Hiking in the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness

September may remain hot and dry in the low country, but the month typically grants high country visitors their first glimpse of the advent of fall. For those who relish fall color and cooler hiking temperatures, a September visit to Rock Lake in the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness can be an early chance to revel in autumn glory. 

Rock Lake reflection with fall colors // Photo by Holly Weiler

Come prepared for vast temperature swings and a wide variety of conditions when planning a September visit to Rock Lake. Daytime temperatures may still make swimming an option, but nighttime temperatures are sure to plummet. Daytime rain could very easily turn to overnight snow. The payoff is spectacular color variations, as huckleberry leaves turn scarlet, larch needles turn golden, and various other native plants fill in all of the colors in between. The lake surface, especially on a wind-free day, reflects the entire show. Bring a chair to linger and enjoy the view, or consider this for a late-season overnight trip. A small campsite is located near the lake outlet.

Rock Lake from above // Photo by Holly Weiler

The trail begins in a forest and ascends an old mining road for its early miles. Long-abandoned pieces of mining equipment are visible in places along the route. The grade remains mellow for the first 3.5 miles to the site of the old Heildelberg Mine at Rock Creek Falls. From here, the trail narrows and begins to ascend more steeply for the last 1.5 miles to Rock Lake. 

Rock Lake and the surrounding Cabinet Mountain Wilderness enjoys special protections that limit group size to eight heartbeats and prohibit mechanized equipment. The area serves as critical habitat to grizzly bears, so overnight visitors need to follow food storage guidelines. But the area is also known for a controversial mine proposal that aims to drill beneath the wilderness to extract copper stores, a proposal that could impact the existence of the lake itself as well as all of the waters drained by this watershed. Visit Rock Lake to appreciate its intrinsic value, which is especially vibrant in the fall.   

Rock Lake with fall colors in September // Photo by Holly Weiler

Round-trip distance: 10 miles

Rating: Moderate

Elevation gain: 1938 feet

Map: USGS Elephant Peak

Getting there: From Highway 200 in Montana, turn north on Government Mountain Road (FR 150) just east of Noxon. In 5.3 miles, turn right on FR 150A, which continues 1.5 miles and dead-ends at the trailhead. 

Support Local Trails: New to volunteer trail work? Join the Washington Trails Association for an introduction to trailwork on Sept. 14! Learn more and register at wta.org/volunteer.