In search of Moon Lake: a Montana Mission Mountain Oddessy

Montana’s Mission Mountains – a phenomena of stunning proportions and striking beauty. I marveled as I waded back between those magnificent peaks. I was following the trail around McDonald Lake and back up Post Creek, off in search of Moon Lake. I had no illusions about the meaning of the designation stamped on the map – Annual Grizzly Bear Closure Area. There was no indication that this was the time for the closure though, so with considerable trepidation I set out on my adventure, figuring they must be off doing other things at the moment.

To get to McDonald Lake, travel Highway 93 between Polson and Missoula, Montana. About 7 miles north of St. Ignatius, you turn right on McDonald Lake Road, following it straight east toward the mountains. Crossing a canal, you turn left and north, following the winding road another mile to McDonald Lake dam. Turning left again, follow the dirt road across the dam, past picnic spots and finally to the trail head at the end of the road.

I am always in awe at the up-close and personal proximity of the surrounding peaks in that area, providing the constant lure to the area. In particular McDonald Peak with the McDonald Glacier towers over me to the south, directly across the lake and creek. Even as I marvel at the majesty of the towering peaks, the imagination takes off, spying a hundred vantage points above me for
the local Grizzly population. I struggle to avoid picturing them sitting “up there”, flipping a coin for which one gets first crack at the prewrapped morsel blindly stumbling into their kitchen. The
amazing mountain scene, however, provides an unstoppable appeal, and the logical probability of having a bad day with a Grizzly is low enough that the exploration must proceed.

The first thing you notice as you hit the trail is that it is not overly used. Makes you wonder. Within a quarter of a mile on the trail around McDonald Lake, following a set of mild switchbacks, you find yourself out on a point above the lake, with an awe inspiring view of the lake and McDonald Peak. Many times I’ve stopped when traveling through the area to walk that quarter mile to that point for “just one more picture”, as can be seen on our website in Gallery 3.

From that point leading back along the north side of McDonald Lake, the overall trail is surprisingly level for trekking into such steep mountains. The trail, virtually following the base of McDonald Peak sits at around 3,800 feet in elevation, with the peak right next to you “up there” at 9,868 feet. Leading around the lake, the trail crosses numerous wide open slide chutes leading clear to the top of the peak opposite McDonald. At another point the trail crosses a moss covered shear cliff, but is wide enough that you don’t feel at risk for falling. Past the end of the lake, the trail drops down onto Post Creek, and in the next couple miles leads through an amazing old growth Cedar grove.

Needless to say, my bear paranoias prompted me to pick up a sturdy stick. Not that I’m ready to put up much of a fight. Rather, I whacked that stick on every other rock and tree branch all the way up the trail. Bears really have no interest in spending time with the humanoid species. So if the bear hears you coming, they will interrupt their otherwise busy schedules to find pursuits clear up over the ridge from you. The key is to avoid surprising them. With all my noise, they at least stepped aside to a safe distance from the crazy person.

Past the wonderful cedar grove the trail gradually climbs through a brushier area approaching the upper end of the canyon. I hit a set of 4 or 5 switchbacks leading in a steep climb up a rock face
up the north side of the valley, opposite McDonald Peak. The trail then leads off from here in a loop circling around, crossing Eagle Pass and coming out on Eagle Pass Creek north of McDonald Lake.

Moon Lake was within striking distance. Once past the switchbacks and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the trail leads through some marshier areas in the upper reaches of Post Creek. At last, through the trees Moon Lake came into view, settled in the midst of tall pines. In late June this glistening jewel of a high mountain lake still entertained snowbanks along the shadier shorelines.

Settling on a sunnier lake shore spot under the tall pines I marveled that the Dieties allowed me this unbelievably unique opportunity. Flanked by the massive peaks all around I existed in this exquisitely rugged backcountry spot, far off the beaten path. No other human beings were anywhere within miles of this awesomely gorgeous corner of the world. In an emergency that might be a negative aspect. With the Dieties at my side, I wasn’t living to always watch for emergencies, and savored that sense of uniqueness, and do to this day.

Soon enough I had to hit the rugged trail back out of there. Of course, coming back is quicker than going in. It’s a downhill run. Still, the overall distance of around 5 miles each way made that return journey one of aching legs and feet. Finally, back to the car, I bid that awesome mountain paradise farewell and hit the highway to Polson. The prospect of soaking the tired, aching feet and legs in the motel jacuzzi became the primary driving force. Thank goodness I had found the perfect motel for the occasion through our website at When you’re in the western Montana area, you don’t want to miss the opportunity to enjoy the wonders of the incredible Mission Mountains for yourself.