In the Bitterroot Mountains not far from my home is a secret place. It is a fairy tale-esque little lake, backed by dramatic granite cliffs and surrounded by rocky meadows and wispy alpine larches. It is a place perfectly designed for dipping your feet in the cool water, munching on trail mix, and soaking in the view. And perhaps best of all, you’ll be doing all of those things in perfect solitude. For you see, no trail reaches this place, and I won’t tell you how to get there, because it’s my own “secret” place in the Montana backcountry.
Most avid hikers have such a place: An idyllic mountain meadow filled with wildflowers; a heart-stoppingly scenic lake brimming with trout; an isolated patch of prairie with endless views of waving grasses. The surroundings and the scenery vary with the hiker’s tastes, but each shares the same qualities of great natural beauty and nearly guaranteed solitude.
Fortunately, Montana has thousands of such places awaiting your discovery. I won’t (and can’t) tell you where all of them are—some secrets should remain just that, and besides, despite thousands of miles of hiking, I haven’t come close to seeing them all myself. Still, it’s always nice to have a little guidance in your search, so, if you promise not to tell, here are a few of my favorite spectacularly scenic, but very rarely seen, “secret” places in the Montana backcountry.
Skiumah Lake (1.8 miles) A hidden treasure of northwestern Montana, Skiumah Lake lies right across the Middle Fork Flathead River from the tourist mecca of Glacier National Park, and just a short hike off busy US Highway 2. This 15-acre jewel is easily accessible to residents of the Flathead Valley, even though few know it exists. What they are missing is the dramatic view of Mount Penrose, which soars almost 3,400 feet above the lake’s waters ensuring plenty of excellent scenery.
From West Glacier drive 12.1 miles southeast on Highway 2 to a junction near milepost 164.4. Turn right at a sign for Skiumah Creek and drive this narrow, brushy road for 0.5 mile to a small parking area (enough for 2 or 3 cars, although it’s unlikely anyone else will be there) at the unsigned trailhead.
Beginning in dense lowland forest, the path climbs steeply up a brushy hillside, turns west up the canyon of rushing Skiumah Creek, then reaches a fork near 0.9 mile. Keep left, soon cross the creek on a narrow log, and make a final steep and brushy ascent to the lake. Floating logs and bracingly cold waters make swimming a questionable choice, but the scenery, including a sliding waterfall feeding the lake,
Warning: Attesting to this lake’s wild nature, grizzly bears are a legitimate concern here. Carry bear spray and sing Kumbaya while you hike.
Kiyo Crag Lake (2.4 miles) The dramatic Rocky Mountain Front is spectacularly showcased on the hike to this scenic mountain pool. The lake sits in a gorgeous basin beneath rocky buttes and cliffs up to 1,000 feet high. Despite the superb scenery and reasonably close proximity to Great Falls, only a handful of people visit every year.
The trail begins near the former site of Palookaville (a great name, although there’s nothing left to see). From Heart Butte in the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, go 10 miles northwest on Heart Butte Road, turn left on Heart Butte Cutoff (BIA 2), and proceed 2.1 miles to an unsigned junction. Turn left on a very rough dirt road (good clearance helps), passing through two gates before entering national forest land and reaching a fork at 4.1 miles. Turn left to reach the Mettler Coulee trailhead.
After a bridgeless crossing of North Fork Little Badger Creek, the sometimes sketchy trail heads up a scenic, partly forested valley to an unnamed waterfall. From there, a bit more climbing finds you in a beautiful high basin where you go right at a junction and contour for 0.2 mile to the lake. A marshy shoreline makes camping problematic, but the tall cliffs behind the lake are awe inspiring and the fishing is usually excellent.
Lake 9600 (3.1 to 5.9 miles, depending on where you park) The mountains of southwestern Montana hide countless destinations worthy of “secret getaway” status. But if true isolation is what you crave, then head for the remote Italian Peaks. A favorite destination here is Lake 9600 (it’s so secret it doesn’t even have an official name) at the base of strikingly orange-colored Eighteenmile Peak. By any standard, this pool is one of the most beautiful places in Montana that virtually no one ever sees.
From exit 23 off Interstate 15 at Dell, go 1.8 miles southeast on the Westside Frontage Road, then turn right and drive 17 miles on gravel Big Sheep Creek Road. Following signs to Nicholia Creek, you go left at two quick junctions and then drive an increasingly rough road for 7 miles to a ford of shallow Cottonwood Creek. About 0.5 mile later is a junction. (Park here if your car lacks power or good ground clearance.) Turn right and steeply climb a rocky route for 1.3 miles to a junction. (Park here if you don’t have four-wheel drive.) Go right again, ford a ditch, and then climb for 0.9 mile to First Harkness Lake. (Park here if you drove a tank.)
The unsigned route skirts the south side of the Harkness Lakes (good fishing) then intersects the Continental Divide Trail, which here doubles as a jeep road. Turn right (north) following the road past ponds and fences to a hop-over crossing of Cottonwood Creek below a large meadow. Just after the road turns sharply left, angle left onto an unsigned path that goes 0.6 mile to a spring and watering trough. Moose and elk are abundant hereabouts. From the spring you go cross-country through open forest first down to then up along Cottonwood Creek to the fishless lake.
Extra Credit Secret: Consider making the steep but non-technical climb of Eighteenmile Peak. The views extend for over 50 miles and are absolutely incredible.
Tumbledown Basin (4.9 miles) The resort community of Big Sky has lots of things to see and do… and lots of people seeing and doing them. To avoid the crowds and find your secret place simply drive a short distance south then hit the trail to stunning Tumbledown Basin. The scenery is breathtaking— better than anything on the heavily beaten trails around Big Sky—and both wildlife, including grizzly bears, and wildflowers are abundant.
From the Big Sky turnoff, proceed 14.5 miles south on US Highway191, turn right on gravel Taylor Fork Road, and go 11 miles to the road-end trailhead.
Hike upstream 0.5 mile to a cold, knee-deep ford of Taylor Fork (dangerous in early summer), then pass a pair of gorgeous meadows to a junction at 1.5 miles. Go right and switchback steeply uphill for 2.2 miles to a junction. Go left and walk awestruck through the gentle wildflower-covered meadows of Tumbledown Basin to trail’s end at a small pond, fed by a waterfall. Interestingly, the outlet creek disappears into a sinkhole just below the pond. Views of rugged peaks in almost every direction couldn’t be much better.
Line Creek Plateau (3 to 5 miles, it’s up to you) Spacious alpine plateaus characterize the Beartooth Mountains, but those near busy US Highway 212 are crowded and those in the backcountry typically require lots of tough climbing to reach. Line Creek Plateau is the exception to both rules and is the perfect place to stroll across a gentle above-timberline landscape enjoying views that stretch to eternity.
The unsigned trailhead is at the end of a short gravel spur road that leaves Highway 212 about 0.2 mile before reaching the Wyoming border, 23 miles from Red Lodge.
With the road having done virtually all the climbing for you, gently descend across windy tundra barrens to a beautiful little lake. From there you loop around to an easy crossing of shallow Wyoming Creek then climb to the treeless alpine paradise of Line Creek Plateau. How far you hike across this wonderland depends only on your energy level and desire to explore. If you can tear your eyes off the view (good luck) look for colorful little wildflowers at your feet and soaring golden eagles overhead.
I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll love all of these hikes, but I can’t guarantee that any of them will move you enough to become your “secret getaway.” But that’s okay. Montana offers thousands of other isolated places to explore. Half the fun is in the search. Eventually you’ll find the spot that is just right for you. I would say “I’ll see you there,” but probably not. After all, if it’s your secret place, you’ll probably want it all to yourself.
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