The hike to Nasukoin is without a doubt one of our favorites in the Whitefish Range of the Flathead National Forest. It is in fact not one but three hikes where the first stop is Link Lake, next on up to Lake Mountain, and finally all the way up to the top of Nasukoin, the highest point in the Glacier View Ranger district.
Difficulty: Medium mainly because of the length and change of elevation
Total Distance: 10 miles round trip
Approximate Time from the Trail Head: 6-7 hours
Highest Elevation: 8,069
Difference from Start Elevation: 2,029 feet
Total Ascent: 3,541 feet (that’s a lot of going up and down)
What do you need?
Take plenty of water. There are no water sources other than the lakes along this trail. If you do want to drink the lake water, don’t forget your filtration system. And if you bring along your dog, don’t forget to bring extra water from him/her. Also take plenty of sunscreen and a hat, especially in the summer. There are portions of the trial that have very little shade. There are no bathroom facilities, so be prepared to deal responsibly with that. Finally, bring your bear spray at all times of the year. There are plenty of grizzly and black bears in this region.
What makes this hike so perfect?
First, it is in the Flathead National Forest which means that it is much less crowded than hiking just across the North Fork River in Glacier National Park. Next, you can bring your dog along and it’s perfectly legal. In season, you can carry along your weapon of choice and do a bit of hunting along the way. Finally, unlike some trails where you have to walk through miles of dense forest before you break through to the top, the views are beautiful all along the way.
The hike described in the post was taken in mid September when the huckleberry bushes had started to turn red and fall colors were everywhere. September is the best time to hike in this part of Montana. There are fewer people on the trail, and best of all, no bugs. The perfect time.
Where did the name Nasukoin come from?
Good question. Our research indicates that it is a word from the Kootenai language. The Kootenai are a Native American/First Nations people in British Columbia, Idaho and Montana, and the Kutenai language is also known as Ktunaxan or Kitunahan. Other spellings for Nasukoin include nasu’kin or knasu’kin or nasu’in. One source says that the Kootenai were divided into at least four different social ranks. The top rank was the nasu’kin meaning band or village leader (or chief).
Getting to the Trail Head
There are two ways to get to the trail head. The easiest by far is coming from Columbia Falls Montana on the east side of the Whitefish divide via the North Fork road. The second more difficult route is from Whitefish Montana on the west side of the divide.
Coming from Columbia Falls Montana
You take the North Fork road out of Columbia Falls until you hit the dirt road. Continue on this road for about 28 1/2 miles until you see a sign for Red Meadow Road on your left.
Turn left onto Red Meadow road and drive approximately 10 miles following the Red Meadow Creek drainage, and eventually crossing over the Whitefish Divide. You’ll know you’re getting near the divide when you pass Red Meadow Lake on your left.
Red Meadow Lake sits at 5,606 feet and covers about 16 acres. Although folks do fish for Westslope Cutthroat Trout here, it’s the Arctic Grayling that draws most fisher people. The Forest Service last stocked this lake in 2005 with 15,000 Arctic Grayling of less than an inch.
Red Meadow Lake has an interesting history. In July of 2001, a tourist from New Mexico was shot, burned, and buried near the lake. Two were convicted of the crime and sentenced to prison. In January 2006, an avalanche at the lake triggered by snowmobilers killed two and injured one. The unusually powerful event caused a tsunami on the lake that created a swath of battered broken trees on the far side of the lake and resulted in many of the 15,000 fish stocked the year before being thrown up on shore. It also emptied out much of the water in the lake. As you drive by, you’ll see the path of this avalanche along with the shallow lake full of trees trunks.
Once you pass Red Meadow Lake, you’ll drive over the divide and start to come down the other side. Right after this, you’ll see a large turnout on your right and signs indicating Link Lake Rd # 589. Take this road for approximately 1.5 miles until you see a large grassy area on the right. That’s where you should park. Continue to the right to find the trail head.
From Whitefish Montana
The second way of getting to the trail head from Whitefish is a bit rougher. Drive 18.5 miles north of Whitefish on Highway 93 then turn right on the access road to Upper Whitefish Lake which is almost directly across the highway from the Olney turnoff located between mile markers 145 and 146. You have to drive up this rocky road for almost 19 miles before you get to the turnout described above. If you go over the divide and see Red Meadow Lake on your right, you’ve gone too far.
Link Lake Trail
The Link Lake Trail is designated Trail #372 by the Forest Service and is open for non-motorized uses only. If you go all the way to the lake, this trail is approximately 1.3 miles long.
Mago Tip: You want to be careful to take the correct trail. Once you get to the parking area, you want the trail that leads off into the woods towards the east. If you continue to go straight, you’ll end up on the Whitefish divide trail. It’s a beautiful trail as well, but a whole other kettle of fish.
The trail starts off flat, but you’ll soon find yourself gaining altitude through a series of switchbacks that take you through a beautiful forest area. Be sure to look up from the trail every once in awhile to see the views of the Whitefish Range.
About 1.15 miles into this hike, you’ll see a “Y” in the trail. The trail that goes straight takes you down to Link Lake. The trail you want, however, is to the left, leading you on up the mountain.
If you miss this turn off and end up at Link Lake, it’s not the end of the world. If you brought your fly rod along, you could go fishing. In the same stream network as Red Meadow Lake leading to Red Meadow Creek, at an elevation of 6,422 feet, and stretching across 16 acres, Link Lake includes opportunities for both Westslope and Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout.
Like most of the mountain lakes in this area, Link Lake is stocked periodically by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. In 2008 Link Lake was stocked with 5,000 Westslope Cutthroats 1 inch long. The last stocking took place in 2011 with 2,000 Westslope Cutthroats 2 inches long. The short summers make for a short growing season for these fish. We’ve fished this lake in years past and I have to admit that the results have been small. But the setting is beautiful and there are places to camp around the lake.
You’re not likely to catch a trout of sufficient size, but check out this Mago Meal for Whole Trout with Bacon and Eggplant Stuffing for the time when you do catch something big.
Lake Mountain Trail
Continuing on up the trail from Link Lake (remember you took that left fork heading up), you’ll start the assent to Lake Mountain. This is another series of switchbacks that offers you wonderful views of Link Lake from above at several opportunities.
The huckleberry bushes were turning all of the side of the mountain from the green to red. As you can see from the photo above, though, the huckleberries were just about finished.
Move up the trail on the lazy switchbacks until you get towards the top where the trail levels off a bit (about 0.6 miles from the turnoff).
Take a moment to rest up at this point and enjoy the view. What you see below you is the end of the Link Lake Fork, a 2.57 mile-long tributary of Red Meadow Creek. Along this creek are a series of four lakes that look like pearls on a necklace from the air and provide surprise views of distant water all along the next portion of the hike along the Nasukoin Trail. This lake at the top is Chain Lake #1.
The lake looks tempting, right? Because the lake is situated in a basin and gets limited sunlight every day, it remains frozen except for a couple of months each year. Chain Lake #1 at an elevation of 7,134 feet is approximately 3 acres in area and does indeed have Westslope Cutthroat Trout. This lake was stocked in 2005 with 500 Westslope Cutthroats of a little over an inch and again in 2009 with 500 a little under an inch. The problem is getting down there because there is no clear trail. The best way we’ve found to get down is to pass the lake on your right and start making your way down the gentle slope to its left. You’ll eventually make it down if you don’t break a leg. Is the fishing worth it? Like Link Lake, Chain Lake #1 has small to medium size, but hungry, trout. And there are frequently snow fields around that let you keep your catch cold while you pack them out.
Mago Tip: Don’t be confused by the locals. Locals often call Chain Lake #1 “Upper Chain” or sometimes “Chain Lake #4” (counting from the bottom lake along the chain rather than the top). The Forest Service, however, has officially named it Chain Lake #1.
Back on the trail to Nasukoin. You should see a stack of rocks called a cairn that has been placed as a trail marker, pointing down to a series of switchbacks that take you off of Lake Mountain and towards Nasukoin Mountain. You can just see Nasukoin from here because it’s partially hidden by another mountain that you’re going to go around a bit later.
Take the switchbacks down the side of the mountain. There are 15 of them altogether (we counted) for a distance of about 0.25 miles. The trail levels out at this point and you walk along a beautiful ridge for 1.5 miles.
By the way, the first time we took these switchbacks the trail was in terrible shape and you were in fear of falling off the side of the mountain. The Forest Service has done a wonderful job fixing this trail.
For awhile you’ll be following the Link Lake Fork creek way below and to your right. Through the trees you’ll see glimpses of the chain lakes going down the mountain side. To your left, you’ll see the beautiful Stoney Basin Lake. We know very little about it except its name and that it’s almost 6 acres in size. It’s apparently not stocked and we don’t even know if one can get there from here.
UPDATE: Our good friend Keith wrote to us and reports… Stoney basin lake does have fish…you can get there via upper chain….sorry can’t call it chain 1.
The trail can disappear along here, so be sure to keep your eyes open for cairns.
The trail in this area passes what remains of whitebark pines that stand like sentinels along the way. The whitebark pine’s smooth, rigid needles, 1.5 to 3 inches long, grow in clusters of five near the ends of upswept branches. The bark is smooth and pale gray. Whitebark pines can grow up to 60 feet tall in moister areas, but they are usually much shorter. Constant strong winds in alpine areas can contort the trunk and cause stunting. Because of the dual onslaught of white pine blister rust and the mountain pine beetle, the whitebark pine is dying out across much of its range in Montana.
It was along this trail that we discovered signs of bears digging up the ground for food in the form of hibernating Columbia ground squirrels. Cool. Where’s that bear spray?
Eventually you pass over the top of the ridge and there is Nasukoin Mountain in front of you. That line you see in the photo above that goes roughly from the lower left to the upper right is the trail you’re about to take.
Follow along this trail for about 0.75 miles until you get to the foot of Nasukoin.
From here it is approximately another 0.2 miles to the top. You have two choices once you reach the top.
You can either turn to the left and head to the west side of the mountain for some beautiful views looking back towards the Whitefish divide and into Canada.
Or you can turn to the right and go to the east side of the mountain where there are the remains of an old lookout and views into Glacier National Park.
Congratulations! You’ve just completed one of the most difficult and most beautiful hikes in the Whitefish Range. Let us know below what you think of the hike when you get the chance.
Below is an interactive map you can use to see photos and read descriptions all along the hike route. Click on the “Terrain” option under the Map pulldown to see the trail with elevation data. By the way, if you’re having trouble seeing the map, check to see whether or not your browser is asking for permission. Probably somewhere near the top.