Kootenai National Forest Overview
Kootenai National Forest is located in the extreme northwest corner of Montana and northeast Idaho. However, only 3% of its lands are located in Idaho. Kootenai is bordered to the south by Lolo National Forest and just east lays Flathead National Forest and Glacier National Park. Highlights of the forest include the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, Ten Lakes Scenic Area, and Ross Creek Scenic Area. Most of the best hikes in Kootenai National Forest described below are in the Cabinet Mountains, a 35 mile long range of glaciated peaks and valleys with two main ridges trending north and south.
Trail difficulty varies from easy stream bottoms, to the ups and downs of major ridges and steep switchbacks. The north end offers interconnected trails for convenient loop hikes. The central area is entirely one way, in and out the same way. The heart of the wilderness is simply too rugged to put trails through, though many avid hikers will bushwhack over the Cabinet Divide. The south end offers some loop hikes. Visitors to Kootenai National Forest should come prepared for snow at any point in the year, bug spray for mosquito swarms, bear spray (grizzly country), and the proper gear needed to traverse over rocky and wet trails. This forest is both under-appreciated and under-traveled. If you are visiting nearby Glacier National Park, Kootenai offers a great reprieve to escape the crowds!
|Nearest Metro Area||Kalispell, MT|
|Area Size||2,220,000 acres|
|Established||August 13, 1906|
|Hiking Trails||1,633 miles|
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Trailhead Traveler’s Recommended Best Hikes in Kootenai National Forest
(*** = Best hikes in Kootenai National Forest)
Bluebird Basin Loop*** – 10.5 mile loop
Located in the Ten Lakes Scenic Area, this loop (typically 2-day overnight backpacking trek) is probably the best hike in Kootenai National Forest. It is the perfect mix of difficulty and scenery in addition to being quite secluded. The loop combines Bluebird #83, Highline #339, Wolverine #84, and Clarence Ness #82 trails to form the 10+ mile hike. Peaks that can be seen along the way include: Ksanka Peak, Green Mountain, and Poorman Mountain. The Big Therriault Lake Campground is close to the trailhead and a great spot to camp after completing the loop.
Cedar Creek Trail #141 – 11.0 miles out and back
Awesome forested hike very close to Libby, MT that gradually climbs up to Cedar Lakes. The trail rises steadily and is not too challenging though a few sections are fairly long. Upper Cedar Lake sits on the rim about 400′ up from Lower Cedar Lake and is definitely worth the final effort up there. The tall glaciated peaks surrounding the upper lake are certainly a beautiful view.
Engle Peak Trail*** – 11.6 miles out and back
The best access to Engle Peak’s summit is by taking the Engle Lake Trailhead #932. A steep first 1.5 miles mostly levels out until you get to the trail intersection that heads down to the lake. From here, you can hike down until you reach Engle Lake or continue on the ridge as you start to climb to the summit. Engle Peak offers some of the best and most expansive views of the Cabinet Mountains and Kootenai National Forest. If you trek a little further past the summit you are also awarded with a beautiful view of Wanless Lake down below!
Granite Creek Trail #136 – 12.6 miles out and back
The hike to Granite Lake is a great, though long, day hike in the Libby Ranger District of Kootenai National Forest. Despite the long distance, this is not a challenging trail with gradual inclines as it heads south to the lake. It can be quite overgrown in some areas and there are multiple water crossings so come prepared for that. The view as you arrive at Granite Lake, sitting in front of Bockman Peak and Snowshoe Peak, makes it all worthwhile!
Kootenai River Trail*** – 1.5 miles out and back
Easy stroll around Kootenai River with access to a beautiful suspension bridge and the Kootenai Falls. There are a couple different trails that will take you into the forested area north or south of the river but the main attractions are at the river’s edge. Explore for however far or long you desire before returning to the parking area off of the highway near the bridge.
Lake Creek Trail #656 to Lost Buck Pass – 8.2 miles out and back
One of the more popular hikes in Kootenai National Forest that travels up to Geiger Lakes. After that, it climbs up to Lost Buck Pass and provides an incredible panorama of the surrounding area. From the pass, you can see beautiful views of the Geiger Lakes, Carney Peak, Engle Peak, Wanless Lake, and Goat Peak.
Leigh Lake Trail #132*** – 4.0 miles out and back
Short but steep hike with amazing views on the way to Leigh Lake in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. There is a beautiful creek and waterfall along the way as well. Don’t let the short distance fool you, the elevation gain makes this quite a challenging hike.
Rock Lake Trail #935 – 8.2 miles out and back
This trail starts out on an old mining road heading towards Heidelberg Mine and waterfall. Firstly, there are multiple creek crossings to this point and your feet are sure to get wet. After that, the trail moves from the mine and climbs to Rock Lake nestled between Rock Peak and Ojibway Peak in the Cabinet Mountains. The climb to the lake is rocky so be sure to have on the proper footwear!
Ross Creek Nature Loop – 0.9 mile loop
This is a great option for families with youngsters as it is a quick, scenic loop. You can enjoy the cedar grove by taking the .9 mile self-guided nature trail which forms a winding loop through this old-growth forest environment. In addition, the wide path leads you past informative signs telling you the history and ecology of the many plant and animal species native to the grove. If you are looking to extend the hike further, Ross Creek Trail with a split on South Fork Ross Creek Trail travels southwest from the loop another several miles.
Wanless Lake Trail #924*** – 18.6 miles out and back
This Cabinet Mountains Wilderness trail leads to Wanless Lake Basin. From the wilderness boundary, the trail drops into the basin passing 4 Upper Wanless Lakes and ending at Wanless Lake. Absolutely spectacular views of mountain peaks can be seen from many locations along the trail. Dispersed campsites can be found at the lakes to make this a good overnight backpacking option.
Featured Image: Ridgeline of the Northwest Peak Scenic Area, Photo by U.S. Forest Service – Pacific Northwest Region
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