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.
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.
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.
The hallmark of the Mallard-Larkins are steep pinnacles, dozens of sub-alpine lakes, a flora ranging from rainforest-like ancient cedars to subalpine fir, and world-famous herds of mountain goats and elk. Couple that with unequaled solitude and tranquility and you have the makings for a superb backpacking trip through some of Idaho’s finest woods.
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.
Heavily logged in the early twentieth century, the Marble Creek region is now blanketed with a mix of fir, larch, cedar, spruce, and hemlock, with little evidence of the coveted giant white pine stands that once covered the hillsides. The route commences at Gold Center Creek, which drains into the Clearwater system, then crosses the divide and drops beneath Grandmother Mountain to Marble Creek, which empties into the St. Joe. The way back moves past a splash dam and remnants of a bygone logging camp.
Nestled in the forest near the Idaho-Montana state line, the Glidden Lakes are as popular with campers–if not more so–as Blossom and Revett further north. The hike follows the Idaho State Centennial trail for much of the way and tosses in excellent views into Montana and Idaho and the Lookout ski area.
Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park consists of 2,500 acres of arid rocky hills in Orange County, occupying what used to be part of a cattle operation started by Jose Serrano in 1842 and later purchased by Dwight Whiting. Convenient access from Portola Parkway makes the 17-mile trail system exceedingly popular with mountain bikers. This guide explores the eastern section along Serrano Creek, but you could extend the trail for another hour or two by exploring the western Red Rock Canyon sections as well.
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.
Much of the Blossom Lakes loop is in fact part of the Idaho State Centennial trail, a footpath stretching from Canada all the way to Nevada. Besides being rich in lakes and scenery, the area is also rich in history, as Thompson Pass served as the gateway from the railroad station in Thompson Falls to then-thriving Gold Rush town Murray. Today’s Murray is little more than a ghost town, hidden behind enormous dredge tailing piles lining Prichard Creek.
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.
The Independence Creek National Recreation Trail uses an old wagon trail roadbed that connected loggers and miners in the Coeur d’Alene Mountains to Lake Pend Oreille in the olden days. The loop starts at the eastern trailhead and hugs the creek closely to Ermine Ridge, where it hops onto that ridge and climbs to Faset Peak, site of a former fire-lookout tower. For the return trip the path drops down along the southwestern flank of Faset, riding a ridge separating the Declaration Creek and Surprise Creek draws. It reunites with Independence Creek on the approach to Snowbird Meadows and follows the creek all the way back to the trailhead.
The Deer Flat Reservoir near Boise (aka Lake Lowell) was built from 1906 to 1909 to irrigate the surrounding countryside. Lacking any local water sources, it is fed by the 40-mile New York canal (so-named because New York investors financed it), which draws water from the Boise River. The trail leads to an observation hill above the lake with good views across the reservoir, and then crosses the dam to Lake Lowell Park.
Mount Spokane offers an extensive web of snowshoe and hiking trails. The Mount Spokane loop starts at the very bottom of the park and meanders through evergreen forests to the grandiose vistas atop Mount Spokane with a little side trip to Mount Kit Carson and its splendid views to the north and west.
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.
The Quartz Mountain Lookout Loop offers perhaps the best views of any trail in the Mount Spokane Nordic Ski area. On excellently-groomed trails, the 5.5-mile loop winds through pine and fir forest to the base of Quartz Mountain. Then it’s either skiing through virgin snow or snowshoeing up to the former fire lookout tower and its sweeping 360-degree views.
The Eagle Hut Loop is part of Fourth of July Pass’s winter recreation area. The 8.5-mile loop leads along both groomed and ungroomed trails and culminates at a back-country warming hut. The A-frame, built by Ian Truscott in 2007 as an Eagle Scout project, comes complete with benches and a small wood-fired stove.
Jeanette’ Jaunt is an excellent showshoe trail for beginners, following an old logging road along the side of a mountain paralleling I-90. For most of the trail the incline is negligible, signage is superb, trail maintenance is much improved, and heavy usage turns much of the trail into easily-traversed packed snow.
At just over 3000 feet altitude, snow-sufficiency can be hit or miss at the Fourth of July Recreation area. When there’s enough, this is a convenient and popular cross-country skiing and snowshoeing area, located just minutes from I-90. The trail system south of the freeway is entirely reserved for non-motorized recreation, and some of the trails are groomed for tracked cross-country skiing.
East Canfield Butte is West Canfield’s less famous and less tall twin. Access is from the Fernan trailhead, which is certainly less used and a bit more tranquil, especially during the winter months, when dirtbikes are absent. It is fairly densely forested, though, with limited views. If the weather cooperates a short sidetrip to West Canfield is almost a necessity.
Great hiking trails lead to outstanding destinations. Spectacular pinnacles with 360-degree views. Hidden cirque lakes nestled high up in the mountains, ringed by majestic larches against azure blue skies. Roaring waterfalls, spraying mist and projecting full-spectrum rainbows. Other trails don’t lead to anywhere particular at all. They surprise the visitor with simple things along the way, like moss-covered riverbanks, gurgling, frolicking brooks, fungi sprouting en masse on decaying logs, inviting meadows, out of which a rabbit suddenly darts and quickly disappears in the undergrowth, a dollop of mountain elixir, trapped in the funnel of a bright-orange mushroom, a jumble of logs, splintered and entwined, blocking the course of a creek, a cluster of old-growth cedars, grown together for decades in closer and closer embrace, an uprooted tree-giant, its lichen-covered roots reaching skywards like begging hands, the sudden flapping of wings and quick flash of an airborne grouse, precious glens, lavishly carpeted with succulent ferns, mounds of sawdust and a checkerboard of holes in a tree, relentlessly pecked and gnawed, the sun piercing a cloudy sky and illuminating the tattered curtain of old man’s beard clinging to the pines.
Marie Creek trail #241 definitely is in that latter category: The journey becomes the destination.
Once a wagon trail linking mining and logging camps to Lake Pend Oreille, Independence Creek National Recreation Trail #22 drops from Weber Saddle to its namesake creek and follows it closely through pristine forest and flower-rich meadows. Little evidence is left of the 1910 Great Burn, which turned much of the region into smoke and ashes. Today’s trail is shaded by Douglas fir and pine, clear water is waiting to be scooped up, and wildlife abounds, including whitetailed deer, elk, black bear, moose, cougars, and a plethora of birds.
Azure-blue skies. Emerald-green slopes. Towering pines. Fields of bracken fern. Lazily meandering rivers. Lush moss-covered tributaries. Steep talus slopes. Picturesque alpine lakes. Tumbling rapids and waterfalls. Lichen-covered logs. Endless stretches of huckleberries and beargrass. No wonder the St. Joe was designated a Wild & Scenic River.
The Blue Creek Bay trail combines an extensive network of former logging roads into a roughly six-mile lollipop loop. The trail is well-maintained, easy to hike, and mostly double-track. The forest is more open and interspersed with meadows than most in the inland northwest, making this more suitable for cooler weather than the very shaded Mineral Ridge trail across Lake Coeur d’Alene.