A trip through a Glacier National Park forest in transition.
The Apgar Bike Path is one of three trails in Glacier National Park where bicycles are permitted. Of course walking is okay too. The trailhead can be found south of the Backcountry Permit Office in Apgar Village. This nearly level, paved path through a lodgepole pine forest can be surprisingly void of people. It’s suitable for many ability levels and an excellent early season option.
This can be a relaxing saunter through a forest in transition. In 1929, the 39,000-acre Half Moon Fire consumed the western hemlock/western red cedar forest that grew in the area. Now, shade intolerant pioneer species, like lodgepole pine and western larch, predominate the overstory near the trail. But given enough time and lack of disturbance, shade-tolerant species will prevail.
Check out the understory and one future for this forest. I found western white pine and Douglas fir, which are intermediate in shade tolerance. To my surprise, there are many shade-tolerant species alive and doing well. These included: grand fir, Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, western hemlock, and western red cedar. The stage is set for the later stages of forest succession.
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If you visit this path in June, there will be bear grass blooms appearing like puffs of white smoke among the trees. Huckleberries are a bonus later in the summer. However, bears are known to visit this area. So, don’t leave your bear spray in the car.
The Route with Options
The three-mile round trip starts out in a southwest direction from the trailhead near the Backcountry Permit Office. It soon crosses the Camas Road. At about one-half mile, there is a short spur trail leading to the Ox-Bow Overlook on McDonald Creek. The trail course changes to the southeast and does not veer right or left for over a mile. The makers were efficient in getting from point A to point B. As near as I can tell, this is the old road way from the Belton Bridge to Apgar.
The path crosses the Glacier Institute Road at 1.4 miles and ends at the Going-to-the-Sun Road 1.5 miles from the trailhead in Apgar Village.
Extend the trip by continuing on the path another one-half mile to the intersection of Grinnell Drive and Mather Drive in the Glacier National Park Headquarters area. Walk or ride about one-quarter mile to the end of Mather Drive. There you will find a gravel path, the beginning of the South Boundary Trail, that proceeds down an embankment and then upstream along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River reaching the Belton Bridge at 2.75 miles from the Apgar trailhead. Believe it or not, this was the original entrance into Glacier National Park.
There can be a lot of action here during rafting season. Have a snack and take a few pictures down along the river before the return trip. Or, continue across the bridge and follow the road into West Glacier.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Bick, Patricia. Homesteading on the North Fork in Glacier National Park. West Glacier, MT: National Park Service, Glacier National Park, 1986.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Rockwell, David. Exploring Glacier National Park. Guilford, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 2002.
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.
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
Logan Creek Patrol Cabin
Fortified Window Logan Creek Patrol Cabin
A Dry Logan Creek with Clements Mountain
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
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.
Heavens Peak from West Tunnel Portal
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.
Guthrie, C.W. Going-to-the-Sun Road: Glacier National Park’s highway to the sky. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2006.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.4 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.
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.
National Archives Catalog. Accessed August 3, 2018. https://catalog.archives.gov/search?q=%22national%20register%20of%20historic%20places%22%2075000647