Exploring 50 miles of trails in Jewel Basin Hiking Area

Story and photography by Kay Bjork
Gem-like lakes, meadows strewn with wildflowers and a treasure chest full of hiking trails might be the reasons it was named Jewel Basin. But perhaps what makes this area even more precious is its hiker-only status combined with a trailhead that lies at a lofty 5,717 feet just 17 miles from Kalispell, offering easy access to a magical alpine world. No motorized vehicles, bicycles or horses are allowed in this fragile ecosystem.

The Jewel Basin Hiking Area offers 50 miles of trails through over 15,000 acres of wilderness spattered with 27 lakes. Over a dozen of these lakes can be reached via the primary trail system. The ridge overlooking the spectacular Jewel Basin is a little more than an hour hike up a reasonable grade. Many local trails are a long drive away and begin at lower elevations that can require hours trudging through heavy timber to reach alpine lakes and towering summits.

Jewel Basin’s attributes are also a detriment because of the danger of being loved to death. She often gets more attention than she can comfortably handle. During the summer, the parking area quickly overflows with dozens of cars sporting license plates from across the U.S. as well as its share of local plates. By mid-summer, the gravel road is like a washboard, adding to the challenge of driving the steep and curvy road. On the busiest days, hundreds of hikers spill onto the two main trailheads, hardly offering the experience of solitude that so many seek and expect in wild places.

Weekdays can be quieter, but for vacationers, every day is a weekend, meaning heavy usage continues into late summer. Once school starts, people return to autumn routines, and you can almost hear a sigh if relief in the quiet of a September morning as days shorten and the Earth prepares for winter slumber. But wait – it’s not over yet as Mother Nature puts on her prettiest and boldest colored dress for her end-of-season party. The guest list is reduced, as are the numbers of party-crashing insects. No invitation or RSVPs required. Just go hiking!

A Few Great Fall Hikes

Mount Aeneas / Picnic Lakes Loop
6 miles
2,000 feet cumulative elevation gain

Mount Aeneas is one of the most popular destinations for hikers (and mountain goats) because you can reach a mountaintop in 2.8 miles, climbing 1,778 vertical feet to reach the 7,528-foot summit. You can take either the Camp Misery Trail or the old microwave tower access road from the parking lot. The Camp Misery Trailhead is slightly shorter, but the old road is a gentler grade and has impressive valley and mountain views. For the less experienced, the 1.5-mile trek to the microwave building and the ridge might be a good goal with its beautiful views down to Jewel Basin and Picnic Lakes framed by layers of surrounding mountain ranges. To reach Mount Aeneas, continue on the remaining mile that straddles a rolling ridge where mountain goats (who have the right-of-way) can often be found. For those who are conditioned and experienced, a trip over to the backside of Mount Aeneas to Picnic Lakes is a great loop option. After you have enjoyed the views and a break at the summit, continue southward and head left down the ridgeline on a steeper, rocky section until you spot a side hill trail, also on your left, that leads to Picnic Lakes. Follow the south shore of the second lake, where you will cross a little footbridge and head up another side hill to return over the Picnic Lake notch and down the Camp Misery Trail to the parking lot.

Three Lakes – Birch, In-Thlam-Keh and Crater
12 miles
1,700 feet cumulative vertical gain

Birch Lake is another favorite, so expect more hikers on the first portion of this hike. From the parking lot, you will take Trail #7 at a junction where four trails intersect. This next section of trail ducks in and out of the trees until you begin to traverse across the steep slope above the Birch Creek drainage. Cross Birch Creek at Birch Lake to continue past In-Thlam-Keh Lake, where usage dwindles for the next few miles to Crater Lake.

Tongue Mountain
7 miles
1,700 feet elevation gain

Take the Camp Misery Trail for .6 miles and then head north on Trail #8 to a scenic point that side hills on the south side of the draw to reach Twin Lakes notch and the trail to Tongue Mountain, which lies at 7,542 feet. This section of the trail begins as a gentle side hill that turns into a pleasant ridge walk. This lesser-traveled route offers a more moderate hike with the benefits of views of the emerald Twin Lakes and surrounding mountains. You can also hike to Tongue Mountain from the Hungry Horse Reservoir side by taking the Jct. Graves Creek Trail.

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The Back Door

Trails less traveled, alternate trailheads: Access from the Hungry Horse Reservoir side of Jewel Basin is a great way to see another dimension of the landscape and to discover the wild side of Jewel Basin. Turn off U.S. Highway 2 and cross the dam continuing on Westside Reservoir Road to reach several different trailheads that lead to Jewel Basin: Clayton Creek Trail #420, Wheeler Creek Trail #64, Flossy Creek Trail #49 and Pioneer Ridge Trail #71. Check with the ranger station for road and trail conditions.

Clayton Lake
4.6 miles
1,600 feet cumulative elevation gain

Take Clayton Creek Road #1633 to reach the trailhead and hike up Trail #420 following Clayton Creek. You will reach the lake in just 2.3 miles, which is a 12.4-mile roundtrip hike from the commonly used Camp Misery trailhead on the east side.

Pioneer Ridge to old lookout site
7.5 miles
1,600 feet cumulative elevation gain

Take Westside Reservoir Road #895 to Mazie Creek Road #5326 to reach the Pioneer Ridge trailhead, where it begins at Purgatory Road #9796 and runs for 7.5 miles, ending at the junction to Clayton Lake. A good destination is the old lookout site located approximately halfway up the trail.

Strawberry Lake to Wildcat Lake
10.6 miles
2,000 feet cumulative elevation gain

Another point of entry to the Jewel Basin Hiking Area is from the Strawberry Lake trail. Take Foothills Road to Forest Service Road #5390 to reach this trailhead. After hiking 2.8 miles to the lake, continue south on Trail #7 for approximately one mile to reach the Jewel Basin boundary. Continue for another 1.5 miles to reach Wildcat Lake.=

Raptor Rapture

Catch a spectacular autumn show as thousands of raptors and other birds pass through Jewel Basin. Audubon leader and Northern Rockies representative for the American Bird Conservancy, Dan Casey, established the Jewel Basin Hawk Watch after he observed over 150 migrating raptors in a single day while hiking mid-September in 2007. Over 2,000 migrating hawks of 17 species are counted during the annual count, with the migration traffic occurring from late August through early November, normally peaking in late September. Bird counts are made on Raptor Ridge at 7,000 feet, where raptors fly close to the ridgeline to maximize the lift created by wind on the narrow ridge, placing their magnificent autumn dance very close to observers.

For more details and current trail and road conditions:
Hungry Horse-Glacier View Ranger Station – 406-387-3800
Swan Lake Ranger Station – 406-837-7500
Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation – 406-387-3808
www.bmwf.org/trail_conditions.html#conditions