The third time is usually a charm. So this third attempt to reach that jewel at the end of the trail just had to pan out. The Sweeney Peak Trail in the Montana Bitterroot Range heads for the sky high above Florence, Montana along the ridges below Sweeney Peak The lake – that sparkling blue jewel of Peterson Lake at the bottom of the canyon in the upper reaches of Sweeney Creek – had been an unattained goal through two previous attempts. I started with a fresh determination though, to reach that sparkling jewel this bright, sunny, August day, and return.
The trailhead is at the upper end of a major vehicle climb from Montana Highway 93 and the Bitterroot valley floor. Sweeney Creek Road is located south of Missoula, Montana, and 1.5 miles south of Florence. Turning off 93 to the west you follow the paved Sweeney Creek Road .9 miles at which point it veers off to the south, and you proceed straight ahead on the dirt road, following FR 1315 all of 6.4 miles up the mountainside to the trailhead. The road through the switchbacks is steep, pushing the abilities of 2-wheel drive cars.
On the trail the climbing continues, starting with a 1000 foot elevation climb in the first mile. You add almost another 1000 feet elevation in the next 1 1/2 miles to 7,692 feet. If it was only numbers this old guy would have quit long ago. However, within the first mile after switchbacks through forested ridge the trail breaks out on the ridge’s south edge, with abrupt cliffs below and views over the Sweeney Creek Canyon. The Bitterroot Valley opens up far below to the east, St. Joseph Peak towers to the southwest, and Little St. Joe dominates the scene directly across the canyon from your perch atop the cliffs.
The trail follows the ridge upward, and then cuts across the mountainside, still climbing as you follow above the Sweeney Creek Canyon. Two and a half miles into the trek after continual upward climbing, the high spot on the trail is reached. As if by divine plan, right there is a little spring and stream trickling across the trail in the most wonderfully cool refreshing way
From that great mountain water fountain the trail leads off fairly evenly for another mile or so through the forest. To my complete delight the trail once again leads back to the canyon cliffs above Sweeney Creek. The goal of Peterson Lake is now within sight. Oh indeed, there it was shining like a sparkling jewel, right DOWN there another mile and a half to the bottom of the canyon!
A previous journey up this trail had made it to this point. Already around 3.5 miles into the hike, and realizing that the trail takes a sharp downward turn, I had chosen to turn back. The additional 1 1/2 miles down into a canyon and back on top of a 3.5 mile hike back, would have pushed it.
This wonderful day a year later though, the plan to make it was in full gear, the day was younger, and I was up for the distance. The trail take around a 750 foot descent from that viewpoint to the
lake. And descend you do, down into a high mountain valley. What a wonderful high alpine mountain scene surrounds you as you cross grassy meadows to the upper end of the lake. A spur
trail leads from the main trail to the inlet of the lake near primitive campsites stashed among the trees.
The third time was the charm! My trek to Peterson Lake in this high mountain basin of the Bitterroot Range was complete. What a truly wonderful little high country lake surrounded by high mountain peaks right up next to the sky. I settled in for a long overdue lunch on the lake shore by the upper inlet of the lake, reveling in the mountain basin scene. You have the impression that the canyon does just drop off below the lake, as it sits in a small mountain bowl. A great set of images of this Montana Bitterroot Range treasure can be seen in the photo Gallery at www.montanaadventure.com .
The afternoon was quickly slipping away, and it was necessary to hit the trail back out. There was still a 750 foot climb up out of this wonderful basin, and 5 miles or so to beat down the trail back to the jeep. Now we know the delight to be found at the end of that trail. Plans were already forming in my mind for doing that route again, only next time with full pack, tent, sleeping bag, fishing pole and the works. Truly the next goal to sit in that high mountain basin as the sun sets, the sky filling with a million stars – treasuring this jewel of a mountain lake.
The evening was closing in as I made it back down the trail to the jeep. The sheer fatigue from the effort was almost overwhelming for this 50 something body, but, the sense of jubilation at the awesome feat was incredible. I had stumbled onto a true Montana mountain jewel on this wonderful adventure in the high Bitterroot Range of Montana.
That jubilation was promptly followed by the urge to dive into some good food. For most journeys into the backcountry of Montana there are wonderful places nearby to chow down. In this area we’ll head for the Cantina La Cocina in Victor – dynamite tacos, enchiladas and burritos. And the terrific places to stay, like full service base-camp motels throughout the Bitterroot Valley – found at www.montanaadventure.com – within just miles of Bitterroot Range trailheads . Check them out and plan your Bitterroot Range adventure!