Sky Lakes and Hanging Valley Loop

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.
  • Cabinet Mountains
4.3 out of 5
Strenuous (due to off-trail hiking; the Sky Lakes portion is moderate)
13.6 miles
6:28 hours moving time (Hiking)
Elevation Gain
3,717 feet
High Point
7,141 feet (the ridge between Sky and Hanging Valley Lakes)
Low Point
3,637 feet (Flower Creek near trailhead)
  • Grove
  • Lake
  • Meadow
  • Mountain
  • Rock Formation
  • Outing Type
  • Daytrip
  • Trail Type
  • Lollipop
  • Trailbed
    Packed dirt, talus, bushwhack
    135, 137
  • Sky Lakes
  • Hanging Valley Lakes
  • Flower Creek
  • Hanging Valley Creek and tributaries
  • Camping
    • At the junction of 135/137
    • At the upper Flower Creek crossing beneath Sugarloaf Mountain
    • Lower Sky Lake
    • Upper Sky Lake
    • Upper Hanging Valley Lake
    • Lower Hanging Valley Lake
    • The Flower Creek trail (137) to lower Sky Lake was in good condition
    • There is no official trail to upper Sky Lake, but a decent path extends at least to the far end of lower Sky Lake
    • Upper Sky Lake to Upper Hanging Valley is completely off-trail, following mere game trails
    • The Hanging Valley Creek trail (135) was in fair condition between the 2 lakes; from the lower lake to the 135/137 it was in poor condition with narrow tread, steep grades, frequent blowdown, and treacherous footing (scree)
  • Kootenai National Forest
  • Status
  • Wilderness Area
  • Maps
  • Treasure Mountain
  • Fees & Permits
  • None required
  • ()
    Open To
  • Hikers
  • Dogs
  • Horses
  • (off-trail sections and Hanging Valley are not suitable for stock use)
  • From Libby, MT, take US-2 south to Shaugnessy Road. Turn right (west) and follow the road uphill for three-quarters of a mile to a three-way intersection. Turn left onto East Side Flower Creek Road / Snowshoe Road and follow that for another three-quarter mile. Turn right onto Granite Creek Road (FR-618). Follow this for yet another three-quarter mile, then turn right onto Flower Creek Road (FR-128; gravel). Continue for about 5 miles to the trailhead. There is parking for a half-dozen cars or more. The trail starts a bit south of the parking area and is signed.
  • Season
    July – October
    October 3, 2020

    From the trailhead above Flower Creek, trail #137 gradually drops down through an open pine forest to the creek over the course of a mile and a quarter. On approach to the creek, the forest increasingly changes to cedar and hemlock and it stays that way for most of the length along the creek. At the 2-mile mark, the trail enters the wilderness, now steadily climbing. Just ahead of the junction with trail #135 (Hanging Valley), the elevation gain increases, aided by a few switchbacks. Some views open up, primarily of the opposite hillside, an eastern ridge of Treasure Mountain. At the junction, featuring a nice campsite, you have to decide on clockwise or counterclockwise. The Hanging Valley trail is steep and treacherous in places, thus we opted to do that downhill; hence our decision for a counterclockwise direction.

    Continuing on #137, the trail steadily climbs as it parallels the creek, shaded by woods, and quite a bit cooler than the earlier part, with the late-season sun unable to reach the valley floor. Soon, however, the forest yields to patches of alpine meadows and at the 4.5-mile mark is the intersection with trail #360. Bear left through more meadows and grand views of Sugarloaf Mountain and the hillside home to the Sky Lakes. The trail drops to a first fording (rock-hop in October) of Flower Creek and a pretty campsite in the woods. Then, the trail emerges from the woods onto the shrub-covered flanks of Sugarloaf, variegated in orange fall colors. This section can be a bit muddy, and is probably even worse earlier in the year. At the 5-mile mark Flower Creek is crossed again (there are 3 or 4 branches to Flower Creek in its headwaters), and then the trail lifts off the valley floor, climbing 1,000 vertical feet to Lower Sky Lake. To get to the lake, though, Flower Creek once again needs to be crossed, and this crossing is quite wide, but still more or less a rock hop in October. The trail then skirts the lake’s east side for a bit before approaching the shore.

    There are campsites in the woods as well as right on the shore. The lower lake is picturesque, but mostly bordered by shrubbery. A fair angler’s trail traverses the lake’s eastern, swampy side. At the southern end, you’ll have to look for a faint tread following the lake’s inlet. We picked a game trail slightly ahead of the inlet, as it skirted a talus slope, then climbed higher and somewhat overshot our target as we ended up slightly above Upper Sky Lake.

    Upper Sky Lake, about a mile from Lower Sky Lake, is very different compared to its namesake. The lower lake’s shrubbery is replaced with talus around the entire perimeter, and the forest consists almost exclusively of larches, whose orange contrasted prettily against the black rock. A faint trail leads to the eastern end of the lake and a nice campsite. Beyond the campsite, all vestiges of trail end, with the next waypoint a dip in the ridge between Sky Lake and the Hanging Valley lakes. It is about half a mile and 500 vertical feet to the northeast. Initially, the ascent crosses an easy forested knoll, but the rest of the way is mostly talus and it just gets steeper and steeper.

    At the ridgetop you are treated to excellent views of Upper and Lower Sky Lake, as well as Upper and Lower Hanging Valley Lake. The most striking feature, perhaps, was an ocean of brightly-colored larches and the massive peak of Treasure Mountain poking into a deep-blue sky above Upper Hanging Valley Lake. A great spot to rest, or even camp (it is dry). The descent to the lake is somewhat easier, even though the vertical drop is 700 feet. There is little talus and the descent is accomplished over nearly a mile, using many easy-to-follow game trails. If your trail scout is thirsty and in dire need of a bath, you may have to fight through the thick shrubbery at the lake’s edge. However, about 20 yards uphill from the lakeshore, a fairly nice trail leads to the lake’s outlet, featuring campsites and easy access to the lake.

    Skirting a small pond near the lake’s outlet, the trail continues north, in fairly good condition, and drops to the lower lake in a mile. That lake’s southern half, where the trail meets up with the lake, is exceedingly shallow. A better location is the lake’s outlet, where several boulders create small islets in the lake.

    Beyond Lower Hanging Valley Lake, the trail gets more precarious. The tread becomes faint and narrow, sometimes crossing large granite slabs, sometimes moving along sheer cliffs. The footing is dubious, consisting, more often than not, of scree. The slope is steep almost throughout: A few times we weren’t sure whether we were following a dry creek bed or a trail. Typically, the trail heads downhill, but at some point it suddenly turned and re-ascended the hillside we’d just come down on, only to just as abruptly turn once again (we promptly lost the trail) and head downhill again. You’ll be glad when you’re back at Flower Creek, and the crossing there is quite straight forward, using a number of fallen logs. Then, it’s 3 miles on #137 back to the trailhead.

    Alternate Routes

    • Trails 15 (Parmenter Connector) and 16 (Flower Lake/Point) are other options from the same trailhead
    • Trail 14 (Indian Head) commences a short distance down trail 15
    • It’s about 6 miles to Sky Lakes one way; a very popular section

    Things to Consider

      Not so great

        The sun poking above this lower ridge of Treasure Mountain
        Naughty going for a swim in Flower Creek at the 135/137 junction
        Sugarloaf Mountain
        View across the basin that makes up the Flower Creek headwaters
        Broad meadows beneath Sugarloaf Mountain make for a fantastic fall display. Watch out for bears; they like it, too
        View to the mouth of the Flower Creek valley
        Lower Sky Lake
        The southern end of Lower Sky Lake
        Looking towards the northern end of Lower Sky Lake
        Upper Sky Lake is ringed with talus and larches
        Upper Sky Lake, looking west
        Upper Sky Lake, taken while climbing to the ridge
        Upper Sky Lake from the ridge
        Lower Sky Lake from the ridge
        The ridge, drenched in extravagant fall colors
        Upper Hanging Valley Lake
        Lower Hanging Valley Lake and Libby in the distance
        Treasure Mountain
        A mossy carpet on approach to Upper Hanging Valley Lake
        Upper Hanging Valley Lake
        A small pond next to Upper Hanging Valley Lake
        Lower Hanging Valley Lake is shallow at its southern end
        Lower Hanging Valley Lake near the outlet
        Lower Hanging Valley Lake and Treasure Mountain
        In some places, trail 135 hugs steep cliffs
        View towards the mouth of Hanging Valley Creek
        Steep cliffs on trail 135
        Back to the junction with trail 137; the crossing is greatly aided by downed trees