On a warm fall day, more than 50 volunteers climbed the ridge of Mount Dean Stone with digging tools in hand to dig House of Sky, one of Missoula’s newest recreational trails.
September 25 was no ordinary Saturday, it was National Public Lands Day. This holiday typically sees an influx of volunteers to do trail work, and this year was no exception. Hosted by Mountain Bike Missoula (MTB Missoula), community members as well as co-hosts of Five Valleys Land Trust, Montana Trail Crew and Montana Conservation Corps have teamed up to continue working on the House of Sky sculpture.
The trail will likely open next year – it is about 4.5 miles and eventually connects to the High, Wide and Handsome Trail in the Mount Dean Stone Corridor. It will be open to hikers, trail runners and mountain bikers.
With views spanning the Sapphire and Bitterroot Mountains to the south and Missoula and Mount Sentinel to the north, the House of Sky Trail offers scenic vistas for a relatively moderate hike.
“Trying to create opportunities for all users’ abilities is a big part of the project. It’s a really smooth surface so it’s suitable for a wide variety of uses, ”said Brian Williams, Manager of Mountain Bike Missoula Trails. Improving access to recreational trails in the southern Missoula area is also a key component of the project.
The location the crews were working on on National Public Lands Day was a bit more rocky and steep compared to the first section of the trail, but the volunteers were still able to forge a passable surface with relative ease.
Crews began work on the trail over the summer, but National Public Lands Day welcomed a particularly large group of volunteers from all pockets of the Missoula community. Starting from a meeting area, the group, carrying various heavy-duty digging tools, climbed about two miles on an already completed trail lined with fall foliage.
Among them were Jason and Sophia Newcomer, who showed up with their two sons, Alex and Evan, aged 8 and 10.
“It’s something we all benefit from,” said Jason, adding that working on the trails is a volunteer opportunity that he and his family love to participate in to strengthen Missoulians’ access to recreation near their home.
Evan and Alex completed the trip to the construction site alongside their parents with minimal difficulty (in part because they were promised cookies at the end of the workday).
Taking only a few breaks, Evan worked alongside the adults on the trail, digging out grass, rocks, and tree roots.
Like others, Evan’s favorite part of the process is the end result of the work.
“I love the part when you pack it down and see (the trail) do,” he said.
Montana Conservation Corps senior team leader Natalie Hamel echoed Evan about the final product and added that she was particularly excited about the improved accessibility of House of Sky.
“It’s so cool that this trail is so close to town,” she said. “It’s really about connecting networks. “
Williams spearheaded the House of Sky project. Even before the various meetings involved in planning the trail, Williams ventured out into the woods on his own to assess what alignments might be possible and what things might look like. A grant for the House of Sky Trail was applied for about a year and a half ago, he said.
Williams estimates that he designed and built over 30 miles of trails in western Montana.
But volunteering opportunities go beyond creating new avenues.
Trail maintenance and upkeep is necessary to keep recreational trails in western Montana safe and accessible to the public, he said. Land managers often do not have the budgets to maintain the trails as carefully as they would like, so the onus is on the users to maintain the trails.
“Trails are resources that need maintenance and care, and this is new construction, so it’s very exciting,” said Williams.
Trail work is a volunteer opportunity open to anyone in the western Montana community. Event planners like MTB Missoula and other organizations provide the tools, instruction and advice on site.
The trail is currently not open to the public, but Williams predicts that most of the construction on House of Sky will be completed by the first snowfall, and the trail will open upside down in winter, at spring.