Running Missoula’s Wildflower Wave

Running Missoula’s Wildflower Wave by Erin Clark

Spring is about building your base, celebrating running in shorts again, getting back into terrain that was inaccessible during winter, and wildflowers! My May runs are often fueled by ‘hunts’ for the next flower species that is due to appear. It’s one of the many running delights of Missoula – the fact that our trails provide us access to a wide variety of elevations, aspects, and forest types where there is a whole crescendo of blooming plants this time of year.

Like anything related to the seasons, there’s some variation from year-to-year, but here are some hopefully reliable suggestions for getting out this month to see some of the best of our local blooms.

First week of May

By this time you can see some of the earliest arrowleaf balsamroot blooms (the showy yellow sunflowers) in the North Hills as you drive by on I-90. Make sure get out for a rambling run this week in these North Hill trails. If you start from the Orange Street trailhead you can enjoy the balsamroot and then up near the top of Waterworks Hill you’ll find our unique Missoula phlox (low cushions of pink and white flowers), shooting stars (purple flares), woodland stars (small white flowers with petals grouped in twos), and more. Also, these trails are sure to be completely snow free and not muddy by this time, in almost any year.

North Hills Balsamroot

Second week of May

Although it’s not a bright sunny hillside, like where you ran last week, the Woods Gulch trail is worth a visit around the middle of the month. Here you’ll experience plants and flowers that thrive in a moist, shady environment, such as trillium (leaves and petals in threes), glacier lilies (yellow flowers on a thin stem with two glossy leaves), and the delicate white flowers of clasping-leaved twisted stem (this plant resembles its name). Trilliums are fascinating. When the flowers are young they will be white in color, and as they age they will become shades of pink and maroon. Flowering trilliums are also often many decades old. I recommend this excellent video from a local researcher, Tarn Ream, if you’d like to learn more about trillium.


Glacier Lilies

Third week of May

Remember that taste of arrowleaf balsamroot you got the first week? That was merely an appetizer. By now Jumbo Saddle is a veritable yellow carpet of balsamroot. Head up there and aim for the Sound of Music trail. This is an outstanding place to experience ‘the trifecta’ of arrowleaf balsamroot, lupine (purple cones), and paintbrush (orange to red to pinkish). On the north facing side of Sound of Music, where the forest is denser, you can find glacier lilies, heart leaved arnica (like balsamroot but only one flower per plant, plus those heart-shaped leaves), and the occasional stem of pasque flower (furry purple flowers with yellow centers).  Continue through the four-way junction where Sound of Music ends and about a half-mile later take a left onto Sidewinder, dropping back towards the front side of the saddle through more trifecta glory.


Fourth week of May

We have a few species of orchids in our area. These plants are more like needles in a haystack then the ones you’ve looked for so far this month, but by this point you’re getting pretty attuned to paying more attention to more than where you’re placing your feet on each run. Right? Head to the Sam Braxton trail system to find the bright pink with maroon spotted cups of the fairy slipper orchid. You’ll find these orchids hiding in the darker, moister corners of these trails.


Fairy Slipper Orchid

You’ll have to wait until mid-June to seek out our other orchid species, the lady’s slipper. The lady’s slipper has curled maroon petals and a pendulous white cup. Look for it in a few pockets along the Ewok trail in the Rattlesnake and run the road from the main trailhead to Sawmill Gulch to see dense clusters!

 The end of the month is also a great time to travel down the Bitterroot for a run at Lake Como just north of Darby. Even without wildflowers, the eight-mile loop trail around the lake is delightful for its lake, mountain, and waterfall views. The trifecta will be in good form here too, along with trillium, shooting stars, and blue camas (showy blue flowers with yellow stamens). It’s fun to observe how different the plants are on the north side of the lake (where it’s drier and there is more sun exposure) versus the south side (shaded and damp).


The wildflower show doesn’t end in May, it continues significantly into June and July. If you gradually shift your runs up in elevation over these months you can follow the green up and wildflower wave.

Have fun out there hunting for flowers on your runs this month! You can post any significant finds in the comments to share with others and we’d be happy to post them on the Montana Trail Crew Instagram account @montanatrailcrew

An avid trail runner and Run Wild Missoula Board member, Erin Clark works as Senior Field Director with the Montana Wilderness Association.