Gunsight Pass Trail, Point-to-Point Hike

A classic Glacier National Park hike – two mountain passes, two mountain lakes, fishing, incredible scenery, and wildlife.

The Trailhead

Part of the fun of this hike is driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road to reach the Gunsight Pass Trailhead. The scenery is spectacular. Descriptions and pictures don’t provide a complete sense of what the men who carved this road into cliffs had to overcome. Driving it sure does!

In the fall of 1932, after 30 years of work, the first vehicle traveled over the entire length of this 50 mile national, historic, engineering marvel. However, it was not until 1952 that the road was completely paved. Traveling this trans-mountain road through glacial valleys and over glacially sculpted mountains is a terrific experience.

If you are traveling from the east, the Gunsight Pass Trailhead is about 13.2 miles from the Saint Mary Visitor Center. This route will take you through part of the 2015 Reynolds Creek Fire that burned 4,850 acres. Traveling from the west, you will find the trailhead about 4.3 miles east of Logan Pass.

Whether you make this a long day point to point hike or several day backpack trip, vehicle logistics will take some thought. Glacier National Park does have a free shuttle system. But, if you plan on hiking the 20.6 miles in one shot and maybe enjoy some fishing at Lake Ellen Wilson, you are looking at an 11 to 13 hour day. This could make using the shuttle a little tricky.

By the time you finish this challenging yet very rewarding hike through the landscape that will give you a feeling of awe, you will not only have put close to 21 miles on your boots, but you will also climb a total of 3,370 feet and descend a total of 5,450 feet.



Trailhead to Gunsight Lake

The trail starts at about 5,300 feet in elevation. Without much hesitation, it descends 665 feet in about 1.1 miles to Reynolds Creek and Deadwood Falls. The red rock through which Reynolds Creek cuts is of the Grinnell Formation formed from sediment deposited in the shallow water environment of the ancient Belt Sea during the Middle Proterozoic Eon over one billion years ago.6

The Gunsight Pass Trail Junction is another 500 feet beyond the falls. Keep to the right to continue on to the pass. The trail leads you to a long single hiker suspension bridge over Reynolds Creek and then to the Reynolds Creek two site backcountry campground. The Gunsight Trail continues up the Saint Mary River Valley in a general southwest direction.

Even though you will be walking through a lot of forest on this portion of the trail, there will be openings where grand views will present themselves. One such opportunity provides a picturesque view to the south of lush grassy meadows surrounding Mirror Pond with the 9,030 foot Citadel Mountain in the background. It is not uncommon for a moose to wander into this scene.

Consider bringing rain pants, a raincoat, and an extra pair of socks. This section of the trip is brushy. Morning dew or a recent rain can leave enough water on the vegetation to soak the early hiker.

The junction for the trail to Florence Falls is about 4.2 miles from the trailhead. The spur trail to the falls is 0.8 miles and can be overgrown with thick vegetation like thimbleberries and cow parsnips. According to the World Waterfall Database, Florence Falls drops 800 feet, but only the lower 440 feet can be seen from where the trail ends.8 That 440 feet of cascading water is a pretty sweet sight though. The entire falls can be seen from Sun Point on Saint Mary Lake.

The trail starts climbing the southwest flank of 8,750-foot Fusillade Mountain as it ascends to Gunsight Lake. About one mile past the Florence Falls junction, the path emerges from the trees to reveal the majestic 10,052 foot Mount Jackson. George Bird Grinnell named this mountain after William Jackson who was the grandson of Hugh Monroe. Hugh Monroe worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company and is believed to be the first white to explore the country that is now Glacier National Park. Jackson was also a scout for Captain Reno at the time of the Custer Battle on the Little Bighorn.7

Situated on the northeast side of Mount Jackson is the 200-acre Jackson Glacier. Jackson is the 7th largest glacier of the 26 remaining glaciers in the Park. To the east of Jackson Glacier is the 400 acre Blackfoot Glacier which is the 2nd largest glacier of the 26. Both of these were once one. In 1850, this one glacier covered 1,875 acres.

Today’s relatively small moving masses of ice are not the remnants from the Great Ice Age of the Pleistocene Epoch (two million to about 12,000 years ago). The valley filling glaciers from that age are to be given credit for the beautiful mountain sculpting for which Glacier National Park is famous. The glaciers we enjoy today had their origin about 6,000 to 8,000 years ago and probably increased the most during the Little Ice Age which started about 400 to 500 years ago and ended in 1850.1

According to Dr. Dan Fagre, a USGS Research Ecologist in Glacier National Park, this area is experiencing a rise in temperature that is about two times the global average rise in air temperature.2 Paleoclimate research has revealed that the climate warming today is happening much more rapidly than the changes of the last two million years. NASA Earth Observatory states that interglacial warming during the past two million years averaged 5 ℃ over 5,000 year periods. The predicted rate for the next 100 years is at least twenty times that rate.3

When President Taft signed the bill in 1910 making Glacier the 10th national park, there were an estimated 150 glaciers. Today there are 26. One computer model predicts all of the glaciers will be gone by 2030.2

About 0.5 miles before Gunsight Lake, you will cross an extensive debris field that was deposited by a massive avalanche during the winter of 2010/2011. The trail has since been improved. So, no bushwacking should be necessary.

At the lake, you will find the backcountry campground which has six sites, three of which can be reserved. The camp usually opens around July 15. Look toward the head of the lake and enjoy the majesty of Gunsight Mountain (9,258 feet) and Mount Jackson (10,052 feet). The low point in between the two summits is Gunsight Pass (6,946 feet). Gunsight Lake is at 5,351 feet.

Gunsight Lake Looking Toward Gunsight Pass, Glacier National Park
Gunsight Lake Looking Toward Gunsight Pass

During 1910 to 1912, the Great Northern Railway (GNR) established a tent camp for its guests coming and going from the Sperry Chalets and Saint Mary. From 1910 to 1911, GNR constructed the Gunsight Lake Chalets including a dining hall/kitchen and a 50 guest lodge at a location between the backcountry campground and the lake outlet near the shoreline. These opened in 1911.5

Sometimes things are just not meant to be. During the offseason of 1913 to 1914, the dining room building suffered significant damage from a hungry grizzly bear. The loss was repaired. Then, sometime in March of 1916, buildings were destroyed in an avalanche. Reconstruction never happened.


Gunsight Lake to Lake Ellen Wilson

I think that I had a constant smile on my face during this section of the hike. We left behind the shores of Gunsight Lake and continued on across a long suspension bridge which spanned the Saint Mary River. My lungs demanded a lot of the pristine alpine air as we climbed the 2.8 miles and 1,595 feet to Gunsight Pass. At the same time, my eyes provided a nice distraction as they fed my brain with jaw-dropping beauty as we gained altitude along the northern flank of Mount Jackson. Gunsight Lake shrunk below us. Waterfalls were thundering down rock faces, sometimes hundreds of feet, to the north and south of us.

Saint Mary River at the Outlet of Gunsight Lake, Glacier National Park
Saint Mary River at the Outlet of Gunsight Lake

There are several snowfields below the pass that can persist well into August. Some are steep and need to be negotiated with caution especially early in the summer. Check the Glacier National Park trail report. If they recommend an ice-ax and crampons, take it seriously. Be sure to know how to use the equipment properly. Sliding down the frozen face of a steep snowfield toward a cliff is not the ideal time to learn how to self-arrest.

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

Upon arriving at Gunsight Pass (6,946 feet), you will be treated to views of Lake Ellen Wilson far below to the southwest, Gunsight Lake to the northeast, Gunsight Mountain to the north, and Mount Jackson to the south. The rock shelter there was built about the same time that the Going-to-the-Sun Road was completed in the early 1930s. It was constructed for a cost of $638 to provide a safe haven in times of severe weather for those traveling between the Sperry Chalet and Saint Mary.4 It is evident that maintenance has been kept up.

Gunsight Pass Shelter Cabin, Glacier National Park
Gunsight Pass Shelter Cabin

Don’t be fooled by the apparent amiable nature of the mountain goats that are likely to be encountered at the pass. Some can be a bit clingy. The apparent lack of fear is a red flag for me. It may be my imagination, but their behavior is a little different than those that I have encountered in other parts of the park. The photo opportunities are excellent though.

Gunsight Pass Mountain Goats, Glacier National Park
August and Winter Coat Still Hanging On

Gunsight Pass is about 9.3 miles from the trailhead and close to the halfway mark. From the pass, the trail descends 1,017 feet on its way to Lake Ellen Wilson. The trail distance is about 1.7 miles from the pass to the trail junction that leads to the backcountry campground at Ellen Wilson. There is a beautiful little waterfall and stream that the trail crosses toward the bottom of the descent. On our trip, we met a group of mountain goats that were coming up the path and wanted to cross the stream at the same place as us. There was no negotiation. We stepped off of the trail a reasonable distance and let them pass.

Lake Ellen Wilson belongs to a glacial cirque at 5,929 feet elevation. She is a little over a mile long and about one-half mile wide. According to Fishes of Glacier National Park Conservation Bulletin Number 22, the only fish species in Lake Ellen Wilson is the Eastern Brook Trout. I can attest to the fact that they will rise to a fly. The backcountry camp has four sites of which two can be reserved. The camp usually opens around August 1.

Lake Ellen Wilson, Glacier National Park
Lake Ellen Wilson

The outlet empties into Lincoln Lake 0.25 miles away as a bird flies, but only after a spectacular 1,300-foot drop. Beaver Chief Falls is the name given to these thundering cascades. This picturesque lake was named in honor of President Woodrow Wilson’s first wife who died in 1914, the year following her husband’s inauguration.7


Lake Ellen Wilson to Lake McDonald Lodge Parking Lot

The hike from the Lake Ellen Wilson backcountry campground trail junction to Lincoln Pass is 2.3 miles and 1,121 feet of elevation gain. The pass, at 7,050 feet, is the highest point along this hike. From the pass, it is an easy 1.2 miles with 550 feet of elevation loss to the Sperry Chalet. If luck is with you, there may be some freshly baked huckleberry pie left for purchase at the kitchen and dining hall.

The two-story Sperry Chalet and the separate dining room/kitchen were completed in 1913 by the Great Northern Railway. They are built of native stone which was quarried from a talus slope behind the buildings and extending to the south. Both of the buildings are National Historic Landmarks. The only other remaining backcountry hotel in the park is the Granite Park Chalet situated on the Garden Wall.

The Sperry Chalet was named for Dr. Lyman B. Sperry from Oberlin College in Ohio. The gentleman explorer and ardent supporter of the national park concept led the first group of people to the glacier that now bears his name in 1896. He also negotiated a deal with the Great Northern Railroad to provide transportation to and from the park, tents, food, and supplies for himself and students. In return, during the seasons of 1902 and 1903, he and the volunteer students built a trail from Lake McDonald to Gunsight Pass with a spur trail to Sperry Glacier.7

On August 17, 2017, the Sperry Chalet was gutted by the 16,000-acre Sprague Fire. Reconstruction is now underway and is anticipated to be completed by the end of the 2019 summer.

Sperry Chalet June 2018, Glacier National Park
Sperry Chalet June 2018 One Week Before Construction Crews Due To Arrive

A notable side trip from the chalet complex is the 2.7 mile, 1,500-foot climb to Comeau Pass and then another half mile from the pass to view the glacier. Allow at least six hours for a round trip.

Once you leave the chalet en route to the Lake McDonald Lodge parking lot, it is a 3,286-foot elevation drop over 6.1 miles. Your knees may whine a little by the time the trailhead arrives. The route is mostly in the trees along the Sprague Creek drainage on the south side of Mount Edwards and Mount Brown.

A great way to cap off an extraordinary day of hiking is with a refreshing beverage on the terrace of the historic lodge overlooking Lake McDonald.


End Notes

  1. Fagre, Daniel B. “History of Glaciers in Glacier National Park.” U.S. Geological Survey. Accessed September 8, 2018. https://www.usgs.gov/centers/norock/science/history-glaciers-glacier-national-park?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects.
  2. Fagre, Daniel B., and Lisa McKeon. “Retreat of Glaciers in Glacier National Park.” U.S. Geological Survey. Accessed September 8, 2018. https://www.usgs.gov/centers/norock/science/retreat-glaciers-glacier-national-park?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects.
  3. NASA Earth Observatory. “How is Today’s Warming Different from the Past?.” Accessed September 8, 2018. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/GlobalWarming/page3.php.
  4. National Archives Catalog. “Montana MPS Gunsight Pass Shelter.” Accessed September 8, 2018. https://catalog.archives.gov/id/71974944.
  5. National Park Architecture Society. “Gunsight Chalets.” Accessed September 8, 2018. http://www.nplas.org/gunsight.html.
  6. Raup, Omer B., Robert L. Earhart, James W. Whipple, and Paul E. Carrara. “Geology Along Going-to-the-Sun Road Glacier National Park, Montana.” Glacier Natural History Association.
  7. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, 1973.
  8. World Waterfall Database. “Florence Falls.” Accessed September 8, 2018. https://www.worldwaterfalldatabase.com/waterfall/Florence-Falls-748.

Goat Haunt to Chief Mountain

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

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

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

A Note on Bear Safety

This is grizzly bear habitat. Always carry bear spray where it is immediately available and practice removing the canister from its holster. Be sure that any packaging material has been removed from the safety clip and that you can remove the clip safely and quickly. The time to learn is not when you have a bear encounter. Make plenty of noise to alert bears of your presence. Surprising a bear can ruin your day.

Glacier National Park has a great Bear Safety webpage.


 

 


Goat Haunt, Glacier National Park
Arriving at Goat Haunt

Goat Haunt to Waterton River Campground (1.2 Miles)

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


Waterton River Camp to Stoney Indian Lake (8.1 miles)

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

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

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

Wahcheechee Mountain, Glacier National Park
Wahcheechee Mountain

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

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

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

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


Stoney Indian Lake to Lower Glenns Lake (8.8 miles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lower Glenns Lake to Chief Mountain Trailhead (10.3 miles)

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

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

Joe Cosley
Joe Cosley courtesy of the National Park Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


End Notes

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

Kintla Lake to Goat Haunt

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

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


Permits

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

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

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

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


It Needs to Start at Polebridge

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

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


Kintla Lake

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

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

Kintla Ranger Station, Glacier National Park
Kintla Ranger Station

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

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


Bear Safety

This is grizzly bear habitat. Always carry bear spray where it is immediately available and practice removing the canister from its holster. Be sure that any packaging material has been removed from the safety clip and that you can remove the clip safely and quickly. The time to learn is not when you have a bear encounter. Make plenty of noise to alert bears of your presence. Surprising a bear can ruin your day.

Glacier National Park has a great Bear Safety webpage.


Kintla Lake to Upper Kintla Lake (11.6 miles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boulder Pass, Glacier National Park
Boulder Pass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Lake Francis, Glacier National Park
Lake Francis

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


Lake Janet to Goat Haunt (4 miles)

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

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

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

Life is good!


End Notes

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

Triple Divide Pass

This out and back hike leads to a very unique location in North America. Triple Divide Peak (8,020 feet), which towers above Triple Divide Pass (7,397 feet), is referred to as the hydrologic apex of North America. This is where the Continental Divide and the Northern Divide intersect.

Water draining down the west side of the peak travels to the Pacific Ocean via Pacific Creek, the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, the Clark Fork River, Pend Oreille River, and finally the Columbia River. Water flowing down the northeastern side drains to Hudson Bay via Hudson Bay Creek, Medicine Owl Creek, Red Eagle Creek, Saint Mary Lake, Saint Mary River, Oldman River, Saskatchewan River, and the Nelson River. Water on the southeastern slopes of Triple Divide Peak flows to the Gulf of Mexico by way of Atlantic Creek, the North Fork of Cut Bank Creek, the Marias River, Missouri River, and the Mississippi River.

Hudson Bay Creek Valley from Triple Divide Pass Glacier National Park
Hudson Bay Creek Valley from Triple Divide Pass

 

The Trailhead

The turn to the Cut Bank area is located between St. Mary and Two Medicine. Travel about 14 miles south from Saint Mary along highway 89 or north of East Glacier approximately 16 miles along the same road.  There is a five-mile-long gravel road that leads to the ranger station, campground, and the trailhead.

The Cut Bank Ranger Station, built in 1917, is one of the first buildings constructed by the National Park Service (NPS) in Glacier National Park and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The station had a permanent year-round ranger until the late 1930s when the NPS made the decision to staff the ranger station only during the summer months. In 1935, the ranger station barn was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps for about $1,300.1

West of the ranger station is the Cut Bank Campground. This no-frills, 14 site campground does have a vault toilet, but no potable water. The North Fork of Cut Bank Creek is nearby. So, filtering or boiling your water is an option. RV’s and truck trailer combinations are not recommended.

The trailhead is located close to the campground. However, there is not an abundance of parking spaces. This entry into Glacier National Park will give you access to other trails that will lead both north and south along the eastern side of the park.

Triple Divide Pass Trailhead from Cut Bank Glacier National Park
Triple Divide Pass Cut Bank Trailhead

This is grizzly bear habitat. Always carry bear spray where it is immediately available and practice removing the canister from its holster. Be sure that any packaging material has been removed from the safety clip and that you can remove the clip safely and quickly. The time to learn is not when you have a bear encounter. Make plenty of noise to alert bears of your presence. Surprising a bear can ruin your day.

Glacier National Park has a great Bear Safety Web page at https://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/bears.htm.

The hike from the Cut Bank Trailhead to Triple Divide Pass climbs 2,380 feet over 7.2 miles.


 

On the Trail – The Easy Part

The hike to Triple Divide Pass starts off through meadows that can be loaded with wildflowers. The trail roughly follows the North Fork of Cut Bank Creek in a southwest direction. Bad Marriage Mountain (8,350 feet) fills most of the skyline to the south. At 3.9 miles from the trailhead, you will come to a trail junction. Going left, to the south, will take you to Morning Star Lake and Pitamakin Pass. Stay right for Triple Divide. From this location to the pass, you will be on a section of the Continental Divide Trail which stretches 3,100 miles from Mexico to Canada. The Atlantic Creek backcountry campground is just a short distance up the trail at 4.2 miles. While you are still relatively close to water, you may want to consider replenishing your supply.

At 4.6 miles, there is another trail junction. The trail to the left leads to Medicine Grizzly Lake. Stay right to continue on to Triple Divide Pass. If you are interested in visiting Medicine Grizzly Lake, it is about 1.4 miles from the junction to the foot and 1.9 miles to the head of the lake. This beautiful lake has numerous waterfalls plunging toward it from Triple Divide Peak, Razoredge Mountain (8,570 feet), and Medicine Grizzly Peak (8,315 feet).

The lake gets its name from the Blackfeet Legend of Medicine Grizzly. According to this legend, a Blackfeet warrior named Nis-ta-e was severely wounded while trying to escape with horses that he and fellow Blackfeet had stolen from the Snake tribe. A grizzly bear found him and supplied him with food. When Nis-ta-e was strong enough, the bear carried him on his back to a location close to his people. The bear asked that in return for saving Nis-ta-e that neither he nor his people would kill a hibernating bear.2


 

On the Trail – The Tougher Part

Triple Divide Trail Glacier National Park
Triple Divide Trail

From the junction to Medicine Grizzly Lake, it is about 2.6 miles to Triple Divide Pass. Don’t count on access to water from here on. The trail climbs up the southern flank of Mount James (9,375 feet) and gains about 2,000 feet in elevation by the time it reaches the pass. The scenery is spectacular. The view looking down on Medicine Grizzly Lake with water cascading hundreds of feet down the headwall is quintessential Glacier. Be sure to keep an eye out for bighorn sheep and mountain goats.

Medicine Grizzly Lake Glacier National Park
Medicine Grizzly Lake

At 7.2 miles, relish the views from the pass back to the southeast along the Atlantic Creek drainage or to the north along the Hudson Bay Creek valley. While looking north, you should be able to see signs of the 2006 Red Eagle Fire that burned over 32,000 acres. This fire burned to the northeast and out of the park and onto the Blackfeet Reservation. From the pass, the notable Triple Divide Peak rises 621 feet to the west and Mount James 1,980 feet to the east.

Triple Divide Peak from Triple Divide Pass, Glacier National Park
Triple Divide Peak from Triple Divide Pass

In addition to bighorn sheep and mountain goats, hoary marmots are also inhabitants of this area. When we sat for lunch, the marmots didn’t waste any time positioning themselves for an irresponsible handout. Please don’t feed them.

Hoary Marmot, Glacier National Park
Hoary Marmot

 

Options

With some planning, this hike could be extended into a nice overnighter. Continue north down the Hudson Bay Creek valley 7.8 miles to the head of Red Eagle Lake. There is a backcountry campground there with four sites – two of which are reservable. Or, add another 0.8 miles to reach the foot of the lake and another backcountry campground with the same number of sites.

From the foot of Red Eagle Lake, it is 8.1 miles to the trailhead which is located at the parking area for the historic 1913 St. Mary Ranger Station – built three years after the establishment of Glacier National Park and three years before the creation of the National Park Service.3


 

End Notes

1.     “Cut Bank Ranger Station Historic District.” National Register of Historic Places,   United States Department of the Interior, npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP. Accessed 10 July 2018.

2.     McClintock, Walter. “The Old North Trail.” Sacred-texts, MacMillan and Co., Limited, 1910, http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/pla/ont/ont39.htm. Accessed 10 July 2018.

3.     “St. Mary Ranger Station.” National Register of Historic Places, United States Department of the Interior, npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP. Accessed 10 July 2018.

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.