Crystal Lake, Bitterroot Mountains, Montana

     Branden and Dave met me at my house about 5:45am and we picked Cole up about 6. After a quick stop for coffee and gas we found ourselves eastbound on I-90 for Montana. The forecast called for morning fog, with sunny skies in the afternoon. I never get tired of driving east from Spokane as the views start as soon as Liberty Lake and only get better the farther you drive. At Lookout Pass the skies were blue, but we soon descended back into the clouds as we followed the St. Regis River. Eventually we found exit 18 for Deer Creek and went right crossing the river then taking another right, six miles later we found the trailhead. As if meant to be, as soon as we exited the vehicle the sun crested the ridge to the east bathing us in its warm rays. The clouds had also burnt off leaving us with clear blue skies, something I now have a whole new appreciation for after this summer’s record breaking wildfire season and smoke filled skies.  

     We took our time loading provisions then hit the trail. Right off the bat the grade was steep as we climbed side by side on the old road that had diminished to a pleasant path. Fall color was here and there with the deciduous trees and western larch, but over when it came to the underbrush. In a short while we crossed a boggy section of trail and creek reduced to a trickle. We passed a few more of these along the way, we were quite surprised at how much water reminded on the trail after the record heat we had this last summer, must be spring fed. Soon the grade eased and we even caught a glimpse of the surrounding mountains through an opening in the forest, we paused for a drink and some conversation. Back on the trail we continued up through a pleasant forest, even passed several massive trees that had been spared by fire and loggers. We passed beneath some impressive talus fields of granite which complemented the hike quite nicely, giving us a break from the monotonous grind in a thick tree canopy. Approaching the lake the trail got steep, almost ridiculous at times, but at last the trail gave way, allowing us admission to the basin holding Crystal Lake. I love the feeling you get when you can make out the shimmer of a lake through the trees, it feels like running out to the tree on Christmas morning to see what Santa brought you when you were a kid. It’s why I am here, it’s what I live for, that feeling I can only find in the mountains. Standing above the lake we admired her waters, it’s a nice spot, nothing spectacular but a place that grows on you the longer you linger. Over the years the lake has fallen victim to less than significant snowfall and drought like conditions that come with the hot summer months. The lake level was actually below the outlet and a ring of exposed rock now lined the shore. We walked the boulders to the lake shore to admire the basin, rock cliffs splashed with gold needles of western larch covered the surrounding ridges. The Bitterroot Divide stands high above, marking the boundary between Montana and Idaho, and there is a trail that will take you there, but for us, this would be far enough. We had places to be, Wilderness Gateway along the Lochsa River was our primary destination. I wandered around the west side of the lake to see if the trail did indeed continue toward the Bitterroot Divide, it did. I retraced my steps back to the lunch spot then walked the east side to inspect an outhouse Cole had raved about. Upon discovery, the outhouse was indeed there, something I had never seen at an alpine lake, but it was also one of the nicest outhouses I had ever laid eyes on, complete with metal roof, freshly stained siding and even a moon cut into the front door. Needless to say, I was very impressed. After taking in the crapper we decided to head out.

     We took our time loading up, shouldered our packs and hit the trail. The hike out was nice once we got over the steep section of trail just after we left the lake. Back at the truck we loaded up and hit the road and before long found ourselves headed east on I-90 for the Petty Creek exit. Crystal Lake is nice, nothing spectacular, but worth the side trip if you have the time, we covered about 3.5 miles round trip with about 1,400 feet of elevation gain. For more pictures click the link. Crystal Lake Hike Pictures

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