The Cut Bank area is east of the Continental Divide in the northern part of the Two Medicine Region and south of the Saint Mary Region. Below are three driving routes to the road leading into Cut Bank.
From Saint Mary, drive south 14 miles on US Route 89. Look for a gravel road heading west just before the bridge over the North Fork of Cut Bank Creek.
From Browning, take US Route 89 west for 12 miles to Kiowa Junction. Turn north and follow Route 89 for an additional four miles. The gravel road is on the left after crossing the bridge over North Fork of Cut Bank Creek.
From East Glacier, drive north 12 miles on Montana Highway 49 (also known as the Looking Glass Road). The thoroughfare is narrow and winding, with spectacular views looking into the park. It may not be the best choice if you’re in a hurry or pulling a long trailer. The likelihood of seeing wildlife is pretty good in the early morning and late evening hours. After 12 miles, turn left onto US Route 89 and drive four miles. Like traveling from Browning, look for the gravel route into Glacier National Park, Cut Bank just after the bridge.
It’s important to note the first four of five miles to Cut Bank are on the Blackfeet Reservation. A tribal recreation permit is required to leave the road. Know that they can charge a sizable fine for those who ignore this requirement.
After 4.5 miles on the primitive route, you’ll arrive at the historic ranger station erected in 1917. A small parking lot across the road from the station will accommodate 6-8 cars.
If the gate is closed, it’s okay to walk around the gate and continue on the road. The Pitamakan Pass Trailhead is on the right after a half mile. If the gate is open, there is another limited parking lot at the trailhead.
The modest Cut Bank auto campground and pit toilet are south of the trailhead.
Remember, this is grizzly territory. Do your best to never surprise a bear. If the bruins know your whereabouts, they usually move away. Clapping your hands and periodically calling out are effective. Bear bells are not. Carry bear spray. Know when and how to use it. I suggest practicing unholstering the canister and removing the safety clip so that you can do these quickly and safely. A grizzly moving at full tilt can cover up to 50 feet per second. There’s no time to fiddle with the canister or the safety clip.
Step into the meadow, dappled with color early in the season, and begin your journey to Morning Star Lake. It’s hard to miss Bad Marriage Mountain on the far side of the North Fork of Cut Bank Creek. This beauty was the backdrop for a teepee camp and four chalets built by Great Northern Railway 1911-1913. The creek had long been a popular destination for anglers looking for a great fishing experience even before the park and Great Northern wanted to capitalize on that. All the construction is long gone, but Bad Marriage still welcomes visitors as they enter this wild part of the park.1
The footpath parallels the stream as it moves in and out of stands of lodgepole pine and subalpine fir that smell of fresh cut lumber on warm days. Ripening thimble berries crowding the footpath is a bonus for hikers mid to late summer. The gentle murmur of the moving water and the whisper of the breeze through the pines complete the takeover of the senses while disengaging any stress that hung on up to this point. But just so you’re not misled, the gentle breeze can transform into a notorious east side wind. Instead of a whisper, it’s more like a freight train.
At 3.9 miles, the trail splits. Go left. The right fork leads to Atlantic Creek Campground. A short distance west of the campsites, the route divides again. The left fork follows Atlantic Creek to Medicine Grizzly Lake lying against the base of Razor Edge Mountain. Going the other way leads to Triple Divide Pass.
The trail bends to the south, keeping the North Fork of Cut Bank Creek company all the way to Morning Star Lake, 2.8 miles from the junction. The summits of Medicine Grizzly Peak, west of the trail and Bad Marriage and Eagle Plume Mountains to the east, are like sentinels guarding the entrance to this valley that is a hide for Morning Star.
The grade steepens the last 0.6 miles before topping out. About one-fourth of the elevation gain for the trip is in this section. From the high point, there’s a gentle descent down to the beach of the charming 10-acre Morning Star Lake.
A backcountry campground sits at the head of the lake. Camping sites open around July 15 and two of the three are reservable.
A testament to the amount of snow this country gets was a football-field-size snow drift with a cavernous melt-water opening near the lake. The icy mass, a remnant of the previous winter or winters, still had not disappeared by September.
Make it a two-day excursion and see the outstanding country between Cut Bank and Two Medicine via Pitamakan Pass. You will need to decide which direction to hike.
Average elevation gain is 137 feet per mile, over 6.7 miles from the trailhead at Cut Bank to the Morning Star Lake campground. However, it’s three miles from Morning Star to Pitamakin Pass where you’ll average 623 feet per mile. Starting at Two Medicine, the climb averages 330 feet per mile over 7.5 miles to the pass and then another three miles down to the Morning Star Lake campground.
Either way, you’ll need two vehicles. On the Two Medicine side, there is a parking lot next to the auto campground that’s near the trailhead to Pitamakan Pass.
The Pacific Northwest weather has left its mark on the beautiful Lake McDonald Valley. Here, you can find ancient western redcedar and western hemlock trees, growing at the eastern edge of their range. Below the dense forest canopy, ferns, moss, liverworts, and mushrooms are reminiscent of a temperate coastal rainforest. This area of the park is one-of-a-kind.
Johns Lake Loop features the placid little pond where carnivorous plants secretly go about their business and locations where McDonald Creek crashes over staircases of ancient rock. Near the end, stand above McDonald Creek while watching it become part of Lake McDonald, an idyllic scene at sunset.
The hike begins from the Going-to-the-Sun Road 1.3 miles northeast of the entrance to Lake McDonald Lodge. Look for a small roadside parking area on the right with the Johns Lake Trailhead sign. The loop described below begins here and progresses counter clockwise.
If the trailhead parking lot is full, there are a couple of options:
Drive 0.8 miles farther to the Sacred Dancing Cascades parking lot on the left. You can begin the loop hike there.
Across the Going-to-the-Sun Road from the Johns Lake parking area is the North McDonald Road. Turn left there and you will see parking on your left. If that doesn’t work out, continue over the McDonald Creek bridge. The sign for the McDonald Creek Trail is about 400 feet beyond the bridge. There are small pullouts for parking. (The lower part of the McDonald Creek Trail is also part of the Johns Lake Loop.)
The trail climbs to intersect the footpath to Avalanche Campground, which is a little over four miles away. Turn left. After a short distance, the McDonald Creek Cutoff Trail (horse trail) peels away to the left. Bear right to stay on the Avalanche Campground Trail and Johns Lake. Begin looking for the lake on your left about a half mile from the trailhead. A couple of paths lead down to the water’s edge.
Johns Lake is a tranquil five acre body of water. In winter, it’s encased in a sheet of ice and during summer, lily pads decorate its surface. On a calm day, Stanton Mountain’s reflection on a glass-like surface is photograph-worthy.
The lake is nutrient poor because not much water flows through it. Sphagnum moss finds these conditions adequate. Like its family member the blueberries, it secretes acid into the water to lessen competition from other plants. Two particular plants don’t seem to mind the acidic environment.3
Mountain bladderwort and sundew grow on the surface of sphagnum. Like other plants, they produce food by photosynthesis, but they get most of their essential nutrients, like phosphorus and nitrogen, by feeding on tiny insects. They’re carnivores.
Mountain bladderwort has no roots, but has leaves and specialized branches that produce semi-inflated bladders. When an insect touches a trigger hair near one of these sacs, there is an instantaneous inflation, which pulls the insect inside. Digestive enzymes then go to work separating the nutrients from the unfortunate prey.3
Reddish-purple gland-tipped hairs cover the sundew leaves. Insects attracted to the glistening little drops of liquid at each hair’s end find themselves stuck with the slightest contact. When they struggle, the leaf curls around them, pressing the glands with digestive enzymes against their body.1
When you return to the main path, Johns Lake Trail splits to the left and begins its descent to the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The Avalanche Trail continues to the right. At the asphalt, you’ll see the Sacred Dancing Cascades parking lot across the road.
The Johns Lake Trail continues from the southwest end of the parking area and descends to the footbridge across McDonald Creek. Just upstream from the bridge are the Sacred Dancing Cascades. One day is not enough to know a person. Likewise, for these waterfalls. During the height of spring run-off, you feel the power of the roaring whitewater in your bones. If you visit during a scorching hot August, the cool, tumbling water provides a welcome respite from the heat. In January, the frigid water seems to withdraw into itself behind a white coating of frozen mist.
When you’re ready to leave the cascades behind, turn left on the far side of the bridge to visit McDonald Falls about 0.4 miles away. Continue to bear left when the trail splits.
Both Sacred Dancing Cascades and McDonald Falls exist because of the erosion resistant rock of the Prichard Formation—1.4 billion-year-old stone and the most ancient on the west side of the park.2 Then, the Earth spun faster, only taking 18 hours to rotate once on its axis instead of 24.
The fossil record shows that when the Prichard was still mucky sediment under the ancient Belt Sea, aquatic single-celled organisms were the predominant life forms on our planet. It took another 900 million years for land plants and aquatic vertebrates to show up.
Through the seasons, McDonald Falls has much the same traits as the Sacred Dancing Cascades, minus the tumbling part. I’ve just never seen that. It’s just keeps crashing and pounding.
North McDonald Road is 0.4 miles from McDonald Falls. When you reach the blacktop, it’s only 0.3 miles back to the starting point. Turn left for the McDonald Creek Bridge and a view of Lake McDonald, which occupies a glacially carved 472-foot depression.2 After passing a gated road, you’ll soon find Johns Lake Loop Trail continuing on the right side of the North McDonald Road.
Are you prepared to take advantage of all the things there are to see and do along the Going-to-the-Sun Road? Driving this engineering masterpiece is an unforgettable experience. But there’s more!
See what you think at Apple.
Fitzpatrick Kimball, Shannon, and Peter Lesica. Wildflowers of Glacier National Park. Kalispell, MT: Trilliumn Press, 2010.
Raup, Omer B., Robert L. Earhart, James W. Whipple, and Paul E. Carrara. Geology Along Going-to-the-Sun Road Glacier National Park, Montana. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, 1983.
This path is perfect for hikers who are looking for an adventure in the early or later parts of the year. If you’re an individual who loves to get out and enjoy snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, the Beaver Pond Loop is definitely an option.
Remember the mantra: This is grizzly territory. Carry bear spray. Know when and how to use it. (Plenty of practice unholstering the canister and removing the safety clip is time well spent. A grizzly moving at full tilt can cover up to 50 feet per second. There’s no time to fiddle with the canister.) Don’t hike alone and make enough noise so that you don’t surprise a bear.
From U.S. Route 89 in Saint Mary, drive west on the Going-to-the-Sun Road 0.3 miles, then turn left on the road leading to the Glacier National Park offices and 1913 Ranger Station. If you’re coming from the west on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, travel 0.2 miles east of the park entry station and look to your right for the same road.
It can be confusing, but rest assured you’re still in the park.
At 0.3 miles, the road divides. Take the right fork. The road to the left leads to the park offices. Parking for this hike is 0.5 miles from where you left the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Look for the trailhead at the east end of the parking area.
I suggest walking the loop early in the morning for clearer air and to take advantage of the warm morning light shining on the peaks. I’ve described the hike going in a clockwise direction, but either way works.
The 1913 ranger cabin is within several hundred feet of the trailhead. You’ll also find a barn. It was built in 1926 and first served rangers at the Lubec Ranger Station at the south end of the park. Workers disassembled and moved it to this location in the 1970s.3
In 1918, ranger Chance Beebe, the third inhabitant of the cabin, built and manned the park’s first check station for vehicles entering this part of the park. He greeted visitors from his 8×10 canvas tent furnished with a wooden table and three homemade stools. That year, 1,164 vehicles checked in.3 In 2021, 181,559 vehicles entered the park at Saint Mary.5
Leaving the ranger station behind, you’ll climb for less than a mile. The path meanders through meadows, old-growth Douglas fir trees, lodgepole pine and small stands of aspen. Along the way, the rebirth of forest burned by the 2006 Red Eagle Fire is impressive, especially in the spring. All this provides for a saunter surrounded with variety.
Start looking for the beaver pond and the short path down to the water’s edge 1.3 miles into the hike. The beaver lodge is near the far end of the pond. A backcountry ranger told me he had seen a moose in this area two out of his three visits that season. Luck wasn’t with me that day.
Beavers play a major role in the development and expansion of ecosystems. They are a keystone species, meaning the beneficial effect they have on the environment is much more than one would assume from their population size.
Beavers, the largest rodents in North America, can create wetlands more productive than the original stream they dammed. As their pond fills, surrounding soil moisture increases and plants adapted to pond living and wetlands move in. Insect populations then increase, as do birds that feed on them. Waterfowl, moose, muskrats, and fish benefit from the new habitat. Trees that could not survive the increase in water levels provide new nesting sites. And the more open forest canopy encourages the growth of new plants which can be an extra food source for deer and elk.
Sediment carried in a stream eventually falls out in the pond, improving the water quality downstream. Ponds and their canals created by beavers distribute life sustaining water throughout a larger area than did the original stream. This is essential for a lot of organisms during times of drought. When streams overflow their banks, beaver ponds can help lessen the impacts of flooding.
Beaver ponds eventually fill with sediment. The area often becomes a productive meadow, and over time, the forest returns.1,2
Two miles from the trailhead, the Beaver Pond route intersects the Red Eagle Lake Trail. Turn right to continue back to your vehicle. It doesn’t take long to realize that the single-track trail has morphed into an old-overgrown road bed.
The same backcountry ranger who told me about the moose also explained where to find the site of the long-gone Saint Mary Chalets. I’ll share that below. I did a little research and found that the historic chalets sat next to the 1920s Blackfeet Highway.6 The above information, a 1926 Montana Highway map and a topographic map, leads me to believe that the section of trail from the previous junction back to the parking lot is part of the original Blackfeet Highway.4
My wife listened politely when I told her about my discovery. If there was an eye roll involved, she cleverly disguised it. Nevertheless, my excitement remains.
Three miles into this trip, there’s a spur trail to the left, headed in the opposite direction toward Saint Mary Lake. Follow this path for about 400 feet. When you see the shoreline jut out into the lake, forming a point, you’ve found the location of the historic Saint Mary Chalets constructed in 1912.6 I used Google Earth to find that same spot. And there beneath the surface of the water lay the dock used during that period. Another enjoyable find!
There is one more beaver pond you’ll pass just after rejoining the main trail. From there, it’s a short walk to the parking lot. Back at your vehicle, look west across the open area toward the line of trees. That’s the place of the original Saint Mary Campground before the park service moved it to its present location in 1963.
This is a hike that you will not soon forget. It has it all. Glacially carved peaks and valleys, meadows loaded with wildflowers, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, occasional grizzly bears, hoary marmots, coyotes, and the tiny chance early or late in the season of wolverines. And, some of the oldest fossils preserved in any national park can be seen along the way.6 The commonly used superlatives seem to fall short when experiencing this route.
And, of course, the word is out. The Highline Trail is one of the most popular in the park. University of Montana researchers tell us that 500 to 1,000 people use this trail each summer day.3
There are transportation logistics to consider for this walk from Logan Pass to the Loop. One possibility is to leave your vehicle at the Loop (where you will exit) and catch a ride to the pass on a Glacier National Park shuttle. In the past, shuttles left the Apgar Visitor Center at 7am for the day’s first run.
If you want to get on the trail earlier, drive to Logan Pass and grab a parking spot. In July, the sun rises between 5:30 and 6:00 am, and I’ve seen the lot about two-thirds full by then. The downside of relying on the shuttles at day’s end when you’re tired is the potential for a long wait time to get a seat.
At the end of the post, I’ll offer some variations of the Logan Pass to the Loop walk.
You begin at an elevation of 6,646 feet from Logan Pass. The trail starts on the far side of the Going-to-the-Sun Road from the visitor center parking lot. Once on the footpath, stop and take a deep breath. The fresh mountain air with the sweet, resinous scent of the stunted subalpine fir trees and the pleasing woodsy smells are the signals that it’s time to slow down and leave the world behind.
Imagine several canvas wall tents to your left as you walk across the relatively level area at the start. From 1925 to 1928, workers blasted a shelf into the cliffs, which became the upper part of the Going-to-the-Sun Road from Logan Creek to the pass. Those tents housed the hardy souls of Camp #6. It took a day for packers and their strings of horses following the long-forgotten trail up the Logan Creek to bring supplies to the camp.5
A quarter-mile from the trailhead, you’ll get to experience a little of what the powder monkeys and route surveyors encountered in the 1920s. The path narrows somewhat and becomes a ledge in the rock face 100+ feet above the Going-to-the-Sun Road. It’s safe, and there’s a cable bolted into the rock for hanging on to should you desire. This is not a great place to run into a grizzly bear, as one hiker experienced.
The path gradually climbs along the Garden Wall for three miles and then steepens as it rises to the saddle between Haystack Butte and Mount Gould. This is a popular spot for folks to stop for a rest and grab a bite to eat. Some decide this is their turnaround location, which would give them a seven-mile day.
Remember Camp #6 back at the beginning? Well, construction crews built Camp #4 in the ravine on the north side of Haystack Butte. It’s incredible the amount of stamina and strength required of the workers. Their day included descending the steep mountainside to the construction site, putting in a full day of extreme physical and exhausting work, and then climbing back up to their tents.5
After leaving the saddle, the footpath continues to climb, reaching its highest point at four miles and 7,300 feet. There is a gradual decline to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook Trail at 6.8 miles. The overlook path leads to the top of the Continental Divide (Garden Wall) with views of Salamander and Grinnell Glaciers, Upper Grinnell Lake, Mount Gould, and Angel Wing. This side trip is 0.8 miles long, with over 900 feet of elevation gain. To do that on top of an already long day requires better than average physical condition.
From the overlook trail junction, it’s a fairly level 0.7 miles to Granite Park Chalet. Great Northern Railway contracted to have this Swiss-style structure built of locally quarried stone in 1914. It’s now a National Historic Landmark.4 During the early 1900s, the Glacier Park Saddle Company treated visitors to over 50 miles of pristine Glacier backcountry on the famous North Circle trip. Granite Park Chalet was their first stop.5
The chalet generally opens the end of June and closes for the season the first part of September. If you’re running short on water, it is available for purchase or there’s a water source not far from the chalet. Be sure to purify it.
The last 4.2 miles of this trip drops 2,200 feet in elevation. If you have knee problems, you may want to reconsider this section. I know this firsthand. The footpath travels through the forest for just over a mile. Then the trail enters the area burned by the 18,702-acre Trapper Creek Fire of 2003. During that summer, dubbed the Summer of Fire, 135,000 acres of Glacier National Park burned (approximately 13% of the park’s total area). The Northern Rockies lost nearly three-quarters of a million acres that season.7
Total Distance: 11.4 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 1,630 feet; Loss: 4,014 feet
If the trip described above is not for you, the following may be of interest.
After resting at the chalet, return to Logan Pass the way you came. The total distance for this is 15 miles.
Continue on past Granite Park Chalet to Swiftcurrent Pass, then continue on the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn in Many Glacier. The total distance is 15.2 miles – about the same as the out and back from Logan Pass. At Many Glacier, catch the Glacier National Park Lodges fee-based hiker’s shuttle to Saint Mary. From Saint Mary, use a Glacier National Park shuttleto return to Logan Pass. For more details, see my post for the hike from the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn to Swiftcurrent Pass .
No one expects to sprain an ankle, or worse. Snow in July? C’mon. Well, in Glacier National Park, it happens. So do unexpected drops in temperature with high winds and rain. Starting a hike late in the day while underestimating the time required to finish is not all that rare of an occurrence. And then there is always the chance of an unexpected encounter with wildlife that goes badly. Most don’t expect to spend the night out in the wilderness when on a day hike. However, it is something that one should plan for.
If you’re relatively new to backcountry travel, I think the following might be helpful.
These should always be in a hikers pack and adjusted for the current season and hike difficulty.
Hydration: Consume at least 0.5 liters per hour, more on hot days or more strenuous hikes. Pack an effective water filter and locate potential water sources on your map before starting longer treks.
Nutrition: Bring more nutritious calories than you calculate needing. Dried fruit, fresh fruit, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, nuts, jerky, granola, etc., are good choices. Check out this calculator to dial in the calories you’ll need based on weight, walking speed, and slope
Navigation: primary – map and compass, secondary – GPS with extra batteries; knowledge of how to use these tools is critical; knowing your walking speed in different conditions is valuable for estimating time to a landmark identified on your map (e.g., It looks like the trail junction is about one mile away. It’s getting dark, but I usually average about 3 miles per hour on this sort of trail. So, I should see the junction in about 20 minutes.) The goal is to stay found.
Emergency Shelter: jumbo plastic garbage bag, bivvy sack, ultralight tarp
Clothing: Layers – base, mid, insulating, and shell. Add and remove layers to manage body heat. Never wear cotton. Choose fast-drying synthetics or wool. Wear sturdy footwear. Your feet will thank you. Include light-weight gloves and a beanie.
Headlamp and extra batteries.
Firestarter: lighter, waterproof matches, cotton balls saturated with vaseline.
First Aid: Remember, the kit is next to worthless without knowing how to use the items contained within.
Repair kit: minimum of knife or multi-tool, duct tape, paracord
I invite you to take a look at my book Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road: a traveler’s guide. I’m confident it will help with your planning and exploration of this engineering masterpiece and the surrounding wilderness. See it here on Apple Books.
Poia Lake, named after a hero in Blackfeet mythology, is a beautiful 30-acre body of water lying at an elevation of 5,800 feet near the transition zone of subalpine to alpine in the Kennedy Creek drainage.
Drive 2.8 miles west from the Many Glacier Entrance Station. Look for a parking lot on the right side of the road. The trail for Apikuni Falls leaves this spot, headed northwest and the Red Gap Pass Trail to the northeast. Poia Lake is on the Red Gap Pass Trail.
If you’re driving from the west, look for the parking area on the left 1.1 miles east of the Many Glacier Hotel road junction.
There is another trailhead. However, I don’t recommend it. The Sherburne Cut Off leaves from the entrance station and doesn’t bother with switchbacks as it climbs Swiftcurrent Ridge. You’ll climb 1,000 feet in one mile. The tradeoff is saving 2.4 miles. But with the reduction in distance comes a slower hiking speed because of the trail’s steep grade. You might save 15 – 20 minutes. If you’re wondering about using this footpath on the trip out, know that it has sections of loose material and poor footing. Some folks unaffectionately refer to this route as the luge.
Grizzly and black bears frequent this area. Be wise and make enough noise to not surprise the bruins. Carry bear spray where you can unholster it in a couple of seconds. Know when and how to use it.
The trail climbs steadily through a forest interspersed with small meadows where it’s possible to spot whitetail deer, elk, moose, and bear.
After four miles, you’ll reach Swiftcurrent Ridge Lake (Moran’s Bathtub) on the south side of the ridge crest. It’s not worth fishing unless the idea of catching white sucker and lake chub interests you. Attempts to introduce grayling in the 1920s and 1930s failed because the lake lacked suitable spawning habitats.2
There’s a pretty sweet view south over the lake toward Allen and Wynn Mountains.
From the lake, the trail uses several switchbacks to reach the ridge top and then descends into the Kennedy Creek drainage. This stream is the namesake of John Kennedy, not our revered past president, though. This particular Kennedy was a whiskey trader. In 1874, he built a trading post where Kennedy Creek flows into the Saint Mary River (9.5 miles northeast of Poia Lake).1 The Blackfeet named him Otatso, which means walking stooped. A tributary of Kennedy Creek bears that name.3
Be aware that the park service has closed the entire length of Kennedy Creek to fishing.
Upon reaching Poia Lake, a trail on the left leads to the backcountry campground. The park allows two of the four sites to be reserved online.
If you continue along the shoreline, there’s a bridge over the outlet and a path veering to the right from the Red Gap Pass Trail. Follow that route for great vantage points of Poia Lake Falls.
If you keep an eye on the exposed rock faces of the surrounding mountains, the chances of seeing mountain goats are pretty good. Or, look for pika in the nearby talus slopes. Locate these furry little members of the rabbit family by their characteristic “eeep” calls and look for their “hay piles” in the talus near a meadow’s edge.
Total Distance: 13.1 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 1,676 feet; Loss: 808 feet
Difficulty*: 16.5, strenuous (Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time Estimate: 6 hours 4 minutes (Calculated using an average speed of 2.5 mph and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)
Howe Lake, ridge, and creek are the namesakes of Charlie Howe, the first homesteader (1892) at the foot of Lake McDonald and the first white man to locate Avalanche Lake and Sperry Glacier.3
Howe Lake is an easy and worthwhile destination spring through fall. And it’s likely you’ll not find the trail crowded. If you’re looking for more to fill your day, there are a couple of options at the end of this post.
From the T-intersection near the Apgar Visitor Center, travel northwest on the Camas Road for 1.3 miles. The Fish Creek Campground Road will be on the right. Drive for 1.1 miles on that road until it Ys. Bear left.
The left fork puts you on the 100+-year-old Inside North Fork Road, which the Butte Oil Company carved through the timber in 1901. Although, at the time, calling it a road was probably a stretch. The unbridged, ungraded, and in places mucky route allowed the drillers to haul their machinery to the foot of Kintla Lake. Once the water froze, workers slid the equipment across the smooth surface to the drilling site.3,4
Drive 5.4 miles north on this historic and still somewhat primitive thoroughfare.
The Howe Lake Trailhead is on the right, and two small parking areas on the left. An interpretive sign, also on the left, describes the historic Matejka Homestead.
About 13 percent of Glacier National Park burned during 2003, a record for the park. Lightning caused most of the fires that dry summer. Not so with the Robert Fire that burned this area. Careless humans started it. Snow finally put it out, but not until the flames had consumed 52,747 acres of timber.5
The trail leads you through young lodgepole pine stands, with widely spaced magnificent old larch trees that survived the inferno. Bright yellow glacier lilies and snow-white trillium put on excellent displays alongside the footpath in the spring. It’s impressive to see the healing taking place.
While you’re strolling along, be sure to make noise and have your bear spray where it’s quickly accessible. Know when and how to discharge it. We walked on top of grizzly bear tracks and dodged some scat during a May hike. On a separate trip, I encountered one of these powerful animals on the road just north of the Howe Lake Trailhead. Since the bruins use this area, it makes sense to be versed in bear safety.
At the Lake
Before you know it, the first glimpse of water comes into view through the trees, and arrival at the outlet soon follows. Howe Ridge is visible to the east. The crest is about 1,000 feet above the lake’s surface and crowned with a glacial moraine. Imagine this spot under at least 1,000 feet of ice. If it was 20,000 years ago during the Pleistocene’s Great Ice Age, that would have been the case.1,2
The beaver dam across the outlet seems in pretty good shape. This is also true for the beaver lodge we spotted on the far side of the narrow channel connecting the lower and upper parts of the lake.
Howe Lake is an excellent place to see loons and other waterfowl. Be mindful that park service personnel prohibit fishing in the upper part of the lake until August to encourage loon nesting and protect their young until they attain fledging age. You’ll see the sign.
Total Distance: 3.2 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 240 feet; Loss: 108 feet
Difficulty*: 3.9, easy (Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time: 1 hour 27 minutes (Calculated using an average speed of 2.5 mph and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)
If you choose to go farther, the trail continues east away from the lake and intersects the Howe Ridge trail in a little less than two miles. Or, once you return to your vehicle, drive another mile and a quarter north to the Camas Creek road closure. There, you’ll find the trailhead to Christensen Meadows and Rogers Meadow. I suggest this option. You can learn more about it here.
A comprehensive guidebook to extend your knowledge, promote adventure, and discovery while traveling one of the most scenic highways in the world.
Raup, Omer B., Robert L. Earhart, James W. Whipple, and Paul E. Carrara. Geology Along Going-to-the-Sun Road Glacier National Park, Montana. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, 1983.
Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years in Glacier National Park. Whitefish, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
The liquid snow of Apikuni Creek presents a spectacular show when the Earth drops out from beneath it. The water plummets 160 feet over 1.5 billion-year-old Altyn limestone, the oldest rock on the park’s east side.1,2
Apikuni Falls Trail leaves the parking area to the northwest and the Red Gap Pass Trail northeast. The parking lot is 2.8 miles west of the Many Glacier Entrance Station. Or, find the trailhead 1.1 miles east of the Many Glacier Hotel road junction if driving from the west.
For whatever reason, bears seem to like this area. The last time we hiked to the falls, a black bear sow and three cubs crossed in front of us within the first quarter mile. Although we were at least 150 yards away, she gave us an unflinching stare until the little ones entered the brush. The same day, both morning and afternoon, we saw a grizzly bear near the parking lot – luckily from our car.
Several years ago, we exited the Red Gap Pass Trailhead after four glorious days in the backcountry. While walking back to the Swiftcurrent Inn and the truck, a grizzly bear sow and her cubs near the Apikuni and Red Gap parking lot caught us off-guard. Brush concealed her until she stood up with ears back and agitated. An alert Red Bus driver encouraged my hiking partner and me to pile into his empty bus. At the same time, he maneuvered his coach between the bear family and us.
I’ve seen several other bears on different occasions in the same general area. If you have spent little time in bear country, I recommend checking out the recommendations Glacier National Park’s Bear Safety webpage.
If you have binoculars with you, scan for bighorn sheep on the east slopes of Altyn Peak and near the falls.
You’ll notice that I’ve rated the difficulty of the walk to the falls as easy. Compare this hike with 640 feet of elevation in a mile to the average increase of 490 feet per mile for Ptarmigan Tunnel or 430 feet per mile on the trek to Grinnell Glacier. Then why is it easy?
I use distance and elevation gain to calculate the difficulty score using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Miles equation.3 If the trip were two miles uphill rather than one, it would rank as moderate difficulty. Climbing five miles with 640 feet of elevation gain per mile makes it strenuous. Apikuni Falls has an easy score, primarily because of low total distance (and energy expended).
During spring and early summer, the footpath starts out through a meadow loaded with color. Before you know it, you will enter the forest and start the climb. Along the way, a few side trails lead to spectacular views of the Swiftcurrent Valley and the peaks to the south.
The trail officially ends a short distance from the falls. Unofficial social trails proceed on to the base of the cascades. Beware of wet rocks and expect some light scrambling.
Total Distance: 2.0 miles
Elevation Gain: 640 feet
Difficulty: 3.3, easy* (Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time: 1 hour 7 minutes (Calculated using an average speed of 2.5 mph and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)
Take only memories, leave only footprints. – Chief Si’ahl
This 11-acre gem is definitely worthy of your attention from early to late season. Enjoy the reflections of the surrounding peaks as they take on the golden glow of sunrise. And if you’re lucky, witness a moose emerging from the lake fog in the crisp mountain air. It’s an easy, family-friendly walk from the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn.
From the Many Glacier Entrance Station, drive straight ahead for five miles to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn parking lot. Look for the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail, which begins near the northwest corner of the parking area.
The path leading to Fishercap lake is one-quarter mile from the trailhead. After you cross the bridge over Wilbur Creek, it’s only another three to four minutes to the junction on your left. The footpath to the shoreline is about a tenth of a mile long.
Total Distance: 0.6 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 15 feet; Loss: 15 feet
Difficulty: 0.6, easy* (Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time Estimate: 15 minutes (Calculated using an average speed of 2.5 mph and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)
If you’re looking for a family-friendly hike that includes history, outstanding scenery, and wildlife, the loop around Swiftcurrent Lake in Many Glacier is hard to beat. This is one that can be enjoyed May through October.
The most popular places to access the trail are near the Many Glacier Hotel, or the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead found in the picnic area.
The road junction for the Many Glacier Hotel is four miles west of the Many Glacier Entrance Station. Make your way to the hotel parking lot. From there, it’s a short walk to the lakeshore.
A half-mile past the road intersection to the Many Glacier Hotel is a picnic area. Find the trail either at the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead, at the south end of the parking lot, or near the east junction of the picnic area road and the Many Glacier Road.
This post describes the walk beginning at the Many Glacier Hotel boat dock and proceeds clockwise. Starting and finishing there allows twice the time to enjoy the historic structure set in a world-class view, stroll around inside and maybe find a snack, beverage, or meal. If a trail ride is something you want to fit into your day, the Many Glacier Corral is at the back of the parking lot.
The Many Glacier Hotel opened on July 4, 1915, and survived economic downturns and the floods of 1964, 1975, and 2006.1 When smoke cleared after Heavens Peak Fire in 1936, the hotel was still standing, but there was little else.2 For over a century, the Many Glacier Hotel has hosted presidents, celebrities, rambunctious wranglers, and visitors from around the world.3
Without a doubt, Grinnell Point steals the show when looking across Swiftcurrent Lake. Add Mount Gould and Angel Wing to the south and Mount Wilbur to the north, and it’s spellbinding.
A great treat of this route is the possibility of seeing moose. Glacier National Park has a Wildlife Safety webpage with tips on sharing the land with these impressive animals. Also, deer frequent the area, as do bears. If you’ve had little experience traveling through bear habitat, the park has an informative Bear Safety webpage that’s worth visiting.
From the boat dock, head south along the roadway for about 500 feet to the trailhead. The footpath never strays far from the shoreline. After about half a mile, the path brings you near the boathouse for the 1961 45-foot vessel Chief Two Guns and crew member cabins.
The first bridge on the route crosses Cataract Creek flowing out of Lake Josephine and Stump Lake. A quarter-mile past the bridge, the loop trail intersects the Grinnell Glacier Trail. At that place, a left turn begins a worthy side-trip to Lake Josephine, 0.2 miles away. The historic 1945 45-foot Morning Eagle passenger boat docks there and has been carrying passengers on the lake since 1960. Mount Gould and Angel Wing across the water to the southwest, framed by Grinnell Point to the north and Allen Mountain to the south, are spectacular.
From the Swiftcurrent Lake Loop Trail and Grinnell Glacier Trail junction, a right turn continues into a little more densely wooded section of the walk with fewer lake views. You’ll see the Chief Two Guns south boat dock almost immediately. In 0.4 miles, there is a bridge over Swiftcurrent Creek and then a quarter mile to the picnic grounds’ parking lot. Continue right on the blacktop for 300 feet. The footpath is on your right.
The trail meanders for a half-mile between the Many Glacier Road to its north and Swiftcurrent Lake to the south. After that distance, you’re at the asphalt leading to the Many Glacier Hotel.
Two of the original eight chalets erected during 1911 are standing across the roadway from the trail. At that time the Many Glacier Hotel only existed on paper and in the minds of the designers.5 An avalanche wiped out one chalet a few winters after construction. The 1936 Heavens Peak Fire took most everything else.2
The route continues along the hotel road to the bridge over Swiftcurrent Creek. Downstream is Swiftcurrent Falls. Several walking paths lead away from the south side of the bridge, allowing visitors to view the cascades from several perspectives.
It’s a quarter-mile back to the boat dock from the bridge.
Total Distance: 2.3 miles
Total Elevation Gain: level
Difficulty: 2.3, easy* (Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time: 55 minutes (Calculated using an average 2.5 mph speed.)
Hiking and history notes for your walk up the spectacular Swiftcurrent Valley.
Suppose you don’t feel like climbing to the pass. In that case, there are three wonderful subalpine lakes plus waterfalls to see along the route. They involve shorter distances and not much elevation gain. You’ll find more information in this post.
If you want more than the pass, Swiftcurrent Lookout Trail heads north near the pass and climbs 1,248 feet over 1.4 miles. The views from up there are outstanding.
Another option is to begin at Logan Pass and walk the Highline Trail past Granite Park Chalet until the path intersects the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail. Follow that back to Many Glacier. This route is a little over 15 miles with 2,844 feet total elevation gain and 4,553 feet loss. Transportation logistics are a must with this trip. Consider leaving your vehicle at the Logan Pass parking lot. At Many Glacier, catch a fee-based hiker’s shuttle to Saint Mary. From Saint Mary, use the free Glacier National Park Shuttles to return to Logan Pass.
The rest of this post is devoted to the out and back hike from Many Glacier to Swiftcurrent Pass.
Once on the Many Glacier Road, drive to the parking lot in front of the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn (originally Swiftcurrent Auto Camp). This spot is five miles west of the Many Glacier entrance station. The well-marked Swiftcurrent Pass Trail begins just west of the inn.
The main building and cabins mark the “turning of a page” in Glacier National Park history. In the park’s early days, the Great Northern Railway (GNR) lured wealthy folks away from their vacations in the Swiss Alps and to the “alps” of America in Glacier National Park. These tourists expected top-shelf service, and they got it for a price.
Around the early 1930s, a different type of visitor emerged. The automobile made it possible for tourists to be mobile and independent of Great Northern. They demanded less extravagant lodging and service than that offered by the Many Glacier Hotel. Their voices were heard.
In 1933, Swiftcurrent Auto Camp began with the building of cabins described as “spartan and inexpensive.” Construction continued in 1935 with a general store at the east end of the current main building. In the 1940s, builders added the lobby space and restaurant at the west end.12 If you get a chance, it’s worth a look inside these historical buildings.
Long before the auto camp, horses and their riders rode down the Swiftcurrent Valley, making their way to the Many Glacier Hotel. This was the last leg of a multi-day backcountry camping trip known as the North Circle.3 As you walk along the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail, know that you are enjoying the same magnificent scenery that many have for over a century.
Fishercap Lake (0.7 miles)
A quarter-mile after leaving the trailhead, a path veers left toward the shore of the lake with the peculiar name. The Blackfeet gave their friend George B. Grinnell the moniker Fishercap, which was then attached to the lake.9
The soft glow of early morning light on the water, Swiftcurrent Mountain, Mount Wilbur, and Bullhead Point creates an excellent scene for photographs. Not only that, but the valley from Fishercap Lake to Bullhead Lake has superb moose habitat. And, although there are no guarantees, the best time to see these impressive animals is early morning and evening.
Redrock Lake (1.3 miles) & Redrock Falls
The Swiftcurrent Pass Trail continues from the Fishercap Lake Trail junction through mixed lodgepole pine and fir forest. Intermixed stands of quaking aspen show off glowing yellow leaves in October. One and a half miles from the trailhead, there is a short side path to a gravel beach on the north side of Redrock Lake. It’s worth a look.
Continue toward the west end of the lake and find a spur trail at 1.8 miles leading to the lower part of Redrock Falls. The best show is early in the season. After you return to the primary route, climb a little, and then pass next to Swiftcurrent Creek and the upper section of the falls.
The conspicuous red to maroon rock from which the lake and falls take their name is part of the 2,500-feet-thick Grinnell Formation. Over a billion years ago, a Siberia size landmass began separating from what would become North America. A shallow inland sea formed in the resulting basin. Here, streams and rivers dumped the silt and sand they carried from the surrounding lifeless land. Over time, heat, pressure, and oxygen content produced multi-colored layers of rock. Then, tectonic forces pushed those layers, which were miles deep, eastward 50 miles, and upward.1
When the park’s rocks were forming, life in the ancient sea consisted of single-celled cyanobacteria. Since 3.5 billion years ago, these primitive organisms have produced oxygen and contributed substantially to an atmosphere that supports life as we know it.11 Stromatolites, fossils of the structures these organisms made, exist not only in the Grinnell Formation but within many others throughout the park.4
During the Pleistocene Epoch, glaciers thousands of feet deep filled the valleys of what is now Glacier National Park. Peaks of the mountains would have appeared like islands in the seas of ice. When the glaciers receded around 12,000 years ago, they left amazing hanging and u-shaped valleys, aretes, horns, and cirques that characterize the park.
Bullhead Lake (3.9 miles to the west end)
You’ll cross a suspension bridge over a stream flowing from Windmaker Lake about three and a half miles from the trailhead. Watch for a path headed toward Bullhead Lake about 500 feet after the bridge. I think the views are better there than those at the west end of the lake.
A couple hundred feet farther west from the junction mentioned above, some not so apparent trails lead down to the shore. I used one of those when I needed to replenish my water supply coming back from the pass. Be sure to use some sort of water purification system.
After leaving the west end of Bullhead Lake, cross Swiftcurrent Creek and head south into the drainage nestled at the base of Mount Grinnell, the Garden Wall, and a flank of Swiftcurrent Mountain. The trail crosses a pretty braided stream channel, but there is a plank bridge. It’s put in place in June and taken out in September. Check Glacier National Park’s Trail Status Reports.
In 1910, an official from the Department of the Interior visited the newly established Glacier National Park. He hired Josiah Rogers, an owner of stock and packer on the west side, to take him through the park, including a trip over Swiftcurrent Pass at the end of the journey. Rogers balked at this last request. He finally agreed when a contract guaranteed $100 for each horse lost while traveling over the dangerous route.9
The ride over a primitive trail scratched into cliffs must have made an impression on Roger’s guest. In those days, there wasn’t much money available for the park. But somehow, the government found funds to reconstruct the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail.9
One must climb over three miles using several switchbacks cut into the headwall to reach the pass. Otherwise known as “Galen’s Ladder,” workers constructed these hairpin-turns for the footpath during the 1913 trail reconstruction.9
Grand waterfalls plummeting down the eastern rock face of the Garden Wall add to the spectacular scenery as you gain elevation. Swiftcurrent Glacier clings to an east face of the Garden Wall not far below the ridge top. Several viewing points will present themselves as you make your way up the trail. This glacier has decreased about 71% since the mid-1800s.10 Modern glaciers, like Swiftcurrent, are not holdovers from the Pleistocene, which ended about 12,000 years ago. The 26 remaining glaciers in the park have only been around for 7,000 years.8
“A rolling wall of flame.”9 Park superintendent Scoyen said, “I have never seen as complete a burn-out as occurred in Swiftcurrent Valley. With the exception of a few swampy areas, every green living thing from rocks on one side of the valley to the other, has been destroyed.”5 Those words described the 8,364-acre, 1936 Heaven’s Peak Fire and its aftermath.
It all began on August 18, with a lightning strike above the Glacier Wall west of the continental divide. On August 31, violent winds carried firebrands east over Swiftcurrent Pass. They ignited the forest as much as 1.5 miles ahead of the main fire. The Many Glacier Hotel was spared, but the wildfire consumed many other buildings.5
Looking down on the green Swiftcurrent Valley from several viewing points along the headwall, one would never suspect that such an inferno was part of Many Glacier’s history.
Devil’s Elbow is the last major switchback on the trail. Envision sitting on a horse or leading the critters around that hairpin turn with a vertical drop of hundreds of feet within a few steps of the path.
A small pile of rock rubble on the left side of the footpath marks the pass at 7,185 feet. It is all that remains of the base constructed in 1926 to support a locomotive bell. GNR installed bells at Swiftcurrent, Piegan, Siyeh Passes, and a fourth near Scenic Point. Great Northern borrowed the unique Swiss custom of placing bells on mountain tops and passes so that hikers could produce a loud clang upon arrival. It was in line with the railway’s advertising slogan “Alps of America” to promote Glacier National Park.9
Total Distance: 13.7 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 2,611 feet; Loss: 370 feet
Difficulty: 18.9, strenuous* (Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time Estimate: 6 hours 47 minutes (Calculated using an average speed of 2.5 mph and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)
I invite you to take a look at my book Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road: a traveler’s guide. I’m confident it will help with your planning and exploration of this engineering masterpiece and the surrounding wilderness. See it here on Apple Books.