Howe Lake, ridge, and creek are the namesakes of Charlie Howe, the first homesteader (1892) at the foot of Lake McDonald and the first white man to locate Avalanche Lake and Sperry Glacier.3
Howe Lake is an easy and worthwhile destination spring through fall. And it’s likely you’ll not find the trail crowded. If you’re looking for more to fill your day, there are a couple of options at the end of this post.
From the T-intersection near the Apgar Visitor Center, travel northwest on the Camas Road for 1.3 miles. The Fish Creek Campground Road will be on the right. Drive for 1.1 miles on that road until it Ys. Bear left.
The left fork puts you on the 100+-year-old Inside North Fork Road, which the Butte Oil Company carved through the timber in 1901. Although, at the time, calling it a road was probably a stretch. The unbridged, ungraded, and in places mucky route allowed the drillers to haul their machinery to the foot of Kintla Lake. Once the water froze, workers slid the equipment across the smooth surface to the drilling site.3,4
Drive 5.4 miles north on this historic and still somewhat primitive thoroughfare.
The Howe Lake Trailhead is on the right, and two small parking areas on the left. An interpretive sign, also on the left, describes the historic Matejka Homestead.
About 13 percent of Glacier National Park burned during 2003, a record for the park. Lightning caused most of the fires that dry summer. Not so with the Robert Fire that burned this area. Careless humans started it. Snow finally put it out, but not until the flames had consumed 52,747 acres of timber.5
The trail leads you through young lodgepole pine stands, with widely spaced magnificent old larch trees that survived the inferno. Bright yellow glacier lilies and snow-white trillium put on excellent displays alongside the footpath in the spring. It’s impressive to see the healing taking place.
While you’re strolling along, be sure to make noise and have your bear spray where it’s quickly accessible. Know when and how to discharge it. We walked on top of grizzly bear tracks and dodged some scat during a May hike. On a separate trip, I encountered one of these powerful animals on the road just north of the Howe Lake Trailhead. Since the bruins use this area, it makes sense to be versed in bear safety.
At the Lake
Before you know it, the first glimpse of water comes into view through the trees, and arrival at the outlet soon follows. Howe Ridge is visible to the east. The crest is about 1,000 feet above the lake’s surface and crowned with a glacial moraine. Imagine this spot under at least 1,000 feet of ice. If it was 20,000 years ago during the Pleistocene’s Great Ice Age, that would have been the case.1,2
The beaver dam across the outlet seems in pretty good shape. This is also true for the beaver lodge we spotted on the far side of the narrow channel connecting the lower and upper parts of the lake.
Howe Lake is an excellent place to see loons and other waterfowl. Be mindful that park service personnel prohibit fishing in the upper part of the lake until August to encourage loon nesting and protect their young until they attain fledging age. You’ll see the sign.
Total Distance: 3.2 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 240 feet; Loss: 108 feet
Difficulty*: 3.9, easy (Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time: 1 hour 27 minutes (Calculated using an average speed of 2.5 mph and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)
If you choose to go farther, the trail continues east away from the lake and intersects the Howe Ridge trail in a little less than two miles. Or, once you return to your vehicle, drive another mile and a quarter north to the Camas Creek road closure. There, you’ll find the trailhead to Christensen Meadows and Rogers Meadow. I suggest this option. You can learn more about it here.
A comprehensive guidebook to extend your knowledge, promote adventure, and discovery while traveling one of the most scenic highways in the world.
Raup, Omer B., Robert L. Earhart, James W. Whipple, and Paul E. Carrara. Geology Along Going-to-the-Sun Road Glacier National Park, Montana. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, 1983.
Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years in Glacier National Park. Whitefish, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
Take only memories, leave only footprints. – Chief Si’ahl
This 11-acre gem is definitely worthy of your attention from early to late season. Enjoy the reflections of the surrounding peaks as they take on the golden glow of sunrise. And if you’re lucky, witness a moose emerging from the lake fog in the crisp mountain air. It’s an easy, family-friendly walk from the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn.
From the Many Glacier Entrance Station, drive straight ahead for five miles to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn parking lot. Look for the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail, which begins near the northwest corner of the parking area.
The path leading to Fishercap lake is one-quarter mile from the trailhead. After you cross the bridge over Wilbur Creek, it’s only another three to four minutes to the junction on your left. The footpath to the shoreline is about a tenth of a mile long.
Total Distance: 0.6 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 15 feet; Loss: 15 feet
Difficulty: 0.6, easy* (Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time Estimate: 15 minutes (Calculated using an average speed of 2.5 mph and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)
If you’re looking for a family-friendly hike that includes history, outstanding scenery, and wildlife, the loop around Swiftcurrent Lake in Many Glacier is hard to beat. This is one that can be enjoyed May through October.
The most popular places to access the trail are near the Many Glacier Hotel, or the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead found in the picnic area.
The road junction for the Many Glacier Hotel is four miles west of the Many Glacier Entrance Station. Make your way to the hotel parking lot. From there, it’s a short walk to the lakeshore.
A half-mile past the road intersection to the Many Glacier Hotel is a picnic area. Find the trail either at the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead, at the south end of the parking lot, or near the east junction of the picnic area road and the Many Glacier Road.
This post describes the walk beginning at the Many Glacier Hotel boat dock and proceeds clockwise. Starting and finishing there allows twice the time to enjoy the historic structure set in a world-class view, stroll around inside and maybe find a snack, beverage, or meal. If a trail ride is something you want to fit into your day, the Many Glacier Corral is at the back of the parking lot.
The Many Glacier Hotel opened on July 4, 1915, and survived economic downturns and the floods of 1964, 1975, and 2006.1 When smoke cleared after Heavens Peak Fire in 1936, the hotel was still standing, but there was little else.2 For over a century, the Many Glacier Hotel has hosted presidents, celebrities, rambunctious wranglers, and visitors from around the world.3
Without a doubt, Grinnell Point steals the show when looking across Swiftcurrent Lake. Add Mount Gould and Angel Wing to the south and Mount Wilbur to the north, and it’s spellbinding.
A great treat of this route is the possibility of seeing moose. Glacier National Park has a Wildlife Safety webpage with tips on sharing the land with these impressive animals. Also, deer frequent the area, as do bears. If you’ve had little experience traveling through bear habitat, the park has an informative Bear Safety webpage that’s worth visiting.
From the boat dock, head south along the roadway for about 500 feet to the trailhead. The footpath never strays far from the shoreline. After about half a mile, the path brings you near the boathouse for the 1961 45-foot vessel Chief Two Guns and crew member cabins.
The first bridge on the route crosses Cataract Creek flowing out of Lake Josephine and Stump Lake. A quarter-mile past the bridge, the loop trail intersects the Grinnell Glacier Trail. At that place, a left turn begins a worthy side-trip to Lake Josephine, 0.2 miles away. The historic 1945 45-foot Morning Eagle passenger boat docks there and has been carrying passengers on the lake since 1960. Mount Gould and Angel Wing across the water to the southwest, framed by Grinnell Point to the north and Allen Mountain to the south, are spectacular.
From the Swiftcurrent Lake Loop Trail and Grinnell Glacier Trail junction, a right turn continues into a little more densely wooded section of the walk with fewer lake views. You’ll see the Chief Two Guns south boat dock almost immediately. In 0.4 miles, there is a bridge over Swiftcurrent Creek and then a quarter mile to the picnic grounds’ parking lot. Continue right on the blacktop for 300 feet. The footpath is on your right.
The trail meanders for a half-mile between the Many Glacier Road to its north and Swiftcurrent Lake to the south. After that distance, you’re at the asphalt leading to the Many Glacier Hotel.
Two of the original eight chalets erected during 1911 are standing across the roadway from the trail. At that time the Many Glacier Hotel only existed on paper and in the minds of the designers.5 An avalanche wiped out one chalet a few winters after construction. The 1936 Heavens Peak Fire took most everything else.2
The route continues along the hotel road to the bridge over Swiftcurrent Creek. Downstream is Swiftcurrent Falls. Several walking paths lead away from the south side of the bridge, allowing visitors to view the cascades from several perspectives.
It’s a quarter-mile back to the boat dock from the bridge.
Total Distance: 2.3 miles
Total Elevation Gain: level
Difficulty: 2.3, easy* (Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time: 55 minutes (Calculated using an average 2.5 mph speed.)
Hiking and history notes for your walk up the spectacular Swiftcurrent Valley.
Suppose you don’t feel like climbing to the pass. In that case, there are three wonderful subalpine lakes plus waterfalls to see along the route. They involve shorter distances and not much elevation gain. You’ll find more information in this post.
If you want more than the pass, Swiftcurrent Lookout Trail heads north near the pass and climbs 1,248 feet over 1.4 miles. The views from up there are outstanding.
Another option is to begin at Logan Pass and walk the Highline Trail past Granite Park Chalet until the path intersects the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail. Follow that back to Many Glacier. This route is a little over 15 miles with 2,844 feet total elevation gain and 4,553 feet loss. Transportation logistics are a must with this trip. Consider leaving your vehicle at the Logan Pass parking lot. At Many Glacier, catch a fee-based hiker’s shuttle to Saint Mary. From Saint Mary, use the free Glacier National Park Shuttles to return to Logan Pass.
The rest of this post is devoted to the out and back hike from Many Glacier to Swiftcurrent Pass.
Once on the Many Glacier Road, drive to the parking lot in front of the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn (originally Swiftcurrent Auto Camp). This spot is five miles west of the Many Glacier entrance station. The well-marked Swiftcurrent Pass Trail begins just west of the inn.
The main building and cabins mark the “turning of a page” in Glacier National Park history. In the park’s early days, the Great Northern Railway (GNR) lured wealthy folks away from their vacations in the Swiss Alps and to the “alps” of America in Glacier National Park. These tourists expected top-shelf service, and they got it for a price.
Around the early 1930s, a different type of visitor emerged. The automobile made it possible for tourists to be mobile and independent of Great Northern. They demanded less extravagant lodging and service than that offered by the Many Glacier Hotel. Their voices were heard.
In 1933, Swiftcurrent Auto Camp began with the building of cabins described as “spartan and inexpensive.” Construction continued in 1935 with a general store at the east end of the current main building. In the 1940s, builders added the lobby space and restaurant at the west end.12 If you get a chance, it’s worth a look inside these historical buildings.
Long before the auto camp, horses and their riders rode down the Swiftcurrent Valley, making their way to the Many Glacier Hotel. This was the last leg of a multi-day backcountry camping trip known as the North Circle.3 As you walk along the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail, know that you are enjoying the same magnificent scenery that many have for over a century.
Fishercap Lake (0.7 miles)
A quarter-mile after leaving the trailhead, a path veers left toward the shore of the lake with the peculiar name. The Blackfeet gave their friend George B. Grinnell the moniker Fishercap, which was then attached to the lake.9
The soft glow of early morning light on the water, Swiftcurrent Mountain, Mount Wilbur, and Bullhead Point creates an excellent scene for photographs. Not only that, but the valley from Fishercap Lake to Bullhead Lake has superb moose habitat. And, although there are no guarantees, the best time to see these impressive animals is early morning and evening.
Redrock Lake (1.3 miles) & Redrock Falls
The Swiftcurrent Pass Trail continues from the Fishercap Lake Trail junction through mixed lodgepole pine and fir forest. Intermixed stands of quaking aspen show off glowing yellow leaves in October. One and a half miles from the trailhead, there is a short side path to a gravel beach on the north side of Redrock Lake. It’s worth a look.
Continue toward the west end of the lake and find a spur trail at 1.8 miles leading to the lower part of Redrock Falls. The best show is early in the season. After you return to the primary route, climb a little, and then pass next to Swiftcurrent Creek and the upper section of the falls.
The conspicuous red to maroon rock from which the lake and falls take their name is part of the 2,500-feet-thick Grinnell Formation. Over a billion years ago, a Siberia size landmass began separating from what would become North America. A shallow inland sea formed in the resulting basin. Here, streams and rivers dumped the silt and sand they carried from the surrounding lifeless land. Over time, heat, pressure, and oxygen content produced multi-colored layers of rock. Then, tectonic forces pushed those layers, which were miles deep, eastward 50 miles, and upward.1
When the park’s rocks were forming, life in the ancient sea consisted of single-celled cyanobacteria. Since 3.5 billion years ago, these primitive organisms have produced oxygen and contributed substantially to an atmosphere that supports life as we know it.11 Stromatolites, fossils of the structures these organisms made, exist not only in the Grinnell Formation but within many others throughout the park.4
During the Pleistocene Epoch, glaciers thousands of feet deep filled the valleys of what is now Glacier National Park. Peaks of the mountains would have appeared like islands in the seas of ice. When the glaciers receded around 12,000 years ago, they left amazing hanging and u-shaped valleys, aretes, horns, and cirques that characterize the park.
Bullhead Lake (3.9 miles to the west end)
You’ll cross a suspension bridge over a stream flowing from Windmaker Lake about three and a half miles from the trailhead. Watch for a path headed toward Bullhead Lake about 500 feet after the bridge. I think the views are better there than those at the west end of the lake.
A couple hundred feet farther west from the junction mentioned above, some not so apparent trails lead down to the shore. I used one of those when I needed to replenish my water supply coming back from the pass. Be sure to use some sort of water purification system.
After leaving the west end of Bullhead Lake, cross Swiftcurrent Creek and head south into the drainage nestled at the base of Mount Grinnell, the Garden Wall, and a flank of Swiftcurrent Mountain. The trail crosses a pretty braided stream channel, but there is a plank bridge. It’s put in place in June and taken out in September. Check Glacier National Park’s Trail Status Reports.
In 1910, an official from the Department of the Interior visited the newly established Glacier National Park. He hired Josiah Rogers, an owner of stock and packer on the west side, to take him through the park, including a trip over Swiftcurrent Pass at the end of the journey. Rogers balked at this last request. He finally agreed when a contract guaranteed $100 for each horse lost while traveling over the dangerous route.9
The ride over a primitive trail scratched into cliffs must have made an impression on Roger’s guest. In those days, there wasn’t much money available for the park. But somehow, the government found funds to reconstruct the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail.9
One must climb over three miles using several switchbacks cut into the headwall to reach the pass. Otherwise known as “Galen’s Ladder,” workers constructed these hairpin-turns for the footpath during the 1913 trail reconstruction.9
Grand waterfalls plummeting down the eastern rock face of the Garden Wall add to the spectacular scenery as you gain elevation. Swiftcurrent Glacier clings to an east face of the Garden Wall not far below the ridge top. Several viewing points will present themselves as you make your way up the trail. This glacier has decreased about 71% since the mid-1800s.10 Modern glaciers, like Swiftcurrent, are not holdovers from the Pleistocene, which ended about 12,000 years ago. The 26 remaining glaciers in the park have only been around for 7,000 years.8
“A rolling wall of flame.”9 Park superintendent Scoyen said, “I have never seen as complete a burn-out as occurred in Swiftcurrent Valley. With the exception of a few swampy areas, every green living thing from rocks on one side of the valley to the other, has been destroyed.”5 Those words described the 8,364-acre, 1936 Heaven’s Peak Fire and its aftermath.
It all began on August 18, with a lightning strike above the Glacier Wall west of the continental divide. On August 31, violent winds carried firebrands east over Swiftcurrent Pass. They ignited the forest as much as 1.5 miles ahead of the main fire. The Many Glacier Hotel was spared, but the wildfire consumed many other buildings.5
Looking down on the green Swiftcurrent Valley from several viewing points along the headwall, one would never suspect that such an inferno was part of Many Glacier’s history.
Devil’s Elbow is the last major switchback on the trail. Envision sitting on a horse or leading the critters around that hairpin turn with a vertical drop of hundreds of feet within a few steps of the path.
A small pile of rock rubble on the left side of the footpath marks the pass at 7,185 feet. It is all that remains of the base constructed in 1926 to support a locomotive bell. GNR installed bells at Swiftcurrent, Piegan, Siyeh Passes, and a fourth near Scenic Point. Great Northern borrowed the unique Swiss custom of placing bells on mountain tops and passes so that hikers could produce a loud clang upon arrival. It was in line with the railway’s advertising slogan “Alps of America” to promote Glacier National Park.9
Total Distance: 13.7 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 2,611 feet; Loss: 370 feet
Difficulty: 18.9, strenuous* (Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile equation.)
Total Walking Time Estimate: 6 hours 47 minutes (Calculated using an average speed of 2.5 mph and Naismith’s correction for elevation gain.)
I invite you to take a look at my book Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road: a traveler’s guide. I’m confident it will help with your planning and exploration of this engineering masterpiece and the surrounding wilderness. See it here on Apple Books.
On November 2, 1887, after three days of bushwhacking, George Bird Grinnell, Jack Monroe, and James Willard Schultz scaled the headwall of a magnificent glacial valley. The team was probably all smiles when they climbed up onto the glacier Grinnell had spotted through his spyglass two years earlier.2 Grinnell estimated the depth of the ice, which would later bear his name, at 600 feet.2
Grinnell became one of the prominent personalities who worked tirelessly to gain national park status for the extraordinary land he had explored.
Today millions of people travel to Glacier National Park. The Many Glacier Region, in the northeastern part of the park, is a hiker’s paradise. And one of the most popular destinations in this area is Grinnell Glacier. The trip to what remains of the once-mighty glacier often shows up in visitor’s top ten “must-do” lists. During July and August, don’t expect any solitude. But do expect to be awed by the scenery.
If you’d like to mix it up a bit, consider buying passage on the boats Chief Two Guns and Morning Eagle. Chief Two Guns is a 45-foot, 49 passenger launch that motors across Swiftcurrent Lake. Its dock at the foot of the lake is near the Many Glacier Hotel. Once at the head of the lake, there is a short walk to the pier on Lake Josephine. There the 49 passenger Morning Eagle is waiting to take folks to the head of her lake. Using the boats will knock off a little over three miles of the walk to the glacier. Check out Glacier Park Boat Company’s website for current fees and time schedules.
It’s not uncommon for the park service to post a warning or close the Grinnell Glacier Trail because of grizzly bears. If you’re unfamiliar with traveling through bear habitat, I recommend Glacier National Park’s Bear Safety web page. There’s a lot of valuable information, including a video presentation by a park bear biologist.
CLOSED for bear frequenting from Thunderbird Falls to the end of the trail 7/10/21 per 822
Projected initial clearing date: 7/23/21 per 650
High-angle snow hazards exist approximately 1.5 miles above the junction with Josephine Lake (3.5 miles from the trailhead at the picnic area). Crampons, ice axe, and extensive experience with ice travel would be recommended.
Hiking the entire Grinnell Glacier Trail is the focus of this post. The strenuous hike begins in the Many Glacier picnic area about 0.5-miles past the road to the Many Glacier Hotel. The trailhead is well marked at the south end of the parking lot, which fills early during July and August. Additional parking is sometimes available just before the picnic area beside the road.
The Many Glacier Hotel is an alternate starting point. You will meander along the eastern and southern shores of Swiftcurrent Lake before intersecting the Grinnell Glacier Trail. This route is about three-tenths of a mile longer than that starting at the picnic area.
The first two miles of the footpath are relatively level and forested. You’ll walk along the western shores of Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. Grinnell Point, the prominence seen from the Many Glacier Hotel, rises to the north.
After the Josephine Trail junction, the climb begins in earnest. The icy-cold Grinnell Falls, crashing 960 feet down the headwall, appears about one mile past the Josephine intersection.1 With elevation gain, trees become fewer and stunted. A great birds-eye perspective of the u-shaped glacial valley with its shimmering lakes then opens up. To appreciate the immensity of this landscape, one needs to experience it. Photographs fall short.
About 3.5 miles from the trailhead, Thunderbird Falls spills onto the cliff-hugging trail. Then, a short distance up the path, one may encounter a steep snowfield burying the footpath. This frozen mass can persist into July and might be dangerous to cross. Checking with park rangers about potential hazards before embarking would be a good call.
One is likely to walk over fossilized ripple marks exposed during trail construction. Water agitation in the shallow sea environment of the ancient Belt Sea formed these sediment ridges over one billion years ago. During hundreds of millions of years, thousands of feet of sediment stacked one layer upon another in the sea basin. Heat and pressure cemented the loose particles into solid rock. Finally, tectonic forces shoved the massive rock mass eastward 50 miles and uplifted it as it slid over the top of much younger rock. The foundation of Glacier National Park started as the mucky bed of the Belt Sea.
As the climb continues, the route becomes a narrow shelf blasted into the side of a cliff. Far below at the bottom of the steep drop-off is Grinnell Lake, a turquoise gem. Rising abruptly from its far shore is the sheer rock face of Angel Wing, backed by the massive Mount Gould. A near-vertical rock wall is the view on the opposite side of the trail.
When the path leaves its perch on the rock face, it crosses open areas where you might see bighorn sheep and mountain goats. A picnic area with a pit toilet offers a great place to rest before the final 400-foot and 0.4-mile climb over the glacial moraine to Grinnell Glacier and Upper Grinnell Lake.
The ice-scoured rock beside Upper Grinnell Lake is a popular place to hang out, surrounded by fantastic scenery. Directly across the water, Salamander Falls plummets 440 feet with meltwater from Salamander Glacier.4
Salamander, once part of the vast Grinnell Glacier, shrunk 23 percent between 1966 and 2015.3
The remnants of Grinnell Glacier lie at the south end of the cirque beneath the massive Mount Gould. During the same period mentioned above, Grinnell lost 45 percent of its area.3
The USGS Repeat Photography Project documents changes in glaciers by placing historical photographs alongside more recent photographs taken from the same location. The pictures of Grinnell Glacier say it all.
In the past, rangers took visitors out onto Grinnell Glacier. This no longer happens. The risks of crossing the outlet of Upper Grinnell Lake and walking on top of weakened ice with hidden crevasses are too great.
Since 1900, the mean annual temperature for Glacier National Park and the surrounding region has increased by 1.3 ℃, which is 1.8 times the global mean increase.3
Gem Glacier succumbed to rises in temperature and lost its classification as a glacier because it no longer met the 25-acre criteria.3 The last bit of the former glacier hugs the Garden Wall south of Salamander and west of Mount Gould.
Total Distance: 10.6 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 2,277 feet; Loss: 701 feet
Difficulty: 15.2, strenuous* (calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Miles)
Estimated Walking Time: 5 hours 22 minutes (calculated using an average 2.5 mph walking speed and Naismuth’s Rule to compensate for elevation gain)
I invite you to take a look at my book Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road: a traveler’s guide. I’m confident it will help with your planning and exploration of the park. See it here on Apple Books.
This adventure in the Belly River region begins in the northeastern corner of Glacier National Park, about three-quarters of a mile south of the international border with Canada. If exploring a remote area in the Glacier National Park wilderness appeals to you, read on.
Because of the location, consider distances to the nearest help should an emergency arise. The nearest are the Belly River Ranger Station and the U.S. Customs Station. Depending where you are in the hike, one will be better than the other. Know that there is no cell phone coverage.
Be honest with yourself about your physical condition.
Water is fleeting on Lee Ridge. I wouldn’t plan on replenishing your supplies en route. “Bring plenty of water” is a commonly given piece of advice but a little vague for me. So, consider a general rule of thumb. Consume at least 0.5 liters per hour. For this trip then, the minimum estimated volume of water to carry is 3.2 liters. It was close to 80° Fahrenheit on my last trek up Lee Ridge, and I drank about 4 liters.
If you’re unfamiliar with traveling through bear habitat, I recommend Glacier National Park’s Bear Safety web page. There’s a lot of valuable information, including a video presentation by a park bear biologist.
If you’ve not done many longer hikes in the backcountry, consider REI’s Day Hiking Checklist. It’s a good one.
From Saint Mary, drive north 13 miles on U.S. Highway 89 to the junction with Montana Highway 17 (Chief Mountain Highway). Continue 13.7 miles on Highway 17 and look for a parking turnout on the right side of the road. If you reach a large parking lot on the left within sight of the Chief Mountain Border Station, you’ve gone too far. Backtrack about one-half mile. From the south end of the parking turnout, walk southeast along the highway about 550 feet (0.1 miles) to find the trail marked with an orange tag nailed to a tree.
The first 4.5 miles of this trip are through a lodgepole pine forest. An abundance of thimbleberry (in full bloom the first week of July) and other plants like bead lily, false Salomon’s-seal, and spotted coral-root point to a moist environment. The mosquitos are a confirmation of that.
At 2.4 miles, the Lee Ridge Trail slope increases to about 10% for 3 miles. The last 0.6 miles steepens again before reaching the Gable Pass Trail junction. This intersection is also at the highest elevation of the hike at 7,447 feet.
The footpath crosses the treeline at 4.6 miles from the trailhead and fades away into the alpine tundra. Rock cairns within eyesight of each other lead to the Gable Pass Trail.
You’ll notice an extensive area where rock and plant life form alternating rows in a stair-step pattern. This unique ecosystem is an alpine fellfield—plants living here experience severe cold, wind, little moisture, and a short growing season. The mounds of the pink-flowered moss campion and the matt-forming white mountain avens are the most common plants thriving in this harsh environment.
As you make your way toward the end of the Lee Ridge route, Gable Mountain towers directly ahead. Toward the west, the tallest peak in Glacier National Park, Mount Cleveland, dominates the spectacular panorama of mountain peaks. (See the photo at the top of this post.)
At the junction, proceed eastward. Chief Mountain is to the left and only about two miles away. The Blackfeet people have long held a spiritual connection with this geologic feature. Ninaki Peak and Papoose are the two lesser prominences between Chief and the trail. One legend from the Piegan Tribe of the Blackfeet Nation explains how those mountains got their names.
Approaching Gable Pass, the trail drops and climbs as it winds through enormous limestone boulders. We saw cat tracks (four toes, rounded shape, no claw marks) in the mud and assumed a bobcat made them since they were only about 1.5 inches across. A lynx or mountain lion could be 2-3 times wider. Of course, this is assuming an adult made the imprints. We also came across the blocky prints of a mountain goat.
Before the final brief descent to Gable Pass, we took advantage of a location offering nice flat rocks and outstanding landscape views to have a snack. While one hand grasped the food, the other swatted at biting insects. The bites were not the gentle little pokes of mosquitos. These guys meant business.
The Return Trip
Backtrack and call it a day. Or, go back to the Gable Pass and Lee Ridge trail intersection. Instead of turning right, continue straight ahead. It will be a steep 3.8 miles down to the Belly River Ranger Station. From there, take the Belly River Trail northeast for six miles. Once at the trailhead, it will still be 0.5 miles walking along the highway back to your vehicle. Instead of 13 miles, completing the loop will be closer to a 17-mile day.
Total Distance: 13.2 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 2,367 feet; Loss: 637 feet
Difficulty: 17.9, strenuous* (Calculated using Petzoldt’s Energy Rated Mile.)
Estimated Walking Time: 6 hours 28 minutes (Calculated using average speed of 2.5 mph and Naismith’s Rule.)
Visit both Paradise Point and Aster Park via the South Shore Trail. The path begins about 150 feet south of the boat dock near the Two Medicine Store. Paradise Point is a brief side trip and only adds about 0.8 miles and around 20 minutes to the Aster Park hike.
The footpath meanders through a lodgepole pine and subalpine fir forest. Fire-resistant beargrass is abundant. A common myth claims this member of the lily family only blooms once every seven years. However, it’s precipitation and soil moisture that makes the call.2 If the conditions are just right, the blossoms seem to me like hundreds of long, pure-white puffs of smoke hanging a couple of feet above the forest floor.
At 0.2 miles from the trailhead, the Paradise Point Trail leaves the South Shore Trail and heads for the lake. Spectacular views await at the water’s edge. And, if you’re so inclined, there are fish to be caught.
From the gravel beach, the massive Rising Wolf Mountain fills the view to the north. Other peaks, in order going counterclockwise, are Mount Helen, followed by Lone Walker Mountain. The ridge on the far left belongs to Sinopah Mountain. Except for Mount Helen, the names of the peaks above all belonged to people who were family. Lone Walker was a Blackfeet Chief and the father of Sinopah. Rising Wolf, the name given to the Hudson’s Bay trapper Hugh Monroe by the Blackfeet, was the husband of Sinopah.5
After leaving Paradise Point and rejoining the South Shore Trail, one enters an area of beaver ponds after 0.2 miles. This marshy area is also excellent moose habitat.
The antlered beasts found in Glacier National Park are of the Shiras subspecies, the smallest body moose in North America. Bulls average 800 to 1200 pounds, and cows 600 to 800 pounds. An enormous animal, to be sure. Contrast that with the Alaskan moose, the largest subspecies. Bulls can stand about seven feet at the shoulder and weigh hundreds of pounds more than the Shiras.3
In the park, moose mate from late September to early October.4 During this time, males can be cantankerous. It’s good to keep this in mind when moving through moose country.
Look for the Aster Park Trail, 1.1 miles from the trailhead. The short spur trail to Aster Falls is a tenth of a mile from the junction. From there, the footpath steepens the final 0.6 miles to Aster Park.
The panorama from Aster Park overlook is pretty sweet. To the east is Appistoki Peak. The reddish giant north across Two Medicine Lake is Rising Wolf Mountain. The pyramid-shaped summit peeking over the horizon to the northwest belongs to Flinsch Peak (see the featured image at the top of this post). It’s a textbook example of what happens to a mountain when glaciers grind away on opposing sides. Mountains like Flinsch are glacial horns.
In 1911, R. B. Marshall, the chief geographer for the United States Geological Survey, submitted the name Aster Park to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names.1 I’m guessing the purple flowers with yellow centers growing in the area caught his attention. But there is another purple flower with a yellow center growing in the area, often confused with aster. Its name is subalpine fleabane. That name followed by “park” just doesn’t quite have the same ring to it: good call, Mr. Marshall.
Total Distance (includes Paradise Point): 4.4 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 715 feet; Loss: 194 feet
Difficulty: 5.8, moderate* (Calculated using Petzoldt’s equation for energy-rated miles.)
Walking Time Estimate: 2 hours 7 minutes (The time was calculated using a walking speed of 2.5 miles-per-hour and Naismith’s Rule for elevation gain.)
This is an easy stroll that opens up early in the season. There is a viewing platform reached by crossing a plank bridge over Dry Creek. Know that the park service may not install that bridge until mid-June. Don’t worry. The falls are still visible from the place where Dry Creek flows into Two Medicine Creek.
Drive 1.1 miles past the Two Medicine Entrance Station. There’s an obvious parking lot on the right.
The main Running Eagle Falls Trail begins near the middle of the parking area and continues for 0.2-mile to the falls. The Nature Trail starts at the south end of the parking lot. This route joins the main track before arriving at the falls. Both footpaths are accessible, wide and usually in great shape.
Thimbleberry, cow parsnips, and baneberry grow in the moist areas along the path. All have white blossoms and bloom from June to July. In spring, on calm, misty days, the sweet scent of black cottonwood buds seems to be especially strong.
Interpretive signs along the Nature Trail introduce the hiker to plants that were important to the Blackfeet people. You’ll learn their name for each plant, identification tips, and how they used it for food, medicine, or fuel.
In no time at all, the route emerges onto gravel and the high watermark of Dry Fork. Follow the path to the footbridge over this creek and continue toward the wooden viewing platform. In exposed areas, look for the blue nodding blossoms of harebells during July and August.
Running Eagle Falls
If one visits this place during spring run-off, it appears as though there’s only one waterfall. As the water level subsides, the hidden torrent of water rushing out of the lower half of the cliff face becomes visible.
A sink hole in Two Medicine Creek upstream from the cascades contributes to this phenomenon. When the water level is high, the underground channel cannot carry the entire water volume. The excess continues downstream and plummets over the precipice. During lower volume stream flows, all the water travels underground to exit at the rock face.
Were it not for the incredibly resistant limestone of the Altyn Formation, there may never have been waterfalls here. The valley filling glaciers from the Pleistocene’s Great Ice Age pulverized softer rock. A testament to the durability of this stone is Chief Mountain, which is also Altyn limestone.1 Everything between it and the Rocky Mountain Front eroded.
Something else here is odd. Usually, with sedimentary rock, the age of layers decreases, going from bottom to top. In other words, the top of Rising Wolf Mountain is younger than its base. Streams flowing into the ancient Belt Sea deposited sediments making up the uppermost rock long after that of lower layers.
The Altyn rock over which the water plunges is around 1.5 billion years old.4 The predominant fossils found in this formation are stromatolites created by single-celled cyanobacteria living in shallow water environments. Stromatolites made by these oxygen-producing cells are the earliest evidence of life on Earth and date back even farther to 3.5 billion years.
Contrast that age with that of the rock under the viewing platform. This geologic formation lying below the Altyn is from the late Cretaceous Period and only about 80 million years old.2 During this time, the shallow Western Interior Sea stretched from the arctic over most of Montana to the Gulf of Mexico. Inhabitants included more advanced forms of life, such as sharks, giant bony fish, and plesiosaurs.
Starting about 150 million years ago, tectonic forces from the west working on the North American continent caused mountains to rise inland. These forces continued for 90 million years. Before the great push ended, the compression became significant enough to shove a piece of the continent several miles deep by a few hundred miles wide, 50 miles eastward over the top of the younger Cretaceous rock.4 It’s called the Lewis Overthrust, and the viewing platform sits at its base.2
Running Eagle Falls gets its name from a remarkable adolescent female Blackfeet warrior. Her name was Otaki until Chief Lone Walker gave her the male name Pi’tamaka or Running Eagle, as a sign of respect and honor for her bravery in battle.
Pi’tamaka yearned to know her purpose in life. She went to the cave of rushing water for a vision quest. There the adolescent warrior prayed and fasted for most of a week, hoping her spirit helper would give direction. The upshot was that she decided never to marry but to live in service of her people.5 In the late 1870s, Running Eagle died in battle with the Flathead tribe.3
Total Distance: 0.6 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 39 feet; Loss: 7 feet
Walking Time Estimate: 15 minutes (average 2.5 miles-per-hour)
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.
Schultz, James W. Running Eagle: the warrior girl. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1919.
The trail to Scalplock Mountain and its fire lookout tower begins near the Walton Ranger station in the southern part of Glacier National Park. From West Glacier, drive 28 miles east on U.S. Highway 2. The entrance to the Walton station is about one mile east of Essex, Montana, just after the bridge over the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. From East Glacier, it’s 29 miles.
Immediately upon entering the complex, you’ll notice a dark-brown-stained cabin on the left. It’s the original structure built in 1932 for rangers assigned to this region of the park. To locate the trailhead, continue to the picnic area.
Why the name Scalplock?
Merriam-Webster defines scalp lock as a long tuft of hair on the crown of an otherwise shaved head, especially of a warrior from some American Indian tribes.
The Essex Fire in the summer of 1910 destroyed 113,926 acres of forest. This was the park’s first summer and also the summer of the infamous Big Burn. This wildfire destroyed millions of acres in northern Idaho and western Montana. According to Donald H. Robinson, in his book Through the Years, only a small clump of trees remained on top of the mountain after the fire. To someone, that cluster of timber reminded them of a scalp lock.2 Records from the United States Geological Service show the name became official in 1911.
The footpath cuts through a lush forest, and vegetation crowds the trail along the first part of the route. If it has been wet, your legs and feet will end up in the same condition. So, it’s an excellent idea to pack rain gear.
This ten-mile hike can take about five to six hours. Know that there is no water available on the climb nor at the top of Scalplock. Proper hydration is an important planning consideration. A general rule of thumb is to drink about 0.5 liters of water per hour.
The fuel of choice for the body when it’s working hard is quality carbohydrates. Graze as you walk to foster endurance. For this hike, using an average speed of 2.3 miles per hour, a person and their pack totaling 130 pounds will burn about 235 calories per hour, a 160 pound combo – 288 calories, 190 pounds – 343 calories, and at 220 pounds an estimated 397 calories per hour. (I calculated the number of calories using CalTopo to determine slopes and an online calculator that uses the military’s updated Load Carriage Decision Aid.)
On The Trail
The first section is part of the South Boundary Trail and is mellow for about the first 0.6 miles. At that point, a suspension bridge crosses Ole Creek. After the water crossing, there is an easy climb for another 0.6 miles to the junction with the Ole Creek Trail. Stay left.
The intersection with the Scalplock Lookout Trail is 0.1 miles farther. Take the path to the right. It’s a steady climb from that point to the top. Your legs will need to lift you 2,847 feet over the next 3.6 miles. Someone who considers themselves out of shape will probably not enjoy this climb.
Huckleberries and thimbleberries ripen mid-July in lower elevations to early September at higher locations. The Scalplock Trail has an abundance of both fruits. Predictably, bears come to feed on this vital food source. Be vigilant and make enough noise, so not to surprise one of these magnificent animals.
You’ll know the top is near when the forest canopy opens up on the ridge. Just before the last switchback, the lookout is visible through the trees. The Park Service built the structure in 1931 in response to fires originating along the railroad and U.S. Highway 2 corridor. Park Service personnel modernized the tower with solar panels. Probably the same table and chairs, though.
Doug Peacock, author, naturalist, and close friend of Edward Abbey (The Monkey Wrench Gang) manned the Scalplock and Huckleberry Lookouts during the years 1976 to 1984.¹ Peacock’s book, Grizzly Years: In Search of American Wilderness, is about his time alone in the Wyoming and Montana mountains, his life with grizzlies, and how they helped him heal from the atrocities he experienced in Viet Nam. I enjoyed it.
On a cloudless day, Mount Saint Nicholas, Salvage Mountain, and Church Butte rise to the north across the Park Creek Valley. Two Medicine Pass is at the far end of Park Creek. To the east on the far side of the Ole Creek Valley is Elk Mountain, which had its own fire lookout tower at one time. Looking to the immediate south and southeast are Running Rabbit Mountain, Snowslip Mountain, and Mount Shields. The Great Bear Wilderness stretches to the horizon on the south side of the U.S. Highway 2 (Roosevelt Highway).
*Difficulty: 0-4.9 easy, 5-9.9 moderate, 10+ strenuous (For difficulty comparisons: St. Mary Falls 2.4, Bullhead Lake 7.8, Iceberg Lake 12.9, Dawson/Pitamakan Loop 24.7.)
Before You Go . . .
If you’ve found my posts useful, I invite you to check out my book Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road: A Traveler’s Guide. Within this MultiTouch iBook are descriptions of hikes originating along the road corridor from West Glacier to Saint Mary. Interactive maps and photo galleries are included. You’ll also find points of interest highlighted, history, and other recreational opportunities. Thanks for visiting.
Butler, David R. Fire Lookouts of Glacier National Park. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2014.
Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years in Glacier National Park. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
In the southeastern corner of Glacier National Park is a region known as Two Medicine. It’s a place of lore, rich history, and majestic landscapes.
The name can be traced back to an 1801 map drawn by Akomakki, a Blackfeet chief. Peter Fidler, employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company to map the region, somehow ended up with Akomakki’s work. It subsequently became part of the Company’s records. Noted on the drawing is a location the Blackfeet referred to as Na-too-too-Kase – “Place of Two Medicine Lodges.” We know it as the Two Medicine River.6
By the 1890s, Two Medicine was one of the most visited locales in what would become Glacier National Park. The Great Northern Railway (GNR) brought wealthy adventurous souls to Midvale (East Glacier) where they mounted horses and traveled over the Mount Henry Trail to the Two Medicine Valley.4 It didn’t take long for the word to get out.
To accommodate the growing demand, GNR began a bold development campaign. Louis W. Hill, Great Northern Railway’s chairman of the board, commissioned nine Swiss-style chalets between 1910 and 1913.3 On the eastern shore of Two Medicine Lake in 1913, GNR built a large resort which included two chalets, a dormitory, and a large building that housed the kitchen/dining room. The kitchen and dining hall is the only survivor of that complex. Today, it’s the camp store.7,8 The fireplace in that building provided an appropriate setting for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to deliver his fireside chat to the nation in 1934.3
Excerpt from FDR’s speech:
There is nothing so American as our national parks. The scenery and wildlife are native. The fundamental idea behind the parks is native. It is, in brief, that the country belongs to the people, that it is in the process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us. The parks stand as the outward symbol of this great human principle.1
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1934
Besides the chalets, GNR built miles of trails. These grand routes, with unassuming names like the Northern and Southern Circles, and Inside Trail, were the thoroughfares used by cowboys and wranglers to give guests a backcountry experience second to none. Once the Inside Trail was completed around 1916, guests saddled-up for multi-day horseback trips from Two Medicine to Saint Mary via Pitamakin and Triple Divide Passes.2
After the Going-to-the-Sun Road opened in 1933, the popularity that Two Medicine enjoyed in the early days began to wane. But, it’s bustling again. Don’t be surprised to find the parking lot full before lunchtime.
Follow the Two Medicine Road past the ranger station toward the lake. You will pass the camp store on your right while entering the small parking lot. Look toward the lake and locate the boat landing. The trailhead is nearby.
The sweeping mountain scene from the shore will most likely grab and hold your attention for a while. Sinopah Mountain, across the lake, is the quintessential Glacier. The peak was named after a Blackfeet maiden and the daughter of Lone Walker who was a powerful Blackfeet chief. You can see his mountain in the background to the right of Sinopah. To your right, is a massive red mountain. Its name is Rising Wolf, who was the husband of Sinopah. That was the Blackfeet name given to Hugh Monroe. Born in 1798 in Quebec, he came west at 16 to apprentice with the Hudson’s Bay Company. They sent Monroe to live with the Blackfeet, specifically Chief Lone Walker, and encourage trade.5
To the left (south) of Sinopah Mountain is the pyramid shape of Painted Teepee Peak. Proceeding counterclockwise, Never Laughs Mountain is the next summit. The enormous mass of Appistoki Peak looming in the southeast is unmistakable.
Two Medicine South Shore Trail
This is bear habitat-both grizzly and black. Before you head out, be sure to have bear spray. Educate yourself on when and how to use it. Just as important, let bears know where you are by making noise from time to time. Strong winds ripping through the trees can be deafening. Be loud.
The path heads out into subalpine fir, lodgepole pine forest. The understory includes bear grass which puts on quite a show in June. Elongated white flower clusters borne at the top of a two to four-foot stalk are spectacular. Huckleberries also grow here. The sought after purple fruit is usually ripe by the end of July to the first part of August. These berries are a significant food source for both black and grizzly bears. So, be especially vigilant during that time.
Fool’s huckleberry or Menziesia shrubs grow alongside huckleberries. However, it’s poisonous when eaten. Distinguish the two by crushing a leaf and then smell it. A skunky smell is characteristic of Fool’s Huckleberry.
At 0.2-miles (0.3-kilometers) from the trailhead is the Paradise Point Trail junction. The 0.4-miles (0.6-kilometers) path leads to a cozy little beach on Two Medicine Lake. Rising Wolf Mountain, reaching over 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) above the water surface, fills the view to the north. It’s a beautiful place for a picnic.
About 0.5-miles (0.8-kilometers) from where you started the South Boundary Trail, you will walk by ponds created by beavers. Out in the water, there are dome-shaped structures made of interwoven branches and twigs and packed with mud. That’s their lodge. These 60-pound (27-kilogram) rodents survive the harsh Two Medicine winters in their grass and leaf-lined living quarters. Using an underwater entrance, they access food stashed at the bottom of the pond while bitter winds drive snow over the ice above.
By creating a pond, beavers change the habitat, which attracts different plants and animals, including moose, fish, insects, amphibians, and birds that make their living near water.
After many years, the pond fills with silt and plant debris. The beavers exhaust their food supply and move. Without maintenance, the dam collapses and the water drains. A meadow develops in the fertile soil. Eventually, trees will take over the location again.
At 1.2 miles (1.9 kilometers), the Aster Park Trail leaves the South Shore Trail. This footpath leads to Aster Falls (0.1-miles/ 0.2-kilometers) and Aster Park Overlook (0.7-miles/1.1 kilometers). The overlook is a steep climb, but well worth the effort. Unbroken views of Two Medicine Lake, Rising Wolf, Flinsch Peak, and Sinopah are outstanding.
By the time you reach the bridge over Paradise Creek, the trailhead is 2.3 miles (3.7 kilometers) away. This undulating and swinging suspension structure over fast moving water may test your balance. Just go slowly and keep your hands on the side cables.
The Two Medicine Pass Trail leaves the South Shore Trail at 2.6 miles (4.2 kilometers). The path to the right leads to a boat dock at the head of Two Medicine Lake. If space is available, one can buy a return ticket aboard the launch, Sinopah.
Stay to the left on the Two Medicine Pass Trail to reach Rockwell Falls. This route passes beneath the southeast slopes of Sinopah Mountain. From this perspective, one would never guess from photographs it’s the same beauty seen from the foot of the lake. Nevertheless, Sinopah presents a different but spectacular profile.
The next footbridge crosses the stream that has just made the plummet over Rockwell Falls. The short path to the right ends up near the base of the last cascade. From this location, most of the cascades and pools are not visible. However, a way to view the upper falls exists.
Retrace your steps back across the footbridge and walk up the incline on the far side of the creek. Near the top, a trail heads up the slope. The footpath is steep with loose gravel in sections, and rock cliffs near the falls can be wet and slick from the mist of the falling water. Use caution.