Poia Lake, named after a hero in Blackfeet mythology, is a beautiful 30-acre body of water lying at an elevation of 5,800 feet near the transition zone of subalpine to alpine in the Kennedy Creek drainage.
Drive 2.8 miles west from the Many Glacier Entrance Station. Look for a parking lot on the right side of the road. The trail for Apikuni Falls leaves this spot, headed northwest and the Red Gap Pass Trail to the northeast. Poia Lake is on the Red Gap Pass Trail.
If you’re driving from the west, look for the parking area on the left 1.1 miles east of the Many Glacier Hotel road junction.
There is another trailhead. However, I don’t recommend it. The Sherburne Cut Off leaves from the entrance station and doesn’t bother with switchbacks as it climbs Swiftcurrent Ridge. You’ll climb 1,000 feet in one mile. The tradeoff is saving 2.4 miles. But with the reduction in distance comes a slower hiking speed because of the trail’s steep grade. You might save 15 – 20 minutes. If you’re wondering about using this footpath on the trip out, know that it has sections of loose material and poor footing. Some folks unaffectionately refer to this route as the luge.
Grizzly and black bears frequent this area. Be wise and make enough noise to not surprise the bruins. Carry bear spray where you can unholster it in a couple of seconds. Know when and how to use it.
The trail climbs steadily through a forest interspersed with small meadows where it’s possible to spot whitetail deer, elk, moose, and bear.
After four miles, you’ll reach Swiftcurrent Ridge Lake (Moran’s Bathtub) on the south side of the ridge crest. It’s not worth fishing unless the idea of catching white sucker and lake chub interests you. Attempts to introduce grayling in the 1920s and 1930s failed because the lake lacked suitable spawning habitats.2
There’s a pretty sweet view south over the lake toward Allen and Wynn Mountains.
From the lake, the trail uses several switchbacks to reach the ridge top and then descends into the Kennedy Creek drainage. This stream is the namesake of John Kennedy, not our revered past president, though. This particular Kennedy was a whiskey trader. In 1874, he built a trading post where Kennedy Creek flows into the Saint Mary River (9.5 miles northeast of Poia Lake).1 The Blackfeet named him Otatso, which means walking stooped. A tributary of Kennedy Creek bears that name.3
Be aware that the park service has closed the entire length of Kennedy Creek to fishing.
Upon reaching Poia Lake, a trail on the left leads to the backcountry campground. The park allows two of the four sites to be reserved online.
If you continue along the shoreline, there’s a bridge over the outlet and a path veering to the right from the Red Gap Pass Trail. Follow that route for great vantage points of Poia Lake Falls.
If you keep an eye on the exposed rock faces of the surrounding mountains, the chances of seeing mountain goats are pretty good. Or, look for pika in the nearby talus slopes. Locate these furry little members of the rabbit family by their characteristic “eeep” calls and look for their “hay piles” in the talus near a meadow’s edge.
Total Distance: 13.1 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 1,676 feet; Loss: 808 feet
Difficulty*: 16.5, strenuous (Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time Estimate: 6 hours 4 minutes (Calculated using an average speed of 2.5 mph and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)
The liquid snow of Apikuni Creek presents a spectacular show when the Earth drops out from beneath it. The water plummets 160 feet over 1.5 billion-year-old Altyn limestone, the oldest rock on the park’s east side.1,2
Apikuni Falls Trail leaves the parking area to the northwest and the Red Gap Pass Trail northeast. The parking lot is 2.8 miles west of the Many Glacier Entrance Station. Or, find the trailhead 1.1 miles east of the Many Glacier Hotel road junction if driving from the west.
For whatever reason, bears seem to like this area. The last time we hiked to the falls, a black bear sow and three cubs crossed in front of us within the first quarter mile. Although we were at least 150 yards away, she gave us an unflinching stare until the little ones entered the brush. The same day, both morning and afternoon, we saw a grizzly bear near the parking lot – luckily from our car.
Several years ago, we exited the Red Gap Pass Trailhead after four glorious days in the backcountry. While walking back to the Swiftcurrent Inn and the truck, a grizzly bear sow and her cubs near the Apikuni and Red Gap parking lot caught us off-guard. Brush concealed her until she stood up with ears back and agitated. An alert Red Bus driver encouraged my hiking partner and me to pile into his empty bus. At the same time, he maneuvered his coach between the bear family and us.
I’ve seen several other bears on different occasions in the same general area. If you have spent little time in bear country, I recommend checking out the recommendations Glacier National Park’s Bear Safety webpage.
If you have binoculars with you, scan for bighorn sheep on the east slopes of Altyn Peak and near the falls.
You’ll notice that I’ve rated the difficulty of the walk to the falls as easy. Compare this hike with 640 feet of elevation in a mile to the average increase of 490 feet per mile for Ptarmigan Tunnel or 430 feet per mile on the trek to Grinnell Glacier. Then why is it easy?
I use distance and elevation gain to calculate the difficulty score using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Miles equation.3 If the trip were two miles uphill rather than one, it would rank as moderate difficulty. Climbing five miles with 640 feet of elevation gain per mile makes it strenuous. Apikuni Falls has an easy score, primarily because of low total distance (and energy expended).
During spring and early summer, the footpath starts out through a meadow loaded with color. Before you know it, you will enter the forest and start the climb. Along the way, a few side trails lead to spectacular views of the Swiftcurrent Valley and the peaks to the south.
The trail officially ends a short distance from the falls. Unofficial social trails proceed on to the base of the cascades. Beware of wet rocks and expect some light scrambling.
Total Distance: 2.0 miles
Elevation Gain: 640 feet
Difficulty: 3.3, easy* (Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time: 1 hour 7 minutes (Calculated using an average speed of 2.5 mph and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)
Take only memories, leave only footprints. – Chief Si’ahl
This 11-acre gem is definitely worthy of your attention from early to late season. Enjoy the reflections of the surrounding peaks as they take on the golden glow of sunrise. And if you’re lucky, witness a moose emerging from the lake fog in the crisp mountain air. It’s an easy, family-friendly walk from the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn.
From the Many Glacier Entrance Station, drive straight ahead for five miles to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn parking lot. Look for the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail, which begins near the northwest corner of the parking area.
The path leading to Fishercap lake is one-quarter mile from the trailhead. After you cross the bridge over Wilbur Creek, it’s only another three to four minutes to the junction on your left. The footpath to the shoreline is about a tenth of a mile long.
Total Distance: 0.6 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 15 feet; Loss: 15 feet
Difficulty: 0.6, easy* (Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time Estimate: 15 minutes (Calculated using an average speed of 2.5 mph and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)
If you’re looking for a family-friendly hike that includes history, outstanding scenery, and wildlife, the loop around Swiftcurrent Lake in Many Glacier is hard to beat. This is one that can be enjoyed May through October.
The most popular places to access the trail are near the Many Glacier Hotel, or the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead found in the picnic area.
The road junction for the Many Glacier Hotel is four miles west of the Many Glacier Entrance Station. Make your way to the hotel parking lot. From there, it’s a short walk to the lakeshore.
A half-mile past the road intersection to the Many Glacier Hotel is a picnic area. Find the trail either at the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead, at the south end of the parking lot, or near the east junction of the picnic area road and the Many Glacier Road.
This post describes the walk beginning at the Many Glacier Hotel boat dock and proceeds clockwise. Starting and finishing there allows twice the time to enjoy the historic structure set in a world-class view, stroll around inside and maybe find a snack, beverage, or meal. If a trail ride is something you want to fit into your day, the Many Glacier Corral is at the back of the parking lot.
The Many Glacier Hotel opened on July 4, 1915, and survived economic downturns and the floods of 1964, 1975, and 2006.1 When smoke cleared after Heavens Peak Fire in 1936, the hotel was still standing, but there was little else.2 For over a century, the Many Glacier Hotel has hosted presidents, celebrities, rambunctious wranglers, and visitors from around the world.3
Without a doubt, Grinnell Point steals the show when looking across Swiftcurrent Lake. Add Mount Gould and Angel Wing to the south and Mount Wilbur to the north, and it’s spellbinding.
A great treat of this route is the possibility of seeing moose. Glacier National Park has a Wildlife Safety webpage with tips on sharing the land with these impressive animals. Also, deer frequent the area, as do bears. If you’ve had little experience traveling through bear habitat, the park has an informative Bear Safety webpage that’s worth visiting.
From the boat dock, head south along the roadway for about 500 feet to the trailhead. The footpath never strays far from the shoreline. After about half a mile, the path brings you near the boathouse for the 1961 45-foot vessel Chief Two Guns and crew member cabins.
The first bridge on the route crosses Cataract Creek flowing out of Lake Josephine and Stump Lake. A quarter-mile past the bridge, the loop trail intersects the Grinnell Glacier Trail. At that place, a left turn begins a worthy side-trip to Lake Josephine, 0.2 miles away. The historic 1945 45-foot Morning Eagle passenger boat docks there and has been carrying passengers on the lake since 1960. Mount Gould and Angel Wing across the water to the southwest, framed by Grinnell Point to the north and Allen Mountain to the south, are spectacular.
From the Swiftcurrent Lake Loop Trail and Grinnell Glacier Trail junction, a right turn continues into a little more densely wooded section of the walk with fewer lake views. You’ll see the Chief Two Guns south boat dock almost immediately. In 0.4 miles, there is a bridge over Swiftcurrent Creek and then a quarter mile to the picnic grounds’ parking lot. Continue right on the blacktop for 300 feet. The footpath is on your right.
The trail meanders for a half-mile between the Many Glacier Road to its north and Swiftcurrent Lake to the south. After that distance, you’re at the asphalt leading to the Many Glacier Hotel.
Two of the original eight chalets erected during 1911 are standing across the roadway from the trail. At that time the Many Glacier Hotel only existed on paper and in the minds of the designers.5 An avalanche wiped out one chalet a few winters after construction. The 1936 Heavens Peak Fire took most everything else.2
The route continues along the hotel road to the bridge over Swiftcurrent Creek. Downstream is Swiftcurrent Falls. Several walking paths lead away from the south side of the bridge, allowing visitors to view the cascades from several perspectives.
It’s a quarter-mile back to the boat dock from the bridge.
Total Distance: 2.3 miles
Total Elevation Gain: level
Difficulty: 2.3, easy* (Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time: 55 minutes (Calculated using an average 2.5 mph speed.)
Hiking and history notes for your walk up the spectacular Swiftcurrent Valley.
Suppose you don’t feel like climbing to the pass. In that case, there are three wonderful subalpine lakes plus waterfalls to see along the route. They involve shorter distances and not much elevation gain. You’ll find more information in this post.
If you want more than the pass, Swiftcurrent Lookout Trail heads north near the pass and climbs 1,248 feet over 1.4 miles. The views from up there are outstanding.
Another option is to begin at Logan Pass and walk the Highline Trail past Granite Park Chalet until the path intersects the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail. Follow that back to Many Glacier. This route is a little over 15 miles with 2,844 feet total elevation gain and 4,553 feet loss. Transportation logistics are a must with this trip. Consider leaving your vehicle at the Logan Pass parking lot. At Many Glacier, catch a fee-based hiker’s shuttle to Saint Mary. From Saint Mary, use the free Glacier National Park Shuttles to return to Logan Pass.
The rest of this post is devoted to the out and back hike from Many Glacier to Swiftcurrent Pass.
Once on the Many Glacier Road, drive to the parking lot in front of the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn (originally Swiftcurrent Auto Camp). This spot is five miles west of the Many Glacier entrance station. The well-marked Swiftcurrent Pass Trail begins just west of the inn.
The main building and cabins mark the “turning of a page” in Glacier National Park history. In the park’s early days, the Great Northern Railway (GNR) lured wealthy folks away from their vacations in the Swiss Alps and to the “alps” of America in Glacier National Park. These tourists expected top-shelf service, and they got it for a price.
Around the early 1930s, a different type of visitor emerged. The automobile made it possible for tourists to be mobile and independent of Great Northern. They demanded less extravagant lodging and service than that offered by the Many Glacier Hotel. Their voices were heard.
In 1933, Swiftcurrent Auto Camp began with the building of cabins described as “spartan and inexpensive.” Construction continued in 1935 with a general store at the east end of the current main building. In the 1940s, builders added the lobby space and restaurant at the west end.12 If you get a chance, it’s worth a look inside these historical buildings.
Long before the auto camp, horses and their riders rode down the Swiftcurrent Valley, making their way to the Many Glacier Hotel. This was the last leg of a multi-day backcountry camping trip known as the North Circle.3 As you walk along the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail, know that you are enjoying the same magnificent scenery that many have for over a century.
Fishercap Lake (0.7 miles)
A quarter-mile after leaving the trailhead, a path veers left toward the shore of the lake with the peculiar name. The Blackfeet gave their friend George B. Grinnell the moniker Fishercap, which was then attached to the lake.9
The soft glow of early morning light on the water, Swiftcurrent Mountain, Mount Wilbur, and Bullhead Point creates an excellent scene for photographs. Not only that, but the valley from Fishercap Lake to Bullhead Lake has superb moose habitat. And, although there are no guarantees, the best time to see these impressive animals is early morning and evening.
Redrock Lake (1.3 miles) & Redrock Falls
The Swiftcurrent Pass Trail continues from the Fishercap Lake Trail junction through mixed lodgepole pine and fir forest. Intermixed stands of quaking aspen show off glowing yellow leaves in October. One and a half miles from the trailhead, there is a short side path to a gravel beach on the north side of Redrock Lake. It’s worth a look.
Continue toward the west end of the lake and find a spur trail at 1.8 miles leading to the lower part of Redrock Falls. The best show is early in the season. After you return to the primary route, climb a little, and then pass next to Swiftcurrent Creek and the upper section of the falls.
The conspicuous red to maroon rock from which the lake and falls take their name is part of the 2,500-feet-thick Grinnell Formation. Over a billion years ago, a Siberia size landmass began separating from what would become North America. A shallow inland sea formed in the resulting basin. Here, streams and rivers dumped the silt and sand they carried from the surrounding lifeless land. Over time, heat, pressure, and oxygen content produced multi-colored layers of rock. Then, tectonic forces pushed those layers, which were miles deep, eastward 50 miles, and upward.1
When the park’s rocks were forming, life in the ancient sea consisted of single-celled cyanobacteria. Since 3.5 billion years ago, these primitive organisms have produced oxygen and contributed substantially to an atmosphere that supports life as we know it.11 Stromatolites, fossils of the structures these organisms made, exist not only in the Grinnell Formation but within many others throughout the park.4
During the Pleistocene Epoch, glaciers thousands of feet deep filled the valleys of what is now Glacier National Park. Peaks of the mountains would have appeared like islands in the seas of ice. When the glaciers receded around 12,000 years ago, they left amazing hanging and u-shaped valleys, aretes, horns, and cirques that characterize the park.
Bullhead Lake (3.9 miles to the west end)
You’ll cross a suspension bridge over a stream flowing from Windmaker Lake about three and a half miles from the trailhead. Watch for a path headed toward Bullhead Lake about 500 feet after the bridge. I think the views are better there than those at the west end of the lake.
A couple hundred feet farther west from the junction mentioned above, some not so apparent trails lead down to the shore. I used one of those when I needed to replenish my water supply coming back from the pass. Be sure to use some sort of water purification system.
After leaving the west end of Bullhead Lake, cross Swiftcurrent Creek and head south into the drainage nestled at the base of Mount Grinnell, the Garden Wall, and a flank of Swiftcurrent Mountain. The trail crosses a pretty braided stream channel, but there is a plank bridge. It’s put in place in June and taken out in September. Check Glacier National Park’s Trail Status Reports.
In 1910, an official from the Department of the Interior visited the newly established Glacier National Park. He hired Josiah Rogers, an owner of stock and packer on the west side, to take him through the park, including a trip over Swiftcurrent Pass at the end of the journey. Rogers balked at this last request. He finally agreed when a contract guaranteed $100 for each horse lost while traveling over the dangerous route.9
The ride over a primitive trail scratched into cliffs must have made an impression on Roger’s guest. In those days, there wasn’t much money available for the park. But somehow, the government found funds to reconstruct the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail.9
One must climb over three miles using several switchbacks cut into the headwall to reach the pass. Otherwise known as “Galen’s Ladder,” workers constructed these hairpin-turns for the footpath during the 1913 trail reconstruction.9
Grand waterfalls plummeting down the eastern rock face of the Garden Wall add to the spectacular scenery as you gain elevation. Swiftcurrent Glacier clings to an east face of the Garden Wall not far below the ridge top. Several viewing points will present themselves as you make your way up the trail. This glacier has decreased about 71% since the mid-1800s.10 Modern glaciers, like Swiftcurrent, are not holdovers from the Pleistocene, which ended about 12,000 years ago. The 26 remaining glaciers in the park have only been around for 7,000 years.8
“A rolling wall of flame.”9 Park superintendent Scoyen said, “I have never seen as complete a burn-out as occurred in Swiftcurrent Valley. With the exception of a few swampy areas, every green living thing from rocks on one side of the valley to the other, has been destroyed.”5 Those words described the 8,364-acre, 1936 Heaven’s Peak Fire and its aftermath.
It all began on August 18, with a lightning strike above the Glacier Wall west of the continental divide. On August 31, violent winds carried firebrands east over Swiftcurrent Pass. They ignited the forest as much as 1.5 miles ahead of the main fire. The Many Glacier Hotel was spared, but the wildfire consumed many other buildings.5
Looking down on the green Swiftcurrent Valley from several viewing points along the headwall, one would never suspect that such an inferno was part of Many Glacier’s history.
Devil’s Elbow is the last major switchback on the trail. Envision sitting on a horse or leading the critters around that hairpin turn with a vertical drop of hundreds of feet within a few steps of the path.
A small pile of rock rubble on the left side of the footpath marks the pass at 7,185 feet. It is all that remains of the base constructed in 1926 to support a locomotive bell. GNR installed bells at Swiftcurrent, Piegan, Siyeh Passes, and a fourth near Scenic Point. Great Northern borrowed the unique Swiss custom of placing bells on mountain tops and passes so that hikers could produce a loud clang upon arrival. It was in line with the railway’s advertising slogan “Alps of America” to promote Glacier National Park.9
Total Distance: 13.7 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 2,611 feet; Loss: 370 feet
Difficulty: 18.9, strenuous* (Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time Estimate: 6 hours 47 minutes (Calculated using an average speed of 2.5 mph and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)
I invite you to take a look at my book Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road: a traveler’s guide. I’m confident it will help with your planning and exploration of this engineering masterpiece and the surrounding wilderness. See it here on Apple Books.
On November 2, 1887, after three days of bushwhacking, George Bird Grinnell, Jack Monroe, and James Willard Schultz scaled the headwall of a magnificent glacial valley. The team was probably all smiles when they climbed up onto the glacier Grinnell had spotted through his spyglass two years earlier.2 Grinnell estimated the depth of the ice, which would later bear his name, at 600 feet.2
Grinnell became one of the prominent personalities who worked tirelessly to gain national park status for the extraordinary land he had explored.
Today millions of people travel to Glacier National Park. The Many Glacier Region, in the northeastern part of the park, is a hiker’s paradise. And one of the most popular destinations in this area is Grinnell Glacier. The trip to what remains of the once-mighty glacier often shows up in visitor’s top ten “must-do” lists. During July and August, don’t expect any solitude. But do expect to be awed by the scenery.
If you’d like to mix it up a bit, consider buying passage on the boats Chief Two Guns and Morning Eagle. Chief Two Guns is a 45-foot, 49 passenger launch that motors across Swiftcurrent Lake. Its dock at the foot of the lake is near the Many Glacier Hotel. Once at the head of the lake, there is a short walk to the pier on Lake Josephine. There the 49 passenger Morning Eagle is waiting to take folks to the head of her lake. Using the boats will knock off a little over three miles of the walk to the glacier. Check out Glacier Park Boat Company’s website for current fees and time schedules.
It’s not uncommon for the park service to post a warning or close the Grinnell Glacier Trail because of grizzly bears. If you’re unfamiliar with traveling through bear habitat, I recommend Glacier National Park’s Bear Safety web page. There’s a lot of valuable information, including a video presentation by a park bear biologist.
CLOSED for bear frequenting from Thunderbird Falls to the end of the trail 7/10/21 per 822
Projected initial clearing date: 7/23/21 per 650
High-angle snow hazards exist approximately 1.5 miles above the junction with Josephine Lake (3.5 miles from the trailhead at the picnic area). Crampons, ice axe, and extensive experience with ice travel would be recommended.
Hiking the entire Grinnell Glacier Trail is the focus of this post. The strenuous hike begins in the Many Glacier picnic area about 0.5-miles past the road to the Many Glacier Hotel. The trailhead is well marked at the south end of the parking lot, which fills early during July and August. Additional parking is sometimes available just before the picnic area beside the road.
The Many Glacier Hotel is an alternate starting point. You will meander along the eastern and southern shores of Swiftcurrent Lake before intersecting the Grinnell Glacier Trail. This route is about three-tenths of a mile longer than that starting at the picnic area.
The first two miles of the footpath are relatively level and forested. You’ll walk along the western shores of Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. Grinnell Point, the prominence seen from the Many Glacier Hotel, rises to the north.
After the Josephine Trail junction, the climb begins in earnest. The icy-cold Grinnell Falls, crashing 960 feet down the headwall, appears about one mile past the Josephine intersection.1 With elevation gain, trees become fewer and stunted. A great birds-eye perspective of the u-shaped glacial valley with its shimmering lakes then opens up. To appreciate the immensity of this landscape, one needs to experience it. Photographs fall short.
About 3.5 miles from the trailhead, Thunderbird Falls spills onto the cliff-hugging trail. Then, a short distance up the path, one may encounter a steep snowfield burying the footpath. This frozen mass can persist into July and might be dangerous to cross. Checking with park rangers about potential hazards before embarking would be a good call.
One is likely to walk over fossilized ripple marks exposed during trail construction. Water agitation in the shallow sea environment of the ancient Belt Sea formed these sediment ridges over one billion years ago. During hundreds of millions of years, thousands of feet of sediment stacked one layer upon another in the sea basin. Heat and pressure cemented the loose particles into solid rock. Finally, tectonic forces shoved the massive rock mass eastward 50 miles and uplifted it as it slid over the top of much younger rock. The foundation of Glacier National Park started as the mucky bed of the Belt Sea.
As the climb continues, the route becomes a narrow shelf blasted into the side of a cliff. Far below at the bottom of the steep drop-off is Grinnell Lake, a turquoise gem. Rising abruptly from its far shore is the sheer rock face of Angel Wing, backed by the massive Mount Gould. A near-vertical rock wall is the view on the opposite side of the trail.
When the path leaves its perch on the rock face, it crosses open areas where you might see bighorn sheep and mountain goats. A picnic area with a pit toilet offers a great place to rest before the final 400-foot and 0.4-mile climb over the glacial moraine to Grinnell Glacier and Upper Grinnell Lake.
The ice-scoured rock beside Upper Grinnell Lake is a popular place to hang out, surrounded by fantastic scenery. Directly across the water, Salamander Falls plummets 440 feet with meltwater from Salamander Glacier.4
Salamander, once part of the vast Grinnell Glacier, shrunk 23 percent between 1966 and 2015.3
The remnants of Grinnell Glacier lie at the south end of the cirque beneath the massive Mount Gould. During the same period mentioned above, Grinnell lost 45 percent of its area.3
The USGS Repeat Photography Project documents changes in glaciers by placing historical photographs alongside more recent photographs taken from the same location. The pictures of Grinnell Glacier say it all.
In the past, rangers took visitors out onto Grinnell Glacier. This no longer happens. The risks of crossing the outlet of Upper Grinnell Lake and walking on top of weakened ice with hidden crevasses are too great.
Since 1900, the mean annual temperature for Glacier National Park and the surrounding region has increased by 1.3 ℃, which is 1.8 times the global mean increase.3
Gem Glacier succumbed to rises in temperature and lost its classification as a glacier because it no longer met the 25-acre criteria.3 The last bit of the former glacier hugs the Garden Wall south of Salamander and west of Mount Gould.
Total Distance: 10.6 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 2,277 feet; Loss: 701 feet
Difficulty: 15.2, strenuous* (calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Miles)
Estimated Walking Time: 5 hours 22 minutes (calculated using an average 2.5 mph walking speed and Naismuth’s Rule to compensate for elevation gain)
I invite you to take a look at my book Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road: a traveler’s guide. I’m confident it will help with your planning and exploration of the park. See it here on Apple Books.
The spectacular Iceberg Lake day hike in Glacier National Park should be on your must do list while in the Many Glacier region.
The beginning of the Iceberg Lake and Ptarmigan Trails can be found by following the Many Glacier Road to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn and cabins. There is a road on the west end of the restaurant and camp store building, which leads to limited parking and the trailhead. If you’re 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 courted by the GNR from 1910 to 1930.2
Notes for a Heavily Used Area
Iceberg Lake is a very popular hike. So, a few words about trail etiquette are in order. Generally, hikers going uphill have the right of way. That being said, if I’m alone going uphill and encounter a group coming down, it makes sense that I yield to the group. It’s 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. Know that it’s considered rude to crowd folks in front of you. Use your favorite friendly greeting so that the people ahead know that you’re there. They should step aside and let you pass. If not, a polite request should do the trick.
There is a pit toilet about 2.6 miles from the trailhead just before the footpath crosses Ptarmigan Creek. If that doesn’t work out, the potty zone is at least 200 feet from the trail and any water. Using an average adult pace distance of 2.5 feet, then 80 paces should put one at about the correct distance from the path or surface water. One should dig a small cat hole to bury paper or solid waste.
I should also note that the Ptarmigan Trail and the Iceberg Lake Trail go through prime grizzly bear habitat. During July and August, berries are ripening. Both black and grizzly bears come to take advantage of this food source, and you will pass 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 know how to use it. The park maintains a webpage with closures and postings for trails and backcountry campgrounds. It’s wise to check this information before heading out.
A Little Geology
The stories behind the chiseled, multilayered mountains make the trip even more spectacular. Trying to comprehend the time that has passed from the early stages of sediment eroding from a lifeless Earth surface to what we see today stretches the imagination. And, this only goes back one-third of the way to Earth’s beginning.1
During the Great Ice Age, that began around two-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.3Aretes, knife-edged ridges, resulted when ice rivers worked on two opposing sides of a mountain. Straight ahead to the northwest are the pinnacles of the glacial arete named the Ptarmigan Wall. When ice scoured rock on three sides, a horn remained. The glacial horn Mount Wilbur (9,231 feet) rises to the southwest.
The ice sculptor also exposed colorful layers of rock deposited over a billion years ago in the ancient Belt Sea. Then, seawater lapped a shoreline 50 miles west of Glacier National Park. Sediment deposited in shallow water reacted 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
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 at the east face of Mount Wilbur, about halfway between the base of the cliffs and the summit, there is a light gray band about 60 feet high. That is within the Siyeh Formation. This band extends through the Ptarmigan Wall above Iceberg Lake. That gray rock is rich with fossilized algae, which formed a reef hundreds of millions of years ago in the Belt Sea.1
The dark band 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 forced between the layers of sedimentary rock in the Siyeh Formation. The 1,000 to 2,000 degree Fahrenheit magma changed the resident limestone into marble. Notice the lighter-colored stone immediately above and below the dark gray sill. That’s the marble.1
The first quarter of a mile is steep. But don’t let that dampen your enthusiasm. The slope of the path decreases to about 6% as it 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 footpath enters a forest about 1.5 miles from the trailhead. Farther down the trail, where the path uses a bridge to cross Ptarmigan Creek, is a perfect place to rest and grab a snack. Shortly after this is the junction to Iceberg Lake. Take the left fork. Going to the right will lead to Ptarmigan Tunnel. At three miles, the footpath emerges from the trees, and the glacial cirque holding Iceberg Lake comes into view.
After you cross the footbridge over Iceberg Creek, you’ll enter a beautiful alpine meadow painted with a multitude of colors during July and August. Purple subalpine fleabane, white Sitka valerian, pink mountain heather, and light blue penstemon contribute to the show. It’s a sure bet that you’ll also see Columbian ground squirrels.
Iceberg Peak, to the west, and Mount Wilbur, to the southeast, rising more than 3,000 feet above the lake. Scan the rock faces for mountain goats. Golden eagles, with wingspans of six to eight feet, also hunt this area.
Expect a frozen lake, if you arrive in June. 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 it all in 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
After the Hike
If you have never visited the historic Many Glacier Hotel, I recommend that this be the time to do so. The sprawling 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 there 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.
4 hours 39 minutes (at 2.5 miles-per-hour and allowance for elevation gain)
* For Comparison: Red Rock Lake: 4.3, easy; Grinnell Lake: 8.2, moderate
Before You Go . . .
If you’ve found this post useful, I invite you to check out my book Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road: A Traveler’s Guide. Within this MultiTouch iBook are descriptions of hikes originating along the road corridor from West Glacier to Saint Mary. Interactive maps and photo galleries are included. You’ll also find points of interest highlighted, history, and other recreational opportunities. Thanks for visiting.
No matter how often I hike in the Many Glacier region, I’m always filled with awe. The grandeur of the glacially carved mountains is both exhilarating and humbling. Once on the trail, the sights, sounds, and smells that command my attention result in restorative therapy second to none. Grinnell Lake and Hidden Falls offer such an opportunity.
Once inside the park, the Many Glacier Road skirts the north side of Lake Sherburne, a man-made reservoir that began with the completion of Sherburne Dam in 1921. The Swiftcurrent Oil, Land and Power Company drilled for oil near the dam’s site in 1904. J.J. Sherburne was an officer of the company.1
During the first decade of the 1900s, oil drilling operations were commonplace on the land now hidden by the water. Another of those hoping for a handsome profit was Mike Cassidy. He drilled from 1905 to 1909, but his only reward was a little natural gas which he used to heat and light his home.¹ Cassidy Curve is about 1.3 miles from the Glacier National Park border.
The Many Glacier Entrance Station is about halfway along the lake. Start watching for the Many Glacier Hotel sign about four miles past the entrance station. Travel about half a mile farther beyond the turn for the hotel and look for the Many Glacier Picnic Area and Grinnell Glacier Trailhead signs. This is where the hike described below begins.
Another option is to start at the trailhead near the Many Glacier Hotel. The trail from there will wind its way through the densely forested southeast sides of Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. The route nearest the lake is preferable. Horses use the upper path, making for a mucky fetid route. I learned this from experience.
A third option is to buy passage on two different launches that transport folks across two lakes. The 45-foot, 49 passenger launch, Chief Two Guns, carries passengers across Swiftcurrent Lake. From the dock at the head of Swiftcurrent Lake, it is a short walk to the pier at Lake Josephine’s foot. The 45-foot, 49 passenger Morning Eagle, built during 1945, delivers passengers to the head of Lake Josephine. From the head of Lake Josephine, it’s 2.2 miles with only 60 feet of elevation gain to Grinnell Lake.
The Many Glacier region is grizzly bear habitat. Be sure to carry bear spray where it is quickly accessible and know how to use it. Never hike alone and be sure to make plenty of noise. Surprising a bear can make a great day into a terrible day quickly.
It’s 3.6 miles and a modest 491 feet of elevation gain from the trailhead at the Many Glacier Picnic area to Grinnell Lake. The trail and trail junctions are well marked with signs noting destinations and distances.
The Grinnell Glacier Trail will guide you along the north shore of Lake Josephine. Views to the south across the lake toward 9,376-foot Allen Mountain provide many photo opportunities. If you visit this area from June to July, the Beargrass bloom can be spectacular.
In shaded, moist areas along the trail, watch for bead lilies. The single white blossom is on display from June to July. Later, a single glossy blue-colored berry sits proudly at the top of a stem. It might look tempting, especially to children, but the beautiful fruit is foul-tasting and mildly toxic.
Stay on the Grinnell Glacier Trail for 2.1 miles. There you will see a path to the left which leads to the Grinnell Lake Trail. If you miss the turn, you will end up at Grinnell Glacier. (Note there is another trail junction at about 1.6 miles from the Many Glacier Picnic area. I prefer the route using the intersection at 2.1 miles. However, both paths will end up at the same location.)
After leaving the Grinnell Glacier Trail, walk about 0.3 miles to the next junction. Keep an eye out for the Grinnell Lake sign. Veer right, and in 1.1 miles, the lake will come into view. There is a short spur trail to Hidden Falls just before the lake.
This 130 acres of turquoise beauty is at the center of an exhilarating panorama. Angel Wing is to the south. To the west at the headwall, Grinnell Falls crashes 960 vertical feet carrying meltwater from Grinnell Glacier.³ Mount Grinnell rises 3,800 feet above the lake to the north.
Grinnell is a name attached to many features, and rightfully so. They are the namesake of George Bird Grinnell, who was a man of many accomplishments. He earned his Ph.D. from Yale in 1880. Grinnell served as a naturalist on one of General Custer expeditions but declined a similar offer before the hapless foray in 1876.²
Grinnell was a friend of Teddy Roosevelt and also prominent in the early conservation movement. He started the first Audubon Society and was a founding member of the Boone and Crockett Club. Importantly, he was influential in establishing Glacier National Park.²
The Return Trip
Use the same route or mix it up and take the Lake Josephine South Shore footpath. Or catch a boat for the return trip. Find more information at the Glacier Park Boat Company website.
Grinnell Lake Hike Summary
Total Elevation Gain
Total Elevation Loss
Total Walking Time
3 hours (at 2.5 miles-per-hour and allowance for elevation)
*Difficulty: 0-4.9 easy, 5-9.9 moderate, 10+ strenuous (For comparison: Red Rock Falls: 4.3, easy; Grinnell Glacier Viewpoint: 14.6, strenuous)
Thanks for Visiting
If you’ve found this post useful, I invite you to check out my book Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road: A Traveler’s Guide. Within this MultiTouch iBook are descriptions of hikes originating along the road corridor from West Glacier to Saint Mary. Interactive maps and photo galleries are included. You’ll also find points of interest highlighted, history, and other recreational opportunities.
Robinson, Donald. Through the Years. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier NaturalHistory Association, 1973.
This is an outstanding backpacking trip that begins and ends in Many Glacier. It includes a side trip to the head of Elizabeth Lake and a short hike to Helen Lake.
The total trip from trailhead to trailhead, including the side trip, is 35.2 miles. If you decide to start at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn parking lot, add another couple of miles for the walk back to your vehicle from the Red Gap Pass Trailhead located along the Many Glacier Road.
The trek described below starts at the Iceberg Lake/Ptarmigan Trailhead close to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. You will notice that the Inn is pretty humble compared to the grand 191 room, 760 foot long, Many Glacier Hotel. This beautiful hotel, built between 1914 and 1915, was the brainchild of the Great Northern Railway president Louis Hill and was designed and built to lure wealthy American tourists away from Europe to the ‘Alps’ of America.2 Of course, his railroad provided the transportation.
The Many Glacier Hotel is located along the eastern shore of Swiftcurrent Lake. George Bird Grinnell named the lake and creek in the mid-1880’s. He derived the name from the Blackfeet moniker which meant ‘Swift Flowing River’. Interestingly, the name was changed to Lake McDermott to honor a lumberman in the late 1890’s. The name was officially changed back to Swiftcurrent in 1928.5
In contrast, the main building of the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn (general store on the east end) was built in 1935 and was situated in the forest. The addition of the restaurant and lobby on the west end was completed in 1941. These were built to meet the demands of the relatively new auto tourist. This new tourist was not dependent upon the railroad, had limited funds, and was, therefore, more interested in lodging and meals that were easier on the pocketbook. The wealthy clientele seeking European style and comfort, during the period of 1910-1930, was replaced by this new mobile tourist.
Iceberg Lake/Ptarmigan Trailhead to Ptarmigan Tunnel (5.3 miles)
The trail doesn’t waste any time testing your legs. This is just a teaser, however. The 5.3-mile climb up to the Ptarmigan Tunnel includes 2,300 feet of elevation gain with most of that gain in the last couple of miles. Be sure to make noise, keep your bear spray handy, and know how to use it. This trail passes through some prime grizzly bear habitat. It’s not uncommon for the trail to be closed because of bears.
As you travel northwest along the trail, the Ptarmigan Wall with its many pinnacles rises in front of you. This sharp mountain ridge, known as an arete, was carved by the glaciers of the Pleistocene Epoch. This time lasted from about 2.5 million years ago to around 11,700 years ago. To the east of the trail is Mount Henkel (8,770 feet). To the west is Mount Wilbur (9,321 feet) which nestles Iceberg Lake in a glacial cirque between itself and the Ptarmigan Wall. At about 2.7 miles, the Ptarmigan Trail splits off to the north. You will end up at Iceberg Lake should you continue straight on.
Ptarmigan Lake is a nice place to stop before the final climb to the tunnel. There is also an inviting spot below the lake on Ptarmigan Creek to filter water and replenish your supply. Depending on the time of year, it could be awhile for the next opportunity.
After a few switchbacks, you top out at an elevation of 7,200 feet and the Ptarmigan Tunnel – a National Historic Place. The 250-foot tunnel was built by men of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the summer of 1930. Two groups worked with jackhammers and dynamite and approached each other from both sides of the Ptarmigan Wall. Both the north and south entrances are shielded by heavy metal doors which were installed in 1975. They are typically opened around mid-July, depending on the snow, and closed October 1. Before entering the tunnel, take in the views to the south. To your left is Crow Feet Mountain (8,914 feet) and to your right is part of the Ptarmigan Wall. In the distance are Mount Wilbur (9,321 feet), Mount Grinnell (8,851 feet), and Mount Gould (9,553 feet).
Imagine traveling back in time as you enter the tunnel. This engineering marvel was drilled through the red rock of the Grinnell Formation. This formation can be over 3,000 feet thick and is seen in many parts of the park. The Grinnell rock and most all of the other layers of rock in the park were formed from sediment that was deposited into the ancient Belt Sea during the period of time from 1.5 billion to 800 million years ago.6
The Belt Sea was located in what is now eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana. There is also geological evidence that Siberia and Australia may also have contributed sediment when they were connected to the precursor to North America.3
Starting about 150 million years ago, during the Jurassic Period when dinosaurs like Allosaurus and Stegosaurus roamed, and ending about 60 million years ago, when dinosaurs were ancient history, unimaginable tectonic forces pushed an enormous slab of rock several miles thick and several hundred miles wide 50 miles eastward and up over the top of much younger rock. The Lewis Overthrust Belt on the eastern edge of the park is the eastern terminus of that gargantuan slab of rock of which the Grinnell Formation is part.4
The Grinnell Formation gives us a wonderful snapshot of the distant past. Although not particularly evident in the tunnel, other exposures of this formation display preserved water ripple marks, mud cracks, and fossilized stromatolites. Stromatolites are mounds created by lime-secreting cyanobacteria which were widespread and abundant on our planet as far back as 3.5 billion years ago.4
Cyanobacteria are photosynthetic and played a critical role in the production of oxygen that changed the Earth’s atmosphere. There is no fossil evidence of any kind of land organism, including plants, found in this red rock or any other rock in the park that was deposited between 1.5 billion to 800 million years ago. Consequently, the surface rock of the ancient supercontinent had nothing to protect it from the weathering and erosion which produced the sediment, that would become the mountains of Glacier National Park.
Ptarmigan Tunnel to Head of Elizabeth Lake (6.4 miles)
When we emerged from the north end of the tunnel, a world class panorama was there to greet us. Mount Merritt, a hulk of a mountain at 10,004 feet in elevation, could be seen to the northwest. A little to the northeast of Mount Merritt was Natoas Peak (9,475 feet). Looking downward 2,300 feet, we saw the beautiful Elizabeth Lake adorning the glacier-carved, u-shaped valley of the Belly River. The Ptarmigan Trail that we were on continued northward and downward along the west side of Crowfeet Mountain’s northern ridge. After crossing Redgap Creek, the trail merged with the Redgap Pass Trail at about 2.8 miles from the tunnel.
That trail to the southeast would eventually take us back to Many Glacier. We continued northwest for another two miles where we arrived at the foot of Elizabeth Lake, a backcountry campground, and the junction of three trails – the Helen Lake Trail, the Belly River Trail, and the Redgap Pass Trail. Great place for a photo op. We continued on the Helen Lake Trail for 1.6 miles to the head of Elizabeth Lake and the backcountry campground located there.
The campground was our home base for a full day and two nights. Part of the time we used to explore Helen Lake and part of the time we used to enjoy the fishing at Elizabeth Lake. And, the fishing made me feel like a little kid again. It was exciting. I still have these mental movies of standing on the gravel bar where the Belly River flows into the lake. The clouds were low, the morning mist was rising from the lake surface, two trumpeter swans were swimming nearby, and my fly was drifting along the feeding lane. Just as the water erupted and I felt the strike, the clouds let some sunshine through. The rainbow trout in its aerial acrobatics was throwing water that looked like diamonds in the sunlight. It makes me smile just to think about it again.
For two evenings and one morning, we caught and released rainbow trout and the iridescent arctic grayling in numbers and sizes that would lead one to question my truthfulness.
Head of Elizabeth Lake to Helen Lake (5.4 miles round trip)
Several sources indicated that there were no fish in Helen Lake. So, we left the rods behind. The scenery is well worth the hike though. Helen Lake (5,085 feet) is at the head of the Belly River and is situated in a glacial cirque surrounded by Ipasha Peak (9,572 feet) to the northwest and Ahern Peak (8,749 feet) to the southwest. Between Ipasha Peak and Ahern Peak is Ahern Glacier. Meltwater from the glacier plummets about 1,600 feet creating some pretty spectacular waterfalls. Further to the south was Ahern Pass which has connections to the infamous Joe Cosley. It is said that in 1929, the 59-year-old Cosley snowshoed across Ahern Pass in order to beat the authorities back to his cache of poached beaver pelts in the Belly River Valley. He did beat the law and then disappeared into Alberta.2 The pinnacles above Ahern Pass and southeast of the lake are part of the Ptarmigan Wall.
There is a nice backcountry campground built within a stunted subalpine fir stand not far from the lake. A nice surprise was that the beargrass was in full bloom in the surrounding meadows. I imagine that the night sky would be amazing from Helen Lake.
Head of Elizabeth Lake to Poia Lake (11.7 miles)
As much as I hated to leave, it was time. We backtracked 1.6 miles along Elizabeth Lake to the junction with the Redgap Pass Trail. From there we climbed 2,647 feet in 4.4 miles to reach Redgap Pass (7,539 feet). The pass is well above timberline and appropriately named.
The red rock is of the same formation that we saw in the Ptarmigan Tunnel. To the northeast is the russet colored Seward Mountain (8,917 feet) which was named for President Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state.5 Seward reaches down to the pass with its southwest ridge. To the south is Kennedy Lake which lays in a glacial cirque on the north side of Mount Henkel and the east side of Crowfeet Mountain (8,914 feet). There is no developed trail to Kennedy Lake. To the southeast is Apikuni Mountain (9,068 feet). Apikuni (formerly Appekunny) is the name the Blackfeet Chief Running Crane gave to the trader, explorer, and author George Willard Schultz who was also a friend of George Bird Grinnell. The name Apikuni describes a hide that was badly tanned.5 I wonder if Schultz had a skin problem or a bad buffalo robe?
The trail left Redgap Pass and began its 5.7 mile and 1,754-foot descent to Poia Lake. After a series of switchbacks and about 2.5 miles, 1,500 feet of the elevation loss was in the books. The trail eventually parallels Kennedy Creek most of the way to Poia Lake and loses the remaining 254 feet of elevation in the final 3.2 miles. Enjoy a different perspective of the country just traveled through. To the southwest is the now massive Apikuni Mountain, to the west is the multilayered Crowfeet Mountain with the red ridge extending east to Redgap Pass. The extensive Yellow Mountain rises to the north.
After camp was set up and our last trail dinner was consumed, we climbed around to the east of the lake above the outlet and some nice waterfalls. From there, views of the sunset were spectacular.
This seems like an opportune time to introduce the Blackfeet legend of Poia.
The Blackfeet maiden Feather-Woman fell in love with the bright and beautiful morning star that she viewed in the heavens. Morning Star, a god, sensed her love, came to earth and took her away to the Sky Country. The hole through which they entered the Sky Country was plugged with a Great Turnip. Feather-Woman was forbidden to remove this turnip
Feather-Woman and Morning Star were married and had a son that they named Star-Boy. Life was good until she decided to dig the Great Turnip. Through the hole, she could see her people and became homesick. Morning Star returned the shamed Feather-Woman to her people with her son. Knowing that she had brought unhappiness into the world, she died of a broken heart. The orphaned Star-Boy lived with his earthly grandparents and suffered through years of ridicule because of a scar that he had on his face. Poia (Scarface) is the nickname given to him by those who delivered the torment. In desperation, he decided to turn to a medicine woman for help. She told him that the only way to rid himself of the scar was to have his grandfather the Sun do it. So, he set out on an epic journey to where the Sun lived. His grandfather removed the scar and sent Star-Boy (Poia) back to his people with much knowledge including how to perform the Sun Dance (Okan) which was designed to honor his grandfather the Sun.1
Poia Lake to Redgap Pass Trailhead (6.4 miles)
These backpacking treks end all too soon. On this fourth and final day in the backcountry, we had a short hike in front of us. Most of the hike out is in the forest with limited views. However, the views that we did get were a pleasure. A bull moose feeding alongside the trail was a nice diversion for a short time.
We had been in the backcountry for three nights and almost four days and had not even seen a bear and very little sign. That came to an end. We exited at the trailhead and had only walked a short distance on the Many Glacier Road when my hiking partner yelled “Tom. . . left”. I looked left and saw nothing from my vantage point. Then about 30 to 40 feet away from behind some shrubs, a grizzly bear sow stood up. I saw at least one cub and possibly two. She hissed at me, which I thought was weird. Teeth clacking I have heard, but never hissing. I slowly increased the distance between us.
A Red Bus driver was in front of what now had become a line of cars stopped to see the bears. He pulled the bus in between us and the sow and yelled for us to pile in – which we were more than happy to do. The bear ran behind the bus not long after the door was shut. Our generous rescuer delivered us to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn parking lot where we had begun.
Guthrie, C.W. Glacier National Park: The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
Halpin, Jacqueline, Torsten Jensen, Peter McGoldrick, Sebastien Meffre, and Ron Berry. “Authigenic monazite and detrital zircon dating from the Proterozoic Rocky Cape Group, Tasmania: Links to the Belt-Purcell Supergroup, North America.”Precambrian Research. Accessed June 28, 2018. https://bit.ly/2yOCZef.
Raup, Omer, Robert Earhart, James Whipple, and Paul Carrara. Geology Along Going-to-the-Sun Road. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, 1983.
Robinson, Donald. Through the Years. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
Tucked away in a glacial valley near the eastern border of Glacier National Park is a turquoise gem curiously called Cracker Lake. To be sure, the name has a story behind it. This and the spectacular scenery make for a unique adventure.
A Brief History
From the continental divide to the plains, Glacier National Park was once part of the Blackfeet Reservation created by the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty. Ten-thousand Indians from several plains tribes gathered at the conference. Somehow word of the gathering arrived too late for the Blackfeet delegates to attend. The treaty set the Musselshell River, Missouri River, Yellowstone River, and the Rocky Mountain Range as the boundaries for the reservation.1
By executive order in 1873, President Ulysses Grant changed the boundaries, reducing the Blackfeet land. Grant received a lot of criticism over this action. Consequently, he restored their land in 1875. However, this was short-lived. By executive order in 1880, President Rutherford Hayes retook the property.1
President Benjamin Harrison signed the proclamation admitting Montana to the union on November 8, 1889. During the years 1890 to 1893, word spread like wildfire that there were abundant deposits of copper in the mountains. However, it was illegal to do any prospecting or mining on the land east of the continental divide because it was part of the Blackfeet Reservation.3
The Great Northern Railway arrived in East Glacier (Midvale) in 1891. The stage was set for miners and supplies to pour into the region.
Because of the pressure Congress received from the mining powers, President Cleveland appointed William C. Pollock, George Bird Grinnell, and Walter M. Clements to negotiate the purchase of that portion of the Blackfeet Reservation east of the continental divide to the prairies and from Canada south about 60 miles. They were successful. In 1896, the United States Congress ratified the purchase of the “Ceded Strip” for 1.5 million dollars.3
In 1897, L.S. Emmons and Hank Norris followed a mineral lead near the head of Canyon Creek. They stopped for lunch on the shore of Blue Lake. According to the famous story, they left their crackers and cheese at their lunch spot. After that, Emmons and Norris referred to the ore-bearing vein that they were following as “the lead where we left our crackers.” This eventually morphed into the cracker lead. Ultimately, Blue Lake inherited the name and became known as Cracker Lake.3
In 1898, the “Ceded Strip” opened for mining. The Cracker Mine at the head of Cracker Lake opened in the same year. Folks who hoped to profit from the mining operations built the town of Altyn near the mouth of Canyon Creek. This onetime robust little settlement got its name from Dave Altyn, one of the mine’s financial backers. At its peak, Altyn boasted a post office, saloons and dance halls, a store, a hotel, tent-houses, and cabins.2 The Bureau of Reclamation built Lake Sherburne Dam during the years 1914-1921. Now the reservoir hides this history.
The mining frenzy was short-lived. As mining experts had predicted, profitability was a pipe dream. Essentially, the bonanza ended by 1903. The Cracker Mine land exchanged hands several times over the years. Finally, the Glacier Natural History Association purchased the mine’s tax deed in September 1953 for $123.96. The Association transferred the land to the federal government in October of that year for the same amount of money.3
About four miles past the entrance station for Many Glacier, a road leads to the historic Many Glacier Hotel. Follow this road to the parking area east of the hotel. At the south end of the parking lot, the trail for Cracker Lake begins.
Know that this is prime grizzly bear habitat. In the past, park officials have also posted this trail for mountain lions. Make it a point to check the Glacier National Park Trail Status Reports before heading out. The vegetation can get thick, and there are plenty of blind curves. Make noise, hike in a group, carry bear spray where it is easily accessible. Be sure you have practiced taking the canister out of its holster and removing the safety clip.
Hikers and the Swan Mountain Outfitters’ horses share the first couple of miles of trail. It can be a muddy mess or a dusty, rutted trail with the recognizable fetor of equine deposits. After about 1.3 miles, the horses split off onto the Cracker Flats Horse Loop. This loop rejoins the trail at about 1.5 miles. The footpath improves substantially after this junction.
The trail crosses a footbridge over Allen Creek at 1.6 miles and then climbs a ridge between Allen Creek to the west and Canyon Creek to the east. From the ridge, the path descends into the Canyon Creek valley. Most of this section is in the trees. But there are glimpses of Allen Mountain to the southwest and Wynn Mountain to the east. At five miles from the trailhead, the headwall will appear to the south.
When the lake comes into view, one can’t help but pause. Cracker Lake’s milky-turquoise water, the ten-thousand-foot Mount Siyeh with its sheer north face rising over 4,000 feet from the head of Cracker Lake, and Allen Mountain to the west makes for a great photo op. Keep an eye out for mountain goats and hoary marmots.
Toward the lake’s head, the trail passes above a backcountry campground with only 3 campsites and no trees. Privacy, there is not—outstanding views without a doubt. The historic Cracker Mine site is about 0.3-miles beyond the spur trail to the campsites.
Park personnel collapsed the entrance to the 1,300-foot mine tunnel. Still, it’s obvious where the mine was located. The rusted remains of equipment lie scattered about near the lakeshore. Atlas Engine Works of Indianapolis, Indiana, made at least one piece. It boggles the mind how that enormous chunk of iron got from there to here.
Charles Nielson of East Glacier got a contract to haul the mine’s 16,000-pound concentrator from Fort Browning to the mine site. Fort Browning was a trading post on the Milk River outside the town of Dodson in eastern Montana. That is a 250 to 300-mile trip to reach the mouth of Canyon Creek. Mr. Nielson used a large freight wagon and twelve stout mules on a journey with few roads. To haul the equipment up Canyon Creek, he used a block and tackle. For this monumental task, Nielson received $25 per day. The job took 29 days.3
Many Glacier Hotel is a superb place to finish the day. The Great Northern Railway completed the construction on July 4, 1915. Spectacular panoramas to the west include Swiftcurrent Lake, the iconic Grinnell Point, and Mount Wilbur. Recent rehabilitation work has ensured that we can enjoy this National Historic Landmark for years to come.
Good company, a cool beverage, stories and quintessential Glacier. Life is good!
6 hours 8 minutes (at 2.5 miles-per-hour and allowance for elevation gain)
*Difficulty: 0-4.9 easy, 5-9.9 moderate, 10+ strenuous (For comparison: Red Rock Lake: 4.3, easy; Grinnell Lake: 8.2, moderate)
Before You Go . . .
If you’ve found this post useful, I invite you to check out my book Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road: A Traveler’s Guide. Within this MultiTouch iBook are descriptions of hikes originating along the road corridor from West Glacier to Saint Mary. Interactive maps and photo galleries are included. You’ll also find points of interest highlighted, history, and other recreational opportunities. Thanks for visiting.