Its proper name is the Jewel Basin Hiking Area, but to Bigfork area hikers, it’s simply “The Jewel”. This area is a true gem for hikers, fishermen, photographers or anyone looking forward to a day of spectacular views, clear lakes and meadows of wildflowers. With more than 15,000 acres, 27 lakes and 35 miles of trail the Jewel Basin has gained a reputation as one of the foremost hiking areas in Montana.
The Jewel is located just outside of Bigfork in the Flathead National Forest. The trailhead at Camp Misery has an elevation of 5500 feet, which allows hikers to begin their treks at an elevation more than 2000 feet above the Flathead Valley. Even non-hikers will make the drive to the trailhead just to drink in the view. This is a hiking area only. Mountain bikes are not permitted and even horses are restricted. Dogs must be on a leash.
With more than 35 miles of interlocking trails, selecting the right trail can be confusing. Make sure you pick up a map at one of the many locations in Bigfork. Even better, join some of the locals for a day in the outdoors.
Every Saturday, the Swan Rangers meet at the Echo Lake Café for breakfast before a day of hiking, snow-shoeing or skiing in the area. The Rangers invite visitors to join them on their weekly treks. One of the day hikes they recommend is a six-mile loop to the top of Mt. Aeneas.
The final portion of the trail (about a half mile) travels along the ridge line with views on both sides of the ridge. Other Jewel hikes they recommend are Crater Lake, an approximate 13-mile round trip, Wildcat Lake which is about eight miles or the longer Big Hawk Lake hike of 22 miles.
Check out the Swan Rangers website for departure times and additional information about hikes in the Swan Range.
Fishing in the Jewel is excellent. Choose either spin or fly fishing gear, but some fly fishermen may be challenged by the trees that closely surround some of the lakes. The lakes are mostly populated with cutthroat trout which average 10-12 inches, but can reach up to 16 inches.
You might also find some non-native rainbow and Yellowstone cutthroat trout. A long-term management plan is in place to reduce or replace these hybrid populations with pure westslope cutthroat trout.
Camping is permitted in most areas of the Jewel. A permit is not necessary, but some areas may be restricted due to impact on fragile areas, including no campfires near several of the lakes. To maintain the Jewel, hikers and campers are reminded to “Leave no trace” and stay on designated trails. Even where campfires are permitted, a lightweight camp stove is preferred. This is bear country and mountain lions also live in the area. All visitors should keep trash and food stored safely in bear resistant containers.
At these elevations, winter snows are usually measured in feet, not inches, so the Jewel may still have snow and ice in June and early July. For more information about the Jewel Basin Hiking Area, stop by the Bigfork Chamber Visitor’s Center or the National Forest Service for maps and information before heading up the trail.