High, Wide and Handsome: Trail corridor up Mount Dean Stone grows South Hills access

Whitney Schwab, executive director of the Five Valley’s Land Trust, hikes a newly carved trail that will soon carry hikers to the summit of Mount Dean Stone. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

When the Barmeyer sisters donated a portion of their childhood playground to the public in 2016, they helped lay the cornerstone of what many envisioned as a network of public lands and open space in the South Hills of Missoula.

On that warm June day, the sisters and the city opened the Pattee Canyon property and its 88 acres to the public for the first time, including a new trail lifting hikers from the canyon floor to a modest nob overlooking the Missoula Valley.

Above the nob stands the rest of Mount Dean Stone, and the Five Valleys Land Trust is close to securing a deal with the city allowing public access to the summit.

“We’ve worked in partnership with the city’s open space lands program on this,” said Whitney Schwab, executive director of the Five Valley’s Land Trust. “If the City Council approves this, by the end of the year, we’ll be transferring that to the city with the trail donated.”

Five Valleys and its partners are expected to approach the City Council this week seeking $925,000 in funding from the 2018 Open Space Bond and an estate gift made to city. The funding will help secure the trail corridor leading from the overlook, up the north face of Mount Dean Stone to the summit.

The request – the first from Five Valleys from the newest bond – represents around 36% of the $2.5 million deal. Five Valleys already has secured $1.2 million from a real estate and trail donation, and $370,000 in other contributions.

“The trail corridor, while it looks like a nice discrete effort to get to the top, is actually seven complex and different land deals,” said Schwab. “Part of our request is equally matched by a gift from a private individual for trails and open space in the South Hills, particularly Dean Stone.”

Standing in a grove of yellowing Western larch on the mountainside, Schwab and Ben Horan, executive director of Mountain Bike Missoula and a member of the Dean Stone Committee, detailed the vision that started years ago to secure a ring of open space around the Missoula Valley.

The popular North Hills protect the valley’s northern rim, while Mount Sentinel and Mount Jumbo guard the east. Blue Mountain stands to the west with its array of trails, open space and popular Frisbee-golf course.

Ben Horan, executive director of Mountain Bike Missoula and a member of the Dean Stone Committee, left, and Schwab take in the spectacular views of the Missoula Valley offered from the face of Mount Dean Stone. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

But the South Hills remain unprotected, as evidenced by the growing number of houses inching up and over the valley slope. A subdivision had been platted for the north slope of Mount Dean Stone as well, though it never came to fruition.

The land deal notched by Five Valleys included retiring that subdivision and trading a portion of grazing land to another land owner in exchange for forested trail access up the mountain.

“It’s not only been the conservation community, but the community at large,” said Schwab. “It goes back to the Barmeyer family expressing their wishes to help the children of Missoula for future generations. Just getting to the overlook was one thing, much less connecting it to the top of Dean Stone. There’s incredible views and vistas along the way, and we’re proud to have helped shepherd this through the process.”

In an agreement forged by Five Valleys in 2016, the Barmeyer family set aside roughly 125 acres of land above Pattee Canyon as a conservation easement. Of that donation, 88 acres were reserved for public use and purchased by the city using $270,000 in Open Space Bond funds.

The Nature Conservancy also secured around 2,500 acres of Plum Creek property on the mountain’s southern face several years ago. At the strike of midnight on New Years Eve in 2019, Five Valleys finalized the remaining three land deals that helped form a 350-acre Mount Dean Stone corridor.

“This is another piece of formal recognition that open space and recreation are essential to the Missoula experience,” Horan said. “It’s one thing to do one project. But to see the continued and renewed enthusiasm for this kind of landscape and this kind of experience is a big deal.”

The new High, Wide and Handsome Trail climbs high above the South Hills overlook at an easy 8% grade. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

A $75,000 grant from the Recreational Trails Program enabled crews to lay the High, Wide and Handsome from the overlook up the flank of Dean Stone toward its summit. The trail’s routing was optimized to protect critical places and maintain a manageable 8% grade.

The trail rises around 1,500 feet over 4.5 miles and is expected to open to the public next year.

“The timing of this trail coming on line next summer will disperse pressure placed on other trails,” Schwab said. “Since the onset of the pandemic, we’ve witnessed how much people need the land to connect for mental and physical health, and how crowded things have been. It demonstrates the need we have in Missoula.”

The High, Wide and Handsome Trail and another planned across the crest of Mount Dean Stone, dubbed House of Sky Trail, are a nod to Missoula’s literary history. Dean Stone itself is named after the first dean of the School of Journalism at the University of Montana.

Getting the trail system down from the top of Mount Dean Stone to Miller Creek to the south remains in the planning stages. Someday, if the vision holds, hikers, bikers and other recreators will be able to traverse the landscape from Pattee Canyon to Miller Creek, making it the city’s largest expanse of protected open space.

“At the end of last year, the Dean Stone Committee worked through what sustainable expansion of recreation and trails could look like while being mindful of the natural resources,” Schwab said. “The development of these trails are consistent with that, honoring wildlife habitat and other natural resources.”

House of Sky Trail construction to span Mount Dean Stone ridge in South Hills

Sisters’ childhood playground opens with new public trail in South Hills