Route Description: Sheep Mountain Loop

A good place to nap? Sheep Mountain Summit and its signature rock shelter. 
Sheep Mountain serves as the high point for what can be considered Missoula's classic backcountry running loop. It's basically a marathon through the mountains that starts and finishes at Missoula's beloved Rattlesnake trailhead. As far as loops go, Sheep Mountain is pretty much as good as it gets.

It's unclear how long people have been running the Sheep Mountain Loop. 20, 30, 60 years? Time immemorial? Sections of the route were likely trampled by famed Missoula author Norman Maclean as he and his brother Paul purportedly day hiked over this landscape from Missoula to their family cabin at Seeley Lake--some 50 miles by the crow flies. To cover that much ground they surely must have run some of it! 
A cirque off Wisherd Ridge and Sheep Mountain. Potomac Valley in the distance
Johnny Wasatch Hart tells of an unsanctioned trail run on the loop in the early 1990s. Runners and bikers traveled side-by-side through the mountains that day in what has evolved over time into an event of legendary proportions. A 1990s mountain running version of the "Aber Day Kegger."  

Then there's the mountain bikers. The loop has been called "Missoula's test piece" bike ride, it's "best ride," and "one of the best rides in Montana." The loop takes a special place among the fat tire set for covering a lot of ground in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area without ever crossing a Wilderness boundary. This allows our mechanized brethren an opportunity to link together some spectacular trails. But don't worry about running into many of them. It features some rugged terrain that's a lot easier on two feet than two wheels. On your Sheep Mountain long run you're just as likely to run into elk or bears as you are bikes!
Bear track on bike track near Franklin Bridge.
The Sheep Mountain loop is a great run in either direction, but I prefer clockwise. The 8 miles on the main Rattlesnake trail (515) between the trailhead and Franklin Bridge feels a whole lot better as a warm up than a painfully long slog home. The Sheep Mountain singletrack cuts off from the main corridor about a quarter mile past Franklin Bridge. After three miles it hits a fairly confusing trail junction, but either way leads you up the ridge to the Sheep Mountain Trail (#513), which brings you to the summit and eventually back to the trailhead. 
There are signs if you need them
Once on the ridge you get a brief respite from the climb before ascending the peak with a 1500’ switch-backy climb over the final two miles. 
View from the top
The descent involves some exposed ridge running--the highlight of any run--along Wisherd Ridge but mostly follows a rolling singletrack that drops at a rate similar to coming off Stuart Peak (500’ - 700’ per mile). Four miles of the descent in the vicinity of Blue Point travels along the head of the Marshall Drainage (easily identified by its ski runs) and a handful of numbered trails break off from the main route. As long as you don't drop too far into that drainage they all seem to lead to the same place, but take care stay atop that drainage until beyond the old Marshall Mountain Ski Area. The trail comes out at the Woods Gulch trailhead where you simply follow the road back to the main parking lot.

Here's a short video of the Crew running Sheep a few years back (counter-clockwise direction):

Strava Generated Vitals: 25.3 miles, 5,123 feet of vertical
USFS directions to the trailhead: From Interstate 90 in Missoula, take the Van Buren Street exit #105 and head north. Van Buren Street will turn into Rattlesnake Drive. Stay on Rattlesnake Drive for approximately 3 miles until you reach the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area entrance. Travel another 0.25 mile and turn left on Sawmill Gulch Road. The trailhead will be on the right after about 0.25 mile.


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