UM to Renovate Popular M Trail

June 05, 2020

The M Trail rises up Mount Sentinel on the edge of the University of Montana campus.MISSOUA – In celebration of National Trails Day on June 6, the University of Montana has announced that one of the most popular hiking trails in Montana – the M Trail – is getting a makeover.    

UM’s iconic M Trail, which starts at the base of Mount Sentinel on the eastern edge of campus, serves up to 1,000 hikers daily on sunny weekends. In order to keep the trail in good working order, some major improvements are necessary to control erosion and improve access for users.

The M Trail Project is a two-year plan to repair the trail. Marilyn Marler, UM’s natural areas specialist, said the trail has experienced significant erosion over the past few years. Steps at the trailhead and beneath the M also need to be replaced.

“It is necessary to install a retaining wall directly under the M,” Marler said. “The entire trail needs to be renovated and steps at each of the 11 switchbacks along the ¾-quarter-mile trail need to be redone. In order to assure the trail is accessible and user-friendly to people of all ages who climb the steep, zigzag path to the M, this restoration project is a necessity.” 

UM is actively raising money for the project, having secured grants from the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Recreational Trails Program and REI, as well as a generous donation from Run Wild Missoula.

“The Run Wild Missoula board of directors was thrilled to be able to support this project,” said Tony Banovich, Run Wild’s executive director. “This is a trail segment that is loved by our club members and the larger Missoula community. We strongly support the planned trail improvements and encourage others to contribute to this effort.”

A generous grant from REI was made on behalf of local REI members. “REI is committed to protecting and maintaining the local trails and outdoor spaces our members love,” said Shannon Dickerson, REI outdoor programs and market outreach coordinator. The M Trail is among the most iconic trails in Missoula, and we are proud to support the much-needed restoration work for this beloved landmark.

Marler and Dr. Steve Gaskill, UM Professor Emeritus of integrative physiology and athletic training, will lead the renovation project.

“One of my goals as a retired professor in my field is to continue facilitating increased physical activity by Missoula residents to improve long-term community health,” Gaskill said. “The M Trail is an iconic Missoula landmark and possibly the most popular trail in Montana. It simply makes sense to keep it functional, maintained and accessible.”

“We had planned for a series of large community volunteer days this summer and fall, but unfortunately the COVID-19 crisis requires a different approach,” Marler said. “Instead, we are looking for small teams of volunteers – two to four people at a time – who are interested in taking on small projects under Dr. Gaskill’s mentorship.”

Here are some specific dates when volunteers are needed:

  • Friday, June 12, 9 to11 a.m. Hearty hikers are needed to carry timbers from the trailhead to the fifth switchback. Some timbers can be carried by one strong person, and some will take two people.

  • Monday and Tuesday, June 15-16, 9 a.m. to noon both days. Three to four strong volunteers are needed to help remove existing stairs at the main trailhead. Tools will be provided, but bring gloves and wear boots.

Then in late June and into autumn, small groups of friends or family members will be needed for fence projects. Email steven.gaskill@umontana.edu to assist with any of these volunteer efforts.

“We’ll just have to be creative and celebrate National Trails Day and National Public Lands Day throughout the seasons, instead of just on their traditional dates,” Marler said. “Hopefully by late fall, we can host a modest but more traditional style volunteer day on the mountain. We look forward to that happening again – they are some of my favorite times on Mount Sentinel.”

The UM Foundation is raising money for the renovation and seeks donations from the wider community. To this end, an iron ranger has been installed at the base of the M Trail to collect contributions. To learn more about the project or to make an online donation, visit http://hs.umt.edu/umnaturalareas/mTrail.php.

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Contact: Marilyn Marler, UM natural areas specialist, 406-544-7189, marilyn.marler@mso.umt.edu.