Not all trails can be epic. Otherwise, how would you know when you come across a true gem? For us, Cedar Lake was a reminder of this tenet in that it simply wasn’t a standout hike. The trail hadn’t been on our Flathead radar and, in fact, I hadn’t even stumbled across it when researching hikes.
We happened upon this trail courtesy of the Swan Lake Ranger District office. With a three-day weekend for the July 4th holiday, we were pumped to hit the trails. However, if our few short weeks in Montana taught us anything, it was that early summer hiking can easily be thwarted by stubborn snowpack. Because many of our most coveted hikes were over an hour away, we thought the responsible thing to do would be to call the respective ranger districts to get the most current and accurate trail conditions. With confirmation that most of our most sought-after trails were still snowed out, we asked the office if they could recommend a hike that was both scenic and lightly trafficked. Thus, we hung up the phone with a plan to spend day one of our long weekend checking out Cedar Lake.
The Cedar Lake Trail (#738) is 7 miles long and, at its terminus, joins with the Piper Creek Trail (#119). The trail can be hiked as an out-and-back to Cedar Lake, as we selected, or as a 13-mile loop passing both Cedar and Piper Lakes (note: we’d read that the Piper Lake trail was decidedly less scenic).
From our rental in Whitefish, it was an hour and forty-five-minute drive to the trailhead, with the final 9 miles (~30 minutes) on a rutted-out dirt road (see notes below for directions). Given the few other trails we’d hiked, we were surprised to find such a large parking area, and immediately worried we’d be on a crowded track.
While the route did turn out to be lightly-trafficked – as the ranger office suggested – everything else we were told about the trail turned out to be completely misleading. We specifically asked if the track was clear (i.e. free from significant snow or blown-down trees). As we walked through the woods, we came across ten or so blowdowns, about half of them fairly sizeable obstacles that involved some awkward clambering or brief bushwhacking. We then headed up the ridge to the highpoint (~6,880 feet), where we were astonished to find a hillside covered in snow. While it wasn’t unsafe to pass, we begrudgingly alternated between post-holing and barely getting a foothold on some of the slick, packed swaths. By this point, I was both confused and frustrated as to why someone – let alone a local authority – would recommend this route.
Other than the sundry unanticipated hindrances, the trip was not terribly noteworthy. Most of the trail was a gentle incline through dense forest, much of it wild and overgrown. The trail steepened only slightly as it climbed up to the ridge and, just after cresting the highpoint, culminated with a partial view looking down onto sapphire-hued Cedar Lake. From here, it was about a 370-foot descent from the ridge down to the subalpine lake, sitting at an elevation of ~6,510 feet. Sanchez had fun chasing a few sticks in the water, but for some reason refused to use the gradual entrance on the left side of the rock; she was hellbent on hauling herself up the much more difficult face.
The lake was lovely, and might have been the highlight of the trail, had it not been for the two llamas (accompanied by their human family) we unexpectedly passed on our way back down the ridge. Sanchez was certainly intrigued by these strange and startling creatures emerging from the snowy tree line. And after all the ridiculousness we encountered on the trail, given our foresighted discussion with the ranger station, it seemed only fitting that we’d run into a llama named Jingles… trudging apathetically through the snow with his small hiking pack.
Other than a lake and llamas, there wasn’t much remarkable about the trail. If you’re looking for a nice walk in the woods and a pretty little lake, that’s what you’ll get. However, we found it to be generally lacking in views, wildflowers, or any steepness/terrain that would make it even remotely challenging or interesting.
Total distance: 8.1 miles
Elevation gain: 1,766 feet
(1) The trailhead is accessed from highway 83. From 83 South, take a right onto Fatty Creek Road. After 5.7 miles, take a right onto Forest Service Road #10381. If you’re using Google Maps, this minor road is still considered part of ‘Fatty Creek.’ To avoid confusion, get a motor vehicle map from one of the ranger stations to compare (the trailhead is listed as Fatty Creek TH on the Swan Lake Ranger District Motor Vehicle Use Map).