What began five years ago as an ambitious vision to conserve portions of the South Hills in Missoula has led to the acquisition of forested land in several blocks under the protection of public open space.

Now, plans for a new trail will bring users to the ridge of Mount Dean Stone thanks to a grant from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Whitney Schwab, the newly minted executive director at Five Valleys Land Trust, said the $75,000 grant from the Recreational Trails Program will enable work on the House of Sky Trail to begin later this year.

“We've worked closely with FWP and the Dean Stone committee to make sure the routing of the trail is optimized for protecting the most critical places for wildlife while also creating a really good user experience,” Schwab said. “It'll peak in key places for good views looking down the Bitterroot Valley and Sapphire Valley.”

Views from the ridge are spectacular indeed, though public access has been tricky in past years. But Five Valleys, the city of Missoula and a long list of partners have chipped away at the challenges in a steady effort to secure public open space.

In recent years, Five Valleys has negotiated the purchase of several smaller parcels of land on the north side of Mount Dean Stone. The Nature Conservancy also purchased 2,500 acres on the south side from Plum Creek in 2016 and gave Five Valleys the rights to buy it.

With the pieces in place, Five Valleys is working to complete that purchase, though The Nature Conservancy has permitted the House of Sky Trail to move forward.

“The Nature Conservancy is allowing us to put the trail and public access across that,” Schwab said. “Working through that on that parcel is happening concurrently as we partner together on a Community Forest Partnership for the southern portion of the complex. That funding source is the main linchpin on the southside.”

Volunteer crews completed the Barmeyer Trail on the south side of Mount Dean Stone in 2018. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)
Volunteer crews completed the Barmeyer Trail on the south side of Mount Dean Stone in 2018. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

Securing the former Plum Creek property held by The Nature Conservancy would complete one of the largest contiguous blocks of public open space ringing the Missoula Valley. At 4,200 acres, the complex would be larger than both Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel.

The new House of Sky Trail will serve as the link between the north and south side of the complex at some point in the future. For now, the new trail will carry users from the west fork of Deer Creek to the south up the ridge.

Efforts to connect the trail to the north side will be ongoing.

“It'll help form the backbone along the top of the Dean Stone trial network,” said Schwab. “It'll go from the west fork of Deer Creek and connect to the ridge on the south side near the radio towers. It'll construct nearly five miles of trail along the south side of the Dean Stone ridge.”

Funding for the project comes from Recreation Trails Program managed by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The program itself is funded by motor fuel taxes through the Federal Highway Trust Fund.

Five Valleys applied for the grant in January.

“We'll be working within the constraints we have around COVID and do what we can to make progress later this season,” Schwab said on building the House of Sky Trail. “Ideally, we'd have it ready for use by some time next summer.”