Ch-paa-qn Peak (pronounced "Cha pa kwin") which roughly translates from Salish to English as ‘shining peak’ is as accurate a description as any. This stunning peak stands West of the Garden City of Missoula, and with more than 4,000 feet of prominence. It’s shining peak can be seen from almost anywhere in the Missoula valley. Standing at roughly 8,000 feet, the ‘shining peak’ shows it’s striations and pock marks like a badge of honor against mother nature's force. Once towering above Glacial Lake Missoula the former shoreline can be seen stretched across its face as the morning sun brings dark to light.
We set out to explore the tallest peak in the Missoula valley, and here is what we found:
Signalling for the Huson exit off Interstate 90 the warm exhaust against the cold Montana air gave notice that autumn was here. Following the signs for Edith Peak, the road to the trailhead is easily identifiable. Ch-paa-qn Peak is also referred to as the Reservation Divide trail, so if you are on the road for the Reservation Divide don’t be alarmed, you are in the right place.
The occasional ping of a rock on the undercarriage of the truck could be heard as we switchbacked the single lane Forest Service road towards the trailhead. As we drove towards the mammoth snow capped peak that stood before us the road warmed under the morning sun as the frozen earth slowly turned to mud. The 30 minute drive was filled with oranges, greens, and whites that accompany that area in the fall. The Tamaracks began to show their seasonal glow of yellow and the first skiff of snow laid undisturbed as we approached the base.
As we pulled in, the trailhead was mostly undisturbed less one other vehicle. We laced up our boots (and one pair of Nike’s which were the backup plan for the pair of boots that got mistakenly left behind) and set out to “bag another peak”. The presence of Whitebark Pine is very noticeable in the area and was on full display as the fresh snow accented it’s long aromatic needles. This tree plays and important role in the ecosystem as it offers a source of nutrition as it often did for early Salish tribes. This also creates a rich habitat for our favorite dessert from mother nature, the huckleberry. While not in season there was plenty of remnants of the berry left that had yet to be pilfered by humans and animals. The trail begins in a heavily forested area as you traverse the bottom face of the mountain. After roughly 2 miles the view begins opening up offering views of the Ninemile Valley, Stark Mountain, and Edith Peak. Behind you stands the Goliath in all it’s glory, the final pitch of a shale covered face. The trail can be easily lost here (especially if covered in snow) as you begin the final scramble. The wind whipped mountain shows thousands of years of abuse. Even the smallest of snow skiffs can turn to a snow berm given the conditions of the area. The final ascent is nearly treeless which offers little cover from approaching storms (pack your layers accordingly), but on a bluebird day the rock-scaped earth gives a certain welcome air as you reach the top. Panoramic views as far south as the Bitterroot Valley and stretching north to the shores of Flathead Lake are breathtaking. The low hanging clouds of the Mission Valley butted up against Grey Wolf Peak can be seen off in the distance.
The true top of the peak is marked by a survey marker that has been staked through a rock claiming it the “top” of Ch-paa-qn Peak. There is a rock outcrop that serves as a great place to enjoy that hard earned lunch and local microbrew. The descent follows the same route as the ascent.
This hike, if well equipped (Nike’s are not recommended…) is a great way to experience North West Montana. What is often considered the black sheep of mountains standing by itself in the distance is a hidden jewel. While the drive is somewhat long the reward is worth it. The hike while requiring nothing more than appropriate clothing offers great views for not “a lot” of effort.
The crew at Latitude 47 definitely recommends Ch-paa-qn Peak for anyone looking to feed their inner wild. We hope to see you out there. Happy Trails!
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