Hiking Montana's Cabinet Mountains

The French-Canadian trappers are long gone, but the grizzlies and waterfalls remain in this alpine nirvana.
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The French-Canadian trappers are long gone, but the grizzlies and waterfalls remain in this alpine nirvana.

In my 15 years as a backcountry ranger in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, I've explored everything from the area's richly forested slopes rising steeply from beaver-dammed moose ponds to

the airy ledges where goats scurry. And I've only scratched the surface.

The Cabinet Mountains stand about 75 miles west of the Continental Divide and are hidden in the northwest corner of Montana. Massive, shelflike rocks framing a spectacular gorge on the Clark Fork River inspired early French-Canadian trappers, who named it the Cabinet Gorge. The rugged mountain range to the east, towering 5,000 feet above the plunging torrent, thus became known as the Cabinets.

Pacific air masses dump up to 100 inches of moisture per year, mostly snow, on the glacially sculpted heights, which means the high-country hiking season sometimes doesn't begin until mid-June and ends as early as mid-October. But during that brief season, I've cooled my feet in many of the 60 sparkling lakes nestled in the hanging valleys and glacial cirques along the 35-mile length of the divide.

At the lower elevations, I've strolled through long valleys that shelter old-growth forests of giant cedar, hemlock, and grand fir. The ethereal call of the varied thrush and the soft rush of mountain streams echo through the cathedral-like groves. Some of my favorite trails climb out of these moist, shady lowlands, then up into open forests of spruce and white pine. Avalanche chutes, slashed through stands of these great trees, attest to the power of winter's fury.

Higher up the slopes, I've walked among scattered stands of subalpine fir and mountain hemlock that guard meadows spongy with snowmelt. Brilliant palettes of wildflowers combine with stunning peaks, glistening snowfields, and cascading waterfalls to create an alpine nirvana.

I always keep my binoculars ready for spotting wildlife, because virtually every species that roamed this wilderness during the time of the French-Canadian trappers (grizzly and black bears, wolves, mountain lions, lynx, moose, and elk) still finds refuge in the Cabinets.

DRIVE TIME: The wilderness is about 160 miles northeast of Spokane, Washington, and about 90 miles west of Kalispell, Montana.

THE WAY: From Spokane, take I-90 east about 30 miles to US 95 near Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and go north about 85 miles. Three miles north of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, turn east onto US 2. Proceed 48 miles to Libby, Montana. From Kalispell, drive about 90 miles west on US 2 to Libby.

TRAILS: There are more than 130 miles of maintained trails. Be sure to check with rangers for conditions. The north and south Cabinet Divide trail systems each link with three or four high-lake basins, plus offer miles of ridgetop cruising and short scrambles to peaks.

ELEVATION: The low point is 2,800 feet at the lower trailheads; the high point is 8,738 feet at the top of Snowshoe Peak. A very steep, 3,600-foot scramble from Leigh Lake tops out on Snowshoe; bring an ice axe for this climb in early summer.

CAN'T MISS: Trail 136 to the hanging waterfalls on the north face of A Peak, which soars 4,000 feet above Granite Lake.

CROWD CONTROL: July and August are busy. In September, you'll find fewer people and no mosquitoes.

GUIDES: A wilderness topo map (200-foot contours) is available from the Libby Ranger District (see Contact information below).

PIT STOP: Enjoy peanut shells-on-the-floor ambience and killer pizza at the Red Dog Saloon, 7 miles north of Libby on MT 567.

WALK SOFTLY: There is a party size limit of eight, and hikers should use existing campsites and fire rings.

CONTACT: Kootenai National Forest, Libby Ranger District, (406) 293-7773.