One of the favorite rides in the Bitterroot for downhill lovers, sustained and technical for over 3000'. It will work your whole body. Enough steep climbing on the ridge to get the legs a workout, especially if you start at the bottom and climb the road.
Much of the road climb is on a closed gated road that is reverting to doubletrack. If you are feeling a need for more climbing, at the top of the road you can add a quarter mile of climbing to the Willow Mountain
lookout and say hi to the staffer. They get lonely up there.
The climbing isn't over once the singletrack starts. You still need to climb to the top of Palisades Mountain and there several steep pitches that will make most people want to walk. Several rock outcropping are present along the ridge with fantastic views of the Bitterroot Valley. Midway along the ridge there is a snowbank that persists into late July most years.
Once off the ridge and onto Willow Creek
trail the downhill is sustained and forearm burn is usually a given. Along the way there is a meadow to haul through, mud to avoid, steep eroded sections, rock gardens (one along the cliffs of the Palisades is steep and tight), multiple stream crossings and a high speed blast back to the bottom trailhead once the trail flattens out.
While some people "ride" up the trail from the bottom, that way is a nearly continuous hike-a-bike.
If you have a friend you can bribe with a 6 pack to do the driving you can shuttle this, otherwise plan to climb. Driving to the upper trailhead takes an hour one way, and requires a high clearance vehicle. My truck has flatted twice on this road.
Assuming you couldn't bribe a friend to shuttle you to the top. Coast down the road you just came up for a quarter mile, this will be the last time you won't be pedaling for the 11 miles. Stay right and start the climb. In the afternoon this hillside can be blistering.
At two mile hang a right at the gated road. The ride get more pleasant here. The road is closed to motorized traffic and is reverting to doubletrack. If you get hot there are a few small spring trickles to refill hydration packs and water bottles. Keep to the main track until reuniting with the main road at 5 miles. Turn right and keep climbing.
At 8.5 miles you'll pass through a saddle and onto to north side of willow mountain. This area burned several years ago, but now can be a riot of flowers in the early summer. The climbing mellow here and another mile takes takes you to the turnoff to the Willow Mountain
Lookout. Another quarter mile detour will take you there for great views and a chance to visit with a lonely spotter.
The worst of the road is now behind you, and there is even some downhill and mellow climbing to the upper trailhead at 11.5 miles.
If you were lucky or lazy you are starting here. Don't worry there is still plenty of climbing ahead. The next 1.5 miles on the ridge is mostly uphill and usually you'll be wishing for a few more gears. Look for several rock outcropping along the way for a rest and great views. About a mile in there often a snow bank to cross, It's no big deal, but doesn't disappear until late July.
At 13 miles from the bottom, or 1,.5 miles along the ridge you reach Palisade Mountain. Park your bike and hike up the rock to the top and check out the view. To the west is the Bitterroot Valley and mountains. To the north is Burnt Fork and to the east the Sapphires. Mosquitos can be a nuisance down by the trail here, so if you need to rest or wait for someone, getting out on top of the rocks also gives you a respite from their bites.
The next half mile starts with a steep deeply eroded drop before mellowing out on your way to the saddle and intersection with the Willow Creek
Trail. Just before the junction the trail disappears while topping a small bald knob, just keep heading straight to the saddle just to the south. The junction is indistinct and there is a faint trail heading east, don't take it, and don't go straight. Don't miss this turn. (This fall some folks missed the turn and spent a cold night lost during a snowstorm while search and rescue spent 14 hours in the dark looking for them.) If you still can't find the trail look for a prominent tree to your right, about 50 feet from the saddle. There is a sign here. It is obvious where it starts again.
Drop the seatpost and put on your pads. At this point it would difficult to get lost, but easy to get bruised, bloody, and muddy. Other than a meadow at the top that invites letting go and a wide trail at the bottom, the rest of the descent is technical and sustained with plenty of rocks, steeps, and creeks to keep things continually interesting. Don't be surprised if you are tempted to walk in spots.