Hiking To Summit Lake In The Spanish Peaks Near Big Sky, Montana
Location: Summit Lake, Spanish Peaks, Lee Metcalf Wilderness, Madison Range, Montana
Type: Out and Back
Rating: Grade I, Class 1
Trailhead: North Fork Trailhead
Distance: 15.7 miles total
Time: 5 to 9 hours
North Fork Trailhead Elevation: 7,250′ | 2,210 meters
Bear Basin/Middle Basin Saddle Elevation: 9,700′ | 2,957 meters
Summit Lake Elevation: 9,560′ | 2,914 meters
Total Vertical: 3,480′ | 1,061 meters
Maps: Gallatin Peak, Lone Mountain or Beartooth Publishing Maps
Weather Forecast: Summit Lake Weather
September is here. The nights are cool. The days are warm. Officially fall is a few weeks away, but it feels like it is only days away. With a nice high pressure and blue bird skies, it was the perfect day for a solo hiking mission into the Spanish Peaks of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness in the Madison Range near Big Sky, Montana.
Today I was headed toward Summit Lake – a remote alpine lake nestled into the middle of the Spanish Peaks. There are many trails and routes that can access Summit Lake, but I choose to head up the North Fork Trail through Bear Basin.
At the crack of 9, I pulled off of highway 64 toward the North Fork Trailhead. When I pulled in to the parking area at 7,250′, there were quite a few other hikers getting ready for day hikes and backpacking adventures. Quite a few were destined for Summit Lake, which surprised me for a random week day.
I packed my things and hit the trail at a steady pace. The North Fork Trail (#16) is a wide trail that skirts the southeast flanks of Yellow Mountain as it parallels the North Fork. It’s mellow and you can make decent time to the first trail split at 2.8 miles. Hang right toward Bear Basin, unless you want to head uphill toward Beehive Basin.
At this point, the trail begins a slow and steady climb toward the wide open Bear Basin. The well trodden trail is well maintained and easy to follow as it switchbacks through pine forests. Eventually the trail exits the forests and you’re greeted with the stunning scenery of Bear Basin.
Cruising across Bear Basin hearing the echoes of bear calls, it’s easy to get distracted by the towering rock walls and stunning ski potential. You’ll instantly be attracted to the Bat Ears and the cirque on your left, along with the Bear Hump at the head of the basin. Every direction is incredible.
As you approach the head of Bear Basin, the trail splits again. You can take trail 189 toward Gallatin Peak and Hellroaring Basin, but to reach Summit Lake hang a left and follow the switchbacks up the rocky slopes to the Bear Basin / Mirror Basin Saddle at 9,700′.
The views from the Saddle are spectacular. You can look back the way you came or glimpse down Mirror Basin as it meanders toward Spanish Creek and the north end of the Madison Range. The East Face of Blaze Mountain, which I recently heard called the Hummingbird Face, beckons in the distance. Peak 10602 towers to the west, and the rocky trail leads down into Mirror Basin towards Summit Lake.
The trail drops about 350′ and wraps back toward the east, where it splits once again. At this trail split, you can join trail 407 and drop into Mirror Basin or join trail 444 toward Summit Lake and the North Fork of Hellroaring Canyon. All of these trails are well maintained as they are the main arteries through the heart of the wilderness.
From the trail junction, a short climb delivers you to Summit Lake at 9,650′. After a 3 hour hike covering 7.85 miles, it’s nice to find a stunning alpine lake. The trail skirts the southeastern shore of the lake, but it’s easy to circle the entire crystal clear, and deep, lake to soak in the scenery. You might even catch a glimpse of the elusive albino pika!
There are several campsites and the views are breathtaking. Gallatin Peak, the highest summit in the Spanish Peaks, at 11,015′ towers above the northeast end of the lake. The north fork of Hellroaring drops off into the distance. From the right vantage point, you can make out Beacon Point. To the southwest, you can see the Mirror Basin / Beehive Basin Saddle and Peak 10602.
I spent about half an hour at the lake, which I had all to myself. I didn’t take a swim in the lake as the cool winds of approaching autumn kept the air temps quite cold, but I wanted to! Nor can I say if there are any fish in this lake. I didn’t see any rise but the wind kept a steady cycle of waves moving across the surface – obscuring what potentially swam beneath.
As with any hike, once you reach your destination, you’re only half way. I gathered my gear and jumped back on the heel-toe express – dropping into Mirror Basin and then following the trail up and over the col back into Bear Basin and down the North Fork. Eventually I made it back to the trailhead stoked with the day.
Car to car the hike to Summit Lake in the Spanish Peaks of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness took 6 hours 10 minutes. I covered approximately 3,500 feet and 15.7 miles. This day hike is highly recommended. It’s long, busy easy walking. I’m sure I’ll travel through these parts again – maybe the lake will be frozen or maybe I’ll finally co a Spanish Peaks traverse?
View Route on HillMap:
Additional photos from hiking to Summit Lake in the Spanish Peaks Wilderness Of Montana:
This trip report is from September 8, 2015.