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Montana Birding and Nature Trail
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Pattee Canyon Recreation Area

Wildlife in the big pines

There are few places left in the Missoula area where you can find old-growth ponderosa pine and western larch.

 
Pattee Canyon Recreation Area

Field Notes

Pattee Canyon contains many fine trails, but the best place to start is at the Sam Braxton trailhead. The old-growth ponderosa pine and western larch will amaze you. As you walk through the forest, listen for the high-pitched, "see, see, cecil, see" song of the brown creeper. Scan the canopy for Townsend's Warblers and Western Tanagers. Look for Hermit Thrush in the brushy understory. In spring, the little creek at the beginning of the trail holds water. This is a good spot for Winter Wren, Orange-crowned and MacGillivray's Warblers. Check out the lodgepole pine along the upper trail for Three-toed Woodpecker. Goshawks have nested here in the past and even a pair of Great Gray Owls. The small, migratory Flammulated Owls also nests in the area. Visit the open meadow to the north of the picnic area to hunt for butterflies, dragonflies and other fascinating insects. You can find calypso orchids underneath the ancient trees. Please do not pick any wildflowers, especially orchids.

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Conservation

Pattee Canyon supports an old-growth ponderosa pine and western larch forest with some of the trees hundreds of years old. Historically, park-like, low-elevation ponderosa pine forests were thinned out periodically by fires that occurred about every decade or so, giving the surviving trees more sunlight, water and room to grow bigger. Fire suppression, logging and human development has made it harder to find stands of these big, old pine. Two large wildfires have burned within the Pattee Canyon area in the last 25 years-one a 1,200-acre fire on the northwest edge in 1977, and another 2,000-acre fire, which started at the base of Mt Sentinel that burned up and over the mountain in 1985.

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Cultural Link

The canyon is named after David Pattee, an early Bitterroot Valley settler, who filed a homestead claim for some land near the mouth of the canyon. In 1926, the Forest Service acquired the 1,600 acre timber reserve established here in the late 1800s. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps members constructed the first picnic area.

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Viewing Tip

You'll find the best birding in the spring and summer, but there's something to see year round. During winter, you can find tracks in the snow left by snowshoe hare, red squirrel, and short-tailed weasel.

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Helpful Hint

The trails can be confusing, so be sure to check out the map on the trailhead bulletin board or pick up a brochure at the Lolo National Forest before you go. In winter, you'll find great cross-country skiing in Pattee Canyon because it stays cool and snowy. The Missoula Nordic Ski Club and the Forest Service keep the trails around the picnic area groomed.

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Getting There

Take southwest Higgins Avenue to Pattee Canyon Drive. Turn east and go about 3.5 miles to either the Pattee Canyon picnic area or a little farther up where the pavement ends at the Sam Braxton Trails parking area.

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Contact

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

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Facilities

picnic area, restrooms, hiking, cross-country ski trails, mountain biking.

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Species of Note

  • Goshawk
  • Flammulated Owl
  • Brown Creeper
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Three-toed Woodpecker
  • Townsend's Warbler
  • Orange-crowned Warbler
  • Calypso orchid
  • Snowshoe hare
  • Short-tailed weasel
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