Top Ten U.S. Campgrounds

Big Therriault Lake Campground: Montana
By Suzanne Dow

Fred and I often hear, "Such-and-such is the best campground in the forest system." According to our Kootenai National Forest contact, Big Therriault Lake was one of these special places. As usual, we smiled politely and thought, "We'll see."

The drive to Big Therriault Lake campground was disappointing. The road was long, rough, and dusty, varying from two- to single-lane and then back again, and through long stretches of nearly desolate landscape. There was little of the lush woodlands crowding the roadway we had found elsewhere in the Kootenai. The barren topography could have been the result of the scouring force of long-ago glaciers, or might be the effects of more recent clear-cut logging practices. Whatever the cause, the miles and miles of desolation were making us doubt the high praise heaped on Big Therriault Lake campground.

Trees continued to be few and far except on distant hillsides. Gradually, the road climbed in elevation and the sapphire-blue sky became hidden by a thickening canopy of pine, spruce, and fir trees. Soon the Canadian border was only a stone's throw north of the roadway. The Big Therriault Lake campground sign appeared. With a quick right-hand turn we were in the campground. And all doubts immediately vanished.

Big Therriault Lake campground is tiny, with only ten campsites tucked into a thick stand of subalpine and Douglas firs. Each site is equipped with grill, table, and parking apron. One hand pump provides crispy cold drinking water, and a single vault (the Forest Service calls this model a Sweet Smelling Toilet) sees to a camper's more basic needs. With no trash pickup, the campground is strictly "pack it in/pack it out." And its single loop reaches up a hillside so everything is either uphill or downhill. Adjacent to the campground is Big Therriault Lake, an alpine lake of crystal-clear water. While none of the campsites has a clear view of the lake, several do have access to a one-mile-loop trail around the lake. This hike is one of the campground's best features.

Exploring the Subalpine World

Alternately hugging the lakeshore and meandering across meadows and through forests, the Big Therriault Lake Trail offers a delightful way to explore the area's geology. Alpine glaciers shaped much of the rugged scenery around Big Therriault Lake thousands of years ago. The results of those ancient, mountain-carving, valley-gouging glaciers can be seen in the boulders scattered here and there, in deep grooves caused by rock scraping rock found nearby, and marshy wetlands formed behind walls of deposited glacier debris called moraines. On the trail's one-mile length, hikers wind through forested areas of lush conifers, over a bouldered moraine, and through a marshy meadow filled with wildflowers and darting songbirds.

The image of dark green pines silhouetted against the pastels of sunrise is outstanding. But even more breathtaking than this image or the sight of a zillion twinkling stars in a black-velvet night sky is the view of Big Therriault Lake. Specifically, it is the view into the lake. Whether standing on the rocky shoreline or seated in a canoe on the lake's mirror-smooth surface, Big Therriault Lake offers a most unusual sight. Looking down through the water, the multicolored rocks appear sharp and brightly lit. Dancing sunlight frames the stones' rich colors so jewel-like shades of ruby red, sapphire blue, grassy-green malachite, and tiger's eye yellow shine like the stained-glass window of a magnificent cathedral.

As if there wasn't enough magnificent beauty right there at Big Therriault Lake campground, Ten Lakes Scenic Area is located between the campground and the Canadian border. Composed of 15,700 acres and designated a Wilderness Study Area, this area offers more of the same spectacular beauty found around the campground. Accessible via several foot or horse trails traversing the area, Ten Lakes Scenic Area is a delightful extension of Big Therriault Lake campground's natural beauty and wonder.


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