Sometimes community conservation doesn’t just involve protecting what is already there. In the case of Marshall Mountain, it has involved a reimagining of what a recreational area can be, and how community members can help shape that vision.
Marshall Mountain, located just a few miles northeast of Missoula, has long been an outdoor playground. Owner Tollef Olsen first installed a primitive rope tow in 1937, and generations of Missoulians grew up learning to ski at the family friendly mountain. By 2002, a changing climate that brought increasingly unreliable snowfall, as well as other challenges, forced the owners to close Marshall Ski Area and put the property up for sale. In the years since, efforts to re-establish winter recreational use have been unsuccessful. Meanwhile, other recreational users discovered the old slopes—in particular, the mountain biking community.
In 2015, The Nature Conservancy graciously donated 160 acres between the Marshall Ski Area lodge and the summit of Marshall Mountain to Five Valleys, knowing that Five Valleys would ensure that western Montanans could continue to enjoy all that the mountain has to offer. This parcel is a green bowl of sunny ridges and shadowed draws, blanketed in Douglas firs and Ponderosa pines interspersed with grassy meadows. The property lies adjacent to USFS Lolo National Forest lands, and a road provides public pedestrian and bike access to Five Valleys’ portion of the mountain.
In 2016, Five Valleys began a partnership with MTB Missoula (MTB), Missoula’s local mountain biking nonprofit, and MTB and their army of eager volunteers soon got to work. With Five Valleys’ guidance and with leadership from Big Sky Brewing Company and the support of many partners, MTB has built a network of exceptional mountain biking trails for all ages and abilities.
There are now six miles of multi-use and bike-specific trails at Marshall, which are helping to reduce user pressure on nearby recreational areas and provide world-class experiences to schoolchildren and competitive riders alike.
Throughout the trail building process, MTB has labored to ensure that the mountain’s new trails minimize impacts to the land and are built with an eye towards future trail opportunities. MTB’s recent accomplishments include the area’s first public access bike-only downhill trail, “Bjorn Again,” and the intermediate flow trail “Hello Kitty” that provides fun for a wide range of skill levels.
In 2017 and 2018, Marshall’s trails hosted the USA Cycling Collegiate Mountain Bike National Championships, which brought over 80 teams to the mountain.
For youngsters new to mountain biking, MTB and Missoula Parks and Recreation’s Zootown Derailleur’s program brings hundreds of school children to Marshall each year to hone their skills. These events and programs wouldn’t be possible without the partnership and community-minded generosity of the Doering family, who own the Marshall Ski Area lodge and base.
The mountain isn’t only for mountain biking, however. Many of the same trails also provide a place for quiet enjoyment of nature and scenic views of the mountains and valleys surrounding Missoula. Five Valleys is proud to be a part of ensuring that Marshall Mountain can continue to connect people of all ages and interests to the land, and we are thrilled that our partnerships with MTB and others are providing opportunities for community members to help build the Marshall Mountain of the 21st century.
Header photo by Tom Robertson
Time and again, Five Valleys and the growing communities that we serve have come to the same conclusion about protecting what makes the place we live special.
Opportunities to connect our community the land and engage with our partners in restoration, education, and public access continue to grow.