If it weren’t already so well know, it’d be hard to want to share the details about this gem of a backcountry spot. As close (if not closer) than Snowbowl Ski Area, you can be unloading your snowmobile (yep, you need a sled here) within 20 to 40 minutes of leaving your Missoula doorstep.* Hop in your trusty Subaru (sure, you can tow a sled with a Subie) and head out of town on I-90 East. Take the Bonner/Milltown exit and connect up with Highway 200 for just under 10 miles. You’ll see a parking/pull-out area on your right, on the river-side of the highway. If you see signs for “Gold Creek,” you’ve gone too far by a mile or so. This parking spot is on the highway above a spot known to many as “Rainbow Bend” and you’re likely to see another sled trailer or two parked here. The general understanding is that this is now the best place to park as long as you don’t block the area for school buses or snow plows that need to turn around. Plan accordingly.
Once geared up, you’ll ride your sled across the highway and catch the trail into the trees on the other side. Be sure and have a spotter and you may even need some assistance getting your sled across the paved highway, depending on how icy things are. It's about five miles up the main road (just follow the tracks) until you reach a steeper face heading up the ridge.
At this point you’ll probably want to just park the sled and bust out your skins. You can head up this face to cut off a big switchback in the main road (this section alone offers great turns with minimal fuss) or follow the road on foot up to the base of Bowl 1. From here you’ll want to choose your route up to the top of the (Wisherd) ridge that connects five different north/northeast-facing bowls. The first (Bowl 1) definitely sees the bulk of the ski traffic, more so than Bowls 2 through 4, with their more challenging entrance and exit routes. Bowl 5 sees significantly more wind and has a geography that makes it possible get newer sleds in and then back out to the ridge. This slope can be extremely slippery and was the scene of a massive avalanche in 2002 that took the lives of four local snowmobilers. Be careful.
If you go, be sure to bring your avalanche safety gear, a good map and everything you’d normally need for a big day trip out with a sled. Wisherd Ridge offers a nearly endless supply of deep, loosely-treed and wide open slopes. If you do your homework, there are also cliffs, rocks and some big chutes tucked into these five interconnected bowls. Keep your guard up when you’re out here as it is easy to think that the close proximity to Missoula makes this a docile backcountry option. It isn’t.
*This estimate is largely dependent on where you live in town and whether your gear is already organized/dry/etc. It’d be easy to add an hour or two to this if you need to pick anyone up and/or stop for batteries/gas/sandwiches/snacks/beer/etc….or turn back for forgotten goggles/keys/etc.
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