Evans Outdoor Adventures

Montana’s Bitterroot Divide: Heart Lake, Sept 2018

Beautiful alpine lake with a thriving mountain goat population

Distance: 6.0 miles round trip

Type: out and back

Difficulty: moderate with 1,100′ elevation gain

Best season: mid-summer through early fall

Heart Lake along the ID-MT border had been high on my bucket list for a number of years. I had seen photos of Heart, one of the largest lakes in the Bitterroot Mountains, and knew it was beautiful. Even better, it is home to mountain goat which are frequently seen on the cliffs above the lake. Heart has become exceedingly popular as a backpacking destination due to its close proximity to Spokane, Washington and Missoula, Montana as well as its short and easy approach. Since we planned to visit Heart on busy Labor Day weekend, we made it a day hike in order to avoid potentially crowded camp sites.

The area around Heart Lake lies within the proposed Great Burn Wilderness where evidence of the big burn of 1910 is still visible. The proposed wilderness would encompasses roughly 250,000 acres of roadlesss area in the Lolo and Clearwater National Forests.

fall colors starting to pop above the Heart Lake Trail

After backpacking nearby Goose Lake earlier in the holiday weekend, we arrived at the Heart Lake Trailhead (elev. 4,615’) at 7:30 on Labor Day. There were already nine other cars in the parking lot—our guess was all backpackers (we later confirmed this was likely).  

The trail to Heart Lake is easy by mountain lake standards climbing just 1,100 feet over 3 miles. The trail is mostly packed dirt with a few rocky sections. Generally it is a gentle, but continual climb with just a few moderately steep sections and a few switchbacks, especially in the last mile. 

For most of the hike, we we were down in the forest alongside the South Fork of Trout Creek. We had occasional views of the peaks above Heart Lake which were getting some nice fall colors going. 

South Fork Trout Creek

As we neared the lake we crossed the outlet stream and immediately came to a slightly confusing junction. We couldn’t see the lake, but I knew we must be near. I pulled out the GPS and determined that the trail straight ahead must be the trail up to the Stateline Trail. We took a left and were soon rewarded with our first views of Heart Lake.  

beautiful Heart Lake

We arrived at Heart Lake (elev 5,737′) at the spot where it empties into the outlet stream. Here we found a nice campsites and a middle aged couple packing up camp. They confirmed it had been a busy couple of nights at the lake, especially Saturday night. I inquired if they had seen any mountain goats. They had, but at far range on the other side of the lake.  

We crossed the outlet stream on a massive log jam that took a little balancing. On the left side of Heart we found a small beach area about 10 feet below the trail. We climbed down and enjoyed a nice break. 

Heart Lake was stunning with impressive cliffs rising behind it up to the Idaho-Montana border. We could see a pocket of snow remaining on the far cliffs and a fair amount of fall color starting to pop. Jason stated it reminded him of the Heart Lake in the nearby Mallard Larkins and I agreed. This is a relatively easy hike to a beautiful mountain lake that we highly recommend for your bucket list!

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Directions to trailhead: from Spokane, Washington, drive I-90 east to Superior, Montana, exit 47. Travel east on Diamond Road which turns into Forest Road 250. The trailhead is on the left side of the road after approximately 20 miles.

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