The Jewel Basin came on our radar last year when a trip to Glacier National Park didn't work out. Since the first time exploring Montana’s hidden treasure we knew we had to make it back to explore. Located between Glacier National Park and Flathead lake the 15,000 acre basin is breathtaking. It’s increasing popularity is easily explained once you take the opportunity to explore this beauty in the Big Sky State.
As we passed The Echo lake cafe the masses were crowded out front waiting to get a table for breakfast. We continued past as the yells of children could be heard and the smell of breakfast filled the truck. The road snakes up the side of the mountain while peaks in the distance flash a quick glimmer. We arrived at the trailhead to bluebird skies and a thin layer of dew still on the ground. It was the 5th of July and we were running behind from celebrations of America the previous night. We had set out to conquer Mt, Aeneas through picnic lakes and back to the trailhead.Our hike was to the top of Mt. Aeneas and down the Southern slope through Picnic lake. Mt Aeneas is named after Chief Aeneas Paul of the Dayton Creek Kootenai (also known as Flathead Lake or Somers-Dayton Elmo band) The hike is listed as hard on All Trails which was okay. We needed to sweat out some beers from the festivities. We left the truck and made our way up the main trail. The trail is well established and appears to be a service road for the first mile and a half. From here the trail splits towards Birch lake or towards a more intense uphill toward the summit. At the junction views of Echo Lake and Flathead lake can be seen poking through the trees. From here the grind begins.
The slow steady uphill that every hiker experiences as they set out on their journey to “bag a peak” The view and grade stay roughly the same for the next mile as you ascend the ridge line. Once at the ridge line a forest service equipment building can be seen (do not write your name on it. No one cares that Nick from Ohio was here.) The ridge line makes a short but steep ascent to the top of Mt. Aeneas. The top from here is what looks like a stone's throw away. As we made our way across the ridgeline mountain goats decided to join us. We pushed past them in a hurried pace doing our best to not startle them. Approaching the summit the high of bagging another peak set in. Once we had summited Mt. Aeneas we took a moment to gather ourselves and enjoy the beauty. The peaks from the Swan Mountain range could be seen in all their glory as they made harsh lines across the distant horizon. Hungry Horse reservoir can be seen poking its head around a mountain. After a few brief exchanges with another couple and a snack we carried on down the far side of the peak. As we descended the mountain and quickly lost elevation we realized just how rugged these areas could be. We quickly arrived at one of many snow fields we would cross that day. Some of these snow packed hills we tried to “ski” down. Lacking skis and poles our form was less than olympic caliber. Once we reached the bottom we could see Picnic Lakes. Approaching them there was a stillness to the water like a thin piece of glass laid over it to protect its surface. The reflection of the ridge line above could be seen clearly in the water below like the reflection of a mirror. After a brief stop to indulge in the beauty we carried on. Crossing the saddle just North of our initial ascent we quickly entered the heavily wooded area. As we made our way down switchbacks and towards the trailhead. We were already planning our next visit to The Jewel Basin.
This time it would be to Strawberry lake where we had visited the year previously. This time we were on a mission to find Huckleberries. The state of Montana is famous for its huckleberries (even though it is Idaho’s state fruit.) These precious fruits are a very unique species, and all efforts to cultivate them outside of their natural environment have failed. The plant lives in a very select subalpine environment that blooms a very short window each year. The plant is very delicate and can be easily damaged causing it to no longer produce huckleberries. So if you decide to join in the great hunt please do so responsibly and do not use rakes on the plant.
As I left the trailhead the morning air was brisk. The sound of the rushing water could be heard shortly ahead. The trailhead started at a small bridge crossing the stream in front of me. As I made my way across and into the more densely wooded area. The trail is well traveled and has seen many years of use. The switchbacks continued up through a dense vegetation and on the side bushes and roots were tangled like a ball of yarn. In the distance over a far peak the first signs of day could be seen. I wanted to catch the sun as it came over the top of Strawberry mountain shining like a star in a Broadway play. After roughly a mile and a half through the dense forest the views began to open. Looking back at the vast landscape of the Flathead valley. Flathead lake canvasing the distance as it engulfed the basin below it. The morning sun was rising as I picked up the pace to ensure I wouldn’t miss the production mother nature was about to unveil. Arriving to the empty gravel beach ensured no one besides the animals would disrupt my front row seat to the greatest shows of all time… Life. As the sun rose over the mountain the steam could be seen rising from the lake. Like the slow roll of smoke from a burning cigar.
The sun lifted the dark from the lake and the turquoise edges of the lake were exposed. As the sun rose higher it let light to deeper portions of the lake. The deep blue immersing like a drop of ink on paper. Surrounding the lake was a vast array of green. Trees, shrubs, grasses, and plants reared their heads like a curious dog. I worked my way through the bushes like a game of chess. Trying to stay one step ahead of nature’s bobbie trap the root. Once along the Eastern shore of the lake the shadows retreated with hast. I watched as the remaining steam rolled off the lake like a foggy memory. After the sun had fully exposed the lake and I had a quick snack I made my way down the shoreline back to the gravel area. This is when the work began.
Heading down the same trail I had just come from and armed with a zip lock bag. I was looking for possibly the most beautiful and tasty berry known to the NorthWest United States. The elusive huckleberry. As I made my way down the mountain the landscape ahead appeared to disappear below you. The sun also shown light on something that could not be seen in the early twilight hours. The vibrant colors of the wildflowers, was like looking through a kaleidoscope.
The colors to the fashion industry may have clashed but together the blues, reds, purples, and yellows meshed in perfect harmony. Just like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I focused the lens of my camera on the vibrant pedals as something came into the focus of my viewfinder. A honey bee camouflage on the yellow of the sweet nectar of plants.
Dormant from a cold morning the bees were as still as a statue almost having a fake look to them. After a few photographs (yes I was sure to not disrupt the bees. They are a fragile part of our existence so treat them that way!) I was on my way to find my prized berries. The bush of a huckleberry is characterized by its red branches and red spots that can be seen on the leaf of the plant. The berry has a purple tint to it and is slightly smaller than the blueberry. When ripe and plucked from the bush the morsel leaves behind stained palms and fingertips in a cartoonish purple.
The plucking is often a long process but the reward is worth it. Like a prized hog at the county fair, You can show off your prized huckleberries to your family and friends (or make them a treat with them if you like them.) After about an hour and a half I had managed to fill half a gallon zip lock bag. I made my way down the trail with no particular hurry enjoying the scenery that had been covered by darkness on my trip past the first time. I passed several other people on my way down that appeared to have something similar in mind. I reached my truck with the days haul and headed down the dirt road. Reflecting on a successful harvest of my favorite berry as the cab filled with dust from an oncoming truck.
As beautiful as this all sounds please keep in mind a few things as you go out and explore. Pack out what you pack in. Respect others on the trails ( I know it’s hard to believe but there are other people out there besides you.) This is public land which means it is all our land. So treat it like it is yours because it is. If you allow yourself to do it, you have to be okay with everyone else doing it. So don’t spit your gum on the trail and leave your wrapper behind unless you are okay with everyone doing it. Enjoy your surroundings and be present with the moment. Put your phone down and enjoy where you are. Instagram and Facebook won’t be mad if you don’t get a picture of every flower you saw.
Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed it and will go explore the Crown of the Continent for yourself.