Running for autumn color: enjoying larch on Missoula’s trails

Running for autumn color: enjoying larch on Missoula’s trails

By Erin Clark, Run Wild Missoula Board Member

I’ve heard many fellow runners recently remark how the change in temperatures and season are significantly inspiring their recent running. I agree, and there’s a certain portion of this season I wait for with great anticipation – the time when our larch turns from just another green tree to lacy, yellow candles. In the next few weeks our hillsides will become bicolored autumn shows and the trails below these larch will temporarily be yellow needle carpeted tunnels. It’s special and I hope this post helps you to get out and make the most of this year’s larch show, which should be good the last two weeks of the month and perhaps into the first week or two of November. 

Here are a handful of local trails where western larch are plentiful:

Short runs

Lower Fenceline in the Rattlesnake, Sawmill Gulch trailhead

This is a short run, less than three miles, but it can certainly be connected with more of the Rattlesnake trail system. I recommend running this trail on a rainy day or just following a rainy day, as there will be fewer bikers out enjoying this trail during those times. 

Sam Braxton, Pattee Canyon trailhead

A few years ago the forest around this trail was thinned, which allowed the young larch along the trail to thrive. There are now lovely clusters of just over head high larch periodically along this route and you shouldn’t resist the temptation – reach out your hand and run it along one of the branches and the soft yellow needles as you pass by. There are also mature larch above you mixed in with the ponderosa pine. 

Holland Falls trail, Seeley-Swan Valley

If you have time to get out of town, but aren’t looking for a long run this trail is gorgeous this time of year. There are long views across and along the lake, craggy mountains above, and the larch reflect in long, squiggly lines across the lake. The trail is a three-mile out and back route. You’ll want to bring your phone in order to snap photos. And, on your way back to Missoula, be sure to take a detour along Boy Scout Road on Seeley Lake to stop and see Gus, the largest western larch in North America. 

Middle distance runs 

Wallman in the Rattlesnake, main Rattlesnake trailhead

This is a lovely six-mile loop from the main trailhead. You’ll get to enjoy color in the aspens and cottonwoods along the creek on your way our, as well as larch both near and far as you climb up the back side of the Wallman trail from Spring Creek. 

Woods Gulch to Three Larches loop, Woods Gulch trailhead

You’ll enjoy many more than three larches along this loop, I promise. This is a six-mile loop with a moderate amount of elevation gain, but hopefully you’ll be adequately distracted by views of larch across the valley on your way up and then enjoying the larch above you as you descend down the three larches trail, which features tremendously fun ups and downs that are worth a visit any time of the year. 

Long runs

High, Wide, and Handsome, Sousa or Barmeyer trailheads

If you’re looking for a double digit run with a good amount of climbing check out the newest trail in Missoula’s inventory, High, Wide, and Handsome on Mount Dean Stone, which also features ample larch. I think this is quickly going to become known as one of the most spectacular larch viewing trails in town. 

Bitterroot Canyons, take your pick!

The larch in and around Missoula are western larch. The larch up high on the canyon walls in the Bitterroot are subalpine larch. Subalpine larch turns yellow and loses its needles nearly a month earlier. So, don’t delay if you want to see them. Pretty much any Bitterroot Canyon you run will have subalpine larch high up on the canyon walls once you get a decent way into the canyon. And if you go all of the way to the end of many of the canyons you’ll actually be among the larch. Subalpine larch are shorter and often grow in unique forms, unlike the western larch that are classically tall and triangular. Subalpine larch have significant character. Hope you get to meet some of them in the Bitterroot, just go soon! 


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