Cliff Lake Backpacking Trip, Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, Montana

     We were camped at Bull River Campground in Montana when the alarm went off at 6am. After breakfast we were on our way, and eventually reached the turn off at Rock Creek about 10am. The drive to the trailhead was intense at times as we gained 2600 feet in the last 6.6 miles to the trailhead at the road end. After loading up the kids and ourselves we applied sunscreen and hit the trail.

     We knew we had to go uphill from the parking lot and picked up a faint trail before finding the actual trail and trailhead sign a short way from the parking lot. The temps were perfect for hiking, not too hot with a little cloud cover. The tread was steep in the beginning but thankfully the shade of the forest kept us cool. It didn’t take long before we reached a good log on the trail where stopped for a sip of water and a short break. Jameson struggled a bit under the weight of his pack when going uphill but did great on the flats. Back on the trail we climbed passed some cool rock formations before reaching a sign for the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. Just past the wilderness boundary we dropped the packs for another break at a rocky outcropping with a stunning view into the rugged Cabinet Mountains. We lingered here for a minute taking in the vista that featured Elephant, Rock, Goat, and Engle Peaks. After a short break we were back at it as we descended a short ways before entering a magnificent meadow.

     The view from the meadow was splendid, lush green park like grasses littered with granite outcrops and St.Paul peak looming in the background. To the west was the broken horizon that made up the summit of Chicago Peak. We traveled lightly through the fragile meadow teaching the kids to stay on the trail and to walk over rock when possible. At the edge of the meadow we found another great vista and opted again to drop the packs and enjoy another snack while rehydrating. At this point we had already traveled a mile, and i was proud of how strong our little troops had been. After our quick break we were back at it, the trail continued along as we traversed below Chicago Peak eventually reaching Milwaukee Pass where we were greeted by a couple of friendly hikers who had spent the night at the pass. One of them actually pitched a hammock between two trees that were precariously close to the edge of a cliff. After taking in the view of Copper Lake from the pass we continued on as the trail now made its way below a shoulder of St.Paul Peak to another spectacular view down to Cliff Lake and our home for the night.

     The trail down to Cliff lake was rather loose and steep but we all made it unscathed. At the lake we found a decent camp on its west side facing dramatic St.Paul Peak. There was one other decent camp at the south end of the lake near a dried up outlet creek that was already taken. The kids were happy to be able to drop their packs, and quickly got to a game of hide and seek while Branden and I set up the tents, hung a bear line, and filtered some water. We didn’t need to worry about firewood because of a level 1 burn ban in the area that didn’t allow any backcountry fires. While setting up camp someone noticed a mountain goat grazing across the lake high on the slopes of St.Paul Peak. The kids got a kick out of the goats which provided a lot of entertainment  for all of us, the kids named the goats “Billy,” and “Rocky.”. With camp setup we still had a lot of light left, so we decided to explore St.Paul Peak.

     At the south end of the lake we picked up a trail heading up the mountain near the ridge bordering in the lake. In the beginning the trail was In good shape but in no time soon to deteriorated. We continued up, using game trails whenever possible but it didn’t take long to realize this was gonna be a lot of work if we were gonna reach the summit. Kylie held her own, mostly on all fours scrambling up the mountain and at times on my shoulders. At one point Branden yelled back to stop, a mountain goat was just ahead, and we wanted to take all precautions when approaching wildlife. The billy goat didn’t want anything to do with us and climbed further up the mountain to a secure spot among the rocks where he could observe us from a safe distance, which was fine by us. We had a bit of a standoff, staring each other down while we took a few pictures, this went on for a bit and the kids got a kick out of watching the goat, what a treat. Once the goat had enough he disappeared over rocks, very cool. We continued on a little ways before reaching a point where we realized we weren’t gonna make the summit. Just below a giant pile of broken rock we stopped to take In the 180 degree panoramic view before us that stretched from Elephant Peak all the way to Engle Peak. It was cool to be looking down on St.Paul Pass considering we were just eyeing it from the east when we hiked into Rock Lake a few weeks ago. I love the Cabinets, the ruggedness of the terrain reminded me of my home range, the Cascades. After taking it all In we decided to make our descent, we went as fast as the terrain would allow, which was a snail’s pace at best most of the time. The controlled fall was tricky, especially with little ones holding your hand, poor Kylie spent most of the down climb on her butt sliding over the slick green grass. We had to reference the GPS a few times to make sure we were sticking to our intended route with how quickly the steep terrain kept trying to push us off course. Eventually we were able to pick up a faint trail that quickly got us back down to Cliff Lake. I had to give it up to the kiddos, that scramble would have been a workout for any adult and they rocked it! So proud of them. Kylie was quick to tell us that she “never wanted to climb the big hill ever again.”

     Back in camp we all stripped down to cool off in the lake which felt great. The down time along the granite rocks at the lake shore was was a welcome reprieve from all of our hard work.  It felt good to be backpacking during the peak summer months, something I hadn’t been able to do since before my ankle surgery almost two years ago. To be able to share this experience with my children, best friend Branden, and his son Cole was a real treat. The sun was getting low on the horizon so we fixed a dinner of barbecued pork, salad and apple sauce. After dinner it was time for pajamas and some down time by the lake. It was a perfect night, we watched the mountain goats as the alpenglow kissed the tallest peaks, and just before dark a lone goat perched high on the rocks leaped to a secure location before disappearing for the night. The kids eyes were getting heavy, Jameson was the first to pass out and not too long after him Kylie and Cole. Branden and I stayed up a short while later enjoying a few laughs over a couple of glasses of wine before calling it quits.

     The next day we had a visitor in the early morning which definitely got our hearts pounding as we lay in the tent listening to the heavy feet of whatever it was outside romping around. This is grizzly country so I prepared myself for the worse when I stuck my head outside the tent. To my relief it was one of the mountain goats down from St. Paul Peak probably in search of some salt, needless to say I never really went back to sleep after that. Once out of the tents we slowly broke camp doing a little here and a little there after we had breakfast. It took Branden a little longer to get organized, as expected, I have been doing this for some time now and this was his first time backpacking. Eventually it was time to go, and after one last group photo, we were on our way. With packs shouldered we picked up the trail out, and after crossing a dry outlet stream began a short but steep climb out of the Cliff Lake basin and as expected the pace came to a screaming halt. The kids have been excellent, but some complaining is guaranteed, especially on a steep climb. At the top of the hill we took a short break and regrouped before regaining the trail. We approached Milwaukee Pass and Chicago Peak and began looking for a feasible route up, after yesterday’s scramble attempt we figured a short run up Chicago Peak would be a walk in the park, not so fast.  After assessing the situation we figured it would be a bad idea with the little ones, maybe next time. We made quick work of the trail out where we eventually loaded up and drove into Sandpoint, Idaho for post hike grub at McDuff’s Brewery. Cliff Lake is a superb destination, it’s amazing how much alpine goodness is crammed into this short little trail into the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to explore such a fragile environment with the ever looming reality that the Rock Creek Mine is a real threat, a project that could drastically alter the landscape of the Cabinet Mountains. For more pictures click the link. Cliff Lake Backpacking Trip


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