If you’re looking for an uphill hike with great views of Missoula, you have your choice of two letters: L and M. The M is on a hill above the University of Montana. The L is on Mount Jumbo, just to the north. Both yield similar views of the city, both require an uphill effort, and both reward you with an up-close look at the letter. Read about the hike up to the M here (from my 2006 trip).
Since I had hiked up to the M a few years earlier, I decided it was a good idea to add another letter to my list. The L looks just as impressive from anywhere in Missoula, so I knew it would be a worthwhile effort.
The L, in case you’re wondering, stands for Loyola Sacred Heart High School.
The trail immediately starts heading uphill, and the view of Missoula begins to reveal itself. Looking to the south, you can see the University of Montana. The foot of University Mountain (where you’ll find the Big M) is on the left. You won’t be able to see the Big M from the Big L.
It’s obvious where you’re going. You might run into a couple of trail options (one is more direct than the other, and therefore steeper). Choose whichever one works best for you. You can’t screw up this part of the hike, since it’s obvious where you’re going.
One switchback before you arrive at the L, you’re directly below it. Taking a picture here may be easier than when you’re right on top of it, because it’s huge!
I had to use the super-wide-angle fish-eye lens to see the whole thing, while standing at the base of the L. As you can see, a good deal of effort went into making the L a permanent fixture on the side of Mount Jumbo. It’s one very big chunk of concrete.
Here’s a look at the view from the L, facing the university and downtown…
… and a closer look at the school campus.
A plaque on the L explains how it was restored in 2001, and dedicated to the memory of Jon Hamper, class of 1996 at Loyola.
Getting to the L is straightforward, but my plan to continue the hike hit a snag. From the sign at the trailhead, I knew that a trail continued up to the top of Mount Jumbo, then dropped down the south side of the mountain, and eventually completed a loop. I thought…
… this was that trail. This trail continues from the base of the L. I figured it would skirt the side of the hill for a while, then climb up to the top, and over to the other side. (By the way, in the distance, you can see Rattlesnake Canyon — a popular hiking spot for Missoulians.)
As it turns out, this is not the right trail. The loop trail begins at the TOP of the L, not the bottom. I never even noticed it was there. So, I continued on this lower trail, which I eventually realized was NOT marked on the trailhead map.
Even though I wasn’t going where I wanted to go, it was still an enjoyable hike. The slope of the mountainside is pretty steep, so it required some concentration. If my left foot went too far to the left, I could have lost my balance and started tumbling.
This unnamed trail continued on for quite a while. It was relatively level, and it never made the turn up the hill that I had expected. Eventually I reached this talus slope…
… and beyond it, I was headed into the forest. Since the trail was getting more ragged, and it obviously wasn’t going the way I had hoped, I turned around.
Heading back towards the L, I was once again treated with views of the city — although I had circled so far around the midsection of the mountain that the view had changed quite a bit.
I backtracked along the same trail, passing through a couple of folds in the side of the mountain.
Back at the L, I decided to chill out for a few minutes and think about my options. By this time, I had figured out that the correct trail departed the L from the top (right behind me, in this picture). It was getting late, and I figured I didn’t have the time or the energy to hike further uphill. Instead, I pulled out my phone and searched for good restaurants. I ended up calling Ciao Mambo (at Higgins Ave. and 4th Street) and ordering a pizza.
As I carried the box into my motel room, the guy at the reception desk praised my restaurant selection, saying it was one of the best pizza places in Missoula. And it was, indeed, very good.
The Bottom Line
You can’t go wrong with a hike up to the L or the M. The L may require slightly less effort than the M (fewer switchbacks), and parking may be easier, since M trail parking is very limited on the U of M campus. Either way, you’ll enjoy a great view of the city. And, if you have time, continue on up the hill from the L to make a complete loop.
The hike from Cherry Street to the M is just under one mile, one way. The round-trip loop is just under 4 miles.
You can access the Mount Jumbo L network of trails at several trailheads. I began my hike at the trailhead at the end of Cherry Street. From I-90, take exit 105 and head northeast on Van Buren, then turn right almost immediately on Cherry Street, and drive towards the mountain, to the end of the road. There are several places to park along the side of the road.
As an alternate, you can start the hike at the corner of Polk Street and Poplar Street, which is just a couple of blocks away, or at the end of Taylor Street, behind the International School.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive from Flathead Lake to Missoula, Montana, with some extra driving-around in downtown Missoula near the end: