As a guide book said about the area, the drive to the trailhead here is much more difficult than the hike itself After bouncing along on dirt and dusty roads for about 8 miles up the large Rock Creek drainage, you then begin a grueling seven-mile uphill push which gains 2,500 vertical feet -- that would be a tough hike, but this is done in a vehicle (and preferably a sturdy one with tough tires). After an hour in four wheel drive I made it to the trailhead to not surprisingly find just one other battered vehicle. On the trail, within minutes I had entered the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness and was walking along treeline toward St. Paul Pass and Cliff Lake. I skirted Cliff Lake and aimed up the southeast ridge of St. Paul Peak, which is probably the easiest big mountain to climb in the Cabinets (actually, one of the easiest mountains to climb anywhere). I was on top an hour after clicking the truck door closed, braced against a cold wind and swirling fog. Nice views.
If you can make it to the trailhead (see my entry to St. Paul Peak), you can almost certainly make it to spectacular little Cliff Lake. The lake is a 20 minute nearly level walk along the side of a mountain at treeline and inside the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. Cliff Lake appears to hug improbably to the south side of St. Paul Peak -- how does the whole thing not empty out into the valley below? A few choice tent spots encircle its shores, especially on the south side, and once the wind dies down the emptiness of the place takes hold in a magical and unexpected way. Tempting though it may seem, leave your swim trunks at home -- this lake is ice covered until mid June most years and is starting to look pretty darn chilly again by mid August. Note also that while camping is popular here, this is definitely backcountry, and the Cabinets are home to a small but feisty population of grizzly bears.
Old mining history dots this trail -- a shack here, coiled wire there, and a headframe with water gushing out of it. Miners left us this trail to use, but I could care less about mining relics -- I want to make it to that island. Earlier this summer I saw one of Zack's photos of Rock Lake (one of probably a few dozen 'Rock Lakes' in Montana, so take heart if you are not sure where it is) and while beautiful, what really captured my attention was a peninsula on the south end of the lake -- or was it an island? Some peninsulas are islands in high water, land-attached in low. The land stuck so beguilingly into the lake that for some reason I really super wanted to visit. Well, here I am, late in the day, kind of cool weather overhead, and it indeed is an island, I can't see the bottom of the lake meaning the water is probably too deep to wade, and the water is for sure too cold to swim. I'll have to be content to snap a photo and leave it at that -- but what a beautiful photo it is.