If you are looking for a hike that includes waterfalls, a picturesque mountain lake surrounded by majestic peaks, and a place away from the crowds, the Medicine Grizzly Lake hike may interest you.
Finding the Trailhead
Medicine Grizzly Lake is located on the east side of Glacier National Park in the Cut Bank area between Saint Mary and East Glacier. To reach the trailhead, drive north from East Glacier 12 miles via MT-49 and then 4 miles on US-89. The road to Cut Bank is signed.
The MT-49 section, also known as the Looking Glass Road, is narrow and winding with steep drop-offs. The panoramas looking west into Glacier National Park are spectacular. Be advised that long vehicles and trailers are not recommended.
The other options are to drive south from Saint Mary 14 miles via US-89. Or, if you are coming from the east, start at Browning and follow US-89 for 12 miles to Kiowa Junction. Turn right and stay on US-89 for 4 miles.
Follow the Cut Bank gravel road for about 5 miles to the trailhead. Note that the first 4 miles of the road are on Blackfeet Reservation land. Before reaching the trailhead parking lot, you will pass by the Cut Bank Ranger Station built in 1917. It was manned year-round until the 1930s and afterward only during the summers. Currently, there is no park service official stationed at Cut Bank. The building is being used by non-park service personnel.
Not far from the ranger station you will find a small parking lot on the right side of the road with a clearly marked Pitamakin Pass Trailhead sign. There is a pit toilet south of the gravel in the nearby 14 site Cut Bank campground. The area has no potable water, but the North Fork of Cut Bank Creek is not far. Of course, that water should be purified before drinking it.
Cut Bank Chalets?
The Great Northern Railroad (GNR) invested a lot of money building trails, chalets, tent camps and roads in the early days of the park. Their marketing campaign was about luring wealthy tourists away from the Alps of Europe to the ‘Alps’ of America. The park service did not have the funds to develop the park, and the railroad had a financial incentive to do so.
Around 1911 GNR opened the Cut Bank Teepee Camp. During the years 1911 to 1912, a dining room/kitchen, 2 single-room cabins, and 1 two-story multi-room lodge with a lounge area were constructed and then opened for business in 1913.1 The location, a favorite with fisherman, was a stop along the Inside Trail that linked Two Medicine, Cut Bank, Red Eagle Lake, and Saint Mary Lake.2
Financial troubles during the Great Depression resulted in the closure of Cut Bank in 1933. There was an attempt to revive the camp as a dude ranch which was unsuccessful, and the buildings were permanently closed in 1938. The park service dismantled the structures from 1948 to 1949.1
Not a Laughing Matter
Bear scat was not lacking on the trail during this hike. Of course, the joke about the difference between black bear scat and grizzly bear scat was bound to surface. The punch line is that grizzly bear poop has bear bells in it. Lo and behold, further down the trail we found a pile of scat with a bear bell in it. I’m not kidding! I haven’t laughed that hard in a while. Someone had a great sense of humor. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a hidden camera to record the reactions of people passing by.
The fact that the Cut Bank valley is grizzly bear habitat is not a joke. Be sure that you have bear-spray that you can access quickly. It is also a good idea to practice taking the canister out of the holster and releasing the safety clip. A surprised bear can be a dangerous bear. Let them know where you are by making noise.
Glacier National Park has an informative webpage about hiking in the bear’s home that is worth viewing especially if it is your first time in the park.
A final note on bear bells. The official position of Glacier (see link above) is that the bells are not enough. If we throw a little physics at this, it turns out that high-frequency sounds (bear bells) do not travel as far as low-frequency sounds. Elephants take advantage of this to the extreme. They use a frequency that is so low that humans can’t hear it but it travels great distances.
Medicine Grizzly Lake (6 miles, 475 feet elevation gain)
The Pitamakin Pass Trail begins by taking a southwest line through an expansive meadow. During the summer months, it is colored with the scarlet-hued paintbrush, purple lupine, magenta sticky geranium, and the white blossoms of yarrow and northern bedstraw. Dominating the skyline behind the meadow is the massive Bad Marriage Mountain and to the east Mad Wolf Mountain.
As you meander through the forest of subalpine fir with their narrow, dense spires, there will be several places where the trail approaches the North Fork of Cut Bank Creek. The viewing points will offer delightful scenes of the peaks to the south including the pyramid shape of Flinsch Peak.
After you have logged 3.9 miles, there will be a trail junction. Going left will keep you on the Pitamakin Pass Trail which will eventually lead you to Two Medicine. The right fork puts you on the Triple Divide Pass Trail. This is the trail that you want.
Just 0.4 miles from the junction is the Atlantic Creek backcountry campground. There are four sites, two of which are reservable. Interestingly, Atlantic Creek, Pacific Creek, and Hudson Bay Creek all have their headwaters at the unique geologic location named Triple Divide Peak. From that mountaintop, water drains toward the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Ocean, and Hudson’s Bay.
The junction for Medicine Grizzly Lake is 0.3 miles past the campground. Follow the left fork to the lake. The right fork leads to Triple Divide Pass and Saint Mary. As you saunter the final 1.4 miles to the lake, enjoy the headwall with its waterfalls below Razoredge Mountain, Triple Divide Peak to the northwest, and Medicine Grizzly Peak to the south.
There is an excellent place near the foot of the lake to lounge by the shore, have a bite to eat, and take delight in trout rising to a midge. Rejuvenating is the word that comes to mind.
When it’s time to leave, and that time always comes, take pleasure in knowing that the vistas your back could not fully appreciate will now be front and center for you to relish for the next six miles.
- “Cut Bank Chalets.” National Park Lodge Architectural Society, 2010, http://www.nplas.org/cutbank.html. Accessed 10 Aug. 2018.
- Robinson, Donald. Through the Years. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.