This is a hike that I’ve done in the past. It’s definitely worth sharing. So, I dusted it off and spruced it up a bit. Hope you like it.
A Little History
Firebrand Pass is a unique name that is descriptive of its origin. The background story is fascinating.
In 1910, fires were burning throughout the Idaho panhandle, western Montana, Washington, and Oregon. This was the same year when President William Howard Taft, on May 11, signed the bill that designated an area larger than the state of Rhode Island as Glacier National Park.
The newly formed park had little funding to fight fires. Consequently, the U.S. Forest Service took responsibility. The firefighting efforts of these agencies were joined by local citizens, workers from lumber mills, the Great Northern Railway, and the military.2
During the two terrifying days of August 20 and 21, hurricane force winds caused “The Big Blowup” in which over three million acres burned, most within a six-hour period. Smoke from these fires reached New England, and ash reached as far as Greenland. 3,5
It was during this time that Forest Service Ranger Ed Pulaski made history as he led a group of 45 firefighters into an Idaho mine shaft to survive the inferno that surrounded them. 5
According to Stephen Barrett’s Fire History of Southeast Glacier National Park, during the summer of 1910, a human-caused fire started near Essex and crossed the continental divide near Firebrand Pass. This fire was one of the hundreds that were burning that summer.1
If you are looking to get away from the crowds, this hike in the southeast corner of Glacier National Park might be for you. Firebrand Pass (6,951’) is a saddle that is situated between Red Crow Mountain (7,891’) to the north and Calf Robe Mountain (7,920’) to the south.
The trailhead is east of Marias Pass near mile marker 203 on US Highway 2. There is a small gravel parking lot below the highway and near the railroad tracks. Be aware that it is not well marked. This hike is a 9.6 mile in and out with about 2,200 feet of elevation gain.
The hike begins at the Lubec Lake Trailhead on the far side of the railroad tracks and then meanders northwest along the Coonsa Creek drainage.
This is grizzly bear habitat. So, as you pass through the meadows and aspen stands be sure that your bear spray is handy and that you know how to use it. Don’t be shy about making plenty of noise. Better to let the bear know where you are than to surprise one. During my last hike to Firebrand Pass, we came upon grizzly bear tracks soon after the trailhead. My boot fit inside the rear paw print with room to spare.
The trail heads directly toward Calf Robe Mountain. Further to the southwest is Summit Mountain (8,770’) followed by Little Dog Mountain (8,610’). The trail eventually leaves the meadows and aspen stands and enters lodgepole pine stands. After about 1.5 miles, the path intersects the Autumn Creek Trail. Turn right (north) and follow this trail for about 1 mile to the junction with the northern end of the Ole Creek Trail. Turn left at the trail junction. It is 2.6 miles to Firebrand Pass from that junction.
The trail continues through the lodgepole pine forest while it wraps around the northeastern flank of Calf Robe Mountain. When the path turns from a westerly direction to the south, you will enter a beautiful basin with views of the pass to the southwest.
There is usually a sizeable and steep snowdrift below the pass early in the season. The trail leads directly into this snowfield. Exercise caution. Try climbing around the snow or save the pass for another day if you do not have the equipment and training to self-arrest should you find yourself sliding down the icy slope toward the rocks below.
A keen eye may be rewarded with a sighting of elk in the basin. Bighorn sheep and mountain goats frequent the rocky slopes and cliffs. If you find yourself in this area in mid to late August, ripened huckleberries are an additional treat.
There is a feast for your eyes at the pass. The Ole Creek drainage seems to go on forever to the southwest. The picturesque summits of Eagle Ribs Mountain (8,290’), Mount Despair (8,582’), and Brave Dog (8,446’) separate the Ole Creek drainage from the Park Creek drainage further to the west.
Red Crow Mountain and Calf Robe Mountain, the massive sentinels of the pass, fill your views to the north and south respectively. The Continental Divide passes through the summits of these two mountains as well as Firebrand Pass.
The Return Trip
The return trip can be as straightforward as just retracing the steps that got you to the pass. However, another option is to climb the north side of Calf Robe Mountain from the pass and descend the south slope and then travel off-trail until you intersect the Autumn Creek Trail.
The climb is only about 0.5- mile, but the elevation gain from the pass is 970 feet. It’s steep and the views are outstanding. The bonus on our trip was descending through a dispersed herd of about 12 bighorn sheep.
If you are interested in the climb, I would suggest reading “Calf Robe Mountain,” pages 34-41, of Blake Passmore’s Climb Glacier National Park, Volume 2. The information, photographs, and illustrated routes are valuable information for planning.4
This hike is one the most popular in Glacier National Park. It includes old growth forest, spectacular waterfalls, a beautiful mountain lake filled with turquoise water, nestled in a picturesque glacial cirque. It is unique.
The maritime climate of the Pacific Northwest has its easternmost influence here. Moisture from the Pacific coast rises and condenses as it meets the Continental Divide. Consequently, large quantities of moisture are dropped and that supports the western red cedar – western hemlock forest habitat, which is also at the far east of its range.
These two species of trees have been growing in the area for hundreds of years. Some of the cedars around lower Avalanche Creek are over 500 years old.1 You will also find other plants that are adapted to this microclimate. These include trillium (also known as birth root and wake-robin), bead lily, devil’s club, club moss, and various ferns.
Sally Thompson, in her book People Before the Park, indicates that generations of Kootenai Indians were probably visiting the area to harvest bark from old cedar trees to make baskets and other necessities. They also valued the cedar wood for building the frames of their canoes and making bowls.3
Charles Howe, the first homesteader at the foot of Lake McDonald in 1892, is reported to be the first non-Indian to see Avalanche Lake. He did so from the top of Mount Brown. Howe told Dr. Lyman B. Sperry about the lake which he then visited in 1895. Sperry is also given credit for the name of the lake.2
Their exploration of this part of Glacier is pretty amazing given that there were no roads and the forest was referred to as “thick and tangled”. In fact, this is about the time that George Snyder was building accommodations for tourists on the site of the current Lake McDonald Lodge. Due to the lack of roads, he bought a steamboat to haul his guests from Apgar to his accommodations.2
There are a couple of ways to get to the trailhead. I would suggest walking the Trail of the Cedars to obtain the Avalanche trail. The Trail of the Cedars starts on the east side of the Going-to-the-Sun Road bridge over Avalanche Creek. There is a boardwalk which will carry you to the bridge over Avalanche Creek where it leaves the gorge. This is an excellent place to take a few photographs.
Proceed just a little further, and you will see a rail fence. The fence was placed there to protect the hillside. At one time, there was little undergrowth due to a large number of social trails.
My students and I collected seed from species that the park service personnel wanted to use to repair the area. We planted the seed in our high school greenhouse and then planted the seedlings in the spring. We did this for about 10 years. There were a lot of kids, now adults, that are pretty proud of that.
You will find the path to Avalanche Lake at the end of the fence. There is a ‘T’ in the route shortly after starting. Turn left. It is 2.3 miles to the foot of the lake with 500 feet of elevation gain. If you wish to explore the head of the lake, it will be an additional 0.8 miles.
After a short climb, there will be opportunities to look down into the Avalanche Gorge. This can be dangerous, especially if kids are involved. Be cautious.
The trail visits Avalanche Creek and then departs as it makes its way up to the lake. The low light cedar-hemlock forest with its lush green moss, lichens, and ferns is magical. When our kids were young, we would make up stories about elves, and fairies that lived in this enchanted forest.
When you come to a short side trail to the outdoor privy and see spiny-stemmed devil’s club along the path, know that you are close to the lake. From this point to the head of Avalanche Lake, I seem always to find the beautiful white, 3-petaled trillium when the first ground is exposed as the snow melts.
Not to be outdone, the round-leaved yellow violet competes for your attention in the same places where the trillium grows.
The waterfalls at the back of the cirque are stunning especially early in the season when you can hear them crashing down the cliffs even before you see them.
I found it interesting to read the research of the World Waterfall Database. They argue that the large spectacular waterfalls have never been officially named and have erroneously been referred to as Monument Falls.
Their research leads them to claim that Monument Falls refers to a 170-foot drop along a lower cliff band that is actually hard to see from the trail. The argument goes on to say that when Sperry Glacier was more massive, the water the glacier supplied to this stream made it stand out as the main inflow to Avalanche Lake.4 I’m curious if Dr. Sperry named the falls and why the designation of Monument Falls.
The head of the lake is a worthwhile extension to this hike. You will find a gravel beach that soaks up the warmth of the sun. On colder days, that makes it easy to linger a little longer.
Eventually, the time comes for the return trip. When you reach the beginning of the trail at the rail fence, you have the option of turning left which will lead you by the Avalanche Campground and to the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The exit will be near where you entered the Trail of the Cedars.
This 18-mile hike, which crosses the Continental Divide from east to west and then back over again, is spectacular. It includes walks through subalpine forests, mountain meadows, and high windswept alpine ridges with panoramic views into the craggy park interior. There is also a high probability of seeing moose and bighorn sheep.
The trailhead is located in the Two Medicine Valley of the southeast region of Glacier National Park. Find the Two Medicine Campground and then the parking lot near Pray Lake. This will be both your beginning and ending location – assuming that you do not decide to motor across the lake on the Sinpopah launch.
Clockwise or Counterclockwise?
Since this is a loop, it can be hiked clockwise or counterclockwise. I have found that there are pros and cons for both directions.
Clockwise (Dawson Pass first)
The light for photography tends to work better in this direction
Most of the elevation gain is accomplished in the two miles just before the pass. The rest of the hike is relatively level or downhill.
Toward the end of the 18 miles, there is a small ridge on the east flank of Rising Wolf Mountain that must be climbed.
Counterclockwise (Pitamakan Pass first)
The 2,400-foot elevation gain to Pitamakan Pass is spread out over 7.6 miles.
There is an option to catch a ride on the Sinopah across Two Medicine Lake at the end of the day. This could reduce the mileage of the hike by about 3 miles.
The steep descent from Dawson Pass can be a killer for some people’s knees.
A Few Things to Consider
First, be honest about your hiking ability and physical condition. If you are not in shape, postpone this one for another day. There are plenty of other hikes to enjoy that will be more in line with your ability.
This trek can take 9 to 10 hours. You want to make sure that you are not hiking in the dark. Not a prudent plan. It’s a good idea to check sunrise/sunset tables when you are planning for the trip.
The route covers 18 miles with over 5,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. So, don’t skimp on the energy that your body will require. Bring the amount of food that you think you will need and then throw in a little extra. There will be no water for a good part of this trip. Prepare accordingly. It wouldn’t hurt to include a water filter to use on the latter part of the journey when you do have access to water.
Be prepared for quick weather changes. Parts of the trip will be above 7,000 feet. The last time I did this hike, it was excellent autumn weather at the beginning and snow and blowing snow around the passes. Bring clothes that can be combined in layers. Include a hat, gloves, and some sort of a windbreaker jacket and pants. The wind can blow pretty hard up there.
Use common sense on extremely windy days. There will be some parts of the trail that are narrow with long steep drop-offs. Call it a day before you get into trouble. The mountain is not going anywhere.
Trekking poles are a good idea for a balance aid, especially on windy days. Some people claim that they help with knee pain on descents.
Finally, bring bear spray. Make sure that it is quickly available and know how to use it. On our last trip, we saw bear scat on the trail in more than one place. Parts of the route were posted with signs warning of grizzly bears frequenting the area. Additionally, it’s recommended to hike in a group and always make plenty of noise.
The rest of this post will describe the hike going in a clockwise direction – starting with the 6.5 mile and 2,435-foot climb in elevation to Dawson Pass.
From the parking lot, walk about 300 feet toward the foot of Pray Lake and cross the bridge over Two Medicine Creek. Continue another 300 feet to the ‘T’ in the trail. Go left. You will then be on the Dawson Pass Trail.
The trail proceeds in a general southwest direction. The enormous red hulk of Rising Wolf Mountain will be on your right. To the southeast across Two Medicine Lake and proceeding clockwise are Never Laughs Mountain, Grizzly Mountain, Painted Tepee Peak, and the majestic Sinopah Mountain.
The beautiful mountain at the head of Two Medicine Lake was named after Sinopah, a Blackfeet Indian maiden. She married Hugh Munroe, a Hudson’s Bay trapper and trader who lived with her people for some time. The Blackfeet gave him the name Rising Wolf for which the mountain was named.2
The rock that makes up these great mountains in the park was formed over an 800 million year time span which began 1.5 billion years ago. During that time, sediment was eroded from the surrounding lifeless land and deposited into the ancient Belt Sea. That sea was located where eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana are today. Preserved ripple marks and mud cracks in some of the formations are a testament to the water environment of that very distant past.3
The surrounding mountains have a lot of red color in them. That is the rock of the Grinnell Formation. The color was caused by oxygen reacting with the iron in the fine sediment that was deposited in the shallow water environment. The Grinnell has many ancient ripple marks and mud cracks.3
Starting in the Jurassic Period, 150 million years ago, and continuing into the end of the Cretaceous Period, 60 million years ago, Earth’s tectonic plates shoved a mass of rock several hundred miles wide and several miles thick 50 miles to the east.3
The magnificent horns, aretes, cirques, and u-shaped valleys that we enjoy today are the results of continent size glaciers working on the rock deposited here by the tectonic forces. The glaciers scraped and gouged from about 2 million years ago until 12,000 years ago.3 Glacier National Park, the sculpted masterpiece, is now sought by visitors from around the world.
The vistas that we seek out today in Glacier National Park have been in the making for the last one-third of the Earth’s entire existence.
At about 3.1 miles, you will come to a junction with a trail that exits on your left. This will lead to the South Shore Trail and the dock for the Sinopah launch at the head of the lake. This path will also connect with the trail to Upper Two Medicine Lake. Stay right. On our last trip, after this junction, we met a red fox trotting down the path and encountered a bull moose laying where we needed to walk.
The spur trail to No Name Lake will be found at 4.6 miles from the trailhead. After this, the route gets steep. You will climb through the Bighorn Basin via a series of switchbacks. As you continue to gain elevation, Flinsch Peak, a glacial horn, will come into view to the northwest. You will notice that Flinsch is not red. It’s tan colored limestone is of the Siyeh Formation. This rock is above and younger than the argillite of the Grinnell Formation.3
In the limestone rock near Dawson Pass, we found fossilized cyanobacteria colonies commonly known as stromatolites. Although the fossils are not this old, these single-celled photosynthetic organisms have been living on our planet for over 3 billion years.1 These simple creatures are mostly responsible for the Earth’s atmosphere becoming more oxygen rich and less carbon dioxide saturated.6 They are not as abundant as they once were, but places like Shark Bay in Western Australia still support these tiny oxygen factories.
At 6.5 miles and 7,598 feet in elevation is the rocky, windswept Dawson Pass. There is a rock cairn marking the site. You will also find a rough rock wall that can provide a little shelter from the wind. The views are magnificent and include park icons such as the spire of Mount Saint Nicholas to the southwest and Mount Stimson to the west.
From Dawson Pass, the path heads north and is basically benched into the steep, barren, rocky, western slope of Flinsch Peak. The Pitamakan Overlook is toward the north end of this segment where the trail juts out west and then abruptly back to the east. This is part of a steep ridge belonging to Mount Morgan. If you aren’t concerned with exposure, make your way out to the end of the overlook for a breathtaking vantage point.
The trail continues to the northeast and wraps around the northern slope of Mount Morgan before descending to Pitamakan Pass.
Pitamakan was a famous female Blackfeet warrior. Born Otaki, the male name Pitamakan or Running Eagle was bestowed on her by Chief Lone Walker for her bravery in battle. Running Eagle Falls are also named for her.4 It is in the cave of rushing water, Running Eagle Falls, that she committed herself to a vision quest which changed her life. She renounced marriage and devoted her life to the service of her people.5
Hundreds of feet below the pass to the north are two alpine gems – Seven Winds of the Lake and Pitamakin Lake. There is a trail, accessed from near the pass, that leads between these two lakes and down the North Fork of Cut Bank Creek to the backcountry campground near Morning Star Lake. This is part of the Continental Divide Trail. Staying on this footpath will lead over Triple Divide Pass, to Saint Mary Lake, Many Glacier, and eventually, Goat Haunt at the Canadian Border.
From the pass, it is a 7.6-mile downhill trek in the Dry Fork drainage back to the trailhead. This section is also part of the Continental Divide Trail. The spur trail to Old Man Lake will appear on your right about 1.5 miles from the pass. The massive mountain to the south is Rising Wolf. The circumnavigation of this enormous landmark is almost complete.
About 4 miles from Pitamakin Pass or 15.5 miles from the beginning, there is another trail junction. Proceeding straight ahead for 2.8 miles will put you at the Two Medicine Entrance Station. Take the right fork toward the Two Medicine Campground. Within this last section, there will be a bit of a climb over a ridge that extends from Rising Wolf Mountain.
Hopefully, when you reach the end of the trail and your vehicle, there are refreshments and other goodies waiting in a cooler for you. There is much to celebrate!
Awramik, Stanley M., and James Sprinkle. “Proterozoic stromatolites: The first marine evolutionary biota.” Historical Biology13, no. 4 (May 8, 2009): 241-53. Accessed October 1, 2018.
Guthrie, C.W. The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
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.
Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years: in Glacier National Park. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
Schultz, James W. Running Eagle: the warrior girl. 1919.
A fun Glacier National Park boat cruise and hike with history
I feel like I am favoring one child over another when I say that Two Medicine is my favorite area in Glacier National Park. I love the entire park. But, the Two Medicine Valley calls to me.
This special place is located on the east side of the Continental Divide and the Lewis and Clark Range in the southeastern corner of Glacier National Park. It’s a 20-minute drive from East Glacier.
What’s in a Name?
This area was and still is a sacred place to the Blackfeet Indians. The name Two Medicine comes from the Blackfeet name Na-too-too-kase which means Place of Two Medicine Lodges.12 Running Eagle Falls is named for a famous female Blackfeet warrior. Born Otaki, the male name Pitamakan or Running Eagle was bestowed on her by Chief Lone Walker for her bravery in battle. Her fate was sealed after she returned from her vision quest in the cave of rushing water – Running Eagle Falls. There she prayed and fasted for most of a week for direction in her life. The upshot was that she would never marry and would live in service of her people.9,11
The Two Medicine Road passes the trailhead for Running Eagle Falls. The 0.3-mile long trail is paved and handicap accessible. In addition to the spiritual connection to the Blackfeet, this feature has geological significance.
The sedimentary rock which makes up the mountains of Glacier National Park was formed from sediment deposited in the basin of the ancient Belt Sea from 1.6 billion years ago to about 800 million years ago. Starting about 750 million years ago, unimaginable tectonic forces shoved all of that rock 50 miles to the east resulting in the Lewis Overthrust Fault. The eastern terminus, the fault, is just below the limestone rock of Running Eagle Falls.1
Two Medicine was one of the most visited areas of the park when the Great Northern Railway was the primary mode of transportation that brought passengers to stay at the chalets they had built. After the completion of the Going-to-the-Sun Road in 1932, that changed. Even today, Many Glacier and Saint Mary visitors far outnumber those going to Two Medicine.7 I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.
On the Two Medicine Road, you will come to a particular place where a mountain fills most of the skyline. That is Rising Wolf Mountain (9,513 feet). A fitting name for a peak that greets visitors as they embark on their exploration of this region. I first assumed the name was derived from Canis lupus – the gray wolf that inhabits parts of Glacier National Park. Not so. Rising Wolf was the name the Blackfeet gave to the Hudson’s Bay trapper and explorer Hugh Monroe.8
Monroe joined the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1815 at the age of 16.8 In the early 1820’s, he was sent to live with the Blackfeet to ensure that they delivered their furs to Hudson’s Bay trading posts, scout for beaver, and ascertain what the competition from America was doing.10 He eventually went to live with Lone Walker’s band of the Blackfeet and married his daughter Sinopah. He is thought to have been the first white man to explore the region that would become Glacier National Park. Hugh Monroe became a legend in his own time and was written into history in the 1919 book Rising Wolf by James Willard Schultz.8
Once you reach the developed area at Two Medicine Lake, there is a decision that needs to be made. You can leave your car in the parking lot adjacent to the Two Medicine Camp Store and the boat dock. There is a small booth near the lake where tickets may be purchased. However, I would recommend buying tickets online at least 24 hours ahead of your arrival to ensure that there will be a seat for everyone in your group.
The other option is to park your car near the trailhead at Pray Lake, where you exit at the end of the day. From there you will need to walk a little over one mile to reach the boat dock where you embark on the Sinopah.
Take a moment or two to savor the spectacular mountain scenery. At the head of the lake, the beautiful Sinopah Mountain rises abruptly 3,100 feet above the water. The summit of Rising Wolf Mountain, to the north, looks down from 4,350 feet above your location.
Step back in time and visit the Two Medicine Camp Store, a National Historic Landmark. This building was originally the Two Medicine Chalets kitchen and dining hall built by the Great Northern Railway in 1912. President Herbert Hoover used the Two Medicine Chalets complex as his base of operations in August 1930. On August 5, 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave one of his famous Fireside Chats by the fireplace in the dining hall building.6
There are several options for getting to and returning from Upper Two Medicine Lake. If you choose to hike the North Shore Trail, it is 4.4 miles one way. The trailhead for this route begins by the campground parking lot near Pray Lake. If you take the South Shore Trail, it is about 5.5 miles one way. You will find the trailhead near the Two Medicine Camp Store and boat dock. Finally, there is the option of motoring to the west end of Two Medicine Lake aboard the Sinopah, hike 1.9 miles to Upper Two Medicine Lake, and then return 4.4 miles via the North Shore Trail for a total of 6.3 miles or 6.5 miles if you include Twin Falls. The remainder of this post will describe the third alternative.
Travel to the west end of Two Medicine Lake aboard the historic 45 foot, 49 passenger Sinopah. Constructed in 1926 by J.W. Swanson, Sinopah is the oldest wooden boat in the Glacier Park Boat Company’s fleet. She was bought by the company in the 1940s and moved from Saint Mary Lake to Two Medicine Lake. The name was then changed from Little Chief to Sinopah.2
To the north is the massive Rising Wolf Mountain, to the south Painted Tepee Peak (7,650 feet) and to the southwest is the majestic Sinopah Mountain. Toward the latter part of the trip, watch to the northwest to catch a glimpse of the light colored, pyramid-shaped glacial horn Flinsch Peak (9,225 feet). Enjoy the 30 to 45 minute trip and commentary by the boat captain.
After you disembark, you will cross a boardwalk over a boggy area. As you walk through the spruce and subalpine fir forest, watch for dark vertical lines on the trees. The lines will be from a few feet long to almost the height of the tree. These are frost cracks. They are a testament to the bitter cold and extreme temperature fluctuations that can happen in this area of the park. When they occur, it can sound like a gunshot.
This moist area produces large patches of thimbleberries. If you’re lucky, they’ll be ripe.
Watch for the park trail signs. The first junction gives you the choice of the South Shore Trail to the southeast or a path heading in a northwest direction. You will want to go to the northwest.
At about 0.7 miles from the boat dock and after a footbridge over Two Medicine Creek, you will reach another trail junction. Go left or westerly toward Twin Falls and Upper Two Medicine Lake. A right or easterly direction will put you on the North Shore Trail to the Two Medicine Campground. From the junction, it is about 1.2 miles to Upper Two Medicine Lake.
To your right, a large elongated cone-shaped mass of rock will eventually show itself. This is Pumpelly Pillar (7,620 feet). Glaciers carved both sides of this mountain into a narrow ridge (arete) as they flowed eastward toward the plains. The spire was known by the Kootenai Indians as Standing Arrow.12 It was renamed for Raphael Pumpelly who was the leader of the Northern Transcontinental Railway survey party. Traveling with Pumpelly was Major Logan, who became the first superintendent of Glacier National Park in 1910 and is also the person for whom Logan Pass was named. They crossed Pitamakin Pass in 1883.8
The spur trail to Twin Falls can be found approximately 300 feet after you cross a small creek on your way to Upper Two Medicine Lake. It is a worthwhile and easy 0.2-mile round trip.
Just before arriving at Upper Two Medicine Lake, the trail passes near a small body of water that will be on your left. Don’t be fooled. This is not your destination. Upper Two Medicine Lake is well over 100 acres.
When you do arrive at Upper Two Medicine Lake, the trail will lead you to the backcountry campground. The campground has four sites. Two of these can be reserved. There is a limited beach nearby.
This is an excellent spot to enjoy a bite to eat and take in the views. The end of the lake is dominated by Lone Walker Mountain (8,502 feet). Mount Rockwell (9,272 feet) is to the south, Mount Helen (8,538 feet) to the northwest, and Pumpelly Pillar to the north. Mount Helen, Lone Walker Mountain, and Mount Rockwell mark the Continental Divide.
You may have noticed that there is a lot of red rock in the surrounding mountains. This sedimentary rock is of the Grinnell Formation which can be up to 2,600 feet thick. The red color comes from the reaction of oxygen with iron. This happened to the sediment deposited in the shallow water of the ancient Belt Sea during the Precambrian Time – over one billion years ago.5 Preserved mud cracks and ripple marks can also be found in this formation.
To return the 4.4 miles via the North Shore Trail, hike back down the trail that you arrived on. Walk past the junction for the path that leads to the boat dock. About 1.6 miles from Upper Two Medicine Lake, you will come to a new trail junction. The park trail sign will indicate that the route to the left will go to No Name Lake and Dawson Pass. If you take that way by mistake, it will not take very long to realize the error. There is some pretty serious elevation gain.
The final 3.1 miles of the footpath has minimal elevation gain and loss. Huckleberries are an added bonus around the middle of July. Before you know it, the trail comes to a bridge over Two Medicine Creek and then toward the Two Medicine Campground. If you had parked by the Two Medicine Camp Store, there is roughly one more mile to walk to reach your vehicle.
A classic Glacier National Park hike – two mountain passes, two mountain lakes, fishing, incredible scenery, and wildlife.
Part of the fun of this hike is driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road to reach the Gunsight Pass Trailhead. The scenery is spectacular. Descriptions and pictures don’t provide a complete sense of what the men who carved this road into cliffs had to overcome. Driving it sure does!
In the fall of 1932, after 30 years of work, the first vehicle traveled over the entire length of this 50 mile national, historic, engineering marvel. However, it was not until 1952 that the road was completely paved. Traveling this trans-mountain road through glacial valleys and over glacially sculpted mountains is a terrific experience.
If you are traveling from the east, the Gunsight Pass Trailhead is about 13.2 miles from the Saint Mary Visitor Center. This route will take you through part of the 2015 Reynolds Creek Fire that burned 4,850 acres. Traveling from the west, you will find the trailhead about 4.3 miles east of Logan Pass.
Whether you make this a long day point to point hike or several day backpack trip, vehicle logistics will take some thought. Glacier National Park does have a free shuttle system. But, if you plan on hiking the 20.6 miles in one shot and maybe enjoy some fishing at Lake Ellen Wilson, you are looking at an 11 to 13 hour day. This could make using the shuttle a little tricky.
By the time you finish this challenging yet very rewarding hike through the landscape that will give you a feeling of awe, you will not only have put close to 21 miles on your boots, but you will also climb a total of 3,370 feet and descend a total of 5,450 feet.
Trailhead to Gunsight Lake
The trail starts at about 5,300 feet in elevation. Without much hesitation, it descends 665 feet in about 1.1 miles to Reynolds Creek and Deadwood Falls. The red rock through which Reynolds Creek cuts is of the Grinnell Formation formed from sediment deposited in the shallow water environment of the ancient Belt Sea during the Middle Proterozoic Eon over one billion years ago.6
The Gunsight Pass Trail Junction is another 500 feet beyond the falls. Keep to the right to continue on to the pass. The trail leads you to a long single hiker suspension bridge over Reynolds Creek and then to the Reynolds Creek two site backcountry campground. The Gunsight Trail continues up the Saint Mary River Valley in a general southwest direction.
Even though you will be walking through a lot of forest on this portion of the trail, there will be openings where grand views will present themselves. One such opportunity provides a picturesque view to the south of lush grassy meadows surrounding Mirror Pond with the 9,030 foot Citadel Mountain in the background. It is not uncommon for a moose to wander into this scene.
Consider bringing rain pants, a raincoat, and an extra pair of socks. This section of the trip is brushy. Morning dew or a recent rain can leave enough water on the vegetation to soak the early hiker.
The junction for the trail to Florence Falls is about 4.2 miles from the trailhead. The spur trail to the falls is 0.8 miles and can be overgrown with thick vegetation like thimbleberries and cow parsnips. According to the World Waterfall Database, Florence Falls drops 800 feet, but only the lower 440 feet can be seen from where the trail ends.8 That 440 feet of cascading water is a pretty sweet sight though. The entire falls can be seen from Sun Point on Saint Mary Lake.
The trail starts climbing the southwest flank of 8,750-foot Fusillade Mountain as it ascends to Gunsight Lake. About one mile past the Florence Falls junction, the path emerges from the trees to reveal the majestic 10,052 foot Mount Jackson. George Bird Grinnell named this mountain after William Jackson who was the grandson of Hugh Monroe. Hugh Monroe worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company and is believed to be the first white to explore the country that is now Glacier National Park. Jackson was also a scout for Captain Reno at the time of the Custer Battle on the Little Bighorn.7
Situated on the northeast side of Mount Jackson is the 200-acre Jackson Glacier. Jackson is the 7th largest glacier of the 26 remaining glaciers in the Park. To the east of Jackson Glacier is the 400 acre Blackfoot Glacier which is the 2nd largest glacier of the 26. Both of these were once one. In 1850, this one glacier covered 1,875 acres.
Today’s relatively small moving masses of ice are not the remnants from the Great Ice Age of the Pleistocene Epoch (two million to about 12,000 years ago). The valley filling glaciers from that age are to be given credit for the beautiful mountain sculpting for which Glacier National Park is famous. The glaciers we enjoy today had their origin about 6,000 to 8,000 years ago and probably increased the most during the Little Ice Age which started about 400 to 500 years ago and ended in 1850.1
According to Dr. Dan Fagre, a USGS Research Ecologist in Glacier National Park, this area is experiencing a rise in temperature that is about two times the global average rise in air temperature.2 Paleoclimate research has revealed that the climate warming today is happening much more rapidly than the changes of the last two million years. NASA Earth Observatory states that interglacial warming during the past two million years averaged 5 ℃ over 5,000 year periods. The predicted rate for the next 100 years is at least twenty times that rate.3
When President Taft signed the bill in 1910 making Glacier the 10th national park, there were an estimated 150 glaciers. Today there are 26. One computer model predicts all of the glaciers will be gone by 2030.2
About 0.5 miles before Gunsight Lake, you will cross an extensive debris field that was deposited by a massive avalanche during the winter of 2010/2011. The trail has since been improved. So, no bushwacking should be necessary.
At the lake, you will find the backcountry campground which has six sites, three of which can be reserved. The camp usually opens around July 15. Look toward the head of the lake and enjoy the majesty of Gunsight Mountain (9,258 feet) and Mount Jackson (10,052 feet). The low point in between the two summits is Gunsight Pass (6,946 feet). Gunsight Lake is at 5,351 feet.
During 1910 to 1912, the Great Northern Railway (GNR) established a tent camp for its guests coming and going from the Sperry Chalets and Saint Mary. From 1910 to 1911, GNR constructed the Gunsight Lake Chalets including a dining hall/kitchen and a 50 guest lodge at a location between the backcountry campground and the lake outlet near the shoreline. These opened in 1911.5
Sometimes things are just not meant to be. During the offseason of 1913 to 1914, the dining room building suffered significant damage from a hungry grizzly bear. The loss was repaired. Then, sometime in March of 1916, buildings were destroyed in an avalanche. Reconstruction never happened.
Gunsight Lake to Lake Ellen Wilson
I think that I had a constant smile on my face during this section of the hike. We left behind the shores of Gunsight Lake and continued on across a long suspension bridge which spanned the Saint Mary River. My lungs demanded a lot of the pristine alpine air as we climbed the 2.8 miles and 1,595 feet to Gunsight Pass. At the same time, my eyes provided a nice distraction as they fed my brain with jaw-dropping beauty as we gained altitude along the northern flank of Mount Jackson. Gunsight Lake shrunk below us. Waterfalls were thundering down rock faces, sometimes hundreds of feet, to the north and south of us.
There are several snowfields below the pass that can persist well into August. Some are steep and need to be negotiated with caution especially early in the summer. Check the Glacier National Park trail report. If they recommend an ice-ax and crampons, take it seriously. Be sure to know how to use the equipment properly. Sliding down the frozen face of a steep snowfield toward a cliff is not the ideal time to learn how to self-arrest.
Upon arriving at Gunsight Pass (6,946 feet), you will be treated to views of Lake Ellen Wilson far below to the southwest, Gunsight Lake to the northeast, Gunsight Mountain to the north, and Mount Jackson to the south. The rock shelter there was built about the same time that the Going-to-the-Sun Road was completed in the early 1930s. It was constructed for a cost of $638 to provide a safe haven in times of severe weather for those traveling between the Sperry Chalet and Saint Mary.4 It is evident that maintenance has been kept up.
Don’t be fooled by the apparent amiable nature of the mountain goats that are likely to be encountered at the pass. Some can be a bit clingy. The apparent lack of fear is a red flag for me. It may be my imagination, but their behavior is a little different than those that I have encountered in other parts of the park. The photo opportunities are excellent though.
Gunsight Pass is about 9.3 miles from the trailhead and close to the halfway mark. From the pass, the trail descends 1,017 feet on its way to Lake Ellen Wilson. The trail distance is about 1.7 miles from the pass to the trail junction that leads to the backcountry campground at Ellen Wilson. There is a beautiful little waterfall and stream that the trail crosses toward the bottom of the descent. On our trip, we met a group of mountain goats that were coming up the path and wanted to cross the stream at the same place as us. There was no negotiation. We stepped off of the trail a reasonable distance and let them pass.
Lake Ellen Wilson belongs to a glacial cirque at 5,929 feet elevation. She is a little over a mile long and about one-half mile wide. According to Fishes of Glacier National Park Conservation Bulletin Number 22, the only fish species in Lake Ellen Wilson is the Eastern Brook Trout. I can attest to the fact that they will rise to a fly. The backcountry camp has four sites of which two can be reserved. The camp usually opens around August 1.
The outlet empties into Lincoln Lake 0.25 miles away as a bird flies, but only after a spectacular 1,300-foot drop. Beaver Chief Falls is the name given to these thundering cascades. This picturesque lake was named in honor of President Woodrow Wilson’s first wife who died in 1914, the year following her husband’s inauguration.7
Lake Ellen Wilson to Lake McDonald Lodge Parking Lot
The hike from the Lake Ellen Wilson backcountry campground trail junction to Lincoln Pass is 2.3 miles and 1,121 feet of elevation gain. The pass, at 7,050 feet, is the highest point along this hike. From the pass, it is an easy 1.2 miles with 550 feet of elevation loss to the Sperry Chalet. If luck is with you, there may be some freshly baked huckleberry pie left for purchase at the kitchen and dining hall.
The two-story Sperry Chalet and the separate dining room/kitchen were completed in 1913 by the Great Northern Railway. They are built of native stone which was quarried from a talus slope behind the buildings and extending to the south. Both of the buildings are National Historic Landmarks. The only other remaining backcountry hotel in the park is the Granite Park Chalet situated on the Garden Wall.
The Sperry Chalet was named for Dr. Lyman B. Sperry from Oberlin College in Ohio. The gentleman explorer and ardent supporter of the national park concept led the first group of people to the glacier that now bears his name in 1896. He also negotiated a deal with the Great Northern Railroad to provide transportation to and from the park, tents, food, and supplies for himself and students. In return, during the seasons of 1902 and 1903, he and the volunteer students built a trail from Lake McDonald to Gunsight Pass with a spur trail to Sperry Glacier.7
On August 17, 2017, the Sperry Chalet was gutted by the 16,000-acre Sprague Fire. Reconstruction is now underway and is anticipated to be completed by the end of the 2019 summer.
A notable side trip from the chalet complex is the 2.7 mile, 1,500-foot climb to Comeau Pass and then another half mile from the pass to view the glacier. Allow at least six hours for a round trip.
Once you leave the chalet en route to the Lake McDonald Lodge parking lot, it is a 3,286-foot elevation drop over 6.1 miles. Your knees may whine a little by the time the trailhead arrives. The route is mostly in the trees along the Sprague Creek drainage on the south side of Mount Edwards and Mount Brown.
A great way to cap off an extraordinary day of hiking is with a refreshing beverage on the terrace of the historic lodge overlooking Lake McDonald.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
DeVoto, Bernard, ed. The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1953.
Guthrie, C.W. The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
Maloy, Otis C. “White Pine Blister Rust.” Plant Management Network (September 24, 2001). Accessed August 22, 2018.
Passmore, Blake. What They Called It. Kalispell, MT: Montana Outdoor Guidebooks, 2016.
Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
Schultz, James W. Rising Wolf: The White Blackfoot. 1919.
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.
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
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.