Doubled over at the waist, my trekking poles supporting my body and 50 pounds of winter-camping gear, I can’t muster the breath to curse whoever constructed this trail. Over the course of a little more than four miles I have climbed almost 4,000 feet—first on an improbably steep old mining road, then on singletrack—and still I cannot see the lookout that marks the summit of Star Peak, on the Idaho/Montana border.
Then the summit appears, yielding views of the upthrust ridge of Billiard Table Mountain and the fog-enshrouded Bull River valley. In the distance, pyramidal A Peak and Snowshoe Peak demarcate the northern edge of the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness. Although I’m on the summit of a peak that barely lunges past the 6,000-foot mark, Lake Pend Oreille and its tributaries are almost directly beneath me, more than 4,000 feet below. I’ve heard this is mountain goat country. Now I know why.
When French-Canadian fur trappers first surveyed the mountain range straddling the Idaho/Montana border just this side of Canada, they dubbed it the Cabinet Mountains, for the sheer shelfs of rock that loomed over the rivers below. In the intervening 200 years, the snowshoe technology used to cross the Cabinets may have changed, but little else has.
The Cabinet Mountains are commonly noted to be one of the wildest mountain ranges in the lower 48 states, where grizzly bears, mountain goats and even wolverines take refuge amongst its glacier-carved cirques and hanging valleys. The Cabinet Mountains Wilderness protects almost 100,000 acres of alpine lakes and knife-edge peaks in the heart of the range. Think of it as an off-the-beaten-path alternative to Glacier National Park.
Separated from the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness by a two-lane state highway, the 88,000-acre Scotchman Peaks Wilderness Study Area is perhaps the largest intact tract of unprotected wildlands in the Cabinet Mountain range. Although it lacks the abundance of glittering alpine lakes of the nearby wilderness, the Scotchman Peaks are no less wild. Bounded by the Clark Fork and Bull rivers, the Scotchmans boast jagged summits, avalanche-scraped cirques, subalpine meadows and rugged, brushy drainages.
Thanks to a maritime-influenced climate, the Cabinets boast abundant precipitation; some Sno-Tel sites in the range routinely register the highest snowpack in Montana. Deep powder, coupled with trails easily accessed from the surrounding river valleys, rate the Cabinets as one of the region’s wildest winter destinations.
Star Peak (née Squaw Peak; the old appellation still appears in some maps and guidebooks) crowns the southern portion of the Scotchman Peaks area. At its 6,167-foot summit sits an active fire lookout (currently being restored) with 360-degree views of the Bull River Valley, Lake Pend Oreille and the two highest peaks in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, A Peak and Snowshoe Peak. Just below the lookout sits a century-old rock shelter and one of the best outhouse views in the region. From its trailhead on Highway 200 just west of Heron, the Big Eddy trail—one of five that gains the summit of Star Peak—climbs 4,000 feet in 4.5 miles. The Big Eddy trail isn’t the steepest in the region, but it’s close enough. However, because it’s in the trees—first Douglas-fir, then lodgepole pine—until just short of the top, the Big Eddy trail is relatively protected from avalanches. Pitch a four-season tent in the lee of the rock shelter for one of the region’s best winter-camping experiences.
Directions: From Heron, Mont., drive west on Highway 200 two miles to an unmarked, steeply ascending jeep road on the right side of the highway, directly opposite a large pullout. Park in the pullout, cross the highway and ascend the jeep road .3 miles to the Big Eddy trailhead.
If you aren’t keen to the physical rigor of Star Peak, the Ross Creek Cedars Scenic Area will exhaust your vocabulary of superlatives. Tucked in a moisture-trapping creek drainage high above the Bull River valley on the east side of the Scotchman Peaks, the scenic area shelters some truly astonishing tree specimens. A 0.9-mile interpretive trail winds around and under massive western redcedars up to eight feet in diameter and 175 feet tall—some of Montana’s largest, oldest trees. In the winter, snowshoe the 3-mile access road to access the cathedral-quiet grove. Stand in awe of snow-covered cedars that attained old-growth status well before Columbus spied the Americas.
Directions: From Troy, Mont., drive east two miles on Highway 2. Turn right on Highway 56, and drive 18 miles to Ross Creek Road (FS Road 398). Turn right and drive 1 mile to the winter parking area.
Snowshoe to a lookout with next-door-neighbor views of the interior of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness on the 5-mile trek to Berray Mountain. Located outside the boundaries of both the wilderness and the Scotchmans, Berray boasts great views of both. Situated in a drier, lower-elevation forest than Ross Creek Cedars, Berray Mountain trail winds its way through ponderosa pines and Douglas-firs en route to subalpine meadows beyond. Periodic openings in the canopy on the first half of the trail peek into the Scotchmans’ Pillick Ridge and Star Peak, nice reward for snowshoers looking for a trek shorter than 10 miles. Close at hand, keep a keen eye out for bighorn sheep. Berray Mountain is home to a herd of about a hundred, which like to congregate on Highway 56 in the winter and lick the salt-based de-icer off the highway.
Directions: From Noxon, Mont., drive five miles west on Highway 200. Turn right onto Highway 56 and drive 8 miles to Bull River Road. Turn right and drive one mile to the Berray Mountain trailhead, on the left side of the road.
Snowshoers who venture to Swamp Creek can amble up to 13 miles in a broad, glacier-carved valley that accesses the southern end of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. While passing through hemlock-shaded forest and beaver-dammed wetlands, marvel at the geologic history etched out of the canyon walls. Two interpretive signs at the beginning of the trail illuminate a more-recent event that shaped the landscape: the catastrophic wildfires of 1910 that burned over three million acres in Montana and beyond and became a formative moment in the history of the then-fledgling Forest Service. A little more than four miles of mostly level ambling will put snowshoers on the wilderness boundary and a good turnaround point. A handful of small, slide-prone talus slopes warrant caution; check area conditions before embarking.
Directions: From Noxon, Mont., drive five miles east on Highway 200. Near milepost 20, turn left onto Swamp Creek Loop Road. Drive 2.5 miles, and, when the main road curves right, turn left (the left turn is marked as Swamp Creek Road). Drive two miles and bear right on Forest Road 1119. Drive 0.2 miles to the trailhead. (Note: depending on snowpack, you may have to walk the last mile of Swamp Creek Road.)
Unlike, for example, Washington’s Methow Valley, you won’t find brewpubs or white-linen restaurants in the small towns of northwestern Montana. However, for a unique base for exploration of the Bull River side of the Scotchmans, in addition to the adjacent Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, rent the historic Bull River Guard Station near Noxon. Built in 1908 by Granville “Granny” Gordon, the first District Ranger on the Cabinet National Forest (now the Kootenai National Forest), the guard station was used first as a home and office for Gordon and his family, then as a seasonal guard station. (Gordon also constructed the stone shelter at the summit of Star Peak.) Now the Forest Service rents out the guard station, which sleeps six and offers electric lights and appliances. In winter, the furnace will warm you up after trips to the outhouse; there’s no plumbing at the guard station.
The cabin is truly snowshoe-in/snowshoe-out; in winters with deep snowpack, guests may have to walk the last 1/8th mile to the cabin. Meanwhile, leisurely snowshoe walks abound on the forest roads surrounding the cabin, and the Berray Mountain trailhed lies a mile away.
For more information on renting the cabin, click here. For more information on the Cabinet Mountains, visit http://www.libbymt.com/areaattractions/cabinetmountains.htm.