Elk Mountain

Elk Mountain (7,835 feet) rises in the southern part of Glacier National Park west of Marias Pass. This hike is 7.4 miles round trip with an elevation gain of 3,300 feet. Even though the snow leaves this trail early, it might not be the best choice for the first trip of the season. Give your legs and lungs a chance to get ready for it.

Finding the Trailhead

The trailhead is in the Snowslip area 37.4 miles east of West Glacier. Look for a gravel road (#1066) headed north from Highway 2 at mile marker 192.

The infamous, seedy, and wild 1890s railroad town of McCarthyville promoted dangerous entertainment a little west of this location. It catered to railroad construction workers and miners. During the town’s heyday, saloons, gambling dens, and dance halls prospered while more than a few patrons lost their lives. Little remains today.³

Drive 0.6-miles on #1066. There is crude parking for 4-5 vehicles just before a road closure.

Onward

A footpath heads north from the parking area and intersects an old road at 0.8-miles. The route passes through private land before reaching the railroad tracks south of the park boundary. Please be respectful of the landowners and stay on the trail/road. 

Once at the railroad tracks, look toward the far side for a small rectangular orange tag nailed to a tree. The trail is to the left of the marker. You will find trailhead signs soon after the path enters the trees. A little over one mile from the trailhead, the route passes the Glacier National Park Fielding Patrol Cabin. Ranger Joe Opalka built the structure in 1936 to serve as a fire cache. Later, it provided shelter for rangers on extended patrols. It is one of two backcountry cabins in the park that were frame-built rather than constructed of logs from the surrounding area.²

Fielding Patrol Cabin, Glacier National Park
Fielding Snowshoe Patrol Cabin. Built during 1936 by Ranger Joe Opalka.
Glacier National Park, Elk Mountain Trailhead

The junction for the Elk Mountain Trail is 0.1-mile past the patrol cabin. For the next 2.5 miles, the trail climbs 3,020 feet to reach the summit. Once the footpath exits the timber 0.7-miles from the top, the views will distract one from any discomforts endured up to that point.

On the northwest side of the ridge just beneath the summit, the trail climbs through the standing ghostly remains of whitebark pine trees. Most likely they succumbed to white pine blister rust as have their relatives, limber pine. Originally from Asia, the fungal disease ended up in Europe and then brought to North America via infected white pine seedlings imported from Europe in 1900. It has become the most destructive disease of five-needle pines on our continent.⁴

Glacier National Park, Elk Mountain, whitebark pine snags
Whitebark pine snags.

An old concrete foundation with rusty bolts sticking out and strands of cable lying about mark the location of the former fire lookout. It was built in the 1930s, last used in 1959, and razed by the National Park Service in 1965.¹

Former Elk Mountain Fire Lookout, Glacier National Park
Former Elk Mountain Fire Lookout. Courtesy of the Montana Memory Project.
Glacier National Park, Foundation of the Former Elk Mountain Fire Lookout
Summit of Elk Mountain and the foundation of the ​former fire lookout

The flat stones facing the south soak up the sun’s energy and furnish a relatively warm place to hunker down on cold, windy days.

Views to the northeast include Little Dog Mountain (8,610 feet) and Summit Mountain (8,770 feet), Sheep Mountain (8,569 feet) to the north, the unmistakable spire of Mount Saint Nicholas (9,376 feet) to the northwest. Great Northern Mountain (8,705 feet) with Stanton Glacier can be seen far to the southwest in the Great Bear Wilderness.

Glacier National Park, Summit of Elk Mountain
View to the east: of Little Dog Mountain, Summit Mountain and the plains of eastern Montana from the summit of Elk Mountain
Glacier National Park, Mount Saint Nicholas
The spire of Mount Saint Nicholas in the background with Sheep Mountain in the foreground.

Don’t forget to look down. There’s beauty there too.


Notes

  1. “Elk Mountain Fire Lookout.” Montana Memory Project. Accessed July 30, 2019. https://mtmemory.org/digital/collection/p16013coll83/id/123/rec/1.
  2. “Fielding Snowshoe Patrol Cabin.” National Register of Historic Places. Last modified June , 1984. Accessed July 30, 2019. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/AssetDetail?assetID=78d78895-56ce-4eb3-bba2-2c55851a1854.
  3. Johns, Sam E. “The Pioneers. Volume 4.” Montana Memory Project. Last modified , 1943. Accessed July 30, 2019. https://mtmemory.org/digital/collection/p16013coll24/id/1612/rec/2.
  4. Maloy, Otis C. “White Pine Blister Rust.” USDA Forest Service. Last modified September 24, 2001. Accessed July 20, 2019. https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/highelevationwhitepines/Threats/pdf/whitepine_PHP2001_0924_01.pdf.

Harrison Lake

Harrison Lake, Glacier National Park
Harrison Lake

If you are looking to take a trail less traveled, this hike may be for you. The Glacier National Park Citizen Science Project for mountain goat monitoring was my reason for going to Harrison Lake and I was not disappointed. Memories of the 11-mile round trip still bring a smile to my face.

The trail to the lake can be accessed a few different ways. At West Glacier, hop on the South Boundary Trail and walk for about 7 miles to the trail junction for Harrison Lake. Or, as I opted, ford the Middle Fork of the Flathead River east of Ousel Creek to eliminate a lot of miles. Some people use a site in the vicinity of Moccasin Creek.

Once on the north side of the river, I continued north until my path intersected the South Boundary Trail. The path into Harrison Lake was about one mile east.

More people die from drowning in Glacier National Park than from any other cause. Fording the river can be very dangerous, especially early in the summer. I recommend talking to the knowledgeable folks at the Glacier National Park Backcountry Office. They will provide you with up to date information on the best place to ford the Middle Fork as well as a map to help you find the location. If you have never forded a river before, you should learn the safe way to do so or go with experienced folks.

Just before the trail junction, coming from the west, you will find the dilapidated Doody cabin. John Fraley in his book Wild River Pioneers provides an entertaining description of Dan and Josephine Doody. The following are some of the highlights from his book.

Josephine Doody allegedly shot a man in Colorado around 1890. She then headed north and ended up in the seedy and notoriously dangerous railroad town of McCarthyville. The town no longer exists, but the site is located about 6 miles west of Marias Pass. Apparently, she took a liking to opium while in that town. Dan Doody, a fur trapper, and prospector met her in one of the 32 saloons there and fell in love. He subsequently hauled her off to his 120- acre homestead near Harrison Creek. There they started a lucrative moonshine business. Great Northern Railroad trains would stop and place their orders by blowing their whistles to indicate the number of quarts that they desired. Dan was hired as one of the six original rangers after Glacier National Park was established in 1910. He didn’t last long at that job. Excessive poaching was the reason for his short tenure as a ranger. Dan died in 1919, but Josephine stayed on the property and guided fishermen into her 70’s. She left the park in 1931 and died in 1936 at the age of 82.

I was surprised to learn that the Trust for Public Land purchased the Doody’s 120-acre homestead and then transferred the ownership to the National Park Service in July 2012.

From the old cabin, it’s a short distance to the Harrison Lake Trail. I hiked the three miles from the junction to the foot of the lake on a day that was cool with a light rain. Memories of the solitude, earthy smells, bear scat on the trail, the incredible quiet, except for wolves howling to the north of me, are like a favorite movie that I can call up any time I want.

Bull Trout
Bull Trout courtesy of Jim Mogen USFWS

Harrison Lake is about 2.5 miles long with an elevation of 3,693 feet. The cold, clear glacial water is home to bull trout and the non-native lake trout. The meltwater comes from Harrison Glacier which is situated on the southeast slope of Mount Jackson (10,052 feet) at the far north end of the valley. The glacier was 466 acres in 2005 and the largest in the park. The good news is that it appears to be shrinking more slowly than other park glaciers.

From the foot of the lake, it is an up and down 1.8 miles to the backcountry campground with three campsites. Along the trail, there will be breaks in the trees that offer glimpses of Mount Thompson (8,527 feet) to the northeast.

Another 0.5 miles beyond the campground you will find the Harrison Lake patrol cabin. This small, one-room cabin is on the National Register of Historic Places and is situated about 100 feet from the shoreline of the lake. It was built around 1928 for the rangers patrolling out of the now abandoned Nyack Ranger Station 15 trail miles to the south. The 103,000-acre Half Moon Fire of 1929 burned the area, but the cabin escaped.

Harrison Lake Patrol Cabin, Glacier National Park
Harrison Lake Patrol Cabin

I was hoping that the low lying clouds would burn off so that I could collect the data on the mountain goats of the area. But, no such luck. As I headed back to the Middle Fork, several loons called through the fog that hugged the lake. Their crazy laugh-like tremolo and eerie wail were a definite bonus that I spliced into the mental movie of the day.