Story and photos/video by Joseph T. O’Connor EBS Managing Editor
Hidden Lakes is a gem of a backpacking destination, and one for the whole family. Just bring bug spray.
This series of eight alpine lakes – just a short drive and hike from Big Sky – yields hours of exploration,
fishing opportunities, and stunning vistas. And while we only made it to three of the lakes, the hike leads to ideal camping destinations, especially if you have a 15-year-old … or a dog who’s 15, like Puck.
Get prepared: Pack adequate water, and if you plan to bring a dog, pack more. There are a couple streams along the way so if you’ll be camping, I recommend packing a filter so you don’t lug 11 water bottles to the lakes.
Other essentials: Raingear (it can rain); bear spray (you’re traveling through bear country and at this time of year trailhead signs indicate bears are active in the area); rope (bears want your food, so you’ll need a rope to hang cooking supplies and food between two trees. Visit Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks for details.); bug spray (this cannot be stressed enough).
Get there: At 5.1 miles north of Big Sky on Highway 191 between mile markers 53 and 54, turn east onto Portal Creek Road and travel approximately six miles toward the Hidden Lakes trailhead.
You’ll want a vehicle with moderate clearance to navigate the rough and rocky Portal Creek Road, and some driving skills to navigate the numerous water bars.
At 3.8 miles up Portal Creek, you’ll come to a fork. A sign indicates heading left to Windy Pass and Golden Trout Lakes, but bear right at the fork and continue another 2.2 miles to the Hidden Lakes trailhead.
Get up: The Hidden Lakes trail leads travelers on an easy-to-moderate, 2.5-mile hike through scenic old growth forests, across clear streams and through wildflower fields of lupine, Indian paintbrush, and arrowleaf balsamroot.
At approximately 1.5 miles, the trail forks and black marker scrawled on a section of plywood shows the right fork will lead to Hidden Lakes. This sign is not overtly apparent, but you’ll see it.
Puck enjoyed the dog-friendly, wide trail, though water was sparse until we reached the first lake. From there, the trail continues around the west side of the lake and turns into a bit more demanding, steeper path that leads about 15 more minutes to the second lake.
We hiked five minutes around the east side of this lake to the official Hidden Lake, situated below a cirque on the south side. There are plenty of spots around the lake to pitch your tent, but I suggest the west side of the lake: fewer mosquitoes.
Get set: We set up camp on the east side of the lake then quickly realized we forgot bug spray. The mosquitoes on Hidden Lake can be brutal, and they attack in swarms. Do not forget bug spray. Or rain gear for that matter – storms can roll up quickly in the high country.
At this point the heavens opened to an epic hailstorm. No more mosquitoes.
We hunkered in the tent, sipping wine and reading until the storm passed and we could start cooking dinner. Makeshift fire pits abound, but check fs.usda.gov for fire information and potential restrictions in the Custer Gallatin National Forest.
Fish can be particular in these lakes, I hear. Between the mosquitoes and the hail, I didn’t wet a line. Just be sure to get a Montana fishing license. And bring bug spray.