Hike of the Month: Heart Lake Loop (Bitterroot Mountains, Idaho/Montana Stateline)

To give this route justice, devote at least a weekend to exploration and hike, at minimum, the complete loop around Heart Lake. This route includes a visit to sapphire-blue Pearl Lake and gives visitors the option to scramble to nearby Dalton Lake. This portion of the Bitterroot Mountains is within the long-proposed Great Burn Wilderness, scorched in the fires of 1910, where evidence of the burn is still visible along the route.

Begin with the relatively easy three mile climb along Trout Creek to Heart Lake, where there are several nice campsites for those who would prefer to use the lakeshore as base for further explorations and hike the majority of the loop without the burden of a full pack. Claim a site, then continue south along the lake. When the shoreline trail ends, turn left on trail #175. Here the real climbing begins as the trail ascends to Pearl Lake, then beyond to join the State Line National Recreation Trail #738, nearly 1,000 vertical feet above Heart Lake.

For the basic loop, turn right and bear northwest, meandering along the Montana/Idaho border on a ridge with unobstructed views in all directions. Soon, Heart Lake will be visible far below, and after approximately one mile, watch for trail #171 on the right and begin the descent to the lake. This trail is brushy and faint, but the reward for the trouble is a dip in the frigid alpine waters.

For those with an extra day or two for additional exploration, try following the Stateline Trail southeast. The trail passes Goose Lake, where there are nice campsites. Several other alpine lakes can be reached with difficulty (no trails lead to them). Fill water containers at Heart, Pearl, or Goose, since the price one pays for ridgeline views is no easy access to water along the way.

The total distance of the loop is approximately 12 miles. This is bear and mosquito country, so plan accordingly. Bring along the USGS Straight Peak map covering this region along the Idaho/Montana border.

Getting There: Take I-90 east to Superior, Montana, exit 47. Continue east on Diamond Road, which turns into Forest Road 250. The trailhead is on the left side of the road after approximately 20 miles of driving.

Give Back to Our Trails!

WTA trail work opportunity of the month: Join WTA volunteers for two days of trail work at Mount Spokane State Park July 25 or 26. Overnight camping and a potluck on Saturday night are optional. Sign up at Wta.org/volunteer/east. //

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