Iceberg Lake

The spectacular Iceberg Lake day hike in Glacier National Park should be on your must do list while in the Many Glacier region.

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

Mount Wilbur and Iceberg Peak Guarding the Iceberg Lake Cirque, Glacier National Park
Mount Wilbur and Iceberg Peak Tower More than 3,000 Feet Above Iceberg Lake

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

The Hike

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.

Swiftcurrent Mountain, Glacier National Park
Swiftcurrent Mountain to the Southwest of the Ptarmigan Trail

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.

Iceberg Lake Cirque, Glacier National Park
Iceberg Lake Cirque

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



Iceberg Lake in July, Glacier National Park
Iceberg Lake in July

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.


End Notes

  1. Dyson, James L. The Geologic Story of Glacier National Park, Bulletin No. 3. N.p.: Glacier Natural History Association, 1957. Accessed August 31,2018.
  2. National Register of Historic Places. “Swiftcurrent Auto Camp Historic District.” Accessed August 30, 2018.

  3. Ray, Louis L. The Great Ice Age. N.p.: U.S. Geological Survey, 1992. Accessed August 30, 2018.
  4. Schultz, James W. Blackfeet Tales of Glacier National Park. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916. Accessed August 30, 2018.

Grinnell Lake

No matter how often I hike in the Many Glacier Valley among the massive chiseled crags, I am always filled with awe. The grandeur of the panorama is both exhilarating and humbling. Once on the trail, the sights, sounds, and smells that command my attention result in a restorative therapy that for me is second to none. Grinnell Lake and Hidden Falls offer an opportunity for this experience.

Getting There

At the junction of the Going-To-The-Sun Road and Highway 89 in Saint Mary, turn north toward Babb Montana then drive for about 9 miles. The junction of the Many Glacier Road and Highway 89 is just before the town of Babb. This road will follow Swiftcurrent Creek towards the west. Be aware that this road can be quite rough in several spots. Also, note that before you see the sign that indicates the border for Glacier National Park, you are traveling through land that is part of the Blackfeet Reservation. Please be respectful.

Once inside the park, the Many Glacier Road skirts the north side of Lake Sherburne. The land is now hidden by the reservoir, but in the first decade of the 1900s, oil drilling operations were in full swing. Cassidy Curve, located about 1.3 miles from the Glacier National Park border, was named for Mike Cassidy. His oil well location is now under water. Cassidy drilled from 1905 to 1909. His reward was a little natural gas which he used to heat and light his home for a few years.1

About halfway along the lake, you will come to the Many Glacier Entrance Station. After the entrance, start watching for the Many Glacier Hotel sign three miles past the entrance. Travel about one-half mile further after 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 will start.

Another option is to start at the trailhead located near the Many Glacier Hotel. The trail from there will wind its way through the heavily forested southeast sides of Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. You could end up on the trail that is used by horses. This will not be pleasant. I know this from experience.

There is a third option. It is possible to buy passage on two different launches that transport you across two different lakes. The 45-foot, 49 passenger 1960s era launch, Chief Two Guns, will take you across Swiftcurrent Lake. From the dock at the head of Swiftcurrent Lake, it is a very short walk to the dock at the foot of Lake Josephine where you can board the 45-foot, 49 passenger Morning Eagle which was built in 1945. This launch will deliver you to the head of Lake Josephine. From the Lake Josephine dock, it is about a one-mile hike to Grinnell Lake. To return, you can either hike back or catch the launches at a later time in the day. More information can be found at the Glacier Park Boat Company .

The Hike

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 really bad day quickly.

It is 3.6 miles and a modest 160 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.

Beargrass Along Lake Josephine, Glacier National Park, Many Glacier region
Beargrass Along Lake Josephine: (clockwise) Ridge of Allen Mountain, Mount Gould, Angel Wing, Ridge of Grinnell Point

The Grinnell Glacier Trail will guide you along the north shore of Lake Josephine. Views to the south across Lake Josephine 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, keep an eye out for the Bead Lily. The single white blossom is on display from June to July. Later, a single glossy blueberry is displayed proudly at the top of a stem. It might look tempting, especially to children, but don’t eat the berry.

Stay on the Grinnell Glacier Trail for 2.1 miles. There you will encounter a junction that will allow you to proceed toward Grinnell Lake. Turn left off of the Grinnell Glacier 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 junction 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 another junction. Watch carefully 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.

Grinnell 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 thunders 960 feet carrying meltwater from Grinnell Glacier.3 Mount Grinnell rises 3,800 feet above the lake to the north.

Grinnell Lake with Grinnell Falls, Glacier National Park, Many Glacier region
Grinnell Lake with Grinnell Falls

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 on His Glacier
Grinnell on His Glacier – Courtesy of National Park Service

Grinnell was a friend of Teddy Roosevelt and also a prominent figure 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

There are several options. Backtrack and see the view that was to your back earlier in the day. Or, from the last junction, follow the trail that borders the south side of Lake Josephine to the head of Swiftcurrent Lake and then to the Many Glacier Picnic area.

If you made arrangements earlier, board the Morning Eagle at the head of Lake Josephine and enjoy the cruise. Disembark at the foot of the lake and follow the Grinnell Glacier Trail to the picnic area.


End Notes

  1. Robinson, Donald. Through the Years. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier NaturalHistory Association, 1973.
  1. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. “George Bird Grinnell.” Accessed June 28, 2018.
  1. World Waterfall Database. “Grinnell Falls.” Accessed June 28, 2018.

Ptarmigan Tunnel, Red Gap Pass Loop

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.

Elizabeth Lake from the Ptarmigan Trail, Glacier National Park
Elizabeth Lake from the Ptarmigan Trail

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, Glacier National Park
Ptarmigan Lake

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).

North Door of Ptarmigan Tunnel, Glacier National Park
Ptarmigan Tunnel on the North Side of the Ptarmigan Wall

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

Ripple marks in red rock of Grinnell Formation
Ripple Marks in Red Rock of the Grinnell Formation

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)

Mount Merritt and Old Sun Glacier, Glacier National Park
Mount Merritt and Old Sun Glacier

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.

Elizabeth Lake, Glacier National Park
Elizabeth Lake

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.

Arctic Grayling
Arctic Grayling Courtesy of Andrew Gilham USFWS

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)

Helen Lake, Glacier National Park
Helen Lake

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.

Red Gap Pass, Glacier National Park
Red Gap Pass

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.

Poia Lake, Glacier National Park
Poia Lake

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.

Red Bus Driver Glacier National Park
Quick Thinking Red Bus Driver

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.

End Notes

  1. First People. “The Story of Poia – A Blackfoot Legend.” Accessed June 28, 2018.
  2. Guthrie, C.W. Glacier National Park: The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
  3. 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.
  4. Raup, Omer, Robert Earhart, James Whipple, and Paul Carrara. Geology Along Going-to-the-Sun Road. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, 1983.
  5. Robinson, Donald. Through the Years. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
  6. Tapanila, Lori, and Paul Link. “Mesoproterozoic Belt Supergroup.” Idaho State University. Accessed June 28, 2018.

Cracker Lake

The Cracker Lake hike is one of those must-do hikes in the Many Glacier region of Glacier National Park. The scenery at the lake is spectacular and the history surrounding this unique area only adds to the day’s adventure.

Cracker Lake and Mount Siyeh, Glacier National Park, Many Glacier region
Cracker Lake and Mount Siyeh

A Brief History

Glacier National Park, from the continental divide to the plains, was once part of the Blackfeet Reservation created by the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty. It seems that word of the gathering arrived too late in order for Blackfeet delegates to attend the treaty gathering. However, 10,000 other Indians from several plains tribes were in attendance. The Musselshell River, Missouri River, Yellowstone River, and the Rocky Mountain Range were set as the boundaries for the Blackfeet Reservation.

By executive order in 1873, President Ulysses Grant changed the boundaries of the reservation thereby reducing the Blackfeet land. Grant received quite a bit of pressure over this action. Consequently, the land was restored in 1875. But, this was short lived. The land was taken away again in 1880 by the executive order of President Rutherford Hayes.

President Benjamin Harrison signed the proclamation admitting Montana to the union on November 8, 1889. During the period of 1890 to 1893, word spread like wildfire that there were rich deposits of copper to be found in the mountains. Of course, 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. The Great Northern Railroad arrived in East Glacier (Midvale) in 1891. The stage was set for miners and supplies to pour into the region.

Due to mounting pressure from the mining community, Congress appointed William C. Pollock, George Bird Grinnell, and Walter M. Clements to negotiate the purchase of the portion of the Blackfeet Reservation east of the continental divide to the prairies and from Canada south about 60 miles. They were successful. The United States Congress ratified the purchase of the “Ceded Strip” for 1.5 million dollars in 1896.

In the year 1897, L.S. Emmons and Hank Norris were following a mineral lead located near the head of Canyon Creek. They stopped for lunch on the shore of what was then known as Blue Lake. According to the popular story, they left their crackers and cheese at their lunch spot. Thereafter, they referred to the lead that they were following as “the lead where we left our crackers”. This eventually morphed into the cracker lead. It happens that the lead went under Blue Lake. Eventually, the lake inherited the name of the lead and became known as Cracker Lake.

In 1898, the “Ceded Strip” was opened for mining. The Cracker Mine at the head of Cracker Lake opened in the same year. The town of Altyn was built near the mouth of Canyon Creek largely because of the mine. This one-time robust little town was named for Dave Altyn, one of the financial backers of the mine. At its peak, Altyn boasted a post office, saloons and dance halls, a store, a hotel, tent-houses, and cabins. The Lake Sherburne dam was constructed in the years 1914-1921. Now the reservoir hides this local history.

Old Mining Town of Altyn
Old Mining Town of Altyn 1888 – 1902, Courtesy of Glacier National Park

The mining frenzy was short lived. As mining experts had predicted, little to no minerals were found. For all practical purposes, the bonanza was finished by 1903. The Cracker Mine land exchanged hands several times over the years. Finally, the tax deed was obtained in September 1953 by the Glacier Natural History History Association for $123.96. The Association transferred the land to the federal government in October of that year for the same amount of money.



The Hike

The out and back to Cracker Lake starts behind the Many Glacier Hotel at the south end of the parking lot near the horse stables. The park shows the mileage as 6.4 miles one way. However, I would suggest continuing on to the head of the lake to view the Cracker Mine ruins. This increases the one-way distance to 7 miles. The total elevation gain is 1,400 feet. Plan on six to seven hours for the round trip to allow for sauntering, exploring, picture taking, eating, etc.

Know that this is prime grizzly bear habitat and the Cracker Lake Trail is well known for its bears, especially during berry season. The trail has also been posted for mountain lions. Make it a point to check the Glacier National Park Trail Status Reports. The vegetation can get thick and there are plenty of blind curves. Make a lot of noise, hike in a group, carry bear spray where it is easily and quickly accessible. And, be sure that you have practiced taking the canister out of its holster and removing the safety clip.

Grizzly Bear
Grizzly Bear Courtesy of Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith

The first couple of miles of trail are shared with the Swan Mountain Outfitter horses. Consequently, 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 trail improves substantially after this junction.

The trail crosses a footbridge over Allen Creek at 1.6 miles and then climbs up a ridge. Allen Creek is to the west of the ridge and Canyon Creek to the east. To the west is the behemoth Allen Mountain and Wynn Mountain to the east. Canyon Creek, which flows from Cracker Lake, is crossed at about 4 miles.  At five miles from the trailhead, views of the headwall will come into view.

20130710_GNP_MG_bridgeCanyon Ck300x225
Canyon Creek Bridge

There is a great overlook about 6 miles from the trailhead. The magnificent milky turquoise water of Cracker Lake, the ten-thousand-foot, Mount Siyeh, with its sheer north face rising more than 4,000 feet from the head of Cracker Lake, and Allen Mountain to the west makes for a memorable photo op. Keep an eye out for mountain goats and hoary marmots.

The backcountry campground is below the trail that leads to the head of the lake and the old Cracker Mine site. There are only 3 campsites and no trees. Privacy there is not. Outstanding views without a doubt.

Cracker Lake Backcountry Campground, Glacier National Park, Many Glacier region
Cracker Lake Backcountry Campground


Cracker Mine

The adit for the 1,300-foot mine tunnel has been collapsed, but it is pretty obvious where the mine was located. The rusted remains of equipment can be seen down toward the lake shore. One piece of equipment that I found, was made by Atlas Engine Works of Indianapolis, Indiana.

Cracker Mine Atlas Mining Works Steam Engine Parts
Cracker Mine Steam Engine Parts from Atlas Mining Works
Cracker Mine Steam Engine Boiler, Glacier National Park, Many Glacier region
Cracker Mine Steam Engine Boiler

Charles Nielson of East Glacier was contracted to haul the mine’s 16,000-pound concentrator from Fort Browning to the mine site. I assumed that Fort Browning was located somewhere close to Browning Montana. After I did a little research, I found that Fort Browning was a trading post located on the Milk River outside the town of Dodson in eastern Montana. That is no less than a 250 to 300-mile trip just to arrive at the mouth of Canyon Creek. Mr. Nielson used a large freight wagon and twelve stout mules on a trip where there was little in the way of roads. Block and tackle were used to haul the equipment up Canyon Creek. For this monumental task, he was paid $25 per day. The job took 29 days.



The Return

Many Glacier Hotel Past and Present, Glacier National Park
Many Glacier Hotel Past and Present

The Many Glacier Hotel is an excellent spot to finish the day. The Great Northern Railroad 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 this National Historic Landmark can be enjoyed for years to come.

Good company, a cool beverage, stories and quintessential Glacier. Life is good!