Heart Lake Backpacking Trip, Proposed Great Burn Wilderness Area, Montana

     We got a late start leaving Spokane at about 7:15am, after grabbing coffee and gas we were on the road. I needed a destination close to the house so I could be home early Monday to help Robin pack for our family vacation to Disneyland in California. Heart Lake along the Bitterroot divide outside of Superior Montana had been on the to-do list forever. Over the years I had sent several people to the high mountain lake but had never actually seen it myself. I had been saving it for a three day trip and finally the time had come when I could see it for myself. The drive to the Superior exit in Montana didn’t really feel that long. We traveled east along the frontage road on the south side of the highway passing the gas station. After six miles the pavement ended and the dirt began, a little ways further we passed Trout Creek Campground, we swung in for a minute just to check it out. It was a nice little quiet spot that looks like it always has campsites available considering it was only a third full on a Saturday morning. After a quick snack of leftover pizza we were back on the dirt road and eventually, 20 miles from the highway, found the full parking lot for Heart Lake. Lucky for us we were able to snag the last parking spot.

     We took our time getting ready, but eventually shouldered the load and made our way past the bullet riddled trailhead sign. The trail to Heart Lake started out gentle and wide. Soon after leaving the trailhead we reached our first creek crossing over a couple of small logs. I was surprised at how much water was coming off the west side of Lightning Peak considering there is no alpine lake on that side of the mountain to provide the runoff. We continued on along the nice path, we were glad to be in the shade most of the way considering how hot the trail was when in the sun. It didn’t take long for the wildflowers to show up which was a welcome site along with the pleasant sound of the many small cascades and rushing torrents along the South Fork Trout Creek. After crossing a few more wet spots on low puncheon bridges we reached an opening in the sky. To our west were lofty unnamed summits connected by ridges adorned by hanging meadows. Somewhere up above all this magnificent scenery stretched the state line trail along the spine of the Bitterroot mountains marking the north south border of Idaho and Montana. The trail made a turn and then another as the grade got steep through a series of switchbacks. Back in the trees we continued up before reaching another opening and more fields of wildflowers below lofty peaks. We had more trail to go as the terrain pushed us west crossing the South Fork Trout Creek. As we approached Heart Lake the sky remained open and eventually we began to pass bushes adorned with huckleberries before passing a trail junction to our right. We soon caught our first view of the lake above a lone camp on the west side of Heart Lake, we pressed on to explore a little more before finding a couple more camps and one more that was taken near the logjam and creek at the lakes outlet. We dropped the packs and talked it over. We decided on taking the lone camp to the west in the hopes that most people would continue east around the lake, right through the middle of the other camps. Also, we wanted the best view of the lake which would be southwest toward the rugged Bitterroot divide, our choice proved to be the correct one.

     In camp we took care of chores pitching tents, hanging a bear line, and collecting firewood. We had plenty of room for all three of the tents. When it came to hanging our bear line we had to work at it, this is great burn country which meant no old growth trees from which to suspend a line. Eventually we were able to get a line to stick, but not until the rock sailed over several smaller branches that when combined were able to support about 10 pounds of food, not easy to do. As for firewood we were in luck. I had purchased a new piece of gear this year, a Bob Dustrude quick buck saw, this thing is awesome, folds down in a lightweight aluminum frame but when deployed is equipped with a 21 inch blade allowing one to cut up some good sized logs rather quickly. We decided to buck up one of the benches around the fire that was too small to sit on, we also gathered some good sized drift wood from the lake shore, along with that we collected some dry grass, pine cones, and other small twigs from around camp for a fire start. All total we had about a dozen small logs cut up by the Dustrude saw that would be more than enough firewood for the next two nights. With the camp chores taken care of we grabbed the beer we had hiked in and made our way to the lake shore.

     We found a nice spot to take a break, close to a swimming hole with big rocks to jump from and some driftwood to sit on. We dropped our camp chairs and cracked our beers, normally we don’t start this early but what the hell. We drank our beers, took in the views, then went for a swim. It was nice to be able to take it all in.  After drying out we went back to camp where we fixed dinner. I hiked in my usual Trader Joe’s spicy asian peanut sauce pasta dish, love that meal, just spicy enough to warm you up a bit when in the cool of the mountains. After dinner we got the fire going which was nice. It was cold at night which almost made it feel like fall was in the air.  We huddled close to the warm flame of our fire and continued to sip adult beverages and share stories and laughs, it was a damn good time. Nearing the end of the night I tipped back my chair to the stars in hopes of taking in the Perseid meteor shower. Unfortunately, I only saw one, but honestly I didn’t put in that much effort. I went to bed shortly after midnight passing out as soon as my head hit my makeshift pillow.

     The next morning we awoke to sunny skies. I was surprised at how hot it was already, today was shaping up to be a scorcher.  We took our time making breakfast and sipping coffee before getting ready for today’s excursion. I had been saving Heart Lake for a three day trip so i could do the ridge walk along the state line trail that traversed the spine of the Bitterroot divide.  With the days provisions loaded we made the short climb up from camp and crossed the South Fork of Trout Creek on a log jam at the outlet of Heart Lake. We walked the lake shore on a good path along the east side of the lake taking in a new view of the lake and its western shore. The aqua blue water of Heart Lake and its clarity are amazingly beautiful, it almost looked out of place it was so remarkable. We could easily make out trout several feet below the surface as their chrome bodies shimmered in the summer sun. Nearing the inlet of Heart Lake we ran into a buddy of mine Brian Engle whom i work with at the hospital and had rafted the Spokane River with earlier in the year. It was nice bumping into Brian and his sons, we talked for about 15 minutes before it got too hot to stand still in the sun and moved on, it was hot! The trail began to take us away from the lake and soon reached an unsigned junction with a trail going uphill to the left, we took it.  Don’t go straight, it dead ends at a cliff wall. The trail didn’t waste time switch backing up the somewhat exposed hillside, and before long we reached the outlet of Pearl Lake and the headwaters of Trout Creek.

     We continued left heading north around the pretty little lake through fields of wildflowers, the floral show was stunning! The only better show of flowers I had ever seen was along the Naches Peak loop at Mount Rainier, and Abercrombie Mountain in the Colville National Forest. Shade was becoming increasingly hard to find and we were ready for a break. We had another big climb ahead so we took a break on the far end of the lake after crossing the inlet stream.  We took our time cooling off at the lake shore by wetting bandannas and shirts and splashing our sweaty and dusty faces. While sipping water and eating a snack we noticed a couple of horses making their way around the lake, we decided to yield and let them by. Once upon us the men pulled over and dismounted their unpredictable modes of transportation. I was nervous as one of the horses made an attempt to turn away from me, all i could think of was his rear shoe going through my face, the rider caught on and righted his steed. The older gentlemen liked to talk and ask questions, he told what sounded like some tall tales, but we were polite and entertained the man. Next time I come back to Pearl Lake I’m bringing my fishing pole, apparently there are 20 inch trout that hang out by the inlet stream that bite on worms and are hungry enough that you could fill your freezer in an afternoon.  

     After our visit we pressed on picking up the trail as it switch backed high above Pearl Lake passing more flowers to a saddle and our first view of Dalton Lake, a place I have been eager to lay eyes on for a very long time. We took in the views before pressing on as the trail got brutally steep. We struggled in the heat, the sun was oppressive. We tried hard to take it slow to avoid overheating, we didn’t pack a water filter so we were forced to conserve our water. Eventually we reached the ridge, 700 feet above Pearl Lake. After catching our breath i was able to talk Cole and Branden into dropping packs for a quick trip south along the state line trail to a high-point on the map to catch a quick view of the Trio Lakes. We cruised right along and twenty minutes later found ourselves on top of point 7,266’. From the broad but lofty summit we could make out two of the Trio Lakes, the lowest of the ponds was several hundred feet below the middle lake and out of view. From what I could tell the upper lake looked to be the most impressive. To the south we looked into Idaho and the endless ridges and summits of the vast Clearwater National Forest. From where we we stood, runoff on the Idaho side of the divide drained into the Clearwater River and eventually the Snake before reaching the Columbia. Looking into the Montana side of the divide we laid eyes on the Lolo National Forest and its rugged terrain that pushed its runoff to the Clark Fork River, then Lake Pend Oreille and on to the Pend Oreille River before flowing north into Canada where it too eventually reaches the Columbia River north of the border.  After taking in the views and saying goodbye to the Trio Lakes we retreated to our packs and found a nice place in the shade of a gnarly wind swept white bark pine with views down to Heart Lake. We sat relieved, it was nice to get in some nutrition and much needed water. We rested for a while and let life return to our bodies, the heat was making this hike much harder than it needed to be. Rehydrated and fed we regained the trail along the state line as it headed north.

     The views down to Heart Lake only got better as we traversed the spine of the divide, sometimes on trail, other times off, we just let the terrain dictate the path of least resistance with the idea to keep the best view in front of us as much as possible. Eventually, forced by cliffs we dropped off the ridge to the west and traversed below a high-point taking us around the peak to its north giving us an awesome view of Pearl Lake and its outlet creek as it descended to Heart Lake far below, very impressive. We pressed on, this time right over the top of point 6,934. Below the summit we could make out the distinct switchbacks descending the Montana side into a meadow filled basin to the northwest of Heart Lake. We quickly reached the junction and again i was able to pursued the boys to continue north a short ways to a saddle where we were able to find the most impressive view of Hidden Lake, nestled in a trail-less basin only accessible to the most hardy of those willing to make the cross-country journey, for us, the view from above was more than enough, and well deserved. After taking in the view we headed back up the trail to the junction with the trail heading down. We picked up the steep switchbacks and made our way into a lovely basin of green grass meadows below rocky cliffs and outcroppings. At the bottom of the switchbacks the grade eased as we encountered some low brush that covered the trail forcing us to use our imagination when it came to placing our steps, obviously most people do not visit this area. We pressed on and were soon rewarded with huckleberries! Most had been gone through but we still managed to find enough to keep us motivated. Eventually we discovered the junction to the main trail, just 100 yards from our camp! What an amazing opportunity to push oneself while witnessing something truly spectacular, something that most people will never take the time to experience. I am so lucky! Back in camp we quickly exchanged our boots for sandals and made our way to the lake for a quick dip, man that felt nice. After drying off we polished off the day with dinner and a sober night around a warm fire, it was nice.

     We woke up Monday to another glorious day, and thankfully a little cooler. We did the usual chores, made the coffee, and ate the breakfast. It didn’t take me long to pack up for the hike out. Branden was still a ways from hitting the trail so I did something I don’t usually have time for, I walked down to the lake, found a nice sturdy log with a great view and just sat there, it was nice. I took in a good long view and then wet my bandanna as the temperature was on the rise. I sauntered back to camp and found a seat in the shade, Branden still had a ways to go. Eventually we were able to hit the trail, we made quick work of getting out of there. Back at the empty trailhead we loaded up and made way for Wallace, Idaho where cold beer and good burgers were waiting at City Limits Pub. Heart Lake is an amazing destination, but even more spectacular is what lies above the lake. Do yourself a favor and take the time to see if for yourself one day. For more pictures click the link. Heart Lake Backpacking Pictures

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