Southwest Montana is blessed with hundreds of alpine and subalpine lakes, also known as tarns. Gifts of the glaciers that also carved our iconic mountains, these sparkling little lakes make perfect destinations for overnight hikes. Many of the lakes boast perfect campsites just a stone’s throw from the water. So start picturing your own peaceful evening by the water, hot drink in hand as you watch trout dimpling the surface.
Lava Lake, reachable via a moderate three-mile hike on Trail 445 from Route 191, is justifiably popular. Don't expect to have it to yourself on a weekend, but do expect a gorgeous setting. There are great campsites, and rocky promontories provide panoramic views of the Cascade Creek cirque. The trail switchbacks steeply from the lake, past an old asbestos mine to Table Mountain.
Tucked in below Blaze Mountain in the Spanish Peaks lies perfect Mirror Lake, where many a suitor seeking to ski the Blaze has ended up in error. Make the six-mile approach on purpose for a spectacular campsite. You can day trip from Mirror to Summit Lake and beyond, to Gallatin Peak—at 11,015 feet, it’s the highest peak visible from Bozeman.
Another classic is Pine Creek Lake in the Absaroka Range. Leave the lollygaggers at Pine Creek Falls behind as you head for the high country. The steep five-mile approach from the trailhead near Pine Creek campground will make you wonder why you packed that can of Dinty Moore instead of the freeze-dried chicken alfredo, but your lakeside dinner will make it all worthwhile. This is a cold, deep lake with stunning views of Black Mountain's north face rising to nearly 11,000 feet.
The East Fork of Hyalite Creek offers two gorgeous lakes for the price of one. Most hikers stop at Emerald Lake (four miles in on Trail 434), so continue on another mile to Heather Lake for a slightly more remote, alpine camping experience.
There is no lack of other lakes available hereabouts for remote camping. They are scattered throughout the high country, and some off-trail lakes see very few visitors. Most offer great fishing and—for the hearty—swimming. Arrive after a hot, buggy hike to one of these lakes and jump straight in for the perfect antidote to heat and fatigue. Remember to camp well back from the shore, use established campsites, and minimize your impacts. The Leave No Trace website (lnt.org) offers excellent principles for low-impact camping.
Phil Knight has been stomping around the high country of southwest Montana for 25 years. Having seen some amazing parts of this planet, he’d still be hard-pressed to beat a serene Montana evening by an alpine lake.