Exploring the Swan’s vast network of hiking trails

Story and photography by Kay Bjork

My affair with hiking began on a trek into the Madison Range with a Bozeman friend. My boots were bad but my partner was good, and he became my best hiking buddy – and eventually my husband.

I was fresh out of college and urban life in Minneapolis. Even though my roots were in the North Woods, my wardrobe had bent toward fashion, and when I moved to Montana it didn’t include good hiking boots. When I showed up for the two-day backpacking journey wearing my cute deerskin shoes with crepe soles, Dewey pulled out an old pair of leather boots from the back of his closet. They were a tad big, but I decided to try them with heavy socks.

Eager to make up for inexperience with sheer will, I ignored the chafing I felt at the back of the stiff boots until I not only formed blisters on my heels but also wore holes in the blisters. The deerskin shoes came out for the rest of the hiking trip and for nearly a month afterward as I waited for my heels to heal. It taught me the age-old soldier lesson to take care of your feet because “they are your transportation.” In spite of the painful lesson, I was hooked on hiking and the magic of the backcountry.

A several-year nomadic lifestyle, while my husband was working for a helicopter logging company throughout the Northwest, provided a great stage for our wanderings. The classic White’s logger boots doubled as our hiking boots and afforded great protection and traction on rugged terrain (and from the rattlesnakes in Salmon, Idaho) but were rigid and literally loggy. I went to the other extreme when I used my L.L. Bean canvas canoe shoes that proved too lightweight for hiking.

I finally evolved toward a synthetic and leather hiking boot that covered my ankles, which proved valuable when following someone who simply uses trails to reach a higher place where he can veer off-trail. The vertical feet were more significant than linear miles with off-trail wandering as we often bushwhacked and scrambled to reach our destinations.

Napa-from-Warrior-Mtn

Bear grass and wildflowers bloom along a trail in the Napa area with Swan Peak in the background

Despite my grumblings and occasional tears in the beginning, I developed an appetite – more of an addiction – for climbing higher and higher and moving farther and farther away from where we started. It was amazing to me that the simple ritual of putting one foot in front of the other brought me to wild and enchanting places – where slabs of rosy-colored rock slanted upwards, to rocky teeth biting at deep blue sky; where the air was scented with sun-kissed earth and pine and punctuated by a hawk’s piercing cry and the beat of a rough grouse. Hiking was a collective experience of the things that I saw, smelled, heard, and touched, but most of all of how it made me feel.

We established our permanent “base camp” on Swan Lake and launched what is turning into a lifetime expedition of exploring the surrounding mountains, where it is not so much about the miles of trails but as acres of wild country beyond the trails.

Minutes away are numerous trailheads, and dozens just an hour away, even the drive feels like part of the adventure. Traveling down the Swan Highway you immediately get a sense of escape with the dominance of public lands, abundant wildlife and nary a stop sign for 91 miles.

Glacier Park might have more drama, but the Swan has plenty of story. While millions of visitors share the glorious national treasure, only thousands wander through the Swan each summer. This offers a more authentic wilderness experience where you might even be lucky enough to have the trail to yourself. Many years later, each hike I take, even when repeated, promises a new story – a tale sometimes told and sometimes just imprinted in my memory and stamped on my soul.

SWAN HIKES  Trailing Off

There is a whopping 2.3 million acres of wilderness in the Flathead National Forest and 2,249 miles of trails, with 1,801 of them non-motorized and 1,147 wilderness. The Swan Range is one area that offers dozens of hike options for Flathead Valley residents.

The Jewel Basin Hiking Area east of Bigfork lives up to its name – it is a hiker’s treasure trove with high-elevation access to hikers-only trails, a spattering of sparkling lakes, and broad meadows strewn with wildflowers framed by rolling and rocky ridges. The parking lot at 5,800 feet is often snow-covered until July, and trails located in shade or with northern exposures also remain snowy into the summer.

Bond-Falls

Bond Falls—a short but pretty cascade

The area’s proximity to local communities has its flip side. On weekends the parking lot overflows with cars that end up snaking down the road, and the first segments of the trails get crowded. You might want to save this area for weekdays or off-season if possible. A favorite shared by many hikers is the moderate summit of Mount Aeneas where there’s a good chance of spotting a local herd of mountain sheep. The trail to Birch Lake is also busy, but you can continue a few more miles to Crater Lake to lose the crowd. The Tongue Mountain trail travels on a nice side hill with views of Twin and Blackfoot lakes below and continues along a mellow ridge with great panoramic views.

To the north of the Jewel Basin are two great trailheads that are also a reasonable distance from Flathead Valley communities. Strawberry Lake Trail takes you to a pretty lake and Alpine Trail # 7 where you can extend your hike in either direction for a more solitary experience. The trail to Peters Ridge is steeper and more rugged, but it offers quick access to sweeping views as it side-hills into a bowl and up to the ridge top where you can drop to Alpine Trail # 7 or follow the ridge.

Heading south along Highway 83, the next hiking option is up Bear Creek Road on the Peterson Creek trail, which provides other hiking options and loops from trail junctions. A portion of the road is closed until July 1, which adds nearly two miles to the hike off-season. The trail stays in the timber for nearly four miles but still offers views of the Swan and Flathead lakes along the way before breaking out into an old burn where you can see the ruggedness and depth of this area. Take a long but rewarding hike to the old Tom Tom Lookout site by continuing on Peterson Cr. Trail until it merges into Alpine Trail # 7 and then to the saddle where you veer east off-trail along a ridge for a half-mile.

At the end of Swan Lake you will find a lower-elevation trail that follows through the timber to reach Bond Falls, Bond Lake and Trinkus Lake. The Bond Trail access is found at the southern end of the community of Swan Lake across from the Swan Refuge with an additional trailhead up Lost Creek and the Wire Trail Roads on Road #9507, which is closed seasonally. You remain in the trees most of this trail, with markers for multiple creek crossings and views of Bond Creek and a series of short falls.

Napa Lookout Trail is farther down the Swan but offers a high trailhead at 6,423 feet that often remains snowy until mid-July. Here you will experience nearly instant gratification when you break out into dramatic views after a little over a half-mile in the forest. Even though you only have a net gain of 500 feet, you will probably actually double that on this rollercoaster ridge-walk for 3.3 miles to reach the southerly point of Alpine Trail #7. Here you have other options. Continue left to Inspiration Pass within a mile or turn right and go approximately three miles to reach Inspiration Point. Seasoned hikers can head down Alpine Trail #7 to climb Warrior Mountain or Gildart Peak.

If you get a yen to wander, remember that going off trail shouldn’t include cutting switchbacks or trekking on fragile landscape. Keep in mind the “leave no trace” ethic and stay on durable surfaces, including rock, gravel, dry grasses, or snow.

The U.S. Forest Service has a comprehensive hiking trail list available online with links to maps, detailed driving directions, and road closure dates.

Getting THE BOOT

If you want to know about boots, ask somebody who has walked a few miles in them. Don Scharfe, owner and founder of Rocky Mountain Outfitter, has climbed, hiked, skied, and paddled in the neighborhood for over 40 years. He opened his main street store (RMO) in the summer of 1976 as an outdoor sports specialty store to help people prepare themselves for outdoor adventures by not only providing a wide assortment of equipment for sale but also by sharing firsthand information and tips.

His first boot tip: “When your feet hurt, the trip is about your feet.” He had just returned from a seven-day ski trip into the Canadian Rockies and the importance of good-fitting boots was fresh on his mind because his boots weren’t working perfectly and his feet hurt. He emphasized, “The entire trip it was in the back of my mind and that can take over a perfect trip.”

Don Scharfe holds one of his sturdy products

Local outdoor expert Don Scharfe knows his boots

Over the years he has seen the evolution from heavy, stiff leather hiking boots to boots constructed of lighter leather combined with synthetic materials. Today’s boots have the advantages of drying faster, being waterproof, being more flexible, and being lighter in weight.

There is a wide variety of styles and brands available, and hikers tend to find their own favorite by fit. Boot manufacturers have what is known as a boot last, which is their unique interpretation of how a foot is shaped.

During a fitting Scharfe advises that you should be able to put a large finger in the back of the boot before you lace it up. He also says that when in doubt, it’s better to go up in size than down. “You can always wear heavier socks. You don’t want to have toe mash on the downhill.”

His preference is for a higher boot because of the extra support it provides, which can lessen the chance of twisting an ankle. He points out that your feet will also stay drier and be more protected in a higher boot. He says that if you choose a low boot, use poles.

Also important are the socks you wear. Scharfe recommends a high merino wool blend for the soft touch and breathability that makes them cooler than synthetic socks. He says the trend is also to replace the insole that comes with boots with a more substantial insole for more arch support.

It’s hard to give up a pair of favorite boots, but it’s also important to recognize when it’s time to give the boot the boot. Scharfe says it’s time to get new boots when you notice the following: old boots have started giving you blisters and become problematic, soles are worn out, leather cracking, stitching is coming apart, and heel counters are breaking down.

Now in his 60s, Scharfe still bags dozens of peaks each year and skis crazy steep chutes, but he admits there is one thing that is different with age – he says his feet are more tender now. So what does he do? He just loosens the laces at the front of the boot and goes on another adventure.

HOT SPOTS in the Swan Range

Listed here are a few hikes in the northern end of the Swan Range because of their closer proximity to the Kalispell area, but there are numerous other trails as you head south down Highway 83. Distances listed are one-way. Vertical gain doesn’t reflect actual vertical hiked because of elevation lost and gained with the up and down nature of trails.

6-mile-looking-up-Swan-and-beyond-IMG_3137

A hiker looks up the Swan Valley and beyond at the top of Sixmile Peak

Peters Ridge Trail #37: 2.6 miles, vertical gain: 1,445 feet (4,905 – 6,350).

Strawberry Lake Trail #5: 2.8 miles, vertical gain: 1,500 feet (4,137 – 5,611).

Mount Aeneas: 2.8 miles, vertical gain: 1,700 feet (5,800 – 7,500).

Birch Lake: 2.8 miles, vertical gain: 400 feet but does not reflect the ups and downs of the trail.

Tongue Mountain Trail #: 4 miles to the ridge at 6,700 feet and 6.3 miles to Clayton Lake at 6,000 feet.

Peterson Creek Trail #393: 5.9 miles to Alpine Trail #7, vertical gain 1,780 feet (3,700 – 5,480).

Broken Leg Divide Trail: Found approximately three miles up Peterson Creek Trail where it continues 2.8 miles (5,280 – 5,800) to a junction with Echo-Brokenleg trail. Head east off-trail for about .5 miles to reach site of former Tom Tom Lookout.

Sixmile Peak Trail #10: 4.6 miles, vertical gain: 3,406 feet (4,000 – 7,406) Bond Falls and Bond Lake Trail:  Distances from the trailhead just off Hwy 83:  7.5 miles, vertical gain: 2,905 feet (3,097 – 6,047) 3.5 miles to Bond Falls, 6 miles to Bond Lake, 7 miles to Trinkus Lake, 7.5 miles to Alpine Trail #7.

Napa Lookout Trail #31: 3.3 miles, vertical gain: 500 feet (6,423 – 6,980) to Gorge Creek Trail #216 and Alpine Trail #7. Another 3 miles to Inspiration Lookout at an elevation of 7,628 or Warrior Mountain at an elevation of 7,903. Gildart Peak at 7,945 is nearly 5 miles past the junction of Trail #7.

WATCH your step

Even with great boots there are elements that can become obstacles if you aren’t paying attention on the trail. A bit of advice: be sure of your footing on the leading foot before taking the next step.

A few things to watch for:

• Sneaky water bars across trails, especially when wet

• Tree staubs when climbing over downfall

• Ice patches

• Snow bridges that can collapse when around running water, rocks or downfall

• Loose gravel and scree

• Shifting boulders

• Snowfields on trail creating a slippery surface without tread – injuries and deaths have occurred when hikers lose their footing and go sliding down a mountainside