Sunday, September 19, 2021
Sept. 19, 2021

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Escape the heat — and crowds — at these five Northwest alpine lakes

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Spar Lake as seen during August 2006 on a two-day hike into the Scotchman Peaks area north of Clark Fork, Idaho.
Spar Lake as seen during August 2006 on a two-day hike into the Scotchman Peaks area north of Clark Fork, Idaho. (Christopher Anderson/Spokane Spokesman-Review/TNS) Photo Gallery

SPOKANE — It’s hot.

It’s the kind of heat that feels like it’s always been here and may never leave, at least for the foreseeable future.

So now is the time to check out one of this region’s best amenities: alpine lakes.

These higher-altitude waters are ice-cold, fed as they are by snowmelt. During cooler summers, taking a dip in one of these might be reserved only for the hardiest of swimmers.

But with temperatures reaching the high 70s and low 80s even at higher elevations, now is the perfect time to take a hike ending in a dip.

While you likely won’t have the popular alpine lakes all to yourself (ahem, excuse me, Harrison Lake), it definitely won’t be as busy as Coeur d’Alene’s public beach on a Saturday.

Without further ado, here are five alpine lakes within a 3 1/2-hour drive of Spokane.

Spar Lake

This Montana alpine lake is in the Kootenai National Forest, southwest of Troy. Unlike the other hikes on this list, this lake offers drive-up access. Glamping!

  • From Sandpoint, drive east on U.S. Highway 200. Just before the Bull River Campground, turn north on Highway 56/Bull Lake Road. Drive for about 24 miles then turn left on Asarco Mine Road. Stay right on NF-7148, which eventually turns into NF-384. Follow signs to the Spar Lake Campground.
  • Hiking miles: None. This is a drive-up campground offering 13 spots, all on a first-come, first-serve basis.
  • Red tape: Campsites cost $12 per night. For more information, visit fs.usda.gov/recarea/kootenai/recarea/?recid=49911

Cliff Lake

  • From Spokane, head east on I-90. Once past St. Regis, Mont., take Exit 43 toward Dry Creek and turn right on Dry Creek. Drive 9 1/2 miles to the junction of Diamond Lake Road 7843. Turn south and drive 4.1 miles to Diamond Lake. Trail No. 100 starts on the west side of the bridge.
  • Hiking miles: This is a short and easy hike clocking in just under 3 miles round trip. It’s scenic and leads to a beautiful alpine lake nestled in the bottom of a cirque reminiscent of Washington’s Cascade range. Bring bug and bear spray.
  • Red tape: There are two primitive camping spots at Cliff Lake and several more at Diamond Lake, which is right where you park. There is also a pit toilet. For more information, visit fs.usda.gov/recarea/lolo/recreation/recarea/?recid=10341

Granite Lake

This adventure is by far the most challenging on this list. Near Libby, Mont., this longer trip makes for a great overnight in the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness with beautiful views of “A” Peak. While the beginning of the Granite Lake trail is quite popular, the crowds thin once you’ve put a few miles behind you.

  • From Libby, Mont., head south on U.S. Highway 2 and turn right (milepost 33.4) onto Shaugnessy Road. After .8 miles, turn left on East Side Flower Creek/Snowshoe Road. Drive one-half mile and turn right onto Road 618 (Granite Creek). Drive for 8 miles to the trailhead.
  • Hiking miles: This is a 12-mile round-trip hike with numerous stream crossings. In the early season, these streams can be treacherous. Beware. Some recent trip reports say the trail is overgrown and hard to follow in some places.
  • Red tape: Camping is dispersed and free. For more information, check out Rich Landers’ book “100 Hikes in the Inland Northwest,” which can be purchased locally at REI or Auntie’s Bookstore.

Leigh Lake

Another great option in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, Leigh Lake is a shorter, less committing adventure than Granite Lake. This lake is easily accessible. According to one guide book, it’s “almost sinful that such a stunning area is so easy to reach.”

  • From Libby, Mont., head south on U.S. Highway 2 for about 7 miles to milepost 40.4 and turn right onto Forest Road 278 (Bear Creek). Drive almost 3 miles and turn right off the pavement onto Road 867 (Cherry Creek). Drive 4.3 miles and turn right onto Road 4786 (Leigh Creek). Drive for 2 miles to the trailhead.
  • Hiking miles: A 3.5-mile round trip, although the trail gains about 1,000 feet and is rocky.
  • Red tape: Camping is not permitted within 300 feet of the lake, leaving few good overnight spots. For more information, see “100 Hikes in the Inland Northwest.”

Idaho’s Beehive Lakes

The Idaho Selkirk Mountains are gorgeous and the best way to experience them is by visiting the Beehive Lakes near the Selkirk Crest. This is a moderately difficult hike that gains about 2,000 feet in 4 1/2 miles, but the views are well worth it and the setting can’t be beat. Bring bug spray.

  • Distance from Spokane: Just under 3 hours.
  • From Sandpoint, drive north on U.S. Highway 2/95 toward Bonners Ferry. Drive 10 1/2 miles, cross the Pack River Bridge and turn left onto Road 231 (Pack River). Drive 19 miles on Road 231. Look for the Beehive Lakes Trail 279 and bear left down the road to the trailhead.
  • Hiking miles: 9 miles round trip. Once at the lake, there are plenty of places to explore and camp. Consider hiking to the Selkirk Crest, where you will get breathtaking views of Priest Lake, Lake Pend Orielle and the Canadian Selkirks to the north.
  • Red tape: Dispersed camping. For more information, see “100 Hikes in the Inland Northwest.”

Leave no trace

Outdoor use is at an all-time high, which means that all of us have to be on our best behavior when recreating.

Below are the Leave No Trace principals. And while not included on all Leave No Trace lists, consider the impact social media can have on a place. Consider this before you post.

Plan Ahead and Prepare

  • Know regulations and special concerns.
  • Prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies.
  • Avoid times of high use.
  • Visit in small groups when possible.

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

  • Durable surfaces include maintained trails and designated campsites, rock, gravel, sand, dry grasses or snow.
  • Protect riparian areas by camping at least 200 feet from lakes and streams.
  • Good campsites are found, not made.

Dispose of Waste Properly

  • Pack it in, pack it out. Inspect your campsite, food preparation areas, and rest areas for trash or spilled foods. Pack out all trash, leftover food and litter.
  • Utilize toilet facilities whenever possible. Otherwise, deposit solid human waste in catholes dug 6 to 8 inches deep, at least 200 feet from water, camp and trails. Cover and disguise the cathole when finished.
  • Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products.

Leave What You Find

  • Preserve the past: examine, photograph, but do not touch cultural or historic structures and artifacts.
  • Leave rocks, plants and other natural objects as you find them.
  • Avoid introducing or transporting non-native species.
  • Do not build structures, furniture, or dig trenches.
  • Minimize campfire impacts
  • Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires.
  • Keep fires small.
  • Burn all wood and coals to ash, put out campfires completely, then scatter cool ashes.

Respect Wildlife

  • Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach.
  • Never feed animals.
  • Control pets at all times, or leave them at home.
  • Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young, or winter.

Be Considerate of Other Visitors

  • Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience.
  • Be courteous. Yield to other users on the trail.
  • Step to the downhill side of the trail when encountering pack stock.
  • Take breaks and camp away from trails and other visitors.
  • Let nature’s sounds prevail. Avoid loud voices and noises.
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