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Montana Birding and Nature Trail
Discover the Nature of Montana...

Trails and Maps


Blue Mountain Nature Trail

Fire Story: Wildfires shape the Northern Rocky Mountain landscape

This is the best place to see fire-dependent plants, insects, and birds including the Black-backed Woodpecker in the Missoula valley.

Blue Mountain Nature Trail Site Map

Within 15 minutes from downtown Missoula, you can see first-hand the restorative effect of fire on a ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir forest community. This is an exceptional opportunity to see woodpecker species, including the Black-backed and Three-toed, foraging together on bark and wood-boring beetles in fire-killed trees. In the spring and throughout most of summer you can walk along established trails that wind through hillsides carpeted with arrowleaf balsamroot, fireweed, pinegrass, and a host of other unique flowering plant species.

Field Notes

Look for woodpecker species, including the Black-backed and Three-toed, foraging together on bark and wood-boring beetles in fire-killed trees. Be sure to take some time to walk the Blue Mountain Nature Trail. Pick up a Black Mountain Fire Trail brochure and learn how plants and animals are adapted to fire. Even a few years after the 2003 fire, you can still see blackened trees, bark beetles, lots of woodpecker sign, and abundant wildflowers. Try to find evidence where the fire burned, which trees survived, and which plants might have benefited from the fire.

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Whenever you visit a forest that has recently burned, you'll see amazing evidence of fire's role in creating conditions that many organisms find nowhere else in the Rocky Mountain landscape. A number of native species depend on wildfires or wildfire-created habitats and are nearly restricted in their distribution to these habitats. Here you'll find some of these plant and animal species, including Black-backed Woodpecker, black morel mushroom, fire moss, and Bicknell's geranium that occur only after a fire.

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Cultural Link

The 2003 Black Mountain Fire started on August 8th as a lightning strike and burned slowly until it blew up on August 16th when it spread across 3600 acres in two hours. The fire prompted the evacuation of 130 homes and eventually burned about 7,000 acres. Although fires near urban areas can be threatening, the closeness and accessibility of such burned areas also provide us with a ready-made classroom to learn about fire ecology and to see unique plant and animal species.

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Viewing Tip

Resident woodpeckers can be seen throughout the year; however, June is the best time to find nesting Black-backed, Three-toed and other woodpeckers. In winter, you may find foraging flocks of woodpeckers as they feast on beetle larvae. Throughout spring and early summer, wildflowers make a spectacular showing.

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Helpful Hint

On the Blue Mountain Forest Road #365, the gate is locked during the winter months (Dec-March) one-half mile before the nature trail. You can still access the site by walking about a half-mile up the Blue Mountain National Recreation Trail to reach the burn.

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Getting There

From Highway 93, turn north onto Blue Mountain Road and travel about 1.3 miles and turn west onto Forest Road #365. The Blue Mountain Nature Trail is about 1.5 miles up Road #365.

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Lolo National Forest
Missoula Ranger District, Building 24
Fort Missoula, Missoula, MT 59804
(406) 329-3750.

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parking, hiking, interpretive trail, horseback riding

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Species of Note

  • Black-backed Woodpecker
  • Three-toed Woodpecker
  • Western Tanager
  • Townsend's Solitare
  • Western Bluebird
  • Mountain Bluebird
  • Pileated woodpecker
  • Rock Wren
  • Abundant wildflowers: glacier lily, arrowleaf balsamroot, heartleaf arnica, fireweed
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