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.

Scalplock Mountain

Location

The trail to Scalplock Mountain and its fire lookout tower begins near the Walton Ranger station in the southern part of Glacier National Park. From West Glacier, drive 28 miles east on U.S. Highway 2. The entrance to the Walton station is about one mile east of Essex, Montana, just after the bridge over the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. From East Glacier, it’s 29 miles.

Immediately upon entering the complex, you’ll notice a dark-brown-stained cabin on the left. It’s the original structure built in 1932 for rangers assigned to this region of the park. To locate the trailhead, continue to the picnic area.

Why the name Scalplock?

Merriam-Webster defines scalp lock as a long tuft of hair on the crown of an otherwise shaved head, especially of a warrior from some American Indian tribes. 

The Essex Fire in the summer of 1910 destroyed 113,926 acres of forest. This was the park’s first summer and also the summer of the infamous Big Burn. This wildfire destroyed millions of acres in northern Idaho and western Montana. According to Donald H. Robinson, in his book Through the Years, only a small clump of trees remained on top of the mountain after the fire. To someone, that cluster of timber reminded them of a scalp lock.2 Records from the United States Geological Service show the name became official in 1911.

Trip Planning

The footpath cuts through a lush forest, and vegetation crowds the trail along the first part of the route. If it has been wet, your legs and feet will end up in the same condition. So, it’s an excellent idea to pack rain gear.

It’s also a wise decision to carry bear spray where you can access the canister quickly. Know how to use it safely and effectively.

This ten-mile hike can take about five to six hours. Know that there is no water available on the climb nor at the top of Scalplock. Proper hydration is an important planning consideration. A general rule of thumb is to drink about 0.5 liters of water per hour.

The fuel of choice for the body when it’s working hard is quality carbohydrates. Graze as you walk to foster endurance. For this hike, using an average speed of 2.3 miles per hour, a person and their pack totaling 130 pounds will burn about 235 calories per hour, a 160 pound combo – 288 calories, 190 pounds – 343 calories, and at 220 pounds an estimated 397 calories per hour. (I calculated the number of calories using CalTopo to determine slopes and an online calculator that uses the military’s updated Load Carriage Decision Aid.)

On The Trail

The first section is part of the South Boundary Trail and is mellow for about the first 0.6 miles. At that point, a suspension bridge crosses Ole Creek. After the water crossing, there is an easy climb for another 0.6 miles to the junction with the Ole Creek Trail. Stay left.

Suspension Bridge Over Ole Creek, Glacier National Park
Suspension Bridge across Ole Creek

The intersection with the Scalplock Lookout Trail is 0.1 miles farther. Take the path to the right. It’s a steady climb from that point to the top. Your legs will need to lift you 2,847 feet over the next 3.6 miles. Someone who considers themselves out of shape will probably not enjoy this climb.

Huckleberries and thimbleberries ripen mid-July in lower elevations to early September at higher locations. The Scalplock Trail has an abundance of both fruits. Predictably, bears come to feed on this vital food source. Be vigilant and make enough noise, so not to surprise one of these magnificent animals.

You’ll know the top is near when the forest canopy opens up on the ridge. Just before the last switchback, the lookout is visible through the trees. The Park Service built the structure in 1931 in response to fires originating along the railroad and U.S. Highway 2 corridor. Park Service personnel modernized the tower with solar panels. Probably the same table and chairs, though.

View Southeast from Scalplock Mountain, Glacier National Park
Running Rabbit Mountain in the foreground with Snowslip Mountain in the background center.

Doug Peacock, author, naturalist, and close friend of Edward Abbey (The Monkey Wrench Gang) manned the Scalplock and Huckleberry Lookouts during the years 1976 to 1984.¹ Peacock’s book, Grizzly Years: In Search of American Wilderness, is about his time alone in the Wyoming and Montana mountains, his life with grizzlies, and how they helped him heal from the atrocities he experienced in Viet Nam. I enjoyed it.

On a cloudless day, Mount Saint Nicholas, Salvage Mountain, and Church Butte rise to the north across the Park Creek Valley. Two Medicine Pass is at the far end of Park Creek. To the east on the far side of the Ole Creek Valley is Elk Mountain, which had its own fire lookout tower at one time. Looking to the immediate south and southeast are Running Rabbit Mountain, Snowslip Mountain, and Mount Shields. The Great Bear Wilderness stretches to the horizon on the south side of the U.S. Highway 2 (Roosevelt Highway).

View North from Scalplock Fire Lookout, Glacier National Park
Looking north across Park Creek Valley.

Hike Summary

Scalplock Mountain Summit: 6,919 feet
Total Distance: 10 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 3,347 feet; Loss: 190 feet
Walking Time Estimate: 5 to 6 hours
Difficulty Score: 16.4, strenuous
(Score calculated using the Petzoldt equation for energy-rated miles.)
For difficulty comparisons: St. Mary Falls 2.4, Bullhead Lake 7.8, Iceberg Lake 12.9, Dawson/Pitamakan Loop 24.7.

Before You Go . . .

If you’ve found my posts useful, I invite you to check out my book Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road: A Traveler’s Guide. Within this MultiTouch iBook are descriptions of hikes originating along the road corridor from West Glacier to Saint Mary. Interactive maps and photo galleries are included. You’ll also find points of interest highlighted, history, and other recreational opportunities. Thanks for visiting.


Notes

  1. Butler, David R. Fire Lookouts of Glacier National Park. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2014.
  2. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years in Glacier National Park. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.

No Name Lake

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

  1. Travel up and back on Two Medicine Lake aboard the Sinopah: 5.6 miles (9.0 kilometers) on the trail.
  2. One way on Sinopah: 7.5 miles (12.1 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.
  3. 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 4.7 miles (7.6 kilometers).

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

Two Medicine Chalet, ca. 1920.
Two Medicine Chalet, ca. 1920. The only building that remains is the kitchen and dining room; today it is the Two Medicine Camp Store.
Two Medicine Camp Store, Glacier National Park
Two Medicine Camp Store with Rising Wolf Mountain.

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.

Spruce with frost cracks near the head of Two Medicine Lake, Glacier National Park
Spruce with frost cracks near the ​head of Two Medicine Lake

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.

Huckleberries along the Dawson Pass Trail, Glacier National Park
Huckleberries along the Dawson Pass Trail
Pumpelly Pillar Spire, Two Medicine, Glacier National Park
Pumpelly Pillar Spire from Dawson Pass Trail

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.

No Name Lake, Two Medicine, Glacier National Park
First view of No Name Lake

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.


No Name Lake Hike Summary (one-way on the boat Sinopah)

Total Distance7.5 miles
Total Elevation Gain1,408 feet
Total Elevation Loss1,405 Feet
Difficulty10.3, low end of Strenuous (score calculated
using the Petzoldt equation for energy-rated miles)
Total Walking Time3 hours 42 minutes
(at 2.5 miles-per-hour and
allowance for elevation gain)

Thanks for Visiting

If you’ve found this post useful, I invite you to check out my book Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road: A Traveler’s Guide. Within this MultiTouch iBook are descriptions of hikes originating along the road corridor from West Glacier to Saint Mary. Interactive maps and photo galleries are included. You’ll also find points of interest highlighted, history, and other recreational opportunities.

Notes

  1. “FDR Radio Address at Two Medicine.” National Park Service: Glacier National Park Montana. Last modified,2016. Accessed June 27, 2019. https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/historyculture/fdr-radio-address.htm.
  2. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years: in Glacier National Park. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
  3. “Two Medicine Chalet: Glacier National Park.” National Park Lodge Architecture Society. Last modified, 2010. http://www.nplas.org/twomedicine.html.
  4. “Two Medicine General Store.” National Register of Historic Places. Last modified, 1984. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/a908db2a-c76c-46a5-8e07-b6879ab16465.

Siyeh Pass

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.

Trailhead

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 walk a little more difficult.

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.

Glacier National Park, Preston Park
Headwaters of Siyeh Creek in Preston Park. Mount Siyeh in the background.

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

Glacier National Park Stromatolite
Stromatolite

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. 

Glacier National Park, Cow Parsnip
Cow Parsnip

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. 

Glacier National Park, Preston Park
Looking west from Preston Park. Glacial horn of Reynolds Mountain, Piegan Mountain, and its glacier. Flowers: deep blue explorer’s gentian, yellow parasitic parrot’s beak, and pink fireweed.

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.

Glacier National Park, Boulder Creek Valley
Boulder Creek Valley

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.

Glaciers

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. 

Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Mountain and Sexton Glacier
Going-to-the-Sun Mountain and Sexton Glacier from a flank of Matahpi Peak.

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.

Glacier National Park, Baring Creek Valley
Baring Creek hemmed in by Goat Mountain on the left and Going-to-the-Sun Mountain on the right. Saint Mary Lake and the trailhead in the distance.

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.

Glacier National Park, Cascades on Baring Creek
Baring Creek Cascades

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.

Siyeh Pass Hike Summary

Total Distance9.7 miles
Total Elevation Gain2,427 feet
Total Elevation Loss3,559 feet
Difficulty14.6, strenuous*
(Score calculated using the Petzoldt equation for energy-rated miles.)
Total Walking Time5 hours 6 minutes (at 2.5 miles-per-hour and allowance for elevation gain)
*For comparison: Saint Mary Falls, 2.9 easy; Piegan Pass, 12.5 strenuous

Thanks for Visiting

If you’ve found this post useful, I invite you to check out my book Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road: A Traveler’s Guide. Within this MultiTouch iBook are descriptions of hikes originating along the road corridor from West Glacier to Saint Mary. Interactive maps and photo galleries are included. You’ll also find points of interest highlighted, history, and other recreational opportunities.

Notes

  1. “Area of the Named Glaciers of Glacier National Park and Flathead National Forest including Little Ice Age Extent, and Years 1966, 1998, 2005, 2015.” United States Geological Survey. Accessed August 8, 2019. https://www.usgs.gov/data-tools/area-named-glaciers-glacier-national-park-gnp-and-flathead-national-forest-fnf-including.
  2. “Climate Change.” Glacier National Park, National Park Service. Last modified April , 2019. Accessed August 9, 2019. https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/nature/climate-change.htm.
  3. “How is Today’s Warming Different from the Past?.” NASA Earth Observatory. Last modified June , 2010. Accessed August 9, 2019. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/features/GlobalWarming/page3.php.
  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. “Retreat of Glaciers in Glacier National Park.” USGS: Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center. Accessed August 1, 2019. https://www.usgs.gov/centers/norock/science/retreat-glaciers-glacier-national-park?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects.
  6. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years: in Glacier National Park. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
  7.  “The History of Life on Earth.” Department of Astronomy, Indiana University. Accessed March 25, 2019. http://www.astro.indiana.edu/gsimonel/build/History_of_Life.pdf.

Elk Mountain

Elk Mountain (7,835 feet) rises in the southern part of Glacier National Park west of Marias Pass. This hike is 6.8 miles round trip with an elevation gain of 3,373 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.

Onward

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

Fielding Patrol Cabin, Glacier National Park
Fielding Snowshoe Patrol Cabin. Built during 1936 by Ranger Joe Opalka.
Glacier National Park, Elk Mountain Trailhead

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

Glacier National Park, Elk Mountain, whitebark pine snags
Whitebark pine snags.

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

Former Elk Mountain Fire Lookout, Glacier National Park
Former Elk Mountain Fire Lookout. Courtesy of the Montana Memory Project.
Glacier National Park, Foundation of the Former Elk Mountain Fire Lookout
Summit of Elk Mountain and the foundation of the ​former fire lookout

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.

Glacier National Park, Summit of Elk Mountain
View to the east: of Little Dog Mountain, Summit Mountain and the plains of eastern Montana from the summit of Elk Mountain
Glacier National Park, Mount Saint Nicholas
The spire of Mount Saint Nicholas in the background with Sheep Mountain in the foreground.

Don’t forget to look down. There’s beauty there too.


Elk Mountain Hike Summary

Total Distance6.8 miles
Total Elevation Gain3,373 feet
Total Elevation Loss65 feet
Difficulty13.5, strenuous (based on Petzoldt’s
Energy Mile
equation)
Total Walking Time4 hours 24 minutes
(at 2.5 miles-per-hour
and a correction for elevation gain)

Thanks for Stopping By . . .

If you’ve found this post useful, I invite you to check out my book Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road: A Traveler’s Guide. Within this MultiTouch iBook are descriptions of hikes originating along the road corridor from West Glacier to Saint Mary. Interactive maps and photo galleries are included. You’ll also find points of interest highlighted, history, and other recreational opportunities.

Notes

  1. “Elk Mountain Fire Lookout.” Montana Memory Project. Accessed July 30, 2019. https://mtmemory.org/digital/collection/p16013coll83/id/123/rec/1.
  2. “Fielding Snowshoe Patrol Cabin.” National Register of Historic Places. Last modified June , 1984. Accessed July 30, 2019. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/AssetDetail?assetID=78d78895-56ce-4eb3-bba2-2c55851a1854.
  3. Johns, Sam E. “The Pioneers. Volume 4.” Montana Memory Project. Last modified , 1943. Accessed July 30, 2019. https://mtmemory.org/digital/collection/p16013coll24/id/1612/rec/2.
  4. Maloy, Otis C. “White Pine Blister Rust.” USDA Forest Service. Last modified September 24, 2001. Accessed July 20, 2019. https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/highelevationwhitepines/Threats/pdf/whitepine_PHP2001_0924_01.pdf.

Quartz Lake Loop Hike

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

Polebridge Mercantile
The ‘Merc’ courtesy of J. Post (CC BY 3.0)

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. 

Bowman Lake, Glacier National Park
Bowman Lake. Rainbow Peak on the right with its summit in the clouds-not unusual for June on the west side of the park.

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.

Ranger Patrol Cabin, Bowman Lake, Glacier National Park
Built during 1934, this patrol cabin has weathered the years well.

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.

Quartz Lake, Glacier National Park
Quartz Lake and Vulture Peak

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. 

Hikers bridge over Quartz Creek, Glacier National Park
Bridge over Quartz Creek near Lower Quartz Lake backcountry campground

Mileage and Elevation Changes

SectionDistanceElevation Gain/Loss
TH to Quartz Lake6.1 mi/9.8 km1,550 ft (472 m)/1,180 ft (360 m)
Lower Quartz Lk3.1 mi/5 km0/225 ft (69 m)
back to TH3.5 mi/5.6 km900 ft (274 m)/1,100 ft (335 m)

Notes

  1. “Adair, W.L. General Mercantile Historic District.” National Register of Historic Places. Last modified , 1985. Accessed July 15, 2019. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/NRHP/86000155_text
  2. “Polebridge Ranger Station Residence.” National Register of Historic Places. Last modified , 1984. Accessed July 15, 2019. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/ff5b2ecd-d11e-4f8a-86a5-1dee4d575199.
  3. “Wildfire History of Glacier National Park.” National Park Service. Accessed November 27, 2018. https://nps.maps.arcgis.com/apps/PublicInformation/index.html?appid=9636385ceaa14684b099ac4759792a7e.
  4. Wilson, Samuel. “Fish Work in Glacier Lake Shows Results.” Daily Inter Lake, March 18, 2015. Accessed July 8, 2019. https://www.dailyinterlake.com/archive/article-3440c354-cd01-11e4-abb8-4f75ba7ff100.html.