Hikes in Kootenai National Forest

Region in Montana, United States

Encompassing over 2.3 million acres of land and over 1,500mil of hiking routes, the Kootenai National Forest is a hiker’s paradise. Located in northwestern Montana, the protected area encroaches into Idaho’s panhandle, with 3% of the national forest situated in the Gem State. Just to the west of the famed Glacier National Park, along the US-Canadian border, the Kootenai National Forest bounds the rugged Rockies, including mountains in the Whitefish, Purcell, Bitterroot, Salish, and Cabinet ranges.

Explore the landscape characterized by soaring crests, valleys carved by wild waterways, timbered foothills, montane meadows, and idyllic alpine lakes. While there are countless recreation opportunities to satiate your thirst for adventure, hiking is indisputably the best way to explore the pristine wilderness of the Kootenai National Forest. Wander through a grove of ancient giant red cedars, frolic through wildflower-strewn meadows, or ascend the craggy flanks of the Rocky Mountains.

Exhibiting topographic range and floral diversity, wildlife viewing opportunities are also abundant. The wooded backcountry houses black bears, grizzlies, elk, big horned sheep, wolves, and cougars. With over 205 species of birds and an array of waterfowl and fish, fishing and game are also popular pastimes in the forest. While the possibilities are boundless, we argue that hiking and backpacking are the best way to appreciate the majesty and beauty of the Kootenai National Forest.

10 Amazing Hiking Routes in the Kootenai National Forest

While arduous ascents into the Rocky Mountains are ubiquitous in the Kootenai National Forest, there is also a substantial repertoire of family-friendly hikes. Lower altitude routes are great for the whole family, and high elevation climbs appeal to those seeking an adrenaline rush. Because there is such an extensive repertoire of trails in the forest, we took it upon ourselves to create a list of the top routes—happy hiking!

  1. Cedar Lakes Trail - Explore northern Montana’s unspoiled backcountry and discover two idyllic lakes on the Cedar Lakes Trail. This scenic expedition demands a modest effort, but the gorgeous woodlands, sweeping mountain views, and refreshing alpine pools are well worth the sweat.
  2. Kootenai Falls and Swinging Bridge Trail - The Kootenai Falls and Swinging Bridge Trail is a family-friendly adventure near Troy that offers spellbinding views of the famed Kootenai Falls that cascade 56ft through sandstone and shale-layered gorge. While the falls are quite a sight to behold, the Kootenai Swinging Bridge is the cherry on top!
  3. Rock Lake Trail - Hike to a hidden alpine pool nestled amongst the crags of the Cabinet Mountains on the Rock Lake Trail. This scenic route travels through timbered valleys, past tumbling waterfalls, and the historic Heidelberg Mine. Ideal for intermediate adventurers and families with older children, your heart rate will be up without over-exhausting yourself.
  4. Leigh Lake Hike - Immerse yourself amongst the craggy peaks of the Cabinet Mountains and enjoy wildlife sightings as you tackle the Leigh Lake Hike. This demanding day-hike exhibits a variety of flora and fauna in addition to a scenic waterfall, a breathtaking alpine lake, and mesmerizing mountain views.
  5. Ross Creek Cedars Trail - Enjoy a peaceful stroll through an enchanting forest on the Ross Creek Cedars Trail. Wander through a corridor of towering giant ancient cedars and alongside a meandering creek. This family-friendly trail is not only scenic, but it is informative as it is lined with interpretive signs detailing the history and ecology of the area.
  6. Granite Lake Hike - Enjoy marvelous views of the Cabinet Mountains from an alpine lakeshore on the Granite Lake Hike. This arduous ascent explores a gorgeous mountain cirque adorned with the only glacial pool in the range. Although the glacier is not within view, a dramatic waterfall fed by Blackwell Glacier cascades down the flanks of Snowshoe Peak.
  7. Sky Lakes and Hanging Valley Loop Trail - The Sky Lakes and Hanging Valley Loop Trail is a challenging day-hike or epic overnight expedition in the Kootenai National Forest. Sweeping mountain views await you after an arduous climb alongside a meandering creek, through montane meadows, and up loose scree.
  8. Geiger Lakes via Lost Buck Pass Trail - Hike to a hidden paradise in the Cabinet Mountains on the Geiger Lakes via Lost Buck Pass Trail. Explore the pristine alpine environment and take a plunge in the rejuvenating alpine pools flanked by the craggy ridges anchored by Carney Peak.
  9. Bear and Baree Lakes Loop Trail - The Bear and Baree Lakes Loop Trail is another quintessential adventure into the Cabinet Mountains. This heart-pumping climb into the alpine exhibits a variety of rich flora and wildlife and breathtaking mountain views. We love this high-country hike, and you will, too, if you don’t mind breaking a sweat.
  10. Star Peak Lookout Hike - Hike above the clouds to a historic lookout tower on the Star Peak Lookout Hike. This relentless ascent is exhausting, demanding the navigation of countless switchbacks up to the summit where you will be rewarded with 360-degree views of the mountainous landscape.

When is the Best Time to Visit the Kootenai National Forest?

Situated in the famed Rocky Mountains, the hiking season on the Kootenai National Forest is fleeting. As a rule of thumb, most trails are accessible from May-October, though it is important to note that high altitude treks are usually not cleared or free of snow until July, and even then, there might remain a dusting. Lower altitude trails are open in the early spring into the fall—though May and June tend to boast quite a lot of precipitation. When camping, backpacking or hiking, August and September are the safest months to visit—bearing in mind that weather at high altitudes can change on a dime.

Other Outdoor Activities in the Kootenai National Forest

Boasting an extensive collection of backcountry routes, hiking is not the only recreational opportunity in the Kootenai National Forest. Instead, this swathe of unspoiled wilderness offers countless ways to explore the great outdoors. In the summer months, mountain biking, horseback riding, and camping are popular ways to discover the outdoors. The soaring crests that rise from the landscape attract intrepid and seasoned climbers and peak baggers into the high country, and fishermen take to the lakes for some fishing. Water recreation is also abundant in the warmer months, including swimming, boating, paddling, and rafting down the untamed rivers.

While winter pursuits are finite, there are a few ways to escape into the wilds. Many low-altitude trails transform into exquisite tracks for snowshoers and cross-country skiers itching to avoid the unavoidable cabin fever in the snowy months. Winter exploration also includes alpine skiing at Turner Mountain, snowmobiling, and ice fishing.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Kootenai National Forest

Can you camp anywhere in the Kootenai National Forest?

Dispersed camping is permitted in the Kootenai National Forest unless otherwise signposted. Contact one of the National Forest Service offices for more information.

How big is the Kootenai National Forest?

The Kootenai National Forest encompasses 2.2million acres of land in Northwest Montana and Northeast Idaho.

Can you hunt in the Kootenai National Forest?

Yes, hunting and fishing are permitted in the Kootenai National Forest; refer to Montana Fish and Game for regulations and seasons.

Where is the Kootenai National Forest?

The Kootenai National Forest is located in Northwest Montana and Northeast Idaho.

Are there bears in the Kootenai National Forest?

Yes, there are black bears and grizzly bears in the Kootenai National Forest. Respect any warning signs, know the procedure in the case of an encounter, and carry bear spray.

Epic Adventure Tours in Montana

Although we have yet to curate a tour specific to the Kootenai National Forest, we here at 10Adventures have a few amazing adventure tours in Montana! Note we are constantly working to add more exciting expeditions, so check back and find your perfect holiday.

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Best Hikes in Kootenai National Forest

Open details for ​​Cedar Lakes Trail

​​Cedar Lakes Trail

Very Hard
21.7 km
1,255 m
7.5-10h

The Cedar Lakes Trail is a long and involved adventure in the Kootenai National Forest that yields a diversity of flora and fauna in addition to breathtaking alpine scenery. Discover a collection of idyllic lakes hidden deep in northern Montana’s unspoiled wilderness.

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Open details for Kootenai Falls and Swinging Bridge Trail

Kootenai Falls and Swinging Bridge Trail

Very Easy
2.6 km
52 m
0.5-1h

The Kootenai Falls and Swinging Bridge Trail is a family-friendly adventure in the Kootenai National Forest that would make an excellent addition to your adventure itinerary. This exciting hike explores the banks of the Kootenai River and boasts breathtaking views of the cascades from the exciting suspension bridge.

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Open details for Rock Lake Trail

Rock Lake Trail

Moderate
12.9 km
544 m
4-5.5h

The Rock Lake Trail is a phenomenal adventure into Montana’s Cabinet Mountains that explores the historic Heidelberg mine and a tumbling waterfall before opening to an alpine oasis. Discover a beautiful lake hidden amongst the talus slopes of Ojibway Peak and take a plunge in the refreshing glacial waters.

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Open details for Leigh Lake Hike

Leigh Lake Hike

Hard
4.3 km
357 m
1.5-2.5h

The Leigh Lake Hike is a dynamic and demanding day-hike in the Kootenai National Forest. What this spectacular adventure lacks in distance, it makes up for in elevation gain, so expect to break a sweat. Although the climb is relentless, the sweeping mountain views from the shoreline of the crystalline alpine lake are well worth the effort.

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Open details for Ross Creek Cedars Trail

Ross Creek Cedars Trail

Very Easy
1.4 km
19 m
0.5h

The Ross Creek Cedars Trail is a pleasant hike in the Kootenai National Forest that the whole family can enjoy. This scenic and accessible route explores a beautiful grove of ancient red western cedars lined with interpretive signs that detail the unique ecology and history of the area.

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Open details for Granite Lake Hike

Granite Lake Hike

Hard
13.3 mi
1,814 ft
5.5-7.5h

Visit the last remaining glacier-fed pool in the Cabinet Mountains on the Granite Lake Hike. This high country adventure is one of a kind, and the gorgeous alpine setting is a sight to behold. Explore the Kootenai National Forest and indulge in the area’s unrivaled natural beauty.

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Open details for Sky Lakes and Hanging Valley Loop Trail

Sky Lakes and Hanging Valley Loop Trail

Very Hard
13.6 mi
3,717 ft
7-10h

Immerse yourself in Montana’s Cabinet Mountains and discover a hidden alpine oasis on the Sky Lakes and Hanging Valley Loop. Sweeping mountain views and several crystalline alpine pools await you after an arduous climb through the preserved wilderness abundant with a diversity of flora and fauna—what are you waiting for? Let’s go.

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Open details for Geiger Lakes via Lost Buck Pass Trail

Geiger Lakes via Lost Buck Pass Trail

Very Easy
11.1 km
534 m
3.5-5h

The Geiger Lakes via Lost Buck Pass Trail is a demanding and dynamic day-hike in the Kootenai National Forest that uncovers a hidden oasis in the preserved wilderness. While the climb is relentless, conquerors are rewarded with two scenic and secluded alpine pools flanked by the ridges anchored by Carney Peak.

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Open details for Bear and Baree Lakes Loop Trail

Bear and Baree Lakes Loop Trail

Hard
15.1 km
832 m
5-7h

Sweeping views of the Cabinet Mountains, crystalline alpine lakes, and enchanting woodlands await you on the Bear and Baree Lakes Loop Trail. This high-country hike is demanding and dynamic, requiring endurance and navigational skills—though the scenery and solitude are well worth the hassle.

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Open details for Star Peak Lookout Hike

Star Peak Lookout Hike

Hard
14.9 km
1,170 m
6-8h

Hike up to the historic lookout tower above the clouds on the Star Peak Lookout Trail. Reserved for experienced hikers with good endurance and proper equipment, this arduous ascent is no walk in the park—but those who make it to the summit are rewarded with spellbinding vistas.

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