Hiking to Cold Lake, At Last!

Driving north up Montana Highway 83 we see the Swan Mountains on the right and the Mission Mountains to the left. Gorgeous scenery as we drive up the Swan Valley. There is a hike that has been on my mind for two years and today, finally, I will make it to Lower Cold Lake. Look, there’s Swan Mountain, the rocky peak between the tree-covered mountains. It is the second highest peak in the Swan Range at 9,289 feet and it even has glaciers, but today we hike in the Mission Mountains. It’s only a little further to US Forest Service road #903 which begins our climb to the Cold Lakes’ trailhead. It’s a beautiful day and I’m sure you’ll enjoy this hike with me!

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So why have I been thinking of this hike for two years? Two years ago I REALLY struggled up this steep incline for over a mile. I was 40 pounds heavier and dealing with my usual lung issues related to steep climbs. FINALLY, I got to an area that looked like a lake but was filled with grasses. I was so disappointed, but figured it was late in the season so the lake had dried up. Well, if I had continued on what was now a nice flat trail about 15 minutes, I would have found the lake–duh! That experience convinced me to research hikes before attempting them, so this time I’m ready! We are starting at 4,928 feet and will climb just over 800 feet, most in the first mile of the 2.2 mile trek to our destination. There’s the trailhead, so let’s go!


The beginning of the trail is a bit overgrown with grasses, thimbleberries, huckleberries, ferns, mosses, and other plants . . .

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. . . but just ahead it opens up revealing our climb to that “grass lake”, only this time we’ll keep going.


The Mission Mountains are ancient rocks and we are walking through old-growth forest with many types of pines, firs, larch as well as Engelmann spruce and Rocky Mountain maples. There’s a big, old Western Larch. Larch are actually deciduous coniferous trees. Its needles will turn bright yellow in autumn, fall to the ground, and grow back next spring. There are about 20 species of deciduous conifers, but most of them are types of larch. The others include one type of redwood and a number of cypress. Fascinating.

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Continuing up and up, we see blue sky ahead which means the sun will be strong once we get to the lake. You can see some of the bushes starting to turn color as night temperatures begin to dip to 40°, but summer will keep its grip for a bit longer.

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We also see mosses and mushrooms along the way, but especially obvious are the lichen hanging from the tall trees throughout the forest, in this case Witch’s Hair (Alectoria sarmentosa). Witch’s Hair grows on many types of conifers. Here it makes its home on a Subalpine Fir. This lichen is very sensitive to air pollution and is used to monitor air quality. Considering how heathy and wide-spread it is in this forest, we must be breathing very good air. Deep breath–aaaaah.

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Look closely and you’ll see mushrooms growing on dead and downed trees, but this mushroom stands out vividly on the ground. It is a Russula (Russula emetica) and can be dried and powdered to make a chili pepper substitute. Frankly, I’d rather not take a chance eating any mushroom I find in the woods. Just sayin’ . . .

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Well, we made it up the steep part of the trail. As it begins to flatten out, we are surrounded by berry bushes, some as tall as me. I feel a bit like a walking main course. This area will be frequented by bears as the berries ripen, both grizzly and black bears. Absolutely I have bear spray on my belt!

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These are thimbleberries, a little over 1/2″ across and yummy when ripe. In spring the pretty two-inch white flowers bloom on long stems amid leaves about ten inches across. This time of year these plants, considered shrubs, can stand over six feet tall. They are a favorite of bears, but also of birds and deer. Thimbleberries are in the same genus (Rubus) as raspberries and blackberries, but thankfully and happily they don’t have any thorns.


Here we are, the point where I sat and had lunch on my last trip, thinking the lake was dried up. This will actually fill with water for a very short time in the spring as the melting snow overflows the streams and the Cold Lakes ahead. Now, let’s go see the real lake.

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There are many little birds scattering as we walk, but it is difficult to make out what they are. I know there are various sparrows, Pine Siskins, and Juncos that sit in the bushes along the trail, flying up and scaring you as you walk by. Finally! A Lincoln’s Sparrow, common in the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada, and northwestern Maine. Notice it has a small crest on its head, letting us know we disturbed him and he isn’t very happy. He sure blends well.  If I hadn’t seen him fly and land here, I doubt I would have seen him at all.

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We made it–Lower Cold Lake. The sun is so bright it is tough to get a good picture of this beautiful 70-acre lake, but we’ll find a spot to have lunch and look closer at what we can see along the shoreline of this crystal clear lake.

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The water is an amazing color, with different shades of blue and teal. It is so clear that only the reflection of sun keeps us from seeing deeper under water. The lake is 50 feet deep in places, but along the shore we can wade, being very careful not to slip on the many stones and rocks that make up not only the shoreline, but the entire lake’s bottom.

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This looks like a great place to sit and have lunch, so let’s rest a bit. OK, you are probably thinking: If this is Lower Cold Lake, where is Upper Cold Lake? It is rarely listed in hiking books because there is no established trail to the higher lake. It’s about two more miles west (we’ve been walking west this morning), but we’d have to follow animal trails while fighting back the brush and climbing over blowdowns (dead trees blown down by strong winds). It doesn’t sound like much fun, isn’t recommended, and I don’t risk getting lost in the woods since my compass skills–well, I don’t really have any compass skills. Besides, this is such a beautiful spot right here. Good to know your limitations, don’t you think?

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There are some biting flies here, so a bit of bug spray is in order. The butterflies are all around, mostly Green Commas, with a wing span of 1-1/2 to 2 inches. I’ve seen them often along streams, ponds, and lakes. Oh, one just landed on me! Is that good luck?

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In a shadier spot behind us is a Purplish Copper. They have a wing span of 1 to 1-1/2 inches. Love those amazing antennae.

A butterfly’s antennae sense changes in wind direction helping them ride the wind without becoming disoriented or lost which obviously helps butterflies who migrate. And you wondered how the Monarchs did it, right? The antennae also have light receptors to tell the time of day so they know when to sleep. Their antennae along with sensors in their feet work together in ways that allows them to find food, migrate, and mate. I’m always astounded at the intricacies God built into even the tiniest creatures on this beautiful earth.

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Walking along the edge of the lake, suddenly something jumps into the water which makes me jump too. Oh, there he is, a Columbia spotted frog (Rana luteiventris). These frogs eat a variety of plants, but 50% of their diet is insects. I sure wish he would eat some of these biting flies!

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In shadier spots the Western Aster, a member of the sunflower family, is holding onto summer. The flowers are starting to look a bit ragged, but they can bloom into October.

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Well, it is time to head back. Getting a bit hot, a bit buggy, and the shady trail is calling our names. It is so interesting that in the shade of the biggest conifers ferns grow, while right next to them are plants that need sun.


Passing by the “grass lake” and the berry bushes up to our necks, with my hand on the bear spray, we start back down the steep trail.

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More butterflies, but this time a Hydaspe Fritillary pair considering “love” in the shade. So how do you pronounce that? high-DAAS-pees FRI-te-larry–say three times fast–only kidding.

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Lovely–a stand of Pearly Everlasting that grow from one to three feet tall. Most all summer we just see bunches of round white balls, but as summer wanes, we see them fully open preparing to drop their seeds. These flowers actually dry well at any stage of life and are favorites in dried flower arrangements.

-pearly everlasting-3576There’s a fully mature False Green Hellebore, also known as Corn Lily. This plant grows to over six feet tall, has beautiful large leaves, and green flowers clustered on tassel-like branches, AND, is extremely poisonous and can be lethal even in very small amounts. Humans have found positive uses for this plant, but I think we’ll just look from here if that’s OK with you. You can see the leaves are starting to break apart as summer begins to give way to colder night temperatures.


Continuing down the trail, we can see just a bit of the Swan Mountains to the east.

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Well, here we are at the last short walk down before we wind through the bushes and grasses near the trailhead. Let’s just rest a moment in the shade. What a great day in the Mission Mountain’s enjoying beautiful Lower Cold Lake, not to mention the glorious big, old trees offering us cool shade as the temps climbed into the 80s. We must come back and explore other trails in the Mission Mountains, preferably before the berries are ripe enough to beckon the bears!

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Until we walk again . . .






4 thoughts on “Hiking to Cold Lake, At Last!


    If places like that are ‘knowing your limits’ you are moving about in, and obviously enjoying, one fine territory. That is a great opening shot of the mountain. The tourism people should use it. Also, particularly enjoyed the Sparrow and Hellbore blurbs and pics.

    • Joy says:

      Thanks so much Henry. I do have a habit of pushing my limits out there, but always good to remember, in the wild, we are quite insignificant and certainly at a disadvantage if we don’t take care. Love it in Montana!

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