I love to go backpacking, but sometimes I don’t feel like driving to far-flung places just to reach a trailhead to then hike with 30 pounds on my back. That’s why Heart Lake in the Bitterroot Mountains is a quick and easy weekend getaway to the backcountry. It takes only two hours to drive from Spokane to the trailhead outside of Superior, Montana, in the Lolo National Forest, and after just three miles of hiking you reach a beautiful alpine lake.
When my husband and I started our trek with our husky dog, Emerson, we knew it would be great for our canine kid since it’s included in the book Best Hikes with Dogs – Inland Northwest by Craig Romano and Alan L. Bauer. The mostly shady trail follows Trout Creek and includes a gradual 1,150 foot elevation gain. There are a few log bridges, but you must seriously ford the creek at about 2.75 miles, so a pair of Keens or Teevas is necessary. Follow the trail left. (If you go right, the trail will lead you to the Bitterroot Divide and the Stateline Trail-a possible day-hike destination.)
Soon Heart Lake (elevation: 5,824 ft) will come into view and you’ll find yourself right at a couple of campsites. Although you could pitch your tent here, if you have the endurance to hike a bit further, head to the south end of the lake for a more secluded and adventurous campsite. Continue left on the trail to the logjammed outlet; cross it and follow the trail along the eastern shore. This three-quarter mile trek has a few tricky spots that require some creative footing. There is a shady campsite along this trail, but keep going because there are two more sites ahead with better lake access. We wanted the furthest one (based on a recommendation from a kind hiker on his way out) and were fortunate that it wasn’t already claimed by the time we arrived that afternoon. It had easy access to the lake, sweeping views of the surrounding peaks and a snow-fed creek for using our water pump filter. There was already a designated backcountry kitchen area, with a rock fire ring and surrounding logs. We didn’t make a fire, but set up our leave-no-trace camp stove here. There was plenty of shade for our dog and we all loved hanging out at the lake’s edge. A puzzle of rocks and logs make for a canine water park and a great picnic perch for hanging tired feet into the cold water. There could be a couple other tent site possibilities around the boulders, but in late June we were still surrounded by snowfields. We found some creative uses for these-such as boot-skiing with a husky!
Some fellow backpackers were spin fishing from the southwest shore of the lake and even had a float tube. They were successful, although we would’ve preferred to see them catch and release since the fish were so small. A nice breeze from the lake kept mosquitoes away all night long. And we hung our food overnight to keep it away from the mice that were scurrying around after dark and any possible deer (like the ones we saw on the hike in). The soothing sounds of the creek lulled us all to sleep.
In the morning, our tent’s internal temperature rose as the sun crested the eastern ridge. Later (after boot-skiing), Emerson kept staring-with his ears perked-to a spot high up on the ridge near the Montana-Idaho border. We couldn’t figure out what it was until a huge mountain goat became visible with the naked eye. The beautiful beast easily climbed down to munch on the foliage, crossed one of the snowfields and came within a quarter of a mile of our campsite. He exchanged glances with us, but was happy to forage for his food as we packed up camp.
If you have more than a weekend or the extra energy, there is a trail to Pearl Lake that starts near the south end of the lake-but we didn’t do it. We hiked out in time for dinner in Superior at Durango’s, a restaurant with an adjacent bar/casino and gift shop. For about $15, we both enjoyed unique Montana inspired hamburger entrees, and were back home in Spokane in time to unpack and get a decent night’s sleep before work the next morning. Heart Lake is definitely a quick and easy destination for any city dweller seeking a backcountry fix.
When You Go:
From Spokane, head east on I-90, take Exit 47 at Superior, Montana. Go east on Diamond Road, also known as County Road 257. After six miles the road becomes gravel. Pass Trout Creek Campground and enter the Great Burn Wilderness Area-named for the wildfire that engulfed the area in the early 1900’s. After 20 dusty miles you come to a switchback with trailhead parking on the right side of the road. The Heart Lake trailhead and signage is on the left.