BIGFORK — The “high” part of high mountain lakes can discourage some hikers, so that’s where the Jewel Basin comes in handy.
A well-maintained U.S. Forest Service road acquires most of the elevation gain as you motor 2,500 vertical feet above Bigfork and Flathead Lake to the unfortunately named Camp Misery. It’s really a parking lot and trailhead entry.
The basin holds 15,349 acres, 35 miles of trails, 27 named lakes and beauty.
The 6-mile loop route to Mount Aeneas is so accessible, many people climb it on the night of the Fourth of July to watch fireworks explode up and down the Flathead Valley.
It’s 22 miles round-trip to Big Hawk Lake, making it a good link for a multi-day backpacking excursion. One common complaint is there are so many trails interlacing this compact area, it’s easy to wind up at the wrong lake.
Designated campgrounds await at Crater, Birch, In-thalm-keh and numerous other lakes, and undesignated sites can be found at most of the other large water bodies. Please be considerate of the amount of use this convenient area gets and practice leave-no-trace camping.
Hardy skiers skin into the Jewel Basin to carve turns around the “snow ghosts” – trees flocked in crystallized snow. Motorized, bicycle and horse use is prohibited in the Jewel, making it a hiker’s playground. Dogs are allowed, but must be kept on a leash.
While not a designated wilderness area, the “hiking area” designation achieved in 1970 prevented the basin from being overwhelmed by motorcycle use.
Climbers enjoy views into Glacier National Park to the north and the Bob Marshall Wilderness to the east from most of the five named mountains and 11 unnamed peaks in the basin.
The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks recently completed an effort to remove non-native rainbow trout from many of the Jewel Basin lakes and restock them with native westslope cutthroat trout.
Location: Northeast of Bigfork in the Swan Mountains, following Highway 83 to Echo Lake and then Forest Service Road 5392 to Jewel Basin Hiking Area.
Distance/duration: Jewel Basin offers everything from half-mile saunters overlooking the Flathead Valley to 30-mile round-trip backpacking opportunitites.
Difficulty: Easy to strenuous, depending on how far you want to go.