September 6, 2013

A long-weekend loop in the Swan Range


The long Labor Day weekend provided us the opportunity to take a three-day foray into the Swan Range, our dog Josey's first backpacking trip.

Our other dog, Belle, has been out on one-nighters before, but we haven't camped in the backcountry since Josey joined us about a year and a half ago. In anticipation of the trip, we outfitted her with a backpack to carry food for both dogs, which didn't slow her down in the slightest.


We began under a blue sky at Holland Lake, climbing along a creek to Upper Holland Lake then higher to Sapphire Lake, where we set up camp. The second day we hiked over a pass to Necklace Lakes in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and back. Clouds and a haze of wildfire smoke moved in during the day, and we saw a series of showers that night. The third day was considerably grayer, and we made quick work of packing up and hiking through a notch in the Swan Crest and back down to Holland Lake.

Having hiked into Sapphire on Sunday and out on Tuesday, the first night was quite crowded, but we had the place to ourselves the second.

Day 1: Holland Lake to Sapphire Lake


The hike begins by following Trail 415 east up through the forest above the north shore of Holland Lake. After passing a couple of junctions, the landscape opens up along a steep mountainside, providing a panoramic view of the lake and the Mission Mountains to the west.


After about 3 3/4 miles, the route crosses Holland Creek and continues up the drainage, joining Trail 35 that starts on the south side of the lake. The trail climbs past several small cascades and pools and crosses the creek again before leveling out and reaching Upper Holland Lake at about 6 3/4 miles, where we made a short stop and the dogs went for a swim.


From Upper Holland, the route turns northwest onto Trail 120 and climbs into more open, rocky forest that reveals the basin below and surrounding peaks. After about 1 2/3 miles, a short spur trail drops to Sapphire Lake.

Several campsites can be found around the lake, which sits high on the edge of the Holland drainage, most with beautiful views to the south and west. After wading across a narrow part of the lake to avoid a longer walk around, we set up our tent on a peninsula jutting in from the south.


The rest of the day was spent lounging on the rocky shore and taking in the view at sunset.

Here are more pictures of the hike up to Sapphire Lake.

Distance: 8 1/2 miles one way.

Trailhead: Trail 415 starts 20 3/4 miles north of Seeley Lake on Montana Highway 83, then 3 3/4 miles east on Holland Lake Road, just past Holland Lake Lodge.

Day 2: Necklace Lakes


The next day, we went on a short dayhike over Necklace Pass to Necklace Lakes in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

From Sapphire Lake, Trail 120 continues west for a mile up to a forested junction, then turns north and climbs about one-third of a mile through a rocky valley to the pass, which provides views down both sides to the mountains beyond.


Turning northeast, the trail drops to a large lake that can be seen through a gap in the trees, then follows Smoky Creek to the shore of another lake about a mile from the pass. Here, we found a small, flat outcrop of land that made for a nice stopping point. Wildflowers were still blooming around the lake and kingfishers swooped through the sky as the dogs swam.


After a break, we hiked back up to the pass and down to Sapphire. With all of the other campers gone, we went for a swim that afternoon before rain clouds moved in later.

See more pictures from Necklace Pass and Necklace Lakes.

Distance: We hiked about 4 2/3 miles round trip, but the trail continues.

Day 3: Sapphire Lake to Holland Lake


After a series of brief showers overnight and more clouds moving in, we decided to get an early start on our return to the trailhead on our third day.

To complete the loop, we hiked to the junction a mile west of Sapphire Lake on Trail 120, but instead of continuing up to Necklace Pass turned onto Trail 48 and switchbacked a short distance up to a notch in the Swan Crest. Here, the view of the Swan Valley opens, but with threatening clouds overhead we quickly continued downhill.


The trail switchbacks numerous times, first across the fairly open mountainside and past a junction with a trail to the site of the Holland Lookout, then into thicker forest. About five miles from the Trail 120 junction, the route returns to Trail 415 and levels somewhat as it reaches the floor of the valley.


After another 1 1/3 miles, we were back at the Holland Lake trailhead and our vehicle. The rain held off just long enough for us to turn onto the highway for home.

Distance: 7 1/3 miles one way.