03 August 2011

"Running" Bozeman's M Trail

photo courtesy of AllBozeman.com
Veer right at the trailhead and you'll quickly find a rather nondescript sign warning, "Steep trail, hike at your own risk" (or something to that effect -- verbatim memory of the exact words has been overwritten [sort of like a mental palimpsest] by memories of a dehydrating, scree-scrambling run up a near-vertical trail). Gazing up from the parking lot, the College M certainly appears far away, but not impossibly so. A runner is likely to find reassurance from the easy pitch and nicely manicured surface. At least for the first few meters. If not deterred by the sun blazoned white sign with foreboding black text (oddly reminiscent of a sign one might find along a seldom traveled country [most likely gravel] road), the runner will be rewarded with a short, albeit lung scorching and leg burning, ascent to one of the finest views of the Gallatin Valley. A quick drive from downtown Bozeman (approximately six miles north/northeast of downtown), the College M Trail is relatively accessible to nearly all tourists, students, and full-time residents. Despite its proximity, the trail should not be confused with a casual Sunday stroll. That said, there are a few trail options with varying degrees of difficulty. Depending upon your fondness for steepness and/or desire for shaded switchbacks, there are a handful of approaches to suite nearly all fitness levels. Water, sturdy footwear, and a positive attitude should suffice (you can probably leave the bear spray at home for this excursion). Speedy traverse and elevated heart rate are negotiable (or at least the specific numbers).

view from the seemingly innocent trailhead
I'll leave the details to the experts:

Description from TripAdvisor.com
"The large white M that overlooks Bozeman from the south slope of Baldy Mountain is accessible from a trailhead and trails managed by the Gallatin National Forest. The trailhead is located on Rt 86 at the mouth of Bridger Canyon. The 250-ft long letter M was made from whitewashed rocks built by students from Montana State University in 1915. 
The vertical elevation from trailhead to the top of the M is approximately 850 ft. The elevation  at the M is approximately 5,800 ft. Elevation at the trailhead is approx 4,950 ft. There are multiple trails ranging from medium to hard. The western trail (turn left at the trailhead) is easier, with many switchbacks and a more meandering trail to the top. There are some very nice outlooks over the Gallatin Valley from this trail. Part of the trail cuts through fir and juniper forest. There are some alternate trails up this side. 
The eastern trail runs up the ridge, and is a more direct and shorter route. However, the steep slope on rock requires more caution, hiking boots and possibly walking stick(s).This trail offers better views of Bozeman and the surrounding area and mountains. Hiking down this trail is hazardous because of loose stone and rock, use caution. The main trail up through the Bridger Mountain Range branches off from this route about halfway up. 
Plan on up to 2 hours for up and down trip with time at the top to rest and take pictures. Trails are not marked, but well worn paths are sufficient for non-winter hiking. A water bottle is suggested. Winter hiking is not suggested without proper equipment and training."
these colorful caterpillars are frequent running companions along the M Trail
can anyone identify the species?
summit photo after a leg burning 12 minute,
16 second "run" up the eastern branch of the trail  
Sampling of informative warnings from AllBozeman.com
The right fork leading to the M is steep, following the ridge. The left fork to the M is a kinder, gentler ascent, via switchbacks. 
Located on the south side of Baldy Mountain overlooking Gallatin Valley, the “M” trail is accessed via the trailhead at Route 86 in Bridger Canyon. The “M” rock letter formation sits about 6,000 feet high from the roughly 5,000-foot high trailhead. 
Winter can make hiking the M more difficult due to low temperatures and snow so take any necessary precautions and wear appropriate gear. Early summer through fall is the most popular time to hike the M and hikers are advised to bring water, a hat, wear sturdy shoes, and watch for sliding rock.
photo op at the M before running down the longer, but less
steep, more switchbacked, and nicely shaded western trail