Great Hiking Adventures at Priest Lake
Priest Lake creates a hiker’s paradise where one can very easily escape to the solitude and beauty of Mother Nature. Each trail has its own unique characteristics that vary from deep, virgin cedar forests, to panoramic vistas of the Selkirk Mountains and the lake, to shoreline excursions that afford easy access to magnificent sandy beaches. Numerous close-in day hike trailheads, as well as trail routes that lead into the backcountry, are adjacent to resorts campgrounds and other lodging facilities.
The Priest Lake Ranger District maintains a hiking trail system on the federal lands to the west, northwest, and along the west shorelines of both Priest Lake and Upper Priest Lake. The trails are well marked and free from most obstacles. A Priest Lake trails booklet is available free of charge at the Priest Lake Ranger District office.
The Priest Lake Area Office of the Idaho Department of Lands (IDL) manages the state-owned lands to the east of Priest Lake. These state lands are managed exclusively as endowment lands to support the Idaho public school system. The trails on endowment lands are not maintained and travel may include negotiating downfalls and brush as well as using route finding skills. High clearance or 4X4 vehicles are recommended for accessing trailheads. The local area office produced informal hiking maps that are available to the public.
Below are the general descriptions of some of the more popular trails in the Priest Lake area. The trail numbers refer to the numbering system developed by the Priest Lake Ranger District on the west side of the lake. Trails that do not cite a reference number are those trails found on the east side of the lake on state owned lands.
BEACH TRAIL #48
This trail is an easy hike that follows the west shoreline and passes in front of several summer homes. The 6 mile trail leaves from Outlet Bay Campground, passes through Osprey and Luby Bay Campgrounds, the Priest Lake Museum and Hill’s Resort and terminates at the Kalispell Bay Boat Launch. The trail crosses the Lakeshore Road # 237 twice just south of Hill’s Resort so use caution when crossing the road. No exclusive trailhead exists for this trail. To access the north end of the trail, turn off Highway 57 onto Kalispell Bay Road. In approximately ½ mile or so, just before reaching the Priest Lake Community Church, follow the road to the right towards Priest Lake Marina. Continue past the marina on Lakeshore Road to the Kalispell Bay Boat Launch. Trail access is located at the south end of the boat launch parking area. To access the south end of the trail, turn off Highway 57 onto the Outlet Bay Road. Drive approximately ½ mile and turn left onto the Lakeshore Road. Drive another ½ mile and turn left across from the Outlet Bay Campground into the Woodrat Trail parking; head down to the beach in the campground and you will find the trail. This trail is open to foot traffic only.
KALISPELL/REEDER TRAIL #365
Many scenic views of the lake are available along this trail. It crosses an old ski hill on the Southern end, continues through private land towards the north end and terminates on a secluded beach immediately south of Elkins Resort on Priest Lake. The southern trailhead is located on the west side of Kalispell Bay Road at a locked gate across the road from the Kalispell Day-Use area, about ½ mile beyond the Kalispell Creek bridge. From the trailhead, follow the road behind the gate for approximately ½ mile until you see the Lakeview Trail #365 sign to the right. The north trailhead is located just south of Elkins on Priest Lake, near the lodge. Cross the footbridge that spans Reeder Creek and follow the trail from that point. The length of the trail is 4 ½ miles. This is a multiple use trail to include foot, mountain bike, motorized vehicles and horse traffic.
LAKEVIEW MOUTAIN TRAIL #269
This trail begins on the east side of Lakeview Mountain. For the initial 1 ½ miles of the trail, it switchbacks up the steeper east side of the mountain. The first panoramic views of the lake and surrounding mountains are near the 2 mile mark. As the trail descends down the west side of the mountain, several more panoramic viewpoints will attract your attention. This portion of the trail passes through stands of Douglas fir, pine, young cedar and open hill sides. The total length of the trail is 5 ½ miles and it is rated “More Difficult.” The beginning elevation of the trail is 2,640 feet and climbs to approximately 4,070 feet before descending back down to near lake level. From the east side the trail is accessed from the Kalispell Reeder trail # 365 about 1 mile south of Elkins Resort. The western trailhead is located just off Highway 57 between milepost 35 and 36 across from Bismark Meadows. This is a multiple use trail to include foot, mountain bike, motorcycles and horse traffic.
LAKESHORE TRAIL #294
This is a very popular and well used trail. It traverses the west shoreline for 7 ½ miles from just north of Granite Creek to Beaver Creek Campground. It is an easy hike that crosses five streams and has many grand views of the lake and the Selkirk Crest situated on the east side of the lake. There are numerous access points to isolated beaches that make great picnic locations. To access this trail, turn off of Highway 57 at Nordman and follow Reeder Bay Road/ USFS Road #2412 for 4.7 miles. The first of four trailheads is on the right side of the road with two additional trailheads further up the road with the fourth at the south end of the Beaver Creek Boat Launch. The trail is designated for foot, mountain bike and horse traffic.
Huff Lake Interpretive Site
The Huff Lake Interpretive Site is a treasured peatland located in north Idaho. Travel 11 1/4 miles north from Nordman, following State Highway 57 and Forest Road 302 (gravel) until you see the interpretive signs on the east side of the road. Huff Lake is an excellent example of valley peatlands. Peatlands are formed when large amounts of organic material or "peat" accumulate in a waterlogged area. The deep layers of peat transform the area into a harsh habitat - wet, acidic, nutrient-poor - but remarkably stable and long lived. Volunteer partners have constructed an informational kiosk, viewing platform, and approximately 90 feet of boardwalk with interpretive signing for visitors to use. Huff Lake is also a popular spot for moose and other forest criters. Come check out this unique setting and the beauty that comes with it. But please enjoy Huff Lake from the deck and trail only as it is very sensitive to disturbance.
UPPER PRIEST LAKE TRAIL # 302
This trail is a pleasant, easy hike that traverses a predominately Douglas fir forest for the first few miles. The trail then drops into an area of old-growth cedar as it approaches Upper Priest Lake. The trail crosses Ruby Creek as well as other smaller unnamed creeks and eventually follows the east shoreline of Upper Priest Lake to Trapper Campground. The trail passes by an old mine shaft, Coolin’s cabin, and early hunting stands perched high in the ancient cedars. The tread of the trail is normally in good shape and several wet areas are crossed via trail bridges. However, early in the season, portions of the trail in the cedar grove may be somewhat muddy. The route to the trailhead is via USFS Road # 302 (an extension of Highway 57) from Nordman. Travel past the Roosevelt Cedar Grove/Granite Falls area (14 miles from Nordman) and through Granite Pass. At the major intersection just beyond the pass, continue straight onto USFS Road #1013 until it intersects with USFS Road #655 (about 6 ½ miles). Turn right onto Road #655 and proceed for approximately ½ mile. The trailhead will be on your right and the parking area to your left, across from the trailhead. The length of this trail is 5 miles and it is restricted to foot, mountain bike and horseback use. This trail is located within grizzly bear habitat; use appropriate cautions.
UPPER PRIEST LAKE TRAIL # 308 CONTINENTAL CREEK TRAIL # 28
Trail #308 is a very scenic trail that winds alongside the Upper Priest River and through stands of massive old-growth red cedar and lush river bottom vegetation. To access Trail #308, follow the same directions above for Trail #302 to Granite Pass. Continue straight on USFS Road #1013 for approximately 11 ½ miles and look for the trailhead sign and parking area on the left side of the road. This 8.1 mile trail terminates at the jewel of this route: Upper Priest Falls, which tumbles 40 feet into a deep, crystal clear pool beneath towering walls of granite; just a quarter mile from the Canadian border. It is possible to reach the falls with a shorter but steep 2.5 mile hike starting further north at the Continental Trail #28. This trailhead can be reached by continuing north on Road #1013 for about another 11 ½ miles past the Trail #308 trailhead. Trail #28 trailhead is just short of the end of the road on the left side. Both trails are open to foot, mountain bike and horseback traffic only. Note that Road # 1013 beyond the 308 trailhead is not recommended for trailers due to the steep grade and tight switchbacks. These trails are located within grizzly bear habitat; use appropriate cautions.
LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN TRAIL (East Side)
The view from the summit of Lookout Mountain is stunning. The Lions Head, Lion Head Ridge, Abandon Mountain and numerous other striking Selkirk Crest land features lay before those who make the 2 ½ mile hike to the lofty vista point. In 1929, a cupola cabin was built to house lookout personnel. Along with the lookout tower (rebuilt in 1977) the cabin still stands as a sentinel overlooking the magnificent Selkirk Mountain Range. The unique building is listed on the National Historic Lookout Register and is, in itself, well worth the hiking effort. To reach the trail, drive north from Coolin on Cavanaugh Bay/ East Shore Road/State Forest Road # 1 towards Lionhead Unit of Priest Lake State Park (23 miles). Continue about 4 miles past the Lionhead Campground and bear right onto State Forest Road #44. Continue on Road #44 for 2 ½ miles to the junction with State Forest Road #43 turn right onto Road #43. Go ¼ mile to the junction with State Forest Road #432 turn left onto State Forest Road #432 and climb steadily for 3.0 miles to the trailhead on the left. Follow the trail to Lookout Lake. Beyond the lake, the trail ascends to a small saddle and trail junction. Stay on the trail to the left. This trail segment will terminate at Lookout Mountain Road. Follow this road to the lookout site.
MOUNT ROOTHAAN/ CHIMNEY ROCK
Trail (East Side)- How about a hike to the 7,300 foot elevation level capped with the reward of incredible panoramic views? The beauty of Priest Lake unfolds nearly a mile below, the awesome grandeur of Chimney Rock seems but an arm’s length away, and the Selkirk Crest surrounds you. It can be yours for a moderate hiking effort and about three to four hours of your time. The Mount Roothaan/ Chimney Rock Trail is a popular route that leads into the backcountry of Priest Lake with spectacular vistas along the way. You can drive your vehicle (high clearance only!) to the trailhead parking area atop Horton Ridge at an elevation of 5,100 feet. From the trailhead, the 2 mile trail leads along Horton Ridge up to a saddle near the crest of Mount Roothaan. The last ½ mile of trail is “mountain goat country” very steep and rocky. The trail continues on to base of Chimney Rock for those hardy souls who survive the “mountain goat” climb and desire an additional two hours or so of hiking (round trip from Mount Roothaan to Chimney Rock.) Good hiking boots are a must on this portion of the trail as the route passes through an extensive talus field. To reach Mount Roothaan/Chimney Rock trailhead, travel north from Coolin 7.4 miles on Cavanaugh Bay/East Lakeshore Road (or 4 miles south from the Indian Creek Campground) to Forest Road #24. This road intersects with East Lakeshore Road immediately north of Hunt Creek Bridge. Turn onto Road #24 and continue for 4 miles until you arrive at a fork in the road. Bear left at the fork onto Forest Road #2. After traveling 1.6 miles, you will arrive at the intersection of Roads #2 and #25. Road #2 continues straight and Road #25 continues to the right. Proceed on Road #25 for 4.1 miles to the trailhead parking area. The drive from the East Lakeshore Road to the trailhead will take approximately one hour and the hike to Mount Roothaan takes about 1½ hours.
HUNT LAKE TRAIL (East Side)
Although this trail appears to be a short, easy one-mile hike, don’t be misled- this trail will require more jumping than hiking. The trail to Hunt Lake very rarely meets Mother Earth-virtually the entire route traverses across a talus field, requiring hikers to hop from boulder to boulder as they follow the painted rock cairns and arrows that mark the way. It is the kind of hike that you will either love or hate. Either way, the payoff is well worth the effort. Nestled in a high alpine bowl, Hunt Lake presents a most stunning setting. To reach the Hunt Lake trailhead travel north from Coolin 7.4 miles on Cavanaugh Bay/ East Lakeshore Road (or 4 miles south from the Indian Creek Campground) to Forest Road #24. This road intersects with East Lakeshore Road immediately north of Hunt Creek Bridge. Turn onto Road #24 and continue for 4 miles until you arrive at a fork in the road (junction with Road #2 off to the left). At this point Road #2 and #24 becomes the same road and continues off to the right. Follow Road #2/Road #24 a ½ mile to the junction where Road #2 and Road #24 splits again. Turn left on Road #24(note reforestation sign at junction) and travel 1 mile to the Road #241 junction formally known as Road #243. Turn left on Road #241 and travel 3.5 miles to the end of the road. There is a small trail sign to the east of the parking area.
When planning to hike on the east side of the Lake, it is a good idea to stop in at the Idaho Department of Lands office in Cavanaugh Bay (adjacent to the airstrip) or call (208) 443-2516 to get the latest directions and maps. The east side of the Lake can have active timber sales in progress where logging trucks or logging equipment can pose a danger to the general public traveling on State logging roads. The Department of Lands can make you aware of current logging activities and road restrictions. The Department of Lands also has maps and directions to additional hikes and scenic attractions on the east side of the Lake.
The varying terrain in the Priest Lake area ranges from river bottoms with an elevation of near 2,600 feet to mountainous areas of 7,500 feet. Valley bottoms, dense forests, meadow, wetlands, occasional clearings and barren ridges are harmoniously mixed with streams, rives and lakes. A hiking adventure at Priest Lake can be tailored to be “mountain goat” challenging or as simple as a few hours strolling along one of the lakeshore trails. At either extreme, or anywhere in between, Mother Nature will greet the hiker with an abundance of spirit-lifting grandeur.
One final word: Please help keep the Priest Lake area pristine so it will be as enjoyable for future generations as it has been for you… PACK IT IN-PACK IT OUT. Use and protect this wonderful resource so that future generations may find their wilderness legacy a reflection of our care and concern for the magnificent natural environment of Priest Lake. Happy Hiking!!