Numa Ridge Fire Lookout

A place set apart.

If you are looking to escape the summer crowds in Glacier National Park, you may want to consider this hike.

The Numa Ridge Fire Lookout is located in the remote northwest corner of the park above Bowman Lake. Getting there involves driving the outside North Fork Road and then gaining entrance to the park via Polebridge. If you have never experienced this route, you’re in for a treat.

Before heading out, you should know that there is no fuel in Polebridge and no cell service. They are off the grid. Generators and solar panels produce the needed electricity.


The Drive

Option number one starts in Columbia Falls and is pretty straightforward. Drive north on Nucleus Avenue. When you reach the ‘T” intersection, turn right and then motor 35 miles to Polebridge.

A small part of the first 11 miles is paved. However, the section that is not paved can be incredibly dusty and a teeth-rattling enduro – especially during the peak of the rafting season. If you are not in a hurry and you don’t mind a little dust, you’ll see some great scenery.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
View into Glacier National Park from the North Fork Road in March

The alternative is to drive from Columbia Falls to West Glacier. Once inside the park, use the Camas Road to access the outside North Fork Road. From there to Polebridge, the road is not as wash-boarded or dusty. Plus, this route gives you eight more miles of terrific scenery.

As any local knows, you cannot venture into this region without first stopping at the historical, 100+-year-old Polebridge Mercantile located just outside the park boundary. The Mercantile is affectionately referred to as ‘The Merc’ in the local vernacular.

Polebridge_Mercantile_300x173

There will probably be someone around by 7 AM in the summer. Might I suggest their Huckleberry Bear Claws and a cup of dark roast 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.

From the Merc, drive northeast to the Polebridge Ranger Check Station. It’s another 0.3 miles from there to the Bowman Lake Road. Turn right and then after a bumpy 6 miles on a narrow, winding, dirt road you will enter the Bowman Lake campground and day use area. The parking lot for day use visitors is where you will want to leave your vehicle.

The aftermath of the 1988 Red Bench Fire is pretty obvious as you travel from Polebridge to Bowman. The inferno consumed 38,000 acres, 25 homes, the bridge over the North Fork of the Flathead River, 5 buildings of the Polebridge Ranger Station complex, and took one firefighter’s life. That was the same summer that over one-third of Yellowstone National Park burned.

You might want to entertain the idea of making the Bowman Lake Campground your base of operations for a few days to take advantage of other hikes in the area. The campground has 46 sites, vault toilets, and potable water from May to September. Different walks include Quartz Lake, Lower Quartz Lake, Akokala Lake, and the backcountry campsite at the head of Bowman Lake.


Hitting the Trail

This hike will be 11.2 miles round trip with 2,930 feet of elevation gain. The steepest part is closer to the lookout. The Bowman Lake Trail is at the north end of the main beach. It will lead you to the path that ends at the lookout.

Bowman Lake near Trailhead, Glacier National Park
Bowman Lake Near the Trailhead

About 1 mile down the footpath, the Numa Ridge Lookout Trail heads off to the north. The sign that says there is no water available on the trail or at the lookout is not kidding. Since the route traverses a south, southeast exposure, it can get warm. So, bring plenty of water.

I would be thoughtless if I didn’t throw in a reminder here to carry bear spray in a quickly accessible location. And, know how to use it. Also, you should know that it can get quite buggy.

Bowman Lake, Glacier National Park
Bowman Lake

Most of the route is cut through a subalpine fir and lodgepole pine forest. But, a little over a mile from the lookout, you will start breaking into an outstanding panorama. Bowman is a quintessential glacial valley lake. You will see its 7-mile-length as if you were in an airplane. To the east is the massive 9,892-foot Rainbow Peak. Its summit is over a mile above the lake surface. To the northeast is the 9,003-foot Numa Peak. As you close in on the lookout, glimpses of the 10,101-foot Kintla Peak to the north are a bonus.

Rainbow Peak, Glacier National Park
Rainbow Peak in July

The lookout has been perched on its 6,960-foot site since 1935. It is still in use and happens to be one of the busier posts in the park. We were fortunate to be invited up into the tower for a little “Lookout 101”.

Numa Ridge Lookout, Glacier National Park
Looking East

Imagine experiencing a thunder and lightning storm or 360-degrees of stars on a clear night from a fire lookout tower. That would be something.


Options

Fly fish? Bowman Lake has cutthroat and bull trout populations (bull trout must be released). However, fishing can be a little slow. If you have some time on your hands, I would suggest the Nork Fork of the Flathead River.

The catch will be mostly cutthroat trout in the 7″ to 10″ class. The fish aren’t huge, but I’ve found that there is plenty of action on dry flies mid-July to early fall. (The knowledgeable and friendly folks at Lary’s Fly and Supply in Columbia Falls will be glad to help you choose flies to match the hatch.)

This day should give you plenty to talk about over a cold beverage and delicious dinner at the Northern Lights.

Life is good!


 

End Notes

Polebridge Mercantile photograph: Thomas Joel Wagner [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Huckleberry Fire Lookout

Outstanding views of the Livingston Range and the North Fork with history and the possibility of bonus berries.

This hike starts in the southwest corner of Glacier National Park in the Apgar Mountains. From the bridge over McDonald Creek near the village of Apgar, travel along the Camas Road about 5.4 miles. You should see the sign for the Huckleberry Fire Lookout and a parking lot on your left not far after the McGee Meadow overlook.

The trailhead is at about 3,771 feet in elevation. The trail climbs 2,725 feet over 6 miles to reach the Huckleberry Lookout at 6,496 feet. It’s about the same distance as walking into Sperry Chalet and about 2 miles less than climbing to Granite Park Chalet from The Loop. However, I found the return downhill portion caused less pain in my knees than Sperry or Granite.

Since water is not available along the path nor at the lookout, be sure to pack enough for a 12-mile day. This is grizzly and black bear habitat. Make sure that you have bear spray where it will be quickly available and know how to use it. You probably don’t want to wait until you see the whites of a massive grizzly bear’s eyes to determine how quickly you can take the spray from its holster and remove the safety clip.

The day starts by walking through a mostly lodgepole pine forest. As you increase elevation, there will be more and more subalpine fir, and they will become further and further apart. As more sunlight is able to shine on the forest floor, there will be more and more huckleberry bushes.

Looking East at the Livingston Range from Huckleberry Fire Lookout Trail, Glacier National Park
Looking East at the Livingston Range from the Huckleberry Fire Lookout Trail

The infamous 1910 fire burned a substantial part of the Apgar Mountains. This was followed in 1926 by the Huckleberry Fire which merged with the Half Moon Fire and consumed 95% of the Apgar Range. The Apgar Flats Fire of 1929 burned 19,000 acres including Huckleberry Mountain. In 1967, the Huckleberry Mountain Fire and Flathead River Fire burned a large part of the Apgar Mountains. It is believed that the 1910, 1926, and 1929 fires set the stage for the extensive growth of huckleberries in the area.4

Huckleberries are well adapted to fire. They primarily regenerate by root propagation rather than by seed after a burn.4 In fact, “hucks” need to burn at least every 10 to 20 years to produce well. If the forest canopy closes in around them, due to the absence of fire, it can result in fewer flowers and unripe fruit. In general, the bushes produce few berries if they go more than 60 years without burning.6 Of course, weather can complicate things. A late spring freeze or mid-summer frost can also affect production as can drought.

Huckleberry
The Prized Huckleberry

All of this great food has not gone unnoticed by grizzly and black bears. This is a hot spot for the bruins if the crop is good. In the Apgar Mountains where there are huckleberries, the highest probability of seeing bears is from the middle of July until late fall. Both the grizzlies and blacks feed on huckleberries in the lower to mid-elevations. But, as the timber becomes more sparse at a higher elevation, it’s mostly grizzly. Apparently, the density of the forest has an effect on the competition between the two.4

After 4 miles, the trail will go through a saddle, and the lookout tower can be seen. There is a steep drop-off as the path wraps around to the north side of the ridge. Even into the end of June, this section has the potential to be dangerous because of a lingering snowfield. It’s a good idea to check the Glacier National Park Trail Status Reports before heading out.

Huckleberry Fire Lookout, Glacier National Park
Huckleberry Fire Lookout

Also, in this section of the hike, you will see some beautiful red rock. Some of the boulders have ancient ripple marks that were formed over 1 billion years ago. Continental masses were separating during the second half of the Proterozoic Eon. This created an inland body of water that has been named the Belt Sea. The East African Rift Zone and the Red Sea is an example of something similar happening today.

The sediment that was eroded from the lifeless Earth surface was carried and deposited into the sea. The red rock results from deposits made in shallow water where there was enough oxygen to react with iron in the sediment. This formed iron oxide.5 It is the same chemical reaction that forms rust. There is evidence that indicates at least some of the deposit came from the west and southwest from land masses that eventually became Siberia and Australia.3,7

Red Argillite Rock with Ripple Marks, Glacier National Park
Red Argillite Rock with Ripple Marks

About 65 to 70 million years ago, toward the end of the reign of dinosaurs, an enormous section of the sedimentary rock that had formed under the Belt Sea was forced eastward 50 miles and uplifted over the younger formations of eastern Montana. The mountains of Glacier National Park are made of that rock.

Notice also that the Apgar Mountains do not have the knife-edged ridges as seen in other areas of the park. The more rounded form is the result of this range being wholly covered and then eroded by glacial ice during the Great Ice Age of the Pleistocene Epoch.4

As you approach the summit of Huckleberry Mountain, views to the west of the Whitefish Range and to the east of the Livingston Range are spectacular. From the summit, one can see into Canada on a clear day.

Maintenance Work on the 1933 Huckleberry Fire Lookout 2018, Glacier National Park
Maintenance Work on the 1933 Huckleberry Fire Lookout, 2018

The Huckleberry Fire Lookout tower was built in 1933 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Before this structure, there was a cabin topped with a cupola lookout. It was constructed in 1923.2

Glacier National Park 1923 Huckleberry Fire Lookout
Huckleberry Fire Lookout: Built 1923 Dismantled 1940. Courtesy Montana Memory Project
Hornet Lookout. Luke Channer
Hornet Fire Lookout. Luke Channer

The only original example remaining of this type of building that I could find is the U.S. Forest Service Hornet Fire Lookout. It is also on the National Register.1 Hornet is about 24 air miles to the northwest of Huckleberry Mountain and perched on the summit of Hornet Mountain. This piece of history can be rented for overnight stays from mid-June to October for a nominal fee.

Looking Down the South Ridge of Huckleberry Mountain, Glacier National Park
Looking Down the South Ridge of Huckleberry Mountain

End Notes

  1. National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places. “Hornet Lookout.” Accessed November 1, 2018. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/AssetDetail?assetID=8fe0ab8a-3e69-47b6-a54b-96a37ff4e5f8.
  2. National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places. “Huckleberry Fire Lookout.” Accessed November 1, 2018. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/AssetDetail?assetID=22312362-033d-48b5-a72f-2427c0c81565.
  3. Sears, James W., Raymond A. Price, and Andrei K. Khudoley. “Linking the Mesoproterozoic Belt-Purcell and Udzha Basin Across the West Laurentia-Siberia Connection.” Precambrian Research. Accessed November 2, 2018. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301926803002857.
  4. Shaffer, Stephen C. “Some Ecological Relationships of Grizzly Bears and Black Bears of the Apgar Mountains in Glacier National Park, Montana.” Scholarworks at University of Montana. Accessed November 1, 2018. https://scholarworks.umt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4636&=&context=etd&=&sei-redir=1&referer=https%253A%252F%252Fscholar.google.com%252Fscholar%253Fhl%253Den%2526as_sdt%253D0%25252C27%2526q.
  5. Raup, Omer B., Robert L. Earhart, James W. Whipple, and Paul E. Carrara. Geology Along Going-to-the-Sun Road Glacier National Park, Montana. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, 1983.
  6. Rockwell, David. Exploring Glacier National Park. Guilford, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 2002.
  7. Ross, Gerald M., and Mike Villeneuve. “Provenance of the Mesoproterozoic (1.45 Ga) Belt basin (western North America): another piece in the pre-Rodinia paleogeographic puzzle.” Geo Science World. Accessed November 2, 2018. https://pubs.geoscienceworld.org/gsa/gsabulletin/article-abstract/115/10/1191/1936/provenance-of-the-mesoproterozoic-1-45-ga-belt?redirectedFrom=fulltext.