Snyder Lake and Upper Snyder Lake

Another glorious day, the air as delicious to the lungs as nectar to the tongue. John Muir

The adventure to the Snyder Lakes and the headwaters of Snyder Creek begins in the shadows of a western redcedar and western hemlock forest. As the elevation increases, the forest transitions to spruce and subalpine fir, and finally to stunted and scattered subalpine fir and 10-foot (3-meter) high alder.

In August of 2017, lightning ignited the forest. The Sprague Fire burned 16,982 acres (6,872 hectares) and the iconic Sperry Chalet. You will see some evidence of the fire during this hike.

Grizzly bears are known to use the Snyder Creek drainage. Make plenty of noise. A surprised bear is usually not a nice bear. Practice safely unholstering and removing the safety clip from your canister of bear spray. And know and be able to judge the effective distance of the spray. Finally, know the discharge and aiming techniques.  

The trail starts at 3,100 feet (945 meters) and ends 4.3 miles (6.9 kilometers) later at Lower Snyder Lake (5,247 feet/1,600 meters). The rest of the trip involves climbing up cliffs and bushwhacking to Upper Snyder Lake (5,575 feet/1,700 meters). The total round trip distance is 12.1 miles (19.5 kilometers).


The Sperry Trailhead is across the Going-to-the-Sun Road from Lake McDonald Lodge. This footpath leads to Sperry Chalet and beyond, but it also provides access to the Snyder Creek drainage. The route gradually gains elevation as it passes the Swan Mountain Outfitters Corral. Then it’s all business. If you’re out of shape, chances are good that this will not be enjoyable going up or coming down.

About 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometers) from the trailhead, you will pass the trail junction to Mount Brown Lookout. Walk another 0.1-miles (0.2-kilometers) and the Snyder Lake Trail will present itself. This route is not as steep as the Sperry Trail.

A little over 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) after entering the drainage, you will come to a bridge over Snyder Creek. There are three backcountry campsites along the trail and up from Snyder Lake not far from the bridge. Two of these are reservable. However, all will be closed July 1, 2019 for the rest of the season. Assuming a site is not occupied, these are convenient places to rest and eat. There are also a few places further along the trail where one can work their way down to the water’s edge.

The trail diminishes and then disappears at the far end of the lake where a talus field begins. You can hear the water from Upper Snyder Lake cascading down a narrow canyon about 200 yards (183 meters) away. We chose the gorge as the place to negotiate the 300-foot (274-meter) cliffs separating the two lakes.

Glacier National Park, Lower Snyder Lake
Synder Lake with cliffs separating it from Upper Snyder Lake

There were three of us. Tony took the lead. He is a climber of mountains and has years of experience. Counter to scientific thought, he has lungs that reach down to his knees and has the endurance of a mountain goat. We all need friends who challenge us. Tony challenges me physically and mentally. I have a thing about heights and exposure. He has been very patient while I have tried to work through this mental challenge. And, he is a motivator. For example, on a climb of a local mountain last summer, we arrived at the crux. There were two possible routes. In his quiet way, he told me that if I fell pursuing option number one, I would be seriously hurt but would probably survive. Falling from option two, I would most likely die.

I kept this in mind, as I was searching for a handhold on the crumbly rock with a glacier 200 feet (61 meters) below. He calmly said, “ take your time, no hurry.” I feel that I always grow a little when I go out with Tony.

We worked our way up through narrow openings in the 300-foot (91-meter) rock wall from short ledge to short ledge. Finally, we topped out and began our descent into the abyss of alder. Snyder Creek flows from the east and then makes an abrupt turn and flows from the north where it exits from Upper Snyder Lake. Getting to the lake involved negotiating bogs and the ever-present alder.

Glacier National Park: Snyder Lake and victims of the 2017 Sprague Fire
Snyder Lake and victims of the 2017 Sprague Fire from part way up the cliffs

It was worth it. At the lake, hidden in a grand glacial cirque, Mount Brown, the Little Matterhorn, and Edwards Mountain stood like sentinels above us. At least seven waterfalls hundreds of feet tall thundered down the walls of the amphitheater. Spring was just beginning up there. White blossoms with light pink veins of spring beauty and bright yellow flowers of glacier lilies were showing off in small alpine meadows surrounding the lake.

Glacier National Park Upper Snyder Lake
Upper Snyder Lake with eastern slopes of Mount Brown
Glacier National Park, Upper Snyder Lake, Edwards Mountain
Looking south across Upper Snyder Lake toward Edwards Mountain

Although George Snyder has the ridge above Lake McDonald, a creek, and two lakes named after him, I think this body of water is the best match.

Snyder came west from Wisconsin in 1894, with only 23 birthdays behind him. He was an independent-minded and a bit unorthodox young man. By the end of 1895, he had built a two-story hotel at the head of Lake McDonald on the site of the current Lake McDonald Lodge. But there was no road to the place, only a rudimentary horse trail. So, he purchased a 40-foot (12-meter) steamboat and had it shipped to Belton. He and other settlers built a crude narrow road from the Middle Fork of the Flathead River near Belton to Apgar. Hardy souls loaded the boat onto a stout wagon and transported it to the foot of the lake.² ³

Glacier National Park History: Snyder's Steamboat
The first​ launch on Lake McDonald, the F.I. Whitney, ca. 1897. Photograph courtesy of Glacier National Park Archives.

Snyder lost the hotel in 1906. The stories of drinking and gambling being involved may be factual or they might be a myth. At any rate, John Lewis became the new owner.  Not defeated, George opened a hostel and pub near Glacier’s west entrance. Some locals, including Glacier National Park officials, viewed the drinking establishment as an offense against morality. Nevertheless, his businesses survived. Snyder was a thorn in the side of Glacier’s administration for years.¹

We returned by a route that took us to the far side of the lake. We could either climb higher and further to use the talus slopes on the southeast flank of Mount Brown and hopefully miss the cliffs. Or, go low and not as far. But that required more bushwhacking through alder.

Glacier National Park Edwards Mountain
Looking south along cliffs separating Snyder Lake and Upper Snyder Lake. Edwards Mountain in the background.

There were distances that our feet never felt the ground only the flexible intertwined branches of the 10-foot (3-meter) tall shrubs from hell. Our lower legs looked like someone used a cat-o’-nine-tails on them. Negotiating the cliffs downward was not as bad as I thought it would be. Eventually, we intersected the Snyder Lake Trail about 0.1-miles (0.2 kilometers) downhill from the bridge over Snyder Creek.

We stopped long enough to clean out our boots, have a bite to eat, and filter some water for the return trip. After a 9.5 hour day, we were back at the trailhead.


Notes

  1. Fraley, John. Wild River Pioneers: adventures in the Middle Fork of the Flathead, Great Bear Wilderness, and Glacier National Park. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
  2. Guthrie, C.W. The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
  3. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years: in Glacier National Park. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.

Glacier’s Southern Boundary Trail

Flood, fire, and moonshine.

This route was the main year-round patrol thoroughfare for park rangers before construction workers completed U.S. Highway 2 in 1930. The trail follows the Middle Fork of the Flathead River through John F. Stevens Canyon under a diverse forest that reclaimed the land after the 1929 Half Moon Fire.

The out and back hike from Belton Bridge to the Harrison Lake trail junction is 15.2 miles (24.5 kilometers). The footpath rises and falls over ridges and benches as it makes its way along the base of the Belton Hills.

Finding the Trailhead

From U.S. Highway 2, drive into West Glacier. Just past the Mercantile, turn right onto Old River Road. If you are coming from inside the park, it is the first left after crossing the bridge. Follow the road until you arrive at the Belton Bridge and park on the side. Please do not block any gates or entrances.

Crossing the River

Visitors used this site as the main entrance to the park from 1897 to 1936. A log structure first spanned the Middle Fork at this location in 1897. Until that time, rowboats ferried visitors across the sometimes raging river. The log bridge was replaced in 1920 by a concrete arch bridge.⁴ A metal structure was built downstream at the site of the current bridge in 1936. That became the new entrance.

Glacier National Park, Original Belton Bridge
Photograph courtesy of Glacier National Park Archives. Original Belton Bridge across the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, ca. 1909.

Mother Nature had a little different plan. Late snow in April and May 1964 made a below average winter snowpack into an above average accumulation. Then it rained. During 24 hours, park personnel measured 10 inches of precipitation at Lake McDonald Lodge. The upshot was widespread devastation brought on by severe flooding.

The enormous force of the water mangled the Great Northern Railway main line, eroded away U.S. Highway 2 in places, destroyed the metal bridge at West Glacier, and washed away miles of trails. The deluge came over the top of the concrete arch bridge scoured away the decking leaving only the arch behind.²

Glacier National Park, 1964 Flood at Belton Bridge
Photograph courtesy of Glacier National Park Archives. Belton 1920 Arch Bridge at low flood stage, 1964.

The arch that survived that historic flood supports the decking you walk across to access the trail on the opposite side of the river.

Glacier National Park Belton Bridge over the Middle Fork of the Flathead River
The arch was the only part of the 1920 Belton Bridge that survived the 1964 flood.

Onward

After walking across the bridge, keep to the right. If you go left, the path which was the original roadway into the park will lead to the Park Headquarters area.

During late spring and early summer, various colored rafts and kayaks carry wide-eyed passengers through river structures with names like Bonecrusher, Jaws, Pinball, Tunnel Rapid, and Can Opener Rock. Glimpses of this activity from the trail can be entertaining. Later in the summer, the water is tamer.

Glacier National Park, Middle Fork of the Flathead River
Boiling water of Pinball Rapid

The first five miles of the trail leads through a mixed Douglas fir forest. Then it enters an open lodgepole pine stand, which was my favorite during the hike. The quiet was only disturbed by the restorative sounds of the breeze moving through the pines and an occasional bird. Yellow / orange light caused by the smoke haze from fires in Alberta gave the forest an indescribable look.

At 5.6 miles (9 kilometers), the path intersects Lincoln Creek. A bouncy single person suspension bridge lets you cross without getting your feet wet. The Lincoln Creek Snowshoe Cabin is a short distance away.

Glacier National Park, Lincoln Creek Suspension Bridge
Brand new decking for this year.

The Park Service built the first Lincoln Creek cabin in the 1920s. However, the 100,000-acre (40,469 hectares) 1929 Half Moon Fire consumed it. The current cabin was constructed in 1931. Rangers patrolling the extensive southern boundary of the park used it as an overnight shelter. Today, trail crews may be the only personnel using the structure.³

Glacier National Park, Lincoln Creek Snowshoe Cabin
Lincoln Creek Snowshoe Cabin built in 1931.

Once you leave the cabin, you will see an increase in spruce and western redcedar. Sections of trail in the next two miles can become overgrown with brush. At 6.4 miles (10.3 kilometers) from the trailhead, there is a spur trail leading down to the river. During low water in August and later, it is possible to ford the Middle Fork safely. This is where you would intersect the Southern Boundary Trail after crossing the river. Always check with the knowledgeable folks at the Glacier National Park Backcountry Office for the latest information and directions.

At 7.6 miles (12.2 kilometers) from the trailhead, you will find the Harrison Lake trail junction. The sweet surprise waiting is the Dan and Josephine Doody homestead, established before Glacier became a national park in 1910. The remains you see was a two-story hunting lodge.

John Fraley, in his book Wild River Pioneers, provides an entertaining description of Dan and Josephine. The following are some highlights from his book.

Josephine Doody worked as a dancehall girl and allegedly shot a man in Colorado around 1890. She then headed north and ended up in the seedy and notoriously dangerous railroad town of McCarthyville. Apparently, she took a liking to opium while in that town. The whistle-stop no longer exists. But the former site is located about six miles west of Marias Pass.

Dan Doody, a fur trapper, and prospector met her in one of the 32 saloons there and fell in love. He subsequently hauled her off on a mule to his 120-acre homestead near Harrison Creek. There they started a lucrative moonshine business. Frank built Josephine a small cabin hidden in the woods to which she could escape when the law came.

Great Northern Railway trains would stop and place their orders for moonshine by blowing their whistles using short blasts to indicate the number of quarts they desired. Josephine would row across the river and deliver her product.

Dan was one of the six original rangers hired by Glacier National Park shortly after its establishment in 1910. Yet, he didn’t last long at that job. Excessive poaching was the reason for his short tenure. Dan died in 1919. Josephine stayed on the property and guided fisherman into her 70s. She left the park in 1931 and died of pneumonia in 1936 at 82.¹

Our trip ended at the Doody homestead. But continuing another 4.6 miles, the South Boundary Trail will intersect the Nyack Creek Trail, which leads into the Nyack Coal Creek Camping Zone. This remote area can also be accessed from Walton, Two Medicine, or by fording the river during low water.


Notes

  1. Fraley, John. Wild River Pioneers: adventures in the Middle Fork of the Flathead, Great Bear Wilderness, and Glacier National Park. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
  2. Guthrie, C.W. The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
  3. “Lincoln Creek Snowshoe Cabin.” National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places. Last modified February , 2001. Accessed June 3, 2019. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/AssetDetail/a0c0b2d0-0321-40ea-a257-acc2c1e01530/.
  4. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years: in Glacier National Park. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.

Apgar Fire Lookout

A worthy Glacier National Park early season hike with outstanding views.

The Apgar Fire Lookout perches on an overlook in the Apgar Mountains southwest of Lake McDonald. Put this on your list for early season hikes or if in summer the first half of the day. The 2003 Robert Fire removed the lodgepole pine forest, and the trail on the southwest slope can get toasty. However, beautiful vistas await as anyone who has been there or viewed the webcams can attest.

The namesake for all of this was Milo B. Apgar. He settled at the foot of Lake McDonald in the 1890s. It didn’t take him long to realize that the Great Northern Railway would bring visitors to this rugged and remote location and they would need a place to stay and food to eat. He built cabins for them near the lake and McDonald Creek.²  The Village Inn at Apgar occupies the site now.

Finding the Trailhead

Drive 0.3-miles past the West Entrance and turn left toward the Glacier Institute. At the T-intersection turn right. Soon after, turn left and drive past the Swan Outfitters Corral. From the Quarter Circle Bridge over McDonald Creek, travel 1.5 miles to the trailhead.



Difficulty

The hike is 7.2 miles (11.6 km) round trip with a 1,850-foot (564 meters) elevation gain. The lookout sits at 5,236 feet (1,596 meters).

The difficulty rating of this hike varies with the source. For example, the Sierra Club Hike Rating Scale pegs this as moderate difficulty. The NW Hiker Calculator gives a score of 18, which they consider challenging. There are other variables to consider. Although not an exhaustive list, trail condition, weather, the physical condition and age of the hiker, and the load carried are essential considerations.

A difficulty rating system conceived by Paul Petzoldt, an accomplished mountaineer and founder of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), makes the most sense to me. He bases the unit of measure for the calculation on the energy needed to walk one level mile – an energy mile. So, total distance gives you the energy miles to start with. Then add two energy miles for every 1,000 feet of elevation climbed.

The total distance for the lookout climb is 7.2 miles or 7.2 energy miles. The elevation gain requires an additional 3.7 energy miles. The sum is 10.9. A score less than 5 suggests an easy hike, 5 – 10 moderate, and greater than 10 strenuous.

Research in the Exercise Physiology Laboratory at Western Carolina University discovered Petzoldt wasn’t that far off.³ The system is not perfect, but it gives one a means to compare the relative difficulty of hikes.

The Hike

Water will not be available after you leave the lower portion of this trip. So, be sure to bring plenty. And, carry your bear spray where it is quickly accessible. Know how and when to use it.

Be aware that Glacier National Park has rules concerning pets in the park. It’s a good idea to be familiar with these park policies. You don’t want your fun money going to pay a hefty fine.

The trail leaves the parking lot in a northwest direction under the crowns of lodgepole pine and western larch. These trees probably sprouted after the 103,000-acre 1929 Half Moon Fire consumed the previous forest.

Glacier National Park, Apgar Fire Lookout Trail
Start of the Apgar Fire Lookout Trail

Several clues point to the character of the pre-fire forest. For example, thimbleberry, bead lily, fairy-bells, starry false Solomon’s-seal, growing under the lodgepole pine canopy, prefer moist, shady forest sites. Healthy western redcedar has become prominent in the understory. They too prefer wet, shaded places. Both lodgepole and western larch are intolerant of shade. So, left undisturbed, the cedar will be more successful at regeneration. Before the 1929 fire, this was probably a western redcedar, western hemlock forest similar to what we see in the Lake McDonald Valley.

Bears come to feed on the grasses, sedges, and dandelions in the moist areas. Later they take advantage of the berry crop produced here.

It doesn’t take long to emerge from this 90-100-year-old stand of trees and enter a sea of short “doghair” lodgepole pine. This fire-adapted species came through again and started the healing process after the 2003 Robert Fire. That summer, there were 26 wildfires in the park burning 13 percent of its area.

Glacier National Park, Apgar Fire Lookout Trail
Lodgepole Pine Regeneration Since the 2003 Robert Fire.

Ceanothus or buckbrush is a fragrant evergreen shrub you will see along the trail. This is a remarkable plant. Its seeds can survive in the soil for centuries waiting for a fire to start their germination process. But that’s not all. Ceonothus, together with bacteria that live in little nodules in their roots, take nitrogen from the air and convert it to a form that the plant can use. As they colonize a post-fire area, the shrubs also help improve the soil. Look for their tiny white flowers starting in June and into July.

Glacier National Park, Ceanothus
Ceanothus or Buckbrush

The trail makes three long switchbacks as it climbs a southwest slope of the Apgar Mountains. I was on this trail before the 2003 fire when trees provided shade. Not so today. This can be a toasty hike during warm summer afternoons.  

Glacier National Park, Apgar Fire Lookout Trail
Apgar Mountains and the trail as it winds up the southwest slope.

When you see an outhouse and a hitching rail, you’re close to your destination. There is a short trail to the right where the lookout comes into view.

Glacier National Park, Apgar Fire Lookout
Apgar Fire Lookout built in 1930.

At the Lookout

As you face Lake McDonald 2,000 feet (610 meters) below, Howe Ridge is to the left. At the end of Howe is Stanton Mountain, followed by Mount Vaught. The Garden Wall is at the far end of the valley. Snyder Ridge is on the right side of Lake McDonald. The first peak above the valley on that side is Mount Brown with Mount Cannon further to the northeast. Edwards Mountain is just east of Mount Brown, and the Little Matterhorn rises between the two. The spectacular spire of Mount Saint Nicholas stands proud to the southeast about 24 miles (39 kilometers) away.

Glacier National Park Mountain Peaks from Apgar Fire Lookout
View looking northeast over Lake McDonald in late May 2019.

The National Park Service initially built the Apgar Lookout in 1929. Within two weeks of completion, the Half Moon Fire destroyed it. The Park Service rebuilt the structure you see today in 1930. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places.¹


Notes

1. “Apgar Fire Lookout.” National Register of Historic Places, National Park Service.   Accessed May 2, 2019. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/1e5a2539-a0ec-4eac-a9d6-987509d132db.

2. Guthrie, C.W. The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.

3. Holcombe, Randall. “‘Energy Mile’ Theory Tested in Laboratory.” Western Carolina University. Last modified May 10, 2011. Accessed May 2, 2019. https://news-prod.wcu.edu/2011/05/faculty-students-test-‘energy-mile’-theory-in-lab/.

Apgar Bike Path

A trip through a Glacier National Park forest in transition.

The Apgar Bike Path is one of three trails in Glacier National Park where bicycles are permitted. Of course walking is okay too. The trailhead can be found south of the Backcountry Permit Office in Apgar Village. This nearly level, paved path through a lodgepole pine forest can be surprisingly void of people. It’s suitable for many ability levels and an excellent early season option.

Glacier National Park Apgar Bike Path
Apgar Bike Path

This can be a relaxing saunter through a forest in transition. In 1929, the 39,000-acre Half Moon Fire consumed the western hemlock/western red cedar forest that grew in the area. Now, shade intolerant pioneer species, like lodgepole pine and western larch, predominate the overstory near the trail. But given enough time and lack of disturbance, shade-tolerant species will prevail.

Check out the understory and one future for this forest. I found western white pine and Douglas fir, which are intermediate in shade tolerance. To my surprise, there are many shade-tolerant species alive and doing well. These included: grand fir, Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, western hemlock, and western red cedar. The stage is set for the later stages of forest succession.

Click or Tap Pictures for more information.

If you visit this path in June, there will be bear grass blooms appearing like puffs of white smoke among the trees.  Huckleberries are a bonus later in the summer. However, bears are known to visit this area. So, don’t leave your bear spray in the car.


The Route with Options

The three-mile round trip starts out in a southwest direction from the trailhead near the Backcountry Permit Office. It soon crosses the Camas Road. At about one-half mile, there is a short spur trail leading to the Ox-Bow Overlook on McDonald Creek. The trail course changes to the southeast and does not veer right or left for over a mile. The makers were efficient in getting from point A to point B. As near as I can tell, this is the old road way from the Belton Bridge to Apgar.

The path crosses the Glacier Institute Road at 1.4 miles and ends at the Going-to-the-Sun Road 1.5 miles from the trailhead in Apgar Village.

Extend the trip by continuing on the path another one-half mile to the intersection of Grinnell Drive and Mather Drive in the Glacier National Park Headquarters area. Walk or ride about one-quarter mile to the end of Mather Drive. There you will find a gravel path, the beginning of the South Boundary Trail, that proceeds down an embankment and then upstream along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River reaching the Belton Bridge at 2.75 miles from the Apgar trailhead. Believe it or not, this was the original entrance into Glacier National Park.

Glacier National Park Mather Drive
End of Mather Drive Looking South
Glacier National Park South Boundary Trail
Original Roadway into the West side of Glacier National Park

There can be a lot of action here during rafting season. Have a snack and take a few pictures down along the river before the return trip. Or, continue across the bridge and follow the road into West Glacier.

Glacier National Park Belton Bridge over the Middle Fork of the Flathead River
Belton Bridge over the Middle Fork of the Flathead River

Christensen Meadows & Rogers Meadow

This area is off the radar for most visitors during the summer. After the snow has blanketed the high country trails in the fall, this is a good option. If you’re ambitious, it is a definite consideration for a midwinter ski trip.

The Drive

From the West Entrance Station of Glacier National Park, drive to the ‘T’ intersection and then turn left onto the Camas Road. Travel about 1.2 miles and turn right onto to the Fish Creek Campground Road. After another mile, you should arrive at the junction for the Inside North Fork Road. Turn left and proceed along the narrow winding gravel road for 6.6 miles. Its blind curves can be dangerous. Be sure to stay on your side of the road.

In 1901, the Butte Oil Company carved a 40-mile path through the wilderness from Apgar to Kintla Lake. The rough, ungraded wagon road with stumps and bogs was made to haul oil drilling equipment to exploit the oil seeps found near the head of Kintla Lake. The well was drilled. It did not produce and was eventually abandoned.4 The original wagon path morphed into our Inside North Fork Road.2

Your clue that the drive is coming to an end is the bridge over Camas Creek. Shortly after crossing the stream, you should see the Camas Creek Trail sign on your right. The road is closed to automobiles a couple hundred feet beyond the trailhead.

Repeated flooding near Anaconda and Logging Creeks has rendered the road unsafe for cars and trucks. It’s an expensive fix. The park service has been evaluating their options. Despite that, hikers and bikers are welcome to use the road.


To Christensen Meadows

Straightaway, the path enters a lodgepole pine forest. But after only 0.3-miles, it breaks into extensive open areas. This is the beginning of Christensen Meadows.

Christensen Meadows, Glacier National Park
Christensen Meadows

Although the scenery does not match that of Rogers Meadow, the history is every bit as interesting. Ernest Christensen established his 160-acre homestead in 1896. He paid $16/acre which at the time was considered to be at the high end of its value.1

He and his neighbor Josiah “Joe” Rogers went away for a while to serve as packers in the Spanish-American War of 1898. When Christensen returned, he continued making improvements to his homestead. Some of these included the construction of a new log home, barns, root cellar, well, and fencing. He raised timothy hay and sold it to tourists and the Park Service. This hardworking settler also did horse packing with Joe Rogers and operated his own tourist business at Lake McDonald.1


Onward to Rogers Meadow

As you continue down the trail, you will notice that Camas Ridge, to the north, has burned in the past. The 70,609-acre lightning-caused Moose Fire of 2001 is to blame. To the south is Howe Ridge. The most recent burn, of course, was the Howe Ridge Fire. But, the man-caused Robert Fire of 2003 consumed 52,747 acres which included Howe Ridge. That promoted thick lodgepole pine growth and left an abundance of sizeable dead timber. The summer of 2003 has been referred to as the “Summer of Fire.” Fires that season burned 13% of Glacier National Park. It was the worst fire season in the park’s history.3

The trail continues in a northeast direction up the Camas Creek drainage and wanders in and out of forested areas. At 3.2 miles, the beautiful Rogers Meadow comes into view. Camas Creek slows here and meanders with full looping curves through the wetlands.  The peaks of Stanton Mountain, Mount Vaught, Heavens Peak, and Rogers Peak are the striking backdrop to all this.

Rogers Meadow, Glacier National Park
Rogers Meadow

If you’re lucky, you might spot one of the beaver, river otters, or moose that call this place home. Bears and wolves are also known to move through this valley. This is the stuff of movies – the beaver slapping the water with his tail, the stream falling away from a moose’s antlers as he pulls his head from the water, the mournful howl of a wolf, and the silhouette of the humpback grizzly bear wandering across the meadow. It could happen.

Rogers started his homestead in 1896 too. When he and Christensen returned from the war, he began building his ranch. At one time, Josiah had 100 horses besides cattle. He raised 50 acres of timothy and constructed 1.5 miles of fencing. Oil exploration businesses and the U.S. Geological Survey crews used his packing services as did many visitors to the Lewis Glacier Hotel on the east side of Lake McDonald. Somewhere he found time to court the woman whom he married in 1902. He lost her to illness in the winter of 1908. Joe sold his ranch in 1914.1


Options

If you call it a day here and return the same way you came in, it will be a 6.4-mile round trip. The end of the Camas Trail is another 10.7 miles. The trail passes Trout Lake in 4 miles, Arrow Lake in 7.1 miles, and finds Camas Lake at the end. The path from Arrow to Camas requires several stream fords and can get pretty brushy. Probably best planned as an overnighter.

Another option is to continue up the Camas Creek Trail to the West Lakes Trail. That junction is a little south of Trout Lake. This route will lead you up and over Howe Ridge exiting at the north end of Lake McDonald. Christensen and Rogers most likely used the same path. The distance to the West Lakes Trailhead at Lake McDonald is about 7.5 miles from Rogers Meadow. Naturally, vehicle logistics will need to be worked out.


End Notes

  1. Bick, Patricia. Homesteading on the North Fork in Glacier National Park. West Glacier, MT: National Park Service, Glacier National Park, 1986.
  2. National Park Service, Glacier National Park. “North Fork Homesteads Resource Brief.” Accessed November 26, 2018. https://www.nps.gov/articles/north-fork-homesteads-brief.htm.
  3. National Park Service, Glacier National Park. “Fire History.” Accessed November 27, 2018. https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/nature/fire-history.htm 
  4. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years: in Glacier National Park. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.

Huckleberry Fire Lookout

Outstanding views of the Livingston Range and the North Fork with history and the possibility of bonus berries.

This hike starts in the southwest corner of Glacier National Park in the Apgar Mountains. From the bridge over McDonald Creek near the village of Apgar, travel along the Camas Road about 5.4 miles. You should see the sign for the Huckleberry Fire Lookout and a parking lot on your left not far after the McGee Meadow overlook.

The trailhead is at about 3,771 feet in elevation. The trail climbs 2,725 feet over 6 miles to reach the Huckleberry Lookout at 6,496 feet. It’s about the same distance as walking into Sperry Chalet and about 2 miles less than climbing to Granite Park Chalet from The Loop. However, I found the return downhill portion caused less pain in my knees than Sperry or Granite.

Since water is not available along the path nor at the lookout, be sure to pack enough for a 12-mile day. This is grizzly and black bear habitat. Make sure that you have bear spray where it will be quickly available and know how to use it. You probably don’t want to wait until you see the whites of a massive grizzly bear’s eyes to determine how quickly you can take the spray from its holster and remove the safety clip.

The day starts by walking through a mostly lodgepole pine forest. As you increase elevation, there will be more and more subalpine fir, and they will become further and further apart. As more sunlight is able to shine on the forest floor, there will be more and more huckleberry bushes.

Looking East at the Livingston Range from Huckleberry Fire Lookout Trail, Glacier National Park
Looking East at the Livingston Range from the Huckleberry Fire Lookout Trail

The infamous 1910 fire burned a substantial part of the Apgar Mountains. This was followed in 1926 by the Huckleberry Fire which merged with the Half Moon Fire and consumed 95% of the Apgar Range. The Apgar Flats Fire of 1929 burned 19,000 acres including Huckleberry Mountain. In 1967, the Huckleberry Mountain Fire and Flathead River Fire burned a large part of the Apgar Mountains. It is believed that the 1910, 1926, and 1929 fires set the stage for the extensive growth of huckleberries in the area.4

Huckleberries are well adapted to fire. They primarily regenerate by root propagation rather than by seed after a burn.4 In fact, “hucks” need to burn at least every 10 to 20 years to produce well. If the forest canopy closes in around them, due to the absence of fire, it can result in fewer flowers and unripe fruit. In general, the bushes produce few berries if they go more than 60 years without burning.6 Of course, weather can complicate things. A late spring freeze or mid-summer frost can also affect production as can drought.

Huckleberry
The Prized Huckleberry

All of this great food has not gone unnoticed by grizzly and black bears. This is a hot spot for the bruins if the crop is good. In the Apgar Mountains where there are huckleberries, the highest probability of seeing bears is from the middle of July until late fall. Both the grizzlies and blacks feed on huckleberries in the lower to mid-elevations. But, as the timber becomes more sparse at a higher elevation, it’s mostly grizzly. Apparently, the density of the forest has an effect on the competition between the two.4

After 4 miles, the trail will go through a saddle, and the lookout tower can be seen. There is a steep drop-off as the path wraps around to the north side of the ridge. Even into the end of June, this section has the potential to be dangerous because of a lingering snowfield. It’s a good idea to check the Glacier National Park Trail Status Reports before heading out.

Huckleberry Fire Lookout, Glacier National Park
Huckleberry Fire Lookout

Also, in this section of the hike, you will see some beautiful red rock. Some of the boulders have ancient ripple marks that were formed over 1 billion years ago. Continental masses were separating during the second half of the Proterozoic Eon. This created an inland body of water that has been named the Belt Sea. The East African Rift Zone and the Red Sea is an example of something similar happening today.

The sediment that was eroded from the lifeless Earth surface was carried and deposited into the sea. The red rock results from deposits made in shallow water where there was enough oxygen to react with iron in the sediment. This formed iron oxide.5 It is the same chemical reaction that forms rust. There is evidence that indicates at least some of the deposit came from the west and southwest from land masses that eventually became Siberia and Australia.3,7

Red Argillite Rock with Ripple Marks, Glacier National Park
Red Argillite Rock with Ripple Marks

About 65 to 70 million years ago, toward the end of the reign of dinosaurs, an enormous section of the sedimentary rock that had formed under the Belt Sea was forced eastward 50 miles and uplifted over the younger formations of eastern Montana. The mountains of Glacier National Park are made of that rock.

Notice also that the Apgar Mountains do not have the knife-edged ridges as seen in other areas of the park. The more rounded form is the result of this range being wholly covered and then eroded by glacial ice during the Great Ice Age of the Pleistocene Epoch.4

As you approach the summit of Huckleberry Mountain, views to the west of the Whitefish Range and to the east of the Livingston Range are spectacular. From the summit, one can see into Canada on a clear day.

Maintenance Work on the 1933 Huckleberry Fire Lookout 2018, Glacier National Park
Maintenance Work on the 1933 Huckleberry Fire Lookout, 2018

The Huckleberry Fire Lookout tower was built in 1933 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Before this structure, there was a cabin topped with a cupola lookout. It was constructed in 1923.2

Glacier National Park 1923 Huckleberry Fire Lookout
Huckleberry Fire Lookout: Built 1923 Dismantled 1940. Courtesy Montana Memory Project

Hornet Lookout. Luke Channer
Hornet Fire Lookout. Luke Channer

The only original example remaining of this type of building that I could find is the U.S. Forest Service Hornet Fire Lookout. It is also on the National Register.1 Hornet is about 24 air miles to the northwest of Huckleberry Mountain and perched on the summit of Hornet Mountain. This piece of history can be rented for overnight stays from mid-June to October for a nominal fee.

Looking Down the South Ridge of Huckleberry Mountain, Glacier National Park
Looking Down the South Ridge of Huckleberry Mountain


End Notes

  1. National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places. “Hornet Lookout.” Accessed November 1, 2018. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/AssetDetail?assetID=8fe0ab8a-3e69-47b6-a54b-96a37ff4e5f8.
  2. National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places. “Huckleberry Fire Lookout.” Accessed November 1, 2018. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/AssetDetail?assetID=22312362-033d-48b5-a72f-2427c0c81565.
  3. Sears, James W., Raymond A. Price, and Andrei K. Khudoley. “Linking the Mesoproterozoic Belt-Purcell and Udzha Basin Across the West Laurentia-Siberia Connection.” Precambrian Research. Accessed November 2, 2018. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301926803002857.
  4. Shaffer, Stephen C. “Some Ecological Relationships of Grizzly Bears and Black Bears of the Apgar Mountains in Glacier National Park, Montana.” Scholarworks at University of Montana. Accessed November 1, 2018. https://scholarworks.umt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4636&=&context=etd&=&sei-redir=1&referer=https%253A%252F%252Fscholar.google.com%252Fscholar%253Fhl%253Den%2526as_sdt%253D0%25252C27%2526q.
  5. 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.
  6. Rockwell, David. Exploring Glacier National Park. Guilford, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 2002.
  7. Ross, Gerald M., and Mike Villeneuve. “Provenance of the Mesoproterozoic (1.45 Ga) Belt basin (western North America): another piece in the pre-Rodinia paleogeographic puzzle.” Geo Science World. Accessed November 2, 2018. https://pubs.geoscienceworld.org/gsa/gsabulletin/article-abstract/115/10/1191/1936/provenance-of-the-mesoproterozoic-1-45-ga-belt?redirectedFrom=fulltext.

Going-to-the-Sun Road

a late October bike ride

The weather and fall colors have been extraordinary this year, and I couldn’t resist the urge to go for a bike ride. The Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed for the season as it always is after the middle of October. But, it was open as far as Avalanche Creek on the west side. Perfect.

I rose early and arrived at Avalanche Creek with color in the sky. However, I missed the good stuff. No big deal. I was the only one in the parking lot!

My truck thermometer indicated 24℉. The cables on my bike were a little stiff, and the seat was cold and hard. No big deal. I had this part of the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park all to myself! Nobody is tailgating me. If I want to stop and check something out, I’m not interfering with anyone else’s experience. My face was starting to ache from the smile.

The early morning light was illuminating the snow-covered peaks as I rode through the dark old growth western cedar and hemlock forest. Every once in a while the needles of a solitary larch stood out like a golden lantern. Most of the black cottonwoods still retained their fall colors.

About 1.5 miles north of Avalanche Creek is a place called Red Rock Point. The observation deck at the end of a short trail overlooks the beautiful McDonald Creek. The path is bordered with large red boulders that offer numerous examples of riffle marks made in the shallows of the ancient Belt Sea. These are over one billion years old.

Garden Wall from just north of Red Rock Point.
A Peek at the Garden Wall from the Going-to-the-Sun Road

The section of the Going-to-the-Sun Road that was leading me to Logan Creek was completed during the period 1924 to 1925. Construction workers first cut their way through the thick, tangled forest to establish the 4.5-mile route from Avalanche Creek to Logan Creek. Enormous stumps were wrenched from the forest floor so that the road grading could proceed. The distance doesn’t seem like much in a car, but a bike provides the gift of a different perspective.

I have driven over Logan Creek countless times and never stopped. There was too much that had gone on there in the past for me to ignore it any longer. When I arrived, there was no water to be seen in the stream bed. It will be a different story in the spring.

According to the park service signs, the bridge that joins the banks on either side was built during 1926 and 1927. I was curious why it took two years. It turns out that the bridge was completed in 1926 with only one arch. The stream flooded in the fall of that year. Consequently, the park service and the Bureau of Public Roads decided to add another arch to the west end of the bridge in the summer of 1927.2

click

The Logan Creek Patrol Cabin is upstream a short distance from the bridge. It was constructed in 1925 as part of a system of cabins a day’s walk apart. This allowed park service rangers to patrol greater areas without having to return to their headquarters as often. I’ll bet that this old place has a few stories it could tell.

The application for the National Register of Historic Places mentions an item inside the cabin that was labeled with the letters CCC.3 That would be the Civilian Conservation Corps instituted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  The program hired unemployed, unmarried men ages 17 to 28 from 1933 to 1942. Their contribution to building the park infrastructure in addition to fighting fires was invaluable.

The windows of this log structure were heavily fortified with steel bars and interlacing strands of barbed wire. It looked like something had been chewing or clawing the bottom of the door frame. Nails had been hammered into the wood to try and discourage this from continuing. I assume that the structure is still used because there was a cord or two of firewood that had been put up under a nearby pole shed.

Construction of the next phase of the road from Logan Creek to Logan Pass started in 1925 and ended in 1928. This was considered the most challenging section of the entire Transmountain Highway because it had to be literally carved or benched into the side of cliffs of the Garden Wall. Even surveying the route was dangerous.1

Construction Camp 1 was established at Logan Creek. It was comprised of the headquarters, supply cabin, mess hall, and tents for 50 to 60 men. The now nonexistent Logan Pass Trail began there too. The path was used to establish and supply Camp 5 above what would become Triple Arches and Camp 6 at the future Oberlin Bend.1

McDonald Creek and Garden Wall, Glacier National Park
McDonald Creek and Garden Wall

Logan Creek is also where the road starts its climb at a 6% grade to Logan Pass 10 miles away. I hopped on my bike and started up toward the West Tunnel 2.7 miles away. Heavens Peak to the west was in splendid form. The combination of light snow and the bright sun caused the rock structure of this beauty to stand out.

Not far from the tunnel along the eastbound lane, I spotted the wavy, layered telltale signs of stromatolites in the rock face. Stromatolites are the structures made by photosynthetic blue-green algae. At one time in the Earth’s past, they were the most abundant and widespread form of life. These simple creatures are primarily responsible for transforming the Earth’s atmosphere from one nearly void of oxygen into one with over 20% oxygen.

I arrived at the West Tunnel, took my pack off and with camera in hand started exploring. Construction began in 1926 and ended in 1928. For a wage of 50 cents to $1.15 per hour, incredibly tough men labored in temperatures as low as -30 ℉ to hammer, chisel, and blast the tunnel that is 192 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 18 feet high.1 They also created two windows that are 16 feet wide and 20 feet high. These portals provide spectacular views of Heavens Peak and the upper McDonald Creek Valley.

click

After having lunch while lounging in the sun on the road parapet, I rode another one-half mile to The Loop. This is the only switchback on the entire Going-to-the-Sun Road. The competing design by George Goodwin had the road ascending the Logan Creek valley with the use of 15 switchbacks to reach Logan Pass. The more elegant design of Thomas Vint, even though more expensive, is the one that we enjoy today.1

I was down to a t-shirt and light pull over while at The Loop. But, after I started my descent back to the truck, I needed to keep adding layers. Even by mid-afternoon, the sun had not had much of an effect on the cold dense air that was lying in the bottom of the valley. According to the thermometer on the cabin, the temperature was 28℉ – not much warmer than when I started shortly after sunrise.

At Avalanche Creek, my vehicle was just one of many. No big deal. I have the memories of the morning and gratitude for the temporary solitude.


End Notes

  1. Guthrie, C.W. Going-to-the-Sun Road: Glacier National Park’s highway to the sky. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2006.
  2. Historic American Engineering Record. “Logan Creek Bridge Spanning Logan Creek, on the Going-to-the-Sun Road.” Accessed October 24, 2018. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/mt0250/.
  3. National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places. “Logan Creek Patrol Cabin.” Accessed October 3, 2018. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/AssetDetail?assetID=049ea627-f879-4cca-9563-58c942b96371.
Icons made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com is licensed by CC 3.0 BY

Avalanche Lake

This hike is one the most popular in Glacier National Park. It includes old growth forest, spectacular waterfalls, a beautiful mountain lake filled with turquoise water, nestled in a picturesque glacial cirque. It is unique.

The maritime climate of the Pacific Northwest has its easternmost influence here. Moisture from the Pacific coast rises and condenses as it meets the Continental Divide. Consequently, large quantities of moisture are dropped and that supports the western red cedar – western hemlock forest habitat, which is also at the far east of its range.

These two species of trees have been growing in the area for hundreds of years. Some of the cedars around lower Avalanche Creek are over 500 years old.1 You will also find other plants that are adapted to this microclimate. These include trillium (also known as birth root and wake-robin), bead lily, devil’s club, club moss, and various ferns.

Sally Thompson, in her book People Before the Park, indicates that generations of Kootenai Indians were probably visiting the area to harvest bark from old cedar trees to make baskets and other necessities. They also valued the cedar wood for building the frames of their canoes and making bowls.3

Charles Howe, the first homesteader at the foot of Lake McDonald in 1892, is reported to be the first non-Indian to see Avalanche Lake. He did so from the top of Mount Brown. Howe told Dr. Lyman B. Sperry about the lake which he then visited in 1895. Sperry is also given credit for the name of the lake.2

Their exploration of this part of Glacier is pretty amazing given that there were no roads and the forest was referred to as “thick and tangled”. In fact, this is about the time that George Snyder was building accommodations for tourists on the site of the current Lake McDonald Lodge. Due to the lack of roads, he bought a steamboat to haul his guests from Apgar to his accommodations.2



Trail fo the Cedars, Glacier National Park
Trail of the Cedars

There are a couple of ways to get to the trailhead. I would suggest walking the Trail of the Cedars to obtain the Avalanche trail. The Trail of the Cedars starts on the east side of the Going-to-the-Sun Road bridge over Avalanche Creek. There is a boardwalk which will carry you to the bridge over Avalanche Creek where it leaves the gorge. This is an excellent place to take a few photographs.

Avalanche Creek Gorge, Glacier National Park
Avalanche Creek Gorge

Proceed just a little further, and you will see a rail fence. The fence was placed there to protect the hillside. At one time, there was little undergrowth due to a large number of social trails.

My students and I collected seed from species that the park service personnel wanted to use to repair the area. We planted the seed in our high school greenhouse and then planted the seedlings in the spring. We did this for about 10 years. There were a lot of kids, now adults, that are pretty proud of that.

You will find the path to Avalanche Lake at the end of the fence. There is a ‘T’ in the route shortly after starting. Turn left. It is 2.3 miles to the foot of the lake with 500 feet of elevation gain. If you wish to explore the head of the lake, it will be an additional 0.8 miles.

After a short climb, there will be opportunities to look down into the Avalanche Gorge. This can be dangerous, especially if kids are involved. Be cautious.

Avalanche Creek Entering the Gorge, Glacier National Park
Avalanche Creek Entering the Gorge

The trail visits Avalanche Creek and then departs as it makes its way up to the lake. The low light cedar-hemlock forest with its lush green moss, lichens, and ferns is magical. When our kids were young, we would make up stories about elves, and fairies that lived in this enchanted forest.

Avalanche Creek
Avalanche Creek

Trillium, Glacier National Park
Trillium

When you come to a short side trail to the outdoor privy and see spiny-stemmed devil’s club along the path, know that you are close to the lake. From this point to the head of Avalanche Lake, I seem always to find the beautiful white, 3-petaled trillium when the first ground is exposed as the snow melts.

Not to be outdone, the round-leaved yellow violet competes for your attention in the same places where the trillium grows.

Round-Leaved Yellow Violet, Glacier National Park
Round-Leaved Yellow Violet

The waterfalls at the back of the cirque are stunning especially early in the season when you can hear them crashing down the cliffs even before you see them.

I found it interesting to read the research of the World Waterfall Database. They argue that the large spectacular waterfalls have never been officially named and have erroneously been referred to as Monument Falls.

Their research leads them to claim that Monument Falls refers to a 170-foot drop along a lower cliff band that is actually hard to see from the trail. The argument goes on to say that when Sperry Glacier was more massive, the water the glacier supplied to this stream made it stand out as the main inflow to Avalanche Lake.4 I’m curious if Dr. Sperry named the falls and why the designation of Monument Falls.

The head of the lake is a worthwhile extension to this hike. You will find a gravel beach that soaks up the warmth of the sun. On colder days, that makes it easy to linger a little longer.

Head of Avalanche Lake, Glacier National Park
Head of Avalanche Lake

Eventually, the time comes for the return trip. When you reach the beginning of the trail at the rail fence, you have the option of turning left which will lead you by the Avalanche Campground and to the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The exit will be near where you entered the Trail of the Cedars.


 

End Notes

  1. National Park Service. “Trees and Shrubs.” Accessed October 4, 2018. https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/nature/treesandshrubs.htm.
  2. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years: in Glacier National Park. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
  3. Thompson, Sally. People Before the Park. Helena, MT: Montana Historical Society Press, 2015.
  4. World Waterfall Database. “Monument Falls, Montana, United States.” https://www.worldwaterfalldatabase.com/waterfall/Monument-Falls-478.

Old Flathead Ranger Station

You may be more likely to hear cross-country skiers or mountain bikers talk about this trail than you will hikers. But there are great opportunities for birding and viewing wildflowers while you enjoy an unhurried walk to the haunts of the Old Flathead Ranger Station.

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The Old Flathead Ranger Station trail has about 400 feet of elevation gain/loss with a total round trip distance of 6.8 miles. This is also one of the few trails in Glacier National Park where bikes are allowed. The path is all that is left of an overgrown road that was built in the 1940’s.

The trailhead is on the western side of the park southwest of Lake McDonald. To get there, travel about 0.3 miles beyond the west entrance. Watch for the Apgar Lookout Trailhead sign. The turn is on the left side of the road. Travel another 0.3 miles to the T in the lane and go right. Continue on to the Quarter Circle Bridge. The trailhead is about 0.8 miles beyond the bridge. Keep an eye out because the sign, which will be on your left, is pretty small as is the parking area.

It will be quickly evident that this area burned in the past. In fact, the area you will be walking through was consumed by the Robert Fire of 2003. This human-caused fire started west of the park on July 23 and burned through 57,570 acres. The conflagration threatened West Glacier and Apgar which were evacuated twice. Firefighters skillfully set backfires which were pulled west by the unimaginable updraft of the Robert Fire. This action saved West Glacier and Apgar.

If you travel on the Going to the Sun Road and look across Lake McDonald, you will see where the Robert Fire made its final run along Howe Ridge in August 2003. After seeing the aftermath, it is hard to imagine that this was only one of several fires that burned that summer. In total, at least six fires consumed about 135,000 acres – roughly 13% of the Park.

Healing from Robert Fire: A New Forest of Lodgepole Pine, Glacier National Park
Healing from Robert Fire: A New Forest of Lodgepole Pine

Rebirth and recovery are all around during this walk. Thick stands, of 15-foot tall lodgepole pine, carpet the land to the ridgetops. This tree species has a unique life cycle that in this area primarily depends on fire to foster its next generation. It produces two types of cones.

One variety of the cones only releases its seeds in response to the heat of a fire. After a fire, bare mineral soil and no competition are ideal for lodgepole to reestablish itself. The other type releases it seeds without the need for such an environmental trigger. This ensures the survival of the species even without fire.

Paintbrush, Glacier National Park
Paintbrush

During late April to early May, there is a rainbow of colors provided by a multitude of wildflowers. I have seen strawberry, blue-violet, blue clematis, shooting star, heart-leafed arnica, glacier lily, arrowleaf balsamroot, serviceberry, and paintbrush.

Shooting Star, Glacier National Park
Shooting Star

When you have traveled about 3.4 miles, you should be at the high bluff that overlooks the confluence of the Middle Fork and the North Fork of the Flathead River. I wandered around looking for the Old Flathead Ranger Station or at least some indication that it existed. There were no clues that I could find.

With the generous help of the Glacier National Park librarian, I was able to discover the rest of the story. According to a report written by Mark Hufstetler in 1988, in the early days of the park, this area was easily accessed from the land west of it. There were also private lands inside the park that were grandfathered in. Poaching was a problem.

View of North Fork of Flathead River from Site of the Old Flathead Ranger Station , Glacier National Park
View of the North Fork of the Flathead River from an Area Near the Site of the Old Flathead Ranger Station

So, sometime in the early to mid-1920’s, the Flathead River Ranger Station was established, and by the late 1920’s it was staffed year around. On August 17, 1929, the Half Moon Fire, which like the Robert Fire, started outside the park. The fire hopped the river and consumed the ranger station. In 1930, Congress authorized funds to build four new buildings on the site – a residence, barn, fire-cache, and woodshed.

During the 1940’s, a road was made to the area allowing direct access from Belton (West Glacier). As a result of automobile use, there was only an intermittent need to staff the ranger station. The buildings deteriorated over time. Glacier National Park employees finally removed the residence, barn, and woodshed in 1966. The fire-cache and an outhouse were then all that remained. Since I found no sign of either, I guess that the Robert Fire took care of those.


 

Swiftcurrent Lookout

The Trailhead

This spectacular hike, on the Garden Wall via the Highline Trail is one of several routes to the Swiftcurrent Fire Lookout. The trailhead is located at Logan Pass on the north side of the Going-to-the-Sun Road across from the Logan Pass Visitor Center.

The scenic drive up to Logan Pass and the trailhead is 32 miles from the west entrance and 18 miles from the east entrance. Consider that just a warm-up to what you will experience on this trek.

Rather than park in the visitor center parking lot, we chose to drive only as far as The Loop and leave the car there. We then caught the first-morning shuttle to Logan Pass. That way we didn’t need to worry about parking or trying to find a ride at the end of the day. Of course, you could leave your vehicle at the Apgar Visitor Center on the west side or the St. Mary visitor center on the east side and let the free shuttles deliver you and pick you up.

This gap between the mountains, at an elevation of 6,646 feet, was named for Major Wm. R. Logan who was the first superintendent of Glacier National Park from 1910-1912. However, Logan Pass was used long before white people arrived. The Kootenai Indians utilized it during winters to avoid trouble with the Blackfeet on the east side. Their name for the pass meant “Pull the Packs Up”. The cliffs at the head of Logan Creek were scaled by pulling men, women, children, and their packs up one ledge at a time.8

Almost immediately after Glacier National Park was created in 1910, the business of building roads began. After more than 20 years of work, on July 15, 1933, the engineering marvel of the Going-to-the-Sun Road was dedicated at Logan Pass with a grand opening ceremony that was attended by more than 4,000 people.2 Little did anyone suspect that in the future hundreds of thousands if not millions would visit Logan Pass in a season.

Dedication of Going-to-the-Sun Road at Logan Pass. Photo by Bud Grant
Dedication of Going-to-the-Sun Road at Logan Pass. Photo by Bud Grant

If you have been to the Lake McDonald Lodge or the Many Glacier Hotel or any of several other early park buildings, you may have noticed that the visitor center at Logan Pass seems to be different. It is. It was designed and built during a time in our country when our culture was recovering from World War II and to some degree even the Great Depression. Our country was focused on progress and a more efficient lifestyle. This, in turn, affected building practices and architecture.1

The National Park Service conceived of a ten-year building program in the 1950s and dubbed it Mission 66. The goal was to lift the national parks out of the state of disrepair, resulting from years of neglect, by 1966. In fitting with the culture of the time, the design philosophy was “simple contemporary buildings that perform their assigned function and respect the environment”. The architectural style of not only the Logan Pass Visitor Center but also the St. Mary Visitor Center is known as Mission 66 or Park Service Modern.1,2


Logan Pass Trailhead to Haystack Saddle (3.6 mi, 378 ft elevation gain)

The trail begins by meandering through stunted subalpine fir for about one-quarter of a mile. It then becomes a ledge on the side of a rock face with a one-hundred-foot drop. The Park Service has installed a covered cable for people to hang on to if the exposure is a little too exhilarating. This only lasts for about one-quarter mile.

As you move along the route, the panorama of the Livingston Range to the west is impressive. If the findings of recent research on the health benefits of experiencing awe pan out, this is a perfect place to get healthy. The immensity and variety of the glacial features can leave one transfixed.

To the southwest is Mount Oberlin and Mount Cannon. In between these two beauties is a hanging valley which was created by a smaller glacier that flowed into a much larger valley filling glacier. The thundering cascade plunging out of that valley is Bird Woman Falls. Signs along the Going-to-the-Sun Road indicate the height of the falls is 492 feet. However, the World Waterfall Database disagrees with this height. It states that the drop is 960 feet.

I cannot think of a time on the Highline Trail when we didn’t see mountain goats or bighorn sheep. They are beautiful animals but give them plenty of room. Remember they are wild and could do significant damage to a human in a split second. The hoary marmot is another herbivore that you are likely to come across is. This rodent is considered the largest North American ground squirrel. It tips the scales at a hefty 8 to 15 pounds for adults. They can be beggars. Please do not feed them.

Mountain Goat on the Highline Trail
Mountain Goat on the Highline Trail

Marmot
Marmot

It’s not uncommon for grizzly bears to use this area too. In the summer of 2014, a grizzly and a man encountered each other on a trail section that had nothing but rock wall above and below. A picture taken by a local fellow through a telephoto lens shows the man after he had scrambled about ten feet down a cliff to a small rock outcrop while the grizzly walked above him. You just never know in the park. Always carry bear spray where it is easily and immediately available and know how to use it.

Eventually, you will come to some switchbacks that lead up to the saddle between Haystack Butte and a flank of the 9,553-foot Mount Gould. At about 7,024 feet, it’s not uncommon for there to be snowfields in July. Nevertheless, this makes for an excellent place to rest, hydrate, have a snack, and take in the grandeur.


Haystack Saddle to Junction Swiftcurrent Pass Trail (4.3 mi, 260 ft elevation gain)

The path continues to climb for a short distance before it descends to Granite Park. To the southwest is the magnificent u-shaped McDonald Creek Valley. The u-shape is the result of textbook glacial sculpting. Imagine the entire valley ice filled with only the peaks of the mountains showing. Such was the case 20,000 to 11,000 years ago.7 Those valley filling glaciers gave us the chiseled horns, like Reynolds Mountain seen at Logan Pass, and the knife edge ridges or aretes like the Garden Wall. Glacier National Park gets its name from the landscape left by these massive ice rivers.

McDonald Creek Valley from the Highline Trail
McDonald Creek Valley from the Highline Trail

The 26 glaciers remaining in Glacier National Park are not from that time. These ice masses are about 7,000 years old and peaked in the middle 1800s. Sadly, due to warming trends, it is predicted that these 26 will be gone around 2030.6

At 6.9 miles from the trailhead, there is a junction for a 0.9-mile spur trail that ascends 900 feet to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook and the top of the continental divide. A person should be in pretty good shape to take on this route. The climb is rewarded with spectacular views of Mount Grinnell, Upper Grinnell Lake, Grinnell Glacier, Angel Wing, and Mount Gould.

Grinnell Glacier and Mount Gould from the Overlook
Grinnell Glacier and Mount Gould from the Overlook

The junction for the Granite Park Trail and the chalet is at 7.6 miles from the trailhead. Stay to the right on the Highline Trail and continue 0.3 miles to the Highline and Swiftcurrent Pass Trail junction. By the way, there is no water at the lookout nor is there any on the way up. So, if you find your supply low, drop down to the  Granite Park Chalet and buy some bottled water before starting the climb up Swiftcurrent Mountain.


Swiftcurrent Pass Trail Junction to Swiftcurrent Lookout (1.9 miles)

Swiftcurrent Pass is 0.7 miles from the last junction. The route up to the lookout starts just before the pass.

Heavens Peak with Granite Park Chalet from Trail to Swiftcurrent Pass, Glacier National Park
Heavens Peak with Granite Park Chalet from Trail to Swiftcurrent Pass

The treeless climb is a strenuous 1.2 miles with 1200 feet of elevation gain. At the top, straddling the continental divide at 8,436 feet is the highest fire lookout in the park. The 14×14 building was constructed in 1936 for $7,500. It is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.5 Attached to each corner of the building are cables that are anchored in the ground. Incredibly strong winds can blow up there.

Looking to the northeast is Mount Wilbur. Windmaker Lake is more than 3,000 feet straight down. To the west, you can look down on Flattop Mountain and see part of the 18,702 acre Trapper Creek Fire that burned in 2003 during the ‘Summer of Fire’. Heavens Peak rising up in the west is unmistakable.

Not far from the northwest corner of the lookout is a mound of moss campion. It’s hard to miss the beautiful pink flowers that it produces from June to August. The unique thing about this plant is that it is very long-lived. Who would expect that a tundra plant would have such longevity in an incredibly harsh environment?

Moss Campion, Swiftcurrent Mountain
Moss Campion, Swiftcurrent Mountain

A woman leading a group from the Granite Park Chalet told us that the particular plant by the lookout was probably over 150 years old. I did a little checking and found a study where the researchers came up with a way to estimate the age by measuring the moss campion diameter. The 150 years seems consistent with their findings.We were also told that even though the plant is hardy, the one thing that the plant cannot withstand is being walked on.


The Rest is All Downhill to The Loop (6.5 miles)

This leg of the trip will drop around 3,900 feet as you travel from the lookout to The Loop. Since the downhill trek will go by the Granite Park Chalet, a look inside is worthwhile if you have never been there.

The single-story building in back of the main chalet was built by the Great Northern Railroad in 1913. The following year the two-story main structure was constructed. Both are made of rock quarried on location. These two buildings have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.5 They are a working museum.

The ground floor of the main building is made of stone that contains ancient ripple marks and mud cracks preserved in the shallow water areas of the ancient Belt Sea that existed from 1.6 billion years ago to 800 million years ago. The sea would have been located where eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana are today.7 Amazingly, during that time nothing lived on land. Fossil evidence puts the oldest land organism at about 440 million years.3

If the old timbers of the chalet could talk, I’m sure there would be some colorful stories. Think about the wealthy visitors lured west away from the Alps by Louis Hill and the Great Northern Railroad. I’ll bet the Brewster boys could tell a tale or two about the Northern Circle pack trips with these ‘city folks’.

Tales from the summer of 1967 surely would be in the timbers. Dry weather and lightning that summer resulted in several fires burning inside the park including the 2,200-acre Glacier Wall Fire which would have been easily seen from the chalet.

That same summer shortly after midnight on August 13 guests in the chalet were awakened by screams coming from the backcountry campground. A group of people was organized to investigate and upon arriving at the campsite found a terrifying scene. I will not describe the gruesome details here. Suffice it to say Roy Ducat was severely mauled, and Julie Helgeson was killed – both by the same grizzly bear. Emergency first aid was administered inside the chalet.

Luring bears in with garbage for the entertainment of guests had been going on for decades. This incident helped put an end to that practice.

Hiking to The Loop from the chalet was done mostly in heavy timber before the summer of 2003. The standing dead trees that you see from the trail were most likely fatalities resulting from the Trapper Creek Fire. That summer 136,000 acres or 13.4% of Glacier National Park burned. The remarkable rebirth of the next forest is underway and we get to watch.

About 15.7 miles from the trailhead or 3.6 miles from the chalet there is a junction that can be easily missed. Left will take you 0.6 miles to The Loop and right will take you about 1.7 miles to Packers Roost.

After approximately 18 miles and plenty of elevation, a nice meal and cool beverage with friends would top off a great day.


End Notes

  1. Allaback, Sarah. The History of a Building Type. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2000. https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/allaback/.
  2. Guthrie, C.W. The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry, 2008.
  3. Lewis, Danny. “440-Million-Year-Old Fossilized Fungi May Be the Oldest Land Dwellers Yet Discovered.” Smithsonian, March 3, 2016, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/440-million-years-old-fossil-fungus-oldest-land-organism-ever-discovered-180958268/.
  4. Morris, William, and Daniel Doak. “Life History of the Long-Lived Gynodioecious Cushion Plant Silene acaulis (Caryophyllaceae), Inferred from Size-Based Population Projection Matrices.” Journal of Botany 85, no. 6 (1998): 784-93. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21684962.
  5. National Archives Catalog. Accessed August 3, 2018. https://catalog.archives.gov/search?q=%22national%20register%20of%20historic%20places%22%2075000647
  6. Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, USGS. “Climate Change in Mountain Ecosystems.” https://www.usgs.gov/centers/norock/science/climate-change-mountain-ecosystems-ccme?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects.
  7. Raup, Omer, Robert Earhart, James Whipple, and Paul Carrara. Geology Along Going-to-the-Sun Road. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, 1983.
  8. Thompson, Sally. People Before the Park. Helena, MT: Montana Historical Society Press, 2015.