Harrison Lake: Great Views in the Selkirks

“The sight of Harrison Peak hovering above its namesake lake at the headwaters of the Pack River provides one of the loveliest backdrops in all of North Idaho,” according to Thad Laird. He ought to know since he wrote a Climber’s Guide to North Idaho and the Cabinet Wilderness. Make no mistake; Harrison Peak and the greater Harrison Cirque (aka The Harrison Lake Basin) are truly one of the most scenic spots in all of the Selkirks.

The hike to the lake itself hardly requires much effort until the final half mile. I suspect fit hikers with a light daypack will spend less time reaching the lake than they spend on the dirt roads driving to the trailhead. The trail from the Pack River trailhead follows a mild grade, and generally features increasingly better views of the giant Beehive Dome, a massive granite blob hundreds of feet high. Quite frankly, the views and the trail reminded me a lot of other hikes in the area—good but not great. But reaching the lake is just the start.

The Selkirk mountains were named after Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk, a prominent philanthropic sponsor of early Canadian settlements. A few websites maintain the rumor that he bought “116,000 square miles of land for ten shillings” in 1811. Although the mountains are occasionally considered a subdivision of the Columbia Mountains, most agree that the Selkirk Range is encircled by the Purcell Mountains to the east and the Columbia River to the west and north. The summits are lowest in the southern portion within North Idaho, where they barely average 7,500 feet, however many northern peaks in British Columbia exceed 10,000 feet. Nevertheless, 7000 feet is a wonderful height for scenic Idaho wilderness.

The vantage points above Harrison Lake, from Harrison Peak and Peak 7171, serve up the best views of the entire Selkirk Crest. I had visited the area before, once in bad weather and once when forest fires burned nearby, and it wasn’t until recently that I learned just how far you can see up there. Looking south, one can see the teeth of the Harrison Cirque, almost seven independent mountains, as well as the mighty Chimney Rock and Mount Roothan. Gazing east, one sees most of the Pack River drainage, the upper portion of Roman Nose, and the Purcell Mountains in the distance. Due north, the chiseled shapes of the Lions Head occupy most of the horizon. Even further north, looking into Canada, one can pick out the larger Selkirk Mountains just across the border. Finally, on the eastern perimeter, one can see glimpses of Priest Lake, some of its islands, and perhaps Upper Priest Lake.

Like many Selkirk enthusiasts in this area, I had been up and around most of the significant North Idaho hikes and climbs. But, as previously mentioned, I was thwarted by poor weather or dismal visibility due to forest fires when I attempted to reach Harrison. A few years after those trips, the major bridge for the Pack River Road was washed away in a massive spring runoff. Repaired recently, most people weren’t even aware the eastside trailhead was even approachable. However, even though the bridge is back, the road is still one of the worst in North Idaho.

You can find dozens of campsites at Harrison Lake, but I would not be surprised if the lake is hyper-crowded at the height of the backpacking season. I suspect there’s snow around the lake if you camp up there too early, and that’s why I recommend the fall season. A little less daylight during the day and a little colder at night, but the off-season allows you to avoid the crowds, and the bugs, and any snow obstacles in the high country.

The scramble to the base of Harrison Peak is well marked with cairns as you contour on a ridge to the peak. The actual summit takes some negotiating, even circumnavigating the summit top, but given enough time most peak baggers can figure it out. As for Peak 7171, the triangle rock face that hovers almost directly over the lake, I recommend skirting the south side of Harrison Lake, continue past the giant slabs of granite, and up to a large bench. From there, cut back east until you meet the dramatic ridgeline that guards the Harrison Cirque.

Extra points go out to the hearty backcountry traveler willing to travel high along the cirque crest and find the wreckage of a 1980’s small plane crash. I haven’t seen it myself, but I’ve confirmed with trusted sources that have seen it. I’m told it’s located in the boulder field, spread out, to the south of The Fin. Good luck.

Rich Landers, in his book 100 Hikes in the Inland Northwest, writes, “One of the most ruggedly beautiful alpine lakes in the Selkirk Mountains….” Perched in rugged country between a gleaming Priest Lake and the awesome Lake Pend Oreille, I dare anyone to disagree.

When You Go:

ACCESS TO THE PREFERRED Harrison Lake trailhead can be reached via the Pack River Road (which is about 10.5 miles north of Sandpoint). Turn west off US 95 and travel about 20 miles to reach Trail 217. The trailhead is fairly obvious and well marked with sufficient parking and a pit toilet. Beware: the last 5 or 6 miles of the Pack River Road may only be suitable for high clearance vehicles.

If the Pack River Road is not an option, consider coming up from Bonners Ferry via the Myrtle Creek Road (clearly detailed in 100 Hikes in the Inland Northwest).

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