Imagine a hike that shows off the absolute best the northern Cabinet Mountain Wilderness has to offer. From granite-covered alpine peaks with 360-degree views to dense moss-overgrown cedar forests in the creek bottoms. From intensely blue alpine lakes to the optical cacophony of summer flowers painting entire meadows. From the sheer cliff walls so typical of the Cabinets to gently sliding hillsides, carved by glaciers over thousands of years. This loop has it all.
Combining one of the least-traveled routes in Montana’s Cabinet Wilderness with one of the most frequented, this loop visits four spectacular lakes up close. A short but steep off-trail climb to a larch-covered ridge secures a bird’s-eye view as well, in addition to a grand panorama of Treasure Mountain.
Fed by the Cabinets’ sole remaining glacier, Granite Lake is a truly grand destination. Though the glacier is not visible from the lake, its glacial waters, tumbling hundreds of feet down a vertical dark rock face of Snowshoe Peak, are a sight to behold. Most impressive, however, is the granite buttress of A peak, poking into a deep-blue sky like a giant stony fist!
The hike to Leigh Lake is short but steep and leads right into the heart of the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness to a lake huddling beneath the near-vertical cliffs of Snowshoe Peak, the highest mountain in the Cabinets. The dramatic setting and the short hike ensure that you will have plenty of company: It’s the most popular hike in the Wilderness.
Ross Creek is famous for its ancient cedars and surely doesn’t disappoint. This route follows the cedars, then lifts off the river bottom and climbs through an old burn to a set of sparkling cascades carved into the South Fork Ross Creek.
Sheltered from fire and wind for hundreds of years, and save from loggers since 1960, Ross Creek Cedars showcases ancient western red cedar growing in a rainforest-like setting. A level path meanders for a mile among the giants. Many specimens exceed 10 feet in diameter and reach nearly 200 feet into the sky. Informative signs explain the ecology and history of the grove.
Flower Point is an old lookout tower site easily accessible via a singletrack from the Cabinet’s Flower Creek trailhead on the edge of the northeastern Cabinet Wilderness. The lake is an eye-pleasing but marshy affair where you likely might find moose and bugs. This being October, we found neither.
The Big Spar Lake trail refused to show its best side on this fall morning, being shrouded in fog most of the time. It would make for great summer hiking, though, as the path meanders through a pleasant cedar forest. Perhaps the best part is the old-growth cedar grove along Spar Creek.
If you like steep and brushy, then you’ll like Spar Peak. If you like grandiose views of the Cabinet Mountains, then you’ll love Spar Peak, but you may not like the process of getting there. In fact, the trail starts out superb and ends that way, but the piece in the middle is, well, a piece of work…
Little Spar Lake, the only trail-accessible lake in the proposed Scotchman Peak Wilderness, is a popular destination, sitting close to the Idaho/Montana state line. The hike is pleasant and view-laden, but you may want to avoid the heat of the afternoon sun when crossing the open meadows on approach to the lake. The lake itself is all you can hope for and surely won’t disappoint!
Any excursions you may attempt from Little Spar Lake are bound to be off-trail. This short hike is one option, climbing a saddle between Savage Mountain and Vertigo Ridge, then dropping down the other side through talus and patches of snow to an azure-blue horseshoe-shaped pond. Further exploration, such as Scotchman Peak #2, is a possibility.
Bramlet Lake promises a nice, quick hike to a beautiful alpine lake lying just barely inside the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness. Access is relatively easy, but visitors are few, making it that much more appealing. The only “population” we encountered was a couple of cougars.
With fabulous views deep into the Montana Cabinets, Engle Lake makes a grandiose destination at 7,500 feet. Add in a bit of camping at fantastic and pristine Engle Lake, and you have the makings for a perfect weekend, whether you like the long slug up from McKay Creek or prefer the drive to the 5000-foot Orr Creek trailhead.
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!
The Wanless Lake loop astonishes with not just one lake, but five in total, each worth the hike in its own right. Wanless Lake is the cream of the crop, measuring a mile long and a quarter mile wide in places, making it the largest lake within the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness.
Rock Lake is a pleasant hike to a phenomenal lake in the midst of the Cabinet Wilderness. Steep talus slopes frame the lake on both sides, with the sheer granite face of Ojibway Peak looming high above. The water is much warmer than you’d expect, and the utter lack of mosquitoes turns this high alpine valley into a piece of paradise. Plus, inspect a thunderous waterfall and old mining equipment along the way.
Little Ibex Lake sits amidst a dramatic surrounding of tall peaks near the highest points of the Cabinets, with excellent views of Snowshoe Peak, the highest point. The lake is fed by permanent snow fields, remnants of what once was Ibex Glacier. Be prepared for a difficult slug uphill, though, as the steep trail is littered with blowdown, and ferocious hoards of mosquitoes await anyone or anything with an ounce of blood.
This 38-mile loop served as our inaugural hike into Montana’s Cabinet Wilderness Area. Magnificent views, picturesque alpine lakes, plenty of wildlife, and some of the best ridge hiking you can dream of all packed into a day of fun!