You may be more likely to hear cross-country skiers or mountain bikers talk about this trail than you will hikers. But there are great opportunities for birding and viewing wildflowers while you enjoy an unhurried walk to the haunts of the Old Flathead Ranger Station.
The Old Flathead Ranger Station trail has about 400 feet of elevation gain/loss with a total round trip distance of 6.8 miles. This is also one of the few trails in Glacier National Park where bikes are allowed. The path is all that is left of an overgrown road that was built in the 1940’s.
The trailhead is on the western side of the park southwest of Lake McDonald. To get there, travel about 0.3 miles beyond the west entrance. Watch for the Apgar Lookout Trailhead sign. The turn is on the left side of the road. Travel another 0.3 miles to the T in the lane and go right. Continue on to the Quarter Circle Bridge. The trailhead is about 0.8 miles beyond the bridge. Keep an eye out because the sign, which will be on your left, is pretty small as is the parking area.
It will be quickly evident that this area burned in the past. In fact, the area you will be walking through was consumed by the Robert Fire of 2003. This human-caused fire started west of the park on July 23 and burned through 57,570 acres. The conflagration threatened West Glacier and Apgar which were evacuated twice. Firefighters skillfully set backfires which were pulled west by the unimaginable updraft of the Robert Fire. This action saved West Glacier and Apgar.
If you travel on the Going to the Sun Road and look across Lake McDonald, you will see where the Robert Fire made its final run along Howe Ridge in August 2003. After seeing the aftermath, it is hard to imagine that this was only one of several fires that burned that summer. In total, at least six fires consumed about 135,000 acres – roughly 13% of the Park.
Rebirth and recovery are all around during this walk. Thick stands, of 15-foot tall lodgepole pine, carpet the land to the ridgetops. This tree species has a unique life cycle that in this area primarily depends on fire to foster its next generation. It produces two types of cones.
One variety of the cones only releases its seeds in response to the heat of a fire. After a fire, bare mineral soil and no competition are ideal for lodgepole to reestablish itself. The other type releases it seeds without the need for such an environmental trigger. This ensures the survival of the species even without fire.
During late April to early May, there is a rainbow of colors provided by a multitude of wildflowers. I have seen strawberry, blue-violet, blue clematis, shooting star, heart-leafed arnica, glacier lily, arrowleaf balsamroot, serviceberry, and paintbrush.
When you have traveled about 3.4 miles, you should be at the high bluff that overlooks the confluence of the Middle Fork and the North Fork of the Flathead River. I wandered around looking for the Old Flathead Ranger Station or at least some indication that it existed. There were no clues that I could find.
With the generous help of the Glacier National Park librarian, I was able to discover the rest of the story. According to a report written by Mark Hufstetler in 1988, in the early days of the park, this area was easily accessed from the land west of it. There were also private lands inside the park that were grandfathered in. Poaching was a problem.
So, sometime in the early to mid-1920’s, the Flathead River Ranger Station was established, and by the late 1920’s it was staffed year around. On August 17, 1929, the Half Moon Fire, which like the Robert Fire, started outside the park. The fire hopped the river and consumed the ranger station. In 1930, Congress authorized funds to build four new buildings on the site – a residence, barn, fire-cache, and woodshed.
During the 1940’s, a road was made to the area allowing direct access from Belton (West Glacier). As a result of automobile use, there was only an intermittent need to staff the ranger station. The buildings deteriorated over time. Glacier National Park employees finally removed the residence, barn, and woodshed in 1966. The fire-cache and an outhouse were then all that remained. Since I found no sign of either, I guess that the Robert Fire took care of those.