To begin this adventure, follow the Many Glacier Road to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn and Cabins. The trailhead for the Iceberg Lake/Ptarmigan Trail can be found by following the road on the west end of the restaurant and camp store building. This will lead to limited parking and the trailhead. If you are not there early, it is probably better to leave your car in the main parking lot in front and walk back to the trailhead. It’s not far.
The restaurant, camp store, and gift shop along with many of the small, simple cabins in the back are part of the Swiftcurrent Auto Camp Historic District. In the early 1930s, the Great Northern Railway (GNR) subsidiary, Glacier Park Hotel Company, began building the facility in response to the new automobile tourist. This mobile visitor with limited funds started replacing the wealthy clientele who were courted by the GNR from 1910 to 1930.2
Notes for a Heavily Used Area
This is a very popular hike and can be extremely busy. So, a few words about trail etiquette may be helpful. It is generally accepted that hikers going uphill have the right of way. That being said, if I’m going uphill and encounter a group coming downhill, it makes sense that I yield to the group. It is a lot easier for me to move to the side than it is for the entire group to do the same.
We all hike at different speeds. It is not cool to hike on the heels of another person. Use your favorite friendly greeting so that the folks ahead of you know that you are there. They should step aside and let you pass. If not, a friendly request should do the trick.
Finally, the potty zone is at least 200 feet from the trail. If we use an average adult pace distance of 2.5 feet, then 80 paces should put you at about the correct distance from the path. There is a pit toilet located about 2.6 miles from the trailhead and just before the trail crosses Ptarmigan Creek.
I should also note that the Ptarmigan Trail and the Iceberg Lake Trail go through some prime grizzly bear habitat. During July and August, berries are ripening somewhere. Both black and grizzly bears are naturally attracted to this food source, and you will be passing through their cafeteria. Be wise and let them know where you are by making noise. Keep your bear spray where you can access it quickly and be sure that you know how to use it. The park maintains a webpage that lists closures and postings for trails and backcountry campgrounds. This is definitely a good resource to check before heading out.
A Little Geology
For me, the stories behind the chiseled, multilayered mountains make what I am looking at even more spectacular. Trying to comprehend the time from the early stages of sediment eroding from a lifeless Earth surface to what we see today hurts my brain. And, this only goes back one-third of the way to Earth’s beginning.1
More recently, during the Great Ice Age that began over a million years ago and ended around 12,000 years ago, enormous glaciers filled the valleys and ground away at the mountains like a gigantic rasp.3 When this was done from two opposing sides, sharp mountain ridges or aretes were left. When the ice rivers scoured the rock from three opposing sides, a horn was created. To the southeast of Iceberg Lake is the glacial horn Mount Wilbur (9,231 feet). West and wrapping around to the north of the lake are the pinnacles of the glacial arete named the Ptarmigan Wall.
The scoured mountainsides present an excellent exposure of the layers of various types of sedimentary rock that were deposited beginning 1.6 billion years ago into the ancient Belt Sea. Sediment deposited in shallow water could react with oxygen resulting in reddish colors. That deposited into deeper water with minimal oxygen ended up being green. The beige and tan colors result from the remains of coral forming organisms.1
The red argillite of the Grinnell Formation makes up the base of Mount Wilbur. Just above the Grinnell Formation is the younger buff-colored limestone of the Siyeh Formation which caps both Mount Wilbur and Mount Henkel. If you look carefully about halfway between the base of the cliffs and the summit on the east face of Mount Wilbur, you will see the light gray band about 60 feet high that is within the Siyeh Formation. It also can be seen on the Ptarmigan Wall above Iceberg Lake. That layer contains fossilized algae. The algae formed a reef hundreds of millions of years ago in the Belt Sea.1
The dark layer of rock toward the top of Mount Wilbur and the Ptarmigan Wall is a diorite sill. This band of igneous rock is approximately 100 feet thick and formed when magma was crammed between the layers of sedimentary rock in the Siyeh Formation. The lighter colored stone immediately above and below the sill is limestone that was metamorphosed into marble by the tremendous heat of the magma.1
Glacier National Park puts the one-way distance to the lake at 4.8 miles with an elevation gain of 1,200 feet. The first quarter of a mile is steep. But don’t let that dampen your enthusiasm. The remainder of the hike is rated as easy to moderate.
The first part of the trail passes along the southwest slopes of Mount Henkel (8,770 feet). During May and June, the large, showy yellow flowers of arrowleaf balsamroot provide an excellent early season contrast to the slopes on which they grow. This open section of the trail offers quintessential Glacier National Park scenery.
The trail enters a forest at about 1.5 miles from the trailhead. There is a perfect place to rest and grab a snack where the path uses a bridge to cross Ptarmigan Creek. Shortly after this is the junction to Iceberg Lake. Take the left fork. Going to the right will lead you to the Ptarmigan Tunnel. At three miles, the footpath emerges from the forest, and the glacial cirque where Iceberg Lake is found comes into view.
After you cross the footbridge over Iceberg Creek, you will enter a beautiful alpine meadow painted with a multitude of colors during July and August. Among these are the purple subalpine fleabane, the white Sitka valerian, the pink mountain heather, and the blue penstemon. It is a pretty sure bet that you will also see Columbian ground squirrels. Scan the rock faces for mountain goats and the sky for golden eagles.
If you arrive at the lake in June, chances are pretty good that it will be frozen solid. Icebergs should be plentiful in July and mostly gone by the middle of August. For me, no matter the month, sitting on the shoreline and taking in the iconic splendor is rejuvenating.
“… we saw a mass of ice as large as a house part from the glacier, splash down into the deep lake …” James Willard Shultz, September 1, 19154
Before You Call It A Day
If you have never visited the historic Many Glacier Hotel, I recommend that this be the time to do so. The immense hotel, modeled after Swiss alpine chalets, was constructed by the Great Northern Railway during the years 1914 and 1915. Then, only the wealthy could afford to enjoy it. Now you can relax with your hiking partners and enjoy refreshments while being wowed by the surrounding peaks with names like Mount Gould, Angel Wing and the spectacular Grinnell Point that dominates the view across Swiftcurrent Lake.
- Dyson, James L. The Geologic Story of Glacier National Park, Bulletin No. 3. N.p.: Glacier Natural History Association, 1957. Accessed August 31,2018. https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/glac/3/index.htm
National Register of Historic Places. “Swiftcurrent Auto Camp Historic District.” Accessed August 30, 2018. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/AssetDetail?assetID=9e575759-c2a0-4079-8d43-99638b12c14a.
- Ray, Louis L. The Great Ice Age. N.p.: U.S. Geological Survey, 1992. Accessed August 30, 2018. https://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/ice_age/ice_age.pdf.
- Schultz, James W. Blackfeet Tales of Glacier National Park. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916. Accessed August 30, 2018. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/43399/43399-h/43399-h.htm.