Wanless Lake Loop

The Wanless Lake loop astonishes with not just one lake, but five in total, each worth the hike in its own right. Wanless Lake is the cream of the crop, measuring a mile long and a quarter mile wide in places, making it the largest lake within the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness.

Location Cabinet Mountains
Rating 4.3 out of 5
Difficulty Moderate (some uphill hiking; trail #921 drops steeply downhill)
Distance 18.9 miles
Duration 7:09 hours moving time (hiking)
Elevation Gain 4,851 feet
High Point 6,447 feet (Goat Pass)
Low Point 2,901 feet (trailhead)
Trail Type Lollipop
Trailbed Packed dirt, loose rocks, talus
Trail# 921, 923, 924
Water Any of the lakes and McKay Creek. Goat Ridge and the ascent on #924 are dry. There are a few trickles in the Bearpaw (#923) section.
Status Wilderness Area
Administration Kootenai National Forest
Conditions Very good, especially #924. The trail is sawed out yearly.
Permits None required
Camping Trailhead; upper lakes 1 and 3; Wanless Lake; Intersection of trails 921 and 923, but the latter is dry
Maps USGS Goat Peak, Noxon Rapids Dam, Howard Lake
Trailhead From MT-200, turn east at milepost #18 onto McKay Creek Road (this intersection is where the Noxon Dam road leads off to the west). Follow this pothole-riddled gravel road for 4 miles. When in doubt, choose the better road as a few dirt roads branch off. When the road curves and climbs uphill, however, continue straight and stay on FR-1022. The road ends at a turnaround, a mere dirtroad at that point, but it’s doable in a car.

Google Directions (47.970527, -115.643021)

Season June – October
Squirrel Density Excellent! Horses not allowed past Upper #4. Closed to mechanized vehicles.
Features Lake, Waterfall, Grove, Meadow
Distance From
  • Coeur d’Alene 102.4 miles
  • Lewiston 216.0 miles
  • Sandpoint 56.6 miles
  • Seattle 406.0 miles
  • Spokane 128.1 miles
Resources
Nearby Hikes
Date September 15, 2018

Talus-covered Goat PeakThe trail initially parallels McKay Creek through a mixed coniferous forest. About a quarter mile in, the trail crosses the creek on a footbridge and commences the arduous climb up a flank of Goat Peak, switchbacking for about three miles. Then the trees retreat as the trail ascends through an open basin with views of Goat Ridge and beyond to the Clark Fork River and the Coeur d’Alene Mountains.

View west from Goat PassFollowing the intersection with the Goat Ridge trail, the path moves across a talus slope with more views to the west as well as Engle Peak to the north. The trail switchbacks one more time, traverses the barren west face of talus-covered Goat Peak and reaches Goat Pass–the high point of this hike–just before the 6 mile mark. Goat Pass dishes out excellent views to the east and west. It also marks the boundary to the Cabinet Wilderness. And there is a cell signal (Verizon).

Upper Wanless Lake #1 far below Goat PassA dozen tight switchbacks make short work of the steep talus slope on the east side, and then the trail flattens out a bit on approach to Upper Wanless Lake #1. This jewel of a lake is the first consistent source of water, about 6.5 miles in, and offers a number of excellent campsites. Following #1, the trail moves through an old burn area to lake #2 in about a mile, with good vantage points of Wanless Lake along the way. There is no camping at #2, huddled below the eastern face of Goat Peak. For less than a mile the trail then continues on and off through old burns to lake #3, which does include a campsite, but the lake has a bit of a swampy look–beware of mosquitoes. Though invisible from #3, lake #4 is almost immediately adjacent. There is no camping at #4.

This granite slab holds Wanless Lake in place. Must be quite a spectacle during snow melt!Stock has to remain at lake #4, while the singletrack continues downhill to a fantastic overlook just ahead of Wanless Lake. The sheer rock cliff appears to just drop off below, enabling magnificent views of Buck Lake and the Swamp Creek valley, as well as the divide on the opposite side, including Lost Buck Pass. Continuing, the trail quickly drops down to the lake, the lack of equestrian users making the trail a bit more overgrown. The trail meets the lake near its exit, which sports a massive granite wall keeping the lake in place and a waterfall spilling over it–a mere trickle this late in summer. Views to the west end of the lake are fabulous, with the snub-nosed headwall of Engle Peak sneering angrily across the lake and the remaining snow patches (likely permanent snow). The lakes are stocked with cutthroats, which are native in Wanless Lake.

Engle Peak, taken from Bearpaw trailFor the return trip, climb back up to Goat Pass, then downhill to the fork with the Goat Ridge trail. Goat Ridge is a pretty, if uneventful, trail, less traveled than #924, but still well-maintained. There are selective views during the high traverse to Goat Ridge, but once on the ridge the trail is hemmed in thickly by alpine fir on both sides. The trail also drops lower and lower, and with not much of a view one’s attention is easily diverted to the thick and delicious huckleberry carpet. At the 17-mile mark you reach the fork with trail #923 (Bearpaw), which plunges steeply downhill to McKay Creek. Clearcuts in this section provide extensive views to the mouth of McKay Creek and Engle Peak. At the bottom, the trail leads through a cedar forest and crosses McKay Creek via a narrow log back to the trailhead.

Enjoy this hike? Let us know in the comments below!

A footbridge crosses McKay Creek
A footbridge crosses McKay Creek
Filtered views towards the mouth of McKay Creek open up quickly
Filtered views towards the mouth of McKay Creek open up quickly
Well-maintained trail #924 switbacks up a flank of Goat Peak
Well-maintained trail #924 switbacks up a flank of Goat Peak
In the upper reaches the forest recedes and broad views open up
In the upper reaches the forest recedes and broad views open up
Talus-covered Goat Peak
Talus-covered Goat Peak
View into the Coeur dAlene Mountains. The wooded ridge in the foreground is Goat Ridge
View into the Coeur d’Alene Mountains. The wooded ridge in the foreground is Goat Ridge
Engle Peak
Engle Peak
Theres lots of talus along the sides of Goat Peak. Engle Peak in the distance
There’s lots of talus along the sides of Goat Peak. Engle Peak in the distance
View west from Goat Pass
View west from Goat Pass
Upper Wanless Lake #1 far below Goat Pass
Upper Wanless Lake #1 far below Goat Pass
Naughty swimming in Upper #1
Naughty swimming in Upper #1
Upper Wanless Lake #1
Upper Wanless Lake #1
Upper Wanless Lake #1 and its headwall
Upper Wanless Lake #1 and its headwall
Looking out over Wanless Lake. The notch in the middle of the photo is Lost Buck Pass
Looking out over Wanless Lake. The notch in the middle of the photo is Lost Buck Pass
Upper Wanless Lake #2 below Goat Peak
Upper Wanless Lake #2 below Goat Peak
Wanless Lake from above
Wanless Lake from above
A sheer granite slab disappering into Upper Wanless Lake #2
A sheer granite slab disappering into Upper Wanless Lake #2
The outlet of Upper #2
The outlet of Upper #2
Mountain ash berries
Mountain ash berries
Upper Wanless Lake #3
Upper Wanless Lake #3
Upper Wanless Lake #4
Upper Wanless Lake #4
Naughty cooling off in Upper #4
Naughty cooling off in Upper #4
Upper #4 below Goat Peak
Upper #4 below Goat Peak
Buck Lake far, far below
Buck Lake far, far below
Looking out over the Swamp Creek valley
Looking out over the Swamp Creek valley
The Wanless Lake outlet, before it cascades down steeply to Buck Lake
The Wanless Lake outlet, before it cascades down steeply to Buck Lake
Wanless Lake outlet, with view west to its headwall
Wanless Lake outlet, with view west to its headwall
This granite slab holds Wanless Lake in place. Must be quite a spectacle during snow melt!
This granite slab holds Wanless Lake in place. Must be quite a spectacle during snow melt!
Wanless Lake, looking west
Wanless Lake, looking west
Wanless Lake
Wanless Lake
Swamp Creek valley, with Buck Lake immediately below
Swamp Creek valley, with Buck Lake immediately below
Swamp Creek valley
Swamp Creek valley
The notch is Lost Buck Pass
The notch is Lost Buck Pass
View from the Goat Ridge trail to the haze (Rampike fire) over the Coeur dAlene Mountains
View from the Goat Ridge trail to the haze (Rampike fire) over the Coeur d’Alene Mountains
Most of the Goat Ridge trail is hemmed in by trees, with a thick huckleberry understory
Most of the Goat Ridge trail is hemmed in by trees, with a thick huckleberry understory
Engle Peak, taken from Bearpaw trail
Engle Peak, taken from Bearpaw trail
Zoomed in on Engle Peak
Zoomed in on Engle Peak
The mouth of McKay Creek, taken from Bearpaw trail
The mouth of McKay Creek, taken from Bearpaw trail
This served as the "bridge" over McKay Creek
This served as the “bridge” over McKay Creek
McKay Creek
McKay Creek
The obligatory grouse
The obligatory grouse
Dark blue: Wanless Lake Loop; Lighter blue: Buck Lake Loop
Dark blue: Wanless Lake Loop; Lighter blue: Buck Lake Loop

Alternate Routes

  • From Wanless Lake you could scramble steeply down a talus slope to Buck Lake. This opens up the Swamp Creek trail, Cabinet Divide, and Geiger Lakes area (see Buck Lake trail description)
  • Trail #921 extends further out to the top of Green Mountain


© 2016 – 2018 NaughtyHiker. All rights reserved. No duplication without permission.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. montucky says:

    Sure enjoyed this post and your photos! I’ve not made that hike, but have seen and photographed Wanless Lake from the Cabinet Divide trail at Lost Buck Pass. Always wondered what that hike was like! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. naughtyhiker says:

      I bet it’s even more spectacular now with the larches turning color. Goat Ridge is mostly larches

      Like

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