DILLON — The abundance of high mountain lakes in southwestern Montana presents innumerable great opportunities to get into the wild.
The hard part is deciding where to go.
Pick a mountain range, then pick a lake.
Sawtooth Lake, located toward the south end of the East Pioneers mountain range, northwest of Dillon, is a stunning area tucked at the base of craggy ridges. The improved trail offers relatively easy walking.
The first few miles take hikers through an old burn area, which on occasion brims with the purple blossoms of fireweed, some over 5 feet high. The trail then proceeds through a relatively dense forest, where birds – lots of juncos – can be heard chirping from the depths of the pine and fir trees.
At the end of the trail, hikers are greeted with spectacular views of the jagged ridgeline and the crystal clear water so typical of high mountain lakes. Wildflowers are in abundance this time of year – blue gentian, elephant heads, asters, lupine, arnica and cinquefoil, to name a few, presenting a colorful contrast to the green grasses around the lake.
An added interest factor is the wreckage of an airplane crash from years ago at the east end of the lake. The walk around the lake is not challenging, although a boulder field on one side requires careful stepping. Fishermen like standing on the boulders, which give them a little height looking into the lake.
Golden trout are said to inhabit Sawtooth Lake, but one avid fisherman who has visited the lake numerous times hasn’t seen a hint of one. It’s still fun to look.
On the trek out, hikers get a bird’s-eye view of Maverick Mountain Ski Area, located on the west side of the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway.
On the drive back, if your kids are antsy and still not pooped from the hike, stop at Crystal Park, a public area along the scenic byway, to dig for quartz crystals. That’ll give them an East Pioneers prize to take home.
Location: To get to the Sawtooth Lake trailhead from Butte, it’s a bit of a drive – about 85 miles, but the good news is it’s a beautiful drive. Take Interstate 15 south and turn west at Divide, onto Highway 43, proceeding west to Wise River. At Wise River, turn south on the scenic byway, and proceed south around 30 miles or so until you get to Maverick Mountain Ski Area on the right. Then watch for signage. You’ll turn east, or left, and drive four miles on a good graveled road (sedan friendly) to the trailhead. From Dillon, the drive is about 45 miles.
Distance/duration: 3.7 miles from the trailhead to the lake, with 1,500 feet of elevation gain.
Difficulty: Family friendly, relatively easy, high mountain lake trail.