Mission Mountain Lake Hikes

The Mission Mountains make a familiar sight to travelers between Missoula and Flathead Lake, their serrated, snow-draped peaks, crowned by 9,280-foot McDonald Peak and its dozen or so neighbors in the 9,000-foot club. Despite appearing impassible to travel, the Missions boast some of the most easily rewarding, high-country day hiking in the Northwest. They have short, shallow-grade trails accessing hundreds of high-elevation tarns with one of the highest densities of alpine lakes in the Northern Rockies. Centerpiece is the nearly 75,000-acre Mission Mountains Wilderness on the east side of the range that overlooks the Seeley-Swan Valley. One adventurous option is to set up camp down low and make a long weekend goal of traversing a handful or more of high-mountain lakes. Missions accepted?

Glacier Lake

The Glacier Creek portal epitomizes the appeal of hiking in the Mission Mountains Wilderness between Missoula and Kalispell. It includes pleasant old-growth forest, well-maintained and never-too-steep trails, and spectacular shoreline destinations that belie their ease of access. Simply put, few regions of the Northwest offer so many options for rewarding, done-in-a-day outings, and few Mission hikes attract as many done-in-a-day visitors as Glacier Lake. Maintaining a shallow streamside grade its entire length, the 1.6-mile trail to Glacier ambles through open old-growth Engelmann spruce and Douglas fir forest, while the airy canopy allows plenty of fruit-sweetening light to reach the huckleberry shrubs below. Glacier Lake occupies a vast cirque, the smooth granite shelves at the far end sheltering several high tarns; a trail that splits off from Glacier Lake’s approach goes to Turquoise, the largest of the pools. Owing to a history of heavy use, the Forest Service prohibits camping within a quarter mile of the shore. No matter: with its short length, the hike to Glacier Lake is better suited to a day of picnicking than a backpacking trip.

Photo of Glacier Lake by Aaron Theisen.
Glacier Lake. // Photo: Aaron Theisen

Cold Lakes

The Cold Lakes are one of the Mission Mountains’ hottest destinations, but hikers averse to hordes should still make the trek. The 2.2-mile hike to Lower Cold Lake parallels Cold Creek for much of its length, and widely-spaced spruces cast dappled shadows on its shallow depths. Heavy undergrowth limits shoreline access except at the lower lake’s outlet. Of the two Cold Lakes, the upper is that much prettier because it sits even closer to the heavily glaciated cirques of the Missions peaks. No official trail connects Lower to Upper Cold Lake, but hikers keen on clambering over logs on a rough-hewn user path can easily reach the upper lake; plan on taking as long to go the half mile from the lower to upper lake as it takes to travel from the trailhead to the lower lake. Wave-deposited logs welter in the chilly water; swimming options are few. Camping within a quarter mile of either lake is prohibited. This leaves few overnight options in the deadfall-clogged understory, which, like Glacier Lake, is better suited to a family picnic than a pack trip.

Crystal Lake

Crystal Lake occupies the head of a large glacial valley upstream of the private shoreline lodges of Lindbergh Lake. And while numerous routes—including a canoe portage—access Crystal, the best day hike is the 2.2-mile, dessert-first descent from the upper Bunyan Lake trailhead. The trail seems to showcase every tree species in western Montana: gargantuan larch and ponderosa grow shoulder to shoulder with cedar and yew. Huckleberries and beargrass frame the relatively low-elevation lake. Befitting a lake that occupies a milder clime than most of its Missions neighbors, Crystal boasts a sandy beach with a gradual drop-off; it’s the best on this list for foot-soaking or a float. Just be sure to save energy for the post-lake haul to the trailhead.

Hemlock Lake

Hikers will be hard-pressed to count any hemlock on this 6.8-mile roundtrip hike, which provides a unique opportunity in the typically wet Missions to travel through a recovering burn area. From the trailhead, the trail immediately sets to work on a shadeless slope of shoulder-high larch and pioneering, post-fire blooms. The 2003 burn revealed unobstructed views across the Seeley-Swan Valley to the snow-capped panorama of the Swans. Once in the wilderness, pockets of uniform lodgepole and low huckleberry provide some respite and refreshment. Thick timber shelters the lake, which occupies a spot just below a slump in the crest of the Missions. Tiny Conko Lake sits on a high bedrock bench above the lake’s inlet; reaching it is more a matter of resolve than any technical climbing ability.

Lake Elsina – Lake Dinah

Lakes Elsina and Dinah lie just outside the Mission Mountains Wilderness. Although they lack the dramatic rock-and-ice aesthetic of the high-alpine tarns in the wilderness proper, they offer superb wildlife watching with a fraction of the crowds of their more chiseled kin. Beginning at the shallow, grass-fringed shores of Lake Elsina, the 4.4-mile roundtrip hike stays in the timber as it gradually crests the rocky sheaves of the Clearwater-Jocko Divide. Low-growing rock garden plants eke out a living amidst late-lingering snow; summer is but a brief visitor on the lee side of the Missions. Surrounded by willow, Lake Dinah makes a reliable spot to watch moose paddle improbably fast across the frigid water. //


Aaron wrote about Missoula, Montana area hikes in the June issue.

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