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Flathead National Forest Hikes

While Glacier National Park is a million acres in size with 700 miles of hiking trails, Flathead National Forest is over twice as big, over 2.4 million acres with 2400 miles of hiking trails!  It might take me a few centuries to describe them all.  Go to for a complete listing of trails.

Jewel Basin

Located east of Bigfork Montana, the Jewel Basin is a scenic high altitude basin with a series of lakes and several hiking trails of various lengths.  The trailhead is located at the end of Forest Service Road 5392, a gravel road that climbs precariously to near the top of a ridge a few miles outside the basin.
Distance:  4-20 miles for day hikes, depending on what route/loop you choose
Elevation Gain:  varies, trailhead is at 5500 ft
Getting there:  From Highway 83 or McCaffery Road, take Echo Lake Road to Jewel Basin Road/Forest Service Road 5392 to its end at Camp Misery
This network of trails offers Glacier Park Scenery without some of the hassles.  The drive up the mountain can be a bit stressful, as the narrow gravel road has a lot of blind corners and no guardrails.  The area is popular with locals on the weekends, so visit during the week if you want to have the place to your self.  There are so many trail branches and loops, make sure you print out a trail map or load one onto your phone before you go.  I've been trying to learn how Camp Misery (location of the trailhead) got its name but haven't found anything yet.
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Take in a bit of the Great Bear Wilderness in summer or winter on this moderate hike

Distance:  3.2 miles round trip
Elevation gain: 1030 ft
Trailhead:  Highway 2 eleven miles east of West Glacier

Left:  Passing along huge cedars on the initial climb
The Skiumah trail (# 204 on Forest Service maps) is a half day year-round hike departing from Highway 2 that ascends to a small lake in a cozy glacial cirque and is a great introduction to the Great Bear Wilderness. In the summer, one can avoid the crowds on a mostly shaded route. The trail can be hiked in the winter also given its year round access from a plowed highway. The trailhead is located eleven miles east of West Glacier (there is some disagreement about the distance in manuals and online) and is marked on the Highway. Parking is on the North Side of Highway 2 across the road from the trailhead. There is no toilet. The Forest Service rates it as a moderate trail 3.2 miles roundtrip with a 1030 elevation gain. Our pedometer read the roundtrip distance as four miles with a 1300 ft elevation gain. The ascent is steady but our elderly golden retrievers Riley and Stella were able to complete the climb with only a little coaxing.

We hiked the trail on an early December day when the trail was covered in several inches of packed snow, calling for boot cleats. Later in the winter when more snow accumulates, it is a nice trail for snowshoes. Skiing is possible in winter also, but the trail is narrow and would give the climbing skins quite a workout, leaving it appropriate for hardcore backcountry skiers only.  

It was a crisp 8 F outside and a bit cloudy and hazy initially. After a quarter mile or so on an old Forest Service road, the trail takes a left (unmarked from the east, there is an old sign just to the west of the junction). Beginning up the north side of Mount Penrose (the trail is in the Penrose drainage, not the Penrose drain, more on that later) the trail quickly ascends to Skiumah Creek. The forest consists of Englemann Spruce, Douglass fir, larch and cedar, with some hemlock farther up the trail.  

Before turning left, the Great Bear trail branches off to the next drainage to the west, but we were unable to see this other trail in the snow. After following above the creek a ways, the trail actually crosses it on a log bridge at mile 1.2, after 900 ft of elevation gain. A few hundred yards later a small sign marks the entrance to the Great Bear Wilderness. The trail evens out and crosses through a swampy area before ascending a glacial moraine just before the lake. According to a local elder the lake was quite low when we visited. Across the lake the back wall of the cirque is popular with backcountry skiers and ice climbers but is avalanche prone and has caught unlucky adventurers in the past.

Below left:  looking north into Glacier National Park on the initial climb
Below right:  End of the trail at the Lake, Mt. Penrose on the left side
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Regarding Mount Penrose, the mountain was indeed named after the inventor of the Penrose surgical drain, Charles Bingham Penrose. Dr. Penrose was sort of a turn of the century Forest Gump, involving himself in one infamous event after another. After graduating from medical school in Philadelphia, Dr. Penrose became a prominent gynecologic surgeon and inventor of the surgical drain. Later, contracting tuberculosis, Dr. Penrose moved to Wyoming for the fresh air but in the 1890's found himself fighting on the side of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association in their series of battles against a group of smaller ranchers know as the Johnson County War. The fighting pitted the Johnson County sheriff on the side of the smaller ranchers and the Governor and the US Calvary taking the side of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. At one point Dr. Penrose was arrested and nearly lynched, and his letters about the whole affair helped author Owen Wister write "The Virginian" which was later developed into the notorious box office flop, "Heaven's Gate." (Ironic, as Heaven's Gate was filmed largely in the Glacier National Park area).

After escaping Wyoming, Dr. Penrose headed back east and wrote a textbook on Gynecology and founded the world's first zoologic research lab based at a zoo in Philadelphia. The lure of the West could not hold Dr. Penrose back east long, however, and 1907 found him bear hunting on the other side of Mt Penrose from Skiumah. He was elated to shoot a rare white yearling grizzly with his Mauser. Unfortunately, his glee was short lived as the dead bear's mother promptly mauled him in revenge, giving the doctor thigh, chest and throat wounds, as well as an open fracture of the left wrist. Members of his party managed to transport him cross country to the Great Northern tracks and Dr. Penrose spent the next few months in one of the Mayo Clinic's hospitals. This brings up the question, during surgeries for his wounds, did Dr. Penrose have Penrose drains placed? Probably.

Charles Bingham Penrose never returned to Montana.


Fraley, John, "Grizzly attack on Mount Penrose, C.B. Penrose's grizzly hunt and the naming of the Great Bear Wilderness" in "Wild River Pioneers". 2008

Strawberry Lake

This trail Northeast of Bigfork is located near the Jewel Basin
Distance:  5.6 miles round trip
Elevation gain: 1500 ft
From Highway 83 turn  onto Echo Lake Rd. After 2.2 miles, turn slightly right onto Foothill Rd. then keep left after 1.1 miles to stay on the Foothill Rd. Drive for 2.7 miles, then turn right onto Road 5390 and drive for 3.3 miles, the trailhead is located at the end of this road.
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The trailhead is well marked with a sign and small parking lot. There is no toilet. After crossing a small stream (the only water on the ascent), the trail ascends at a moderate pace through a vast stand of Western Hemlock. Western Hemlock is distinguished by its cute little fairly needles and small cones that are always at the tip of the branch, in contrast to other conifers.

We ran into packed snow shortly after starting and everyone wore spikes on their boots. At least a few other folks had been on the trail in the past few days, packing down the snow. The trail continues to ascend the west side of the Swan Mountain Range for the next few miles via some broad switchbacks. At the top, the forest thins and a steep hillside is ascended about 1/2 mile from the lake. We had to stop here as there was a nearly vertical snowdrift or small avalanche that covered the trail and posed danger and we had no ice axes.


Smoky Range Trail

Located not far from the Moss Mountain Inn, the Smoky Range Trail offers impressive views of Glacier National Park and the Whitefish Range, traveling into some very remote areas.

Distance:  18.6 miles round trip if taken to end
Directions:  From Moss Mountain Inn, head north on North Fork Road for 3.2 miles then turn left onto McGinnis Creek Road/Forest Service Road 803 and go 6 miles until you see the sign on the left.  
The Smokey Range trail starts high and skirts along the top of the Smoky Range, a series of mountain ridges north of Columbia Falls and Whitefish.  The east trailhead, near Moss Mountain Inn, can be a bit tricky to find as there is only a small sign on the left side of the road to mark it.  There is no parking lot, just park in a spot where the shoulder widens out nearby.  If you get to the end of the road, you missed the trailhead, go back 1/2 mile.

Right:  The trailhead sign is a bit inconspicuous.