Northwest Montana

Located just south of Libby, Montana, Leigh Lake is nestled in the shadow of Snowshoe Peak, the tallest mountain in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. Experienced mountaineers sometimes use the Leigh Lake trail as a jumping-off point for the class four scramble to the summit of Snowshoe Peak, elevation 8,738 feet. The trail to the lake is well maintained, although rugged and is an excellent introduction to the beauty of the Cabinets.  

Summer is a brief affair here, as evidenced by the way snow often lingers along the shore beneath the peak despite warm daytime temperatures. Early summer visitors may find floating mini-icebergs in the lake, which sits at 5,000 feet, giving would-be swimmers a strong hint about the potential water temperature.

Don’t let the relatively short distance and low elevation gain fool you into thinking this hike is without challenges. The Cabinet Mountains Wilderness trails are generally known for their short distances and rugged character. The Leigh Lake trail measures less than 2 miles from the trailhead to the lake, but the terrain is rocky and includes a tricky stream crossing at approximately the 1-mile mark. Trekking poles are recommended for extra balance along this trail. 

Morning-time reflection on the Leigh Lake. // Photo by Holly Weiler

Once at the lake, hikers will find plenty of rocky seating areas to relax and take in the view. The entire lake basin is surrounded by running water making its way to the lake, with numerous waterfalls cascading down from the higher reaches of the surrounding peaks. Binoculars are advised, both for viewing the waterfalls and for spying on the lake’s wildlife. Mountain goats are frequent visitors to the lake and surrounding cliffs. While the main trail dead ends at the lake, it is possible to do a little scrambling below the steeps to find good vantage points on the lake and also view numerous alpine wildflowers.  

Leigh Lake is best suited to day trips, particularly on weekends where crowding may become an issue. Given the area’s proximity to Libby, visitors might find it easiest to stay in a developed campground or even in town and then explore more of the area’s trails during the same visit. For those who enjoy backpacking, it’s important to note that no camping is permitted within 300 feet of the lake, and the campsites are small and rocky. Group size is limited to eight heartbeats for all trails within the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area.   

Round-trip distance: Approximately 3.5 miles  

Rating: Moderate  

Elevation gain: 1,000 feet  

Map: USGS Snowshoe Peak  

Getting There:  From Libby, travel south on Highway 2 for 8 miles. Turn right on Bear Creek/Hoodoo Flats Road (NF 278). Continue 3 miles, then turn right onto NF 867. Travel 4.6 miles to NF 6213. The road dead ends at the Leigh Lake trailhead after 2.3 miles.  

Holly Weiler is hoping to be back to explorations around the Inland Northwest by the time this hits the press but has kept busy despite travel limitations by using trail-work tools to tame garden weeds at home.