Eagle Pass – Flathead Indian Reservation
Last year Matt and I took one of our first hikes together, we trekked to Moon Lake, which is nestled in the Mission Mountains on the Flathead Indian Reservation. It was wondrous, some of the most beautiful views I had seen hiking up to that point in time. We were getting to know each other that much better as we scrambled up a mountainside, through brush and over waterfalls; I can’t stop smiling thinking about it.
During that summer Matt also disclosed the location of a trail he’d been wanting to back pack ever since he was young (makes it sound all secretive and what not). He knows the area pretty well and that’s the one big hike he’s always wanted to do but never has… seems pretty special to me. It’s been in the back of my mind all summer to arrange the trip and finally this August, much to my delight, I was able to.
I’m excited to tell you about the trip!
Finding the trail head: our first dilemma
Sunday morning we were driving to our end point around 5 am, up Eagle Pass Trail, looking for the trail head with a topographic map in hand (on my smart phone of course) and gear in tow. Half an hour later after driving up and down the half mile stretch of road that the turn MUST be off of, we were no further toward locating it than before. At the end of the road is a guest ranch, before that two posted driveways and then you hit the canal… which means you’ve gone too far. Matt, who is a local to the area, nor his gracious friend giving us a ride to the drop point, also a local, had any idea where it could be. So, we parked the truck an extra mile from the seemingly non-existent trail head, got dropped off and headed in.
Photographing: another dilemma
About a half mile down the trail I see a spot with great photo potential, gorgeous cloud wisped mountain tops and the stunning blue water at the entrance of McDonald lake sat in view. I tried a fun new set up for my camera, 3 trekking poles and an Ultrapod 2. The particular lens I brought is maybe a bit past it’s prime, a fact I knew but ignored when taking it with me.
Immediately I knew there was a problem, a focus problem. Shoot! The suns coming up and I have a lens that won’t focus… hm. Emergency lens repair, with no suitable tools, if you’re a photographer you’re probably thinking ‘that’s a terrible idea’. Well it is. Did I really do that? Tear my lens apart in the woods with dirt all around using the only thing I had, a Swiss army knife. You betcha! I was thinking “I’ll be damned if I am going to carry this sucker 14+ miles in a useless condition”.
Over an hour later, using our combined talent, I had a focusing lens! Wooh!
The trip: worth the little bumps
The beginning of the trail goes along McDonald Lake and is pretty flat, no lack of views though.
I loved to look of the cut trees along the head of the lake.
Continuing on you will see rock faces and the trail goes over plenty of large rock slide areas.
Some portions of the trail are no more than a tiny stream of water.
You come in to a cedar forest and it gets pretty dark, the tree are dense and the area is moist. You can find some interesting things if you overlook the gloominess.
This fungi had water droplets perched so perfectly across it’s brim, I couldn’t resist stopping to photograph despite the cool air hanging around is like a dense fog. I wanted to capture the dark, smoky feel of the area with this image.
This tree sported more mushrooms and a zipper-like formation on it’s trunk. It seems like there’s and endless stream of things to stop and look at in these cedar woods, whether it be an unusual knob on a tree or interesting fungi.
Shortly after leaving the dark, dank forest there’s a fun rock cliff to climb. Some parts are sheer rock like pictured above, and have rebar sticking out of them. It’s a pretty quick elevation gain but you get some fun views and ledges out of the deal.
That is a sheer cliff side… straight down and above the tops of most of the trees. Yeah, I’m doing pretty well overcoming my fear of heights but you can bet that I did not go out there. I was more than happy to stay on the non death trapped side and take a picture!
We planned to make it to the waterfall about 3/4 of a mile before Moon Lake for our lunch stop, it’s a nice cool break spot with plenty of comfy seating.
Ron got his nap in while we munched on some wraps.
With a waterfall at my disposal I was excited to try and do better than last time with my growing landscape photography skills. This time, using my 3 trekking pole + Ultrapod 2 setup, I decided to try a longer exposure. I only got a few snaps off before my battery began flashing red. Despite being charged fully the night before, the battery died with only an hour or so of use. Bummer, I sure was glad to have my phone with me though… it may not take high quality pics but it’s sure better than none.
Oh and, I may need to get a new battery!
I did manage to get a photo I didn’t feel the need to cringe (or involuntarily gag) at.
After the falls it’s really just heavy brush, you cross over a few small streams and then hit Moon Lake. Moon’s not a very glorious lake, it’s shrouded in brush and pretty small but it’s a good place to stop and get some water if you need to. Past that, Long Lake is barely visible from the trail and with waning energy I didn’t even go look. I almost passed up Frog Lake too but the phenomenal views of the rocky mountain ridges in the distance got me to stop, and boy am I glad.
The lake sure does live up to it’s name! As you walk towards the edge of it, everything begins to move, splashing all over in to the water; Frogs, frogs everywhere. These tadpoles, fish and frogs live here uninhibited by human interference and that is something we hardly get to see anymore.
After wandering off on to a very convincing but apparently dead-end trail we finally made it our camping area, Summit Lake!
The fishing was fantastic, the was filled with good sized Cutthroat. We caught 4 within an hour and eagerly cooked them up over the campfire.
It’s important to know the fishing regulations in the area you are going to camp in. For instance, here the Flathead Indian Reservation, Cutthroat may only be kept in the mountain lakes and must not be packed out. You may not fish in the tributary streams of any of the lakes we visited on the trip either. Of course, all of this requires proper Reservation permits as well.
Two fish each, yes, we were starving. They were absolutely scrumptious, seasoned lighlty with a garlic pepper and wild chives.
By 8 o’clock, Ron and I were more than have to settle down in the tent and catch some ZZZ’s.
The next morning I awoke at 5 am. ‘NOPE’, my body said. I snuggled down in my heavenly mummy sleeping bag and went right back to sleep. My camera was dead so I was already missing out on the beautiful sunrise photos I had been looking forward to, may as well get some extra rest I figured. So I did not get my butt out of my cozy little bed until 7:30 am, by that time the sun was just beginning to peak over and hit the summits surrounding our lake.
The reflection in the water of the mountain was almost as beautiful as the mountain side itself. The water laid almost perfectly still for just a little while until the sun came up.
Morning time also meant it was time to ascend the steep hillside we had camped below. This is the type of trail that makes you very thankful for switchbacks. There was a Bald Eagle who had made the lake area it’s home, as we approached it flew around us a few times. I found myself humbled by the magnificent bird’s grace and the knowledge that this wonderful place I had the fortune to camp at, was in fact, home to such a bird.
To be able to look back at the land you’ve come over every few hundred feet of elevation, is a irreplaceable feeling of accomplishment, and the view becomes arguably better.
Up and away!
We were admittedly pretty dang tired that morning, the only other real backpacking trip we a had been on so far was only about 5 miles total (ha!). Tired legs and no coffee left us feeling a bit lack luster on the first half mile, the steep climb was enough to get the heart pumping and get us to perk up though.
Looking back as you near the first part of the pass you can see how big the lake really is.
The trail flattens out for a brief moment before you hit the second part of the pass.
The inner part of the pass is far from lacking in views, you’re surrounded by jagged rock edges and blue sky.
After hitting the top of the pass and beginning down the other side, there’s not much to see. The path is heavily forested most of the way and the trail is steep. We did find some great patches of delicious huckleberries on the way and stopped to pick a few.
Ironically we still do not know where the actual trail head on the Eagle Pass side is, following the horse hooves on the way down (in our tired state we just wanted to get back to truck) led us straight on to a guest ranch. From there it was just a half mile to the truck but we still saw no way to the trail head described on the map.
Here you can see the green path is our intended route, the small yellow bit at the end is our actual path.
Well over 4,000 foot elevation gain, definitely a bit of a workout ;)
This is a hike to remember, if you can get here, go do it! I can honestly say it will be one of the highlights of my year, everything about the trip was just surreal.
There’s a certain feeling you get out in the woods; away from people, politics, news, social media and all the things that drag your spirit down that I haven’t found anywhere else. If you don’t have an outdoor hobby, you probably should. The least you can do is give it a try!