Located in the Kootenai National Forest, the Cabinet Mountain Range and Wilderness is a 35-mile-long mountain range made of glaciated peaks and open valleys. The range was named by French Trapper who came to the area in the early 1800s and thought that the rock formations along the Clark River looked like boxes.
Most of these unique rock formations lie under the Cabinet Gorge Reservoir, but the range is still home to some of the most rugged and well-preserved wilderness in the United States.
Following the trappers, miners came to this range, which is southwest of the town of Libby, MT. However, the area was not as productive as other places within the state, and most of the significant claims were abandoned in the middle part of the 1900s.
Today, visitors to the area will find that the area is teeming with small glacial lakes, waterfalls, pristine streams, and views that rival those in Glacier National Park. Within the Cabinet Mountain Range, there are approximately 30 trails that visitors can explore, though some trails cross into or start in Idaho.
Being that this range is situated within the Wilderness area, access is limited to hiking, snowshoeing, and skiing. Motorized vehicles and bicycles are not allowed on trails within the Wilderness area.
Cabinet Mountain Range Statistics
- Highest Elevation: 8,712 feet (2,655 meters)
- Most Recognizable Peak: Snow Shoe Peak
- Season: Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall
While the Cabinet Mountains are one of the most rugged places in the United States, its designation as a national wilderness area limits recreational opportunities. While many of the other mountain ranges in Montana allow for motorized recreation, biking, and hunting, these activities are prohibited in the Cabinet Mountain Range.
Despite this limitation, there are still great ways to recreate in the Cabinet Mountain Range. Most of the Cabinet Mountain Range and Wilderness Area sits within the Kootenai National Forest. Additional information about recreating in this area is available on the National Forest Service website.
Hiking is likely the most popular recreational activity in the Cabinet Mountain Range and Wilderness Area. The 35-mile-long range has around 30 well-maintained trails for visitors to explore. Most of the hikes in the Cabinet Mountain Range are under five miles long, and many take you to some of the most beautiful subalpine lakes.
While hiking, visitors can enjoy the amazing views of glaciated peaks or take time to watch wildlife. This area is critical habitat for travel corridors for animals like grizzly bears, wolverines, wolves, mountain goats and mountain sheep.
Some of the hiking trails are steep and can be challenging, especially if you are planning on hiking to some of the more remote camp spots. Pack animals such as horses, donkeys, goats, llamas or alpacas are acceptable on most trails, so long as the number of animals is limited to 1 head of stock per person.
Camping in the Cabinet Mountains and Wilderness Area must be done in one of the many designated camping locations. Discrete camping within the Wilderness Area is not allowed. Most of the designated camping spaces are accessible from many of the hiking trails and most are around or near the glacial lakes.
When camping in the Cabinet Mountains and Wilderness Area, campers and hikers are encouraged to follow the “Pack it in. Pack it out.” mantra. And, because this area is home to both black and grizzly bears, campers are encouraged to know how to properly manage their food items when camping in the area.
Winter sports are becoming more popular within the Cabinet Mountain Range. This range gets over 100 inches of snow per year, and many of the popular hiking trails make for amazing snowshoeing and cross-country ski trails as well. Some of the steeper trails are not great for winter recreation, and the dense forests of the range make most of the area unsuitable for backcountry downhill skiing.
Many visitors to the Cabinet Mountains and Wilderness Area come for fishing. With many small glacial lakes filled with trout and other native fish species, fishing here can be a unique experience. Most of the lakes that are best for fishing are only accessible by foot on one of the many hiking trails.
Visitors that want to fish in the Cabinet Mountain Range will need to acquire a Montana fishing license from the state department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
The Cabinet Mountain Ranges and Wilderness has 30 established trails that range from easy, family-friendly hikes, to relatively difficult hikes that will challenge the most seasoned of hikers. Many hiking trails in the area lead to beautiful lakes or waterfalls which dot the mountain valleys.
One of the best views of the entire Cabinet Range can be found at the top of Berray Mountain. This hike that starts off of MT-56 takes you on a moderately difficult trail, with some good uphill climbs. This out and back trail is 10.9 miles and passes by a small pond and creek. The trail ends at the Berray Mountain Tower which is a former look-out tower.
Big Spar Lake
The Big Spar Lake trail is a fairly easy to moderate hike for most visitors. The total distance of this trail is 6.8 miles and is an out and back trip. The trail wanders through old-growth cedar groves and ends at Big Spar Lake. The descent to Big Spar Lake is the most difficult part of the trail, as it is fairly steep.
Though a relatively easy, short hike, the trail to Bramlet Lake is not very popular. Bramlet Lake is a quiet, beautiful alpine lake, and a nice spot to just enjoy the peace of nature. This trail is great for wildlife viewing.
This hike is great for people that love to hike ridgelines. However, the Buck Lake Loop is also best for those that don’t mind a bit of a challenge. On this 37.7-mile loop, you’ll enjoy plenty of amazing views, two beautiful alpine lakes, and some of the best wildlife viewing in the Cabinet Range.
We would recommend taking this trail over a couple of days and enjoying camping at Buck or Baree Lake.
This hike isn’t in Montana, but if you’re in the Cabinet Range and want a nice, easy hike this is a great option. This easy 1.2-mile walk, will take you to Char Falls, a stunning 50-foot waterfall. For the most part, this walk is quite accessible to most people, however, the trail to the bottom of the main falls is a bit precarious.
The hike to Eagle Peak is a relatively steep and difficult hike. However, the reward at the end of the hike is a beautiful view of the Cabinet Range and a perfect little camping spot on the edge of Engle Lake. This out and back trail is only 13.4 miles long. However, the hike can be shortened if you start at the Orr Creek Trail.
Flower Point and Flower Lake
Flower point is another of the lookout towers in the area. This trail also does not extend into the Wilderness area, so mountain bikes are allowed. Flower Lake is pretty marshy but has a nice view. This hike is quite easy and is only 2.3 miles out and back.
Just inside the shadows of Scotchman Peak, Goat Mountain is another trail that offers amazing views of the Cabinet Range, without the crowds. This hike is quiet for a reason. Though short (only 8-miles out and back), you’ll find that it is quite steep along the entire trail.
If you’re willing to tough it out, you’ll be pleased you did because the views from the top of Goat Mountain are well worth the work.
The hike to Granite Lake may be one of the most impressive in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. This pristine lake is fed by the last glacier in the Cabinet Mountain Ranges. The glacier cannot be seen from Granite Lake, but you will get great views of the waterfall coming from the glacier, and of A Peak. This is a moderately difficult out and back trail. The total distance is about 13 miles.
An off-trail hike from Little Spar Lake takes you to Horseshoe Pond. This small lake set in the hard rock of the mountain sits between Savage Mountain and Vertigo Ridge. There isn’t a trail to get you here, and the hike from Little Spar Lake is pretty strenuous.
It’s only about 3 miles from Little Spar Lake, but expect to add another 2-hours of hiking time to the hike to Little Spar Lake.
Short, but oh so sweet is the trail to Leigh Lake. A slightly more difficult trail, with some pretty substantial elevation gain over the short distance, the Leigh Lake trail will take you right to the center of the Wilderness allowing you to experience the grandeur of Snowshoe Peak. This hike is also the most popular in the Wilderness, so expect plenty of company while you’re hiking.
Little Ibex Lake
If you’re willing to work for the views, the trail to Little Ibex Lake is a tough climb that rewards you with amazing views of Snowshoe Peak, and some of the other high points in the Cabinet Range. This lake is fed by permanent snowfields that are all that remain of the Ibex Glacier.
The out and back distance of this hike is only 12.9 miles, but the hike up is a lot of work thanks to steep slopes and a ton of deadfall. If you head up this trail, make sure to have your bug spray handy. Hikers to the area note the swarms of mosquitoes that will make life miserable if you’re not prepared.
Little Spar Lake might be one of the prettiest in the Cabinet Mountains. It sits on the Montana/Idaho border and is a fairly easy to moderate hike for experienced hikers. It’s recommended to hike this trail early in the day because the wide-open meadow leading to the lake can get pretty sunny and hot.
The total out and back distance for this trail is 7.4 miles and is easily completed in a day.
Starting on the opposite side of the divide from the Taylor Peak and Minor Lake Loop the Parmenter trail takes you to the same high point, but with a different start location (near Libby). With plenty of uphills to conquer, the Parmenter and Flower Creek loop is a 28.1-mile hike and is best done over a couple of days.
You’ll find a number of designated camping locations along the trail as well as views of the valley and glacial lakes.
Rock Lake trail has some of the most interesting sites of any of the trails in the Cabinet Mountain Ranges. Your hike takes you past Heidelberg Mine, an old mining camp complete with a waterfall, then through Rock Meadow which used to be a beaver farm, and finally on to Rock lake.
This route is pretty popular, and many people like to camp along Rock Lake. The shore is pretty rough, but the views of the granite cliffs on the other side of the lake are worth taking some time to enjoy.
The Ross Creek area is famous for its Cedar trees, and this trail winds through the Cedars finally ending at a beautiful waterfall on the South Fork of Ross Creek. This out and back trail is 8.1 miles long and should take the average hiker 3.5 hours of walking time. The Ross Creek Cascades are some of the most beautiful in Montana, and this hike is not to be missed.
Ross Creek Cedars Loop
The Ross Creek Cedars Loop wanders hikers through some of the last remaining western cedar groves in the United States. These ancient trees have been here for thousands of years, and the easy, wheelchair-accessible trail that meanders through the grove explains the history and ecology of the area. The total hike distance is only 1.1 miles.
This trail starts in Montana but actually ends in Idaho. A steep but short hike, this out and back is only 8.4 miles of the total distance. The Scotchman Peak trail takes you to the summit of Scotchman Peak where you can look over the Coeur d’Alene, the Cabinet Mountain Ranges, and the beautiful Lake Pend Oreille.
Sky Lakes and Hanging Valley Loop
Though not a terribly long hike, the Sky Lakes and Hanging Valley Loop is one of the more challenging hikes in the Wilderness Area. Thanks to some off-trail hiking necessary to reach Sky Lake, this hike is best for experienced backcountry hikers. This trail starts just outside of Libby and rewards hikers with great views of Treasure Mountain and Sky Lake.
If you want a more rugged hiking experience that leads you to some amazing views, then the Spar Peak trail is perfect for you. From the top of the Spar Peak trail, you have some of the most amazing views of the Cabinet Mountain Ranges. And this trail is relatively short, at only 6.3 miles out and back.
However, when we say “rugged” what we really mean is that the middle part of the trail is more like bushwhacking than hiking. The trail is well marked at the top and the bottom. The middle section… not so much.
The trail to St. Paul Lake is a perfect summer hike. The trail follows the east fork of the Bull River for almost its entirety. The lush environment is cool and shady in the summer and has almost rainforest-type qualities. This is an easy hike with minimal elevation gain. The out and back distance is only 8.7 miles, making it perfect for a good family day hike.
Star Peak is the perfect trail for some quality winter hiking and snowshoeing. In the spring and summer, this trail offers you nice views of the old watchtower and the surrounding mountains. The total distance for this hike is 7.5 miles but expect to work for the first half thanks to a good 4,000 feet in elevation gain.
If you’re up for some good climbing, then you’ll love this trail. Starting at the base of the divide in Bull Valley near the town of Troy, the Taylor Peak, and Minor Lake Loop is one of the longest hikes in the Cabinet Mountain Ranges. This hike is a multi-day hike that will require backcountry camping if you want to complete all 33.9 miles of the trail.
Along the trail, you’ll pass a few high mountain lakes and take in some of the most spectacular views of Bull Valley Lake and surrounding mountains.
Three lakes in one hike is what you get on the Three Lakes Loop. However, it’s not as simple as just walking by three lakes. Moose Lake is the only one of the three that is located on the trail. You’ll have to veer off the main Three Lakes Loop to side trails to Blacktail Lake and Lake Estelle.
However, all three lakes are quite picturesque and worth the side trips. This hike is fairly easy with only 2,700 feet of elevation gain over the 14.6 total miles.
Wanless Lake is the largest of the lakes in the Cabinet Mountain Ranges and is by far one of the most beautiful as well. The Wanless Lake loop trail takes you past a total of 5 beautiful lakes, with the last being Wanless Lake. Each lake along the trail is worth the hike, so even if you don’t complete the whole loop, you’ll not have wasted your time.
We think that this trail is best over two days, and camping is available at a few locations along the trail. The total hike distance is 18.9 miles.