This loop is a leisurely 3 day backpacking trip in a beautiful forest with stunning views and many day hike options, like the one to Pintler Pass from Johnson Lake. Good beginner loop or family outing for people that have not backpacked a ton.

Day 1:
After pulling into the Middle Fork parking lot, there will be two trailheads. Sign in at either one, but I started at TH 28 to head directly to Johnson Lake. A gradual climb passes beautiful waterfalls and recovering burn scars dotted with flowers. To Johnson Lake is 5.2 miles with an elevation gain of a little under 1500 feet.

There are established campgrounds around the lake that the forest service requires you to camp in. This is a good base camp for a day hike up to Pintler Pass, or a whole day fly fishing next to this crystal clear mountain lake.

Day 2:
From Johnson Lake head towards Phyllis Lake. There will be a bit of tough elevation gain as you climb over a few ridges, enjoying a view of the forests below. Phyllis Lake, held by craggy peaks and scree slopes, is a beautiful lunch stop.

After another climb up a ridge, you will drop down into a stunning amphitheater which sometimes offers camping in its halls, but there was no water when I tried to camp in late August. Continue towards Bitter Root Pass on Trail 28 towards Little Johnson Lake.

You can climb up a bit more to another gorgeous alpine lake, a little smaller than the others. This camp spot has a little less traffic than the other lake. With 6.5 miles and elevation gain a little less than 2000 feet, this is definitely the hardest day of the loop.

Day 3:
After leaving the pretty sunlit lake, retrace your steps back to the amphitheater. At the junction you will head back towards TH 9. The trail is a short, 4.5 mile, mild downhill through classic Montana forest. After losing 1800 feet, you will arrive at the parking lot and reluctantly head back to civilization.

Beware of animals and bears use proper precautions!

Getting there:

  • Philipsburg go south on Highway 1 (6.4 miles)
  • West on Highway 38 (9 miles)
  • South on Road 5106 to Middle Fork Trailhead (15 miles)

Pack List

  • Fly fishing gear
  • Normal summer backpacking gear
  • Roper to use for bear hangs
  • Bear spray
  • Know your Leave No Trace ethics!
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RT Distance 16 Miles
Elevation Gain 3160 Feet
Activities Chillin, Camping, Fishing, Photography, Swimming, Backpacking, Hiking
Skill Level Beginner
Season Summer, Autumn
Trail Type Loop
Features
Dog Friendly
Lake
Wildlife

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound Collective.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More

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