What makes the Salmo-Priest loop so enticing is that it offers a bit of everything: Grand views all-around from Little Snowy Top, lush rainforest-like cedar-and-hemlock forest in the Salmo River basin, rare animals, including wolves, grizzlies, wolverines, and woodland caribou (of which we saw none), and a nice helping of huckleberries if you hit the right season.
American Falls, also known as Upper Priest River Falls, is clearly the attraction of this hike, but the way there is just as spectacular, leading through ancient rainforest-like giant-cedar and hemlock forest.
An easy hike through lush cedar forest to one of the prettiest lakes in North Idaho sums up the Upper Priest Lake trail. It’s a bit of drive to the trailhead, so consider combining the hike with other opportunities in this area, such as the American Falls trail.
Star Peak, formerly known as Squaw Peak, makes for great winter hiking due to easy access off MT-200. Be prepared for a fair bit of ascent, though, as the elevation gain amounts to 4000 feet. The views from the lookout, and those along the way, make it totally worth every effort. There is no water, so better plan for an early morning hike or hike in the cooler season. Naughty loved it!
A rather pretty hike along Upper Priest Lake’s eastern shore, this trail is dotted with sandy beaches, great views of Priest Lake and a bit of history as well in the form of an old log cabin and a short mine shaft. It’s well worth an overnight stay at either Geisinger or Trapper Creek, both featuring pit toilets and bear-proof containers. The trail is part of the Idaho State Centennial Trail and the Pacific Northwest Trail.
Goat Mountain stands in the shadow of taller Scotchman Peak, but the views from the top are just as superb compared to its more well-hiked brother. The ascent is steep, though, gaining over 4,000 feet over 4 miles and you’ll likely have the peak to yourself. We sure did.
Running the full length of Upper Priest Lake’s western shore, the Navigation trail connects Beaver Creek Campground with FR-1013 (Gold Creek Road), which in turn connects the trail to either #302, following the eastern lakeshore to Lionhead Campground, or #308, paralleling the Upper Priest River to the Canadian border. Near the trailhead, you could also connect to the Lakeshore trail, which hugs Lower Priest Lake’s western shore.
The Portage Trail is a short quartermile spur from Beaver Creek Campground to the Thoroughfare connecting upper and lower Priest Lakes. It’s probably far easier to put a kayak or canoe into lower Priest at the campground, which features a convenient boat ramp, but that requires a half-mile paddle around a sandbar to enter the Thoroughfare.
It’s uphill the entire way on Fisher Peak trail #27 to a former lookout tower site with views across the untouched Parker Creek drainage. The lack of spectacular alpine lakes that many nearby hikes boast of is more than offset by breathtaking views of the Parker Ridge and the Kootenai River as it flows far into Canada.
This loop combines two of the most popular lake hikes in the American Selkirks, Harrison Lake and Beehive Lakes, via a phenomenal off-trail ridge hike above Little Harrison Lake. Expect some of the best hiking in this region, spectacular views from the top of the world, and picture-perfect alpine lakes, but be prepared to test your route and trail finding skills in rough terrain.
Berray Mountain, whose trailhead is easily accessible off MT-56, is a former lookout-tower site presenting spectacular 360-degree views of the Montana Cabinets, including the highest peaks in the center of the Cabinet Wilderness and Star Peak, also a former lookout tower site, located across the Bull River Valley, southwest of Berray. The uphill climb surprised with a variety of flora and features, including a brook and small pond.
For all its fame, Scotchman Peak is neither the tallest mountain in North Idaho nor in the Cabinets. It is, however, the tallest crag in Bonner County and in the Idaho Cabinets. Once home to a lookout tower, it boasts of phenomenal views across Lake Pend Oreille, the Montana Cabinets, and the Coeur d’Alene Mountains.
Virtually constant access to water, lots of shade, a phenomenal flora, and a comparatively easy climb make this a pretty summer hike, despite its low elevation. The lake is perfect for a quick dip, if you can take the ice-cold chill!
The Beach Trail extends from Outlet Bay to Kalispell Bay along Priest Lake’s western shore. It traces the lake’s shore closely, running in front of many summer homes and presenting fabulous views across the lake. The Woodrat trail, a neat mountain biking path through the woods, completes the loop.
Combining a well-shaded stroll along pristine Upper Priest Lake with a steep climb of 4,300-foot Plowboy Mountain, this loop is sure to satisfy all tastes. Watch out for bears, though we saw neither scat nor bruin, just plenty of ground squirrels darting between the ruins of the lookout tower atop Plowboy.
The Lakeshore Trail is the northernmost section of a trail stretching along virtually the entirety of Priest Lake’s western shore. Most of the lakeshore land in this section is publicly owned and thus the trail hugs the lake closely and offers numerous opportunities for camping.
Much of Priest Lake’s shoreline is privately owned; nevertheless, there is an almost continuous trail along the western shore, of which the Lakeview trail is but one section. It leads through mixed coniferous forest with occasional views across the lake to a quiet beach near Elkins resort. For even better views, trail #269 ascends Lakeview Mountain.
Wedged between Lake Pend Oreille and Cocolalla Lake, Blacktail Mountain perches almost 3,000 feet above the lakes, thereby virtually guaranteeing grandiose views in all directions. A bit of help from the weather gods is required, though, as we learned the hard way after climbing a trail switchbacking along the steep western flank of the mountain. The view was superb as long as you like the color white.
Maiden Rock is a bare granite knob overlooking Lake Pend Oreille. The trail meanders downhill for 2 miles through dense cedar forest alongside Maiden Creek. It terminates at a pebble-strewn beach with expansive views of the rock outcropping, across the water and south along Little Blacktail Mountain towards Evans Landing, a similar boat camping site.
A string of tree-lined alpine lakes cuddled below steep granite cliffs near the highest peaks of the Selkirk Crest; what’s not to like about that? This route visits three of the lakes, each one offering opportunities for camping and swimming, and with only 1000 feet of elevation gain the trail is ideal for a family trek.
A favorite among visitors to the American Selkirks, the Big Fisher Trail serves up two crystal-clear ice-cold alpine lakes, enormous granite outcroppings and boulders, and wildflower-strewn grassy meadows straddling Fisher Ridge. If you’re lucky you may even see one of the rare species that found a last refuge in this corner of Idaho, including grizzlies, woodland caribou, and wolverines.
The Pyramid Pass trail isn’t particularly spectacular on its own, but it’s an important connector to several trails leading to breathtaking alpine lakes in the northern American Selkirks, connecting the Long Canyon and Parker Ridge trails with those in the Trout Creek drainage.
Whether it’s lush creek bottoms smothered in devil’s club and ferns or sweeping views from high ridgetops, the Long Canyon – Parker Ridge loop promises to satisfy every hiker. Long Mountain Lake, cuddled in a picturesque granite cirque near the highest peaks of the American Selkirks, is merely the icing on the cake, as are the centuries-old cedar and hemlock trees in the only two unlogged drainages in the American Selkirks.
Two gorgeous alpine lakes and a bare-granite peak, it can’t get much better than that! A gently-ascending trail leads to Snow Lake, a cirque just north of the more popular Roman Nose basin. From there, a cross-country scramble leads steeply uphill through huckleberries to a ridge connecting to Bottleneck Peak and its sweeping views of the American Selkirks. The descent via Bottleneck Lake requires a bit of non-technical climbing and the thick shrubbery ringing the lakes might be something to remember for a while.
The Two Mouth trail climbs the side of a mountain and skirts the Slide Creek basin to a massive ridge overlooking the Two Mouth Creek headwaters. Crossing the ridge, you’ll find two breathtaking alpine lakes, one ringed with wildflowers, the other with smooth granite slabs that appear to be sliding right into the lake. Bring your camera and your swimsuit!
Cooks Peak stands guard, literally, over the divide between the Myrtle Creek and Snow Creek drainages. It is a former fire lookout, with the footings of the tower still intact and a decaying cabin rapidly disappearing. The bare peak serves up phenomenal views of the surrounding mountains, including Roman Nose and Myrtle Peak, and the Kootenai River Valley.
Just like the Myrtle Creek drainage to the north, the Snow Creek drainage also features a waterfall. Two, in fact, not counting the gorge immediately below the upper falls. It’s not even a two-mile hike to both falls on a well-cared-for packed-dirt path shaded by giant pines and western red cedar.
Easily identifiable on clear days from as far away as Myrtle Peak or Priest Lake, the distinct shape of Chimney Rock makes this one of the most popular hikes in the southern Selkirk Crest. The views are superb and if you’re into rock climbing you won’t want to miss the technical climb to the pinnacle.
Located in the northwestern-most corner of North Idaho, the West Fork Mountain trail jumps from one lookout tower site to another, visits a string of picturesque mountain lakes, and plunges through old-growth forest and huckleberry-studded hillsides. If you’re lucky you get to spend a night at the magical West Fork Cabin, originally built in the 1930s to house smokechasers, but burnt down in 1998. It was rebuilt true to its original and is available on a first-come-first-served basis. Take good care of it!
Perhaps annexed by Canada, Triangulation Smith is the last and lowest “peak” of the Smith ridge. A pack trail, dating back to the days when Triangulation Smith featured a fire lookout tower, meanders along the ridge, plows through extensive patches of rhododendron and beargrass and skirts a cliff overlooking Canyon Lake.
Although only 3 miles one way, the Cutoff Peak trail nonetheless dishes out all the makings of a great alpine hike. The hike up is pleasant among beargrass, huckleberries and alpine fir, with frequent filtered views of the Parker and Smith ranges. At the top awaits an old log cabin, phenomenal views of the entire Parker range, line-of-sight of neighboring lookout tower sites, including Shorty Peak and Red Top, and the distant silhouette of the southern Selkirk Crest. A true gem!
Situated just a few miles south of the Canadian border, the Shorty Peak lookout tower perches atop 6,500-foot Shorty Peak with commanding 360-degree views across the northernmost parts of the American Selkirks, well into Canada, and eastwards across the Kootenai River Valley and the Purcells. It was refubished in 2005 and can be rented during the summer months.
Harrison Lake is the quintessential alpine lake, cuddled in a perfect cirque, ringed on three sides by steep mountains, and overshadowed by hook-nosed Harrison Peak. The longer Myrtle Creek route ascends Harrison’s lower flanks, then traverses a basin beneath Harrison Peak and meets up with the shorter Pack River trail just before converging onto the lake.
Located in the heart of the Selkirk Crest, Myrtle Peak towers over Myrtle Lake, a pleasant alpine lake stocked with cutthroat trout. The mountaintop, once home to a fire lookout tower, serves up commanding views across the mountain range, including Kent and Harrison lakes to the south.
The trailhead to Myrtle Creek Falls is located just across the road from the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge headquarters. A gentle trail switchbacks less than half a mile uphill to a viewpoint looking straight into the gorge and the cascading waterfalls.
This loop visits three picturesque mountain lakes in this northeastern corner of Idaho. It includes the “Moose Loop”, which veers off to the south for a stop at Blacktail Lake, the smallest of the three, then ascends Moose Mountain, 6,500 ft, with commanding views across the cabinets. The trail then drops down the eastern slopes towards sprawling and marshy Moose Lake. From Moose Lake it’s a just 3-mile sidetrip to the Lake Estelle cirque.
Lake Estelle and Gem Lake are only a bit over a mile apart, but lack a connecting trail. Both lakes are at an altitude just under 5,800 feet, divided by a saddle at 6,400 feet. From the Estelle side, this route ascends an expansive talus slope, then steeply climbs a grassy, open hillside inhabited by ground squirrels. The Gem Lake side is heavily overgrown but less steep, with the top half comparatively easy and the bottom half a much more tedious bushwhack.
Char Falls is more of a stroll than a hike, but if you happen to be hiking in this remote area of the Idaho Cabinets you may as well pay a visit. You’ll find a nice cool spot on the rock slabs amidst the upper falls, and a short scramble brings the not-so-faint-of-heart to the bottom of the 50-foot main waterfall.
Trail #64 is a short hike mostly downhill through a mixed coniferous forest to a gravel-and-sand beach on Lake Pend Oreille. The trail is well-shaded yet still provides ample unobstructed views across the lake towards the Monarch ridge and north towards Maiden Rock and the distant Cabinets. The beach is the perfect spot for a quick swim, with Lake Pend Oreille cold even on a hot day, or an overnight camp stay.
The Monarchs consist of a forested ridge rising a steep 3,000 feet out of Lake Pend Oreille’s eastern arm. Starting from Johnson Saddle, trail #69 hops along the ridge, climbing first an unnamed viewless peak above 5,000 feet, then Green Monarch Mountain with spectacular views across the lake, the Cabinets, and into the Selkirks. The last hop is Schafer Peak, which once served as a fire-lookout, and provides views southwards towards massive Packsaddle Mountain.
The Chipmunk Rapids National Recreation Trail’s gentle grade makes for an ideal cross-country skiing loop during the winter months. It is inviting for a hike even in summer, particularly the sections along Kaniksu Marsh and the Priest River. To top it off, we added a short bushwhacking excursion to Mission Falls on the Upper West Branch of the Priest River.
Bead Lake is a hidden marvel, stashed away in this northeast corner of Washington state. Trail 127 traces the eastern shore of the lake beneath a cooling canopy of cedars and pines to West Lodge Creek, then presents the option to hop onto trail 127.1, a spur trail leading to a secluded bay perfect for a cooling dip. For the most part, the hillside drops steeply into the lake, but a number of flat places are available for camping, making this ideal for a family backpacking trip.
The Mickinnick trail climbs the southeastern flank of Bald Mountain just north of Sandpoint. The name is a distillate of Mick and Nicky Pleass, who donated the mountainside to the forest service to create this trail, and the Kinnickinnick plant, a low-growing native evergreen. The trail consists of a series of switchbacks that ascends the mountainside in just over three miles, with about 2,000 feet of total elevation gain. It terminates at a large rocky knoll, offering incredible views of Lake Pend Oreille, the Cabinet Mountains, and prominent Gold Hill to the south.
Green Bay is a minute campground on a picture-book pebble beach, clinging to the northern-most edge of the Kaniksu National Forest on Lake Pend Oreille’s west side. It is the perfect starting point for a vista-filled hike along the bluffs overlooking Lake Pend Oreille and a visit to two charming lakes hidden in the woods.
Gold Hill lies just south of Sandpoint, across Lake Pend Oreille. Much of the ascent is densely forested, but the hill’s higher reaches boast of majestic views of the northern portion of the lake, the Cabinet and Selkirk mountains, and the city of Sandpoint. The incline is modest, as 52 switchbacks make short work of the 1,500-foot ascent.
Lake Darling is one of five lakes situated in this northwest corner of the Cabinet Mountains. A pleasant trail leads through an evergreen forest of fir and spruce to the lake, which comes with a pretty campsite and a good chance of seeing a moose. The ascent to the Pend Oreille Divide opens up views of the Selkirks, Cabinets and Purcells, while the return trip through alpine meadows high above Gordon Creek rounds out the loop.
Gem Lake fully lives up to its name, cradled in a bowl opposite the Pend Oreille Divide of the Cabinet Mountains northeast of Sandpoint. Though the hike is short, the elevation gain is substantial, and most of that is up in a straight line with few alleviating switchbacks.