Saturday, November 5, 2016

Ninemile high points

I have tended to shy away from trails in the Ninemile, citing long road drives, short trails, and poor trail maintenance.  But, by biking from the valley, the peaks of the Ninemile become engaging outings with sub-30 minute drives from Missoula.  Since my poor broken big toe is still on the mend from an unfortunate growler-to-toe accident, it seemed prudent to mix a lot of biking into these outings.  No worries, because I have always enjoyed time on a bike.

Ch-paa-qn + Edith preak road loop
I rolled out from the bottom of the Sixmile road in the dark on a foggy Saturday morning.  By daybreak, I had passed the Ninemile ranger station, and was well up the Edith peak road.  There were a lot of hunters, but I figured a bright blue shirt and blinking bike light should be sufficient to identify myself as a human.  Sunrise was spectacular, especially with the valley shrouded in undercast.  It was fun to grind away at a moderate pace, and I was at the Reservation divide less than two hours after leaving the car,  After a quick transition to running shoes, I ran the Reservation divide trail to the base of the peak, then slip slid my way up through bear grass and frosty talus to the summit.  Ch-paa-qn has one of the most striking views around, especially of the Missions and Flathead valley, and the undercast added to the drama.  A bitter wind on the summit was not sufficient to dampen my spirits.

Sunrise!  It was a lot more striking in person. 
Summit view out to the Missions.

Thumbs up while looking South along the Reservation divide.
Summit view looking down the Ninemile to the Bitterroot and Graves creek ranges.
In deference to big broken left toe, I took my time carefully descending frosty talus to the trail, and made it without a single toe stub.  The run out to the road was fun.  From the trailhead, I skimmed along muddy roads for a few miles toward Edith peak before layering up for the cold downhill ride to Sixmile.  With my mountain bike out of commission, I was on the cross bike, and was not looking forward to bone jarring ride down. But it went quickly enough, and I was soon spinning out the last few miles to the truck.  4.45 at steady aerobic pace.  30++ miles.

Adding a bike component to the outing shortens the drive to 25 minutes from town, and makes it a more fulfilling outing. There are a ton of good road loops in the Sixmile/Ninemile.  Just doing the Edith peak road loop would be a very good 3 hour circuit, but it is only one of many good road circuits. I need to do Ch-paa-qn from the house some day as a grand loop, riding to Ravalli, jamming up to the Reservation divide from the east, and returning to town via the Edith peak and the frontage road.

Three lakes peak + Ninemile tour
I was able to take an afternoon off from a busy work schedule and play.  With peaks of the Ninemile largely below snowline, I decided to park at the Ninemile house, bike a bunch of flat dirt road to the head of the drainage, and run Three lakes peak.  The ride up the drainage was fast and delightful, aside from being chastised by a hunter for not wearing orange (I assumed a biker clad in neon green was sufficiently visible).  After a quick bike to running shoes transition at the trailhead, I started jogging up.  Montana Trail Crew runners cleared the trail last year, and it is still in good running shape.  Soon enough, I had climbed to Burnt Fork pinnacle, traversed the beautiful high single track to the peak, and hiked snowy talus to the west summit.  It was another beautiful day to be out.
Rolling a few miles in.  Three lakes peak looking white in the far distance.
Still a long way to go on the bike.
Cruising the trail out to Three lakes peak.
Looking out to the Missions.
Looking south along the Reservation divide to Ch-paa-qn and the Missoula valley.
The return to the bike was fun, running freely, and chasing the sunset.  To my surprise, the deproach bike was much faster than the approach (I didn't think 500 vertical feet in 20 miles would make much of a difference), and I was back at the car in plenty of time to watch the Cubs crush the Indians to win the World Series.  6.35 at a steady aerobic pace, 50 miles plus or minus.  I can only imagine how stunning this outing would be in early October before the cottonwood leaves have fallen along the creek, and when the larch have just turned brilliant yellow.
Fall in the upper Ninemile during the egress run.
Last rays of sunlight on the ride out.
Back at the car.  Not even dark!  psyched.
Stark mountain + Rennick access road
Looking south down the Ninemile to the Missoula valley from the summit of Stark mountain
After a morning of cheering Leah on at the Elk Ramble 15k, I was able to sneak out for the afternoon.  With limited time before dark, I decided to hit up the Ninemile one last time.  I ended up driving five miles or so up the drainage to the bottom of the Rennick access road and biking from there.  The dirt road to the trailhead is slow and frustrating in a car, but it was pure joy on a bike.  I was running in a little under an hour from leaving the car.  The trail to Stark was also pure joy - basically 4,000 vertical feet of steep but runnable grade from the trailhead to the top.  I did it in a push, and was on the summit well ahead of schedule.  
Dirt road riding to the trailhead.
Nearing the lookout.
A long shadow, Ninemile valley, Ch-paa-qn, and the Missions.
 The run down was faster and smooth, and an uneventful bike ride out had me back at the car about an hour faster than anticipated.  Really nice way to spend a perfect fall afternoon.  I didn't do any mileage checking, but probably a little under 30 miles and 5k vert, done in 3.48 at a bright aerobic pace (I went a little too hard today).

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