Cove Lakes


Forest Service Trail #3

Why? Scenery, great rocks, lovely lakes, wilderness entry.

Season: Mid-July through September

Ease: Difficult to strenuous. It’s 5 1/2 miles into the lakes, with about 1,600 feet of elevation gain and 1,200 feet of loss over those miles.

The reasons for visiting the Cove Lakes are many. They make for a fine, though long, day hike with lots of great scenery along the way. They make a good base camp for exploring the surrounding area. And they are a good first night destination for a hike into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

Which is good, since getting to them is one of those hikes that hikes a whole lot harder than it sounds. You start by heading down through an open field of fireweed and dock, then continue through woods and brush fields to cross one fork of Canteen Creek. That’s the first mile or so. Then it’s uphill through woods and brush and open areas and down to a crossing of another fork of the same creek another mile+ later.

Then more woods and brush fields and up and then down to a crossing of Gedney Creek in about 2 more miles. And uphill again around the Gedney Creek drainage to the saddle above the lakes (another mile, give or take), which of course you hike down to via a short, steep and very ugly hike over rocks. You get the idea. The good news is that, if you hike in the fall, you find lots and lots of ripe huckleberries in those woods and brush fields.

The best views are around the Gedney drainage, which is topped by Gedney Mountain with Chimney Peak in the background

All the hikes from a Cove Lake base camp start with the same steep, rutty, rocky bit of trail down and across six streams – more, probably, earlier in the year – and with a trail intersection that is essentially impossible to find. But a hike in any direction from there is worth the nasty bit of trail and the uncertainty of what trail you’re on or missing. The scenery is awesome and country amazingly rugged.

If you head up to Jesse Pass, you’ve a fine view of the South Three Links Lakes and the headwaters of Three Links Creek. It’s a place that calls to you, and the trail down along the side of the ridge doesn’t look all that bad. The lakes are lovely, of course, and the stream meanders wonderfully through the meadow. There are groups of fir here and there, and the fall color creeps up the slopes of the ridges that confine and define the basin.

If you bushwhack to the unnamed saddle or pass about 1/3 mile to the northwest of Jessee, you’re above Florence and Hjort Lakes and another fine set of views. Florence Lake has an island near its far end and what looks like a fine camping spot on its eastern shore. Between these two passes is where the Selway Crags and Fenn Mountain are, and your best views of them are from this left side, above these two lakes.

If you bushwhack up and along the ridge that is to the right of Jesse, to the first saddle, you’re above Canteen Meadows, at the top of Canteen Creek. Other guide books say there is a user trail from here over to the ridge on the other side of the meadows and then along that ridge to Big Fog Mountain. We didn’t have any luck finding it, but we did enjoy this new set of views and the lovely meadow.

If you head toward Chimney Peak, there’s a whole nother world to see. As before, the trail is in open brush fields or the woods, through the upper reaches of a couple of tributaries of Gedney Creek. The couple who arrived our second day at Cove Lakes hiked up to the top of the easier ridge above Rainbow Lake, a place I’m sure not many people get to. They were rewarded with views of Lloyd Lake, and of course of Rainbow.

We continued on, noting the Rainbow Lake drainage, and following the trail to the top of a knoll just southeast of Chimney Peak. Sitting there with a map, overlooking Old Man Lake, you can identify a variety of peaks all the way to the Lolo Motorway. The most impressive is the closest, however – Stanley Butte.

This east side of Chimney has trees, even though it looks just as steep as the west, almost treeless, side – which we saw after hiking around the ridge to its left and down to the next saddle. From here, as from every place we stopped, the bigness and ruggedness of these mountains was impressive. They aren’t alpine, and much of the area is well below tree line. But what’s above makes up in quality what it lacks in quantity.

Trail Notes: On some maps, this is called Trail #31.

Trail #3 at Big Fog Saddle is wide and heavily used at the start, heading down hill, then left to cross a stream. Immediately after that, turn right at what looks like a junction, then left. Then you’re in the fireweed and dock field mentioned at the start of the hike description.
The trail intersection of trail #3 and that to Jesse Pass does exist, but a tree fell on it and knocked over the cairn that marked it. Given that, at that point, the trail is extremely faint, it makes finding the junction problematic, at the least.

If you decide you have missed it and think you truly are heading toward Chimney Peak instead, you can side hill and bushwhack over to it as long as you start out above the level of the saddle above the Cove Lakes. Jesse Pass will be visible at times. It’s the higher one of the two you’ll see. Eventually you’ll get to an open area and you will find the trail there.

The trail to Chimney does head to the right for what seems like a long time before making the left it has to make. There are cairns throughout the brushfield it traverses, and they are the surest indication you’ll have, before you make that left, that you’re on the right trail.

Directions: Turn right onto the road along the Selway River just shy of mile marker 97 on Highway 12, drive 18 miles and turn left on Road 319 up to Big Fog Saddle. The trailhead is at the road’s end about 12 miles later, and on the left or northeast.

Information: Fenn Ranger Station, NPNF, (208) 926-4258.

Maps: USGS Fog Mountain, Fenn Mountain and Chimney Peak, Idaho.

Connections: A fine several day backpack can be had by hiking from the Cove Lakes past Old Man Lake and down into the Meadows of the same name, then up and over Stanley Butte and out via the Boulder Creek Trail to Wilderness Gateway. Along the way, you’ll get spectacular views of the Selway Crag area and the pleasure of visiting several lovely lakes.

We did the Big Fog to Wilderness Gateway hike in five days, using trails #3, #206, #220, #221, and #211. We stayed at the Cove Lakes, the north end of Old Man Lake, Seven Lakes and Stanley Hot Springs. And just so you know, the hike up Stanley Butte wasn’t bad at all.