First, thanks to all who have been visiting my Experience Glacier National Park blog. You know that I have a passion for this special place.
I’m excited to announce that I have just released a book centered around one of the most magnificent roads in the country: the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
In this digital Multi-Touch book, I’ve taken a different approach than others. Swipe or click through numerous photo galleries, pan and zoom on maps, use scrolling sidebars for the rest of the story, click on internet links to access additional historical as well as current information explicitly tailored for the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor. In addition to the Table of Contents, thumbnails of the book pages can be placed near the bottom of the screen. Both of these tools help the reader find information, like the following, quickly:
options for getting around inside the park
important wildlife information
points of interest with associated human history, geology and natural history; mileages from both the west and east entrances are provided
the story behind the multicolored rocks and rugged topography
lodging and restaurants
If this sounds like something you would be interested in, you can check it out on Apple Books. Just click on the link below the cover picture.
If you know others who would find this book useful, please share the information with them.
If the Dawson Pitamakin Loop isn’t in the cards and you would like something a little less crowded than Upper Two Medicine Lake, a hike to this hidden gem might interest you. The name is underwhelming, but the scenery is at the other extreme.
No Name Lake is in the Bighorn Basin of the Two Medicine region in southeast Glacier National Park.
From East Glacier, drive 3.5 miles north (5.6 kilometers) on Montana Highway 49, the Looking Glass Road. Travel west on the Two Medicine Road about 7 miles (11.3 kilometers). At that point, you can decide whether to turn right to the campground or proceed straight ahead to the parking lot by the Two Medicine camp store and boat dock. The descriptions below will help you make that choice.
From Saint Mary, it’s about 27 miles (43.5 kilometers) south to the Two Medicine Road via US Highway 89 and the Looking Glass Road. Plan for at least one hour driving time. It could be more if highway construction is still going on. The Looking Glass Road is a narrow, winding road that is not in the best of shape. Yet there are beautiful vistas looking west into Glacier National Park.
No Name Lake Hiking Options
Travel up and back on Two Medicine Lake aboard the Sinopah: 5.6 miles (9.0 kilometers) on the trail.
One way on Sinopah: 7.8 miles (12.6 kilometers) on the trail. (Note the Glacier Boat Company requires a round-trip ticket to travel up the lake, whether or not you return on the boat. However, you can purchase a one-way ticket at the head of the lake for a return trip.) There could be a considerable wait time for the boat trip back depending on the number of people with the same idea.
No boat ride. Start at the North Shore Trailhead near Two Medicine campground: 10.0 miles (16.1 kilometers) round trip.
The distance is about 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers) along paved roads from the Northshore Trailhead near the campground to the parking lot in front of the Two Medicine camp store.
I describe Option 2 below. The distance from the head of Two Medicine Lake to No Name Lake is 2.8 miles (4.5 kilometers) gaining 761 feet (232 meters) in elevation. The return trip via the North Shore Trail to the trailhead near Pray Lake and Two Medicine campground is 5.0 miles (8.0 kilometers). The difficulty rating is moderate.
No Name Lake via the Sinopah Launch
It had been raining, but my wife and I drove to Two Medicine, anyway. We wanted to mix it up a bit and combine a ride on the boat Sinopah across Two Medicine Lake with some trail time. The next day would be the launch’s last trip for the season. Then, rather than going back into her boathouse for the winter, she is going to Kalispell for refurbishment. Sinopah has been well taken care of since her construction in 1926.
Both Sinopah Mountain and the 45-foot (14-meter), 49 passenger boat were named for a Blackfeet Indian maiden. Her father was Chief Lone Walker. There is a mountain to the west of Sinopah Mountain that bears his name. Sinopah married Hugh Monroe, a Hudson’s Bay fur trapper and trader. The Blackfeet named him Rising Wolf. His mountain is on the north side of Two Medicine Lake.²
We parked near Sinopah’s mooring in the lot south of the Two Medicine camp store. There is a lot of history here. This building was originally the Two Medicine Chalets kitchen and dining hall built by the Great Northern Railway in 1912 for wealthy passengers arriving from the east.⁴ President Herbert Hoover used the Two Medicine Chalets complex as his base of operations in August 1930. On August 5, 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave one of his famous Fireside Chats near the fireplace in this building.³
The captain usually blows the boat’s horn when it’s time to come aboard. Once we were underway, the skipper’s stories about the area and commentary on landmarks kept everyone entertained while we motored two miles to the west shore. There is a shelter near the dock at the head of the lake. For those who hike and then return by boat, this can be handy should the weather turn bad while waiting.
Two Medicine Lake is at 5,164 feet (1,574 meters) elevation. The trail will ascend 761 feet (232 meters) over about 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) to No Name Lake at 5,925 feet (1,806 meters).
Shortly after leaving the west shore, a boardwalk will carry you above the sensitive and soggy forest floor. Thimbleberries grow along this section. If you’re lucky, there will be ripe fruit to snack on as you walk. You may notice long dark scars on the trunks of the large spruce trees growing in the area. These are frost cracks. When the temperature suddenly plummets during winter, the outside of the trunk contracts more quickly than the inner wood. The result is a rapid splitting of the wood that can sound like a gunshot.
After 0.1-miles, you will come to the South Shore Trail. Keep right. After 0.6-miles, there will be a junction of the South Shore Trail, Upper Two Medicine Lake Trail and the North Shore Trail. Turning left will take you to Twin Falls, 0.3 miles (0.5 kilometers) and Upper Two Medicine Lake, 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers). Turn right and proceed another 0.2-miles (0.3- kilometers) to reach the Dawson Pass Trail.
This area is moose country and fall is the mating season. The day before our hike, park officials closed the backcountry campground at Upper Two Medicine Lake because several moose had taken up residence in all but one campsite. A cantankerous bull charged one camper. Last year, we came upon a bull bedded down in the middle of the trail leading to No Name Lake and Dawson Pass. After some time and when he was good and ready, he moved. They are large and powerful animals. Give moose a wide berth.
At the next trail junction, turn left onto the Dawson Pass Trail. The footpath to the right is the one that will take you back to the trailhead on the return trip. There is a section of switchbacks between this junction and the path leading to No Name Lake 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) away. That will be the steepest part of the hike. The number of edible huckleberries remaining surprised us. Magnificent scenery, sharing the hike with my best friend and fresh “hucks.” Life is good.
The No Name Lake Trail ends 0.3-miles (0.5-kilometers) after leaving the Dawson Pass Trail at the west side of the lake and the backcountry campground. Two of the three campsites can be reserved, but there is a one night limit. Near the food-prep area is a small beach perfect for having lunch.
All good things must end sometime. So, when it’s time to leave, return to the Dawson Pass Trail turn right and 4.7 miles (7.6 kilometers) later you will arrive at the trailhead near Pray Lake and the Two Medicine Campground.
If you parked in the lot by the camp store, it is about 0.8-miles (1.3 kilometers) farther along paved roads to reach your vehicle. You never know. Surprising things can happen on this stretch. While we were sauntering along the asphalt, three bighorn sheep with their eyes bugged out and running full tilt blew by us at an arm’s length away. We never did see what spooked them.
On the east side of the Continental Divide, within the Lewis Mountain Range of Glacier National Park, lies the spectacular hike to Siyeh Pass. At 7,750 feet (2,362 meters), the pass is on one of the highest maintained paths in the park. It’s not unusual for snow to linger into late July or early August.
The hike described below begins at Siyeh Bend which is 2.8 miles (4.5 kilometers) east of Logan Pass and 15.2 miles (24.5 kilometers) west of Saint Mary, Montana. One can also enter the hike at the Jackson Glacier Overlook or Sunrift Gorge. However, beginning at those locations, the mileage or elevation gains will make your work a little harder.
The hike is a point-to-point trip. So, getting back to your vehicle requires a little planning. One can park their car at Siyeh Bend and then at the end of the hike catch the westbound Glacier National Park free shuttle from Sunrift Gorge back. Consider if waiting up to an hour for your ride after a day of hiking is okay. Some folks prefer their vehicle waiting (with cold beverages and snacks) at the exit point. If that’s the case, park at Sunrift Gorge and catch the shuttle to Siyeh Bend. Glacier maintains a helpful “Shuttle Stops” webpage for planning.
Bring plenty of water and fuel for your body since you’ll be out at least five to six hours. You’ll cross the headwaters of Siyeh Creek while walking through Preston Park on the way to the switchbacks. This is a great place to filter water.
The beautiful meadows of Preston Park are also grizzly bear haunts. Bear spray is a necessity. Keep the canister where it is readily available and be sure to know how and when to use it. When coming to a blind curve or dense growth of trees and shrubs, let the bear know where you are by making a noise loud enough to be heard over the infamous strong winds that frequent the area. A surprised bear is not in anyone’s best interest.
Siyeh Bend Cut-Off Trail
At the trailhead, facing upstream, Piegan Mountain rises to your left. On your right is Going-to-the-Sun Mountain followed by Matahpi Peak to the north. If you face downstream, there are two glaciers in the distance. Once one mass of flowing ice but now two, Jackson Glacier sits to the right and Blackfoot Glacier on the left.
The Siyeh Cut-Off Trail strikes out alongside Siyeh Creek. Soon after getting underway, look for rounded knobs with diameters ranging from that of an orange to a volleyball rising out of the rock underfoot. These are the tops of mound-like stromatolites created by single-celled photosynthetic cyanobacteria over a billion years ago. The organisms lived in the shallows of the ancient Belt Sea much as they do today in Shark Bay, Australia. Stromatolites, 3.5 billion years on our planet, are the oldest evidence of life. It’s thought they played a significant role in increasing the concentration of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere.⁷
The Cut-Off Trail climbs 1.2 miles (1.9 kilometers) through a spruce and subalpine fir forest on its way to the Piegan Pass Trail. From July to August, the white umbrella-shaped flower clusters of cow parsnips are on display. When their hollow stems are still succulent, grizzly bears feast on them.
At the trail junction, turn left onto the Piegan Pass Trail. Going right will lead to the Jackson Glacier Overlook along the Going-to-the-Sun Road. As you move north, views of Piegan Glacier nestled in a northeast-facing cirque and Mount Siyeh to the north continue to improve. After 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers), look for the Siyeh Pass Trail junction on your right.
Preston Park and Siyeh Pass
From the junction, it is two miles (3.2 kilometers) to the pass. But before the significant elevation gain starts, the footpath leads through a small valley with meadows interspersed among stands of stunted subalpine fir. As soon as the snow is off, the floral displays begin and last through August. This is Preston Park.
The final push to reach the 7,750-foot ( 2,362 meters) pass happens via several switchbacks. Mount Siyeh fills the view to the north. To the northeast, trail deficient Boulder Creek Valley appears as your altitude increases. A cone-shaped pile of rocks marks the pass.
During the late 1920s, Great Northern Railway (GNR) paid workers to place locomotive bells at Piegan, Siyeh, Swiftcurrent Passes, and Scenic Point. It was a promotional gimmick based on an old Swiss custom of climbers and hikers producing a clear musical note when they reached a pass or summit. In the fall of 1943, GNR removed the bells and donated them to the World War II scrap metal drive.⁶ The short bell tower base is intact at Piegan Pass. However, all that remains at Siyeh and Swiftcurrent Passes are piles of rocks. If there are remnants at Scenic Point, I’ve missed them.
Look to the west after crossing the pass. Sexton Glacier lies in a crescent-shaped cirque linking Matahpi Peak and Going-to-the-Sun Mountain. Glacial meltwater becomes the slave of gravity, creating beautiful waterfalls crashing over 1,000 feet (305 meters) supplying the water which forms Baring Creek.
Scientists estimate that Sexton Glacier and the other 25 glaciers in the park are 7,000 years old.⁵ They are not remnants of the Pleistocene Epoch’s Great Ice Age that began around 2 million years ago. During the Pleistocene, flowing ice filled the valleys of Glacier and carved the spectacular landscape features we enjoy. It ended 12,000 years ago.⁴
Glacier National Park’s glaciers peaked during the Little Ice Age in the mid-1800s. Then, 146 glaciers existed. A massive 2,000 acre (809 hectares) body of moving ice occupied the enormous cirque between Mount Logan and Mount Jackson. Today, after losing over 70% of its ice, two smaller glaciers remain, Blackfoot and Jackson.¹
Sexton Glacier covered an area 43% larger in the 1800s than it does today. Piegan Glacier is 21% smaller.¹
There’s not enough snowpack to counteract the upward trend in temperature. Even with natural weather fluctuations, the Earth has warmed about 1.5 °F over the last 100 years. Northwest Montana has warmed about twice that rate.² This rate of increase is higher than any in the previous 800,000 years.³
Baring Creek Drainage
A significant snowfield on the south side of the pass can persist well into summer. It’s steep. During the early part of past summers, Glacier National Park trail officials have recommended an ice ax, crampons, and the skills to self-arrest.
In the first two miles beyond the pass, the trail drops over 1,000 feet (305 meters) in elevation through a series of switchbacks. After this descent eases up, keep an eye out for huckleberries along the trail. Late July until early August should be the best time to find this unique and delicious fruit. Eating huckleberries off the bush while taking in world-class vistas makes for memories which are hard to erase.
Little Chief, Mahtotopa, and Red Eagle Mountains on the far side of Saint Mary Lake become harder to ignore as their size appears to increase while the trail nears its end. About one mile from the trailhead and close to the footpath, Baring Creek tumbles over red rock of the Grinnell Formation. It’s well worth the time to sit by the stream and take this in for a while.
When I hear the traffic on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, I’m disappointed that the trip is over but very thankful that it happened at all.
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.
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.
A trip through old growth forest to three crystal clear mountain lakes with views of magnificent peaks.
Located in the remote northwest region of Glacier National Park near Polebridge, Montana, this hike will take you through old growth forest to three crystal clear mountain lakes with views of magnificent peaks. I think the drive to get there is worth it.
The Inside North Fork Road (Glacier Route Seven) is closed between Camas and Logging Creeks. So, that leaves two options. From Columbia Falls, drive the North Fork Road for 35 miles (56.3 km) to Polebridge. This route is mostly gravel, and it can be a bone-jarring, dusty ride. The second choice is to drive through West Glacier into the park and out Camas Road. That leaves only about 14 miles (22.5 km) of mostly gravel, which is usually in a little better shape than the North Fork Road south of there.
As any local knows, you cannot visit this region of Glacier without first stopping at the Polebridge Mercantile and bakery located just outside the park. There will probably be someone around by 7 AM. Early is desirable because their fresh baked goods have a quasi-cult following. If you arrive around dinner time, check out the Northern Lights Saloon and Cafe next to the Merc. I doubt that they will disappoint you.
By the way, if the Mercantile seems old, it is. Bill Adair built the Merc in 1914. Local folks back then knew it merely as Adair’s. Bill and his wife ran the store and lived in their homestead cabin, which is now the Northern Lights Saloon and Cafe. These buildings are now part of the W.L. Adair General Mercantile Historic District which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.¹
A few other things of which you should be aware. Polebridge and the surrounding area are off the grid. There is no cell service or Wi-Fi. However, there is a computer with the Internet in the store that the owner may let you use. And there is no public garbage service.
Quartz Lake Loop Trailhead
The hike begins near the Bowman Lake Campground and picnic area 6.3 miles (10.1 km) from Polebridge. Starting at the ‘Merc’, drive east toward the North Fork of the Flathead River, the western boundary of Glacier National Park. The entrance station is just past the east side of the bridge. The Red Bench Fire spared the ranger’s residence and check-station when it roared through during the summer of 1988. The other historic buildings were not so lucky.² ³
After passing through the check station, veer to the left and then take the first road to the right. The route leading to Bowman Lake is narrow and rough with blind curves and few pullouts. The Park Service prohibits vehicles or vehicle combinations over 21 feet (6.4 m).
Find the picnic area parking lot next to the campground. Signs will help you locate a path leading to the West Lakes Trail.
On the Trail
The West Lakes Trail skirts the south end of Bowman Lake and crosses over Bowman Creek via a substantial footbridge. Within the first 0.5-miles (0.8 km) after the bridge, you will pass a ranger patrol cabin displaying moose antlers over the front porch. I’d like to know the history that this structure has witnessed since it’s construction in 1934. Not far from the cabin, a healthy-looking black bear crossed the trail in front of us.
After 0.6-miles (1.0 km) there is a junction with the Quartz Lake Trail. One can go right or left since it’s a loop hike. I prefer the clockwise direction or veering left. From the junction, it’s a climb of 1,200 feet (366 m) over four miles to the top of Cerulean Ridge. Passing over the top, old growth forest gives way to younger lodgepole pine trees. The 36,000-acre Red Bench Fire consumed the forest to the southwest along Quartz Ridge.³ This fire adapted species quickly reclaims the scorched land left in the wake of a fire.
Before the footpath descends far, openings in the trees provide views of all three bodies of water- Quartz Lake, Middle Quartz Lake, and Lower Quartz Lake.
I’m stingy with elevation. I hate to lose that which I’ve gained. But gaining the lake requires descending over 1,000 feet (305 m). At the shoreline of Quartz Lake, the trailhead is 6.1 miles (9.8 km) away with a little more than that remaining in the trip.
The backcountry campground next to the beach is a great place to rest and have a bite to eat. (There are three campsites. Only one is first come first serve.) We sat on the shore listening to the waves roll onto the gravel beach, with the smell of fir trees in the air, and the spectacular Vulture Peak rising into the clouds at the end of the 4-mile (6.4 km) long lake. Our only company was a curious whitetail buck, in velvet. Clouds moved down from the peaks, and a curtain of rain made its way across the water to our new position under large spruce trees. The sound of falling rain and its sweet smell was calming as long as I could shut out thoughts of the miles of wet brush we were about to walk through.
According to Carter Fredenberg, park fisheries biologist, non-native lake trout were first documented in Quartz Lake during 2005.⁴ This species outcompetes the native bull trout, a threatened species, found in the lake. Lake trout also disrupt native ecosystems when they show up.
Each year since 2009, Fredenberg and his team use a clever strategy to reduce the population of the outsider. They tag lake trout with radio transmitters. These fish lead the team to their fall spawning areas in Quartz Lake, where they deploy gill nets to remove the gathering lake trout. So far, it appears to be successful.⁴
Onward. The trail leaving the campground leads to a footbridge over Quartz Creek in 0.3-miles (0.5 km). At the same time, it changes direction from southeast to southwest. Middle Quartz Lake is small and only about 500 feet (152 m) from Quartz Lake. However, the views of this little gem don’t appear until after the bridge.
The 3.1-mile (5.0 km) walk from Quartz to Lower Quartz is under the canopy of old-growth forest. Glimpses of Quartz Ridge to the west occur every once in a while. You will walk parallel to the lake for a little over a mile before seeing the backcountry campground at the south end. (There are four campsites. Two are reservable. Unlike Quartz Lake, the Park Service allows stock at this site.) You’ll probably need your bug spray if you plan on staying. This site is not on my top ten list.
Upon leaving the campground, the path turns to the northwest. It crosses Quartz Creek via one of the longest footbridges that I have seen in the park. Over 2.6 miles (4.2 km), your legs will push you up almost 900 feet (274 m) in elevation to the crest of Quartz Ridge. The last leg of the loop drops nearly 1,100 feet (335 m) over 2 miles (3.2 km) before reaching the parking lot.
In the southeastern corner of Glacier National Park is a region known as Two Medicine. It’s a place of lore, rich history, and majestic landscapes.
The name can be traced back to an 1801 map drawn by Akomakki, a Blackfeet chief. Peter Fidler, employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company to map the region, somehow ended up with Akomakki’s work. It subsequently became part of the Company’s records. Noted on the drawing is a location the Blackfeet referred to as Na-too-too-Kase – “Place of Two Medicine Lodges.” We know it as the Two Medicine River.6
By the 1890s, Two Medicine was one of the most visited locales in what would become Glacier National Park. The Great Northern Railway (GNR) brought wealthy adventurous souls to Midvale (East Glacier) where they mounted horses and traveled over the Mount Henry Trail to the Two Medicine Valley.4 It didn’t take long for the word to get out.
To accommodate the growing demand, GNR began a bold development campaign. Louis W. Hill, Great Northern Railway’s chairman of the board, commissioned nine Swiss-style chalets between 1910 and 1913.3 On the eastern shore of Two Medicine Lake in 1913, GNR built a large resort which included two chalets, a dormitory, and a large building that housed the kitchen/dining room. The kitchen and dining hall is the only survivor of that complex. Today, it’s the camp store.7,8 The fireplace in that building provided an appropriate setting for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to deliver his fireside chat to the nation in 1934.3
Excerpt from FDR’s speech:
There is nothing so American as our national parks. The scenery and wildlife are native. The fundamental idea behind the parks is native. It is, in brief, that the country belongs to the people, that it is in the process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us. The parks stand as the outward symbol of this great human principle.1
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1934
Besides the chalets, GNR built miles of trails. These grand routes, with unassuming names like the Northern and Southern Circles, and Inside Trail, were the thoroughfares used by cowboys and wranglers to give guests a backcountry experience second to none. Once the Inside Trail was completed around 1916, guests saddled-up for multi-day horseback trips from Two Medicine to Saint Mary via Pitamakin and Triple Divide Passes.2
After the Going-to-the-Sun Road opened in 1933, the popularity that Two Medicine enjoyed in the early days began to wane. But, it’s bustling again. Don’t be surprised to find the parking lot full before lunchtime.
Follow the Two Medicine Road past the ranger station toward the lake. You will pass the camp store on your right while entering the small parking lot. Look toward the lake and locate the boat landing. The trailhead is nearby.
The sweeping mountain scene from the shore will most likely grab and hold your attention for a while. Sinopah Mountain, across the lake, is the quintessential Glacier. The peak was named after a Blackfeet maiden and the daughter of Lone Walker who was a powerful Blackfeet chief. You can see his mountain in the background to the right of Sinopah. To your right, is a massive red mountain. Its name is Rising Wolf, who was the husband of Sinopah. That was the Blackfeet name given to Hugh Monroe. Born in 1798 in Quebec, he came west at 16 to apprentice with the Hudson’s Bay Company. They sent Monroe to live with the Blackfeet, specifically Chief Lone Walker, and encourage trade.5
To the left (south) of Sinopah Mountain is the pyramid shape of Painted Teepee Peak. Proceeding counterclockwise, Never Laughs Mountain is the next summit. The enormous mass of Appistoki Peak looming in the southeast is unmistakable.
Two Medicine South Shore Trail
This is bear habitat-both grizzly and black. Before you head out, be sure to have bear spray. Educate yourself on when and how to use it. Just as important, let bears know where you are by making noise from time to time. Strong winds ripping through the trees can be deafening. Be loud.
The path heads out into subalpine fir, lodgepole pine forest. The understory includes bear grass which puts on quite a show in June. Elongated white flower clusters borne at the top of a two to four-foot stalk are spectacular. Huckleberries also grow here. The sought after purple fruit is usually ripe by the end of July to the first part of August. These berries are a significant food source for both black and grizzly bears. So, be especially vigilant during that time.
Fool’s huckleberry or Menziesia shrubs grow alongside huckleberries. However, it’s poisonous when eaten. Distinguish the two by crushing a leaf and then smell it. A skunky smell is characteristic of Fool’s Huckleberry.
At 0.2-miles (0.3-kilometers) from the trailhead is the Paradise Point Trail junction. The 0.4-miles (0.6-kilometers) path leads to a cozy little beach on Two Medicine Lake. Rising Wolf Mountain, reaching over 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) above the water surface, fills the view to the north. It’s a beautiful place for a picnic.
About 0.5-miles (0.8-kilometers) from where you started the South Boundary Trail, you will walk by ponds created by beavers. Out in the water, there are dome-shaped structures made of interwoven branches and twigs and packed with mud. That’s their lodge. These 60-pound (27-kilogram) rodents survive the harsh Two Medicine winters in their grass and leaf-lined living quarters. Using an underwater entrance, they access food stashed at the bottom of the pond while bitter winds drive snow over the ice above.
By creating a pond, beavers change the habitat, which attracts different plants and animals, including moose, fish, insects, amphibians, and birds that make their living near water.
After many years, the pond fills with silt and plant debris. The beavers exhaust their food supply and move. Without maintenance, the dam collapses and the water drains. A meadow develops in the fertile soil. Eventually, trees will take over the location again.
At 1.2 miles (1.9 kilometers), the Aster Park Trail leaves the South Shore Trail. This footpath leads to Aster Falls (0.1-miles/ 0.2-kilometers) and Aster Park Overlook (0.7-miles/1.1 kilometers). The overlook is a steep climb, but well worth the effort. Unbroken views of Two Medicine Lake, Rising Wolf, Flinsch Peak, and Sinopah are outstanding.
By the time you reach the bridge over Paradise Creek, the trailhead is 2.3 miles (3.7 kilometers) away. This undulating and swinging suspension structure over fast moving water may test your balance. Just go slowly and keep your hands on the side cables.
The Two Medicine Pass Trail leaves the South Shore Trail at 2.6 miles (4.2 kilometers). The path to the right leads to a boat dock at the head of Two Medicine Lake. If space is available, one can buy a return ticket aboard the launch, Sinopah.
Stay to the left on the Two Medicine Pass Trail to reach Rockwell Falls. This route passes beneath the southeast slopes of Sinopah Mountain. From this perspective, one would never guess from photographs it’s the same beauty seen from the foot of the lake. Nevertheless, Sinopah presents a different but spectacular profile.
The next footbridge crosses the stream that has just made the plummet over Rockwell Falls. The short path to the right ends up near the base of the last cascade. From this location, most of the cascades and pools are not visible. However, a way to view the upper falls exists.
Retrace your steps back across the footbridge and walk up the incline on the far side of the creek. Near the top, a trail heads up the slope. The footpath is steep with loose gravel in sections, and rock cliffs near the falls can be wet and slick from the mist of the falling water. Use caution.
Another glorious day, the air as delicious to the lungs as nectar to the tongue. John Muir
The adventure to the Snyder Lakes and the headwaters of Snyder Creek begins in the shadows of a western redcedar and western hemlock forest. As the elevation increases, the forest transitions to spruce and subalpine fir, and finally to stunted and scattered subalpine fir and 10-foot (3-meter) high alder.
In August of 2017, lightning ignited the forest. The Sprague Fire burned 16,982 acres (6,872 hectares) and the iconic Sperry Chalet. You will see some evidence of the fire during this hike.
Grizzly bears are known to use the Snyder Creek drainage. Make plenty of noise. A surprised bear is usually not a nice bear. Practice safely unholstering and removing the safety clip from your canister of bear spray. And know and be able to judge the effective distance of the spray. Finally, know the discharge and aiming techniques.
The trail starts at 3,100 feet (945 meters) and ends 4.3 miles (6.9 kilometers) later at Lower Snyder Lake (5,247 feet/1,600 meters). The rest of the trip involves climbing up cliffs and bushwhacking to Upper Snyder Lake (5,575 feet/1,700 meters). The total round trip distance is 12.1 miles (19.5 kilometers).
The Sperry Trailhead is across the Going-to-the-Sun Road from Lake McDonald Lodge. This footpath leads to Sperry Chalet and beyond, but it also provides access to the Snyder Creek drainage. The route gradually gains elevation as it passes the Swan Mountain Outfitters Corral. Then it’s all business. If you’re out of shape, chances are good that this will not be enjoyable going up or coming down.
About 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometers) from the trailhead, you will pass the trail junction to Mount Brown Lookout. Walk another 0.1-miles (0.2-kilometers) and the Snyder Lake Trail will present itself. This route is not as steep as the Sperry Trail.
A little over 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) after entering the drainage, you will come to a bridge over Snyder Creek. There are three backcountry campsites along the trail and up from Snyder Lake not far from the bridge. Two of these are reservable. However, all will be closed July 1, 2019 for the rest of the season. Assuming a site is not occupied, these are convenient places to rest and eat. There are also a few places further along the trail where one can work their way down to the water’s edge.
The trail diminishes and then disappears at the far end of the lake where a talus field begins. You can hear the water from Upper Snyder Lake cascading down a narrow canyon about 200 yards (183 meters) away. We chose the gorge as the place to negotiate the 300-foot (274-meter) cliffs separating the two lakes.
There were three of us. Tony took the lead. He is a climber of mountains and has years of experience. Counter to scientific thought, he has lungs that reach down to his knees and has the endurance of a mountain goat. We all need friends who challenge us. Tony challenges me physically and mentally. I have a thing about heights and exposure. He has been very patient while I have tried to work through this mental challenge. And, he is a motivator. For example, on a climb of a local mountain last summer, we arrived at the crux. There were two possible routes. In his quiet way, he told me that if I fell pursuing option number one, I would be seriously hurt but would probably survive. Falling from option two, I would most likely die.
I kept this in mind, as I was searching for a handhold on the crumbly rock with a glacier 200 feet (61 meters) below. He calmly said, “ take your time, no hurry.” I feel that I always grow a little when I go out with Tony.
We worked our way up through narrow openings in the 300-foot (91-meter) rock wall from short ledge to short ledge. Finally, we topped out and began our descent into the abyss of alder. Snyder Creek flows from the east and then makes an abrupt turn and flows from the north where it exits from Upper Snyder Lake. Getting to the lake involved negotiating bogs and the ever-present alder.
It was worth it. At the lake, hidden in a grand glacial cirque, Mount Brown, the Little Matterhorn, and Edwards Mountain stood like sentinels above us. At least seven waterfalls hundreds of feet tall thundered down the walls of the amphitheater. Spring was just beginning up there. White blossoms with light pink veins of spring beauty and bright yellow flowers of glacier lilies were showing off in small alpine meadows surrounding the lake.
Although George Snyder has the ridge above Lake McDonald, a creek, and two lakes named after him, I think this body of water is the best match.
Snyder came west from Wisconsin in 1894, with only 23 birthdays behind him. He was an independent-minded and a bit unorthodox young man. By the end of 1895, he had built a two-story hotel at the head of Lake McDonald on the site of the current Lake McDonald Lodge. But there was no road to the place, only a rudimentary horse trail. So, he purchased a 40-foot (12-meter) steamboat and had it shipped to Belton. He and other settlers built a crude narrow road from the Middle Fork of the Flathead River near Belton to Apgar. Hardy souls loaded the boat onto a stout wagon and transported it to the foot of the lake.² ³
Snyder lost the hotel in 1906. The stories of drinking and gambling being involved may be factual or they might be a myth. At any rate, John Lewis became the new owner. Not defeated, George opened a hostel and pub near Glacier’s west entrance. Some locals, including Glacier National Park officials, viewed the drinking establishment as an offense against morality. Nevertheless, his businesses survived. Snyder was a thorn in the side of Glacier’s administration for years.¹
We returned by a route that took us to the far side of the lake. We could either climb higher and further to use the talus slopes on the southeast flank of Mount Brown and hopefully miss the cliffs. Or, go low and not as far. But that required more bushwhacking through alder.
There were distances that our feet never felt the ground only the flexible intertwined branches of the 10-foot (3-meter) tall shrubs from hell. Our lower legs looked like someone used a cat-o’-nine-tails on them. Negotiating the cliffs downward was not as bad as I thought it would be. Eventually, we intersected the Snyder Lake Trail about 0.1-miles (0.2 kilometers) downhill from the bridge over Snyder Creek.
We stopped long enough to clean out our boots, have a bite to eat, and filter some water for the return trip. After a 9.5 hour day, we were back at the trailhead.
Fraley, John. Wild River Pioneers: adventures in the Middle Fork of the Flathead, Great Bear Wilderness, and Glacier National Park. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
Guthrie, C.W. The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years: in Glacier National Park. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
This route was the main year-round patrol thoroughfare for park rangers before construction workers completed U.S. Highway 2 in 1930. The trail follows the Middle Fork of the Flathead River through John F. Stevens Canyon under a diverse forest that reclaimed the land after the 1929 Half Moon Fire.
The out and back hike from Belton Bridge to the Harrison Lake trail junction is 15.2 miles (24.5 kilometers). The footpath rises and falls over ridges and benches as it makes its way along the base of the Belton Hills.
Finding the Trailhead
From U.S. Highway 2, drive into West Glacier. Just past the Mercantile, turn right onto Old River Road. If you are coming from inside the park, it is the first left after crossing the bridge. Follow the road until you arrive at the Belton Bridge and park on the side. Please do not block any gates or entrances.
Crossing the River
Visitors used this site as the main entrance to the park from 1897 to 1936. A log structure first spanned the Middle Fork at this location in 1897. Until that time, rowboats ferried visitors across the sometimes raging river. The log bridge was replaced in 1920 by a concrete arch bridge.⁴ A metal structure was built downstream at the site of the current bridge in 1936. That became the new entrance.
Mother Nature had a little different plan. Late snow in April and May 1964 made a below average winter snowpack into an above average accumulation. Then it rained. During 24 hours, park personnel measured 10 inches of precipitation at Lake McDonald Lodge. The upshot was widespread devastation brought on by severe flooding.
The enormous force of the water mangled the Great Northern Railway main line, eroded away U.S. Highway 2 in places, destroyed the metal bridge at West Glacier, and washed away miles of trails. The deluge came over the top of the concrete arch bridge scoured away the decking leaving only the arch behind.²
The arch that survived that historic flood supports the decking you walk across to access the trail on the opposite side of the river.
After walking across the bridge, keep to the right. If you go left, the path which was the original roadway into the park will lead to the Park Headquarters area.
During late spring and early summer, various colored rafts and kayaks carry wide-eyed passengers through river structures with names like Bonecrusher, Jaws, Pinball, Tunnel Rapid, and Can Opener Rock. Glimpses of this activity from the trail can be entertaining. Later in the summer, the water is tamer.
The first five miles of the trail leads through a mixed Douglas fir forest. Then it enters an open lodgepole pine stand, which was my favorite during the hike. The quiet was only disturbed by the restorative sounds of the breeze moving through the pines and an occasional bird. Yellow / orange light caused by the smoke haze from fires in Alberta gave the forest an indescribable look.
At 5.6 miles (9 kilometers), the path intersects Lincoln Creek. A bouncy single person suspension bridge lets you cross without getting your feet wet. The Lincoln Creek Snowshoe Cabin is a short distance away.
The Park Service built the first Lincoln Creek cabin in the 1920s. However, the 100,000-acre (40,469 hectares) 1929 Half Moon Fire consumed it. The current cabin was constructed in 1931. Rangers patrolling the extensive southern boundary of the park used it as an overnight shelter. Today, trail crews may be the only personnel using the structure.³
Once you leave the cabin, you will see an increase in spruce and western redcedar. Sections of trail in the next two miles can become overgrown with brush. At 6.4 miles (10.3 kilometers) from the trailhead, there is a spur trail leading down to the river. During low water in August and later, it is possible to ford the Middle Fork safely. This is where you would intersect the Southern Boundary Trail after crossing the river. Always check with the knowledgeable folks at the Glacier National Park Backcountry Office for the latest information and directions.
At 7.6 miles (12.2 kilometers) from the trailhead, you will find the Harrison Lake trail junction. The sweet surprise waiting is the Dan and Josephine Doody homestead, established before Glacier became a national park in 1910. The remains you see was a two-story hunting lodge.
John Fraley, in his book Wild River Pioneers, provides an entertaining description of Dan and Josephine. The following are some highlights from his book.
Josephine Doody worked as a dancehall girl and allegedly shot a man in Colorado around 1890. She then headed north and ended up in the seedy and notoriously dangerous railroad town of McCarthyville. Apparently, she took a liking to opium while in that town. The whistle-stop no longer exists. But the former site is located about six miles west of Marias Pass.
Dan Doody, a fur trapper, and prospector met her in one of the 32 saloons there and fell in love. He subsequently hauled her off on a mule to his 120-acre homestead near Harrison Creek. There they started a lucrative moonshine business. Frank built Josephine a small cabin hidden in the woods to which she could escape when the law came.
Great Northern Railway trains would stop and place their orders for moonshine by blowing their whistles using short blasts to indicate the number of quarts they desired. Josephine would row across the river and deliver her product.
Dan was one of the six original rangers hired by Glacier National Park shortly after its establishment in 1910. Yet, he didn’t last long at that job. Excessive poaching was the reason for his short tenure. Dan died in 1919. Josephine stayed on the property and guided fisherman into her 70s. She left the park in 1931 and died of pneumonia in 1936 at 82.¹
Our trip ended at the Doody homestead. But continuing another 4.6 miles, the South Boundary Trail will intersect the Nyack Creek Trail, which leads into the Nyack Coal Creek Camping Zone. This remote area can also be accessed from Walton, Two Medicine, or by fording the river during low water.
Fraley, John. Wild River Pioneers: adventures in the Middle Fork of the Flathead, Great Bear Wilderness, and Glacier National Park. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
Guthrie, C.W. The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
A worthy Glacier National Park early season hike with outstanding views.
The Apgar Fire Lookout perches on an overlook in the Apgar Mountains southwest of Lake McDonald. Put this on your list for early season hikes or if in summer the first half of the day. The 2003 Robert Fire removed the lodgepole pine forest, and the trail on the southwest slope can get toasty. However, beautiful vistas await as anyone who has been there or viewed the webcams can attest.
The namesake for all of this was Milo B. Apgar. He settled at the foot of Lake McDonald in the 1890s. It didn’t take him long to realize that the Great Northern Railway would bring visitors to this rugged and remote location and they would need a place to stay and food to eat. He built cabins for them near the lake and McDonald Creek.² The Village Inn at Apgar occupies the site now.
Finding the Trailhead
Drive 0.3-miles past the West Entrance and turn left toward the Glacier Institute. At the T-intersection turn right. Soon after, turn left and drive past the Swan Outfitters Corral. From the Quarter Circle Bridge over McDonald Creek, travel 1.5 miles to the trailhead.
The hike is 7.2 miles (11.6 km) round trip with a 1,850-foot (564 meters) elevation gain. The lookout sits at 5,236 feet (1,596 meters).
The difficulty rating of this hike varies with the source. For example, the Sierra Club Hike Rating Scale pegs this as moderate difficulty. The NW Hiker Calculator gives a score of 18, which they consider challenging. There are other variables to consider. Although not an exhaustive list, trail condition, weather, the physical condition and age of the hiker, and the load carried are essential considerations.
A difficulty rating system conceived by Paul Petzoldt, an accomplished mountaineer and founder of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), makes the most sense to me. He bases the unit of measure for the calculation on the energy needed to walk one level mile – an energy mile. So, total distance gives you the energy miles to start with. Then add two energy miles for every 1,000 feet of elevation climbed.
The total distance for the lookout climb is 7.2 miles or 7.2 energy miles. The elevation gain requires an additional 3.7 energy miles. The sum is 10.9. A score less than 5 suggests an easy hike, 5 – 10 moderate, and greater than 10 strenuous.
Research in the Exercise Physiology Laboratory at Western Carolina University discovered Petzoldt wasn’t that far off.³ The system is not perfect, but it gives one a means to compare the relative difficulty of hikes.
Water will not be available after you leave the lower portion of this trip. So, be sure to bring plenty. And, carry your bear spray where it is quickly accessible. Know how and when to use it.
Be aware that Glacier National Park has rules concerning pets in the park. It’s a good idea to be familiar with these park policies. You don’t want your fun money going to pay a hefty fine.
The trail leaves the parking lot in a northwest direction under the crowns of lodgepole pine and western larch. These trees probably sprouted after the 103,000-acre 1929 Half Moon Fire consumed the previous forest.
Several clues point to the character of the pre-fire forest. For example, thimbleberry, bead lily, fairy-bells, starry false Solomon’s-seal, growing under the lodgepole pine canopy, prefer moist, shady forest sites. Healthy western redcedar has become prominent in the understory. They too prefer wet, shaded places. Both lodgepole and western larch are intolerant of shade. So, left undisturbed, the cedar will be more successful at regeneration. Before the 1929 fire, this was probably a western redcedar, western hemlock forest similar to what we see in the Lake McDonald Valley.
Bears come to feed on the grasses, sedges, and dandelions in the moist areas. Later they take advantage of the berry crop produced here.
It doesn’t take long to emerge from this 90-100-year-old stand of trees and enter a sea of short “doghair” lodgepole pine. This fire-adapted species came through again and started the healing process after the 2003 Robert Fire. That summer, there were 26 wildfires in the park burning 13 percent of its area.
Ceanothus or buckbrush is a fragrant evergreen shrub you will see along the trail. This is a remarkable plant. Its seeds can survive in the soil for centuries waiting for a fire to start their germination process. But that’s not all. Ceonothus, together with bacteria that live in little nodules in their roots, take nitrogen from the air and convert it to a form that the plant can use. As they colonize a post-fire area, the shrubs also help improve the soil. Look for their tiny white flowers starting in June and into July.
The trail makes three long switchbacks as it climbs a southwest slope of the Apgar Mountains. I was on this trail before the 2003 fire when trees provided shade. Not so today. This can be a toasty hike during warm summer afternoons.
When you see an outhouse and a hitching rail, you’re close to your destination. There is a short trail to the right where the lookout comes into view.
At the Lookout
As you face Lake McDonald 2,000 feet (610 meters) below, Howe Ridge is to the left. At the end of Howe is Stanton Mountain, followed by Mount Vaught. The Garden Wall is at the far end of the valley. Snyder Ridge is on the right side of Lake McDonald. The first peak above the valley on that side is Mount Brown with Mount Cannon further to the northeast. Edwards Mountain is just east of Mount Brown, and the Little Matterhorn rises between the two. The spectacular spire of Mount Saint Nicholas stands proud to the southeast about 24 miles (39 kilometers) away.
The National Park Service initially built the Apgar Lookout in 1929. Within two weeks of completion, the Half Moon Fire destroyed it. The Park Service rebuilt the structure you see today in 1930. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places.¹
A trip through a Glacier National Park forest in transition.
The Apgar Bike Path is one of three trails in Glacier National Park where bicycles are permitted. Of course walking is okay too. The trailhead can be found south of the Backcountry Permit Office in Apgar Village. This nearly level, paved path through a lodgepole pine forest can be surprisingly void of people. It’s suitable for many ability levels and an excellent early season option.
This can be a relaxing saunter through a forest in transition. In 1929, the 39,000-acre Half Moon Fire consumed the western hemlock/western red cedar forest that grew in the area. Now, shade intolerant pioneer species, like lodgepole pine and western larch, predominate the overstory near the trail. But given enough time and lack of disturbance, shade-tolerant species will prevail.
Check out the understory and one future for this forest. I found western white pine and Douglas fir, which are intermediate in shade tolerance. To my surprise, there are many shade-tolerant species alive and doing well. These included: grand fir, Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, western hemlock, and western red cedar. The stage is set for the later stages of forest succession.
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If you visit this path in June, there will be bear grass blooms appearing like puffs of white smoke among the trees. Huckleberries are a bonus later in the summer. However, bears are known to visit this area. So, don’t leave your bear spray in the car.
The Route with Options
The three-mile round trip starts out in a southwest direction from the trailhead near the Backcountry Permit Office. It soon crosses the Camas Road. At about one-half mile, there is a short spur trail leading to the Ox-Bow Overlook on McDonald Creek. The trail course changes to the southeast and does not veer right or left for over a mile. The makers were efficient in getting from point A to point B. As near as I can tell, this is the old road way from the Belton Bridge to Apgar.
The path crosses the Glacier Institute Road at 1.4 miles and ends at the Going-to-the-Sun Road 1.5 miles from the trailhead in Apgar Village.
Extend the trip by continuing on the path another one-half mile to the intersection of Grinnell Drive and Mather Drive in the Glacier National Park Headquarters area. Walk or ride about one-quarter mile to the end of Mather Drive. There you will find a gravel path, the beginning of the South Boundary Trail, that proceeds down an embankment and then upstream along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River reaching the Belton Bridge at 2.75 miles from the Apgar trailhead. Believe it or not, this was the original entrance into Glacier National Park.
There can be a lot of action here during rafting season. Have a snack and take a few pictures down along the river before the return trip. Or, continue across the bridge and follow the road into West Glacier.