St. Paul Lake Backpacking Trip, Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, Montana

     The alarm went off at 5am, blah. We were on the road by 6 and after a quick stop for coffee we were headed North. Fast forward a couple hours and we found ourselves up the Bull River Road and eventually the turn off for Spar Lake. We drove the 7 miles to Spar Lake, and then stopped by the full small campground to use the crapper. We were excited, just a couple miles from the trailhead for Little Spar Lake. A couple miles up the road we came across two cars blocking our way. Turns out the road had washed out this last spring and this was the end of the line. I was pissed, I had called the ranger earlier in the week and she said nothing about the washout. We checked it out and deemed it impassable for the CRV. I check the map and GPS and figured we were about a mile and a half and a couple hundred feet of gain from the trailhead, which unfortunately was a deal breaker for us, just too far for the boys to travel with full packs. Thankfully i always have a backup plan, off to St. Paul Lake we go. We had no trouble getting to the St. Paul Lake trailhead, but the 2 hours wasted on the road was annoying.

     After loading our provisions and shouldering our packs we hit the trail. Right off the bat we found a register and trail marker, beyond that we began a mild ascent up the East Fork Bull River. The narrow and sometimes rocky path made its way through a young dense forest with the occasional view of the creek below. A short way into the hike we passed a sign marking the boundary for the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, my favorite place to hike close to home. The ascent was tolerable and the boys were doing good, Jameson had trouble settling into his new pack but with occasional adjustment he did ok. It wasn’t long before the boys were ready for a break, so I set a timer for 45 minutes. The plan was to hike for 45 minutes then drop packs, rest, drink water, and eat a snack, this plan worked very well the whole way in. About a mile up the trail the bridges began, we counted 15 total along the 4 miles to the lake. At about a mile and a half in some big trees started to show up and somewhere around the crossing of Isabella Creek we came across some impressive relics, hands down some of the largest old growth cedars I have seen east of the cascades. The forest floor was a carpet of mosses with lush fern and layers of Devil’s club reaching out for the careless hiker. About three miles in the trail came to an end at the edge of the creek. Branden noticed a cairn on the end of a downed log across the creek, and upon closer inspection saw a trail take off from the opposite side of the creek, we had to cross. Jameson and Cole were in tennis shoes, so the many creek crossings along the creek were slow going, and this one was no exception, but with a little patience, we all made it across with dry feet.

     Beyond the creek crossing the grade changed as the trail got down to business. We pressed on at a slower pace and soon the scenery began to change as well. The trees began to thin out and rocky summits began to make their appearance. The day was hot, and we were thankful for the shade along the trail for most of the trip, but that too changed as we began hitting sun breaks through the tree canopy and the humidity began to rise in areas thick with vegetation, the going was tough. We took another break at a switchback, we were all feeling it, and water was getting low. I was thankful we were getting close to camp. After the short break we were back at and soon entered a heavily shaded tree canopy, thank god. With the trees came the huckleberries, we were super stoked and now had a good reason to slow down. We paused often to snack on the purple and blue berries, which we were everywhere, it didn’t even look like anyone had even picked up here yet this year. Eventually I had to say something or we would never get to the lake, so reluctantly we put our heads down and made the final half mile climb to a pass and good camp.

     Just beyond the camp we reached a short but steep descent to a spectacular view of Saint Paul Lake and the precipitous mountain of the same name in the background. Beyond the shimmering surface were spectacular green grass meadows bordered by creeklets and backed by dense woods and cliffs adorned with waterfalls, a stunning setting. We traveled along the north side of the lake in search of a camp, but unfortunately only found one that was taken! Another couple forced their own camp atop a fragile meadow, I didn’t have the heart to do the same and strongly advised Branden that we retreat to the pass for that good camp we found on the way in, he agreed. After another short climb we were home for the night.  

     Thankful to be in camp, we quickly pitched our tents on well worn ground, there was plenty of room. Just beyond our tents was a wall of huckleberries, what a treat. Firewood had been gathered by the previous campers so Branden went to work bucking it up while Jameson and I head back to the lake to filter water while Cole napped. We walked a ways around the lake to a creek on its east side with a good pour over and plunge pool. I sat on a rock, filled my camp bucket from the cataract and began the job of filtering water, the bucket has been a gem and has all but eliminated the chore of filtering water. Jameson and I sat there taking in the views, the sun low on the horizon highlighted the rich colors of the green meadows and surrounding landscape showcasing their beauty. St. Paul Lake is a very pretty destination, and a lake that was beginning to grow on me the more time I spent along its shore. Eventually the water bottles were full so we made the slow haul back to camp, Jameson was a trooper carrying 10 pounds of water while the Nalgene lid straps cut through his little fingers, he was very uncomfortable and took several breaks trying to get a tolerable grip, it never came.

     Back in camp it was time for dinner. I made Jameson a cup of noodles with a side of apple sauce and a kit kat for desert. I had a crappy salad and boiled up a couple warm Italian sausage links that I choked down with some Chinese hot mustard, pretty good actually. With bellies full we wandered past huckleberries on the trail away from the lake to hang our food on the bear line, chores were done, finally we get to relax. I gathered my wine and camp chair before making our way down to the lake to watch the last of the alpenglow adorn the lofty peaks before the stars came out. It was a little work descending the steep bank to the lake but once there Branden and I found a seat while the boys skipped rocks. I introduced them to a game my dad, brother, and I used to play when we camped growing up. I found a good sized chunk of driftwood, tossed it in the lake then take your best shot trying to hit it with rocks thrown from the lake shore, simple, but surprisingly entertaining, almost becomes an obsession trying to hit the son of a bitch. It was nice enjoying a glass of wine at the end of the day and taking in such a magnificent view. The view from our side of the lake definitely had it made compare to the other two camps on the opposite side of the lake, we had Saint Paul Peak to lay our eyes on, and damn she’s fine. Branden and I joked, shared a few laughs, told a few stories, and just enjoyed our boys company. We were grateful for taking the time to create these special memories with them, this is truly living at its finest. Eventually the sun slipped away for good and it was getting dark so we decided to pack it up.

     Reluctantly we climbed the hill back to camp, where Branden and I got a quick fire going, these woods are pretty dry so it didn’t take much work to get it going. Jameson was beat, and asked if he could go to bed, poor kid was whooped. I put him to bed, tucking him in to make sure he felt safe then retreated back to the fire. Cole went to bed shortly after while Branden and I stayed up. We finished our wine while picked up where we left off sharing stories, talking about the hike and how proud we were of our boys. When the wine ran out we turned in and quickly fell asleep.

     The next morning, Jameson woke up first. I gave him a blank sheet of paper so he could draw while I layed back down. About a half hour later we were out of the tent. Jameson and I walked down and got the food from the bearline so we could prepare breakfast. I had an apple, a fruit bar, and some nuts while Jameson chewed on a couple of pop tarts and more applesauce. Branden and Cole eventually got up and worked on getting going while Jameson and I got to picking huckleberries. We planned on picking enough to take a load home and proceeded to fill up a ziplock bag. We picked for about an hour, there were tons of berries and it appeared that no one had picked up here so it was real easy going. When we were done we had filled a full 32 ounce Nalgene, pretty damn good if you ask me, more than enough for several batches of huckleberry pancakes. After picking berries we broke camp leaving the packs at the pass while we made one last trip back to the lake for another breathtaking view, we chilled for close to an hour before heading out.

     The hike out went well, took a couple breaks but made good time. Jamesons legs were pretty sore from the hike in the day before but he managed by sitting every now and again to rest em up. Back at the car we traded in the boots for sandals and hit the road. We drove into Sandpoint and found a tasty burger and a couple of cool brews at Mick Duffs before making the short drive home. It felt good seeing Saint Paul Lake, another unfortunate area slated to be affected by the Rick Creek Mine if it ever gets approval….hope it never does. We hiked about 8 miles total with around 1,800 feet of elevation gain. For more pictures click the link. St. Paul Lake Hike

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