3 Lakes, Waterfalls & Swiftcurrent Pass

Hiking and history notes for your walk up the spectacular Swiftcurrent Valley.

Introduction

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.

The Trailhead

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.

Glacier National Park, Many Glacier Region, Fishercap Lake
Fishercap Lake

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.

Glacier National Park, Many Glacier Region, Redrock Lake
Redrock Lake

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. 

Glacier National Park, Many Glacier Region, Bullhead Lake
Bullhead 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.

Swiftcurrent Headwall

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

Glacier National Park, Many Glacier Region, Swiftcurrent Glacier
The USGS Repeat Photography Project documents the shrinking of glaciers in Glacier National Park.13

“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.

The new Swiftcurrent Ranger Station and other buildings rise from the ash of the 1936 Heaven’s Peak Fire, ca. 1938. (source unknown)

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

Glacier National Park, Heaven's Peak Fire Map
Map of the Heaven’s Peak Fire of 1936.2

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.

Swiftcurrent Pass

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

Glacier National Park, Many Glacier Region, Swiftcurrent Pass
Remains of the 1926 bell foundation

Hike Summary

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.)

New To Glacier National Park?

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.


Notes

  1. Bentley, Callan. “The Belt Supergroup in Glacier National Park.” American Geophysical Union. Accessed February 18, 2019. https://blogs.agu.org/mountainbeltway/2013/08/27/guest-post-the-belt-supergroup-in-glacier-national-park/.
  1. “Glacier Fire Map 1910-2015.” Glacier National Park Fire History. https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/nature/fire-history.htm.
  1. “Glacier National Park Tourist Trails: Inside Trail; South Circle; North Circle.” National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/891c38e1-bd58-46f9-ae65-ce7a377288f9.
  1. Hunt-Foster, Rebecca K. “The Stromatolites of Glacier National Park.” National Park Service Park Paleontology News – Vol. 10, No. 2, Fall 2018. Last modified , 2018. https://www.nps.gov/articles/park-paleo-fall-2018-stromatolites.htm.
  1. Larson, Rolf L. “Firestorm!.” Glacier Park Foundation. Last modified , 2012. http://www.glacierparkfoundation.org/History/firestorm.html.
  1. “Moose.” Wikipedia. Last modified January 13, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moose.
  1. “Moose – Alces americanus.” Montana Field Guide. Montana Natural Heritage Program and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.. http://fieldguide.mt.gov/speciesDetail.aspx?elcode=AMALC03010.
  1. “Overview of Glacier National Park’s Glaciers.” National Park Service: Glacier National Park. Last modified August 17, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/nature/glaciersoverview.htm.
  1. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years in Glacier National Park. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
  1. “Status of Glaciers in Glacier National Park.” United States Geological Survey Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center. https://www.usgs.gov/centers/norock/science/retreat-glaciers-glacier-national-park?qt-science_center_objects=1#qt-science_center_objects.
  1. “Stromatolites.” Indiana University. https://geol105b.sitehost.iu.edu/images/gaia_chapter_10/stromatolites.htm
  1. “Swiftcurrent Auto Camp Historic District.” National Register of Historic Places Digital Archive on NPGallery. Last modified January 1, 1996. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/AssetDetail?assetID=9e575759-c2a0-4079-8d43-99638b12c14a.
  1. “Swiftcurrent Glacier. Glacier National Park, Montana. Repeat photography 1910 – 2016.” United States Geological Survey Denver Library Photographic Collection. https://www.sciencebase.gov/catalog/item/5efcf7f882ce3fd7e8a5bb10.
  1. ​​”USGS Denver Library Photographic Collection: Glaciers of Glacier National Park Repeat Photography.” USGS: science for a changing world. https://usgs.libguides.com/usgsphotolib/glaciernp.

Autumn Creek Trail

If solitude is what you’re after, this hike near the southeast border of Glacier National Park will deliver. Explore as little, or as much, as your group can handle. However, you’ll need two vehicles for the entire point-to-point trek. Remember, the park service prohibits dogs on all trails. And that’s a good thing in this grizzly bear habitat.

Glacier National Park, grizzly bear track
A July grizzly bear track one-half mile from the trailhead to Firebrand Pass

Trailhead

The trip begins atop the Continental Divide at Marias Pass and ends 8.6 miles later at a vehicle pullout on the north side of U.S. Highway 2 close to mile marker 203—the usual start for the Firebrand Pass hike.

At Marias Pass, on the north side of U.S. Highway 2, there is a large gravel area near the railroad tracks. Park there, cross the rails and walk along the tree line to find a trail headed north. This is the Summit spur trail, which provides access to the Autumn Creek Trail.

Glacier National Park, Little Dog Mountain and Summit Mountain
Little Dog Mountain and Summit Mountain from near the Summit Spur Trailhead in September

Hike

After one-half mile, the trail crosses an earthen dam on the west end of Three Bears Lake. In 1902, Great Northern Railway (GNR) built this structure and another one on the east end to raise the water level of the naturally occurring Summit Lake. GNR needed the increased volume to supply a 50,000-gallon storage tank at Marias Pass.1 There, steam locomotives replenished their onboard water supply.

GNR Steam Locomotive at Summit Station, Marias Pass, MT
Steam locomotive at Summit Station, Marias Pass, MT (Great Northern Railway photograph)

When you intersect the Autumn Creek Trail, 1.1 miles from the trailhead, turn right. The easy-going path reaches its highest point of just under 6,000 feet in elevation 4.5 miles from the start and directly under the mountain formation known as The Mummy.

The footpath leads you through an open lodgepole pine forest with bear grass, huckleberries, and grouse whortleberries in much of the understory. When spring brings good rains, and there is ample soil moisture, bear grass blooms are spectacular. Small meadows along the path are home to a variety of other wildflowers. During June and July, they show off with multicolored displays.

Seven miles from the trailhead, look for the Lubec Trail junction (some refer to it as the Coonsa Trail). It’s another 1.5 miles to U.S. Highway 2. Panning east to west, Calf Robe Mountain, Summit Mountain, and Little Dog Mountain provide a spectacular scene.

Hike Summary

Total Distance: 8.6 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 1,116 feet; Loss: 1,219 feet
Difficulty: 10.7, strenuous
(Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time Estimate: 4 hours
(Calculated using an average 2.5 mph speed and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)

Autumn Creek Trail – Blacktail Hills Option

In winter, the Blacktail Hills route is popular with skiers and snowshoers. You’ll also need to plan for two vehicles on this point-to-point outing. The trip begins at Marias Pass, as described above, and ends near mile-marker 194 (193.8) on U.S. Highway 2. There is a pullout on the south side of the highway just east of the exit point. I recommend ending here so the steepest part of the trip is experienced going downhill.

Turn left (west) when reaching the Autumn Creek Trail. Little Dog Mountain will be north of the trail and Elk Mountain will appear to the west. During winter, the open areas on the east side of Elk Mountain down to Autumn Creek can be hazardous.

Orange tags on the trees mark the route. These are especially helpful after a snowstorm. If you’re traveling this trail in winter, be sure to check the Avalanche Report.

Hike Summary

Total Distance: 5.7 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 579 feet; Loss: 1,126 feet
Difficulty: 6.9 moderate
(Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time Estimate: 2 hours, 34 minutes
(Calculated using an average 2.5 mph speed and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)

Notes

  1. “Three Bears Lake and Dams.” Library of Congress. Historic American Engineering Record National Park Service (HAER No. MT-88). https://cdn.loc.gov/master/pnp/habshaer/mt/mt0200/mt0273/data/mt0273data.pdf.

Grinnell Glacier & Upper Grinnell Lake

On November 2, 1887, after three days of bushwhacking, George Bird Grinnell, Jack Monroe, and James Willard Schultz scaled the headwall of a magnificent glacial valley. The team was probably all smiles when they climbed up onto the glacier Grinnell had spotted through his spyglass two years earlier.2 Grinnell estimated the depth of the ice, which would later bear his name, at 600 feet.2

Grinnell became one of the prominent personalities who worked tirelessly to gain national park status for the extraordinary land he had explored.

Today millions of people travel to Glacier National Park. The Many Glacier Region, in the northeastern part of the park, is a hiker’s paradise. And one of the most popular destinations in this area is Grinnell Glacier. The trip to what remains of the once-mighty glacier often shows up in visitor’s top ten “must-do” lists. During July and August, don’t expect any solitude. But do expect to be awed by the scenery.

Glacier National Park, Many Glacier Region, Grinnell Lake, and Angel Wing
Grinnell Lake with Angel Wing rising from the far shore.

If you’d like to mix it up a bit, consider buying passage on the boats Chief Two Guns and Morning Eagle. Chief Two Guns is a 45-foot, 49 passenger launch that motors across Swiftcurrent Lake. Its dock at the foot of the lake is near the Many Glacier Hotel. Once at the head of the lake, there is a short walk to the pier on Lake Josephine. There the 49 passenger Morning Eagle is waiting to take folks to the head of her lake. Using the boats will knock off a little over three miles of the walk to the glacier. Check out Glacier Park Boat Company’s website for current fees and time schedules.

Planning

It’s not uncommon for the park service to post a warning or close the Grinnell Glacier Trail because of grizzly bears. If you’re unfamiliar with traveling through bear habitat, I recommend Glacier National Park’s Bear Safety web page. There’s a lot of valuable information, including a video presentation by a park bear biologist.

Also, check the Glacier National Park Trail Status page. The following is an example from July 10, 2021.


Grinnell Glacier Trail

CLOSED for bear frequenting from Thunderbird Falls to the end of the trail 7/10/21 per 822

Projected initial clearing date: 7/23/21 per 650 

High-angle snow hazards exist approximately 1.5 miles above the junction with Josephine Lake (3.5 miles from the trailhead at the picnic area). Crampons, ice axe, and extensive experience with ice travel would be recommended.


And while you’re at it, visit Glacier National Park’s Trail and Area Closings and Postings web page.

I also encourage you to check the National Weather Service Recreation Safety Forecast web page to reduce the chances of nasty weather surprises.

If you’ve not done many longer hikes in the backcountry, consider REI’s Day Hiking Checklist. It’s a good one.

Trailhead

Hiking the entire Grinnell Glacier Trail is the focus of this post. The strenuous hike begins in the Many Glacier picnic area about 0.5-miles past the road to the Many Glacier Hotel. The trailhead is well marked at the south end of the parking lot, which fills early during July and August. Additional parking is sometimes available just before the picnic area beside the road.

The Many Glacier Hotel is an alternate starting point. You will meander along the eastern and southern shores of Swiftcurrent Lake before intersecting the Grinnell Glacier Trail. This route is about three-tenths of a mile longer than that starting at the picnic area.

Hike

The first two miles of the footpath are relatively level and forested. You’ll walk along the western shores of Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. Grinnell Point, the prominence seen from the Many Glacier Hotel, rises to the north.

After the Josephine Trail junction, the climb begins in earnest. The icy-cold Grinnell Falls, crashing 960 feet down the headwall, appears about one mile past the Josephine intersection.1 With elevation gain, trees become fewer and stunted. A great birds-eye perspective of the u-shaped glacial valley with its shimmering lakes then opens up. To appreciate the immensity of this landscape, one needs to experience it. Photographs fall short.

Glacier National Park, Many Glacier Region, Grinnell Falls
Grinnell Falls

About 3.5 miles from the trailhead, Thunderbird Falls spills onto the cliff-hugging trail. Then, a short distance up the path, one may encounter a steep snowfield burying the footpath. This frozen mass can persist into July and might be dangerous to cross. Checking with park rangers about potential hazards before embarking would be a good call.

One is likely to walk over fossilized ripple marks exposed during trail construction. Water agitation in the shallow sea environment of the ancient Belt Sea formed these sediment ridges over one billion years ago. During hundreds of millions of years, thousands of feet of sediment stacked one layer upon another in the sea basin. Heat and pressure cemented the loose particles into solid rock. Finally, tectonic forces shoved the massive rock mass eastward 50 miles and uplifted it as it slid over the top of much younger rock. The foundation of Glacier National Park started as the mucky bed of the Belt Sea.

As the climb continues, the route becomes a narrow shelf blasted into the side of a cliff. Far below at the bottom of the steep drop-off is Grinnell Lake, a turquoise gem. Rising abruptly from its far shore is the sheer rock face of Angel Wing, backed by the massive Mount Gould. A near-vertical rock wall is the view on the opposite side of the trail.

Glacier National Park, Many Glacier Region, Grinnell Glacier Trail - cliffs
Cliff bands above Grinnell Lake with Angel Wing and Mount Gould

When the path leaves its perch on the rock face, it crosses open areas where you might see bighorn sheep and mountain goats. A picnic area with a pit toilet offers a great place to rest before the final 400-foot and 0.4-mile climb over the glacial moraine to Grinnell Glacier and Upper Grinnell Lake.

Grinnell Glacier

The ice-scoured rock beside Upper Grinnell Lake is a popular place to hang out, surrounded by fantastic scenery. Directly across the water, Salamander Falls plummets 440 feet with meltwater from Salamander Glacier.4

Salamander, once part of the vast Grinnell Glacier, shrunk 23 percent between 1966 and 2015.3

The remnants of Grinnell Glacier lie at the south end of the cirque beneath the massive Mount Gould. During the same period mentioned above, Grinnell lost 45 percent of its area.3

The USGS Repeat Photography Project documents changes in glaciers by placing historical photographs alongside more recent photographs taken from the same location. The pictures of Grinnell Glacier say it all.

In the past, rangers took visitors out onto Grinnell Glacier. This no longer happens. The risks of crossing the outlet of Upper Grinnell Lake and walking on top of weakened ice with hidden crevasses are too great.

Since 1900, the mean annual temperature for Glacier National Park and the surrounding region has increased by 1.3 ℃, which is 1.8 times the global mean increase.3

Gem Glacier succumbed to rises in temperature and lost its classification as a glacier because it no longer met the 25-acre criteria.3 The last bit of the former glacier hugs the Garden Wall south of Salamander and west of Mount Gould.

Hike Summary

Total Distance: 10.6 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 2,277 feet; Loss: 701 feet
Difficulty: 15.2, strenuous
(calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Miles)
Estimated Walking Time: 5 hours 22 minutes
(calculated using an average 2.5 mph walking speed and Naismuth’s Rule to compensate for elevation gain)

New To Glacier National Park?

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 the park. See it here on Apple Books.

Notes

  1. “Grinnell Falls, Glacier County, Montana, United States.” World Waterfall Database. Last modified March 19, 2017. https://www.worldwaterfalldatabase.com/waterfall/Grinnell-Falls-482.
  2. Minetor, Randi. Historic Glacier National Park: the stories behind one of America’s Great Treasures. Guilford, CT: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.
  3. “Retreat of Glaciers in Glacier National Park.” United States Geological Survey. Last modified, 2013. http://npshistory.com/publications/glac/glacier-retreat-2013.pdf.
  4. Salamander Falls, Glacier County, Montana, United States.” World Waterfall Database. Last modified March 19, 2017. https://www.worldwaterfalldatabase.com/waterfall/Salamander-Falls-759.

Gable Pass via Lee Ridge

This adventure in the Belly River region begins in the northeastern corner of Glacier National Park, about three-quarters of a mile south of the international border with Canada. If exploring a remote area in the Glacier National Park wilderness appeals to you, read on.

Planning

Because of the location, consider distances to the nearest help should an emergency arise. The nearest are the Belly River Ranger Station and the U.S. Customs Station. Depending where you are in the hike, one will be better than the other. Know that there is no cell phone coverage.

Be honest with yourself about your physical condition.

Water is fleeting on Lee Ridge. I wouldn’t plan on replenishing your supplies en route. “Bring plenty of water” is a commonly given piece of advice but a little vague for me. So, consider a general rule of thumb. Consume at least 0.5 liters per hour. For this trip then, the minimum estimated volume of water to carry is 3.2 liters. It was close to 80° Fahrenheit on my last trek up Lee Ridge, and I drank about 4 liters.

If you’re unfamiliar with traveling through bear habitat, I recommend Glacier National Park’s Bear Safety web page. There’s a lot of valuable information, including a video presentation by a park bear biologist.

Check the Glacier National Park Trail Status page.

Check Glacier National Park’s Trail and Area Closings and Postings.

Check the National Weather Service Recreation Safety Forecast.

If you’ve not done many longer hikes in the backcountry, consider REI’s Day Hiking Checklist. It’s a good one.


Trailhead

From Saint Mary, drive north 13 miles on U.S. Highway 89 to the junction with Montana Highway 17 (Chief Mountain Highway). Continue 13.7 miles on Highway 17 and look for a parking turnout on the right side of the road. If you reach a large parking lot on the left within sight of the Chief Mountain Border Station, you’ve gone too far. Backtrack about one-half mile. From the south end of the parking turnout, walk southeast along the highway about 550 feet (0.1 miles) to find the trail marked with an orange tag nailed to a tree.

Chief Mountain, Ninaki Peak, and Papoose
Chief Mountain from the Chief Mountain Highway

Hike

The first 4.5 miles of this trip are through a lodgepole pine forest. An abundance of thimbleberry (in full bloom the first week of July) and other plants like bead lily, false Salomon’s-seal, and spotted coral-root point to a moist environment. The mosquitos are a confirmation of that.

At 2.4 miles, the Lee Ridge Trail slope increases to about 10% for 3 miles. The last 0.6 miles steepens again before reaching the Gable Pass Trail junction. This intersection is also at the highest elevation of the hike at 7,447 feet.

The footpath crosses the treeline at 4.6 miles from the trailhead and fades away into the alpine tundra. Rock cairns within eyesight of each other lead to the Gable Pass Trail.

You’ll notice an extensive area where rock and plant life form alternating rows in a stair-step pattern. This unique ecosystem is an alpine fellfield—plants living here experience severe cold, wind, little moisture, and a short growing season. The mounds of the pink-flowered moss campion and the matt-forming white mountain avens are the most common plants thriving in this harsh environment.

Glacier National Park, Belly River Region, Lee Ridge fell fields
Lee Ridge fellfield

As you make your way toward the end of the Lee Ridge route, Gable Mountain towers directly ahead. Toward the west, the tallest peak in Glacier National Park, Mount Cleveland, dominates the spectacular panorama of mountain peaks. (See the photo at the top of this post.)

Glacier National Park, Belly River Region, Gable Mountain
Gable Mountain from the upper tundra section of Lee Ridge.

At the junction, proceed eastward. Chief Mountain is to the left and only about two miles away. The Blackfeet people have long held a spiritual connection with this geologic feature. Ninaki Peak and Papoose are the two lesser prominences between Chief and the trail. One legend from the Piegan Tribe of the Blackfeet Nation explains how those mountains got their names.

Glacier National Park, Belly River Region, Chief Mountain, Ninaki Peak, and Papoose
Chief Mountain, Ninaki Peak, and Papoose

Approaching Gable Pass, the trail drops and climbs as it winds through enormous limestone boulders. We saw cat tracks (four toes, rounded shape, no claw marks) in the mud and assumed a bobcat made them since they were only about 1.5 inches across. A lynx or mountain lion could be 2-3 times wider. Of course, this is assuming an adult made the imprints. We also came across the blocky prints of a mountain goat.

Before the final brief descent to Gable Pass, we took advantage of a location offering nice flat rocks and outstanding landscape views to have a snack. While one hand grasped the food, the other swatted at biting insects. The bites were not the gentle little pokes of mosquitos. These guys meant business.

The Return Trip

Backtrack and call it a day. Or, go back to the Gable Pass and Lee Ridge trail intersection. Instead of turning right, continue straight ahead. It will be a steep 3.8 miles down to the Belly River Ranger Station. From there, take the Belly River Trail northeast for six miles. Once at the trailhead, it will still be 0.5 miles walking along the highway back to your vehicle. Instead of 13 miles, completing the loop will be closer to a 17-mile day.

Hike Summary

Total Distance: 13.2 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 2,367 feet; Loss: 637 feet
Difficulty: 17.9, strenuous ( calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile)
Estimated Walking Time: 6 hours 28 minutes (at 2.5 mph + Naismith’s Rule)

Paradise Point, Aster Falls, Aster Park

Trailhead

Visit both Paradise Point and Aster Park via the South Shore Trail. The path begins about 150 feet south of the boat dock near the Two Medicine Store. Paradise Point is a brief side trip and only adds about 0.8 miles and around 20 minutes to the Aster Park hike.

Hike

The footpath meanders through a lodgepole pine and subalpine fir forest. Fire-resistant beargrass is abundant. A common myth claims this member of the lily family only blooms once every seven years. However, it’s precipitation and soil moisture that makes the call.2 If the conditions are just right, the blossoms seem to me like hundreds of long, pure-white puffs of smoke hanging a couple of feet above the forest floor.

At 0.2 miles from the trailhead, the Paradise Point Trail leaves the South Shore Trail and heads for the lake. Spectacular views await at the water’s edge. And, if you’re so inclined, there are fish to be caught. 

From the gravel beach, the massive Rising Wolf Mountain fills the view to the north. Other peaks, in order going counterclockwise, are Mount Helen, followed by Lone Walker Mountain. The ridge on the far left belongs to Sinopah Mountain. Except for Mount Helen, the names of the peaks above all belonged to people who were family. Lone Walker was a Blackfeet Chief and the father of Sinopah. Rising Wolf, the name given to the Hudson’s Bay trapper Hugh Monroe by the Blackfeet, was the husband of Sinopah.5

Glacier National Park, Two Medicine, Paradise Point
Lone Walker Mountain, Mount Helen, and ridge from Rising Wolf Mountain (left to right)

After leaving Paradise Point and rejoining the South Shore Trail, one enters an area of beaver ponds after 0.2 miles. This marshy area is also excellent moose habitat. 

Glacier National Park, Two Medicine, Beaver Pond
Beaver lodge and pond with Sinopah Mountain and Painted Teepee Peak in the background.

The antlered beasts found in Glacier National Park are of the Shiras subspecies, the smallest body moose in North America. Bulls average 800 to 1200 pounds, and cows 600 to 800 pounds. An enormous animal, to be sure. Contrast that with the Alaskan moose, the largest subspecies. Bulls can stand about seven feet at the shoulder and weigh hundreds of pounds more than the Shiras.3

In the park, moose mate from late September to early October.4 During this time, males can be cantankerous. It’s good to keep this in mind when moving through moose country.

Look for the Aster Park Trail, 1.1 miles from the trailhead. The short spur trail to Aster Falls is a tenth of a mile from the junction. From there, the footpath steepens the final 0.6 miles to Aster Park.

Glacier National Park, Two Medicine, Aster Falls
Aster Falls

The panorama from Aster Park overlook is pretty sweet. To the east is Appistoki Peak. The reddish giant north across Two Medicine Lake is Rising Wolf Mountain. The pyramid-shaped summit peeking over the horizon to the northwest belongs to Flinsch Peak (see the featured image at the top of this post). It’s a textbook example of what happens to a mountain when glaciers grind away on opposing sides. Mountains like Flinsch are glacial horns.

In 1911, R. B. Marshall, the chief geographer for the United States Geological Survey, submitted the name Aster Park to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names.1 I’m guessing the purple flowers with yellow centers growing in the area caught his attention. But there is another purple flower with a yellow center growing in the area, often confused with aster. Its name is subalpine fleabane. That name followed by “park” just doesn’t quite have the same ring to it: good call, Mr. Marshall.

Hike Summary

Total Distance (includes Paradise Point): 4.4 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 715 feet; Loss: 194 feet
Difficulty: 5.8, moderate (Difficulty was calculated using Petzoldt’s equation for energy-rated miles.)
Walking Time Estimate: 2 hours 7 minutes (The time was calculated using a walking speed of 2.5 miles-per-hour and Naismith’s Rule for elevation gain.)

First Time on the Going-to-the-Sun Road?

If you’re planning a drive over this historic engineering marvel, I invite you to check out my book – Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road: A Traveler’s Guide at Apple Books. Inside, find lots of things to do and places to see while traveling between West Glacier and Saint Mary.

Notes

  1. “Aster Park.” United States Board of Geographic Names. Last modified May 25, 1911. https://geonames.usgs.gov/apex/f?p=138:3:::NO:3:P3_FID,P3_TITLE:779185,Aster%20Park.
  2. “Beargrass Blooms in Glacier National Park.” National Park Service, Glacier National Park. Last modified February 24, 2015. https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/news/media13-41.htm.
  3. “Moose.” Wikipedia. Last modified January 13, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moose.
  4. “Moose – Alces americanus.” Montana Field Guide. Montana Natural Heritage Program and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.. http://fieldguide.mt.gov/speciesDetail.aspx?elcode=AMALC03010.
  5. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years: in Glacier National Park. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.

Running Eagle Falls

A Fun Family-Friendly Walk

This is an easy stroll that opens up early in the season. There is a viewing platform reached by crossing a plank bridge over Dry Creek. Know that the park service may not install that bridge until mid-June. Don’t worry. The falls are still visible from the place where Dry Creek flows into Two Medicine Creek.

Trailhead

Drive 1.1 miles past the Two Medicine Entrance Station. There’s an obvious parking lot on the right.

Hike

The main Running Eagle Falls Trail begins near the middle of the parking area and continues for 0.2-mile to the falls. The Nature Trail starts at the south end of the parking lot. This route joins the main track before arriving at the falls. Both footpaths are accessible, wide and usually in great shape.

Thimbleberry, cow parsnips, and baneberry grow in the moist areas along the path. All have white blossoms and bloom from June to July. In spring, on calm, misty days, the sweet scent of black cottonwood buds seems to be especially strong. 

Interpretive signs along the Nature Trail introduce the hiker to plants that were important to the Blackfeet people. You’ll learn their name for each plant, identification tips, and how they used it for food, medicine, or fuel. 

In no time at all, the route emerges onto gravel and the high watermark of Dry Fork. Follow the path to the footbridge over this creek and continue toward the wooden viewing platform. In exposed areas, look for the blue nodding blossoms of harebells during July and August. 

Running Eagle Falls

If one visits this place during spring run-off, it appears as though there’s only one waterfall. As the water level subsides, the hidden torrent of water rushing out of the lower half of the cliff face becomes visible.  

A sink hole in Two Medicine Creek upstream from the cascades contributes to this phenomenon. When the water level is high, the underground channel cannot carry the entire water volume. The excess continues downstream and plummets over the precipice. During lower volume stream flows, all the water travels underground to exit at the rock face.

Glacier National Park, Two Medicine, Running Eagle Falls
Running Eagle Falls courtesy of Glacier National Park, Jacob W. Frank (public domain)

Were it not for the incredibly resistant limestone of the Altyn Formation, there may never have been waterfalls here. The valley filling glaciers from the Pleistocene’s Great Ice Age pulverized softer rock. A testament to the durability of this stone is Chief Mountain, which is also Altyn limestone.1 Everything between it and the Rocky Mountain Front eroded.

Something else here is odd. Usually, with sedimentary rock, the age of layers decreases, going from bottom to top. In other words, the top of Rising Wolf Mountain is younger than its base. Streams flowing into the ancient Belt Sea deposited sediments making up the uppermost rock long after that of lower layers.

The Altyn rock over which the water plunges is around 1.5 billion years old.4 The predominant fossils found in this formation are stromatolites created by single-celled cyanobacteria living in shallow water environments. Stromatolites made by these oxygen-producing cells are the earliest evidence of life on Earth and date back even farther to 3.5 billion years.

Contrast that age with that of the rock under the viewing platform. This geologic formation lying below the Altyn is from the late Cretaceous Period and only about 80 million years old.2 During this time, the shallow Western Interior Sea stretched from the arctic over most of Montana to the Gulf of Mexico. Inhabitants included more advanced forms of life, such as sharks, giant bony fish, and plesiosaurs. 

Starting about 150 million years ago, tectonic forces from the west working on the North American continent caused mountains to rise inland. These forces continued for 90 million years. Before the great push ended, the compression became significant enough to shove a piece of the continent several miles deep by a few hundred miles wide, 50 miles eastward over the top of the younger Cretaceous rock.4 It’s called the Lewis Overthrust, and the viewing platform sits at its base.2

Pi’tamaka

Running Eagle Falls gets its name from a remarkable adolescent female Blackfeet warrior. Her name was Otaki until Chief Lone Walker gave her the male name Pi’tamaka or Running Eagle, as a sign of respect and honor for her bravery in battle. 

Pi’tamaka yearned to know her purpose in life. She went to the cave of rushing water for a vision quest. There the adolescent warrior prayed and fasted for most of a week, hoping her spirit helper would give direction. The upshot was that she decided never to marry but to live in service of her people.5 In the late 1870s, Running Eagle died in battle with the Flathead tribe.3

Hike Summary

Total Distance: 0.6 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 39 feet; Loss: 7 feet
Walking Time Estimate: 15 minutes (average 2.5 miles-per-hour)
Difficulty Score: 0.7, easy
(Score calculated using the Petzoldt equation for energy-rated miles.)

A Final Note

If you’re planning a drive over the Going-to-the-Sun Road, I invite you to check out my book – Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road: A Traveler’s Guide at Apple Books. Inside, find lots of things to do and places to see while traveling between West Glacier and Saint Mary.

Notes

  1. Dyson, James L. “The Geologic Story of Glacier National Park.” Glacier Natural History Association, 1957. Accessed January 12, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/glac/3/index.htm.
  2. Keller, Stephen M, ed., and Matthew L. Morgan, ed. “Unfolding the Geology of the West: Volume 44 of Field Guide.” (Boulder, CO: The Geologic Society of America, 2016), Google Books. https://books.google.com/books?id=VVH7DAAAQBAJ&dq=altyn+formation+running+eagle+falls&source=gbs_navlinks_s.
  3. “Pi’tamaka (Running Eagle).” National Park Service. Last modified February 25, 2020. https://www.nps.gov/people/pi-tamaka-running-eagle.htm
  4. 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.
  5. Schultz, James W. Running Eagle: the warrior girl. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1919.

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