Siyeh Pass

Location and Planning

On the east side of the Continental Divide, within the Lewis Mountain Range of Glacier National Park, lies the spectacular hike to Siyeh Pass. At 7,750 feet (2,362 meters), the pass is on one of the highest maintained paths in the park. It’s not unusual for snow to linger into late July or early August.

The hike described below begins at Siyeh Bend which is 2.8 miles (4.5 kilometers) east of Logan Pass and 15.2 miles (24.5 kilometers) west of Saint Mary, Montana. One can also enter the hike at the Jackson Glacier Overlook or Sunrift Gorge. However, beginning at those locations, the mileage or elevation gains will make your work a little harder.

The hike is a point-to-point trip. So, getting back to your vehicle requires a little planning. One can park their car at Siyeh Bend and then at the end of the hike catch the westbound Glacier National Park free shuttle from Sunrift Gorge back. Consider if waiting up to an hour for your ride after a day of hiking is okay. Some folks prefer their vehicle waiting (with cold beverages and snacks) at the exit point. If that’s the case, park at Sunrift Gorge and catch the shuttle to Siyeh Bend. Glacier maintains a helpful “Shuttle Stops” webpage for planning.

Bring plenty of water and fuel for your body since you’ll be out at least five to six hours. You’ll cross the headwaters of Siyeh Creek while walking through Preston Park on the way to the switchbacks. This is a great place to filter water.

Glacier National Park, Preston Park
Headwaters of Siyeh Creek in Preston Park. Mount Siyeh in the background.

The beautiful meadows of Preston Park are also grizzly bear haunts. Bear spray is a necessity. Keep the canister where it is readily available and be sure to know how and when to use it. When coming to a blind curve or dense growth of trees and shrubs, let the bear know where you are by making a noise loud enough to be heard over the infamous strong winds that frequent the area. A surprised bear is not in anyone’s best interest.

Siyeh Bend Cut-Off Trail

At the trailhead, facing upstream, Piegan Mountain rises to your left. On your right is Going-to-the-Sun Mountain followed by Matahpi Peak to the north. If you face downstream, there are two glaciers in the distance. Once one mass of flowing ice but now two, Jackson Glacier sits to the right and Blackfoot Glacier on the left.

The Siyeh Cut-Off Trail strikes out alongside Siyeh Creek. Soon after getting underway, look for rounded knobs with diameters ranging from that of an orange to a volleyball rising out of the rock underfoot. These are the tops of mound-like stromatolites created by single-celled photosynthetic cyanobacteria over a billion years ago. The organisms lived in the shallows of the ancient Belt Sea much as they do today in Shark Bay, Australia. Stromatolites, 3.5 billion years on our planet, are the oldest evidence of life. It’s thought they played a significant role in increasing the concentration of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere.⁷

Glacier National Park Stromatolite
Stromatolite

The Cut-Off Trail climbs 1.2 miles (1.9 kilometers) through a spruce and subalpine fir forest on its way to the Piegan Pass Trail. From July to August, the white umbrella-shaped flower clusters of cow parsnips are on display. When their hollow stems are still succulent, grizzly bears feast on them. 

Glacier National Park, Cow Parsnip
Cow Parsnip

At the trail junction, turn left onto the Piegan Pass Trail. Going right will lead to the Jackson Glacier Overlook along the Going-to-the-Sun Road. As you move north, views of Piegan Glacier nestled in a northeast-facing cirque and Mount Siyeh to the north continue to improve. After 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers), look for the Siyeh Pass Trail junction on your right.

Preston Park and Siyeh Pass

From the junction, it is two miles (3.2 kilometers) to the pass. But before the significant elevation gain starts, the footpath leads through a small valley with meadows interspersed among stands of stunted subalpine fir. As soon as the snow is off, the floral displays begin and last through August. This is Preston Park. 

Glacier National Park, Preston Park
Looking west from Preston Park. Glacial horn of Reynolds Mountain, Piegan Mountain, and its glacier. Flowers: deep blue explorer’s gentian, yellow parasitic parrot’s beak, and pink fireweed.

The final push to reach the 7,750-foot ( 2,362 meters) pass happens via several switchbacks. Mount Siyeh fills the view to the north. To the northeast, trail deficient Boulder Creek Valley appears as your altitude increases. A cone-shaped pile of rocks marks the pass.

Glacier National Park, Boulder Creek Valley
Boulder Creek Valley

During the late 1920s, Great Northern Railway (GNR) paid workers to place locomotive bells at Piegan, Siyeh, Swiftcurrent Passes, and Scenic Point. It was a promotional gimmick based on an old Swiss custom of climbers and hikers producing a clear musical note when they reached a pass or summit. In the fall of 1943, GNR removed the bells and donated them to the World War II scrap metal drive.⁶ The short bell tower base is intact at Piegan Pass. However, all that remains at Siyeh and Swiftcurrent Passes are piles of rocks. If there are remnants at Scenic Point, I’ve missed them.

Glaciers

Look to the west after crossing the pass. Sexton Glacier lies in a crescent-shaped cirque linking Matahpi Peak and Going-to-the-Sun Mountain. Glacial meltwater becomes the slave of gravity, creating beautiful waterfalls crashing over 1,000 feet (305 meters) supplying the water which forms Baring Creek. 

Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Mountain and Sexton Glacier
Going-to-the-Sun Mountain and Sexton Glacier from a flank of Matahpi Peak.

Scientists estimate that Sexton Glacier and the other 25 glaciers in the park are 7,000 years old.⁵ They are not remnants of the Pleistocene Epoch’s Great Ice Age that began around 2 million years ago. During the Pleistocene, flowing ice filled the valleys of Glacier and carved the spectacular landscape features we enjoy. It ended 12,000 years ago.⁴

Glacier National Park’s glaciers peaked during the Little Ice Age in the mid-1800s. Then, 146 glaciers existed. A massive 2,000 acre (809 hectares) body of moving ice occupied the enormous cirque between Mount Logan and Mount Jackson. Today, after losing over 70% of its ice, two smaller glaciers remain, Blackfoot and Jackson.¹

Sexton Glacier covered an area 43% larger in the 1800s than it does today. Piegan Glacier is 21% smaller.¹

There’s not enough snowpack to counteract the upward trend in temperature. Even with natural weather fluctuations, the Earth has warmed about 1.5 °F over the last 100 years. Northwest Montana has warmed about twice that rate.² This rate of increase is higher than any in the previous 800,000 years.³

Baring Creek Drainage

A significant snowfield on the south side of the pass can persist well into summer. It’s steep. During the early part of past summers, Glacier National Park trail officials have recommended an ice ax, crampons, and the skills to self-arrest.

Glacier National Park, Baring Creek Valley
Baring Creek hemmed in by Goat Mountain on the left and Going-to-the-Sun Mountain on the right. Saint Mary Lake and the trailhead in the distance.

In the first two miles beyond the pass, the trail drops over 1,000 feet (305 meters) in elevation through a series of switchbacks. After this descent eases up, keep an eye out for huckleberries along the trail. Late July until early August should be the best time to find this unique and delicious fruit. Eating huckleberries off the bush while taking in world-class vistas makes for memories which are hard to erase.

Little Chief, Mahtotopa, and Red Eagle Mountains on the far side of Saint Mary Lake become harder to ignore as their size appears to increase while the trail nears its end. About one mile from the trailhead and close to the footpath, Baring Creek tumbles over red rock of the Grinnell Formation. It’s well worth the time to sit by the stream and take this in for a while.

Glacier National Park, Cascades on Baring Creek
Baring Creek Cascades

When I hear the traffic on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, I’m disappointed that the trip is over but very thankful that it happened at all.

Siyeh Pass Hike: Distances and Elevation Changes

Trail SectionDistanceElevation
Siyeh Bend to Siyeh Pass4.6 mi/7.4 km2,240 ft/683 m (gain)
Siyeh Pass to Sunrift Gorge5.5 mi/8.9 km3,440 ft/1,049 m (loss)

Notes

  1. “Area of the Named Glaciers of Glacier National Park and Flathead National Forest including Little Ice Age Extent, and Years 1966, 1998, 2005, 2015.” United States Geological Survey. Accessed August 8, 2019. https://www.usgs.gov/data-tools/area-named-glaciers-glacier-national-park-gnp-and-flathead-national-forest-fnf-including.
  2. “Climate Change.” Glacier National Park, National Park Service. Last modified April , 2019. Accessed August 9, 2019. https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/nature/climate-change.htm.
  3. “How is Today’s Warming Different from the Past?.” NASA Earth Observatory. Last modified June , 2010. Accessed August 9, 2019. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/features/GlobalWarming/page3.php.
  4. Raup, Omer B., Robert L. Earhart, James W. Whipple, and Paul E. Carrara. Geology Along Going-to-the-Sun Road Glacier National Park, Montana. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, 1983.
  5. “Retreat of Glaciers in Glacier National Park.” USGS: Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center. Accessed August 1, 2019. https://www.usgs.gov/centers/norock/science/retreat-glaciers-glacier-national-park?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects.
  6. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years: in Glacier National Park. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
  7.  “The History of Life on Earth.” Department of Astronomy, Indiana University. Accessed March 25, 2019. http://www.astro.indiana.edu/gsimonel/build/History_of_Life.pdf.

Gunsight Pass Trail, Point-to-Point Hike

A classic Glacier National Park hike – two mountain passes, two mountain lakes, fishing, incredible scenery, and wildlife.

The Trailhead

Part of the fun of this hike is driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road to reach the Gunsight Pass Trailhead. The scenery is spectacular. Descriptions and pictures don’t provide a complete sense of what the men who carved this road into cliffs had to overcome. Driving it sure does!

In the fall of 1932, after 30 years of work, the first vehicle traveled over the entire length of this 50 mile national, historic, engineering marvel. However, it was not until 1952 that the road was completely paved. Traveling this trans-mountain road through glacial valleys and over glacially sculpted mountains is a terrific experience.

If you are traveling from the east, the Gunsight Pass Trailhead is about 13.2 miles from the Saint Mary Visitor Center. This route will take you through part of the 2015 Reynolds Creek Fire that burned 4,850 acres. Traveling from the west, you will find the trailhead about 4.3 miles east of Logan Pass.

Whether you make this a long day point to point hike or several day backpack trip, vehicle logistics will take some thought. Glacier National Park does have a free shuttle system. But, if you plan on hiking the 20.6 miles in one shot and maybe enjoy some fishing at Lake Ellen Wilson, you are looking at an 11 to 13 hour day. This could make using the shuttle a little tricky.

By the time you finish this challenging yet very rewarding hike through the landscape that will give you a feeling of awe, you will not only have put close to 21 miles on your boots, but you will also climb a total of 3,370 feet and descend a total of 5,450 feet.



Trailhead to Gunsight Lake

The trail starts at about 5,300 feet in elevation. Without much hesitation, it descends 665 feet in about 1.1 miles to Reynolds Creek and Deadwood Falls. The red rock through which Reynolds Creek cuts is of the Grinnell Formation formed from sediment deposited in the shallow water environment of the ancient Belt Sea during the Middle Proterozoic Eon over one billion years ago.6

The Gunsight Pass Trail Junction is another 500 feet beyond the falls. Keep to the right to continue on to the pass. The trail leads you to a long single hiker suspension bridge over Reynolds Creek and then to the Reynolds Creek two site backcountry campground. The Gunsight Trail continues up the Saint Mary River Valley in a general southwest direction.

Even though you will be walking through a lot of forest on this portion of the trail, there will be openings where grand views will present themselves. One such opportunity provides a picturesque view to the south of lush grassy meadows surrounding Mirror Pond with the 9,030 foot Citadel Mountain in the background. It is not uncommon for a moose to wander into this scene.

Consider bringing rain pants, a raincoat, and an extra pair of socks. This section of the trip is brushy. Morning dew or a recent rain can leave enough water on the vegetation to soak the early hiker.

The junction for the trail to Florence Falls is about 4.2 miles from the trailhead. The spur trail to the falls is 0.8 miles and can be overgrown with thick vegetation like thimbleberries and cow parsnips. According to the World Waterfall Database, Florence Falls drops 800 feet, but only the lower 440 feet can be seen from where the trail ends.8 That 440 feet of cascading water is a pretty sweet sight though. The entire falls can be seen from Sun Point on Saint Mary Lake.

The trail starts climbing the southwest flank of 8,750-foot Fusillade Mountain as it ascends to Gunsight Lake. About one mile past the Florence Falls junction, the path emerges from the trees to reveal the majestic 10,052 foot Mount Jackson. George Bird Grinnell named this mountain after William Jackson who was the grandson of Hugh Monroe. Hugh Monroe worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company and is believed to be the first white to explore the country that is now Glacier National Park. Jackson was also a scout for Captain Reno at the time of the Custer Battle on the Little Bighorn.7

Situated on the northeast side of Mount Jackson is the 200-acre Jackson Glacier. Jackson is the 7th largest glacier of the 26 remaining glaciers in the Park. To the east of Jackson Glacier is the 400 acre Blackfoot Glacier which is the 2nd largest glacier of the 26. Both of these were once one. In 1850, this one glacier covered 1,875 acres.

Today’s relatively small moving masses of ice are not the remnants from the Great Ice Age of the Pleistocene Epoch (two million to about 12,000 years ago). The valley filling glaciers from that age are to be given credit for the beautiful mountain sculpting for which Glacier National Park is famous. The glaciers we enjoy today had their origin about 6,000 to 8,000 years ago and probably increased the most during the Little Ice Age which started about 400 to 500 years ago and ended in 1850.1

According to Dr. Dan Fagre, a USGS Research Ecologist in Glacier National Park, this area is experiencing a rise in temperature that is about two times the global average rise in air temperature.2 Paleoclimate research has revealed that the climate warming today is happening much more rapidly than the changes of the last two million years. NASA Earth Observatory states that interglacial warming during the past two million years averaged 5 ℃ over 5,000 year periods. The predicted rate for the next 100 years is at least twenty times that rate.3

When President Taft signed the bill in 1910 making Glacier the 10th national park, there were an estimated 150 glaciers. Today there are 26. One computer model predicts all of the glaciers will be gone by 2030.2

About 0.5 miles before Gunsight Lake, you will cross an extensive debris field that was deposited by a massive avalanche during the winter of 2010/2011. The trail has since been improved. So, no bushwacking should be necessary.

At the lake, you will find the backcountry campground which has six sites, three of which can be reserved. The camp usually opens around July 15. Look toward the head of the lake and enjoy the majesty of Gunsight Mountain (9,258 feet) and Mount Jackson (10,052 feet). The low point in between the two summits is Gunsight Pass (6,946 feet). Gunsight Lake is at 5,351 feet.

Gunsight Lake Looking Toward Gunsight Pass, Glacier National Park
Gunsight Lake Looking Toward Gunsight Pass

During 1910 to 1912, the Great Northern Railway (GNR) established a tent camp for its guests coming and going from the Sperry Chalets and Saint Mary. From 1910 to 1911, GNR constructed the Gunsight Lake Chalets including a dining hall/kitchen and a 50 guest lodge at a location between the backcountry campground and the lake outlet near the shoreline. These opened in 1911.5

Sometimes things are just not meant to be. During the offseason of 1913 to 1914, the dining room building suffered significant damage from a hungry grizzly bear. The loss was repaired. Then, sometime in March of 1916, buildings were destroyed in an avalanche. Reconstruction never happened.


Gunsight Lake to Lake Ellen Wilson

I think that I had a constant smile on my face during this section of the hike. We left behind the shores of Gunsight Lake and continued on across a long suspension bridge which spanned the Saint Mary River. My lungs demanded a lot of the pristine alpine air as we climbed the 2.8 miles and 1,595 feet to Gunsight Pass. At the same time, my eyes provided a nice distraction as they fed my brain with jaw-dropping beauty as we gained altitude along the northern flank of Mount Jackson. Gunsight Lake shrunk below us. Waterfalls were thundering down rock faces, sometimes hundreds of feet, to the north and south of us.

Saint Mary River at the Outlet of Gunsight Lake, Glacier National Park
Saint Mary River at the Outlet of Gunsight Lake

There are several snowfields below the pass that can persist well into August. Some are steep and need to be negotiated with caution especially early in the summer. Check the Glacier National Park trail report. If they recommend an ice-ax and crampons, take it seriously. Be sure to know how to use the equipment properly. Sliding down the frozen face of a steep snowfield toward a cliff is not the ideal time to learn how to self-arrest.

Trail Above Gunsight Lake, Glacier National Park
Trail Above Gunsight Lake

Upon arriving at Gunsight Pass (6,946 feet), you will be treated to views of Lake Ellen Wilson far below to the southwest, Gunsight Lake to the northeast, Gunsight Mountain to the north, and Mount Jackson to the south. The rock shelter there was built about the same time that the Going-to-the-Sun Road was completed in the early 1930s. It was constructed for a cost of $638 to provide a safe haven in times of severe weather for those traveling between the Sperry Chalet and Saint Mary.4 It is evident that maintenance has been kept up.

Gunsight Pass Shelter Cabin, Glacier National Park
Gunsight Pass Shelter Cabin

Don’t be fooled by the apparent amiable nature of the mountain goats that are likely to be encountered at the pass. Some can be a bit clingy. The apparent lack of fear is a red flag for me. It may be my imagination, but their behavior is a little different than those that I have encountered in other parts of the park. The photo opportunities are excellent though.

Gunsight Pass Mountain Goats, Glacier National Park
August and Winter Coat Still Hanging On

Gunsight Pass is about 9.3 miles from the trailhead and close to the halfway mark. From the pass, the trail descends 1,017 feet on its way to Lake Ellen Wilson. The trail distance is about 1.7 miles from the pass to the trail junction that leads to the backcountry campground at Ellen Wilson. There is a beautiful little waterfall and stream that the trail crosses toward the bottom of the descent. On our trip, we met a group of mountain goats that were coming up the path and wanted to cross the stream at the same place as us. There was no negotiation. We stepped off of the trail a reasonable distance and let them pass.

Lake Ellen Wilson belongs to a glacial cirque at 5,929 feet elevation. She is a little over a mile long and about one-half mile wide. According to Fishes of Glacier National Park Conservation Bulletin Number 22, the only fish species in Lake Ellen Wilson is the Eastern Brook Trout. I can attest to the fact that they will rise to a fly. The backcountry camp has four sites of which two can be reserved. The camp usually opens around August 1.

Lake Ellen Wilson, Glacier National Park
Lake Ellen Wilson

The outlet empties into Lincoln Lake 0.25 miles away as a bird flies, but only after a spectacular 1,300-foot drop. Beaver Chief Falls is the name given to these thundering cascades. This picturesque lake was named in honor of President Woodrow Wilson’s first wife who died in 1914, the year following her husband’s inauguration.7


Lake Ellen Wilson to Lake McDonald Lodge Parking Lot

The hike from the Lake Ellen Wilson backcountry campground trail junction to Lincoln Pass is 2.3 miles and 1,121 feet of elevation gain. The pass, at 7,050 feet, is the highest point along this hike. From the pass, it is an easy 1.2 miles with 550 feet of elevation loss to the Sperry Chalet. If luck is with you, there may be some freshly baked huckleberry pie left for purchase at the kitchen and dining hall.

The two-story Sperry Chalet and the separate dining room/kitchen were completed in 1913 by the Great Northern Railway. They are built of native stone which was quarried from a talus slope behind the buildings and extending to the south. Both of the buildings are National Historic Landmarks. The only other remaining backcountry hotel in the park is the Granite Park Chalet situated on the Garden Wall.

The Sperry Chalet was named for Dr. Lyman B. Sperry from Oberlin College in Ohio. The gentleman explorer and ardent supporter of the national park concept led the first group of people to the glacier that now bears his name in 1896. He also negotiated a deal with the Great Northern Railroad to provide transportation to and from the park, tents, food, and supplies for himself and students. In return, during the seasons of 1902 and 1903, he and the volunteer students built a trail from Lake McDonald to Gunsight Pass with a spur trail to Sperry Glacier.7

On August 17, 2017, the Sperry Chalet was gutted by the 16,000-acre Sprague Fire. Reconstruction is now underway and is anticipated to be completed by the end of the 2019 summer.

Sperry Chalet June 2018, Glacier National Park
Sperry Chalet June 2018 One Week Before Construction Crews Due To Arrive

A notable side trip from the chalet complex is the 2.7 mile, 1,500-foot climb to Comeau Pass and then another half mile from the pass to view the glacier. Allow at least six hours for a round trip.

Once you leave the chalet en route to the Lake McDonald Lodge parking lot, it is a 3,286-foot elevation drop over 6.1 miles. Your knees may whine a little by the time the trailhead arrives. The route is mostly in the trees along the Sprague Creek drainage on the south side of Mount Edwards and Mount Brown.

A great way to cap off an extraordinary day of hiking is with a refreshing beverage on the terrace of the historic lodge overlooking Lake McDonald.


End Notes

  1. Fagre, Daniel B. “History of Glaciers in Glacier National Park.” U.S. Geological Survey. Accessed September 8, 2018. https://www.usgs.gov/centers/norock/science/history-glaciers-glacier-national-park?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects.
  2. Fagre, Daniel B., and Lisa McKeon. “Retreat of Glaciers in Glacier National Park.” U.S. Geological Survey. Accessed September 8, 2018. https://www.usgs.gov/centers/norock/science/retreat-glaciers-glacier-national-park?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects.
  3. NASA Earth Observatory. “How is Today’s Warming Different from the Past?.” Accessed September 8, 2018. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/GlobalWarming/page3.php.
  4. National Archives Catalog. “Montana MPS Gunsight Pass Shelter.” Accessed September 8, 2018. https://catalog.archives.gov/id/71974944.
  5. National Park Architecture Society. “Gunsight Chalets.” Accessed September 8, 2018. http://www.nplas.org/gunsight.html.
  6. Raup, Omer B., Robert L. Earhart, James W. Whipple, and Paul E. Carrara. “Geology Along Going-to-the-Sun Road Glacier National Park, Montana.” Glacier Natural History Association.
  7. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, 1973.
  8. World Waterfall Database. “Florence Falls.” Accessed September 8, 2018. https://www.worldwaterfalldatabase.com/waterfall/Florence-Falls-748.

Sun Point Waterfall Hike

Over 100 years ago, guests staying at the former Going-to-the-Sun Chalets on Saint Mary Lake delighted in a hike to three beautiful waterfalls.1 Early in the season, my wife and I retraced the footsteps of those early visitors who invested considerable time and money to visit this incredibly beautiful place in the newly created Glacier National Park.

Finding the Trailhead

This hike begins at the renovated Sun Point picnic area, trailhead, and shuttle stop. From the west entrance to the park, it is 40 miles up and over Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The drive is only 10 miles from the east entrance.

As you stand in the picnic area facing the restroom facilities, the sidewalk to the right will lead you down to the Sun Point Nature Trail. Walk down this trail a short distance, and there will be a junction. Go left to reach Sun Point.

There is another way to Sun Point which is the path that we followed. The sidewalk going to the left of the restroom will intersect with a trail that will lead you up the east side of the rocky bluff that juts into Saint Mary Lake. This is Sun Point.

Before you hit the trail, be sure that you have your bear-spray where you can access it quickly.


Going-to-the-Sun Chalets

The rock perch 100 feet above the surface of Saint Mary Lake was the location chosen for the Swiss-style chalets which were constructed during the years 1912 to 1915. Sun Camp, the informal name for the complex, accommodated 200 guests. These adventurers could only reach this impressive place by boat or packhorse. It was expensive and took a considerable amount of time to get there.1

Going-to-the-Sun Chalets and Boat Launch on St. Mary Lake, ca 1914. Photograph by R.E. Marble
Going-to-the-Sun Chalets and Boat Launch on St. Mary Lake, ca 1914. Photograph by R.E. Marble

The panorama to the west of Sun Point has never become commonplace for me. I am filled with awe when viewing the sheer rock faces of the three glacially carved mountains, Mahtotopa, Little Chief, and Dusty Star. These three massive peaks seem to be on a collision course with the pristine waters of the lake. In the distance, to the west, is the spire of Fusillade Mountain with a long thin silver ribbon to its north which is Florence Falls. To the northwest and monopolizing the skyline is Going-to-the-Sun Mountain.

Fusillade Mountain: Named by George Bird Grinnell in 1891 as a satirical gesture at W.H. Seward and Henry L. Stimson for firing a futile volley at a group of goats on the side of this mountain.2

 

Going-to-the-Sun Mountain from Sun Point, Glacier National Park
Going-to-the-Sun Mountain from Sun Point

After the Going-to-the-Sun Road was dedicated in 1933, Sun Camp slowly began to lose business much to the surprise of those who predicted just the opposite. The perceived value connected to the difficulty reaching such a magnificent and isolated place had dwindled. During World War II the buildings fell into disrepair and were finally razed in 1948.1


 


The Hike

The total distance from Sun Point to Virginia Falls is 3.2 miles. If you don’t feel like making the entire return trip, there are three spur trails along the way that will allow you to access the Going-to-the-Sun Road and shuttle stops. From these locations, you can catch a free ride back to your vehicle. Be sure to make a note of these junctions as you pass them.

There is also the option of arranging for a boat ride from the Glacier Park Boat Company dock near Baring Falls to the Rising Sun dock and then using the free shuttles to get back to Sun Point. Finishing a great hike with a cruise on the historic 45-foot Little Chief built in 1926 would be a treat.

From Sun Point, walk west. This will put you on a nearly level path which follows the north shore of Saint Mary Lake for a while. At almost 10 miles long and 300 feet deep, this is the second largest body of water in Glacier National Park. Surprisingly, it is 1,500 feet higher in elevation than the largest lake in the park, Lake McDonald.

St. Mary Lake and Lower St. Mary Lake have had more than one name. The Piegan Indians called these lakes the “Walled-in Lakes,” while the Kootenais called them “Old Woman Lakes.”2

After only 0.8 miles, Baring Falls is the first of the three gems that you will experience. The bridge downstream from the falls offers photo opportunities, and there is also a short path that will give you different vantage points closer to the falls. Use caution around the wet rocks.

Baring Falls, Glacier National Park
Baring Falls

After leaving Baring Falls, a stroll of 1.6 miles will put you at Saint Mary Falls. Along the way, you will get to witness the regeneration of the forest that is happening following the 4,458-acre Reynolds Creek Fire of 2015. It didn’t take long for the next generation of trees and wildflowers to introduce themselves.

Life Begins Again After Reynolds Creek Fire, Glacier National Park
Life Begins Again After Reynolds Creek Fire

You will probably hear the cascades before you see them. There is a bridge that crosses the Saint Mary River just below the falls. This very accessible location can get crowded, but there is a small area on the far side of the bridge where you may be able to enjoy a snack and snap a few pictures. If it’s a hot day, the cold rush of air and the mist from the thundering water is a bonus.

Saint Mary Falls, Glacier National Park
Saint Mary Falls

Fewer people continue on to Virginia Falls. However, these spectacular waterfalls are only 0.8 miles beyond Saint Mary Falls, but it does include a climb of 285 feet in elevation. This short trail section is also part of the Continental Divide Trail.

As you approach the falls, you will come to a trail junction. Going to the left will keep you on the Continental Divide Trail. Take the right fork for a short distance to get up close and personal with the falls. Be very careful because the rocks can be extremely slick. More injuries and deaths in Glacier National Park are associated with water and the adjacent slippery stones than any other cause.

Virginia Falls. Courtesy of Glacier National Park. Photograph by Tim Rains.
Virginia Falls. Courtesy of Glacier National Park. Photograph by Tim Rains.

The hikers of the early 1900s had the Sun Camp dining room waiting for them at the end of the day. Even though it won’t be there for you, Two Dog Flats Grill at Rising Sun, just down the road from the Sun Point turn-off, offers casual fare and refreshing beverages.


End Notes

  1. “Going-to-the-Sun Chalets.” National Park Lodge Architecture Society, National Park Lodge Architecture Society, 2009, http://www.nplas.org/goingtothesun.html. Accessed 20 Aug. 2018.
  2. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years. 5th ed.: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.

Piegan Pass Through-Hike

Finding the Trailhead

Many Glacier and the Going-to-the-Sun Road are the two most common starting points for accessing Piegan Pass. This blog will describe a trip beginning at the trailhead on Siyeh Bend, 2.2 miles east of Logan Pass, and ending at the Many Glacier Hotel. The total distance is about 13 miles and the elevation gained is 1,750 feet to the pass over 4.5 miles. Starting at the Many Glacier Hotel requires climbing 2,540 feet to the pass over a range of about 8.5 miles.

Trail Head at Siyeh Bend, Glacier National Park
Trailhead at Siyeh Bend

It’s going to take some planning to ensure that you get back to your vehicle at the end of the day. One option is to leave your car at Siyeh Bend and schedule a Xanterra Hiker Shuttle to pick you up at the Many Glacier Hotel and take you to the east entrance station at St. Mary. Catch the free Glacier National Park Shuttle from there to Siyeh Bend. Note that parking is relatively limited at Siyeh Bend. So, get there early.

Another possibility is to leave your vehicle at the Many Glacier Hotel and take the Xanterra shuttle to St. Mary and then the Glacier National Park shuttle to Siyeh Bend to start the hike.


 A Little Background

The Blackfoot Confederacy or Niitsitapi is composed of three main tribes. The northernmost Siksika (Alberta, Blackfoot), the Kainai (Alberta, Bloods), North Piegan (Alberta, Aapatohsi Pikunni), and the South Piegan (Montana, Aamsskaapi Pikunni).6 Piegan Pass, Piegan Mountain, and Piegan Glacier were all named for the Montana South Piegan by the fur trader, guide, and author James Willard Shultz in 1885.4

Tragically, a small band of the South Piegan, the Small Robes, led by Chief Heavy Runner lost a large number of their people to smallpox.2,6 In January of 1870, the U.S. military mistakenly killed 173 men, women, and children of the Small Robes. The military attack was in retaliation for the killing of a white man by the Piegan who had taken revenge for the rape of a Piegan woman. Chief Heavy Runner’s band was not involved.6

Siyeh (Sai-yeh) is a Blackfeet name that means Crazy Dog or Mad Wolf. Siyeh mountain, creek, glacier, and pass were all named for a Blackfoot man of this name by George B. Grinnell.4


Siyeh Bend to Piegan Pass (4.5 miles, 1,750 feet elevation gain)

This amazingly beautiful hike begins at an elevation of 5,810 feet, climbs 1,750 feet to reach the pass at 7,560 feet. The 4.5 miles of trail leading to the pass will provide you with jaw-dropping grandeur in all directions.

On the lower parts of the trail under the spruce and fir trees during June you will notice sweet smelling, 3-5 foot plants with white umbrella-shaped flower tops. These are cow parsnips and a favorite food of grizzly bears.

Piegan Mountain, Glacier National Park
Looking South: Piegan Mountain with Mount Jackson in the Background

The first 1.2 miles is a short spur that joins with the main Piegan Pass Trail. At 2.7 miles is the junction for Preston Park and Siyeh Pass. Look to the south-east. The mountain that dominates your view is Matahpi Peak. To the west is Piegan Mountain and just to the north is Mount Pollock. All three are over 9,000 feet in elevation. As you climb higher, look to the south, and you will see the 10,052 foot Mount Jackson looking over the white masses of Jackson Glacier and Blackfoot Glacier. In 1850, the glaciers were one.

As the trail bends toward the west, you will pass along the south-west slopes of Mount Siyeh (10,014 feet). The north side of this crag has a near vertical wall of over 4,000 feet that stands proudly above Cracker Lake.

Mount Siyeh from Piegan Pass, Glacier National Park
Mount Siyeh from Piegan Pass

Look to the north-west and just east of the pass. That massive slab of rock that has been thrust up into the air is Cataract Mountain. The 1,100-foot drop on its north side is impressive.

If you keep an eye out, you will see ancient mud cracks and ripples in the rocks. These features formed in the sediment deposited close to the shoreline of the ancient Belt Sea approximately 1.5 billion years ago. In total, 18,000 feet of sediment were eroded from the barren land and deposited into the sea.3,5

Unimaginable tectonic forces, starting about 150 million years ago, shoved the rock that was to become Glacier National Park 50 miles eastward up and over the top of the much younger formations. Then about 2.6 million years ago until about 12,000 years ago, during The Great Ice Age or Pleistocene Epoch, the valleys filled with glaciers.3 The results of the sculpting done be those glaciers resulted in the cirques, horns, aretes, hanging valleys and u-shaped valleys that you see everywhere in Glacier National Park.

When surrounded by majestic mountains, it’s easy to overlook the treasures on the ground. Keep an eye out in moist sites for the white colored western pasqueflower and Sitka valerian. The drier places may treat you to the purple colored silky phacelia.

Silky Phacelia along Piegan Pass Trail, Glacier National Park
Silky Phacelia

At Piegan Pass, you will find the remnants of an old stone shelter with part of its metal roof buried in the rubble. Also, at the pass and slightly above the trail, you will find a stone base built in the fall of 1926.1,4 This stone foundation once supported a bell.

Piegan Pass - Marmot Sitting on Bell Base Built in 1926 by Great Northern Railroad
Piegan Pass – Marmot Sitting on Bell Base Built during 1926 by Great Northern Railroad

The advertising agent for the Great Northern Railroad W.R. Mills and the manager of the Glacier Park Hotel Company H.A. Noble started their petitions to the National Park Service for permission to place the bell in 1925. Approval came in September of 1926. Clangers were put at Piegan Pass as well as Swiftcurrent, Siyeh, and Gunsight Passes during the following two months. In the summer of 1929, a fourth bell was placed on Scenic Point in the Two Medicine area. The unusual practice supposedly was borrowed from the Swiss. During the fall of 1943, the Hotel Company removed the bells and donated them to a World War II scrap metal drive.4


Piegan Pass to Many Glacier Hotel (8.5 miles, 2,540 feet elevation loss)

As you face north and begin your descent through the Cataract Creek drainage, it is hard to ignore a massive mountain to the north-west. Mount Gould is the mountain with the distinctive black horizontal band. This band is igneous rock – diorite to be specific. Around 750 million years ago, magma oozed between the layers of the sedimentary limestone rock. The white color immediately above and below the dark band is a marble that resulted from the extreme heat of the magma working on the limestone.3

Mount Gould from Piegan Pass
Mount Gould from Piegan Pass

A little north of the 9,553 foot Mount Gould is Angel Wing at 7,430 feet. The impressive Feather Plume Falls will become more spectacular the closer you get to the junction of The Piegan Pass Trail and the trail that leads to Grinnell Lake and Lake Josephine. As you descend through the switchbacks, keep a look out for Morning Eagle Falls to the west. Eventually, the trail will come very close to Cataract Creek and the view of the falls looking back up the creek is sure to please.

Morning Eagle Falls with Bear Grass, Glacier National Park
Morning Eagle Falls with Bear Grass

At the trail junction, the right fork is the main Piegan Pass Trail which leads to the Many Glacier Hotel. The Piegan Pass Trail gets a lot of horse traffic and can be a muddy mess. I regretted choosing that route on a hike one July day.

The left fork will also deliver you to the Many Glacier Hotel by way of Grinnell Lake and the trail along the south shore of Lake Josephine. Less mess will cost about an extra one-half mile. The route along the southern edge of Lake Josephine is cut through thick forest with thimbleberries crowding the path at times. Be sure to make noise and have your bear spray handy. Be aware of the signs at trail junctions to ensure that you end up at the Many Glacier Hotel.

As you finish up the trip, notice Grinnell Point that dominates the view across the lake. On the north side of Grinnell Point is the Swiftcurrent Creek Valley. If you have not explored that area of the Park, definitely consider it.

The historic Many Glacier Hotel is a sight to behold. The building has Swiss chalet architecture which was part of the “American Alps” promotional package of the Great Northern Railroad. Construction began in 1914 and wrapped up on July 4, 1915.1


End Notes

  1. Guthrie, C.W. The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
  2. Juneau, Linda. “Small Robe Band of Blackfeet: Ethnogenesis by Social and Religious Transformation.” The University of Montana. Accessed July 5, 2018. https://scholarworks.umt.edu/etd/890.
  3. Raup, Omer, Robert Earhart, James Whipple, and Paul Carrara. Geology Along the Going-to-the-Sun Road Glacier National Park, Montana. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Associaton, 1983.
  4. Robinson, Donald. Through the Years. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Association, 1973.
  5. Tapanila, Lori, and Paul Link. “Mesoproterozoic Belt Supergroup.” Idaho State University. Accessed July 5, 2018. http://geology.isu.edu/Digital_Geology_Idaho/Module2/mod2.htm.
  6. Thompson, Sally. People Before the Park. Helena, MT: Montana Historical Society Press, 2015.