Every year, my dad takes a week off to go on a hiking vacation with his friend, Tom. This year, they planned to spend their holiday in central Idaho, but decided to swing a bit northeast first just to visit me. Their schedule just happened to put them here mere days after I moved into my new apartment, which put me in the embarrassing position of entertaining guests with only the possessions I could fit in a 1996 Geo Prism, four of those being bicycles, the rest being clothing and miscellaneous outdoor gear. I'd probably spend several weeks eating cold cereal out of plastic bowls in my camp chair had it not been for their visit. Instead, I put myself on a frantic track to acquire as many household possessions as I could within a span of days, aiming mostly for the ever-elusive appearance of normalcy. I went so far as to spend a fair chunk of my birthday driving around looking at Craigslist furniture before buying a couple of dressers from a place in Bonner - only to realize I'd have to enlist the help of my dad just to move them. Oh well. At least the house wouldn't be completely empty.
I also really wanted to show my Dad that the hiking in Missoula was every bit as spectacular as it should be, given that I live in the spectacular place that is Missoula. Problem is, I spent my first two months here almost exclusively riding my bicycle, because I was training for TransRockies, but it left me in a position of having no idea where to go for a hike. I asked friends and co-workers for advice. I did numerous Google searches. I thought I was well-prepared with knowledge, which I decided would more than make up for my lack of experience. Saturday's hike I decided would be Lolo Peak. It's a Missoula classic, I told my dad. Lolo's false summit is the most prominent feature you can see from town. Surely it would be a fantastic hike.
Skepticism began to trickle in on the drive up. My dad and Tom live in the Salt Lake Valley. They are used to 20-minute drives on smooth pavement taking them to trailheads where they can follow well-engineered, scenic trails to 11,000-foot summits. Lolo's trailhead requires 20 minutes on pavement followed by eight miles of gravel road that I assured them was "good" because I had ridden my mountain bike up there. But perspective is a bit different inside a vehicle, and they thought the approach was a bit rough and slow. But the annoying drive was quickly brushed from our minds as soon as we started up the shaded, soft trail.
After about four miles the trail dropped to a series of lakes, which we followed until the path petered out a fair distance below the summit bowl. We returned to the bowl and picked our way around the largest lake, looking for any sign of a trail. By the time we realized a trail to the summit probably did not exist, we had lost too much steam and mojo to begin the arduous task of route-finding. Another day, they declared, and we spent an hour lounging in the sun by the lake. Dad and Tom declared it a good, fun hike, but I couldn't help but feel disappointed, because I failed to deliver what I promised.I really wanted to make up for it on Sunday, but had a tough time deciding where to go. As we discussed options, nearly all of the questions centered on what the drive would be like. The one hike I had done before, St. Mary's Peak, was nixed because it involved 14 miles on a rough gravel road. Trapper's Peak was much too far south. I suggested Stewart Peak just because the trailhead starts only six miles from town, but finally admitted it had taken me six hours to do with a mountain bike (from town), and would likely take nine or more hours solely on foot. We finally decided on Ch-paa-qn, mostly because the gravel road mileage beforehand was indeterminate, but I suspected it would probably be as significant as the others.
Here's why: Missoula is at 3,100 feet. The high peaks that most hikers covet stand at 9,000 feet. Most hikers aren't looking for 6,000 feet of vertical relief in their trails. So the U.S. Forest Service routes them up rough, narrow logging roads with poor signage until a trailhead unexpectedly appears somewhere between 5,500 and 6,000 feet elevation. Dad and Tom seemed to dread these drives, and toward the end I could tell they wished we had just parked on the pavement and walked up the road. I thought Ch-paa-qn was a safe bet because it seemed like a popular hike, but I am learning that Montanans do not care where they drive their cars. (Note: Utahns do. The state is full of SUVs that have never been off pavement.) For six painful miles we inched up a road that became increasingly rockier and narrower. I'm pretty sure we never broke the 5 mph barrier. In the back seat, I developed serious carsickness and thought frequently about asking if I could just get out and run the rest of the way to the trailhead, but I kept my mouth shut. For five of those miles, I was convinced that there was no way we were on the right road, and we were going to come to a dead end and I was going to be in big trouble. But amazingly, the road arrived at a trailhead with a brand-new-looking trail sign.
And then the trail itself was gorgeous, well-maintained, well-marked, with a fun scramble at the end and fantastic 360-degree views of everywhere from the south end of Flathead Lake to the Missions to the southern Bitteroots - a 100-mile spread. We saw three other groups hiking on the trail. Tom and Dad asked all of them about the road and they just shrugged it off. One of them had driven a white Saturn to the trailhead. Dad and Tom seemed to be more impressed with that feat than they were with the difficulty of the eight-mile, 3,000-foot-gain hike. As soon as we returned to the trailhead, and it was time to drive back down, Tom said, "Now comes the hard part."
Still, I tried, and I think for the most part they enjoyed the hikes and had a good weekend. And since the hiking itself was so easy, Dad had plenty of energy for an afternoon ride. We took out the Karate Monkey and my new fixie on gravel rail trails, and much fun ensued. I think next time my Dad comes to Missoula, I'm going to take him riding.