Named for a 19th-century Kootenai chief, Mt. Aeneas is the crown of Flathead National Forest’s Jewel Basin. With some 35 miles of trails and 27 jewel-toned, alpine lakes, the Jewel Basin is one of the most popular hiking areas in the Swan Range.
Because of its popularity, we decided to hike on a Thursday, rather than a peak-season Saturday. We opted to hike Aeneas as a loop, summiting via the #717 trail and returning down the #392 trail to the Picnic Lakes.
|The route (counterclockwise from Camp Misery): Take trail #717 from the Camp Misery Trailhead to Mt. Aeneas’ summit (approaching from the west). Continue on #717 down the eastern face of Aeneas. The trail continues along the north side of the mountain until terminating at the #392 trail. Follow the fork to the left toward the Picnic Lakes. After about 0.4 miles, take a left to travel southwest on Alpine #7. You can either follow Alpine #7 back to #717 to return to the trailhead, or take a right onto cut-off trail #68 (there is a sign). We opted for the cut-off trail to save at least a mile or so.
About an hour’s drive from Kalispell, the Camp Misery Trailhead is the major point of access to the Jewel Basin’s well-worn network of trails. As such, we anxiously wondered how full the lot would be on a weekday morning. We arrived around 9:30 a.m. to find our answer: wicked packed. After having so many trails nearly all to ourselves for the last six weeks, a feeling of dread washed over me. A group of eight hikers with two dogs arrived at nearly the same time, and started out just behind us on the trail. Hoping for some separation, we pulled off and waited for them to get a good ten minutes out ahead of us. We were shocked (and thankful) that once we were rid of that large group, we saw only a few other pairs of hikers the entire time.
The trail begins on a wide dirt track that seemed to be, once upon a time, the final stretch of Jewel Basin Road (or so it appeared on Google Maps). After climbing gradually for about 1.6 miles to the junction with Alpine #7, the trail quickly steepened, gaining about 700 feet over the next half mile. After the brief climb, the trail popped out onto a ridge topped with a hulking, decommissioned microwave relay tower. From here, the views were already gorgeous, looking down at the Picnic Lakes, across the northern part of the Swans, and out to the distant peaks of Glacier.
From the tower it was less than a mile and just a couple hundred feet of gain to Aeneas’ 7,530-foot summit. As the path narrowed on the approach to the summit, a couple of mountain goats scampered up from their cliffside corner to graze on some grass and inspect their mountain visitors. We were surprised that, not only were the goats completely indifferent to our presence, but that Sanchez was not all interested in the caprine residents. It may be the first animal, other than songbirds, that hasn’t caused her to absolutely lose her mind with excitement.
While we’d initially worried about a crush of people along this particular trail, we once again found ourselves alone on a summit. The black flies were unyielding, as they had been the entire way up the trail, but we managed to pause briefly to take in the panoramic views. We looked out onto a thick haze – made worse by abnormally hot temperatures and a couple of nearby forest fires – blanketing the Flathead Valley and outlying mountaintops. On either side of the summit, Birch Lake and the two Picnic Lakes dazzled in the morning sun.
Descending the northeast side of Aeneas, we were surprised to see that, even on the last day of July, substantial swaths of snow still clung to the north face of the mountain. Here, we were once again greeted by a couple of goats. These two were much more curious, and we did our best to give them their space as they trotted spryly up the trail.
We spent the remaining half of the hike swatting relentlessly at the ever-increasing swarms of black flies that had overwhelmed the trail. There must have been some sort of insane hatching, because neither of us had ever seen such a density. They were absolutely ruthless, and completely impervious to our desperate dousing with Deep Woods OFF. I can’t think of a time we ever skipped lunch (or just a snack) on the trail, however neither of us had even the smallest desire to pause and sacrifice ourselves to the merciless pests.
Like the summit, our stop at the Picnic Lakes was similarly brief and, needless to say, without a picnic. After giving Sanchez a chance to cool off in the shockingly icy water, we hurried toward the final section of trail, trying futilely to evade the flies. As the trail switchbacked down to the trailhead, we met a gorgeous doe foraging along the hillside. We promptly slowed our pace as not to frighten her. She seemed quite interested in us, and rather than running off into the woods, she slowly guided us down the next half mile of trail – staying one hairpin turn ahead of us, then turning back to watch us follow.
We really enjoyed the Mt. Aeneas hike. For a shorter route with not a lot of elevation gain, you do get some pretty impressive views. The only downsides for us were the flies and 90-degree temperatures (and resulting haze), both of which were purely circumstantial. Additionally, if you’re looking to extend the hike, many of the Jewel Basin trails connect with one another, allowing you to tailor your route as you wish (this map can also be found at the Camp Misery Trailhead): https://flbs.umt.edu/newflbs/media/2007/jewel_basic_map-hiking.pdf.
Total distance: 6.6 miles
Elevation gain: 2,014 feet