SUPERIOR – It’s humbling how many times you can miss the trail on a 2.5-mile hike.
What looks like a big path heads straight up the hill across Cedar Creek Road, but it peters out quickly. The real Stateline Trail takes off through a thicket of trees, but we didn’t find it until the return trip. Instead, we stomped right over the hump on game tracks until we found an intersection of real trails.
The path heading uphill pointed toward the Bonanza Lakes Basin, while the downhill path looked like it led elsewhere. So we marched uphill until we found ourselves on top of the cirque overlooking the lakes, several hundred feet below. Try again.
The deceptive but correct trail moved from arid, open landscape to a suddenly moist, lush pocket of thick brush and trees around the lakes. It marches straight into one of the few campsites on the lower lake, which was occupied the weekend we made this trip. So we bashed into the thicket on the faint trace up to the second lake.
Along the way, frustration set in as to whether this second lake actually existed. Given the previous wrong turns and diversions, credibility was in short supply. To forestall a family fight, we dropped packs at the first spot we could find with room for a tent and access to huckleberry bushes.
Half an hour after we got the tent up, we found a game trail that turned out to go right to the upper Bonanza Lake. Whether this was the official route or not, it ended in a shoreline spot just big enough to cast a fishing rod.
Most Montana mountain lakes have spots like this that get hammered by every camper who visits. Giving these overused sites a break will help the next person have a more enjoyable experience, as long as you leave no trace of the alternative you chose.
The Stateline Trail goes for miles up and down the Montana-Idaho border, dropping into dozens of fishable lakes along the way. Remnants of the Great Burn of 1910 are disappearing under a century of new growth, combined with occasional scars of more recent fires.
The Missoula Lake campground attracts front-country campers a short distance from the Bonanza Lakes trailhead, making it an option for day hikes. It’s also possible to mountain bike into Bonanza Lakes, although the last portion of the trail is an axle-buster.
Location: 25 miles west of Superior on the Cedar Creek Road No. 320.
Distance/duration: 2.5-mile hike.
Difficulty: Suitable for novice backpackers, even with lousy route-finding skills.