Elk Mountain (7,835 feet) rises in the southern part of Glacier National Park west of Marias Pass. This hike is 7.4 miles round trip with an elevation gain of 3,300 feet. Even though the snow leaves this trail early, it might not be the best choice for the first trip of the season. Give your legs and lungs a chance to get ready for it.
Finding the Trailhead
The trailhead is in the Snowslip area 37.4 miles east of West Glacier. Look for a gravel road (#1066) headed north from Highway 2 at mile marker 192.
The infamous, seedy, and wild 1890s railroad town of McCarthyville promoted dangerous entertainment a little west of this location. It catered to railroad construction workers and miners. During the town’s heyday, saloons, gambling dens, and dance halls prospered while more than a few patrons lost their lives. Little remains today.³
Drive 0.6-miles on #1066. There is crude parking for 4-5 vehicles just before a road closure.
A footpath heads north from the parking area and intersects an old road at 0.8-miles. The route passes through private land before reaching the railroad tracks south of the park boundary. Please be respectful of the landowners and stay on the trail/road.
Once at the railroad tracks, look toward the far side for a small rectangular orange tag nailed to a tree. The trail is to the left of the marker. You will find trailhead signs soon after the path enters the trees. A little over one mile from the trailhead, the route passes the Glacier National Park Fielding Patrol Cabin. Ranger Joe Opalka built the structure in 1936 to serve as a fire cache. Later, it provided shelter for rangers on extended patrols. It is one of two backcountry cabins in the park that were frame-built rather than constructed of logs from the surrounding area.²
The junction for the Elk Mountain Trail is 0.1-mile past the patrol cabin. For the next 2.5 miles, the trail climbs 3,020 feet to reach the summit. Once the footpath exits the timber 0.7-miles from the top, the views will distract one from any discomforts endured up to that point.
On the northwest side of the ridge just beneath the summit, the trail climbs through the standing ghostly remains of whitebark pine trees. Most likely they succumbed to white pine blister rust as have their relatives, limber pine. Originally from Asia, the fungal disease ended up in Europe and then brought to North America via infected white pine seedlings imported from Europe in 1900. It has become the most destructive disease of five-needle pines on our continent.⁴
An old concrete foundation with rusty bolts sticking out and strands of cable lying about mark the location of the former fire lookout. It was built in the 1930s, last used in 1959, and razed by the National Park Service in 1965.¹
The flat stones facing the south soak up the sun’s energy and furnish a relatively warm place to hunker down on cold, windy days.
Views to the northeast include Little Dog Mountain (8,610 feet) and Summit Mountain (8,770 feet), Sheep Mountain (8,569 feet) to the north, the unmistakable spire of Mount Saint Nicholas (9,376 feet) to the northwest. Great Northern Mountain (8,705 feet) with Stanton Glacier can be seen far to the southwest in the Great Bear Wilderness.
Don’t forget to look down. There’s beauty there too.
- “Elk Mountain Fire Lookout.” Montana Memory Project. Accessed July 30, 2019. https://mtmemory.org/digital/collection/p16013coll83/id/123/rec/1.
- “Fielding Snowshoe Patrol Cabin.” National Register of Historic Places. Last modified June , 1984. Accessed July 30, 2019. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/AssetDetail?assetID=78d78895-56ce-4eb3-bba2-2c55851a1854.
- Johns, Sam E. “The Pioneers. Volume 4.” Montana Memory Project. Last modified , 1943. Accessed July 30, 2019. https://mtmemory.org/digital/collection/p16013coll24/id/1612/rec/2.
- Maloy, Otis C. “White Pine Blister Rust.” USDA Forest Service. Last modified September 24, 2001. Accessed July 20, 2019. https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/highelevationwhitepines/Threats/pdf/whitepine_PHP2001_0924_01.pdf.