Saint Mary Peak is one of the most accessible 9,000+ ft peaks in the Bitterroot Mountains and offers spectacular views. On a clear day, you can easily pick out the mountains of the MIssion, Swan, Rattlesnake, Garnet, and Lewis and Clark Ranges to the north and northeast, the Sapphires and John Day Mountains to the east, The Flint Creek and Anaconda Ranges to the east and southeast, The Beaverhead and Bitterroot mountains to the south, and the low but rugged Clearwater mountains in the west.
In summer, St. Mary is an easy day hike along a well-maintained trail and is a suitable peak for strong children. (7 and 9 year olds have stood on the summit! ) The lookout at the top is staffed and operational during the fire season (usually July - October), and the staffer doesn't mind visitors. In the spring, the peak offers excellent ski opportunities in its many bowls as well as varying levels of difficulty.
St. Mary carries 2,000 feet of prominence.
Note: The name of this peak is a singular noun: "Saint Mary," not be confused with the plural version in the nearby Mission Range, "East Saint Marys Peak." This is the way they are designated by the USGS and should be referred to as such.
Getting ThereDrive south on Hwy 93 from Stevensville, Montana. South of the "Y", look for Indian Loop Road on the right. Turn right (west) for about 1.5 miles, following the trailhead signs. Turn right (north), following signs, for 1/2 mile. Turn left (west) here (on FS road 739) and continue to the road's end, staying left on the path MOST traveled by, about 10 miles.
Saint Mary Trailhead
From the trailhead, 99% of parties follow the well-maintained trail to the summit. Along the lower third of the trail is a spring that one can use to fill up water bottles. The spring is off the left side of the trail and has been improved with a trough so it is obvious.
The trail slowly gains elevation before it starts traversing along the saddle of the southeast ridge, where the summit comes into view. After this the trail switchbacks relentlessly along the open south face and along the southeast ridge to the summit.
One of the "highlights" of the journey is the "open air" toilet situated somewhat between the summit benchmark and the lookout tower. It is probably the most amazing view you'll ever have while "dropping a deuce!"
When to ClimbYou can usually drive to the trailhead from May through November. The trail follows the south side of the ridge, and is snow-free for most of the summer. Winter access is more limited, as the trailhead is at 6800 feet and some portions of the road have a north exposure. In late fall or early spring, snowpack on the road may make the trailhead unreachable in a vehicle. It is possible to park along the road at a lower location, and then ski up the road, or take a more direct skin/snowshoe route up the ridge to the trailhead.
Generally, winter conditions along the first 2 miles of trail are good for skiing. Above the wilderness boundary, the trail is quite windblown, and it's usually easier to take a direct route up the ridge. Above 8000 feet, expect varying snowpack and windblown drifts, as well as possible icy slopes, depending on conditions. Winter winds often sweep most of the accumulated snow from the upper 1000 feet of the mountain .
Backcountry SkiingSt. Mary is one of my favorite destinations for backcountry spring skiing. There are numerous lines and ample places to camp. McCalla Lakes basin is an excellent place for your weekend base camp. For purposes of SP, I will divide the skiing into four areas:
The northeast bowl is accessed by walking north along the ridge from the summit lookout for a couple hundred feet. Picking a line here is daunting, as the slope is 40-45 degrees in places near the top. Angling skier's right during the descent, one should make it over to the ridge between this and the southeast bowl for the easiest (shortest!) escape route.
The southeast bowl is accessed along the southeast ridge leading to the summit. This bowl contains one major pitch and careful route-finding at the bottom will allow one to cross the saddle back to the trail without gaining any elevation.
South Bowls (McCalla Lakes Basin):
The south bowls can be accessed from the summit in early season, by traversing along the snow-free southwest ridge in late season, or by climbing directly from the Upper McCalla Lake. Excellent camping can be found here and most descents will allow you to ski right up to your tent. Here I have found the most consistent spring corn; the northeast bowl was avalanche-prone with wet slabs during our last visit but the south bowl were absolutely perfect!
West Bowls: The west bowls can be accessed by crossing the divide between the south and west bowls and traversing around towards point 8990. This is the most remote skiing as it will necessitate climbing back into the south bowls to escape.
Camping and Red TapeUsual National Forest and Wilderness regulations.
You can usually drive to the trailhead from May through November, and the road is ungated.
Limited parking at the trailhead; arrive early!!
You can access the lookout tower year-round, camping is possible in the tower in the spring before it is staffed. On the east (facing the valley) side of the tower, crawl through the door at knee level.
Current Route ConditionsWeather and Avalanche Conditions:
Western Montana Avalanche Center Forecast (December through March only!)
National Weather Service in Missoula
National Weather Service Automated Surface Observation Stations (SNOTEL, RAWS, etc)
Local Web Cams:
Ridgeway Pharmacy Webcam in Stevensville This webcam is user controllable!! You can zoom, tilt, etc. A great tool!
USFS Airquality Webcam near Stevensville shows area around Little and Big St. Joseph peaks, Gash Point, etc. Gives a good idea of the area weather.
Bitterroot SNOTEL sites:
Saddle Mountain, 7900', near Lost Trail Pass
Nez Perce Camp, 5650' west of Darby
Twin Lakes, 6400', near Lost Horse
Lolo Pass, 5240'