Flathead National Forest: Sapphire Lake

By Nate

The trailhead to Sapphire Lake is accessed from the Holland Lake trail, 24 miles north of Seeley Lake on HWY 83.  You’ll find the Holland Lake turnoff on the east side of the Hwy and it’ll take you back to a campground, a lodge, and eventually to the trailhead.  Holland Lake itself has some pretty nice attributes.  It’s not too crowded outside of peak summer season, great views of the Mission Mountains, and there are a few camping areas just off the trailhead on the lake that aren’t part of the official campground that are free, have fire pits and provide easy access to the lake; in the past we’ve taken a canoe from the lodge loaded with our camping gear and paddled around the shore to save ourselves the quarter mile hike from the trailhead.  However, for this trip we would make a loop, up to Sapphire Lake, stay the night, then down to Upper Holland Lake, and follow the well marked trail back down to Holland Lake.

There are two ways to access Sapphire Lake, both start on the mile long 415 trail.  The southern route stays on the Upper Holland Lake trail/ 35, is more gradual and is about a mile longer than the northern route.  We took the northern route , and while it is slightly shorter has several steep switchbacks making it a much more brutal and/or foolish hike to bring your backpacking gear.  As the only guy in our group of four, clearly I couldn’t complain, but it is about 3,000 ft of elevation in about 6 miles.

Several people were doing this as a 13 mile day hike, which is reasonable, but the true reason to visit Sapphire Lake, I believe, is to see it for its name sake. To do that, you must see it at sunset.  Since it is a fairly small lake, surrounded by wind barriers, it is incredibly still and does an amazing job of reflecting everything, including a wonderful late summer sunset.

Sapphire Lake at sunset

There were only a few suitable camping spots, thankfully there weren’t many people backpacking.  Although it has great, nearly 360 degree views from the shore, it’s not the best swimming lake; it’s fairly shallow in most areas and as cold as you would imagine a high mountain lake in Montana to be.  There was a fair amount of dead wood around to have a reasonable campfire, so we did just that.


above Upper Holland


Looking down at Holland Lake

In the morning we made our way down to Upper Holland Lake, through a nice high alpine meadow.  The Upper Holland Lake trail is one of the access points to the Bob Marshall Wilderness, so after we hit the lake we would be sharing the trail with a few folks on horseback.  Unfortunately our dog, who was wearing her pack (somebody had to carry the whiskey), found a big fresh pile of horse apples and decided it would make a great perfume.  The rest of the 4.5 miles down to Holland Lake came with the additional challenge of dodging a high energy, shit covered canine on a fairly narrow trail.



This is a great, moderate, one night backpacking trip.  If we had another night or two, I’d love to add to this trip by going into the Bob Marshall Wilderness up to Pendant Lake, to Big Salmon Falls (maybe with a fly rod), and out the Necklace Lakes trail.  I think that’d be a hell of loop and maybe I’ll be posting that hike in few months.

a frog in the clear waters of Sapphire Lake


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