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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!