Piegan Pass Through-Hike

Finding the Trailhead

Many Glacier and the Going-to-the-Sun Road are the two most common starting points for accessing Piegan Pass. This blog will describe a trip beginning at the trailhead on Siyeh Bend, 2.2 miles east of Logan Pass, and ending at the Many Glacier Hotel. The total distance is about 13 miles and the elevation gained is 1,750 feet to the pass over 4.5 miles. Starting at the Many Glacier Hotel requires climbing 2,540 feet to the pass over a range of about 8.5 miles.

Trail Head at Siyeh Bend, Glacier National Park
Trailhead at Siyeh Bend

It’s going to take some planning to ensure that you get back to your vehicle at the end of the day. One option is to leave your car at Siyeh Bend and schedule a Xanterra Hiker Shuttle to pick you up at the Many Glacier Hotel and take you to the east entrance station at St. Mary. Catch the free Glacier National Park Shuttle from there to Siyeh Bend. Note that parking is relatively limited at Siyeh Bend. So, get there early.

Another possibility is to leave your vehicle at the Many Glacier Hotel and take the Xanterra shuttle to St. Mary and then the Glacier National Park shuttle to Siyeh Bend to start the hike.


 A Little Background

The Blackfoot Confederacy or Niitsitapi is composed of three main tribes. The northernmost Siksika (Alberta, Blackfoot), the Kainai (Alberta, Bloods), North Piegan (Alberta, Aapatohsi Pikunni), and the South Piegan (Montana, Aamsskaapi Pikunni).6 Piegan Pass, Piegan Mountain, and Piegan Glacier were all named for the Montana South Piegan by the fur trader, guide, and author James Willard Shultz in 1885.4

Tragically, a small band of the South Piegan, the Small Robes, led by Chief Heavy Runner lost a large number of their people to smallpox.2,6 In January of 1870, the U.S. military mistakenly killed 173 men, women, and children of the Small Robes. The military attack was in retaliation for the killing of a white man by the Piegan who had taken revenge for the rape of a Piegan woman. Chief Heavy Runner’s band was not involved.6

Siyeh (Sai-yeh) is a Blackfeet name that means Crazy Dog or Mad Wolf. Siyeh mountain, creek, glacier, and pass were all named for a Blackfoot man of this name by George B. Grinnell.4


Siyeh Bend to Piegan Pass (4.5 miles, 1,750 feet elevation gain)

This amazingly beautiful hike begins at an elevation of 5,810 feet, climbs 1,750 feet to reach the pass at 7,560 feet. The 4.5 miles of trail leading to the pass will provide you with jaw-dropping grandeur in all directions.

On the lower parts of the trail under the spruce and fir trees during June you will notice sweet smelling, 3-5 foot plants with white umbrella-shaped flower tops. These are cow parsnips and a favorite food of grizzly bears.

Piegan Mountain, Glacier National Park
Looking South: Piegan Mountain with Mount Jackson in the Background

The first 1.2 miles is a short spur that joins with the main Piegan Pass Trail. At 2.7 miles is the junction for Preston Park and Siyeh Pass. Look to the south-east. The mountain that dominates your view is Matahpi Peak. To the west is Piegan Mountain and just to the north is Mount Pollock. All three are over 9,000 feet in elevation. As you climb higher, look to the south, and you will see the 10,052 foot Mount Jackson looking over the white masses of Jackson Glacier and Blackfoot Glacier. In 1850, the glaciers were one.

As the trail bends toward the west, you will pass along the south-west slopes of Mount Siyeh (10,014 feet). The north side of this crag has a near vertical wall of over 4,000 feet that stands proudly above Cracker Lake.

Mount Siyeh from Piegan Pass, Glacier National Park
Mount Siyeh from Piegan Pass

Look to the north-west and just east of the pass. That massive slab of rock that has been thrust up into the air is Cataract Mountain. The 1,100-foot drop on its north side is impressive.

If you keep an eye out, you will see ancient mud cracks and ripples in the rocks. These features formed in the sediment deposited close to the shoreline of the ancient Belt Sea approximately 1.5 billion years ago. In total, 18,000 feet of sediment were eroded from the barren land and deposited into the sea.3,5

Unimaginable tectonic forces, starting about 150 million years ago, shoved the rock that was to become Glacier National Park 50 miles eastward up and over the top of the much younger formations. Then about 2.6 million years ago until about 12,000 years ago, during The Great Ice Age or Pleistocene Epoch, the valleys filled with glaciers.3 The results of the sculpting done be those glaciers resulted in the cirques, horns, aretes, hanging valleys and u-shaped valleys that you see everywhere in Glacier National Park.

When surrounded by majestic mountains, it’s easy to overlook the treasures on the ground. Keep an eye out in moist sites for the white colored western pasqueflower and Sitka valerian. The drier places may treat you to the purple colored silky phacelia.

Silky Phacelia along Piegan Pass Trail, Glacier National Park
Silky Phacelia

At Piegan Pass, you will find the remnants of an old stone shelter with part of its metal roof buried in the rubble. Also, at the pass and slightly above the trail, you will find a stone base built in the fall of 1926.1,4 This stone foundation once supported a bell.

Piegan Pass - Marmot Sitting on Bell Base Built in 1926 by Great Northern Railroad
Piegan Pass – Marmot Sitting on Bell Base Built during 1926 by Great Northern Railroad

The advertising agent for the Great Northern Railroad W.R. Mills and the manager of the Glacier Park Hotel Company H.A. Noble started their petitions to the National Park Service for permission to place the bell in 1925. Approval came in September of 1926. Clangers were put at Piegan Pass as well as Swiftcurrent, Siyeh, and Gunsight Passes during the following two months. In the summer of 1929, a fourth bell was placed on Scenic Point in the Two Medicine area. The unusual practice supposedly was borrowed from the Swiss. During the fall of 1943, the Hotel Company removed the bells and donated them to a World War II scrap metal drive.4


Piegan Pass to Many Glacier Hotel (8.5 miles, 2,540 feet elevation loss)

As you face north and begin your descent through the Cataract Creek drainage, it is hard to ignore a massive mountain to the north-west. Mount Gould is the mountain with the distinctive black horizontal band. This band is igneous rock – diorite to be specific. Around 750 million years ago, magma oozed between the layers of the sedimentary limestone rock. The white color immediately above and below the dark band is a marble that resulted from the extreme heat of the magma working on the limestone.3

Mount Gould from Piegan Pass
Mount Gould from Piegan Pass

A little north of the 9,553 foot Mount Gould is Angel Wing at 7,430 feet. The impressive Feather Plume Falls will become more spectacular the closer you get to the junction of The Piegan Pass Trail and the trail that leads to Grinnell Lake and Lake Josephine. As you descend through the switchbacks, keep a look out for Morning Eagle Falls to the west. Eventually, the trail will come very close to Cataract Creek and the view of the falls looking back up the creek is sure to please.

Morning Eagle Falls with Bear Grass, Glacier National Park
Morning Eagle Falls with Bear Grass

At the trail junction, the right fork is the main Piegan Pass Trail which leads to the Many Glacier Hotel. The Piegan Pass Trail gets a lot of horse traffic and can be a muddy mess. I regretted choosing that route on a hike one July day.

The left fork will also deliver you to the Many Glacier Hotel by way of Grinnell Lake and the trail along the south shore of Lake Josephine. Less mess will cost about an extra one-half mile. The route along the southern edge of Lake Josephine is cut through thick forest with thimbleberries crowding the path at times. Be sure to make noise and have your bear spray handy. Be aware of the signs at trail junctions to ensure that you end up at the Many Glacier Hotel.

As you finish up the trip, notice Grinnell Point that dominates the view across the lake. On the north side of Grinnell Point is the Swiftcurrent Creek Valley. If you have not explored that area of the Park, definitely consider it.

The historic Many Glacier Hotel is a sight to behold. The building has Swiss chalet architecture which was part of the “American Alps” promotional package of the Great Northern Railroad. Construction began in 1914 and wrapped up on July 4, 1915.1


End Notes

  1. Guthrie, C.W. The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
  2. Juneau, Linda. “Small Robe Band of Blackfeet: Ethnogenesis by Social and Religious Transformation.” The University of Montana. Accessed July 5, 2018. https://scholarworks.umt.edu/etd/890.
  3. Raup, Omer, Robert Earhart, James Whipple, and Paul Carrara. Geology Along the Going-to-the-Sun Road Glacier National Park, Montana. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Associaton, 1983.
  4. Robinson, Donald. Through the Years. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Association, 1973.
  5. Tapanila, Lori, and Paul Link. “Mesoproterozoic Belt Supergroup.” Idaho State University. Accessed July 5, 2018. http://geology.isu.edu/Digital_Geology_Idaho/Module2/mod2.htm.
  6. Thompson, Sally. People Before the Park. Helena, MT: Montana Historical Society Press, 2015.

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