The Cracker Lake hike is one of those must-do hikes in the Many Glacier region of Glacier National Park. The scenery at the lake is spectacular and the history surrounding this unique area only adds to the day’s adventure.
A Brief History
Glacier National Park, from the continental divide to the plains, was once part of the Blackfeet Reservation created by the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty. It seems that word of the gathering arrived too late in order for Blackfeet delegates to attend the treaty gathering. However, 10,000 other Indians from several plains tribes were in attendance. The Musselshell River, Missouri River, Yellowstone River, and the Rocky Mountain Range were set as the boundaries for the Blackfeet Reservation.
By executive order in 1873, President Ulysses Grant changed the boundaries of the reservation thereby reducing the Blackfeet land. Grant received quite a bit of pressure over this action. Consequently, the land was restored in 1875. But, this was short lived. The land was taken away again in 1880 by the executive order of President Rutherford Hayes.
President Benjamin Harrison signed the proclamation admitting Montana to the union on November 8, 1889. During the period of 1890 to 1893, word spread like wildfire that there were rich deposits of copper to be found in the mountains. Of course, it was illegal to do any prospecting or mining on the land east of the continental divide because it was part of the Blackfeet Reservation. The Great Northern Railroad arrived in East Glacier (Midvale) in 1891. The stage was set for miners and supplies to pour into the region.
Due to mounting pressure from the mining community, Congress appointed William C. Pollock, George Bird Grinnell, and Walter M. Clements to negotiate the purchase of the portion of the Blackfeet Reservation east of the continental divide to the prairies and from Canada south about 60 miles. They were successful. The United States Congress ratified the purchase of the “Ceded Strip” for 1.5 million dollars in 1896.
In the year 1897, L.S. Emmons and Hank Norris were following a mineral lead located near the head of Canyon Creek. They stopped for lunch on the shore of what was then known as Blue Lake. According to the popular story, they left their crackers and cheese at their lunch spot. Thereafter, they referred to the lead that they were following as “the lead where we left our crackers”. This eventually morphed into the cracker lead. It happens that the lead went under Blue Lake. Eventually, the lake inherited the name of the lead and became known as Cracker Lake.
In 1898, the “Ceded Strip” was opened for mining. The Cracker Mine at the head of Cracker Lake opened in the same year. The town of Altyn was built near the mouth of Canyon Creek largely because of the mine. This one-time robust little town was named for Dave Altyn, one of the financial backers of the mine. At its peak, Altyn boasted a post office, saloons and dance halls, a store, a hotel, tent-houses, and cabins. The Lake Sherburne dam was constructed in the years 1914-1921. Now the reservoir hides this local history.
The mining frenzy was short lived. As mining experts had predicted, little to no minerals were found. For all practical purposes, the bonanza was finished by 1903. The Cracker Mine land exchanged hands several times over the years. Finally, the tax deed was obtained in September 1953 by the Glacier Natural History History Association for $123.96. The Association transferred the land to the federal government in October of that year for the same amount of money.
The out and back to Cracker Lake starts behind the Many Glacier Hotel at the south end of the parking lot near the horse stables. The park shows the mileage as 6.4 miles one way. However, I would suggest continuing on to the head of the lake to view the Cracker Mine ruins. This increases the one-way distance to 7 miles. The total elevation gain is 1,400 feet. Plan on six to seven hours for the round trip to allow for sauntering, exploring, picture taking, eating, etc.
Know that this is prime grizzly bear habitat and the Cracker Lake Trail is well known for its bears, especially during berry season. The trail has also been posted for mountain lions. Make it a point to check the Glacier National Park Trail Status Reports. The vegetation can get thick and there are plenty of blind curves. Make a lot of noise, hike in a group, carry bear spray where it is easily and quickly accessible. And, be sure that you have practiced taking the canister out of its holster and removing the safety clip.
The first couple of miles of trail are shared with the Swan Mountain Outfitter horses. Consequently, it can be a muddy mess or a dusty, rutted trail with the recognizable fetor of equine deposits. After about 1.3 miles, the horses split off onto the Cracker Flats Horse Loop. This loop rejoins the trail at about 1.5 miles. The trail improves substantially after this junction.
The trail crosses a footbridge over Allen Creek at 1.6 miles and then climbs up a ridge. Allen Creek is to the west of the ridge and Canyon Creek to the east. To the west is the behemoth Allen Mountain and Wynn Mountain to the east. Canyon Creek, which flows from Cracker Lake, is crossed at about 4 miles. At five miles from the trailhead, views of the headwall will come into view.
There is a great overlook about 6 miles from the trailhead. The magnificent milky turquoise water of Cracker Lake, the ten-thousand-foot, Mount Siyeh, with its sheer north face rising more than 4,000 feet from the head of Cracker Lake, and Allen Mountain to the west makes for a memorable photo op. Keep an eye out for mountain goats and hoary marmots.
The backcountry campground is below the trail that leads to the head of the lake and the old Cracker Mine site. There are only 3 campsites and no trees. Privacy there is not. Outstanding views without a doubt.
The adit for the 1,300-foot mine tunnel has been collapsed, but it is pretty obvious where the mine was located. The rusted remains of equipment can be seen down toward the lake shore. One piece of equipment that I found, was made by Atlas Engine Works of Indianapolis, Indiana.
Charles Nielson of East Glacier was contracted to haul the mine’s 16,000-pound concentrator from Fort Browning to the mine site. I assumed that Fort Browning was located somewhere close to Browning Montana. After I did a little research, I found that Fort Browning was a trading post located on the Milk River outside the town of Dodson in eastern Montana. That is no less than a 250 to 300-mile trip just to arrive at the mouth of Canyon Creek. Mr. Nielson used a large freight wagon and twelve stout mules on a trip where there was little in the way of roads. Block and tackle were used to haul the equipment up Canyon Creek. For this monumental task, he was paid $25 per day. The job took 29 days.
The Many Glacier Hotel is an excellent spot to finish the day. The Great Northern Railroad completed the construction on July 4, 1915. Spectacular panoramas to the west include Swiftcurrent Lake, the iconic Grinnell Point, and Mount Wilbur. Recent rehabilitation work has ensured that this National Historic Landmark can be enjoyed for years to come.
Good company, a cool beverage, stories and quintessential Glacier. Life is good!