Rockwell Falls

. . . a Two Medicine Hike with options

In the southeastern corner of Glacier National Park is a region known as Two Medicine. It’s a place of lore, rich history, and majestic landscapes.

The name can be traced back to an 1801 map drawn by Akomakki, a Blackfeet chief. Peter Fidler, employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company to map the region, somehow ended up with Akomakki’s work. It subsequently became part of the Company’s records. Noted on the drawing is a location the Blackfeet referred to as Na-too-too-Kase – “Place of Two Medicine Lodges.” We know it as the Two Medicine River.6

By the 1890s, Two Medicine was one of the most visited locales in what would become Glacier National Park. The Great Northern Railway (GNR) brought wealthy adventurous souls to Midvale (East Glacier) where they mounted horses and traveled over the Mount Henry Trail to the Two Medicine Valley.4 It didn’t take long for the word to get out.

To accommodate the growing demand, GNR began a bold development campaign. Louis W. Hill, Great Northern Railway’s chairman of the board, commissioned nine Swiss-style chalets between 1910 and 1913.3 On the eastern shore of Two Medicine Lake in 1913, GNR built a large resort which included two chalets,  a dormitory, and a large building that housed the kitchen/dining room. The kitchen and dining hall is the only survivor of that complex. Today, it’s the camp store.7,8 The fireplace in that building provided an appropriate setting for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to deliver his fireside chat to the nation in 1934.3

Excerpt from FDR’s speech:

There is nothing so American as our national parks. The scenery and wildlife are native. The fundamental idea behind the parks is native. It is, in brief, that the country belongs to the people, that it is in the process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us. The parks stand as the outward symbol of this great human principle.1

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1934
Glacier National Park: Two Medicine Chalets
Two Medicine Chalets ca. 1914. Courtesy of NPLAS.

Besides the chalets, GNR built miles of trails. These grand routes, with unassuming names like the Northern and Southern Circles, and Inside Trail, were the thoroughfares used by cowboys and wranglers to give guests a backcountry experience second to none. Once the Inside Trail was completed around 1916, guests saddled-up for multi-day horseback trips from Two Medicine to Saint Mary via Pitamakin and Triple Divide Passes.2

After the Going-to-the-Sun Road opened in 1933, the popularity that Two Medicine enjoyed in the early days began to wane. But, it’s bustling again. Don’t be surprised to find the parking lot full before lunchtime.


The Trailhead

Follow the Two Medicine Road past the ranger station toward the lake. You will pass the camp store on your right while entering the small parking lot. Look toward the lake and locate the boat landing. The trailhead is nearby.

Glacier National Park: Two Medicine Lake
Painted Teepee Peak, Sinopah Mountain, Lone Walker Mountain, Mountain Helen, a ridge of Rising Wolf Mountain (left to right)

The sweeping mountain scene from the shore will most likely grab and hold your attention for a while. Sinopah Mountain, across the lake, is the quintessential Glacier. The peak was named after a Blackfeet maiden and the daughter of Lone Walker who was a powerful Blackfeet chief. You can see his mountain in the background to the right of Sinopah. To your right, is a massive red mountain. Its name is Rising Wolf, who was the husband of Sinopah. That was the Blackfeet name given to Hugh Monroe. Born in 1798 in Quebec, he came west at 16 to apprentice with the Hudson’s Bay Company. They sent Monroe to live with the Blackfeet, specifically Chief Lone Walker, and encourage trade.5

To the left (south) of Sinopah Mountain is the pyramid shape of Painted Teepee Peak. Proceeding counterclockwise, Never Laughs Mountain is the next summit. The enormous mass of Appistoki Peak looming in the southeast is unmistakable.


Two Medicine South Shore Trail

This is bear habitat-both grizzly and black. Before you head out, be sure to have bear spray. Educate yourself on when and how to use it. Just as important, let bears know where you are by making noise from time to time. Strong winds ripping through the trees can be deafening. Be loud. 

The path heads out into subalpine fir, lodgepole pine forest. The understory includes bear grass which puts on quite a show in June. Elongated white flower clusters borne at the top of a two to four-foot stalk are spectacular. Huckleberries also grow here. The sought after purple fruit is usually ripe by the end of July to the first part of August. These berries are a significant food source for both black and grizzly bears. So, be especially vigilant during that time.

Fool’s huckleberry or Menziesia shrubs grow alongside huckleberries. However, it’s poisonous when eaten. Distinguish the two by crushing a leaf and then smell it. A skunky smell is characteristic of Fool’s Huckleberry.

Glacier National Park Flowers: Fool's Huckleberry
Fool’s Huckleberry can grow up to 7 feet tall.

At 0.2-miles (0.3-kilometers) from the trailhead is the Paradise Point Trail junction. The 0.4-miles (0.6-kilometers) path leads to a cozy little beach on Two Medicine Lake. Rising Wolf Mountain, reaching over 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) above the water surface, fills the view to the north. It’s a beautiful place for a picnic.

About 0.5-miles (0.8-kilometers) from where you started the South Boundary Trail, you will walk by ponds created by beavers. Out in the water, there are dome-shaped structures made of interwoven branches and twigs and packed with mud. That’s their lodge. These 60-pound (27-kilogram) rodents survive the harsh Two Medicine winters in their grass and leaf-lined living quarters. Using an underwater entrance, they access food stashed at the bottom of the pond while bitter winds drive snow over the ice above.

Glacier National Park: Two Medicine
Beaver pond and lodge along the South Shore Trail.

By creating a pond, beavers change the habitat, which attracts different plants and animals, including moose, fish, insects, amphibians, and birds that make their living near water.  

After many years, the pond fills with silt and plant debris. The beavers exhaust their food supply and move. Without maintenance, the dam collapses and the water drains. A meadow develops in the fertile soil. Eventually, trees will take over the location again.

At 1.2 miles (1.9 kilometers), the Aster Park Trail leaves the South Shore Trail. This footpath leads to Aster Falls (0.1-miles/ 0.2-kilometers) and Aster Park Overlook (0.7-miles/1.1 kilometers). The overlook is a steep climb, but well worth the effort. Unbroken views of Two Medicine Lake, Rising Wolf, Flinsch Peak, and Sinopah are outstanding.

By the time you reach the bridge over Paradise Creek, the trailhead is 2.3 miles (3.7 kilometers) away. This undulating and swinging suspension structure over fast moving water may test your balance. Just go slowly and keep your hands on the side cables.

Glacier National Park: suspension bridge
Suspension bridge over Paradise Creek

The Two Medicine Pass Trail leaves the South Shore Trail at 2.6 miles (4.2 kilometers). The path to the right leads to a boat dock at the head of Two Medicine Lake. If space is available, one can buy a return ticket aboard the launch, Sinopah.

Stay to the left on the Two Medicine Pass Trail to reach Rockwell Falls. This route passes beneath the southeast slopes of Sinopah Mountain. From this perspective, one would never guess from photographs it’s the same beauty seen from the foot of the lake. Nevertheless, Sinopah presents a different but spectacular profile.

Glacier National Park: Sinopah Mountain
Sinopah Mountain from the Two Medicine Pass Trail.

The next footbridge crosses the stream that has just made the plummet over Rockwell Falls. The short path to the right ends up near the base of the last cascade. From this location, most of the cascades and pools are not visible. However, a way to view the upper falls exists.

Glacier National Park: Rockwell Falls
The lower cascade of Rockwell Falls.

Retrace your steps back across the footbridge and walk up the incline on the far side of the creek. Near the top, a trail heads up the slope. The footpath is steep with loose gravel in sections, and rock cliffs near the falls can be wet and slick from the mist of the falling water. Use caution.

Glacier National Park: Two Medicine
Near the top of Rockwell Falls
Glacier National Park: Two Medicine
Rockwell Falls upper cascade
Glacier National Park: Two Medicine
One of the pools of Rockwell Falls

Summary Distances and Elevation Gains

Hike NameRound Trip DistanceElevation Gains
Rockwell Falls7.0 mi/11.3 km375 ft
Options from Trail Jct
Paradise Point0.8 mi/1.3 km—-
Aster Falls0.2 mi/0.3 km100 ft
Aster Park Overlook1.4 mi/2.3 km670 ft

Notes

  1. “FDR Radio Address at Two Medicine.” National Park Service: Glacier National Park, Montana. Last modified , 2016. Accessed June 27, 2019. https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/historyculture/fdr-radio-address.htm.
  2. “Glacier National Park Tourist Trails: Inside Trail; South Circle; North Circle.”National Register of Historic Places. Accessed January 13, 2019. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/891c38e1-bd58-46f9-ae65-ce7a377288f9.
  3. Guthrie, C.W. The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
  4. Passmore, Blake. What They Called It. Vol. 2. Kalispell, MT: Montana Outdoor Guidebooks, LLC, 2016.
  5. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years: in Glacier National Park. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
  6. Thompson, Sally. People Before the Park. Helena, MT: Montana Historical Society Press, 2015.
  7. “Two Medicine Chalet: Glacier National Park.” National Park Lodge Architecture Society. Last modified , 2010. Accessed June 27, 2019. http://www.nplas.org/twomedicine.html.
  8. “Two Medicine General Store.” National Register of Historic Places. Last modified , 1984. Accessed June 27, 2019. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/a908db2a-c76c-46a5-8e07-b6879ab16465.

Firebrand Pass

Going to the mountains is going home. John Muir

This is a hike that I’ve done in the past. It’s definitely worth sharing. So, I dusted it off and spruced it up a bit. Hope you like it.

A Little History

Firebrand Pass is a unique name that is descriptive of its origin. The background story is fascinating.

In 1910, fires were burning throughout the Idaho panhandle, western Montana, Washington, and Oregon. This was the same year when President William Howard Taft, on May 11, signed the bill that designated an area larger than the state of Rhode Island as Glacier National Park.

The newly formed park had little funding to fight fires. Consequently, the U.S. Forest Service took responsibility. The firefighting efforts of these agencies were joined by local citizens, workers from lumber mills, the Great Northern Railway, and the military.2

During the two terrifying days of August 20 and 21, hurricane force winds caused “The Big Blowup” in which over three million acres burned, most within a six-hour period. Smoke from these fires reached New England, and ash reached as far as Greenland. 3,5

It was during this time that Forest Service Ranger Ed Pulaski made history as he led a group of 45 firefighters into an Idaho mine shaft to survive the inferno that surrounded them. 5

According to Stephen Barrett’s Fire History of Southeast Glacier National Park, during the summer of 1910, a human-caused fire started near Essex and crossed the continental divide near Firebrand Pass. This fire was one of the hundreds that were burning that summer.1


Firebrand Pass Hike, Glacier National Park Map
Firebrand Pass Hike


Getting There

If you are looking to get away from the crowds, this hike in the southeast corner of Glacier National Park might be for you. Firebrand Pass (6,951’) is a saddle that is situated between Red Crow Mountain (7,891’) to the north and Calf Robe Mountain (7,920’) to the south.

The trailhead is east of Marias Pass near mile marker 203 on US Highway 2. There is a small gravel parking lot below the highway and near the railroad tracks. Be aware that it is not well marked. This hike is a 9.6 mile in and out with about 2,200 feet of elevation gain.



The Hike

The hike begins at the Lubec Lake Trailhead on the far side of the railroad tracks and then meanders northwest along the Coonsa Creek drainage.

This is grizzly bear habitat. So, as you pass through the meadows and aspen stands be sure that your bear spray is handy and that you know how to use it. Don’t be shy about making plenty of noise. Better to let the bear know where you are than to surprise one. During my last hike to Firebrand Pass, we came upon grizzly bear tracks soon after the trailhead. My boot fit inside the rear paw print with room to spare.

Grizzly Bear Track, Coonsa Creek Trail, Glacier National Park
Grizzly Bear Track

The trail heads directly toward Calf Robe Mountain. Further to the southwest is Summit Mountain (8,770’) followed by Little Dog Mountain (8,610’). The trail eventually leaves the meadows and aspen stands and enters lodgepole pine stands. After about 1.5 miles, the path intersects the Autumn Creek Trail. Turn right (north) and follow this trail for about 1 mile to the junction with the northern end of the Ole Creek Trail. Turn left at the trail junction. It is 2.6 miles to Firebrand Pass from that junction.

Calf Robe Mountain, Glacier National Park
Calf Robe Mountain

The trail continues through the lodgepole pine forest while it wraps around the northeastern flank of Calf Robe Mountain. When the path turns from a westerly direction to the south, you will enter a beautiful basin with views of the pass to the southwest.

There is usually a sizeable and steep snowdrift below the pass early in the season. The trail leads directly into this snowfield. Exercise caution. Try climbing around the snow or save the pass for another day if you do not have the equipment and training to self-arrest should you find yourself sliding down the icy slope toward the rocks below.

Firebrand Pass, Glacier National Park
Firebrand Pass

A keen eye may be rewarded with a sighting of elk in the basin. Bighorn sheep and mountain goats frequent the rocky slopes and cliffs. If you find yourself in this area in mid to late August, ripened huckleberries are an additional treat.

There is a feast for your eyes at the pass. The Ole Creek drainage seems to go on forever to the southwest. The picturesque summits of Eagle Ribs Mountain (8,290’), Mount Despair (8,582’), and Brave Dog (8,446’) separate the Ole Creek drainage from the Park Creek drainage further to the west.

Red Crow Mountain and Calf Robe Mountain, the massive sentinels of the pass, fill your views to the north and south respectively. The Continental Divide passes through the summits of these two mountains as well as Firebrand Pass.


 

View West From Firebrand Pass
Looking West From Firebrand Pass

 


The Return Trip

The return trip can be as straightforward as just retracing the steps that got you to the pass. However, another option is to climb the north side of Calf Robe Mountain from the pass and descend the south slope and then travel off-trail until you intersect the Autumn Creek Trail.

The climb is only about 0.5- mile, but the elevation gain from the pass is 970 feet. It’s steep and the views are outstanding. The bonus on our trip was descending through a dispersed herd of about 12 bighorn sheep.

If you are interested in the climb, I would suggest reading “Calf Robe Mountain,” pages 34-41, of Blake Passmore’s Climb Glacier National Park, Volume 2. The information, photographs, and illustrated routes are valuable information for planning.4


 

End Notes

    1. Barrett, Stephen W. Fire History of Southeastern Glacier National Park: Missouri River drainage. 1993. Accessed October 19, 2018. https://www.fort.usgs.gov/sites/default/files/products/publications/3306/3306.pdf.
    2. Minetor, Randi. Historic Glacier National Park: the stories behind one of America’s great treasures. Guilford, CT: Rowan and Littlefield, 2016.
    3. National Forest Foundation. “Blazing Battles: the 1910 Fire and its legacy.” Accessed October 19, 2018. https://www.nationalforests.org/our-forests/your-national-forests-magazine/blazing-battles-the-1910-fire-and-its-legacy.
    4. Passmore, Blake. Climb Glacier National Park: illustrated routes for beginning and intermediate climbers. Vol. 2. Kalispell, MT: Montana Outdoor Guidebooks, LLC, 2012.
    5. Wikipedia. “Great Fire of 1910.” Accessed October 19, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Fire_of_1910.

Dawson Pass/Pitamakan Pass Loop Hike

This 18-mile hike, which crosses the Continental Divide from east to west and then back over again, is spectacular. It includes walks through subalpine forests, mountain meadows, and high windswept alpine ridges with panoramic views into the craggy park interior. There is also a high probability of seeing moose and bighorn sheep.

The trailhead is located in the Two Medicine Valley of the southeast region of Glacier National Park. Find the Two Medicine Campground and then the parking lot near Pray Lake. This will be both your beginning and ending location – assuming that you do not decide to motor across the lake on the Sinpopah launch.


Clockwise or Counterclockwise?

Since this is a loop, it can be hiked clockwise or counterclockwise. I have found that there are pros and cons for both directions.

Clockwise (Dawson Pass first)

Pros

  • The light for photography tends to work better in this direction
  • Most of the elevation gain is accomplished in the two miles just before the pass. The rest of the hike is relatively level or downhill.

Cons

  • Toward the end of the 18 miles, there is a small ridge on the east flank of Rising Wolf Mountain that must be climbed.

Counterclockwise (Pitamakan Pass first)

Pros

  • The 2,400-foot elevation gain to Pitamakan Pass is spread out over 7.6 miles.
  • There is an option to catch a ride on the Sinopah across Two Medicine Lake at the end of the day. This could reduce the mileage of the hike by about 3 miles.

Cons

  • The steep descent from Dawson Pass can be a killer for some people’s knees.

 


A Few Things to Consider

First, be honest about your hiking ability and physical condition. If you are not in shape, postpone this one for another day. There are plenty of other hikes to enjoy that will be more in line with your ability.

This trek can take 9 to 10 hours. You want to make sure that you are not hiking in the dark. Not a prudent plan. It’s a good idea to check sunrise/sunset tables when you are planning for the trip.

The route covers 18 miles with over 5,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. So, don’t skimp on the energy that your body will require. Bring the amount of food that you think you will need and then throw in a little extra. There will be no water for a good part of this trip. Prepare accordingly. It wouldn’t hurt to include a water filter to use on the latter part of the journey when you do have access to water.

Be prepared for quick weather changes. Parts of the trip will be above 7,000 feet. The last time I did this hike, it was excellent autumn weather at the beginning and snow and blowing snow around the passes. Bring clothes that can be combined in layers. Include a hat, gloves, and some sort of a windbreaker jacket and pants. The wind can blow pretty hard up there.

Flinsch Peak, Two Medicine, Glacier National Park
Flinsch Peak in September

Use common sense on extremely windy days. There will be some parts of the trail that are narrow with long steep drop-offs. Call it a day before you get into trouble. The mountain is not going anywhere.

Trekking poles are a good idea for a balance aid, especially on windy days. Some people claim that they help with knee pain on descents.

Finally, bring bear spray. Make sure that it is quickly available and know how to use it. On our last trip, we saw bear scat on the trail in more than one place. Parts of the route were posted with signs warning of grizzly bears frequenting the area. Additionally, it’s recommended to hike in a group and always make plenty of noise.

The rest of this post will describe the hike going in a clockwise direction – starting with the 6.5 mile and 2,435-foot climb in elevation to Dawson Pass.



Onward

From the parking lot, walk about 300 feet toward the foot of Pray Lake and cross the bridge over Two Medicine Creek. Continue another 300 feet to the ‘T’ in the trail. Go left. You will then be on the Dawson Pass Trail.

The trail proceeds in a general southwest direction. The enormous red hulk of Rising Wolf Mountain will be on your right. To the southeast across Two Medicine Lake and proceeding clockwise are Never Laughs Mountain, Grizzly Mountain, Painted Tepee Peak, and the majestic Sinopah Mountain.

Two Medicine Glacier National Park
Looking Across Two Medicine Lake

The beautiful mountain at the head of Two Medicine Lake was named after Sinopah, a Blackfeet Indian maiden. She married Hugh Munroe, a Hudson’s Bay trapper and trader who lived with her people for some time. The Blackfeet gave him the name Rising Wolf for which the mountain was named.2

The rock that makes up these great mountains in the park was formed over an 800 million year time span which began 1.5 billion years ago. During that time, sediment was eroded from the surrounding lifeless land and deposited into the ancient Belt Sea. That sea was located where eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana are today. Preserved ripple marks and mud cracks in some of the formations are a testament to the water environment of that very distant past.3

The surrounding mountains have a lot of red color in them. That is the rock of the Grinnell Formation. The color was caused by oxygen reacting with the iron in the fine sediment that was deposited in the shallow water environment. The Grinnell has many ancient ripple marks and mud cracks.3

Starting in the Jurassic Period, 150 million years ago, and continuing into the end of the Cretaceous Period, 60 million years ago, Earth’s tectonic plates shoved a mass of rock several hundred miles wide and several miles thick 50 miles to the east.3

The magnificent horns, aretes, cirques, and u-shaped valleys that we enjoy today are the results of continent size glaciers working on the rock deposited here by the tectonic forces. The glaciers scraped and gouged from about 2 million years ago until 12,000 years ago.3 Glacier National Park, the sculpted masterpiece, is now sought by visitors from around the world.

The vistas that we seek out today in Glacier National Park have been in the making for the last one-third of the Earth’s entire existence.

At about 3.1 miles, you will come to a junction with a trail that exits on your left. This will lead to the South Shore Trail and the dock for the Sinopah launch at the head of the lake. This path will also connect with the trail to Upper Two Medicine Lake. Stay right. On our last trip, after this junction, we met a red fox trotting down the path and encountered a bull moose laying where we needed to walk.

The spur trail to No Name Lake will be found at 4.6 miles from the trailhead. After this, the route gets steep. You will climb through the Bighorn Basin via a series of switchbacks. As you continue to gain elevation, Flinsch Peak, a glacial horn, will come into view to the northwest. You will notice that Flinsch is not red. It’s tan colored limestone is of the Siyeh Formation. This rock is above and younger than the argillite of the Grinnell Formation.3

Looking East Toward Two Medicine Lake, Glacier National Park
Looking East Toward Two Medicine Lake

In the limestone rock near Dawson Pass, we found fossilized cyanobacteria colonies commonly known as stromatolites. Although the fossils are not this old, these single-celled photosynthetic organisms have been living on our planet for over 3 billion years.1  These simple creatures are mostly responsible for the Earth’s atmosphere becoming more oxygen rich and less carbon dioxide saturated.6 They are not as abundant as they once were, but places like Shark Bay in Western Australia still support these tiny oxygen factories.

At 6.5 miles and 7,598 feet in elevation is the rocky, windswept Dawson Pass. There is a rock cairn marking the site. You will also find a rough rock wall that can provide a little shelter from the wind. The views are magnificent and include park icons such as the spire of Mount Saint Nicholas to the southwest and Mount Stimson to the west.

Dawson Pass with Flinsch Peak, Glacier National Park
Dawson Pass with Flinsch Peak

From Dawson Pass, the path heads north and is basically benched into the steep, barren, rocky, western slope of Flinsch Peak. The Pitamakan Overlook is toward the north end of this segment where the trail juts out west and then abruptly back to the east. This is part of a steep ridge belonging to Mount Morgan. If you aren’t concerned with exposure, make your way out to the end of the overlook for a breathtaking vantage point.

Looking Into Nyack Creek Drainage from Pitamakan Overlook, Glacier National Park
Looking Into Nyack Creek Drainage from the Pitamakan Overlook

The trail continues to the northeast and wraps around the northern slope of Mount Morgan before descending to Pitamakan Pass.

Pitamakan was a famous female Blackfeet warrior. Born Otaki, the male name Pitamakan or Running Eagle was bestowed on her by Chief Lone Walker for her bravery in battle. Running Eagle Falls are also named for her.4 It is in the cave of rushing water, Running Eagle Falls, that she committed herself to a vision quest which changed her life. She renounced marriage and devoted her life to the service of her people.5

Hundreds of feet below the pass to the north are two alpine gems – Seven Winds of the Lake and Pitamakin Lake. There is a trail, accessed from near the pass, that leads between these two lakes and down the North Fork of Cut Bank Creek to the backcountry campground near Morning Star Lake. This is part of the Continental Divide Trail. Staying on this footpath will lead over Triple Divide Pass, to Saint Mary Lake, Many Glacier, and eventually, Goat Haunt at the Canadian Border.

Seven Winds of the Lake and Pitamakan Lake with Red Mountain, Glacier National Park
Seven Winds of the Lake and Pitamakan Lake with Red Mountain

From the pass, it is a 7.6-mile downhill trek in the Dry Fork drainage back to the trailhead. This section is also part of the Continental Divide Trail. The spur trail to Old Man Lake will appear on your right about 1.5 miles from the pass. The massive mountain to the south is Rising Wolf. The circumnavigation of this enormous landmark is almost complete.

Old Man Lake and the Dry Fork Drainage, Glacier National Park
Old Man Lake and the Dry Fork Drainage

About 4 miles from Pitamakin Pass or 15.5 miles from the beginning, there is another trail junction. Proceeding straight ahead for 2.8 miles will put you at the Two Medicine Entrance Station. Take the right fork toward the Two Medicine Campground. Within this last section, there will be a bit of a climb over a ridge that extends from Rising Wolf Mountain.

Hopefully, when you reach the end of the trail and your vehicle, there are refreshments and other goodies waiting in a cooler for you. There is much to celebrate!


 

End Notes

  1. Awramik, Stanley M., and James Sprinkle. “Proterozoic stromatolites: The first marine evolutionary biota.” Historical Biology13, no. 4 (May 8, 2009): 241-53. Accessed October 1, 2018.
  2. Guthrie, C.W. The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
  3. 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.
  4. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years: in Glacier National Park. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
  5. Schultz, James W. Running Eagle: the warrior girl. 1919.
  6. “Stromatolites.” Accessed October 1, 2018. http://www.indiana.edu/~geol105b/images/gaia_chapter_10/stromatolites.htm.

Upper Two Medicine Lake

A fun Glacier National Park boat cruise and hike with history

I feel like I am favoring one child over another when I say that Two Medicine is my favorite area in Glacier National Park. I love the entire park. But, the Two Medicine Valley calls to me.

This special place is located on the east side of the Continental Divide and the Lewis and Clark Range in the southeastern corner of Glacier National Park. It’s a 20-minute drive from East Glacier.


What’s in a Name?

This area was and still is a sacred place to the Blackfeet Indians. The name Two Medicine comes from the Blackfeet name Na-too-too-kase which means Place of Two Medicine Lodges.12 Running Eagle Falls is named for a famous female Blackfeet warrior. Born Otaki, the male name Pitamakan or Running Eagle was bestowed on her by Chief Lone Walker for her bravery in battle. Her fate was sealed after she returned from her vision quest in the cave of rushing water – Running Eagle Falls. There she prayed and fasted for most of a week for direction in her life. The upshot was that she would never marry and would live in service of her people.9,11

The Two Medicine Road passes the trailhead for Running Eagle Falls. The 0.3-mile long trail is paved and handicap accessible. In addition to the spiritual connection to the Blackfeet, this feature has geological significance.

The sedimentary rock which makes up the mountains of Glacier National Park was formed from sediment deposited in the basin of the ancient Belt Sea from 1.6 billion years ago to about 800 million years ago. Starting about 750 million years ago, unimaginable tectonic forces shoved all of that rock 50 miles to the east resulting in the Lewis Overthrust Fault.  The eastern terminus, the fault, is just below the limestone rock of Running Eagle Falls.1

Two Medicine was one of the most visited areas of the park when the Great Northern Railway was the primary mode of transportation that brought passengers to stay at the chalets they had built. After the completion of the Going-to-the-Sun Road in 1932, that changed. Even today, Many Glacier and Saint Mary visitors far outnumber those going to Two Medicine.7 I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.

On the Two Medicine Road, you will come to a particular place where a mountain fills most of the skyline. That is Rising Wolf Mountain (9,513 feet). A fitting name for a peak that greets visitors as they embark on their exploration of this region. I first assumed the name was derived from Canis lupus – the gray wolf that inhabits parts of Glacier National Park. Not so. Rising Wolf was the name the Blackfeet gave to the Hudson’s Bay trapper and explorer Hugh Monroe.8

Rising Wolf Mountain, Two Medicine, Glacier National Park
Rising Wolf Mountain

Monroe joined the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1815 at the age of 16.8 In the early 1820’s, he was sent to live with the Blackfeet to ensure that they delivered their furs to Hudson’s Bay trading posts, scout for beaver, and ascertain what the competition from America was doing.10 He eventually went to live with Lone Walker’s band of the Blackfeet and married his daughter Sinopah. He is thought to have been the first white man to explore the region that would become Glacier National Park. Hugh Monroe became a legend in his own time and was written into history in the 1919 book Rising Wolf by James Willard Schultz.8

Once you reach the developed area at Two Medicine Lake, there is a decision that needs to be made. You can leave your car in the parking lot adjacent to the Two Medicine Camp Store and the boat dock. There is a small booth near the lake where tickets may be purchased. However, I would recommend buying tickets online at least 24 hours ahead of your arrival to ensure that there will be a seat for everyone in your group.

The other option is to park your car near the trailhead at Pray Lake, where you exit at the end of the day. From there you will need to walk a little over one mile to reach the boat dock where you embark on the Sinopah.

Take a moment or two to savor the spectacular mountain scenery. At the head of the lake, the beautiful Sinopah Mountain rises abruptly 3,100 feet above the water. The summit of Rising Wolf Mountain, to the north, looks down from 4,350 feet above your location.

Site of President Roosevelt's Fireside Chat
The site of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Fireside Chat in 1934

Step back in time and visit the Two Medicine Camp Store, a National Historic Landmark. This building was originally the Two Medicine Chalets kitchen and dining hall built by the Great Northern Railway in 1912. President Herbert Hoover used the Two Medicine Chalets complex as his base of operations in August 1930. On August 5, 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave one of his famous Fireside Chats by the fireplace in the dining hall building.6



The Adventure

There are several options for getting to and returning from Upper Two Medicine Lake. If you choose to hike the North Shore Trail, it is 4.4 miles one way. The trailhead for this route begins by the campground parking lot near Pray Lake. If you take the South Shore Trail, it is about 5.5 miles one way. You will find the trailhead near the Two Medicine Camp Store and boat dock. Finally, there is the option of motoring to the west end of Two Medicine Lake aboard the Sinopah, hike 1.9 miles to Upper Two Medicine Lake, and then return 4.4 miles via the North Shore Trail for a total of 6.3 miles or 6.5 miles if you include Twin Falls. The remainder of this post will describe the third alternative.

Travel to the west end of Two Medicine Lake aboard the historic 45 foot, 49 passenger Sinopah. Constructed in 1926 by J.W. Swanson, Sinopah is the oldest wooden boat in the Glacier Park Boat Company’s fleet. She was bought by the company in the 1940s and moved from Saint Mary Lake to Two Medicine Lake. The name was then changed from Little Chief to Sinopah.2

The 45-foot Sinopah Launch with Mount Helen and the Flank of Rising Wolf Mountain
The 45-foot Sinopah Launch with Mount Helen and the Flank of Rising Wolf Mountain

To the north is the massive Rising Wolf Mountain, to the south Painted Tepee Peak (7,650 feet) and to the southwest is the majestic Sinopah Mountain. Toward the latter part of the trip, watch to the northwest to catch a glimpse of the light colored, pyramid-shaped glacial horn Flinsch Peak (9,225 feet). Enjoy the 30 to 45 minute trip and commentary by the boat captain.

Two Medicine Lake, Mount Helen and Flinsch Peak from the Sinopah Launch, Glacier National Park
Two Medicine Lake, Mount Helen and Flinsch Peak from the Sinopah Launch

After you disembark, you will cross a boardwalk over a boggy area. As you walk through the spruce and subalpine fir forest, watch for dark vertical lines on the trees. The lines will be from a few feet long to almost the height of the tree. These are frost cracks. They are a testament to the bitter cold and extreme temperature fluctuations that can happen in this area of the park. When they occur, it can sound like a gunshot.

This moist area produces large patches of thimbleberries. If you’re lucky, they’ll be ripe.

Watch for the park trail signs. The first junction gives you the choice of the South Shore Trail to the southeast or a path heading in a northwest direction. You will want to go to the northwest.

At about 0.7 miles from the boat dock and after a footbridge over Two Medicine Creek, you will reach another trail junction. Go left or westerly toward Twin Falls and Upper Two Medicine Lake. A right or easterly direction will put you on the North Shore Trail to the Two Medicine Campground. From the junction, it is about 1.2 miles to Upper Two Medicine Lake.

To your right, a large elongated cone-shaped mass of rock will eventually show itself. This is Pumpelly Pillar (7,620 feet). Glaciers carved both sides of this mountain into a narrow ridge (arete) as they flowed eastward toward the plains. The spire was known by the Kootenai Indians as Standing Arrow.12 It was renamed for Raphael Pumpelly who was the leader of the Northern Transcontinental Railway survey party. Traveling with Pumpelly was Major Logan, who became the first superintendent of Glacier National Park in 1910 and is also the person for whom Logan Pass was named. They crossed Pitamakin Pass in 1883.8

Pumpelly Pillar, Two Medicine, Glacier National Park
Pumpelly Pillar

The spur trail to Twin Falls can be found approximately 300 feet after you cross a small creek on your way to Upper Two Medicine Lake. It is a worthwhile and easy 0.2-mile round trip.

Just before arriving at Upper Two Medicine Lake, the trail passes near a small body of water that will be on your left. Don’t be fooled. This is not your destination. Upper Two Medicine Lake is well over 100 acres.

When you do arrive at Upper Two Medicine Lake, the trail will lead you to the backcountry campground. The campground has four sites. Two of these can be reserved. There is a limited beach nearby.

This is an excellent spot to enjoy a bite to eat and take in the views. The end of the lake is dominated by Lone Walker Mountain (8,502 feet). Mount Rockwell (9,272 feet) is to the south, Mount Helen (8,538 feet) to the northwest, and Pumpelly Pillar to the north. Mount Helen, Lone Walker Mountain, and Mount Rockwell mark the Continental Divide.

You may have noticed that there is a lot of red rock in the surrounding mountains. This sedimentary rock is of the Grinnell Formation which can be up to 2,600 feet thick. The red color comes from the reaction of oxygen with iron. This happened to the sediment deposited in the shallow water of the ancient Belt Sea during the Precambrian Time – over one billion years ago.5 Preserved mud cracks and ripple marks can also be found in this formation.

To return the 4.4 miles via the North Shore Trail, hike back down the trail that you arrived on. Walk past the junction for the path that leads to the boat dock. About 1.6 miles from Upper Two Medicine Lake, you will come to a new trail junction. The park trail sign will indicate that the route to the left will go to No Name Lake and Dawson Pass. If you take that way by mistake, it will not take very long to realize the error. There is some pretty serious elevation gain.

The Much Sought After Huckleberry
The Much Sought After Huckleberry

The final 3.1 miles of the footpath has minimal elevation gain and loss. Huckleberries are an added bonus around the middle of July. Before you know it, the trail comes to a bridge over Two Medicine Creek and then toward the Two Medicine Campground. If you had parked by the Two Medicine Camp Store, there is roughly one more mile to walk to reach your vehicle.

 


 

End Notes

  1. Campbell, Marius R. “Origin of the Topographic Forms.” Department of Interior, National Park Service. Accessed September 20, 2018. https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/glac/campbell/sec3.htm.
  2. Glacier Park Boat Company. “History.” Accessed September 19, 2018. http://glacierparkboats.com/history/.
  3. Guthrie, C.W. The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
  4. Minetor, Randi. Historic Glacier National Park: the stories behind one of America’s great treasures. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2016.
  5. NASA, Earth Observatory. “Red Rocks in Glacier National Park.” Accessed September 20, 2018. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/9021/red-rocks-in-glacier-national-park.
  6. National Park Lodge Architecture Society. “Two Medicine Chalet.” Accessed September 19, 2018. http://www.nplas.org/twomedicine.html.
  7. National Park Service. “Glacier NP YTD Report.” Accessed September 19, 2018. https://irma.nps.gov/Stats/SSRSReports/Park%20Specific%20Reports/Park%20YTD%20Version%201?Park=GLAC.
  8. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years in Glacier National Park. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
  9. Robison, Ken. “The Saga of Pitamakin, the Pikuni Blackfeet Joan of Arc.” Fort Benton Historian. Accessed September 19, 2018. http://fortbenton.blogspot.com/2011/04/saga-of-pitamakan-pikuni-blackfeet-joan.html.
  10. Schultz, James W. Rising Wolf: the white Blackfoot. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1919.
  11. Schultz, James W. Running Eagle: the warrior girl. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1919.
  12. Thompson, Sally. People Before the Park: the Kootenai and Blackfeet before Glacier National Park. Helena, MT: Montana Historical Society Press, 2015.

Scenic Point

You’ll work for it, but the sweeping views from the 7,522-foot Scenic Point are spectacular. The good chance of seeing bighorn sheep is an added perk.

We can thank Louis Hill and the Great Northern Railway for this route. Designated as the Mount Henry Trail, it was constructed in 1913 as a thoroughfare for moving tourists from the railway station at Midvale (East Glacier) and the Glacier Park Hotel to the Two Medicine Valley.2 This path is also a tiny part of the 3,100 mile Continental Divide Trail that stretches from Canada to Mexico.



The trailhead for this hike, in the Two Medicine region on the east side of Glacier National Park, can be found 2.7 miles past the entrance station. There you will see a parking lot with the trail on the east side.

The exhilarating, and lung stretching ascent into Glacier’s alpine country starts at an elevation a little less than one-mile high and then climbs 2,350 feet over 3.9 miles. I have been on this hike when it is t-shirt weather at the trailhead, but at the top, the wind was brutal and cold. Do yourself a favor and be prepared with layers, a hat, gloves, and some sort of windbreaker jacket. Be sure to bring plenty of water and food. Finally, never venture out in Glacier National Park without carrying quickly accessible bear-spray.

At 0.6 miles, there is a short spur trail to Appistoki Falls. Directly above is Appistoki Peak. Both were named for the Blackfeet deity who looks over everything and everyone.5 I think the side trip is worth it even though the viewing point does not provide a full view of the falls.

Rising Wolf Mountain Glacier National Park
Rising Wolf Mountain

The main footpath gradually leaves the stands of subalpine fir and lodgepole pine and enters the alpine environment. The views continue to get better and better as you ascend. To the northeast, on the far side of Two Medicine Lake, is the red 9,513-foot Rising Wolf Mountain. Rising Wolf is the Blackfeet name given to Hugh Monroe who was a Hudson’s Bay Company trapper and trader and probably the first white to explore the lands that would become Glacier National Park. About 1815 or 1816, in his late teens, he was sent to live with the Piikani (Piegan) tribe of the Blackfeet Nation under the care of Chief Lonewalker. His duty was to learn their language, discover whether or not the American Fur Company was operating in their territory, and try to ensure that the Blackfeet continued their trade with the Hudson’s Bay Company. He would later marry Chief Lone Walker’s daughter Sinopah.2,4,6

After a mile into the hike, you will start seeing the bleached white remains of whitebark pine trees. They most likely met their demise from the introduced fungal pathogen that causes white pine blister rust. The whitebark pines in the park have been hit pretty hard. Seeds of this tree are high in fat and protein and have historically been an important food source for black bears, grizzly bears, red squirrels, and Clark’s nutcracker. Efforts to identify trees resistant to the disease and propagate them have been underway for years.

White Pine Blister Rust was introduced into North America about 1900 on white pine seedlings grown in European nurseries.3

The trail will eventually reach a saddle and then traverse the top of a bowl as it swings to the northeast and Scenic Point. This is where I have seen bighorn sheep. The path is narrow with a steep drop-off. Also, there can be a snow hazard there depending on the month. I was last there in late June, and most of the snow was gone. However, it is best to check the Glacier National Park Trail Status page before heading out. There is a short climb at the very end to reach Scenic Point.

Bighorn Sheep Glacier National Park
Bighorn Sheep

Standing at Scenic Point and looking east one can appreciate why one of Montana’s nicknames is Big Sky Country. Try to locate the ‘Broken Mountains’ so named by Captain Meriwether Lewis. These are the Sweet Grass Hills and are about 100 miles away. From an imaginary line to the middle of those peaks, shift your gaze north about 5 degrees. Shorten the distance to roughly 25 miles. If you see signs of a creek meandering through the plains, you have located Cut Bank Creek and the general area where Lewis made his northernmost camp – Camp Disappointment, July 1806.1 The body of water more than 2,600 feet below you is Lower Two Medicine Lake.

Turn around toward the west, and you will see the family. Over the top of a ridge belonging to Appistoki Peak, you will see the beautiful and iconic Sinopah Mountain. Beyond Sinopah, Lone Walker Mountain is there looking over his daughter’s shoulder. Continuing clockwise is the massive Rising Wolf Mountain.

Appistoki Peak Ridge, Sinopah Mountain, Lone Walker Mountain, Cloudcroft Peaks, Mount Helen, Rising Wolf Mountain Glacier National Park
From Scenic Point, Clockwise: Appistoki Peak Ridge, Sinopah Mountain, Lone Walker Mountain, Cloudcroft Peaks, Mount Helen, Rising Wolf Mountain with Two Medicine Lake

An old Swiss custom was to place bells on the tops of mountains and in passes for trekkers to ring as they arrived. Based on this custom, the Glacier Park Hotel Company, a subsidiary of the Great Northern Railway, petitioned the National Park Service to place locomotive bells in several locations within the park. Three sites were approved in 1926, and the fourth and last was approved for Scenic Point in 1929. In 1943, the bells were removed and donated to a World War II metal drive.5

If you are feeling the need for more adventure, you have the option of continuing on another 7 miles to East Glacier. Part of this 7 miles will pass through the Blackfeet Reservation for which you will need a Blackfeet Conservation and Recreation Permit.  Of course, vehicle logistics will need to be worked out. The east side fee-based shuttle service may be able to help.


End Notes

  1. DeVoto, Bernard, ed. The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1953.
  2. Guthrie, C.W. The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
  3. Maloy, Otis C. “White Pine Blister Rust.” Plant Management Network (September 24, 2001). Accessed August 22, 2018.
  4. Passmore, Blake. What They Called It. Kalispell, MT: Montana Outdoor Guidebooks, 2016.
  5. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
  6. Schultz, James W. Rising Wolf: The White Blackfoot. 1919.

Medicine Grizzly Lake

If you are looking for a hike that includes waterfalls, a picturesque mountain lake surrounded by majestic peaks, and a place away from the crowds, the Medicine Grizzly Lake hike may interest you.

Finding the Trailhead

Medicine Grizzly Lake is located on the east side of Glacier National Park in the Cut Bank area between Saint Mary and East Glacier. To reach the trailhead, drive north from East Glacier 12 miles via MT-49 and then 4 miles on US-89. The road to Cut Bank is signed.

The MT-49 section, also known as the Looking Glass Road, is narrow and winding with steep drop-offs. The panoramas looking west into Glacier National Park are spectacular. Be advised that long vehicles and trailers are not recommended.

The other options are to drive south from Saint Mary 14 miles via US-89. Or, if you are coming from the east, start at Browning and follow US-89 for 12 miles to Kiowa Junction. Turn right and stay on US-89 for 4 miles.

Follow the Cut Bank gravel road for about 5 miles to the trailhead. Note that the first 4 miles of the road are on Blackfeet Reservation land. Before reaching the trailhead parking lot, you will pass by the Cut Bank Ranger Station built in 1917. It was manned year-round until the 1930s and afterward only during the summers. Currently, there is no park service official stationed at Cut Bank. The building is being used by non-park service personnel.

Cut Bank Ranger Station, Glacier National Park
Cut Bank Ranger Station. Can you find the red fox?

Not far from the ranger station you will find a small parking lot on the right side of the road with a clearly marked Pitamakin Pass Trailhead sign. There is a pit toilet south of the gravel in the nearby 14 site Cut Bank campground. The area has no potable water, but the North Fork of Cut Bank Creek is not far. Of course, that water should be purified before drinking it.


Cut Bank Chalets?

The Great Northern Railroad (GNR) invested a lot of money building trails, chalets, tent camps and roads in the early days of the park. Their marketing campaign was about luring wealthy tourists away from the Alps of Europe to the ‘Alps’ of America. The park service did not have the funds to develop the park, and the railroad had a financial incentive to do so.

Around 1911 GNR opened the Cut Bank Teepee Camp. During the years 1911 to 1912, a dining room/kitchen, 2 single-room cabins, and 1 two-story multi-room lodge with a lounge area were constructed and then opened for business in 1913.1 The location, a favorite with fisherman, was a stop along the Inside Trail that linked Two Medicine, Cut Bank, Red Eagle Lake, and Saint Mary Lake.2

Financial troubles during the Great Depression resulted in the closure of Cut Bank in 1933. There was an attempt to revive the camp as a dude ranch which was unsuccessful, and the buildings were permanently closed in 1938. The park service dismantled the structures from 1948 to 1949.1

 



Not a Laughing Matter

Bear scat was not lacking on the trail during this hike. Of course, the joke about the difference between black bear scat and grizzly bear scat was bound to surface. The punch line is that grizzly bear poop has bear bells in it. Lo and behold, further down the trail we found a pile of scat with a bear bell in it. I’m not kidding! I haven’t laughed that hard in a while. Someone had a great sense of humor. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a hidden camera to record the reactions of people passing by.

Bear Scat: Griz or Black
Bear Scat: Griz or Black?

The fact that the Cut Bank valley is grizzly bear habitat is not a joke. Be sure that you have bear-spray that you can access quickly. It is also a good idea to practice taking the canister out of the holster and releasing the safety clip. A surprised bear can be a dangerous bear. Let them know where you are by making noise.

White Angelica - important food source for both grizzlies and black bears
White Angelica, seen along the trail in moist sites, is an important food source for both grizzlies and black bears

Cow Parsnip - grizzly bears feed on the tender spring stems
Cow Parsnip can be found along the trail in moist sites. Grizzly bears feed on the tender spring stems.

 

Glacier National Park has an informative webpage about hiking in the bear’s home that is worth viewing especially if it is your first time in the park.

A final note on bear bells. The official position of Glacier (see link above) is that the bells are not enough. If we throw a little physics at this, it turns out that high-frequency sounds (bear bells) do not travel as far as low-frequency sounds. Elephants take advantage of this to the extreme. They use a frequency that is so low that humans can’t hear it but it travels great distances.


 

Medicine Grizzly Lake (6 miles, 475 feet elevation gain)

The Pitamakin Pass Trail begins by taking a southwest line through an expansive meadow. During the summer months, it is colored with the scarlet-hued paintbrush, purple lupine, magenta sticky geranium, and the white blossoms of yarrow and northern bedstraw. Dominating the skyline behind the meadow is the massive Bad Marriage Mountain and to the east Mad Wolf Mountain.

Bad Marriage Mountain, Cut Bank, Glacier National Park
Bad Marriage Mountain

As you meander through the forest of subalpine fir with their narrow, dense spires, there will be several places where the trail approaches the North Fork of Cut Bank Creek. The viewing points will offer delightful scenes of the peaks to the south including the pyramid shape of Flinsch Peak.

North Fork Cut Bank Creek with Flinsch Peak, Glacier National Park
North Fork Cut Bank Creek with Flinsch Peak

After you have logged 3.9 miles, there will be a trail junction. Going left will keep you on the Pitamakin Pass Trail which will eventually lead you to Two Medicine. The right fork puts you on the Triple Divide Pass Trail. This is the trail that you want.

Just 0.4 miles from the junction is the Atlantic Creek backcountry campground. There are four sites, two of which are reservable. Interestingly, Atlantic Creek, Pacific Creek, and Hudson Bay Creek all have their headwaters at the unique geologic location named Triple Divide Peak. From that mountaintop, water drains toward the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Ocean, and Hudson’s Bay.

Triple Divide Peak, Glacier National Park
Triple Divide Peak

The junction for Medicine Grizzly Lake is 0.3 miles past the campground. Follow the left fork to the lake. The right fork leads to Triple Divide Pass and Saint Mary. As you saunter the final 1.4 miles to the lake, enjoy the headwall with its waterfalls below Razoredge Mountain, Triple Divide Peak to the northwest, and Medicine Grizzly Peak to the south.

Medicine Grizzly Peak, Glacier National Park
Medicine Grizzly Peak

There is an excellent place near the foot of the lake to lounge by the shore, have a bite to eat, and take delight in trout rising to a midge. Rejuvenating is the word that comes to mind.

When it’s time to leave, and that time always comes, take pleasure in knowing that the vistas your back could not fully appreciate will now be front and center for you to relish for the next six miles.


End Notes

  1. “Cut Bank Chalets.” National Park Lodge Architectural Society, 2010, http://www.nplas.org/cutbank.html. Accessed 10 Aug. 2018.
  2. Robinson, Donald. Through the Years. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.

Triple Divide Pass

This out and back hike leads to a very unique location in North America. Triple Divide Peak (8,020 feet), which towers above Triple Divide Pass (7,397 feet), is referred to as the hydrologic apex of North America. This is where the Continental Divide and the Northern Divide intersect.

Water draining down the west side of the peak travels to the Pacific Ocean via Pacific Creek, the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, the Clark Fork River, Pend Oreille River, and finally the Columbia River. Water flowing down the northeastern side drains to Hudson Bay via Hudson Bay Creek, Medicine Owl Creek, Red Eagle Creek, Saint Mary Lake, Saint Mary River, Oldman River, Saskatchewan River, and the Nelson River. Water on the southeastern slopes of Triple Divide Peak flows to the Gulf of Mexico by way of Atlantic Creek, the North Fork of Cut Bank Creek, the Marias River, Missouri River, and the Mississippi River.

Hudson Bay Creek Valley from Triple Divide Pass Glacier National Park
Hudson Bay Creek Valley from Triple Divide Pass


 

The Trailhead

The turn to the Cut Bank area is located between St. Mary and Two Medicine. Travel about 14 miles south from Saint Mary along highway 89 or north of East Glacier approximately 16 miles along the same road.  There is a five-mile-long gravel road that leads to the ranger station, campground, and the trailhead.

The Cut Bank Ranger Station, built in 1917, is one of the first buildings constructed by the National Park Service (NPS) in Glacier National Park and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The station had a permanent year-round ranger until the late 1930s when the NPS made the decision to staff the ranger station only during the summer months. In 1935, the ranger station barn was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps for about $1,300.1

West of the ranger station is the Cut Bank Campground. This no-frills, 14 site campground does have a vault toilet, but no potable water. The North Fork of Cut Bank Creek is nearby. So, filtering or boiling your water is an option. RV’s and truck trailer combinations are not recommended.

The trailhead is located close to the campground. However, there is not an abundance of parking spaces. This entry into Glacier National Park will give you access to other trails that will lead both north and south along the eastern side of the park.

Triple Divide Pass Trailhead from Cut Bank Glacier National Park
Triple Divide Pass Cut Bank Trailhead

This is grizzly bear habitat. Always carry bear spray where it is immediately available and practice removing the canister from its holster. Be sure that any packaging material has been removed from the safety clip and that you can remove the clip safely and quickly. The time to learn is not when you have a bear encounter. Make plenty of noise to alert bears of your presence. Surprising a bear can ruin your day.

Glacier National Park has a great Bear Safety Web page at https://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/bears.htm.

The hike from the Cut Bank Trailhead to Triple Divide Pass climbs 2,380 feet over 7.2 miles.


 

On the Trail – The Easy Part

The hike to Triple Divide Pass starts off through meadows that can be loaded with wildflowers. The trail roughly follows the North Fork of Cut Bank Creek in a southwest direction. Bad Marriage Mountain (8,350 feet) fills most of the skyline to the south. At 3.9 miles from the trailhead, you will come to a trail junction. Going left, to the south, will take you to Morning Star Lake and Pitamakin Pass. Stay right for Triple Divide. From this location to the pass, you will be on a section of the Continental Divide Trail which stretches 3,100 miles from Mexico to Canada. The Atlantic Creek backcountry campground is just a short distance up the trail at 4.2 miles. While you are still relatively close to water, you may want to consider replenishing your supply.

At 4.6 miles, there is another trail junction. The trail to the left leads to Medicine Grizzly Lake. Stay right to continue on to Triple Divide Pass. If you are interested in visiting Medicine Grizzly Lake, it is about 1.4 miles from the junction to the foot and 1.9 miles to the head of the lake. This beautiful lake has numerous waterfalls plunging toward it from Triple Divide Peak, Razoredge Mountain (8,570 feet), and Medicine Grizzly Peak (8,315 feet).

The lake gets its name from the Blackfeet Legend of Medicine Grizzly. According to this legend, a Blackfeet warrior named Nis-ta-e was severely wounded while trying to escape with horses that he and fellow Blackfeet had stolen from the Snake tribe. A grizzly bear found him and supplied him with food. When Nis-ta-e was strong enough, the bear carried him on his back to a location close to his people. The bear asked that in return for saving Nis-ta-e that neither he nor his people would kill a hibernating bear.2


 

On the Trail – The Tougher Part

Triple Divide Trail Glacier National Park
Triple Divide Trail

From the junction to Medicine Grizzly Lake, it is about 2.6 miles to Triple Divide Pass. Don’t count on access to water from here on. The trail climbs up the southern flank of Mount James (9,375 feet) and gains about 2,000 feet in elevation by the time it reaches the pass. The scenery is spectacular. The view looking down on Medicine Grizzly Lake with water cascading hundreds of feet down the headwall is quintessential Glacier. Be sure to keep an eye out for bighorn sheep and mountain goats.

Medicine Grizzly Lake Glacier National Park
Medicine Grizzly Lake

At 7.2 miles, relish the views from the pass back to the southeast along the Atlantic Creek drainage or to the north along the Hudson Bay Creek valley. While looking north, you should be able to see signs of the 2006 Red Eagle Fire that burned over 32,000 acres. This fire burned to the northeast and out of the park and onto the Blackfeet Reservation. From the pass, the notable Triple Divide Peak rises 621 feet to the west and Mount James 1,980 feet to the east.

Triple Divide Peak from Triple Divide Pass, Glacier National Park
Triple Divide Peak from Triple Divide Pass

In addition to bighorn sheep and mountain goats, hoary marmots are also inhabitants of this area. When we sat for lunch, the marmots didn’t waste any time positioning themselves for an irresponsible handout. Please don’t feed them.

Hoary Marmot, Glacier National Park
Hoary Marmot


 

Options

With some planning, this hike could be extended into a nice overnighter. Continue north down the Hudson Bay Creek valley 7.8 miles to the head of Red Eagle Lake. There is a backcountry campground there with four sites – two of which are reservable. Or, add another 0.8 miles to reach the foot of the lake and another backcountry campground with the same number of sites.

From the foot of Red Eagle Lake, it is 8.1 miles to the trailhead which is located at the parking area for the historic 1913 St. Mary Ranger Station – built three years after the establishment of Glacier National Park and three years before the creation of the National Park Service.3


 

End Notes

1.     “Cut Bank Ranger Station Historic District.” National Register of Historic Places,   United States Department of the Interior, npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP. Accessed 10 July 2018.

2.     McClintock, Walter. “The Old North Trail.” Sacred-texts, MacMillan and Co., Limited, 1910, http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/pla/ont/ont39.htm. Accessed 10 July 2018.

3.     “St. Mary Ranger Station.” National Register of Historic Places, United States Department of the Interior, npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP. Accessed 10 July 2018.