Hiking Camas Lake

Yesterday, we played hooky and took our first hike up Camas Creek Trail No. 125 to Camas Lake. It will not be our last. Despite being somewhat strenuous in incline, it was a gorgeous climb that ended in a pristine alpine lake with several excellent campgrounds. We cannot wait to come back and backpack up for a few nights of camping.

Getting There

The drive up to Camas Creek Trail is looooong. The paved part is not so bad, but once you hit FR496, it’s gravel for SIX MILES, which you have to take at 10-20 miles an hour because its full of wicked ruts and your truck is only two wheel drive! (I mean our truck is only two wheel drive. Too bad we couldn’t see the future when we bought it back in 2011.)

Important note about the Camas Creek Trail: FR 496 is close to impassible until the snow has completely melted in the summer. We tried to do this hike in June, but the ice was so thick and slippery across the narrow gravel road that we actually had to back down the mountain half a mile before we found somewhere we could turn around and drive back down to Coyote Coulee, the lower, non ice covered trail at the base of the mountain below. 

Arriving at the trailhead, we found ample parking but only one car. (Awesome!) When we first started hiking in the mountains last year as newly transplanted California suburbanites whose previous relationship with nature consisted mainly of beaches, parks and short vacations at the cabin, we were admittedly unnerved by an empty trail. (We were also afraid of the dark. Eeek, is that a WOLF? What was that sound??? But I digress.) Now, nothing is more exciting than an empty trailhead. Aside from the CRAZY, mind blowing concept of literally being the only people for miles, it’s nice to know you won’t be running into Dolly Dog Wrangler and her eight insane and untrained dogs running amok off-leash. A peaceful, deserted trail is bliss.

The Trail

Being our first time on this trail, we had no idea what to expect. I assumed it would be pretty mellow- only 5.2 miles total out and back? Piece of cake. Famous last words, Mrs. B.

The trail started off in typical Bitterroot style: a little rocky with a nice, mellow incline, path loosely surrounded by pines and a smattering of Aspens, with light, sun bleached underbrush. The wind whispered of autumn and the sun shone gently down on us, threatening to become somewhat harsher as the day wore on. Not long into the hike, the incline started pushing upwards. And kept pushing. Every half mile the trail became steeper. And rockier. Providing lots and LOTS of opportunities to trip over something. I’m pretty clumsy anyway, but conservatively, I would guess I tripped at least a solid dozen times on this trail. Each way. Yeah.

HOWEVER… wow. What an incredible hike! It was supremely beautiful, and constantly changing. Even as my heart was thundering a hundred miles an hour in my chest, I was marveling at the loveliness of my surroundings. Shortly into the hike, we passed into heavily forested areas with wonderfully dense (and cool) tree cover. The underbrush was thick and green. Trees were covered in moss and lichen, and tiny, rocky, trailside run offs trickled merrily by. Squirrels and chipmunks ran back and forth across the trail, and we even came across a big fat grouse out for a stroll. The higher we ascended (to a final elevation of 6500 feet) the more you could see the evidence of the oncoming change of seasons, as vibrant reds and yellows began popping up in the undergrowth. We crossed the dry Hayes creek bed, and climbed through an old rockslide, a peekaboo view of Lost Horse and the valley below us.

At 1.83 miles, we crossed Camas Creek itself. Quite low at the end of the season, we were able to rock hop across with very little effort. The crossing also offers a log footbridge which appears to be nearing collapse. I expect it takes quite a beating when the snow melt is high in early summer, and could even be a challenge to cross during high water due to the sagging section in the middle.

The hike continued to increase in incline and in beauty, until we finally huffed and puffed our way to our goal. This was our first sight of her, peeking coyly through the trees after 2.8 hard miles:

while hiking Camas Creek Trail to Camas Lake Montana

The Lake

It was both a joy and a huge relief to end our ascent at such a rich, beautiful alpine lake. Unlike many of the bitterroot juggernauts, Camas is a petite hideaway of a lake. You can see every shoreline while standing in one spot on the banks. The water is mirror like; entirely undisturbed, except for the occasional fish or insect breaking the surface. The bottom of the lake is covered in old fallen logs, and you can see right down to them through the crystal clear water. We didn’t bring poles, but supposedly, there’s excellent fishing. Maybe we’ll find out for ourselves when we come back to camp.

A Wide Shot of the West Shore of Camas Lake

Climbing up the hill to the north on a narrow footpath, we found three different campgrounds, all of which were nice and flat and would accommodate at least one 2-3 person tent. One spot would accommodate an entire party of tents. If you could get an entire party to hike up a mountain with you, that is. The highest campground we found was also the most exclusive, offering only one space suitable for your tent. It sat up at the top of a fairly steep climb, with a good size fire pit complete with log benches and a fantastic view of the lake and the evening sky.

a campfire with a view at camas lake

We didn’t have much time to explore, only having planned for a turn around trip, so we turned back after a brief rest around the fire pit, full of excited plans for our next backpacking trip.

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