Have you ever noticed the crowds at the local beaches? The noise of Jet Skis; whining, crying and yelling kids; and the endless boat traffic? Well, I have a story about the most spectacular lake, and an adventure that is sure to please if you’re looking to get away from all that. The lake is Leigh Lake in the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness of western Montana. Leigh Lake is the largest, highest and most visited in the wilderness.
The hike into Leigh Lake is only 1.5 miles but climbs almost 900 vertical feet. Don’t let that stop you, though. About half way in is a most amazing 100-foot waterfall. This is a good place to shed the pack and enjoy a dip, or just splash ice-cold water on the face. From here, the trail climbs steeply for about 150 more vertical feet. The trail out to the lake offers a birds-eye views and great sounds of the falls below you.
My first hike into Leigh Lake, I was disappointed by the amount of people that congregated around the northeast corner of the lake. So I hatched a plan. The next month I carried in my one-man raft, kayak paddle and camera. All of a sudden, this most popular lake became dead quiet. Once away from the put-in, the dominating sounds are the hundreds of waterfalls high on the 3,000 foot vertical wall that makes up the north face above the lake.
Last year’s trip, in mid-July, had an extra bonus. There were about 125 icebergs on the lake. After paddling around the bergs, the lake was more open. Along the big wall were so many waterfalls, that I stopped counting at 300. Among the waterfalls, you can see mountain goats foraging the rock faces. With the wall looming above you, spin your raft and experience a live IMAX movie. The waterfalls continue on the west wall, with a few dropping at your feet.
A little further along the shoreline is a small beach to get out on and enjoy the quiet, beautiful lake during lunch (be sure to tie your boats securely). For those wishing yet another spectacular adventure, you can walk up into what I call the “amphitheater.” (Look at the photo in “100 Hikes in the Inland Northwest” book.) This eroded area looks technical, but once you’re in it, it becomes a stroll up through the rocks. Everywhere you look there are small streams, flowing along the many layers of rock, that produce an abundance of wildflowers. Once down from the amphitheater, the paddle back to the put-in/take-out offers views of the enormous north wall.
Yes, this hike is a bit strenuous in places, but the views, the waterfalls, the wildflowers, and the serenity of this adventure, is one you will never forget. I took a friend to Leigh Lake once who said that words like spectacular, amazing and incredible cannot adequately describe the experience.
From Sandpoint, head east on Highway 200 past Clark Fork and into Montana. About 17 miles from the state line, turn left (north) up Highway 56.
The Cabinet Mountain Wilderness is on the right, while the proposed Scotchman Peaks Wilderness is on the left. Once at Highway 2, head east to Libby, but don’t forget to stop at Kootenai Falls. Once in Libby, stop by Henry’s Restaurant for a ‘50s-like experience. From Libby, head south on Highway 2 for 7.25 miles to Bear Creek Road and turn right. Drive almost 3 miles and turn right onto Road #867. Then after 4.5 miles, turn up road 4786 to the trailhead. There is a primitive campsite along the creek about 2 miles down from the trailhead.
Written by Chic Burge.