This loop visits three picturesque mountain lakes in this northeastern corner of Idaho. It includes the “Moose Loop”, which veers off to the south for a stop at Blacktail Lake, the smallest of the three, then ascends Moose Mountain, 6,500 ft, with commanding views across the cabinets. The trail then drops down the eastern slopes towards sprawling and marshy Moose Lake. From Moose Lake it’s a just 3-mile sidetrip to the Lake Estelle cirque.
Lake Estelle and Gem Lake are only a bit over a mile apart, but lack a connecting trail. Both lakes are at an altitude just under 5,800 feet, divided by a saddle at 6,400 feet. From the Estelle side, this route ascends an expansive talus slope, then steeply climbs a grassy, open hillside inhabited by ground squirrels. The Gem Lake side is heavily overgrown but less steep, with the top half comparatively easy and the bottom half a much more tedious bushwhack.
Char Falls is more of a stroll than a hike, but if you happen to be hiking in this remote area of the Idaho Cabinets you may as well pay a visit. You’ll find a nice cool spot on the rock slabs amidst the upper falls, and a short scramble brings the not-so-faint-of-heart to the bottom of the 50-foot main waterfall.
Lake Darling is one of five lakes situated in this northwest corner of the Cabinet Mountains. A pleasant trail leads through an evergreen forest of fir and spruce to the lake, which comes with a pretty campsite and a good chance of seeing a moose. The ascent to the Pend Oreille Divide opens up views of the Selkirks, Cabinets and Purcells, while the return trip through alpine meadows high above Gordon Creek rounds out the loop.
Gem Lake fully lives up to its name, cradled in a bowl opposite the Pend Oreille Divide of the Cabinet Mountains northeast of Sandpoint. Though the hike is short, the elevation gain is substantial, and most of that is up in a straight line with few alleviating switchbacks.