Alpine climbing NCCS rating
Grade I
Elevation Gain
5,500.00 ft (1,676.40 m)
8.00 mi (12.87 km)
Please respect the outdoors by practicing Leave No Trace. Learn more about how to apply the principles of Leave No Trace on your next outdoor adventure here.

The jagged Mission Range of Western Montana rises thousands of feet above the plains, dominating the eastern skyline from the Flathead Reservation and the western skyline from the Seeley Swan Valley. Northbound travelers on Route 93 from Missoula will be greeted with a huge view, with Grey Wolf and East + West Saint Mary's Peaks standing out prominently. All the summits in the range are reached by unmaintained trails and lots of gain, and East Saint Mary's is one of the most manageable, even though it requires 5,500' of gain up a remarkably steep trail.

It's also a remarkably alpine experience, once you leave the trees. The views of the west face of Grey Wolf are unsurpassed, and from the summit, you'll enjoy views all the way up to McDonald Peak - the highest peak in the range.

An Abundance of Saint Mary's - There are many Saint Mary's in Montana, including Saint Mary's Lake in Glacier National Park, Saint Mary Peak in the Bitterroot, and East and West Saint Mary's Peak in the Missions. If you tell people where you're headed (as you should), just make sure you're clear about where you're actually going.

The Basics

  • Seasonality/Snow: ESM has a ton of gain, so while the lower reaches of the mountain will melt out relatively early, you'll be on snow on the upper mountain till at least early July. The mountain will be generally snow-free until early October. But if you've got snow experience, ESM is a relatively safe summit and gets a fair amount of traffic in the winter as well, so this peak can be summited year round.

  • Route Add-ons:

    • You can link this ridge up with a traverse to West Saint Mary's Peak or Grey Wolf if the West Couloir is still snowy, though Grey Wolf is usually climbed from the south.

  • Number of Days: Most will do this in a day, though there's gorgeous camping near No Fish Lake (for which you will need an additional permit).

  • Navigation: Bring a map and/or a GPS, this area can be prone to whiteout, especially in the spring.

  • Gear:

    • Good gear for scrambling and moving fast in the mountains.

    • Helmet.

    • Bear spray.

    • Consider an ice axe and traction (microspikes/crampons) if it’s still early season.

  • The Drive: You can approach the trailhead from the east or the west. The drive is easier if you drive from St. Ignatius.

  • Permitting: This route is entirely on the Flathead Reservation and is permitted by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. You will need a Tribal Conservation Permit, which as of Summer 2022, costs $80 for three days or $100 for the year and can be purchased at some outdoor retailers in Missoula or online through the State of Montana Hunting/Permitting Portal - The tribes levy this permit to ensure that they are able to maintain the cultural, ecological, and economic value of their land. Purchase this permit, it's enforced.

  • Bears: The Missions have a healthy grizzly population. Do not visit without knowing how to behave around grizzly bears.

  • Water: There is no water available on this route. Make sure you bring enough for a full day out.


A Note on LNT

ESM and the entire Flathead Reservation has been seeing increased recreational pressure. Do not jeopardize access; ensure you are following LNT principles and being respectful - you are recreating on a sovereign nation. Clean up after yourself and be a steward. Help others understand why wild spaces are so special to you and do what you can to protect them, especially from off-trail travel, which can be destructive if done carelessly.


The Trip

This trip is pretty simple, and is more about endurance than routefinding, even though the upper section is off-trail.

Start at the northernmost tip of Saint Mary's Lake, where you'll find a small campsite. Unless you're camping, don't park there, park a bit further northwest. The trail heads north straight out of the campsite. It runs parallel to a small dry creekbed for a quarter mile before heading straight uphill. The trail is extremely steep, climbing almost 4,600' in 2.1 miles before leveling off slightly at a knob at 8,600'. On the way up to the knob, the trail winds slightly back and forth through the trees before reaching the ridgeline. There are a few spots where you'll be scrambling, but it's never more than second class. As you climb higher, you'll get better and views to the south.

Once you've finally reached the knob, enjoy the incredible views over to Grey Wolf (east). Ramble up the wide ridge, curving left gently as the trail gets steeper and rockier. The last few hundred feet are scramblier, but nothing is too intense (at most low class three). At the summit, enjoy the huge views in all directions before beginning the extremely long descent back to your car.

Logistics + Planning

Preferable season(s)




Parking Pass

Reservation Fee

Open Year-round



Beautiful views in a remote range.


Grizzly bear country. Lots of gain. No water along route.

Pets allowed

Allowed with Restrictions

Trailhead Elevation

4,022.00 ft (1,225.91 m)

Highest point

9,425.00 ft (2,872.74 m)


Big vistas



Typically multi-day


Permit required


Permit self-issue on site


Primary aspect

East facing

Drinking water



Nearby Lodging + Camping

Flathead lake + Mission Range, Montana
Flathead lake + Mission Range, Montana
Flathead lake + Mission Range, Montana


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