Montana: Dreaming of the Trout Lake Trail

We were lying in bed the other morning, reluctant to start the work day, when we got to reminiscing about Glacier National Park.

Yes, we’re worried about the glaciers, which may well be gone by 2030.  Yes, we fell hard for the wooly white mountain goats that flit lightly across the snow.  But here in northwestern Montana, in the verdant forest valley of Trout Lake and Camas Creek, it’s the glassy teal water, cool mountain air, and absolute quiet that we miss the most.

Here in the center of the park, reaching Trout Lake is a relatively simple journey.  From the legendary Going-to-the-Sun Road, just past Lake McDonald Lodge, take a left onto North Shore Lake McDonald Road, and follow it just shy of a mile.  We visited a few years back in early June, when crowds at the park were just gathering steam; at about 10am, we were happy to find the small parking lot at the trailhead almost deserted.

The hike is about 4 miles round trip.  It begins with a moderately steep climb up Howe Ridge, through dense lodgepole forest.  At the ridgetop you can look down on the ten-mile stretch of soft, blue Lake McDonald, before the forest all but swallows you again; well-tamped dirt trails part a sea of ferns, pines, and feathery white bear grass.

As you descend 1300 feet into the lake valley, there’ll be occasional glimpses of wide water through the greenery.  The woods here smell almost spicy, like cedar and cinnamon. In the forest shade, you can hear little besides the crunch of dry sticks underfoot; birds seem oddly scarce.

Towards the bottom of the trail, the grade flattens out over the course of a quarter mile…and then you’re shoreside amidst mudstone pebbles by one of the prettiest views in Glacier.   To the south are Stanton Mountain, Mt. Vaught and Heaven’s Peak, and to the north, Rogers Mountain and Camas Ridge.  Walk up a short ways to the narrow, snaking curves of Camas Creek, where mere ripples of rapids foam over mossy boulders and fallen trees.

Back by the lakeside, fluffy pines nestle into reeds and grasses, and logs jam at the water’s edge.  An occasional fisherman may wait patiently for a day’s catch.

Close your eyes together, listen to the gentle rush of breeze over the glacier melt, and know that you’ll never forget this sound.

Open them, and you’ll hardly believe your eyes.

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