Iceberg Lake

The spectacular Iceberg Lake day hike in Glacier National Park should be on your must do list while in the Many Glacier region.

To begin this adventure, follow the Many Glacier Road to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn and Cabins. The trailhead for the Iceberg Lake/Ptarmigan Trail can be found by following the road on the west end of the restaurant and camp store building. This will lead to limited parking and the trailhead. If you are not there early, it is probably better to leave your car in the main parking lot in front and walk back to the trailhead. It’s not far.

The restaurant, camp store, and gift shop along with many of the small, simple cabins in the back are part of the Swiftcurrent Auto Camp Historic District. In the early 1930s, the Great Northern Railway (GNR) subsidiary, Glacier Park Hotel Company, began building the facility in response to the new automobile tourist. This mobile visitor with limited funds started replacing the wealthy clientele who were courted by the GNR from 1910 to 1930.2



Notes for a Heavily Used Area

This is a very popular hike and can be extremely busy. So, a few words about trail etiquette may be helpful. It is generally accepted that hikers going uphill have the right of way. That being said, if I’m going uphill and encounter a group coming downhill, it makes sense that I yield to the group. It is a lot easier for me to move to the side than it is for the entire group to do the same.

We all hike at different speeds. It is not cool to hike on the heels of another person. Use your favorite friendly greeting so that the folks ahead of you know that you are there. They should step aside and let you pass. If not, a friendly request should do the trick.

Finally, the potty zone is at least 200 feet from the trail. If we use an average adult pace distance of 2.5 feet, then 80 paces should put you at about the correct distance from the path. There is a pit toilet located about 2.6 miles from the trailhead and just before the trail crosses Ptarmigan Creek.

I should also note that the Ptarmigan Trail and the Iceberg Lake Trail go through some prime grizzly bear habitat. During July and August, berries are ripening somewhere. Both black and grizzly bears are naturally attracted to this food source, and you will be passing through their cafeteria. Be wise and let them know where you are by making noise. Keep your bear spray where you can access it quickly and be sure that you know how to use it. The park maintains a webpage that lists closures and postings for trails and backcountry campgrounds. This is definitely a good resource to check before heading out.


A Little Geology

For me, the stories behind the chiseled, multilayered mountains make what I am looking at even more spectacular. Trying to comprehend the time from the early stages of sediment eroding from a lifeless Earth surface to what we see today hurts my brain. And, this only goes back one-third of the way to Earth’s beginning.1

More recently, during the Great Ice Age that began over a million years ago and ended around 12,000 years ago, enormous glaciers filled the valleys and ground away at the mountains like a gigantic rasp.3 When this was done from two opposing sides, sharp mountain ridges or aretes were left. When the ice rivers scoured the rock from three opposing sides, a horn was created. To the southeast of Iceberg Lake is the glacial horn Mount Wilbur (9,231 feet). West and wrapping around to the north of the lake are the pinnacles of the glacial arete named the Ptarmigan Wall.

The scoured mountainsides present an excellent exposure of the layers of various types of sedimentary rock that were deposited beginning 1.6 billion years ago into the ancient Belt Sea. Sediment deposited in shallow water could react with oxygen resulting in reddish colors. That deposited into deeper water with minimal oxygen ended up being green. The beige and tan colors result from the remains of coral forming organisms.1

The red argillite of the Grinnell Formation makes up the base of Mount Wilbur. Just above the Grinnell Formation is the younger buff-colored limestone of the Siyeh Formation which caps both Mount Wilbur and Mount Henkel. If you look carefully about halfway between the base of the cliffs and the summit on the east face of Mount Wilbur, you will see the light gray band about 60 feet high that is within the Siyeh Formation. It also can be seen on the Ptarmigan Wall above Iceberg Lake. That layer contains fossilized algae. The algae formed a reef hundreds of millions of years ago in the Belt Sea.1

Mount Wilbur and Iceberg Peak Guarding the Iceberg Lake Cirque, Glacier National Park
Mount Wilbur and Iceberg Peak Tower More than 3,000 Feet Above Iceberg Lake

The dark layer of rock toward the top of Mount Wilbur and the Ptarmigan Wall is a diorite sill. This band of igneous rock is approximately 100 feet thick and formed when magma was crammed between the layers of sedimentary rock in the Siyeh Formation. The lighter colored stone immediately above and below the sill is limestone that was metamorphosed into marble by the tremendous heat of the magma.1


The Hike

Glacier National Park puts the one-way distance to the lake at 4.8 miles with an elevation gain of 1,200 feet. The first quarter of a mile is steep. But don’t let that dampen your enthusiasm. The remainder of the hike is rated as easy to moderate.

The first part of the trail passes along the southwest slopes of Mount Henkel (8,770 feet). During May and June, the large, showy yellow flowers of arrowleaf balsamroot provide an excellent early season contrast to the slopes on which they grow. This open section of the trail offers quintessential Glacier National Park scenery.

Swiftcurrent Mountain, Glacier National Park
Swiftcurrent Mountain to the Southwest of the Ptarmigan Trail

The trail enters a forest at about 1.5 miles from the trailhead. There is a perfect place to rest and grab a snack where the path uses a bridge to cross Ptarmigan Creek. Shortly after this is the junction to Iceberg Lake. Take the left fork. Going to the right will lead you to the Ptarmigan Tunnel. At three miles, the footpath emerges from the forest, and the glacial cirque where Iceberg Lake is found comes into view.

Iceberg Lake Cirque, Glacier National Park
Iceberg Lake Cirque

After you cross the footbridge over Iceberg Creek, you will enter a beautiful alpine meadow painted with a multitude of colors during July and August. Among these are the purple subalpine fleabane, the white Sitka valerian, the pink mountain heather, and the blue penstemon. It is a pretty sure bet that you will also see Columbian ground squirrels. Scan the rock faces for mountain goats and the sky for golden eagles.

 

If you arrive at the lake in June, chances are pretty good that it will be frozen solid. Icebergs should be plentiful in July and mostly gone by the middle of August. For me, no matter the month, sitting on the shoreline and taking in the iconic splendor is rejuvenating.

“… we saw a mass of ice as large as a house part from the glacier, splash down into the deep lake …” James Willard Shultz, September 1, 19154

 

 

Iceberg Lake in July, Glacier National Park
Iceberg Lake in July

Before You Call It A Day

If you have never visited the historic Many Glacier Hotel, I recommend that this be the time to do so. The immense hotel, modeled after Swiss alpine chalets, was constructed by the Great Northern Railway during the years 1914 and 1915. Then, only the wealthy could afford to enjoy it. Now you can relax with your hiking partners and enjoy refreshments while being wowed by the surrounding peaks with names like Mount Gould, Angel Wing and the spectacular Grinnell Point that dominates the view across Swiftcurrent Lake.


 

End Notes

  1. Dyson, James L. The Geologic Story of Glacier National Park, Bulletin No. 3. N.p.: Glacier Natural History Association, 1957. Accessed August 31,2018.  https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/glac/3/index.htm
  2. National Register of Historic Places. “Swiftcurrent Auto Camp Historic District.” Accessed August 30, 2018. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/AssetDetail?assetID=9e575759-c2a0-4079-8d43-99638b12c14a.

  3. Ray, Louis L. The Great Ice Age. N.p.: U.S. Geological Survey, 1992. Accessed August 30, 2018. https://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/ice_age/ice_age.pdf.
  4. Schultz, James W. Blackfeet Tales of Glacier National Park. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916. Accessed August 30, 2018. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/43399/43399-h/43399-h.htm.

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.

Sun Point Waterfall Hike

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

Finding the Trailhead

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

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

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

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


Going-to-the-Sun Chalets

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

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

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

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

 

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

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


 


The Hike

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

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

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

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

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

Baring Falls, Glacier National Park
Baring Falls

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

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

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

Saint Mary Falls, Glacier National Park
Saint Mary Falls

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

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

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

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


End Notes

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

Old Flathead Ranger Station

You may be more likely to hear cross-country skiers or mountain bikers talk about this trail than you will hikers. But there are great opportunities for birding and viewing wildflowers while you enjoy an unhurried walk to the haunts of the Old Flathead Ranger Station.

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The Old Flathead Ranger Station trail has about 400 feet of elevation gain/loss with a total round trip distance of 6.8 miles. This is also one of the few trails in Glacier National Park where bikes are allowed. The path is all that is left of an overgrown road that was built in the 1940’s.

The trailhead is on the western side of the park southwest of Lake McDonald. To get there, travel about 0.3 miles beyond the west entrance. Watch for the Apgar Lookout Trailhead sign. The turn is on the left side of the road. Travel another 0.3 miles to the T in the lane and go right. Continue on to the Quarter Circle Bridge. The trailhead is about 0.8 miles beyond the bridge. Keep an eye out because the sign, which will be on your left, is pretty small as is the parking area.

It will be quickly evident that this area burned in the past. In fact, the area you will be walking through was consumed by the Robert Fire of 2003. This human-caused fire started west of the park on July 23 and burned through 57,570 acres. The conflagration threatened West Glacier and Apgar which were evacuated twice. Firefighters skillfully set backfires which were pulled west by the unimaginable updraft of the Robert Fire. This action saved West Glacier and Apgar.

If you travel on the Going to the Sun Road and look across Lake McDonald, you will see where the Robert Fire made its final run along Howe Ridge in August 2003. After seeing the aftermath, it is hard to imagine that this was only one of several fires that burned that summer. In total, at least six fires consumed about 135,000 acres – roughly 13% of the Park.

Healing from Robert Fire: A New Forest of Lodgepole Pine, Glacier National Park
Healing from Robert Fire: A New Forest of Lodgepole Pine

Rebirth and recovery are all around during this walk. Thick stands, of 15-foot tall lodgepole pine, carpet the land to the ridgetops. This tree species has a unique life cycle that in this area primarily depends on fire to foster its next generation. It produces two types of cones.

One variety of the cones only releases its seeds in response to the heat of a fire. After a fire, bare mineral soil and no competition are ideal for lodgepole to reestablish itself. The other type releases it seeds without the need for such an environmental trigger. This ensures the survival of the species even without fire.

Paintbrush, Glacier National Park
Paintbrush

During late April to early May, there is a rainbow of colors provided by a multitude of wildflowers. I have seen strawberry, blue-violet, blue clematis, shooting star, heart-leafed arnica, glacier lily, arrowleaf balsamroot, serviceberry, and paintbrush.

Shooting Star, Glacier National Park
Shooting Star

When you have traveled about 3.4 miles, you should be at the high bluff that overlooks the confluence of the Middle Fork and the North Fork of the Flathead River. I wandered around looking for the Old Flathead Ranger Station or at least some indication that it existed. There were no clues that I could find.

With the generous help of the Glacier National Park librarian, I was able to discover the rest of the story. According to a report written by Mark Hufstetler in 1988, in the early days of the park, this area was easily accessed from the land west of it. There were also private lands inside the park that were grandfathered in. Poaching was a problem.

View of North Fork of Flathead River from Site of the Old Flathead Ranger Station , Glacier National Park
View of the North Fork of the Flathead River from an Area Near the Site of the Old Flathead Ranger Station

So, sometime in the early to mid-1920’s, the Flathead River Ranger Station was established, and by the late 1920’s it was staffed year around. On August 17, 1929, the Half Moon Fire, which like the Robert Fire, started outside the park. The fire hopped the river and consumed the ranger station. In 1930, Congress authorized funds to build four new buildings on the site – a residence, barn, fire-cache, and woodshed.

During the 1940’s, a road was made to the area allowing direct access from Belton (West Glacier). As a result of automobile use, there was only an intermittent need to staff the ranger station. The buildings deteriorated over time. Glacier National Park employees finally removed the residence, barn, and woodshed in 1966. The fire-cache and an outhouse were then all that remained. Since I found no sign of either, I guess that the Robert Fire took care of those.


 

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.

Swiftcurrent Lookout

The Trailhead

This spectacular hike, on the Garden Wall via the Highline Trail is one of several routes to the Swiftcurrent Fire Lookout. The trailhead is located at Logan Pass on the north side of the Going-to-the-Sun Road across from the Logan Pass Visitor Center.

The scenic drive up to Logan Pass and the trailhead is 32 miles from the west entrance and 18 miles from the east entrance. Consider that just a warm-up to what you will experience on this trek.

Rather than park in the visitor center parking lot, we chose to drive only as far as The Loop and leave the car there. We then caught the first-morning shuttle to Logan Pass. That way we didn’t need to worry about parking or trying to find a ride at the end of the day. Of course, you could leave your vehicle at the Apgar Visitor Center on the west side or the St. Mary visitor center on the east side and let the free shuttles deliver you and pick you up.

This gap between the mountains, at an elevation of 6,646 feet, was named for Major Wm. R. Logan who was the first superintendent of Glacier National Park from 1910-1912. However, Logan Pass was used long before white people arrived. The Kootenai Indians utilized it during winters to avoid trouble with the Blackfeet on the east side. Their name for the pass meant “Pull the Packs Up”. The cliffs at the head of Logan Creek were scaled by pulling men, women, children, and their packs up one ledge at a time.8

Almost immediately after Glacier National Park was created in 1910, the business of building roads began. After more than 20 years of work, on July 15, 1933, the engineering marvel of the Going-to-the-Sun Road was dedicated at Logan Pass with a grand opening ceremony that was attended by more than 4,000 people.2 Little did anyone suspect that in the future hundreds of thousands if not millions would visit Logan Pass in a season.

Dedication of Going-to-the-Sun Road at Logan Pass. Photo by Bud Grant
Dedication of Going-to-the-Sun Road at Logan Pass. Photo by Bud Grant

If you have been to the Lake McDonald Lodge or the Many Glacier Hotel or any of several other early park buildings, you may have noticed that the visitor center at Logan Pass seems to be different. It is. It was designed and built during a time in our country when our culture was recovering from World War II and to some degree even the Great Depression. Our country was focused on progress and a more efficient lifestyle. This, in turn, affected building practices and architecture.1

The National Park Service conceived of a ten-year building program in the 1950s and dubbed it Mission 66. The goal was to lift the national parks out of the state of disrepair, resulting from years of neglect, by 1966. In fitting with the culture of the time, the design philosophy was “simple contemporary buildings that perform their assigned function and respect the environment”. The architectural style of not only the Logan Pass Visitor Center but also the St. Mary Visitor Center is known as Mission 66 or Park Service Modern.1,2


Logan Pass Trailhead to Haystack Saddle (3.6 mi, 378 ft elevation gain)

The trail begins by meandering through stunted subalpine fir for about one-quarter of a mile. It then becomes a ledge on the side of a rock face with a one-hundred-foot drop. The Park Service has installed a covered cable for people to hang on to if the exposure is a little too exhilarating. This only lasts for about one-quarter mile.

As you move along the route, the panorama of the Livingston Range to the west is impressive. If the findings of recent research on the health benefits of experiencing awe pan out, this is a perfect place to get healthy. The immensity and variety of the glacial features can leave one transfixed.

To the southwest is Mount Oberlin and Mount Cannon. In between these two beauties is a hanging valley which was created by a smaller glacier that flowed into a much larger valley filling glacier. The thundering cascade plunging out of that valley is Bird Woman Falls. Signs along the Going-to-the-Sun Road indicate the height of the falls is 492 feet. However, the World Waterfall Database disagrees with this height. It states that the drop is 960 feet.

I cannot think of a time on the Highline Trail when we didn’t see mountain goats or bighorn sheep. They are beautiful animals but give them plenty of room. Remember they are wild and could do significant damage to a human in a split second. The hoary marmot is another herbivore that you are likely to come across is. This rodent is considered the largest North American ground squirrel. It tips the scales at a hefty 8 to 15 pounds for adults. They can be beggars. Please do not feed them.

Mountain Goat on the Highline Trail
Mountain Goat on the Highline Trail
Marmot
Marmot

It’s not uncommon for grizzly bears to use this area too. In the summer of 2014, a grizzly and a man encountered each other on a trail section that had nothing but rock wall above and below. A picture taken by a local fellow through a telephoto lens shows the man after he had scrambled about ten feet down a cliff to a small rock outcrop while the grizzly walked above him. You just never know in the park. Always carry bear spray where it is easily and immediately available and know how to use it.

Eventually, you will come to some switchbacks that lead up to the saddle between Haystack Butte and a flank of the 9,553-foot Mount Gould. At about 7,024 feet, it’s not uncommon for there to be snowfields in July. Nevertheless, this makes for an excellent place to rest, hydrate, have a snack, and take in the grandeur.


Haystack Saddle to Junction Swiftcurrent Pass Trail (4.3 mi, 260 ft elevation gain)

The path continues to climb for a short distance before it descends to Granite Park. To the southwest is the magnificent u-shaped McDonald Creek Valley. The u-shape is the result of textbook glacial sculpting. Imagine the entire valley ice filled with only the peaks of the mountains showing. Such was the case 20,000 to 11,000 years ago.7 Those valley filling glaciers gave us the chiseled horns, like Reynolds Mountain seen at Logan Pass, and the knife edge ridges or aretes like the Garden Wall. Glacier National Park gets its name from the landscape left by these massive ice rivers.

McDonald Creek Valley from the Highline Trail
McDonald Creek Valley from the Highline Trail

The 26 glaciers remaining in Glacier National Park are not from that time. These ice masses are about 7,000 years old and peaked in the middle 1800s. Sadly, due to warming trends, it is predicted that these 26 will be gone around 2030.6

At 6.9 miles from the trailhead, there is a junction for a 0.9-mile spur trail that ascends 900 feet to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook and the top of the continental divide. A person should be in pretty good shape to take on this route. The climb is rewarded with spectacular views of Mount Grinnell, Upper Grinnell Lake, Grinnell Glacier, Angel Wing, and Mount Gould.

Grinnell Glacier and Mount Gould from the Overlook
Grinnell Glacier and Mount Gould from the Overlook

The junction for the Granite Park Trail and the chalet is at 7.6 miles from the trailhead. Stay to the right on the Highline Trail and continue 0.3 miles to the Highline and Swiftcurrent Pass Trail junction. By the way, there is no water at the lookout nor is there any on the way up. So, if you find your supply low, drop down to the  Granite Park Chalet and buy some bottled water before starting the climb up Swiftcurrent Mountain.


Swiftcurrent Pass Trail Junction to Swiftcurrent Lookout (1.9 miles)

Swiftcurrent Pass is 0.7 miles from the last junction. The route up to the lookout starts just before the pass.

Heavens Peak with Granite Park Chalet from Trail to Swiftcurrent Pass, Glacier National Park
Heavens Peak with Granite Park Chalet from Trail to Swiftcurrent Pass

The treeless climb is a strenuous 1.2 miles with 1200 feet of elevation gain. At the top, straddling the continental divide at 8,436 feet is the highest fire lookout in the park. The 14×14 building was constructed in 1936 for $7,500. It is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.5 Attached to each corner of the building are cables that are anchored in the ground. Incredibly strong winds can blow up there.

Looking to the northeast is Mount Wilbur. Windmaker Lake is more than 3,000 feet straight down. To the west, you can look down on Flattop Mountain and see part of the 18,702 acre Trapper Creek Fire that burned in 2003 during the ‘Summer of Fire’. Heavens Peak rising up in the west is unmistakable.

Not far from the northwest corner of the lookout is a mound of moss campion. It’s hard to miss the beautiful pink flowers that it produces from June to August. The unique thing about this plant is that it is very long-lived. Who would expect that a tundra plant would have such longevity in an incredibly harsh environment?

Moss Campion, Swiftcurrent Mountain
Moss Campion, Swiftcurrent Mountain

A woman leading a group from the Granite Park Chalet told us that the particular plant by the lookout was probably over 150 years old. I did a little checking and found a study where the researchers came up with a way to estimate the age by measuring the moss campion diameter. The 150 years seems consistent with their findings.We were also told that even though the plant is hardy, the one thing that the plant cannot withstand is being walked on.


The Rest is All Downhill to The Loop (6.5 miles)

This leg of the trip will drop around 3,900 feet as you travel from the lookout to The Loop. Since the downhill trek will go by the Granite Park Chalet, a look inside is worthwhile if you have never been there.

The single-story building in back of the main chalet was built by the Great Northern Railroad in 1913. The following year the two-story main structure was constructed. Both are made of rock quarried on location. These two buildings have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.5 They are a working museum.

The ground floor of the main building is made of stone that contains ancient ripple marks and mud cracks preserved in the shallow water areas of the ancient Belt Sea that existed from 1.6 billion years ago to 800 million years ago. The sea would have been located where eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana are today.7 Amazingly, during that time nothing lived on land. Fossil evidence puts the oldest land organism at about 440 million years.3

If the old timbers of the chalet could talk, I’m sure there would be some colorful stories. Think about the wealthy visitors lured west away from the Alps by Louis Hill and the Great Northern Railroad. I’ll bet the Brewster boys could tell a tale or two about the Northern Circle pack trips with these ‘city folks’.

Tales from the summer of 1967 surely would be in the timbers. Dry weather and lightning that summer resulted in several fires burning inside the park including the 2,200-acre Glacier Wall Fire which would have been easily seen from the chalet.

That same summer shortly after midnight on August 13 guests in the chalet were awakened by screams coming from the backcountry campground. A group of people was organized to investigate and upon arriving at the campsite found a terrifying scene. I will not describe the gruesome details here. Suffice it to say Roy Ducat was severely mauled, and Julie Helgeson was killed – both by the same grizzly bear. Emergency first aid was administered inside the chalet.

Luring bears in with garbage for the entertainment of guests had been going on for decades. This incident helped put an end to that practice.

Hiking to The Loop from the chalet was done mostly in heavy timber before the summer of 2003. The standing dead trees that you see from the trail were most likely fatalities resulting from the Trapper Creek Fire. That summer 136,000 acres or 13.4% of Glacier National Park burned. The remarkable rebirth of the next forest is underway and we get to watch.

About 15.7 miles from the trailhead or 3.6 miles from the chalet there is a junction that can be easily missed. Left will take you 0.6 miles to The Loop and right will take you about 1.7 miles to Packers Roost.

After approximately 18 miles and plenty of elevation, a nice meal and cool beverage with friends would top off a great day.


End Notes

  1. Allaback, Sarah. The History of a Building Type. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2000. https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/allaback/.
  2. Guthrie, C.W. The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry, 2008.
  3. Lewis, Danny. “440-Million-Year-Old Fossilized Fungi May Be the Oldest Land Dwellers Yet Discovered.” Smithsonian, March 3, 2016, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/440-million-years-old-fossil-fungus-oldest-land-organism-ever-discovered-180958268/.
  4. Morris, William, and Daniel Doak. “Life History of the Long-Lived Gynodioecious Cushion Plant Silene acaulis (Caryophyllaceae), Inferred from Size-Based Population Projection Matrices.” Journal of Botany 85, no. 6 (1998): 784-93. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21684962.
  5. National Archives Catalog. Accessed August 3, 2018. https://catalog.archives.gov/search?q=%22national%20register%20of%20historic%20places%22%2075000647
  6. Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, USGS. “Climate Change in Mountain Ecosystems.” https://www.usgs.gov/centers/norock/science/climate-change-mountain-ecosystems-ccme?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects.
  7. Raup, Omer, Robert Earhart, James Whipple, and Paul Carrara. Geology Along Going-to-the-Sun Road. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, 1983.
  8. Thompson, Sally. People Before the Park. Helena, MT: Montana Historical Society Press, 2015.

Goat Haunt to Chief Mountain

In my last post, I described our backpacking trip from Kintla Lake in the northwest corner of Glacier National Park to Goat Haunt in the northcentral part of the park. This post will be about the second leg of the northern traverse beginning at Goat Haunt and ending at Chief Mountain – 28 miles.

The 1927 M.V. International was again our transportation. She transported us from Waterton, Canada south across Waterton Lake and delivered us to Goat Haunt in the United States.

Porcupine Ridge and Citadel Peaks, Glacier National Park
Porcupine Ridge and Citadel Peaks from Aboard the International on Waterton Lake

A Note on Bear Safety

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 webpage.


 

 


Goat Haunt, Glacier National Park
Arriving at Goat Haunt

Goat Haunt to Waterton River Campground (1.2 Miles)

After we arrived at Goat Haunt in the afternoon, we proceeded to the Waterton River campground and set up camp. Since there was still daylight, we hiked to Rainbow Falls which was about 1.1 miles roundtrip. The only wildlife we spotted was a bald eagle and a small doe with her spotted fawn.


Waterton River Camp to Stoney Indian Lake (8.1 miles)

The next morning we pointed our boots south down the Waterton Valley Trail. There is a short spur trail to Kootenai Lakes at about 2.5 miles. Kootenai Lakes is supposed to be an excellent place to spot moose. However, there were no moose for us. But, we did see some dandy mosquitos.

Porcupine Ridge and the distinctive Citadel Peaks can be observed to the west. The junction for the challenging trail to the Porcupine Fire Lookout is about 1.5 miles beyond the Kootenai Lakes spur.

The Stoney Indian Pass Trail junction is about 0.9 miles past the Porcupine Fire Lookout trail junction. This steep footpath begins at about 4,600 feet of elevation and climbs east up the Pass Creek Drainage arriving at Stoney Indian Lake, elevation 6,325 feet, in 2.3 miles. I forgot all about the climb when I saw the beauty of this glacial tarn guarded by majestic mountains especially the glacial horn – Wahcheechee Mountain.

Wahcheechee Mountain, Glacier National Park
Wahcheechee Mountain

The stunted alpine trees at the foot of the lake surround the campsite which is on the south side of the trail. The food preparation area is found north of the trail.

Entertainment for the evening was provided by the local deer. We were returning to the campsite after hanging our food in the food preparation area when a fellow camper walked into our site carrying a hiking pole that belonged to my friend. He told us that he saw a deer pick it up and trot off with it. He chased after the deer which promptly dropped the hiking pole. After cooking dinner that evening, we returned to the campsite to find a deer standing in the middle of my pack licking the back. Those deer were emboldened by their craving for salt.

I was curious about the Stoney Indians after whom the lake and pass were named. It turns out the Stoney Indians, who prefer to be called Nokoda, are descendants of the Assiniboine Sioux. They were fearsome warriors and bitter enemies of the Blackfeet Indians. The name Stoney Indian was given to them by white explorers who observed their unique way of cooking. Small depressions were made in the ground and lined with rawhide to form bowls. These bowls were filled with water. Fist-sized rocks were heated in a fire and then added to the water causing it to boil. Meat and other food items were then cooked in the boiling water.3

The Nokoda used land from Alberta south to Chief Mountain on the eastern border of the park and to the west and the tobacco plains by Eureka, Montana. Interestingly, Kootenai Indians also used the tobacco plains, the western half of the park, and the mountain passes through which they would travel to hunt buffalo on the eastern side of the park.


Stoney Indian Lake to Lower Glenns Lake (8.8 miles)

The next morning a little later than usual, we ate breakfast, packed up, and started for Stoney Indian Pass. A few weeks before we arrived the path around the back of the lake was blocked by a steep snowfield. Fortunately for us, it had melted and was no longer an issue. At the southeast end of the lake, the climb began – about 600 feet in a little less than a mile. There was plenty to smile about upon reaching the pass. We were in the headwaters of the Mokowanis River, and the views were spectacular.

Stoney Indian Lake from Stoney Indian Pass, Glacier National Park
Stoney Indian Lake from Stoney Indian Pass

As we descended the headwall via a series of switchbacks we lost considerable elevation from Stoney Indian Pass (6,908 feet) to Atsina Lake (5,765 feet). This beautiful lake is surrounded by Stoney Indian Peaks (9350 feet) to the north, Pyramid Peak (8,170 feet) to the east, Mount Kipp (8,839 feet) to the south, and Cathedral Peak (9,041 feet) to the southwest. One cannot help feeling a little insignificant when surrounded by the extreme geographical relief and knowing the history behind it.

Waterfalls were in no short supply. To the south, water flowing out of 7,145 foot Sue Lake plummeted hundreds of feet as Raven Quiver Falls. We came to the ford across a stream that was located above Atsina Lake that a backcountry ranger had cautioned us about. It was about knee deep and flowing swiftly, but we negotiated it without much trouble. It wasn’t until we had descended further and turned around to look at where we had come from that we saw it. A short distance downstream from where we forded the stream, the water fell, and it fell a long way, about 600 feet. That was Paiota Falls. To the right of Paiota Falls, looking back up the drainage, was the beautiful Atsina Falls. Further down the trail, the Mokowanis Cascade drops several hundred feet.

Paiota Falls and Atsina Falls, Glacier National Park
Paiota Falls and Atsina Falls

I find the history of names to be fascinating. Take the names Atsina, Blackfeet, Mokowanis, Belly River, and Gros Ventre for example. American fur traders were the first to use the name Blackfeet to refer to the Niitsitapi. The Haninin were called Gros Ventre by French explorers and Mokowanis, which means ‘big bellies,’ by the Blackfeet. Atsina also refers to the Haninin. It is thought that Atsina, which translates to ‘gut people,’ was also a name given by the Blackfeet.1,3 The Mokowanis River flows into the Belly River which also refers to the Haninin. The stomachs of the Haninin must have been pretty distinctive.

Thomas Blakistan, an English explorer, naturalist, and a member of the Palliser Expedition, named the Belly River in 1858. He knew the meaning of Mokowanis and used the English translation for the river name. The Belly River first appeared on a map in 1865.3

At about 4.5 miles from Stoney Indian Pass, the spur trail to Mokowanis Lake heads south for a little less than one mile to the backcountry campsite by the lake. There is also a campground at the junction, and since the bugs were not bad, we took the opportunity for a little break. We had been seeing a lot of bear scat on the trail, but the campground seemed scat free.

After about one-half mile from the Mokowanis Junction, we passed the campground at the head of Glenns Lake. Another 2.4 miles and we arrived at the campsite at the foot of Glenns Lake which was our destination for the day. We hung our food, set up the tent, and then I headed to the lake for a refreshing dip.

I dove in, and when I came to the surface, there was a bear less than 50 yards from me cruising the shoreline. Luckily the bear was not interested and continued on a path away from me. I continued to watch until it was on the opposite side of the lake and disappeared into the brush.


Lower Glenns Lake to Chief Mountain Trailhead (10.3 miles)

We got an earlier start on our final day. There were three hours of driving to do after reaching the trailhead.

Cosley Lake campground was a short hike at only 1.4 miles from the camp we had left that morning. George B. Grinnell’s map of 1892 shows both Glenns and Cosley Lakes as Lansing Lakes.4 The current name is for the infamous ranger/poacher Joe Cosley.

Joe Cosley
Joe Cosley courtesy of the National Park Service

Cosley was one of the first six park rangers hired in 1910 by Major William R. Logan and ended up being the ranger for the Belly River. Even after he had been employed as a ranger in charge of enforcing the laws that governed Glacier National Park, Cosley continued to ply his trade of hunting and trapping. Of course, these were illegal.

Eventually, in the winter of 1928-1929, he was captured at his hunting camp by 24-year-old Joe Heimes. Cosley was taken to Belton where he was charged and tried in the same day. He was given a $100 fine and a suspended jail sentence. Cosley left immediately for his beaver cache in the Belly River. The 59-year-old snowshoed across the continental divide via Ahern Pass in less than 20 hours. He gathered up his pelts and headed into Canada before officials could catch up with him.1

From Stoney Indian Pass, we dropped a little over 2,000 in elevation to arrive at Cosley Lake. Looking back toward where we had come from, the views of Mount Kipp, Pyramid Peak, and Cathedral Peak with the water of Cosley Lake in the foreground are classic Glacier.

Around the foot of this beautiful lake is a trail junction. The trail going to the southeast, the Cosley Cutoff Trail, connects to the Belly River Trail that then joins the Ptarmigan Trail or the Redgap Pass Trail. Both of those routes will take you to Many Glacier. The path leading to the north is the Stoney Indian Pass Trail – the path that we had been following since leaving the Waterton Valley Trail. It connects with the Belly River Trail near the Belly River Ranger Station and then on to the Chief Mountain Trailhead.

At about three miles from the Cosley Lake campground, the Stoney Indian Pass Trail crosses the Belly River with a suspension bridge just before it joins the Belly River Trail. The Belly Ranger Station can be seen to the southeast. The setting is beautiful. The buildings are set to the far end of a picture-perfect open area with Lee Ridge as a backdrop. This ranger station has never had a road built to it.

Belly River Suspension Bridge, Glacier National Park
Belly River Suspension Bridge

The original building was constructed in 1912 but is now used as the barn. It is fun to imagine Joe Cosley taking part in the construction of this square hewn log structure. I’ll bet that building could tell some stories. The current ranger residence was built in 1925 for a cost of $1,500. The woodshed construction followed in 1927 for a fee of $232.75 and the fire cache in 1928 for $450.2

From the ranger station on, we started seeing bear scat again. We never did see a bear nor wildlife for that matter. We are pretty noisy in bear country. So, it makes sense. The final 6.1 miles have minimal elevation gain or loss. Except, and wouldn’t you know it, the trail climbs about 700 feet in the last couple of miles – always more noticeable at the end.

The treat upon reaching the car was a fresh change of clothes. It’s the little things, isn’t it?


End Notes

  1. Guthrie, C.W. Glacier National Park: The First 100 Years. Farcountry Press, 2008.
  2. “Montana MPS Belly River Ranger Station Historic District.” National Archives Catalog, Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Sept. 1995, catalog.archives.gov/id/71974902. Accessed 23 July 2018.
  3. Rayburn, Alan. Stories About Canadian Places. Toronto Press, 2001.
  4. Robinson, Donald. Through the Years. Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.

Kintla Lake to Goat Haunt

An adventure for the books! The 31-mile land segment of our journey started in the northwest corner of Glacier National Park and followed the Boulder Pass Trail to Goat Haunt in the north-central region of the park. From there we motored about 7 miles north on Waterton Lake to the docks in Waterton, Alberta, Canada via the 165 passenger boat the M.V. International built in 1927.

Our journey took us over two mountain passes and along four pristine mountain lakes all the while surrounded by majestic, jaw-dropping scenery. Finally, we crossed the international boundary at the 49th parallel which was negotiated with Great Britain in 1846. It wasn’t planned at the time, but this ended up being part 1 of a 2 part trek from the west side of the park to the east side.


Permits

For this backpacking trip, we needed a permit for each of the three specific campgrounds that we intended to use – Upper Kintla Lake, Hole-in-the-Wall, and Lake Janet. Lake Francis was not available to us. If you can get Francis, take it instead of Janet. You will not regret it.

One-half of the sites are available on a walk-in basis the day before or the day of a trip. At this writing, the fee was $7/person/night. Although the Polebridge Ranger Station is a permitting location, I would suggest that you have the permit in hand before driving all the way to Polebridge.

There is also an option to make reservations online up to 7 days before your start date. This opportunity opens March 15 for groups of 1-8 and March 1 for groups of 9-12. There is a $40 reservation fee in addition to the $7 per night for each person. Payment is by credit card or Paypal. If your choices are not available, $30 of your $40 will be refunded.

The tickets for the boat into Canada can be purchased from the Waterton Shoreline Cruise Company. You will need a passport to enter Canada.


It Needs to Start at Polebridge

As any local knows, you cannot venture into this region without first stopping at the Polebridge Mercantile located just outside the park boundary. There will probably be someone around by 7 AM. Might I suggest their Huckleberry Bear Claws and a cup of coffee? If you arrive around dinner time, check out the Northern Lights Saloon and Cafe located next to the Merc. I doubt that you will be disappointed.

By the way, if the Mercantile seems pretty old, it is. Bill Adair built the Merc in 1914. Local folks back then knew it merely as Adair’s. Bill and his wife worked the store and lived in their homestead cabin which is now the Northern Lights Saloon and Cafe. These buildings are now part of the W.L. Adair General Mercantile Historic District which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.1


Kintla Lake

Upon leaving Polebridge, we drove eastward and crossed the North Fork of the Flathead River where we entered Glacier National Park. From there we drove north for about 15 miles to reach the Kintla Lake campground. Our kind friend who had volunteered to deliver us to the trailhead cut us loose and headed back to Kalispell. The plan was to get an early start the next day. So, that left a little time to explore.

We met the ranger in charge, Lyle Ruterbories, who was in his mid-nineties and still at it. What a treat it was to talk to him and listen to the stories he had to tell. It turns out that the ranger station at Kintla Lake was built ten years before the area became Glacier National Park. The construction was done by the Butte Oil Company in 1900 after oil seeps had been discovered along Kintla Lake.

Kintla Ranger Station, Glacier National Park
Kintla Ranger Station

The oil company hired men to clear a wagon trail from Apgar to the south shore of Kintla Lake. In the autumn of 1902, crews hauled drilling equipment to the foot of the lake. When there was enough ice on the lake, the load was skidded to the drill site. The oil well was the first in Montana. But, it never worked out and was abandoned.

Long before Europeans came to this country, the Kootenai used the land that is now Glacier National Park for thousands of years – back to the Late Pleistocene. In her book, People Before the Park, Sally Thompson explains that the Kootenai used 11 mountain passes to travel east of the continental divide to hunt buffalo. One of those passes was Brown Pass which was accessed either from the Bowman Lake drainage or Boulder Pass side.4 It is interesting to imagine what life was like for those hardy people that regularly used the same general path on which we were about to embark.


Bear Safety

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 webpage.


Kintla Lake to Upper Kintla Lake (11.6 miles)

After an early breakfast, we began our hike to Upper Kintla Lake. There is only a gain of about 400 feet in elevation which made for a pretty easy first day. There are sweeping views, at times, of the Boundary Mountains and Long Knife Peak to the north. Close to the head of the lake, is the Kintla Lake backcountry campground. Not too far from the food prep area and sticking out of the gravel shoreline is a piece of equipment left behind by the Butte Oil Company.

Butte Oil Company Equipment in Kintla Lake, Glacier National Park
Butte Oil Company Equipment in Kintla Lake

The first oil well not far from the shore of Kintla Lake reached a final depth of 1400′, but in the winter of 1902-03, almost the whole works burned. The well never reached a profitable pocket of oil. In 1912, all claims of the Butte Oil Company were declared void. Another company built a derrick near the North Fork River several miles below Kintla Creek, but it stopped drilling in 1903 due to a lack of capital.3

The trail leaves the lake and soon passes a patrol cabin as it gently climbs to some open benches. Watch for signs of the lightning-caused 2003 Wedge Canyon Fire which consumed 52,974 acres during the most significant fire season in Glacier National Park’s history. More than 13% of the park burned during “The Summer of Fire”.

Views to the south-east are dominated by the magnificent Kintla Peak and the glacial horn Kinnerly Peak. The mountain to the east, which resembles the comb on the head of a rooster, is Gardner Point. The Boulder Pass Trail climbs up the south-west flank of that beauty.

Arriving at the backcountry campsite after a full day is always a nice reward. It had been a pretty warm day. The lake beckoned, and we obliged. This day was topped off with a freeze-dried meal, that only seems delicious in the backcountry, a magnificent sunset, and a deep sleep that most often comes to me when I’m in the mountains.

Sunset from Upper Kintla Lake Campground Glacier National Park
Sunset from Upper Kintla Lake Campground

Upper Kintla Lake to Hole in the Wall (9.6 miles)

On the second day, the trail more than made up for the small amount of elevation gain of the first day. Our destination was the Hole-in-the-Wall campground found in the bottom of a glacial cirque of the same name.

Not long after leaving Upper Kintla Lake, we crossed a suspension bridge over Kintla Creek and began our 6.1-mile and 3,070-foot climb to Boulder Pass. We hiked through thimbleberry and cow parsnips (bear candy) some of which was 5 feet tall or more. At times, the lush growth obscured the trail.

We took a little break and grabbed a bite to eat at the Boulder Pass Campground. The talus field below the campground is home to pikas. These cute furry animals are about the size of a large baked potato and are a relative to rabbits. Their physiology makes heat an enemy. There is evidence that climate change has adversely affected some populations in the western United States. Glacier National Park is in the process of determining the health of pika populations within the park. I volunteered to collect data during this trip that will go toward this effort.

Boulder Pass, Glacier National Park
Boulder Pass

This is also an excellent place to see mountain goats which is another species that doesn’t do well with heat. Park biologists are collecting data to determine patterns in the population of this species as well. So, we spent some time counting numbers, determining sex, and age groups within our observation grid.

From Boulder Pass, it is a 3.5-mile and 1,090-foot descent into the Hole-in-the-Wall cirque. The rock that we were walking over, like the rest of the Park, was formed from sediment that was deposited in the ancient Belt Sea which would have been located where eastern Washington and western Idaho are today. Starting about 1.6 billion years ago, the 18,000 feet of sediment, that would become Glacier National Park, was eroded from land that had not yet seen life. The erosion and deposition continued until about 800 million years ago. Then, approximately 150 million years ago, incomprehensible tectonic forces started to shove the enormous rock slab 50 miles eastward. That movement continued until about 60 million years ago.2

It’s cool to see part of the story laid out along this trail by mother nature. The reddish colored rocks with ripple marks or mud cracks look like they were recently made, but are over a billion years old.

Ancient Ripple Marks, Boulder Pass, Glacier National Park
Ancient Ripple Marks, Boulder Pass

There are also strange circular patterns in the stone. These are fossilized algae called stromatolites. The single-cell photosynthetic microorganisms that made the structures lived in the shallows of the sea much as they do today. These simple organisms played a significant role in forming the oxygen-rich atmosphere that life today depends on.

But wait, there’s more. Over two million years ago, the Earth entered a cooling period. This was the Pleistocene Epoch, and it lasted until about 12,000 years ago. It was the time of the “Great Ice Age” when valley deep glaciers advanced and retreated many times. The beautiful rock that was born in the Belt Sea and shoved eastward was then sculpted by the glaciers into the quintessential horns, aretes, cirques, u-shaped valleys, hanging valleys, and moraines that we take delight in today.

Once you reach the edge of the Hole-in-the-Wall cirque, there are incredible views of Thunderbird Mountain and The Sentinel to the south. Enjoy these views and those of numerous waterfalls as you descend. Keep an eye out on the east side of the cirque for the short spur trail that leads down to the campground.

Thunderbird Mountain from Hole-in-the-Wall, Glacier National Park
Thunderbird Mountain from Hole-in-the-Wall

This magnificent place to spend the night has some ornery mule deer that are pretty persistent when it comes to getting salt. So, don’t leave any hiking poles or sweaty t-shirts lying about the campsite. At Stoney Indian, we actually did have a mule deer doe pick up and carry off a hiking pole. An observant fellow camper went after the deer and recovered it while we were in the meal prep area.

You will no doubt discover this on your own, but I challenge you to find a privy anywhere that has the views of the one at Hole-in-the-Wall. Note that privy implies walls. There are none – just a simple box with a lid placed over a hole.


Hole-in-the-Wall to Lake Janet (6.1 miles)

It was hard to leave Hole-in-the-Wall behind. We started climbing out of the cirque along the southwest flanks of Mount Custer and then Chapman Peak and then descended to the vast subalpine meadows of Brown Pass. Here the Bowman Lake Trail intersects with the Boulder Pass Trail that we had been following for two days. Our path continued to drop in elevation as we headed down into the Olson Creek Valley to the east. It is a beauty. The trail passes close to Thunderbird Pond which provided a great photo op. Looking east above the pond, Mount Cleveland dominates the skyline, and the sharp pinnacles of Citadel Peaks rise in the foreground.

We were not lucky enough to land a camping site at Lake Francis, but the lake is only a short jaunt down a spur trail off of the Boulder Pass Trail. It was well worth the time to visit the lake. From the clean gravel beach, we looked across the water to the towering cliffs of The Sentinel and a waterfall thundering hundreds of feet into the beautiful turquoise water of Francis. The waterfall is fed by the glacial melt of what is left of Dixon Glacier. Words nor pictures can do justice to that scene.

Lake Francis, Glacier National Park
Lake Francis

The short 6-mile day ended at Lake Janet. This campground is not on the lake, but the food prep area is near a shaded stream. We found bear tracks along the creek but never did see the bruin. The unusually high cable for hanging food provided entertainment for the impromptu contest to see who could toss their weighted cord over it with the fewest number of tries.


Lake Janet to Goat Haunt (4 miles)

There is a talus field with pika about one mile east of the Lake Janet campground. This was our second site for data collection.

After a short day, we arrived at Goat Haunt which is about 2,000 feet lower than Brown’s Pass. We boarded the M.V. International shortly after arriving at the dock, and then the rain and wind started. Talk about luck! During our 7-mile northward journey on Waterton Lake, the captain slowed as we passed the international boundary. It looked like someone had taken a giant razor to cut the swath through the trees.

After the boat arrived at the docks in Waterton, Canada, it was about another half hour of waiting so that officials could check our passports and backpacks. Then, it was off to a local establishment for a cold brew and burger to wait for our ride back home.

Life is good!


End Notes

  1. “Montana SP Adair, W. L., General Mercantile Historic District.” National Archives Catalog, Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Feb. 1986, catalog.archives.gov/id/71975962. Accessed 23 July 2018.
  2. Raup, Omer, Robert Earhart, James Whipple, and Paul Carrara. Geology Along the Going-to-the-Sun Road Glacier National Park, Montana. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Associaton, 1983.
  3. Robinson, Donald. Through the Years. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Association, 1973.
  4. Thompson, Sally. People Before the Park. Helena, MT: Montana Historical Society Press, 2015.

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.

Piegan Pass Through-Hike

Finding the Trailhead

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

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

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

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


 A Little Background

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Mount Gould from Piegan Pass
Mount Gould from Piegan Pass

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

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

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

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

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

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


End Notes

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