Stunning sub-alpine mountain lake with delicious huckleberries & very curious neighbors
Distance: 16.5 miles round trip
Type: out and back
Difficulty: moderately difficult with approximately 2,500′ elevation gain and 1,300′ loss to Heart Lake
Best season: mid-late summer thru early fall
The sub-alpine lakes of Idaho’s Mallard-Larkins had been on my bucket list for years. This roadless area consists of 260,000 acres between the St. Joe River in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest and the North Fork of the Clearwater River in the Clearwater National Forest. Of the thirty-eight named lakes found here, Heart Lake is the crown jewel. At 35 acres in size, she is the largest lake—her deep blue waters, stunning backdrop cliffs, and thriving population of Rocky Mountain goats are ample reward for those willing to make the arduous pack to her shores.
We left work early on an August afternoon and made it to the North Fork of the Clearwater River where we car camped for the night. We had a nice private spot within ear-shot of the river. I never sleep particularly well the night before a backpack. I suppose it is nervous excitement that keeps me awake.
Thursday morning we broke camp early and made the ten mile drive up FR 700 to the Smith Ridge Trailhead (trail #240, elevation 4,845’). We found one SUV with a couple car camped next to it and one truck. It looked like it would be a nice, quiet day on the trail.
The trail began directly across the road from the parking area and soon we were surrounded by abundant ripe huckleberries. With a 1,200′ ascent over two miles to Smith Ridge, this was an excellent excuse to go slow and graze our way up the trail.
As we ascended to the top of a ridge line near Grassy Point, the trail traveled through white and Douglas fir and was nicely shaded. We had occasional views out to the north, but mostly it was a forest hike for the first couple miles.
At about the 2.0 mile mark (elevation 6,080’), we took a snack break before turning north and climbing another few hundred feet to Goat Ridge.
Traveling along Goat Ridge, the trail did a fair amount of up and down, roller coaster action which added to our overall elevation gain for the day. Views began opening up more and it was a pleasant hike over to Larkins Peak junction (elevation 6,391’) at 4.5 miles.
At 5.5 miles, we caught a glimpse of Larkins Lake below. It looked like a pleasant enough lake, but our goal was Heart which was a couple miles further up the trail. At 6.25 miles, we came to the Larkins Lake junction (elevation 5,720’). Trail 240 headed left to Larkins and Mud Lakes while trail 65 to the right continued to Heart.
The next mile of trail was rather pedestrian as we continued hiked below the ridge line and in the trees. There were few views here, but the trail was easy with just some minor rolling up and down.
At 7.4 miles, we opened up to spectacular views of Heart Lake to the north (elevation 6,511’). The angle of the light was perfect and the sky had beautiful poofy clouds making for nice photos. We took a short break for photos and to rest our knees before the final descent.
The 0.85 mile descent into Heart Lake was steep and rocky at times, but the scenery was amazing. As we dropped in elevation, we had great views of the rugged cliffs behind the lake and mountains to the north. We were almost to the bottom of the trail before we reached the trail split to Northbound Lake to the right. We continued to the left and dropped a bit more in elevation before bottoming out at a large campsite where we scared up a large mountain goat.
We dropped our packs then continued a short distance to just past the outlet stream on the lake’s north end. Here we found an exceptional campsite with several good sitting logs, and had a great view of the lake. We made camp here at elevation 5,934’, 8.25 miles from the trailhead. We hadn’t seen anyone on the trail and would have the lake to ourselves for our visit.
It was 2:30 and we set to work pitching our tent and making camp. Jason then walked the few yards down to the lake for some fishing while I read. He caught a couple fish, but the actional was generally slow. We enjoyed the afternoon with comfortable temperatures and blue skies. It is rare to have a beautiful mountain lake of this exceptional beauty all to ourselves and we enjoyed the evening silence as the sun set.
Friday morning dawned and it was going to be another beautiful day. Early morning is always my favorite time on a backpack. We were up early and enjoyed the glow of the sun on the cliffs behind the lake as we sipped hot coffee and had our breakfast.
Our original plan was to spend the day exploring and fishing nearby Northbound Lake, but an unwanted migraine (me) kept us in camp for the morning. I took some Excedrin Migraine and slept it off in the tent while Jason did some fishing.
I lucked out and this migraine broke quickly enough that I was able to emerge from the tent and enjoy some time reading in the shade along the lake shore. Near lunchtime, I noticed a family of three mountain goats (dad, mom, and baby) feeding at the top of the short rise just behind camp. They kept their distance, but looked at us with great curiosity.
Around noon, Jason decided it was time for a lake swim. I thought he was nuts, it really wasn’t all that warm and there was a breeze blowing. But he is braver than I am! Just beyond camp, we found a big flat rock for me to sit on and him to swim from. A cute little frog kept us company.
We were back at camp by 1:00 and our neighbors (the Goat Family) had settled in along our camp perimeter and were feeding away. After a little debate, we decided to hike out that afternoon and head back to the North Fork so Jason could do some fly fishing on one of his favorite mountain streams.
We broke camp and headed out around 2:30. We’d have to keep up a good pace to make it back to the Jeep before dark, but it would be mostly downhill… after that climb out of Heart Lake!
With the afternoon sun, it was a warm, stiff climb out of Heart Lake. I took short breaks in the few shady spots to cool down and catch my breath. We covered the nearly mile long climb and were at the top (elevation 6,511’) in relatively short order.
Conditions were lovely for an August afternoon hike, but it felt like a bit of a grind hiking late into the afternoon. As we made our way south along Goat Ridge, we looked behind us and noticed a large smoke plume off to the northeast. This was from a large fire burning along the ID-MT border in the St. Joe headwaters.
By 6:45 we were descending from Grassy Point along Smith Ridge. It was all downhill now, but we were tired and the trail tread felt much rougher than on the climb up. We stopped for a few huckleberries, but were not nearly as enthusiastic as on the climb up. We didn’t have a lot of water left and we were rapidly losing daylight, so we didn’t have a lot of time for dilly-dallying.
We arrived back at the trailhead around 7:30. I remembered that we had a few left over chicken strips and jojos in the cooler. They were cold but tasted amazing compared to our dehydrated backpacker meals! We looked around the trailhead for a possible place to spend the evening. There were places that would have been ok, but we agreed something down on water would be much nicer. We jumped in the Jeep and descended the majority of the way down to toward the road split with the Isabella Creek – North Fork Road. I could remember a good looking camping spot on a sharp corner before that junction (I think this was Dog Creek). Sure enough, we found it and it was empty. There was a beautiful stream here and a nice flat tent site.
Jason threw up our new Coleman car camping tent while I blew up the kind sized air mattress—plush accommodations compared to our backpacking digs. Within fifteen minutes we were in bed and sleep came swiftly.
The next morning we drove down to the North Fork of the Clearwater River for a day of fly fishing.
My plan for the rest of the weekend was for us to find a campsite up Black Canyon and then hike the “other” Heart Lake (along the ID-MT border on the road to Superior). As we made our way up the North Fork, we stopped in at the Kelly Creek Ranger Station for ice. As we walked past their reader board, I noticed a fire closure sign. The road to Heart Lake trailhead was closed due to a large wildfire. Dang! Well, it was better we found out prior to making the long slow drive up Black only to be turned around just a few miles shy of the trailhead.
We decided to head home and begin prepping for our Selkirks trip the following weekend. The weekend did have one last surprise for us- a cow moose feeding in the Cold Springs Pond.
Directions to the trailhead: On highway 12, turn north across the bridge and into the town of Orofino. Continue straight and follow the Grangemont Road 26 miles to its end. Turn left onto Highway 11 and then left again at Headquarters onto the Beaver Creek Road. Follow this road to its crossing of the North Fork of the Clearwater River. Turn left onto Forest Road 700. Take the left fork to Smith Ridge 3.3 miles later and continue approximately ten miles to the signed trailhead on the left.