Gable Pass via Lee Ridge

This adventure in the Belly River region begins in the northeastern corner of Glacier National Park, about three-quarters of a mile south of the international border with Canada. If exploring a remote area in the Glacier National Park wilderness appeals to you, read on.

Planning

Because of the location, consider distances to the nearest help should an emergency arise. The nearest are the Belly River Ranger Station and the U.S. Customs Station. Depending where you are in the hike, one will be better than the other. Know that there is no cell phone coverage.

Be honest with yourself about your physical condition.

Water is fleeting on Lee Ridge. I wouldn’t plan on replenishing your supplies en route. “Bring plenty of water” is a commonly given piece of advice but a little vague for me. So, consider a general rule of thumb. Consume at least 0.5 liters per hour. For this trip then, the minimum estimated volume of water to carry is 3.2 liters. It was close to 80° Fahrenheit on my last trek up Lee Ridge, and I drank about 4 liters.

If you’re unfamiliar with traveling through bear habitat, I recommend Glacier National Park’s Bear Safety web page. There’s a lot of valuable information, including a video presentation by a park bear biologist.

Check the Glacier National Park Trail Status page.

Check Glacier National Park’s Trail and Area Closings and Postings.

Check the National Weather Service Recreation Safety Forecast.

If you’ve not done many longer hikes in the backcountry, consider REI’s Day Hiking Checklist. It’s a good one.


Trailhead

From Saint Mary, drive north 13 miles on U.S. Highway 89 to the junction with Montana Highway 17 (Chief Mountain Highway). Continue 13.7 miles on Highway 17 and look for a parking turnout on the right side of the road. If you reach a large parking lot on the left within sight of the Chief Mountain Border Station, you’ve gone too far. Backtrack about one-half mile. From the south end of the parking turnout, walk southeast along the highway about 550 feet (0.1 miles) to find the trail marked with an orange tag nailed to a tree.

Chief Mountain, Ninaki Peak, and Papoose
Chief Mountain from the Chief Mountain Highway

Hike

The first 4.5 miles of this trip are through a lodgepole pine forest. An abundance of thimbleberry (in full bloom the first week of July) and other plants like bead lily, false Salomon’s-seal, and spotted coral-root point to a moist environment. The mosquitos are a confirmation of that.

At 2.4 miles, the Lee Ridge Trail slope increases to about 10% for 3 miles. The last 0.6 miles steepens again before reaching the Gable Pass Trail junction. This intersection is also at the highest elevation of the hike at 7,447 feet.

The footpath crosses the treeline at 4.6 miles from the trailhead and fades away into the alpine tundra. Rock cairns within eyesight of each other lead to the Gable Pass Trail.

You’ll notice an extensive area where rock and plant life form alternating rows in a stair-step pattern. This unique ecosystem is an alpine fellfield—plants living here experience severe cold, wind, little moisture, and a short growing season. The mounds of the pink-flowered moss campion and the matt-forming white mountain avens are the most common plants thriving in this harsh environment.

Glacier National Park, Belly River Region, Lee Ridge fell fields
Lee Ridge fellfield

As you make your way toward the end of the Lee Ridge route, Gable Mountain towers directly ahead. Toward the west, the tallest peak in Glacier National Park, Mount Cleveland, dominates the spectacular panorama of mountain peaks. (See the photo at the top of this post.)

Glacier National Park, Belly River Region, Gable Mountain
Gable Mountain from the upper tundra section of Lee Ridge.

At the junction, proceed eastward. Chief Mountain is to the left and only about two miles away. The Blackfeet people have long held a spiritual connection with this geologic feature. Ninaki Peak and Papoose are the two lesser prominences between Chief and the trail. One legend from the Piegan Tribe of the Blackfeet Nation explains how those mountains got their names.

Glacier National Park, Belly River Region, Chief Mountain, Ninaki Peak, and Papoose
Chief Mountain, Ninaki Peak, and Papoose

Approaching Gable Pass, the trail drops and climbs as it winds through enormous limestone boulders. We saw cat tracks (four toes, rounded shape, no claw marks) in the mud and assumed a bobcat made them since they were only about 1.5 inches across. A lynx or mountain lion could be 2-3 times wider. Of course, this is assuming an adult made the imprints. We also came across the blocky prints of a mountain goat.

Before the final brief descent to Gable Pass, we took advantage of a location offering nice flat rocks and outstanding landscape views to have a snack. While one hand grasped the food, the other swatted at biting insects. The bites were not the gentle little pokes of mosquitos. These guys meant business.

The Return Trip

Backtrack and call it a day. Or, go back to the Gable Pass and Lee Ridge trail intersection. Instead of turning right, continue straight ahead. It will be a steep 3.8 miles down to the Belly River Ranger Station. From there, take the Belly River Trail northeast for six miles. Once at the trailhead, it will still be 0.5 miles walking along the highway back to your vehicle. Instead of 13 miles, completing the loop will be closer to a 17-mile day.

Hike Summary

Total Distance: 13.2 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 2,367 feet; Loss: 637 feet
Difficulty: 17.9, strenuous ( calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile)
Estimated Walking Time: 6 hours 28 minutes (at 2.5 mph + Naismith’s Rule)

Running Eagle Falls

A Fun Family-Friendly Walk

This is an easy stroll that opens up early in the season. There is a viewing platform reached by crossing a plank bridge over Dry Creek. Know that the park service may not install that bridge until mid-June. Don’t worry. The falls are still visible from the place where Dry Creek flows into Two Medicine Creek.

Trailhead

Drive 1.1 miles past the Two Medicine Entrance Station. There’s an obvious parking lot on the right.

Hike

The main Running Eagle Falls Trail begins near the middle of the parking area and continues for 0.2-mile to the falls. The Nature Trail starts at the south end of the parking lot. This route joins the main track before arriving at the falls. Both footpaths are accessible, wide and usually in great shape.

Thimbleberry, cow parsnips, and baneberry grow in the moist areas along the path. All have white blossoms and bloom from June to July. In spring, on calm, misty days, the sweet scent of black cottonwood buds seems to be especially strong. 

Interpretive signs along the Nature Trail introduce the hiker to plants that were important to the Blackfeet people. You’ll learn their name for each plant, identification tips, and how they used it for food, medicine, or fuel. 

In no time at all, the route emerges onto gravel and the high watermark of Dry Fork. Follow the path to the footbridge over this creek and continue toward the wooden viewing platform. In exposed areas, look for the blue nodding blossoms of harebells during July and August. 

Running Eagle Falls

If one visits this place during spring run-off, it appears as though there’s only one waterfall. As the water level subsides, the hidden torrent of water rushing out of the lower half of the cliff face becomes visible.  

A sink hole in Two Medicine Creek upstream from the cascades contributes to this phenomenon. When the water level is high, the underground channel cannot carry the entire water volume. The excess continues downstream and plummets over the precipice. During lower volume stream flows, all the water travels underground to exit at the rock face.

Glacier National Park, Two Medicine, Running Eagle Falls
Running Eagle Falls courtesy of Glacier National Park, Jacob W. Frank (public domain)

Were it not for the incredibly resistant limestone of the Altyn Formation, there may never have been waterfalls here. The valley filling glaciers from the Pleistocene’s Great Ice Age pulverized softer rock. A testament to the durability of this stone is Chief Mountain, which is also Altyn limestone.1 Everything between it and the Rocky Mountain Front eroded.

Something else here is odd. Usually, with sedimentary rock, the age of layers decreases, going from bottom to top. In other words, the top of Rising Wolf Mountain is younger than its base. Streams flowing into the ancient Belt Sea deposited sediments making up the uppermost rock long after that of lower layers.

The Altyn rock over which the water plunges is around 1.5 billion years old.4 The predominant fossils found in this formation are stromatolites created by single-celled cyanobacteria living in shallow water environments. Stromatolites made by these oxygen-producing cells are the earliest evidence of life on Earth and date back even farther to 3.5 billion years.

Contrast that age with that of the rock under the viewing platform. This geologic formation lying below the Altyn is from the late Cretaceous Period and only about 80 million years old.2 During this time, the shallow Western Interior Sea stretched from the arctic over most of Montana to the Gulf of Mexico. Inhabitants included more advanced forms of life, such as sharks, giant bony fish, and plesiosaurs. 

Starting about 150 million years ago, tectonic forces from the west working on the North American continent caused mountains to rise inland. These forces continued for 90 million years. Before the great push ended, the compression became significant enough to shove a piece of the continent several miles deep by a few hundred miles wide, 50 miles eastward over the top of the younger Cretaceous rock.4 It’s called the Lewis Overthrust, and the viewing platform sits at its base.2

Pi’tamaka

Running Eagle Falls gets its name from a remarkable adolescent female Blackfeet warrior. Her name was Otaki until Chief Lone Walker gave her the male name Pi’tamaka or Running Eagle, as a sign of respect and honor for her bravery in battle. 

Pi’tamaka yearned to know her purpose in life. She went to the cave of rushing water for a vision quest. There the adolescent warrior prayed and fasted for most of a week, hoping her spirit helper would give direction. The upshot was that she decided never to marry but to live in service of her people.5 In the late 1870s, Running Eagle died in battle with the Flathead tribe.3

Hike Summary

Total Distance: 0.6 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 39 feet; Loss: 7 feet
Walking Time Estimate: 15 minutes (average 2.5 miles-per-hour)
Difficulty Score: 0.7, easy
(Score calculated using the Petzoldt equation for energy-rated miles.)

A Final Note

If you’re planning a drive over the Going-to-the-Sun Road, I invite you to check out my book – Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road: A Traveler’s Guide at Apple Books. Inside, find lots of things to do and places to see while traveling between West Glacier and Saint Mary.

Notes

  1. Dyson, James L. “The Geologic Story of Glacier National Park.” Glacier Natural History Association, 1957. Accessed January 12, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/glac/3/index.htm.
  2. Keller, Stephen M, ed., and Matthew L. Morgan, ed. “Unfolding the Geology of the West: Volume 44 of Field Guide.” (Boulder, CO: The Geologic Society of America, 2016), Google Books. https://books.google.com/books?id=VVH7DAAAQBAJ&dq=altyn+formation+running+eagle+falls&source=gbs_navlinks_s.
  3. “Pi’tamaka (Running Eagle).” National Park Service. Last modified February 25, 2020. https://www.nps.gov/people/pi-tamaka-running-eagle.htm
  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. Schultz, James W. Running Eagle: the warrior girl. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1919.

Going-to-the-Sun Road

It’s a wrap!

First, thanks to all who have been visiting my Experience Glacier National Park blog. You know that I have a passion for this special place.

I’m excited to announce that I have just released a book centered around one of the most magnificent roads in the country: the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

In this digital Multi-Touch book, I’ve taken a different approach than others. Swipe or click through numerous photo galleries, pan and zoom on maps, use scrolling sidebars for the rest of the story, click on internet links to access additional historical as well as current information explicitly tailored for the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor. In addition to the Table of Contents, thumbnails of the book pages can be placed near the bottom of the screen. Both of these tools help the reader find information, like the following, quickly:

  • options for getting around inside the park
  • important wildlife information
  • points of interest with associated human history, geology and natural history; mileages from both the west and east entrances are provided
  • the story behind the multicolored rocks and rugged topography
  • hiking opportunities 
  • water recreation
  • boat tours
  • biking 
  • horseback riding
  • camping 
  • lodging and restaurants

If this sounds like something you would be interested in, you can check it out on Apple Books. Just click on the link below the cover picture.

If you know others who would find this book useful, please share the information with them.

Going-to-the-Sun Road – Tom Berquist

(Currently, the book is only available in the United States and Canada.)

Glacier’s Beauty

 

I’m switching it up for this post. Rather than describing a hike, I’ve posted a few of my favorite photographs. Hope that you enjoy them.

 

The East Tunnel on the Going-to-the-Sun Road and Clements Mountain Glacier National Park
The East Tunnel on the Going-to-the-Sun Road and Clements Mountain

 

 

Two Medicine Lake from the Scenic Point Trail, Glacier National Park
Two Medicine Lake from the Scenic Point Trail

 

 

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

 

 

Bird Woman Falls, Glacier National Park
Bird Woman Falls

 

 

Mount Gould and the View Northwest from Piegan Pass, Glacier National Park
Mount Gould and the View Northwest from Piegan Pass

 

 

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

 

 

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Heavens Peak and Granite Park Chalet, Glacier National Park
Heavens Peak and Granite Park Chalet from the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail

 

 

Saint Mary Lake from Sun Point, Glacier National Park
Saint Mary Lake from Sun Point

 

 

Belton Bridge and Middle Fork of the Flathead River, Glacier National Park
Belton Bridge and Middle Fork of the Flathead River