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

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.


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



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.

Grinnell Lake

No matter how often I hike in the Many Glacier Valley among the massive chiseled crags, I am always filled with awe. The grandeur of the panorama is both exhilarating and humbling. Once on the trail, the sights, sounds, and smells that command my attention result in a restorative therapy that for me is second to none. Grinnell Lake and Hidden Falls offer an opportunity for this experience.

Getting There

At the junction of the Going-To-The-Sun Road and Highway 89 in Saint Mary, turn north toward Babb Montana then drive for about 9 miles. The junction of the Many Glacier Road and Highway 89 is just before the town of Babb. This road will follow Swiftcurrent Creek towards the west. Be aware that this road can be quite rough in several spots. Also, note that before you see the sign that indicates the border for Glacier National Park, you are traveling through land that is part of the Blackfeet Reservation. Please be respectful.

Once inside the park, the Many Glacier Road skirts the north side of Lake Sherburne. The land is now hidden by the reservoir, but in the first decade of the 1900s, oil drilling operations were in full swing. Cassidy Curve, located about 1.3 miles from the Glacier National Park border, was named for Mike Cassidy. His oil well location is now under water. Cassidy drilled from 1905 to 1909. His reward was a little natural gas which he used to heat and light his home for a few years.1

About halfway along the lake, you will come to the Many Glacier Entrance Station. After the entrance, start watching for the Many Glacier Hotel sign three miles past the entrance. Travel about one-half mile further after the turn for the hotel and look for the Many Glacier Picnic Area and Grinnell Glacier Trailhead signs. This is where the hike described below will start.

Another option is to start at the trailhead located near the Many Glacier Hotel. The trail from there will wind its way through the heavily forested southeast sides of Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. You could end up on the trail that is used by horses. This will not be pleasant. I know this from experience.

There is a third option. It is possible to buy passage on two different launches that transport you across two different lakes. The 45-foot, 49 passenger 1960s era launch, Chief Two Guns, will take you across Swiftcurrent Lake. From the dock at the head of Swiftcurrent Lake, it is a very short walk to the dock at the foot of Lake Josephine where you can board the 45-foot, 49 passenger Morning Eagle which was built in 1945. This launch will deliver you to the head of Lake Josephine. From the Lake Josephine dock, it is about a one-mile hike to Grinnell Lake. To return, you can either hike back or catch the launches at a later time in the day. More information can be found at the Glacier Park Boat Company .

The Hike

The Many Glacier region is grizzly bear habitat. Be sure to carry bear spray where it is quickly accessible and know how to use it. Never hike alone and be sure to make plenty of noise. Surprising a bear can make a great day into a really bad day quickly.

It is 3.6 miles and a modest 160 feet of elevation gain from the trailhead at the Many Glacier Picnic area to Grinnell Lake. The trail and trail junctions are well marked with signs noting destinations and distances.

Beargrass Along Lake Josephine, Glacier National Park, Many Glacier region
Beargrass Along Lake Josephine: (clockwise) Ridge of Allen Mountain, Mount Gould, Angel Wing, Ridge of Grinnell Point

The Grinnell Glacier Trail will guide you along the north shore of Lake Josephine. Views to the south across Lake Josephine toward 9,376-foot Allen Mountain provide many photo opportunities. If you visit this area from June to July, the Beargrass bloom can be spectacular.

In shaded moist areas along the trail, keep an eye out for the Bead Lily. The single white blossom is on display from June to July. Later, a single glossy blueberry is displayed proudly at the top of a stem. It might look tempting, especially to children, but don’t eat the berry.

Stay on the Grinnell Glacier Trail for 2.1 miles. There you will encounter a junction that will allow you to proceed toward Grinnell Lake. Turn left off of the Grinnell Glacier Trail. If you miss the turn, you will end up at Grinnell Glacier. (Note there is another trail junction at about 1.6 miles from the Many Glacier Picnic area. I prefer the route using the junction at 2.1 miles. However, both paths will end up at the same location.)

After leaving the Grinnell Glacier Trail, walk about 0.3 miles to another junction. Watch carefully for the Grinnell Lake sign. Veer right and in 1.1 miles the lake will come into view. There is a short spur trail to Hidden Falls just before the lake.

Grinnell Lake

This 130 acres of turquoise beauty is at the center of an exhilarating panorama. Angel Wing is to the south. To the west at the headwall, Grinnell Falls thunders 960 feet carrying meltwater from Grinnell Glacier.3 Mount Grinnell rises 3,800 feet above the lake to the north.

Grinnell Lake with Grinnell Falls, Glacier National Park, Many Glacier region
Grinnell Lake with Grinnell Falls

Grinnell is a name attached to many features and rightfully so. They are the namesake of George Bird Grinnell who was a man of many accomplishments. He earned his Ph.D. from Yale in 1880. Grinnell served as a naturalist on one of General Custer expeditions but declined a similar offer before the hapless foray in 1876.2

Grinnell on His Glacier
Grinnell on His Glacier – Courtesy of National Park Service

Grinnell was a friend of Teddy Roosevelt and also a prominent figure in the early conservation movement. He started the first Audubon Society and was a founding member of the Boone and Crockett Club. Importantly, he was influential in establishing Glacier National Park.2

The Return Trip

There are several options. Backtrack and see the view that was to your back earlier in the day. Or, from the last junction, follow the trail that borders the south side of Lake Josephine to the head of Swiftcurrent Lake and then to the Many Glacier Picnic area.

If you made arrangements earlier, board the Morning Eagle at the head of Lake Josephine and enjoy the cruise. Disembark at the foot of the lake and follow the Grinnell Glacier Trail to the picnic area.


End Notes

  1. Robinson, Donald. Through the Years. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier NaturalHistory Association, 1973.
  1. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. “George Bird Grinnell.” Accessed June 28, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Bird_Grinnell.
  1. World Waterfall Database. “Grinnell Falls.” Accessed June 28, 2018. https://www.worldwaterfalldatabase.com/waterfall/Grinnell-Falls-482.

Ptarmigan Tunnel, Red Gap Pass Loop

This is an outstanding backpacking trip that begins and ends in Many Glacier. It includes a side trip to the head of Elizabeth Lake and a short hike to Helen Lake.

Elizabeth Lake from the Ptarmigan Trail, Glacier National Park
Elizabeth Lake from the Ptarmigan Trail

The total trip from trailhead to trailhead, including the side trip, is 35.2 miles. If you decide to start at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn parking lot, add another couple of miles for the walk back to your vehicle from the Red Gap Pass Trailhead located along the Many Glacier Road.

The trek described below starts at the Iceberg Lake/Ptarmigan Trailhead close to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. You will notice that the Inn is pretty humble compared to the grand 191 room, 760 foot long, Many Glacier Hotel. This beautiful hotel, built between 1914 and 1915, was the brainchild of the Great Northern Railway president Louis Hill and was designed and built to lure wealthy American tourists away from Europe to the ‘Alps’ of America.2 Of course, his railroad provided the transportation.

The Many Glacier Hotel is located along the eastern shore of Swiftcurrent Lake. George Bird Grinnell named the lake and creek in the mid-1880’s. He derived the name from the Blackfeet moniker which meant ‘Swift Flowing River’. Interestingly, the name was changed to Lake McDermott to honor a lumberman in the late 1890’s. The name was officially changed back to Swiftcurrent in 1928.5

In contrast, the main building of the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn (general store on the east end) was built in 1935 and was situated in the forest. The addition of the restaurant and lobby on the west end was completed in 1941. These were built to meet the demands of the relatively new auto tourist. This new tourist was not dependent upon the railroad, had limited funds, and was, therefore, more interested in lodging and meals that were easier on the pocketbook. The wealthy clientele seeking European style and comfort, during the period of 1910-1930, was replaced by this new mobile tourist.

Iceberg Lake/Ptarmigan Trailhead to Ptarmigan Tunnel (5.3 miles)

The trail doesn’t waste any time testing your legs. This is just a teaser, however. The 5.3-mile climb up to the Ptarmigan Tunnel includes 2,300 feet of elevation gain with most of that gain in the last couple of miles. Be sure to make noise, keep your bear spray handy, and know how to use it. This trail passes through some prime grizzly bear habitat. It’s not uncommon for the trail to be closed because of bears.

As you travel northwest along the trail, the Ptarmigan Wall with its many pinnacles rises in front of you. This sharp mountain ridge, known as an arete, was carved by the glaciers of the Pleistocene Epoch. This time lasted from about 2.5 million years ago to around 11,700 years ago. To the east of the trail is Mount Henkel (8,770 feet). To the west is Mount Wilbur (9,321 feet) which nestles Iceberg Lake in a glacial cirque between itself and the Ptarmigan Wall. At about 2.7 miles, the Ptarmigan Trail splits off to the north. You will end up at Iceberg Lake should you continue straight on.

Ptarmigan Lake, Glacier National Park
Ptarmigan Lake

Ptarmigan Lake is a nice place to stop before the final climb to the tunnel. There is also an inviting spot below the lake on Ptarmigan Creek to filter water and replenish your supply. Depending on the time of year, it could be awhile for the next opportunity.

After a few switchbacks, you top out at an elevation of 7,200 feet and the Ptarmigan Tunnel – a National Historic Place. The 250-foot tunnel was built by men of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the summer of 1930. Two groups worked with jackhammers and dynamite and approached each other from both sides of the Ptarmigan Wall. Both the north and south entrances are shielded by heavy metal doors which were installed in 1975. They are typically opened around mid-July, depending on the snow, and closed October 1. Before entering the tunnel, take in the views to the south. To your left is Crow Feet Mountain (8,914 feet) and to your right is part of the Ptarmigan Wall. In the distance are Mount Wilbur (9,321 feet), Mount Grinnell (8,851 feet), and Mount Gould (9,553 feet).

North Door of Ptarmigan Tunnel, Glacier National Park
Ptarmigan Tunnel on the North Side of the Ptarmigan Wall

Imagine traveling back in time as you enter the tunnel. This engineering marvel was drilled through the red rock of the Grinnell Formation. This formation can be over 3,000 feet thick and is seen in many parts of the park. The Grinnell rock and most all of the other layers of rock in the park were formed from sediment that was deposited into the ancient Belt Sea during the period of time from 1.5 billion to 800 million years ago.6

The Belt Sea was located in what is now eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana. There is also geological evidence that Siberia and Australia may also have contributed sediment when they were connected to the precursor to North America.3

Starting about 150 million years ago, during the Jurassic Period when dinosaurs like Allosaurus and Stegosaurus roamed, and ending about 60 million years ago, when dinosaurs were ancient history, unimaginable tectonic forces pushed an enormous slab of rock several miles thick and several hundred miles wide 50 miles eastward and up over the top of much younger rock. The Lewis Overthrust Belt on the eastern edge of the park is the eastern terminus of that gargantuan slab of rock of which the Grinnell Formation is part.4

The Grinnell Formation gives us a wonderful snapshot of the distant past. Although not particularly evident in the tunnel, other exposures of this formation display preserved water ripple marks, mud cracks, and fossilized stromatolites. Stromatolites are mounds created by lime-secreting cyanobacteria which were widespread and abundant on our planet as far back as 3.5 billion years ago.4

Ripple marks in red rock of Grinnell Formation
Ripple Marks in Red Rock of the Grinnell Formation

Cyanobacteria are photosynthetic and played a critical role in the production of oxygen that changed the Earth’s atmosphere. There is no fossil evidence of any kind of land organism, including plants, found in this red rock or any other rock in the park that was deposited between 1.5 billion to 800 million years ago. Consequently, the surface rock of the ancient supercontinent had nothing to protect it from the weathering and erosion which produced the sediment, that would become the mountains of Glacier National Park.

Ptarmigan Tunnel to Head of Elizabeth Lake (6.4 miles)

Mount Merritt and Old Sun Glacier, Glacier National Park
Mount Merritt and Old Sun Glacier

When we emerged from the north end of the tunnel, a world class panorama was there to greet us. Mount Merritt, a hulk of a mountain at 10,004 feet in elevation, could be seen to the northwest. A little to the northeast of Mount Merritt was Natoas Peak (9,475 feet). Looking downward 2,300 feet, we saw the beautiful Elizabeth Lake adorning the glacier-carved, u-shaped valley of the Belly River. The Ptarmigan Trail that we were on continued northward and downward along the west side of Crowfeet Mountain’s northern ridge. After crossing Redgap Creek, the trail merged with the Redgap Pass Trail at about 2.8 miles from the tunnel.

Elizabeth Lake, Glacier National Park
Elizabeth Lake

That trail to the southeast would eventually take us back to Many Glacier. We continued northwest for another two miles where we arrived at the foot of Elizabeth Lake, a backcountry campground, and the junction of three trails – the Helen Lake Trail, the Belly River Trail, and the Redgap Pass Trail. Great place for a photo op. We continued on the Helen Lake Trail for 1.6 miles to the head of Elizabeth Lake and the backcountry campground located there.

The campground was our home base for a full day and two nights. Part of the time we used to explore Helen Lake and part of the time we used to enjoy the fishing at Elizabeth Lake. And, the fishing made me feel like a little kid again. It was exciting. I still have these mental movies of standing on the gravel bar where the Belly River flows into the lake. The clouds were low, the morning mist was rising from the lake surface, two trumpeter swans were swimming nearby, and my fly was drifting along the feeding lane. Just as the water erupted and I felt the strike, the clouds let some sunshine through. The rainbow trout in its aerial acrobatics was throwing water that looked like diamonds in the sunlight. It makes me smile just to think about it again.

Arctic Grayling
Arctic Grayling Courtesy of Andrew Gilham USFWS

For two evenings and one morning, we caught and released rainbow trout and the iridescent arctic grayling in numbers and sizes that would lead one to question my truthfulness.

Head of Elizabeth Lake to Helen Lake (5.4 miles round trip)

Helen Lake, Glacier National Park
Helen Lake

Several sources indicated that there were no fish in Helen Lake. So, we left the rods behind. The scenery is well worth the hike though. Helen Lake (5,085 feet) is at the head of the Belly River and is situated in a glacial cirque surrounded by Ipasha Peak (9,572 feet) to the northwest and Ahern Peak (8,749 feet) to the southwest. Between Ipasha Peak and Ahern Peak is Ahern Glacier. Meltwater from the glacier plummets about 1,600 feet creating some pretty spectacular waterfalls. Further to the south was Ahern Pass which has connections to the infamous Joe Cosley. It is said that in 1929, the 59-year-old Cosley snowshoed across Ahern Pass in order to beat the authorities back to his cache of poached beaver pelts in the Belly River Valley. He did beat the law and then disappeared into Alberta.2 The pinnacles above Ahern Pass and southeast of the lake are part of the Ptarmigan Wall.

There is a nice backcountry campground built within a stunted subalpine fir stand not far from the lake. A nice surprise was that the beargrass was in full bloom in the surrounding meadows. I imagine that the night sky would be amazing from Helen Lake.

Head of Elizabeth Lake to Poia Lake (11.7 miles)

As much as I hated to leave, it was time. We backtracked 1.6 miles along Elizabeth Lake to the junction with the Redgap Pass Trail. From there we climbed 2,647 feet in 4.4 miles to reach Redgap Pass (7,539 feet). The pass is well above timberline and appropriately named.

Red Gap Pass, Glacier National Park
Red Gap Pass

The red rock is of the same formation that we saw in the Ptarmigan Tunnel. To the northeast is the russet colored Seward Mountain (8,917 feet) which was named for President Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state.5 Seward reaches down to the pass with its southwest ridge. To the south is Kennedy Lake which lays in a glacial cirque on the north side of Mount Henkel and the east side of Crowfeet Mountain (8,914 feet). There is no developed trail to Kennedy Lake. To the southeast is Apikuni Mountain (9,068 feet). Apikuni (formerly Appekunny) is the name the Blackfeet Chief Running Crane gave to the trader, explorer, and author George Willard Schultz who was also a friend of George Bird Grinnell. The name Apikuni describes a hide that was badly tanned.5 I wonder if Schultz had a skin problem or a bad buffalo robe?

The trail left Redgap Pass and began its 5.7 mile and 1,754-foot descent to Poia Lake. After a series of switchbacks and about 2.5 miles, 1,500 feet of the elevation loss was in the books. The trail eventually parallels Kennedy Creek most of the way to Poia Lake and loses the remaining 254 feet of elevation in the final 3.2 miles. Enjoy a different perspective of the country just traveled through. To the southwest is the now massive Apikuni Mountain, to the west is the multilayered Crowfeet Mountain with the red ridge extending east to Redgap Pass. The extensive Yellow Mountain rises to the north.

Poia Lake, Glacier National Park
Poia Lake

After camp was set up and our last trail dinner was consumed, we climbed around to the east of the lake above the outlet and some nice waterfalls. From there, views of the sunset were spectacular.

This seems like an opportune time to introduce the Blackfeet legend of Poia.

The Blackfeet maiden Feather-Woman fell in love with the bright and beautiful morning star that she viewed in the heavens. Morning Star, a god, sensed her love, came to earth and took her away to the Sky Country. The hole through which they entered the Sky Country was plugged with a Great Turnip. Feather-Woman was forbidden to remove this turnip

Feather-Woman and Morning Star were married and had a son that they named Star-Boy. Life was good until she decided to dig the Great Turnip. Through the hole, she could see her people and became homesick. Morning Star returned the shamed Feather-Woman to her people with her son. Knowing that she had brought unhappiness into the world, she died of a broken heart. The orphaned Star-Boy lived with his earthly grandparents and suffered through years of ridicule because of a scar that he had on his face. Poia (Scarface) is the nickname given to him by those who delivered the torment. In desperation, he decided to turn to a medicine woman for help. She told him that the only way to rid himself of the scar was to have his grandfather the Sun do it. So, he set out on an epic journey to where the Sun lived. His grandfather removed the scar and sent Star-Boy (Poia) back to his people with much knowledge including how to perform the Sun Dance (Okan) which was designed to honor his grandfather the Sun.1


Poia Lake to Redgap Pass Trailhead (6.4 miles)

These backpacking treks end all too soon. On this fourth and final day in the backcountry, we had a short hike in front of us. Most of the hike out is in the forest with limited views. However, the views that we did get were a pleasure. A bull moose feeding alongside the trail was a nice diversion for a short time.

We had been in the backcountry for three nights and almost four days and had not even seen a bear and very little sign. That came to an end. We exited at the trailhead and had only walked a short distance on the Many Glacier Road when my hiking partner yelled “Tom. . . left”. I looked left and saw nothing from my vantage point. Then about 30 to 40 feet away from behind some shrubs, a grizzly bear sow stood up. I saw at least one cub and possibly two. She hissed at me, which I thought was weird. Teeth clacking I have heard, but never hissing. I slowly increased the distance between us.

Red Bus Driver Glacier National Park
Quick Thinking Red Bus Driver

A Red Bus driver was in front of what now had become a line of cars stopped to see the bears. He pulled the bus in between us and the sow and yelled for us to pile in – which we were more than happy to do. The bear ran behind the bus not long after the door was shut. Our generous rescuer delivered us to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn parking lot where we had begun.

End Notes

  1. First People. “The Story of Poia – A Blackfoot Legend.” Accessed June 28, 2018. http://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/TheStoryofPoia-Blackfoot.html.
  2. Guthrie, C.W. Glacier National Park: The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
  3. Halpin, Jacqueline, Torsten Jensen, Peter McGoldrick, Sebastien Meffre, and Ron Berry. “Authigenic monazite and detrital zircon dating from the Proterozoic Rocky Cape Group, Tasmania: Links to the Belt-Purcell Supergroup, North America.”Precambrian Research. Accessed June 28, 2018. https://bit.ly/2yOCZef.
  4. Raup, Omer, Robert Earhart, James Whipple, and Paul Carrara. Geology Along Going-to-the-Sun Road. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, 1983.
  5. Robinson, Donald. Through the Years. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
  6. Tapanila, Lori, and Paul Link. “Mesoproterozoic Belt Supergroup.” Idaho State University. Accessed June 28, 2018. http://geology.isu.edu/Digital_Geology_Idaho/Module2/mod2.htm.

Cracker Lake

The Cracker Lake hike is one of those must-do hikes in the Many Glacier region of Glacier National Park. The scenery at the lake is spectacular and the history surrounding this unique area only adds to the day’s adventure.

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

A Brief History

Glacier National Park, from the continental divide to the plains, was once part of the Blackfeet Reservation created by the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty. It seems that word of the gathering arrived too late in order for Blackfeet delegates to attend the treaty gathering. However, 10,000 other Indians from several plains tribes were in attendance. The Musselshell River, Missouri River, Yellowstone River, and the Rocky Mountain Range were set as the boundaries for the Blackfeet Reservation.

By executive order in 1873, President Ulysses Grant changed the boundaries of the reservation thereby reducing the Blackfeet land. Grant received quite a bit of pressure over this action. Consequently, the land was restored in 1875. But, this was short lived. The land was taken away again in 1880 by the executive order of President Rutherford Hayes.

President Benjamin Harrison signed the proclamation admitting Montana to the union on November 8, 1889. During the period of 1890 to 1893, word spread like wildfire that there were rich deposits of copper to be found in the mountains. Of course, it was illegal to do any prospecting or mining on the land east of the continental divide because it was part of the Blackfeet Reservation. The Great Northern Railroad arrived in East Glacier (Midvale) in 1891. The stage was set for miners and supplies to pour into the region.

Due to mounting pressure from the mining community, Congress appointed William C. Pollock, George Bird Grinnell, and Walter M. Clements to negotiate the purchase of the portion of the Blackfeet Reservation east of the continental divide to the prairies and from Canada south about 60 miles. They were successful. The United States Congress ratified the purchase of the “Ceded Strip” for 1.5 million dollars in 1896.

In the year 1897, L.S. Emmons and Hank Norris were following a mineral lead located near the head of Canyon Creek. They stopped for lunch on the shore of what was then known as Blue Lake. According to the popular story, they left their crackers and cheese at their lunch spot. Thereafter, they referred to the lead that they were following as “the lead where we left our crackers”. This eventually morphed into the cracker lead. It happens that the lead went under Blue Lake. Eventually, the lake inherited the name of the lead and became known as Cracker Lake.

In 1898, the “Ceded Strip” was opened for mining. The Cracker Mine at the head of Cracker Lake opened in the same year. The town of Altyn was built near the mouth of Canyon Creek largely because of the mine. This one-time robust little town was named for Dave Altyn, one of the financial backers of the mine. At its peak, Altyn boasted a post office, saloons and dance halls, a store, a hotel, tent-houses, and cabins. The Lake Sherburne dam was constructed in the years 1914-1921. Now the reservoir hides this local history.

Old Mining Town of Altyn
Old Mining Town of Altyn 1888 – 1902, Courtesy of Glacier National Park

The mining frenzy was short lived. As mining experts had predicted, little to no minerals were found. For all practical purposes, the bonanza was finished by 1903. The Cracker Mine land exchanged hands several times over the years. Finally, the tax deed was obtained in September 1953 by the Glacier Natural History History Association for $123.96. The Association transferred the land to the federal government in October of that year for the same amount of money.



The Hike

The out and back to Cracker Lake starts behind the Many Glacier Hotel at the south end of the parking lot near the horse stables. The park shows the mileage as 6.4 miles one way. However, I would suggest continuing on to the head of the lake to view the Cracker Mine ruins. This increases the one-way distance to 7 miles. The total elevation gain is 1,400 feet. Plan on six to seven hours for the round trip to allow for sauntering, exploring, picture taking, eating, etc.

Know that this is prime grizzly bear habitat and the Cracker Lake Trail is well known for its bears, especially during berry season. The trail has also been posted for mountain lions. Make it a point to check the Glacier National Park Trail Status Reports. The vegetation can get thick and there are plenty of blind curves. Make a lot of noise, hike in a group, carry bear spray where it is easily and quickly accessible. And, be sure that you have practiced taking the canister out of its holster and removing the safety clip.

Grizzly Bear
Grizzly Bear Courtesy of Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith

The first couple of miles of trail are shared with the Swan Mountain Outfitter horses. Consequently, it can be a muddy mess or a dusty, rutted trail with the recognizable fetor of equine deposits. After about 1.3 miles, the horses split off onto the Cracker Flats Horse Loop. This loop rejoins the trail at about 1.5 miles. The trail improves substantially after this junction.

The trail crosses a footbridge over Allen Creek at 1.6 miles and then climbs up a ridge. Allen Creek is to the west of the ridge and Canyon Creek to the east. To the west is the behemoth Allen Mountain and Wynn Mountain to the east. Canyon Creek, which flows from Cracker Lake, is crossed at about 4 miles.  At five miles from the trailhead, views of the headwall will come into view.

20130710_GNP_MG_bridgeCanyon Ck300x225
Canyon Creek Bridge

There is a great overlook about 6 miles from the trailhead. The magnificent milky turquoise water of Cracker Lake, the ten-thousand-foot, Mount Siyeh, with its sheer north face rising more than 4,000 feet from the head of Cracker Lake, and Allen Mountain to the west makes for a memorable photo op. Keep an eye out for mountain goats and hoary marmots.

The backcountry campground is below the trail that leads to the head of the lake and the old Cracker Mine site. There are only 3 campsites and no trees. Privacy there is not. Outstanding views without a doubt.

Cracker Lake Backcountry Campground, Glacier National Park, Many Glacier region
Cracker Lake Backcountry Campground


Cracker Mine

The adit for the 1,300-foot mine tunnel has been collapsed, but it is pretty obvious where the mine was located. The rusted remains of equipment can be seen down toward the lake shore. One piece of equipment that I found, was made by Atlas Engine Works of Indianapolis, Indiana.

Cracker Mine Atlas Mining Works Steam Engine Parts
Cracker Mine Steam Engine Parts from Atlas Mining Works
Cracker Mine Steam Engine Boiler, Glacier National Park, Many Glacier region
Cracker Mine Steam Engine Boiler

Charles Nielson of East Glacier was contracted to haul the mine’s 16,000-pound concentrator from Fort Browning to the mine site. I assumed that Fort Browning was located somewhere close to Browning Montana. After I did a little research, I found that Fort Browning was a trading post located on the Milk River outside the town of Dodson in eastern Montana. That is no less than a 250 to 300-mile trip just to arrive at the mouth of Canyon Creek. Mr. Nielson used a large freight wagon and twelve stout mules on a trip where there was little in the way of roads. Block and tackle were used to haul the equipment up Canyon Creek. For this monumental task, he was paid $25 per day. The job took 29 days.



The Return

Many Glacier Hotel Past and Present, Glacier National Park
Many Glacier Hotel Past and Present

The Many Glacier Hotel is an excellent spot to finish the day. The Great Northern Railroad completed the construction on July 4, 1915. Spectacular panoramas to the west include Swiftcurrent Lake, the iconic Grinnell Point, and Mount Wilbur. Recent rehabilitation work has ensured that this National Historic Landmark can be enjoyed for years to come.

Good company, a cool beverage, stories and quintessential Glacier. Life is good!

Harrison Lake

Harrison Lake, Glacier National Park
Harrison Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bull Trout
Bull Trout courtesy of Jim Mogen USFWS

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

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

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

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

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