Cooling off in snow-ringed Glen Lake

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In early June – on the first 90-degree day of the year – we decided to take the dogs on a short hike to cool off at Glen Lake, in the Bitterroot Mountains west of Victor.

The last time I hiked there was before a wildfire burned the area in 2006, and I remember it being fairly forested with few views out.

What a difference a decade makes.

Today, the forest is mostly bare, gray snags, but the views extend north and south along the Bitterroots, and across the valley east to the Sapphire Range.

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From the trailhead, we hiked gradually uphill to the northwest along the edge of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. A couple of quickly drying creeks provided water for the dogs.

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After about 1.3 miles, we reached a small snowfield at a saddle and crossed the wilderness boundary. From there, the trail dropped slightly to another saddle, turned west and started up a snowy ridge at about 2 miles.

From my previous hike, I remember trying to go through the trees slightly to get a view of St. Mary Peak across the drainage to the north, which proved difficult. Today, the lookout tower at the top the mountain is clearly visible.

After the trail reached its high point, we rounded a corner to the southwest and dropped slightly again to the lake at about 2.75 miles.

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Sitting in a rocky basin at about 7,500 feet, the lake was still mostly ringed by snow, providing a cold swim for the dogs – and for me after a short glissade down a slope.

After cooling off and eating a little, we backtracked out of the wilderness and returned to the hot valley below.

Here are more photos from Glen Lake.

Distance: About 5.5 miles round trip.

Trailhead: From U.S. Highway 93 between Stevensville and Victor, turn west on Bell Crossing and drive half a mile. At the Curlew Orchard Road/Meridian Road intersection, turn north and continue on Curlew Orchard for 1.3 miles. Turn northwest on Curlew Mine Road and drive about 1.7 miles. At the intersection with Forest Road 1321, turn south and continue about 8 switchbacking miles up the mountain to the trailhead.

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‘Gem’ of a peak in the Sapphire Range

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Searching for a new place to hike with our dogs on Memorial Day, we were led up Palisade Mountain east of Corvallis by an online guide.

“A surprising gem in the Sapphires,” the description on the Montana Wilderness Association’s Hike Wild Montana website states.

Indeed.

I’ve always thought of the forested summits of the Sapphire Mountains as being less interesting than the granite canyons and peaks of the Bitterroots across the valley to the west. But the Willlow Creek and Palisade trails have changed my perspective.

From the undeveloped trailhead, we started east up a wide trail through the trees on the north side of the creek. After crossing a couple of tributaries, we arrived at a break in the woods at about 1 mile, with rocky outcroppings above offering a preview of what was to come.

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At about 2 miles, the trail began to climb steep switchbacks through dense forest. A few feet through the trees to the south, boulder fields looked back east to the Bitteroots.

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We reached snow on the last switchback, then crossed a creek at 2.5 miles and stepped out of the forest at the foot of rocky spires. Re-entering the trees, we continued up through the snow aided by a topographic map on my iPhone.

As we hiked higher, the forest grew thinner and wildflowers bloomed from melted patches in the snow.

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At about 4 miles, we reached a saddle where the Willow Creek Trail joined the Palisade Trail. There, we turned northwest and continued out the ridge on firm snowpack, following blaze marks on trees and the topo map on my phone.

We exited the woods where boulders rose from the snow, then climbed to the 8,451-foot peak of Palisade Mountain at about 4.75 miles. While our older dog Josey had no trouble, the blocky rocks brought a few whines from puppy Gus and he stopped just short of the top.

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After taking in the views west to the Bitterroots, north and south along the Sapphires, and east to the Flint Creek and Anaconda ranges, we made our way back down through the snow and along the creek.

We arrived back at the trailhead, our SUV still the only one parked there and having seen no other hikers all day.

Here are more photos from Palisade Mountain.

Distance: About 9.5 miles round trip.

Trailhead: From its intersection with the Eastside Highway in Corvallis, follow Willow Creek Road 10.5 miles east to the undeveloped trailhead. At about 2.3 miles, Willow Creek Road turns south where Coal Pit Road continues east.

On – and off – the Lolo Trail

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Memorial Day weekend started with a misadventure for me and a couple of friends.

After seeing a photo of another friend on the Lolo Trail – a section of the Nez Perce and Lewis and Clark national historic trails – we decided to try to run up to Lolo Pass and back as part of our training for the upcoming Beaverhead Endurance Runs 55K.

While our friend only ran a few miles of the trail, a U.S. Forest Service website and brochure, and a Missoula hiking guide all refer to it being 14 miles from Grave Creek southwest to the pass. Noting that the trail was described as “primitive” and “original historic tread,” and that it crossed a couple of forest roads near Lolo Hot Springs, I called the Lolo Pass Visitor Center for more information and was told it was well-marked.

If we started at Howard Creek, we thought, we could turn around at the pass after about 13 miles and make a 26-mile run out of it.

Long story short: The trail was miles longer than listed and appeared to lack markers in the middle, and  I should have asked when it was cleared last.

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From the parking area at Howard Creek, off U.S. Highway 12 about 18.5 miles west of Lolo, the trail climbed steeply up singletrack past a switchback then just below the ridgeline for about 3 miles. Wildflowers were in bloom and and views down to Lolo Creek and across the Bitterroot Mountains were abundant.

The farther west we ran, the fainter the trail became – but the route was easy to find for the most part, with numerous new-looking markers nailed to trees.

At 4 miles, the trail descended to the south, crossing a couple of old forest roads and switching back several times until we were at the highway. There, not even 6 miles in, we stood confused.

According to maps in the hiking guide, the trail was supposed to parallel the highway on its north side. Private property signs were posted there, however, so the best we could figure was the highway is the trail at that point.

After 1.75 miles southwest on the highway, we came to Spring Gulch, where, again according to maps in the guide, the trail turned west. Finding no trail, we ran up a nearby forest road that it crossed on the maps.

About a mile later, we found an old road where the trail was supposed to re-enter the forest. Comparing the map from the guide to a topographic map downloaded to my iPhone, it appeared to be the right way. About a quarter-mile south, however, the route disappeared in a tangle of downed trees.

Using the topo on my phone, we continued to the south until we reached Fish Creek Road, crossed a bridge and rejoined the trail. After about 1.7 miles along the ridge west of the Lolo Hot Springs, we crossed Fish Creek Road again, just off the highway, and followed the markers back uphill.

The return to the official trail was short-lived, however, as we could see numerous downed trees obscuring the way again.

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We made our way back downhill, crossed to the south side of the highway and followed it half a mile to the Lee Creek Campground, where we could run up the Wagon Mountain Trail and rejoin the Lolo Trail to Packer Meadows and the pass. Already about 11.5 miles in, though, it was clear we wouldn’t be returning.

From the campground, we followed the trail southwest up an old road for about 4 miles – over, under and around downed trees. The route was always apparent, and we saw markers again where the official Nez Perce and Lewis and Clark trails rejoined before the top of the mountain, but there were always more trees in the way.

At the high point on the trail, just below the 5,728-foot top of Wagon Mountain, we ran south down a singletrack trail through an area that previously had been logged and provided views west to the still-snowy peaks of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

After crossing the state line into Idaho, we navigated a short stretch of old road to Packer Meadows at 17.5 miles. There, we saw several varieties of wildflowers along Pack Creek, but were too early for the big bloom of blue camas.

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From the meadows, we ran the final mile of forest road west to the Lolo Pass Visitor Center.

After about 5 hours 40 minutes and 18.5 miles – and low on food and water – we stopped briefly in the visitor center before going out to the side of the highway to hitchhike back to our truck at Howard Creek.

The full, official Lolo Trail may exist, but I doubt we’ll try to follow it again.

Here are a couple of more photos from our run up the Lolo Trail.