Rattlesnake Creek (Missoula, MT)

[Please use this map for reference: http://dnrc.mt.gov/rwrcc/Compacts/usdacompact/basins/78ShooflyMeadows.jpg]

Rattlesnake Creek is fed by the mountains in the Rattlesnake Wilderness just north of Missoula, Montana. It flows out of the wilderness, through a recreation area, through severl residential neighborhoods, under I-90 and into the Clark Fork river right downtown. In the right season it provides a fun and accessible packrafting adventure. Paved roads make the lower section accessible, and a dirt two track open to non-motorized use parralels the entire upper section. Hiking or biking to the put in are possible, and the proximity to I-90 makes it a nice drive-by run for travelers and visitors.

Because of its small drainage, Rattlesnake Creek is only suitable for floating during spring runoff, likely mid May through early to mid July in most years. There is no gauge, but a visual inspection from any of the road or pedestrian bridges should make it obvious whether its in shape or not. If you have any doubt that its floatable, it probably isn’t.

The creek is best described in four different sections, which I’ll do in a minute. Before I do that I should note that Rattlesnake, like most small mountain creeks, has plenty of wood in it. Be very aware of logjams and sweepers, as good floating conditions are synonymous with fast water and small eddys.

The uppermost section of Rattlesnake is above Franklin Bridge, where the East Fork enters and the drainage takes a 90 degree turn north. The gradient is substantially steeper than the rest of the creek, and the water reflects this. Hard shellers have run most of this section at V+. The narrow slots and continuous pushy water put this well beyond my skills. Leaving the road a 1/4 mile or so before Franklin Bridge lets you bushwack to the creek with relative ease and put in where the gradient has eased and the creek slowed.

The section from the East Fork confluence to a bit below Pilcher Creek is characterized by fast water, multiple channels, and wood. I found the boating here quite nerve wracking. The mandatory portages are many, and come up quick. In two sections, long-term beaver residency has turned the creek into a maze of strainers and downed 20"+ logs. It was fun once, but I’m not sure I’ll run it again.

The section from right above Fraser Gulch to the parking area (the end of the road, where Woods Gulch comes in on the map, above) is money. Continuous big riffles, 2-3’ wave trains, and great scenery. From the parking area you can hike up in about an hour, and run down in a comparable amount of time. As of 6/19/10 there are two river wide log jams just downstream of the first place the dirt two-track trail comes right down next to the creek. After those are dealt with there is one more river wide logjam (portage on river left) a few bends further, then two pine sweepers that are almost river wide. I portaged these last two on the first go, then ran them today. I’ll be doing this run as many times as I can before the water drops.

The section from the parking area down to the Clark Fork is characterized by variety. There is a dam a half mile below the first road bridge, and plenty of signs warning you about it. You’ll have plenty of visual warning when you get there, as the city water company has built a large concrete retention lake on river left before the dam. A brushy trail and bog on river left lead up to the main Rattlesnake biking and hiking trail. It’s probably easiest to walk this for 1/4 mile until it drops back down next to the creek. You can put in sooner, but it involves bushwacking. The creek spreads out a bit in this section, and is the only one where I was consistently scrapping and running aground. There are still some big riffles and plenty of bends, with bank sweepers omnipresent. On 6/19/10 I found one river wide log that had just enough water to be boofable. I found out because I can up on it quick enough that I had no choice. So be careful. You also get the unique experience in this section of floating by peoples backyards, and under a variety of bridges and one restaurant. Exit into the Clark Fork and take out right in downtown, with all the foods and beverages you could want an easy walk away.

In summary, for those passing through during spring I’d highly recommend a run on section three.