This adventure in the Belly River region begins in the northeastern corner of Glacier National Park, about three-quarters of a mile south of the international border with Canada. If exploring a remote area in the Glacier National Park wilderness appeals to you, read on.
Because of the location, consider distances to the nearest help should an emergency arise. The nearest are the Belly River Ranger Station and the U.S. Customs Station. Depending where you are in the hike, one will be better than the other. Know that there is no cell phone coverage.
Be honest with yourself about your physical condition.
Water is fleeting on Lee Ridge. I wouldn’t plan on replenishing your supplies en route. “Bring plenty of water” is a commonly given piece of advice but a little vague for me. So, consider a general rule of thumb. Consume at least 0.5 liters per hour. For this trip then, the minimum estimated volume of water to carry is 3.2 liters. It was close to 80° Fahrenheit on my last trek up Lee Ridge, and I drank about 4 liters.
If you’re unfamiliar with traveling through bear habitat, I recommend Glacier National Park’s Bear Safety web page. There’s a lot of valuable information, including a video presentation by a park bear biologist.
Check the Glacier National Park Trail Status page.
Check Glacier National Park’s Trail and Area Closings and Postings.
If you’ve not done many longer hikes in the backcountry, consider REI’s Day Hiking Checklist. It’s a good one.
From Saint Mary, drive north 13 miles on U.S. Highway 89 to the junction with Montana Highway 17 (Chief Mountain Highway). Continue 13.7 miles on Highway 17 and look for a parking turnout on the right side of the road. If you reach a large parking lot on the left within sight of the Chief Mountain Border Station, you’ve gone too far. Backtrack about one-half mile. From the south end of the parking turnout, walk southeast along the highway about 550 feet (0.1 miles) to find the trail marked with an orange tag nailed to a tree.
The first 4.5 miles of this trip are through a lodgepole pine forest. An abundance of thimbleberry (in full bloom the first week of July) and other plants like bead lily, false Salomon’s-seal, and spotted coral-root point to a moist environment. The mosquitos are a confirmation of that.
At 2.4 miles, the Lee Ridge Trail slope increases to about 10% for 3 miles. The last 0.6 miles steepens again before reaching the Gable Pass Trail junction. This intersection is also at the highest elevation of the hike at 7,447 feet.
The footpath crosses the treeline at 4.6 miles from the trailhead and fades away into the alpine tundra. Rock cairns within eyesight of each other lead to the Gable Pass Trail.
You’ll notice an extensive area where rock and plant life form alternating rows in a stair-step pattern. This unique ecosystem is an alpine fellfield—plants living here experience severe cold, wind, little moisture, and a short growing season. The mounds of the pink-flowered moss campion and the matt-forming white mountain avens are the most common plants thriving in this harsh environment.
As you make your way toward the end of the Lee Ridge route, Gable Mountain towers directly ahead. Toward the west, the tallest peak in Glacier National Park, Mount Cleveland, dominates the spectacular panorama of mountain peaks. (See the photo at the top of this post.)
At the junction, proceed eastward. Chief Mountain is to the left and only about two miles away. The Blackfeet people have long held a spiritual connection with this geologic feature. Ninaki Peak and Papoose are the two lesser prominences between Chief and the trail. One legend from the Piegan Tribe of the Blackfeet Nation explains how those mountains got their names.
Approaching Gable Pass, the trail drops and climbs as it winds through enormous limestone boulders. We saw cat tracks (four toes, rounded shape, no claw marks) in the mud and assumed a bobcat made them since they were only about 1.5 inches across. A lynx or mountain lion could be 2-3 times wider. Of course, this is assuming an adult made the imprints. We also came across the blocky prints of a mountain goat.
Before the final brief descent to Gable Pass, we took advantage of a location offering nice flat rocks and outstanding landscape views to have a snack. While one hand grasped the food, the other swatted at biting insects. The bites were not the gentle little pokes of mosquitos. These guys meant business.
The Return Trip
Backtrack and call it a day. Or, go back to the Gable Pass and Lee Ridge trail intersection. Instead of turning right, continue straight ahead. It will be a steep 3.8 miles down to the Belly River Ranger Station. From there, take the Belly River Trail northeast for six miles. Once at the trailhead, it will still be 0.5 miles walking along the highway back to your vehicle. Instead of 13 miles, completing the loop will be closer to a 17-mile day.
|Total Distance: 13.2 miles|
|Total Elevation Gain: 2,367 feet; Loss: 637 feet|
|Difficulty: 17.9, strenuous ( calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile)|
|Estimated Walking Time: 6 hours 28 minutes (at 2.5 mph + Naismith’s Rule)|