Take only memories, leave only footprints. – Chief Si’ahl
This 11-acre gem is definitely worthy of your attention from early to late season. Enjoy the reflections of the surrounding peaks as they take on the golden glow of sunrise. And if you’re lucky, witness a moose emerging from the lake fog in the crisp mountain air. It’s an easy, family-friendly walk from the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn.
From the Many Glacier Entrance Station, drive straight ahead for five miles to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn parking lot. Look for the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail, which begins near the northwest corner of the parking area.
The path leading to Fishercap lake is one-quarter mile from the trailhead. After you cross the bridge over Wilbur Creek, it’s only another three to four minutes to the junction on your left. The footpath to the shoreline is about a tenth of a mile long.
Total Distance: 0.6 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 15 feet; Loss: 15 feet
Difficulty: 0.6, easy (Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time Estimate: 15 minutes (Calculated using an average speed of 2.5 mph and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)
Hiking and history notes for your walk up the spectacular Swiftcurrent Valley.
Suppose you don’t feel like climbing to the pass. In that case, there are three wonderful subalpine lakes plus waterfalls to see along the route. They involve shorter distances and not much elevation gain. You’ll find more information in this post.
If you want more than the pass, Swiftcurrent Lookout Trail heads north near the pass and climbs 1,248 feet over 1.4 miles. The views from up there are outstanding.
Another option is to begin at Logan Pass and walk the Highline Trail past Granite Park Chalet until the path intersects the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail. Follow that back to Many Glacier. This route is a little over 15 miles with 2,844 feet total elevation gain and 4,553 feet loss. Transportation logistics are a must with this trip. Consider leaving your vehicle at the Logan Pass parking lot. At Many Glacier, catch a fee-based hiker’s shuttle to Saint Mary. From Saint Mary, use the free Glacier National Park Shuttles to return to Logan Pass.
The rest of this post is devoted to the out and back hike from Many Glacier to Swiftcurrent Pass.
Once on the Many Glacier Road, drive to the parking lot in front of the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn (originally Swiftcurrent Auto Camp). This spot is five miles west of the Many Glacier entrance station. The well-marked Swiftcurrent Pass Trail begins just west of the inn.
The main building and cabins mark the “turning of a page” in Glacier National Park history. In the park’s early days, the Great Northern Railway (GNR) lured wealthy folks away from their vacations in the Swiss Alps and to the “alps” of America in Glacier National Park. These tourists expected top-shelf service, and they got it for a price.
Around the early 1930s, a different type of visitor emerged. The automobile made it possible for tourists to be mobile and independent of Great Northern. They demanded less extravagant lodging and service than that offered by the Many Glacier Hotel. Their voices were heard.
In 1933, Swiftcurrent Auto Camp began with the building of cabins described as “spartan and inexpensive.” Construction continued in 1935 with a general store at the east end of the current main building. In the 1940s, builders added the lobby space and restaurant at the west end.12 If you get a chance, it’s worth a look inside these historical buildings.
Long before the auto camp, horses and their riders rode down the Swiftcurrent Valley, making their way to the Many Glacier Hotel. This was the last leg of a multi-day backcountry camping trip known as the North Circle.3 As you walk along the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail, know that you are enjoying the same magnificent scenery that many have for over a century.
Fishercap Lake (0.7 miles)
A quarter-mile after leaving the trailhead, a path veers left toward the shore of the lake with the peculiar name. The Blackfeet gave their friend George B. Grinnell the moniker Fishercap, which was then attached to the lake.9
The soft glow of early morning light on the water, Swiftcurrent Mountain, Mount Wilbur, and Bullhead Point creates an excellent scene for photographs. Not only that, but the valley from Fishercap Lake to Bullhead Lake has superb moose habitat. And, although there are no guarantees, the best time to see these impressive animals is early morning and evening.
Redrock Lake (1.3 miles) & Redrock Falls
The Swiftcurrent Pass Trail continues from the Fishercap Lake Trail junction through mixed lodgepole pine and fir forest. Intermixed stands of quaking aspen show off glowing yellow leaves in October. One and a half miles from the trailhead, there is a short side path to a gravel beach on the north side of Redrock Lake. It’s worth a look.
Continue toward the west end of the lake and find a spur trail at 1.8 miles leading to the lower part of Redrock Falls. The best show is early in the season. After you return to the primary route, climb a little, and then pass next to Swiftcurrent Creek and the upper section of the falls.
The conspicuous red to maroon rock from which the lake and falls take their name is part of the 2,500-feet-thick Grinnell Formation. Over a billion years ago, a Siberia size landmass began separating from what would become North America. A shallow inland sea formed in the resulting basin. Here, streams and rivers dumped the silt and sand they carried from the surrounding lifeless land. Over time, heat, pressure, and oxygen content produced multi-colored layers of rock. Then, tectonic forces pushed those layers, which were miles deep, eastward 50 miles, and upward.1
When the park’s rocks were forming, life in the ancient sea consisted of single-celled cyanobacteria. Since 3.5 billion years ago, these primitive organisms have produced oxygen and contributed substantially to an atmosphere that supports life as we know it.11 Stromatolites, fossils of the structures these organisms made, exist not only in the Grinnell Formation but within many others throughout the park.4
During the Pleistocene Epoch, glaciers thousands of feet deep filled the valleys of what is now Glacier National Park. Peaks of the mountains would have appeared like islands in the seas of ice. When the glaciers receded around 12,000 years ago, they left amazing hanging and u-shaped valleys, aretes, horns, and cirques that characterize the park.
Bullhead Lake (3.9 miles to the west end)
You’ll cross a suspension bridge over a stream flowing from Windmaker Lake about three and a half miles from the trailhead. Watch for a path headed toward Bullhead Lake about 500 feet after the bridge. I think the views are better there than those at the west end of the lake.
A couple hundred feet farther west from the junction mentioned above, some not so apparent trails lead down to the shore. I used one of those when I needed to replenish my water supply coming back from the pass. Be sure to use some sort of water purification system.
After leaving the west end of Bullhead Lake, cross Swiftcurrent Creek and head south into the drainage nestled at the base of Mount Grinnell, the Garden Wall, and a flank of Swiftcurrent Mountain. The trail crosses a pretty braided stream channel, but there is a plank bridge. It’s put in place in June and taken out in September. Check Glacier National Park’s Trail Status Reports.
In 1910, an official from the Department of the Interior visited the newly established Glacier National Park. He hired Josiah Rogers, an owner of stock and packer on the west side, to take him through the park, including a trip over Swiftcurrent Pass at the end of the journey. Rogers balked at this last request. He finally agreed when a contract guaranteed $100 for each horse lost while traveling over the dangerous route.9
The ride over a primitive trail scratched into cliffs must have made an impression on Roger’s guest. In those days, there wasn’t much money available for the park. But somehow, the government found funds to reconstruct the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail.9
One must climb over three miles using several switchbacks cut into the headwall to reach the pass. Otherwise known as “Galen’s Ladder,” workers constructed these hairpin-turns for the footpath during the 1913 trail reconstruction.9
Grand waterfalls plummeting down the eastern rock face of the Garden Wall add to the spectacular scenery as you gain elevation. Swiftcurrent Glacier clings to an east face of the Garden Wall not far below the ridge top. Several viewing points will present themselves as you make your way up the trail. This glacier has decreased about 71% since the mid-1800s.10 Modern glaciers, like Swiftcurrent, are not holdovers from the Pleistocene, which ended about 12,000 years ago. The 26 remaining glaciers in the park have only been around for 7,000 years.8
“A rolling wall of flame.”9 Park superintendent Scoyen said, “I have never seen as complete a burn-out as occurred in Swiftcurrent Valley. With the exception of a few swampy areas, every green living thing from rocks on one side of the valley to the other, has been destroyed.”5 Those words described the 8,364-acre, 1936 Heaven’s Peak Fire and its aftermath.
It all began on August 18, with a lightning strike above the Glacier Wall west of the continental divide. On August 31, violent winds carried firebrands east over Swiftcurrent Pass. They ignited the forest as much as 1.5 miles ahead of the main fire. The Many Glacier Hotel was spared, but the wildfire consumed many other buildings.5
Looking down on the green Swiftcurrent Valley from several viewing points along the headwall, one would never suspect that such an inferno was part of Many Glacier’s history.
Devil’s Elbow is the last major switchback on the trail. Envision sitting on a horse or leading the critters around that hairpin turn with a vertical drop of hundreds of feet within a few steps of the path.
A small pile of rock rubble on the left side of the footpath marks the pass at 7,185 feet. It is all that remains of the base constructed in 1926 to support a locomotive bell. GNR installed bells at Swiftcurrent, Piegan, Siyeh Passes, and a fourth near Scenic Point. Great Northern borrowed the unique Swiss custom of placing bells on mountain tops and passes so that hikers could produce a loud clang upon arrival. It was in line with the railway’s advertising slogan “Alps of America” to promote Glacier National Park.9
Total Distance: 13.7 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 2,611 feet; Loss: 370 feet
Difficulty: 18.9, strenuous (Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time Estimate: 6 hours 47 minutes (Calculated using an average speed of 2.5 mph and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)
New To Glacier National Park?
I invite you to take a look at my book Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road: a traveler’s guide. I’m confident it will help with your planning and exploration of this engineering masterpiece and the surrounding wilderness. See it here on Apple Books.
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.
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.
If you’ve not done many longer hikes in the backcountry, consider REI’s Day Hiking Checklist. It’s a good one.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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)
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.
Drive 1.1 miles past the Two Medicine Entrance Station. There’s an obvious parking lot on the right.
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.
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
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
Total Distance: 0.6 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 39 feet; Loss: 7 feet
Walking Time Estimate: 15 minutes (average 2.5 miles-per-hour)
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.
Schultz, James W. Running Eagle: the warrior girl. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1919.
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
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.