Hike to Crater Lake

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As I mentioned in a previous post, I ditched VANgo and retreated to a dog friendly hotel for air conditioning.  So much for fleeing the Texas heat.  I ended up in 100 degrees in Montana!?!  As many say, at least it was dry heat.  But when the sun doesn’t set until 10 pm, and it is over 90 degrees in the van in the shade with the windows and doors open for hours on end, dry heat is pretty hot!

Upon showering and enjoying the A/C, I’m reminded no to take such simple pleasures for granted.  Some people still don’t have these modern conveniences.

Anyway, after a few nights in a hotel, I headed toward Bigfork, Montana to tackle Crater Lake.  The 10.8 mile Crater Lake Trail is located 15 miles northeast of Bigfork in the Jewel Basin Hiking Area in Flathead National Forest.  While only 15 miles away, it takes 45 minutes to get there as much of the drive is on a washboard, dirt road.

Camp Misery Trailhead and Jewel Basin Hiking Area

I got a bit of a late start, which is becoming a bad habit these days, and the large dirt parking area with pit toilets at Camp Misery trailhead was pretty full by 9am.  I was a little surprised until I looked at the map and started hiking. 

According to the map, a network of trails branch out from the Camp Misery Trailhead.  I probably could have stayed here for days and done a combination of hikes, but I was itching to head south. At least I hiked Jenny Lake and Doris Mountain from the other side of Jewel Basin Hiking Area by Hungry Horse Reservoir.

With all the combinations of trails, for those who like backpacking, Jewel Basin Hiking Area would be fantastic for back packing. In fact, during my hike to Crater Lake, I began to wonder if back packing is what most people were doing. Because based on the number of cars, I expected run into more people.  Then I wondered if I mistakenly picked the “ugly” trail. Not so!  The hike to Crater Lake was glorious!

The Hike to Crater Lake

The initial 1.5 miles of a well-maintain path is the width of a double track.  It ascends through some forest in the beginning but opens to views of the Flathead Valley which today was blanketed in smoke from the Elmo Fire on the southwestern side of the lake. On my return, however, the valley came into view as the smoke billowed overhead.

elmo fire

Alpine Trail

At the top of the double track, trails branch in all directions.  To get to Crater Lake, take the first trail on the right, called Alpine.  Alpine also goes to the left, but follow the one to the right which goes downhill.

The trail descends across a mountainside of colorful wildflowers with a magnificent view of a mountain lake tucked beneath a granite peak.  I stopped and talked with a couple here who had the right of way going uphill but wanted to catch their breath.  It is funny how uphill has the right of way, but uphill hikers are usually the ones who want to stop!

Birch Lake

Anyway, Annie and I continued our descent all the way to trail junction to Birch Lake, 3.1 miles one-way.  I think most people who take this trail, likely make Birch Lake their final destination for a 6.2 mile roundtrip.  The lake is beautiful and with the views and wildflowers, the reward far outweights the effort. 

birch lake

While at Birch Lake, there is also a good chance to see mountain goats. I was not so lucky, but some folks I met in the parking area after my hike said they saw them directly on the trail!  No offense to Annie, because she is my traveling companion, but I’m pretty sure my lack of wildlife sightings has something to do with a crazy dog and a bear bell.

After a brief stop at Birch Lake, we continued to Crater Lake.  The trail crosses a bridge and then narrows with lots of vegetation on both sides.  Back in the forest, it was a little boring, and I hoped I hadn’t just seen the best part.

To my surprise, In-thlam-keh came up on the left.  There is a trail to it, but I settled for glimpses through the trees, as with a few more miles to go, I was anxious to get to Crater Lake.

in-thlam-keh lake

Route to Crater Lake

Soon I reached an old, overgrown trail blocked off with sticks.  I skipped it but pulled out my AllTrails map because I didn’t remember the main trail turning left.  I didn’t walk far before I realized the recorded version shows following the closed trail.

I debated which way to go for a while.  I felt like I should follow the main trail, as the other trail was closed for a reason. That said since I didn’t know where the main trail would go, and I didn’t want to waste precious energy on an 11 mile hike wandering around. Or worse yet, get lost and have to activate my garmin SOS. As a result, I followed the closed, recorded route.

trail to Crater Lake

I thought the brush was thick before, but now, at times, this path was hardly visible.  I hoped I didn’t get lost going this way! Annie led, while I followed, and we ended up at a wonderful overlook of Crater Lake next to a wilderness pit toilet! 

crater lake

Crater Lake

I was hungry, so we stopped, ate and gathered our energy while overlooking the cobalt blue lake capped in white foamed waves caused by the gusting wind.  I was thankful the swaying trees around us were green and not dangerous dead ones!

While I don’t generally consider wind my friend, eating my lunch without a bug buzzing my face was quite enjoyable!  I just had to readjust my visor, so it didn’t blow away. It was also very entertaining to watch Annie’s ears blow in the wind! She looked like a gremline when she stuck her nose into the breeze and her ears pointed up in both directions.

annie at crater lake

From the overlook, we found a path (probably the main one that I didn’t take) following cairns that descended through the large boulders.  There is a log crossing over the water outlet at the lake, and then a spectacular peninsula the protrudes between the shallow aqua water and the deep blue water.

crater lake

With the change of watercolor and white caps, it almost felt like being at the ocean!  Crater Lake was absolutely stunning, and I’m glad I continued from Birch Lake. I don’t tend to linger too long at any of my hiking destinations, but at Crater Lake, I wished I had packed my book, The World Played Chess which is a very good Vietnam War novel.

The colors, the grandeur of the surrounding peaks, and the feeling of being this tiny person in a vast wilderness is something I can’t describe.  Nature’s majesty is so humbling and awe inspiring at the same time.

I don’t know how long I took in the beauty, but eventually Annie and I retraced our steps and returned to VANgo around 4pm.  The hike to Crater Lake was just superb!  And despite all those cars, I probably only saw five or six twosomes on my 11-mile journey and had both Birch Lake and Crater Lake to myself!  This might be my favorite hike of the summer so far, but I probably say that after everyone!  ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned award winning travel blogger and photographer sharing the earth's beauty one word and image at a time.

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