area contains an excellent sampling of the state's wildlife, including black bears, mountain lions, mountain goats, big horn sheep, deer, elk, coyotes and marmots. Hawks, eagles, and osprey soar the skies.

The slopes are carpeted with sub-alpine fir, lodgepole pine, and spruce sloping down to open Douglas fir and ponderosa pine parklands.

Nine trailheads are available to non-tribal members. The northern border of the Wilderness connects to the South Fork Jocko Tribal Primitive Area, which is open only to Flathead Indian Reservation (Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes) members.

Stuart Peak
Stuart Peak

In 1980, Congress set aside 61,000 acres in the Rattlesnake drainage to foster watershed, recreation, wildlife, and education. 28,000 acres were designated a National Recreation Area; the remaining 32,976 acres were designated wilderness.

The highest peak in the Rattlesnake is McLeod Peak at 8,620 feet above sea level and carries 3,000 feet of clean prominence.

Other named, high peaks include:
Murphy Peak, 8167'
Mosquito Peak, 8057'
Stuart Peak, 7960'
Point Six, 7920'
Triangle Peak, 7800'
Sheep Mountain, 7650' (1995 FS map)
Mineral Peak, 7444' (1995 FS map)
Boulder Point, 7280'


Mosquito Peak
Mosquito Peak, Missoula and the Bitterroots in the background. 

(from USFS brochure found at trailhead kiosk)

"The Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness (RNRAW)has a long and interesting history. The are was used by the Salish long before settlers arrived in the 1800s. In 1972, human remains were found along Rattlesnake Creek that dated back to around 1460 A.D. The first known permanent white settler in the drainage was Bill Hamilton who settled near the mouth of Rattlesnake Cree in 1858 and operated a trading post until 1864. By the 1870s a neighborhood known as Shacktown was located on the west side of the creek just north of Missoula. By 1890, the upper Rattlesnake drainage (north of the Mountain Water Co. dam) had 12 residents. The population of the upper drainage skyrocketed and peaked at 139 people by 1910. In the early 1900s, there were as many as 19 homes in the upper drainage with amenities such as mail and newspaper delivery. In 1911, there was a phone line that ran up to the Franklin Guard Station and up over the ridge to Gold Creek. A school as built near the confluence of Spring and Rattlesnake creeks and operated from 1907 to 1930. The population had declined to 44 inhabitants by 1930.

The Montana Power Company built 10 dams on eight lakes in the present day Rattlesnake Wilderness between 1911 and 1923 to augment the water supply for the City of Missoula. These dams and the water rights were sold to Mountain Water Company in 1979 and are still operated and maintained today as a backup water supply for the City of Missoula. By 1937, Montana Power Company had purchased all the private land in the upper drainage on the west side of the Rattlesnake Creek to protect the watershed.

The National Recreation Area and Wilderness was established by an Act of Congress on October 19, 1980. At that time over one third of the area in the RNRAW was in private ownership. In 1983, over 21,000 acres in RNRAW were acquired by the Forest Service from the Montana Power Company. The main trailhead you see today was built in 1987. The horse trailhead was built in 1992.

There are at least two stories about how Rattlesnake Creek got its name. According to one account, a man bitten by a rattlesnake died in the 1800s while gathering firewoood along the creek. Another version suggests the name came from the Salish word, "Heh-oo-lew-wh" which means rattlesnake.

The upper RNRAW is less developed today than it was a hundred years ago when the upper drainage included cabins, farmsteads, mines, a school, a Ranger Station, motorized use, firewood cutting and outfitters. The Rattlesnake is a restoration success story. Today the main issues on the creek are recreation, noxious weeds and fuels management."

Camping, Bicycles, and Red Tape


The area within three miles of the main trailhead is referred to as the SOUTH ZONE. It includes the main trailhead, the horse trailhead, Sawmill, Woods, Spring and Curry Gulches, and the area south of Curry Trail to Kench Meadow, over to Poe Meadow, and southeast to the recreation area boundary.

There is No camping, fires, discharging firearms, or fireworks within the South Zone.

are allowed to be off-leash beyond 1.3 miles in Spring Gulch and 1.7 miles on Rattlesnake Creek.

Dogs are prohibited:
Dec 1 - May 15 in Spring Gulch
Dec 1 - Feb 28 on Rattlesnake Creek
Yearlong in Sawmill and Curry Gulches,
for protection of water quality and to reduce wildlife conflicts.

Dogs are permitted, however, year-round in Woods Gulch, unleashed!

Bicycling can be done on any of the roads or system trails outside of the wilderness area. There are a couple of nice single-track loops. Check/Post to Mtbpost.org for more info. No bicycling off-trail or in posted areas.

You can drive to nine different trailheads that access the wilderness but it cannot be entered through the South Fork Jocko Primitive Area on the Flathead Indian Reservation as this area is open to tribal members only.
Murphy Peak
Murphy Peak


Rattlesnake WildernessMosquito PeakStuart PeakSanders LakeSanders Lake CuttyGlacier LakeNice view of Mission Mtns from Rattlesnake
Murphy PeakRight in our backyard.Sick BirdLooking north from Missoula