Aerial photos by John Lehrman

Lantern Lake Basin on left and Carlton Lake Basin on right

Lolo Peak dominates the northern end of the Bitterroots and is the prominent peak seen to the south from Missoula. The Bulk of Lolo Peak proper is hidden behind Carlton Ridge. The best and most dramatic view of Lolo peak is from Rte 12 where there is an expansive view of the Lantern Ridge and Northwest Bowl coming off the summit. This ski into Lantern Lake is a very worthy objective for the ski mountaineer. Lolo Peak has gained national attention recently as it is the site for a proposed ski develoment with lifts serving the mountain from the Bitterrot valley to the very summit of the peak. Let us hope and work towards that never happening.

Lolo Peak is a popular destination for Missoulians as it is the highest peak close to town and dominates their viewshed. Access in the early season and late season is quite good. The main Mormon Ridge trailhead is gated at Lolo Creek in mid December to offer big game security. This is unfortunate for skiers who would like to keep skiing Lolo throughout the winter, though hopefully this restriction does provide elk with a sanctuary. Midwinter access is best from Lantern Ridge requiring a long and arduous approach on a switchbacking trail and then an exposed ridge to the summit. The standard and easier approach from the Carlton Ridge trailhead requires a decent hike on a good trail from the parking spot at the switchback before the road heads north up Mormon Peak. Follow this trail from about 6000 feet up through the forest and into the glades until Carlton Ridge is attained at just over 8000 ft. Many early season skiers ski these glades or the steeper north facing bowl off Carlton Pk east of the rocks. Jibbers build jumps in the glades and play there all day.

For peak baggers and big mountain skiers, from Carlton Ridge descend open gentle slopes west into the main basin and follow two basic routes to the summit of Lolo Peak ridge. Crossing the toe of the lake one can ascend gentle larch glades to the ridge or traverse the north side of the lake, climb the step into the upper basin and ascend mellow open slopes to the summit. This is where the chairlift to the summit is proposed.

There is a variety of runs descending north back to the lake and upper basin from fairly gentle to steeper. The runs to the head of Carlton Lake are the steepest I remember. Once at the summit, the drop into Lantern basin becomes obvious to the northwest down a small bowl through a couloir and out onto the slope below. Return to Carlton Basin via a hike to the east through whitebark pine on a steep windward slope.
From the summit of Lolo Peak there are further options south off the main ridge that drop the intrepid skier into the upper reaches of One Horse drainage. These slopes are from south to east faces in the alpine and rarely visited. Once dropping into this basin the skier must regain the ridge by wrapping around to the northeast. There is an old summer trail into and out of this basin. Reaching the summit of Lolo Peak is a must tour for the western Montana skier and is a very worthy and fun destination for ski touring.
When returning to the trail north of Carlton Ridge be careful. The glades descend east and west of where the trail emerges from the thick forest and there is little to tell you whether you are east or west of the trail as it is a face that eventually after dropping elevation drains into two different drainages, Mill Creek and Mormon Creek.
My partner and I became lost here once when I was convinced we needed to traverse further east to gain the trail area. We wandered deep onto the Mormon Creek face and when we dropped elevation and started bushwhacking we were far to the east. Returning west eventually we had to cross Mormon Creek in the dark and it was icy and blown in with deadfall. Our trip to Lolo Peak ended in exhaustion 15 hours after it started due to this miscalculation. I suggest using a GPS to waypoint the trail where it emerges from the timber into the glades for a worry free return to the trail!
Typically the Mormon Peak trailhead to Lolo Peak is closed after hunting season on December 1st and does not open until May 16th. I wish the road was open a bit later for us non extractive users and opened a bit earlier in the spring, though I am sure with its closure its excellent south facing remote grassland habitat provides a nice sanctuary from humans.