Grinnell Glacier & Upper Grinnell Lake

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.

Glacier National Park, Many Glacier Region, Grinnell Lake, and Angel Wing
Grinnell Lake with Angel Wing rising from the far shore.

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.

Planning

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.

Also, check the Glacier National Park Trail Status page. The following is an example from July 10, 2021.


Grinnell Glacier Trail

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.


And while you’re at it, visit Glacier National Park’s Trail and Area Closings and Postings web page.

I also encourage you to check the National Weather Service Recreation Safety Forecast web page to reduce the chances of nasty weather surprises.

If you’ve not done many longer hikes in the backcountry, consider REI’s Day Hiking Checklist. It’s a good one.

Trailhead

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.

Hike

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.

Glacier National Park, Many Glacier Region, Grinnell Falls
Grinnell Falls

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.

Glacier National Park, Many Glacier Region, Grinnell Glacier Trail - cliffs
Cliff bands above Grinnell Lake with Angel Wing and Mount Gould

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.

Grinnell Glacier

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.

Hike Summary

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)

New To Glacier National Park?

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.

Notes

  1. “Grinnell Falls, Glacier County, Montana, United States.” World Waterfall Database. Last modified March 19, 2017. https://www.worldwaterfalldatabase.com/waterfall/Grinnell-Falls-482.
  2. Minetor, Randi. Historic Glacier National Park: the stories behind one of America’s Great Treasures. Guilford, CT: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.
  3. “Retreat of Glaciers in Glacier National Park.” United States Geological Survey. Last modified, 2013. http://npshistory.com/publications/glac/glacier-retreat-2013.pdf.
  4. Salamander Falls, Glacier County, Montana, United States.” World Waterfall Database. Last modified March 19, 2017. https://www.worldwaterfalldatabase.com/waterfall/Salamander-Falls-759.

Gable Pass via Lee Ridge

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.

Planning

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.

Check the Glacier National Park Trail Status page.

Check Glacier National Park’s Trail and Area Closings and Postings.

Check the National Weather Service Recreation Safety Forecast.

If you’ve not done many longer hikes in the backcountry, consider REI’s Day Hiking Checklist. It’s a good one.


Trailhead

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.

Chief Mountain, Ninaki Peak, and Papoose
Chief Mountain from the Chief Mountain Highway

Hike

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.

Glacier National Park, Belly River Region, Lee Ridge fell fields
Lee Ridge fellfield

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.)

Glacier National Park, Belly River Region, Gable Mountain
Gable Mountain from the upper tundra section of Lee Ridge.

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.

Glacier National Park, Belly River Region, Chief Mountain, Ninaki Peak, and Papoose
Chief Mountain, Ninaki Peak, and Papoose

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.

Hike Summary

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 (at 2.5 mph + Naismith’s Rule)

Paradise Point, Aster Falls, Aster Park

Trailhead

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.

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

Glacier National Park, Two Medicine, Paradise Point
Lone Walker Mountain, Mount Helen, and ridge from Rising Wolf Mountain (left to right)

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. 

Glacier National Park, Two Medicine, Beaver Pond
Beaver lodge and pond with Sinopah Mountain and Painted Teepee Peak in the background.

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.

Glacier National Park, Two Medicine, Aster Falls
Aster Falls

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.

Hike Summary

Total Distance (includes Paradise Point): 4.4 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 715 feet; Loss: 194 feet
Difficulty: 5.8, moderate (Difficulty was 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.)

First Time on the Going-to-the-Sun Road?

If you’re planning a drive over this historic engineering marvel, I invite you to check out my book – Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road: A Traveler’s Guide at Apple Books. Inside, find lots of things to do and places to see while traveling between West Glacier and Saint Mary.

Notes

  1. “Aster Park.” United States Board of Geographic Names. Last modified May 25, 1911. https://geonames.usgs.gov/apex/f?p=138:3:::NO:3:P3_FID,P3_TITLE:779185,Aster%20Park.
  2. “Beargrass Blooms in Glacier National Park.” National Park Service, Glacier National Park. Last modified February 24, 2015. https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/news/media13-41.htm.
  3. “Moose.” Wikipedia. Last modified January 13, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moose.
  4. “Moose – Alces americanus.” Montana Field Guide. Montana Natural Heritage Program and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.. http://fieldguide.mt.gov/speciesDetail.aspx?elcode=AMALC03010.
  5. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years: in Glacier National Park. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.

Running Eagle Falls

A Fun Family-Friendly Walk

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.

Trailhead

Drive 1.1 miles past the Two Medicine Entrance Station. There’s an obvious parking lot on the right.

Hike

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.

Glacier National Park, Two Medicine, Running Eagle Falls
Running Eagle Falls courtesy of Glacier National Park, Jacob W. Frank (public domain)

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

Pi’tamaka

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

Hike Summary

Total Distance: 0.6 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 39 feet; Loss: 7 feet
Walking Time Estimate: 15 minutes (average 2.5 miles-per-hour)
Difficulty Score: 0.7, easy
(Score calculated using the Petzoldt equation for energy-rated miles.)

A Final Note

If you’re planning a drive over the Going-to-the-Sun Road, I invite you to check out my book – Glacier National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road: A Traveler’s Guide at Apple Books. Inside, find lots of things to do and places to see while traveling between West Glacier and Saint Mary.

Notes

  1. Dyson, James L. “The Geologic Story of Glacier National Park.” Glacier Natural History Association, 1957. Accessed January 12, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/glac/3/index.htm.
  2. Keller, Stephen M, ed., and Matthew L. Morgan, ed. “Unfolding the Geology of the West: Volume 44 of Field Guide.” (Boulder, CO: The Geologic Society of America, 2016), Google Books. https://books.google.com/books?id=VVH7DAAAQBAJ&dq=altyn+formation+running+eagle+falls&source=gbs_navlinks_s.
  3. “Pi’tamaka (Running Eagle).” National Park Service. Last modified February 25, 2020. https://www.nps.gov/people/pi-tamaka-running-eagle.htm
  4. 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.
  5. Schultz, James W. Running Eagle: the warrior girl. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1919.

Scalplock Mountain

Location

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.

Trip Planning

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.

It’s also a wise decision to carry bear spray where you can access the canister quickly. Know how to use it safely and effectively.

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.

Suspension Bridge Over Ole Creek, Glacier National Park
Suspension Bridge across Ole Creek

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.

View Southeast from Scalplock Mountain, Glacier National Park
Running Rabbit Mountain in the foreground with Snowslip Mountain in the background center.

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).

View North from Scalplock Fire Lookout, Glacier National Park
Looking north across Park Creek Valley.

Hike Summary

Scalplock Mountain Summit: 6,919 feet
Total Distance: 10 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 3,347 feet; Loss: 190 feet
Walking Time Estimate: 5 to 6 hours
Difficulty Score: 16.4, strenuous
(Score calculated using the Petzoldt equation for energy-rated miles.)
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.


Notes

  1. Butler, David R. Fire Lookouts of Glacier National Park. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2014.
  2. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years in Glacier National Park. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.

Rockwell Falls

. . . a Two Medicine Hike with options

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
Glacier National Park: Two Medicine Chalets
Two Medicine Chalets ca. 1914. Courtesy of NPLAS.

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.


The Trailhead

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.

Glacier National Park: Two Medicine Lake
Painted Teepee Peak, Sinopah Mountain, Lone Walker Mountain, Mountain Helen, a ridge of Rising Wolf Mountain (left to right)

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.

Glacier National Park Flowers: Fool's Huckleberry
Fool’s Huckleberry can grow up to 7 feet tall.

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.

Glacier National Park: Two Medicine
Beaver pond and lodge along the South Shore Trail.

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.

Glacier National Park: suspension bridge
Suspension bridge over Paradise Creek

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.

Glacier National Park: Sinopah Mountain
Sinopah Mountain from the Two Medicine Pass Trail.

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.

Glacier National Park: Rockwell Falls
The lower cascade of Rockwell Falls.

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.

Glacier National Park: Two Medicine
Near the top of Rockwell Falls
Glacier National Park: Two Medicine
Rockwell Falls upper cascade
Glacier National Park: Two Medicine
One of the pools of Rockwell Falls

Summary Distances and Elevation Gains

Hike NameRound Trip DistanceElevation Gains
Rockwell Falls7.0 mi/11.3 km375 ft
Options from Trail Jct
Paradise Point0.8 mi/1.3 km—-
Aster Falls0.2 mi/0.3 km100 ft
Aster Park Overlook1.4 mi/2.3 km670 ft

Notes

  1. “FDR Radio Address at Two Medicine.” National Park Service: Glacier National Park, Montana. Last modified , 2016. Accessed June 27, 2019. https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/historyculture/fdr-radio-address.htm.
  2. “Glacier National Park Tourist Trails: Inside Trail; South Circle; North Circle.”National Register of Historic Places. Accessed January 13, 2019. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/891c38e1-bd58-46f9-ae65-ce7a377288f9.
  3. Guthrie, C.W. The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
  4. Passmore, Blake. What They Called It. Vol. 2. Kalispell, MT: Montana Outdoor Guidebooks, LLC, 2016.
  5. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years: in Glacier National Park. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
  6. Thompson, Sally. People Before the Park. Helena, MT: Montana Historical Society Press, 2015.
  7. “Two Medicine Chalet: Glacier National Park.” National Park Lodge Architecture Society. Last modified , 2010. Accessed June 27, 2019. http://www.nplas.org/twomedicine.html.
  8. “Two Medicine General Store.” National Register of Historic Places. Last modified , 1984. Accessed June 27, 2019. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/a908db2a-c76c-46a5-8e07-b6879ab16465.

Snyder Lake and Upper Snyder Lake

Another glorious day, the air as delicious to the lungs as nectar to the tongue. John Muir

The adventure to the Snyder Lakes and the headwaters of Snyder Creek begins in the shadows of a western redcedar and western hemlock forest. As the elevation increases, the forest transitions to spruce and subalpine fir, and finally to stunted and scattered subalpine fir and 10-foot (3-meter) high alder.

In August of 2017, lightning ignited the forest. The Sprague Fire burned 16,982 acres (6,872 hectares) and the iconic Sperry Chalet. You will see some evidence of the fire during this hike.

Grizzly bears are known to use the Snyder Creek drainage. Make plenty of noise. A surprised bear is usually not a nice bear. Practice safely unholstering and removing the safety clip from your canister of bear spray. And know and be able to judge the effective distance of the spray. Finally, know the discharge and aiming techniques.  

The trail starts at 3,100 feet (945 meters) and ends 4.3 miles (6.9 kilometers) later at Lower Snyder Lake (5,247 feet/1,600 meters). The rest of the trip involves climbing up cliffs and bushwhacking to Upper Snyder Lake (5,575 feet/1,700 meters). The total round trip distance is 12.1 miles (19.5 kilometers).


The Sperry Trailhead is across the Going-to-the-Sun Road from Lake McDonald Lodge. This footpath leads to Sperry Chalet and beyond, but it also provides access to the Snyder Creek drainage. The route gradually gains elevation as it passes the Swan Mountain Outfitters Corral. Then it’s all business. If you’re out of shape, chances are good that this will not be enjoyable going up or coming down.

About 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometers) from the trailhead, you will pass the trail junction to Mount Brown Lookout. Walk another 0.1-miles (0.2-kilometers) and the Snyder Lake Trail will present itself. This route is not as steep as the Sperry Trail.

A little over 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) after entering the drainage, you will come to a bridge over Snyder Creek. There are three backcountry campsites along the trail and up from Snyder Lake not far from the bridge. Two of these are reservable. However, all will be closed July 1, 2019 for the rest of the season. Assuming a site is not occupied, these are convenient places to rest and eat. There are also a few places further along the trail where one can work their way down to the water’s edge.

The trail diminishes and then disappears at the far end of the lake where a talus field begins. You can hear the water from Upper Snyder Lake cascading down a narrow canyon about 200 yards (183 meters) away. We chose the gorge as the place to negotiate the 300-foot (274-meter) cliffs separating the two lakes.

Glacier National Park, Lower Snyder Lake
Synder Lake with cliffs separating it from Upper Snyder Lake

There were three of us. Tony took the lead. He is a climber of mountains and has years of experience. Counter to scientific thought, he has lungs that reach down to his knees and has the endurance of a mountain goat. We all need friends who challenge us. Tony challenges me physically and mentally. I have a thing about heights and exposure. He has been very patient while I have tried to work through this mental challenge. And, he is a motivator. For example, on a climb of a local mountain last summer, we arrived at the crux. There were two possible routes. In his quiet way, he told me that if I fell pursuing option number one, I would be seriously hurt but would probably survive. Falling from option two, I would most likely die.

I kept this in mind, as I was searching for a handhold on the crumbly rock with a glacier 200 feet (61 meters) below. He calmly said, “ take your time, no hurry.” I feel that I always grow a little when I go out with Tony.

We worked our way up through narrow openings in the 300-foot (91-meter) rock wall from short ledge to short ledge. Finally, we topped out and began our descent into the abyss of alder. Snyder Creek flows from the east and then makes an abrupt turn and flows from the north where it exits from Upper Snyder Lake. Getting to the lake involved negotiating bogs and the ever-present alder.

Glacier National Park: Snyder Lake and victims of the 2017 Sprague Fire
Snyder Lake and victims of the 2017 Sprague Fire from part way up the cliffs

It was worth it. At the lake, hidden in a grand glacial cirque, Mount Brown, the Little Matterhorn, and Edwards Mountain stood like sentinels above us. At least seven waterfalls hundreds of feet tall thundered down the walls of the amphitheater. Spring was just beginning up there. White blossoms with light pink veins of spring beauty and bright yellow flowers of glacier lilies were showing off in small alpine meadows surrounding the lake.

Glacier National Park Upper Snyder Lake
Upper Snyder Lake with eastern slopes of Mount Brown
Glacier National Park, Upper Snyder Lake, Edwards Mountain
Looking south across Upper Snyder Lake toward Edwards Mountain

Although George Snyder has the ridge above Lake McDonald, a creek, and two lakes named after him, I think this body of water is the best match.

Snyder came west from Wisconsin in 1894, with only 23 birthdays behind him. He was an independent-minded and a bit unorthodox young man. By the end of 1895, he had built a two-story hotel at the head of Lake McDonald on the site of the current Lake McDonald Lodge. But there was no road to the place, only a rudimentary horse trail. So, he purchased a 40-foot (12-meter) steamboat and had it shipped to Belton. He and other settlers built a crude narrow road from the Middle Fork of the Flathead River near Belton to Apgar. Hardy souls loaded the boat onto a stout wagon and transported it to the foot of the lake.² ³

Glacier National Park History: Snyder's Steamboat
The first​ launch on Lake McDonald, the F.I. Whitney, ca. 1897. Photograph courtesy of Glacier National Park Archives.

Snyder lost the hotel in 1906. The stories of drinking and gambling being involved may be factual or they might be a myth. At any rate, John Lewis became the new owner.  Not defeated, George opened a hostel and pub near Glacier’s west entrance. Some locals, including Glacier National Park officials, viewed the drinking establishment as an offense against morality. Nevertheless, his businesses survived. Snyder was a thorn in the side of Glacier’s administration for years.¹

We returned by a route that took us to the far side of the lake. We could either climb higher and further to use the talus slopes on the southeast flank of Mount Brown and hopefully miss the cliffs. Or, go low and not as far. But that required more bushwhacking through alder.

Glacier National Park Edwards Mountain
Looking south along cliffs separating Snyder Lake and Upper Snyder Lake. Edwards Mountain in the background.

There were distances that our feet never felt the ground only the flexible intertwined branches of the 10-foot (3-meter) tall shrubs from hell. Our lower legs looked like someone used a cat-o’-nine-tails on them. Negotiating the cliffs downward was not as bad as I thought it would be. Eventually, we intersected the Snyder Lake Trail about 0.1-miles (0.2 kilometers) downhill from the bridge over Snyder Creek.

We stopped long enough to clean out our boots, have a bite to eat, and filter some water for the return trip. After a 9.5 hour day, we were back at the trailhead.


Notes

  1. Fraley, John. Wild River Pioneers: adventures in the Middle Fork of the Flathead, Great Bear Wilderness, and Glacier National Park. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
  2. Guthrie, C.W. The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
  3. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years: in Glacier National Park. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.

Glacier’s Southern Boundary Trail

Flood, fire, and moonshine.

This route was the main year-round patrol thoroughfare for park rangers before construction workers completed U.S. Highway 2 in 1930. The trail follows the Middle Fork of the Flathead River through John F. Stevens Canyon under a diverse forest that reclaimed the land after the 1929 Half Moon Fire.

The out and back hike from Belton Bridge to the Harrison Lake trail junction is 15.2 miles (24.5 kilometers). The footpath rises and falls over ridges and benches as it makes its way along the base of the Belton Hills.

Finding the Trailhead

From U.S. Highway 2, drive into West Glacier. Just past the Mercantile, turn right onto Old River Road. If you are coming from inside the park, it is the first left after crossing the bridge. Follow the road until you arrive at the Belton Bridge and park on the side. Please do not block any gates or entrances.

Crossing the River

Visitors used this site as the main entrance to the park from 1897 to 1936. A log structure first spanned the Middle Fork at this location in 1897. Until that time, rowboats ferried visitors across the sometimes raging river. The log bridge was replaced in 1920 by a concrete arch bridge.⁴ A metal structure was built downstream at the site of the current bridge in 1936. That became the new entrance.

Glacier National Park, Original Belton Bridge
Photograph courtesy of Glacier National Park Archives. Original Belton Bridge across the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, ca. 1909.

Mother Nature had a little different plan. Late snow in April and May 1964 made a below average winter snowpack into an above average accumulation. Then it rained. During 24 hours, park personnel measured 10 inches of precipitation at Lake McDonald Lodge. The upshot was widespread devastation brought on by severe flooding.

The enormous force of the water mangled the Great Northern Railway main line, eroded away U.S. Highway 2 in places, destroyed the metal bridge at West Glacier, and washed away miles of trails. The deluge came over the top of the concrete arch bridge scoured away the decking leaving only the arch behind.²

Glacier National Park, 1964 Flood at Belton Bridge
Photograph courtesy of Glacier National Park Archives. Belton 1920 Arch Bridge at low flood stage, 1964.

The arch that survived that historic flood supports the decking you walk across to access the trail on the opposite side of the river.

Glacier National Park Belton Bridge over the Middle Fork of the Flathead River
The arch was the only part of the 1920 Belton Bridge that survived the 1964 flood.

Onward

After walking across the bridge, keep to the right. If you go left, the path which was the original roadway into the park will lead to the Park Headquarters area.

During late spring and early summer, various colored rafts and kayaks carry wide-eyed passengers through river structures with names like Bonecrusher, Jaws, Pinball, Tunnel Rapid, and Can Opener Rock. Glimpses of this activity from the trail can be entertaining. Later in the summer, the water is tamer.

Glacier National Park, Middle Fork of the Flathead River
Boiling water of Pinball Rapid

The first five miles of the trail leads through a mixed Douglas fir forest. Then it enters an open lodgepole pine stand, which was my favorite during the hike. The quiet was only disturbed by the restorative sounds of the breeze moving through the pines and an occasional bird. Yellow / orange light caused by the smoke haze from fires in Alberta gave the forest an indescribable look.

At 5.6 miles (9 kilometers), the path intersects Lincoln Creek. A bouncy single person suspension bridge lets you cross without getting your feet wet. The Lincoln Creek Snowshoe Cabin is a short distance away.

Glacier National Park, Lincoln Creek Suspension Bridge
Brand new decking for this year.

The Park Service built the first Lincoln Creek cabin in the 1920s. However, the 100,000-acre (40,469 hectares) 1929 Half Moon Fire consumed it. The current cabin was constructed in 1931. Rangers patrolling the extensive southern boundary of the park used it as an overnight shelter. Today, trail crews may be the only personnel using the structure.³

Glacier National Park, Lincoln Creek Snowshoe Cabin
Lincoln Creek Snowshoe Cabin built in 1931.

Once you leave the cabin, you will see an increase in spruce and western redcedar. Sections of trail in the next two miles can become overgrown with brush. At 6.4 miles (10.3 kilometers) from the trailhead, there is a spur trail leading down to the river. During low water in August and later, it is possible to ford the Middle Fork safely. This is where you would intersect the Southern Boundary Trail after crossing the river. Always check with the knowledgeable folks at the Glacier National Park Backcountry Office for the latest information and directions.

At 7.6 miles (12.2 kilometers) from the trailhead, you will find the Harrison Lake trail junction. The sweet surprise waiting is the Dan and Josephine Doody homestead, established before Glacier became a national park in 1910. The remains you see was a two-story hunting lodge.

John Fraley, in his book Wild River Pioneers, provides an entertaining description of Dan and Josephine. The following are some highlights from his book.

Josephine Doody worked as a dancehall girl and allegedly shot a man in Colorado around 1890. She then headed north and ended up in the seedy and notoriously dangerous railroad town of McCarthyville. Apparently, she took a liking to opium while in that town. The whistle-stop no longer exists. But the former site is located about six miles west of Marias Pass.

Dan Doody, a fur trapper, and prospector met her in one of the 32 saloons there and fell in love. He subsequently hauled her off on a mule to his 120-acre homestead near Harrison Creek. There they started a lucrative moonshine business. Frank built Josephine a small cabin hidden in the woods to which she could escape when the law came.

Great Northern Railway trains would stop and place their orders for moonshine by blowing their whistles using short blasts to indicate the number of quarts they desired. Josephine would row across the river and deliver her product.

Dan was one of the six original rangers hired by Glacier National Park shortly after its establishment in 1910. Yet, he didn’t last long at that job. Excessive poaching was the reason for his short tenure. Dan died in 1919. Josephine stayed on the property and guided fisherman into her 70s. She left the park in 1931 and died of pneumonia in 1936 at 82.¹

Our trip ended at the Doody homestead. But continuing another 4.6 miles, the South Boundary Trail will intersect the Nyack Creek Trail, which leads into the Nyack Coal Creek Camping Zone. This remote area can also be accessed from Walton, Two Medicine, or by fording the river during low water.


Notes

  1. Fraley, John. Wild River Pioneers: adventures in the Middle Fork of the Flathead, Great Bear Wilderness, and Glacier National Park. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
  2. Guthrie, C.W. The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
  3. “Lincoln Creek Snowshoe Cabin.” National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places. Last modified February , 2001. Accessed June 3, 2019. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/AssetDetail/a0c0b2d0-0321-40ea-a257-acc2c1e01530/.
  4. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years: in Glacier National Park. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.

Apgar Fire Lookout

A worthy Glacier National Park early season hike with outstanding views.

The Apgar Fire Lookout perches on an overlook in the Apgar Mountains southwest of Lake McDonald. Put this on your list for early season hikes or if in summer the first half of the day. The 2003 Robert Fire removed the lodgepole pine forest, and the trail on the southwest slope can get toasty. However, beautiful vistas await as anyone who has been there or viewed the webcams can attest.

The namesake for all of this was Milo B. Apgar. He settled at the foot of Lake McDonald in the 1890s. It didn’t take him long to realize that the Great Northern Railway would bring visitors to this rugged and remote location and they would need a place to stay and food to eat. He built cabins for them near the lake and McDonald Creek.²  The Village Inn at Apgar occupies the site now.

Finding the Trailhead

Drive 0.3-miles past the West Entrance and turn left toward the Glacier Institute. At the T-intersection turn right. Soon after, turn left and drive past the Swan Outfitters Corral. From the Quarter Circle Bridge over McDonald Creek, travel 1.5 miles to the trailhead.



Difficulty

The hike is 7.2 miles (11.6 km) round trip with a 1,850-foot (564 meters) elevation gain. The lookout sits at 5,236 feet (1,596 meters).

The difficulty rating of this hike varies with the source. For example, the Sierra Club Hike Rating Scale pegs this as moderate difficulty. The NW Hiker Calculator gives a score of 18, which they consider challenging. There are other variables to consider. Although not an exhaustive list, trail condition, weather, the physical condition and age of the hiker, and the load carried are essential considerations.

A difficulty rating system conceived by Paul Petzoldt, an accomplished mountaineer and founder of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), makes the most sense to me. He bases the unit of measure for the calculation on the energy needed to walk one level mile – an energy mile. So, total distance gives you the energy miles to start with. Then add two energy miles for every 1,000 feet of elevation climbed.

The total distance for the lookout climb is 7.2 miles or 7.2 energy miles. The elevation gain requires an additional 3.7 energy miles. The sum is 10.9. A score less than 5 suggests an easy hike, 5 – 10 moderate, and greater than 10 strenuous.

Research in the Exercise Physiology Laboratory at Western Carolina University discovered Petzoldt wasn’t that far off.³ The system is not perfect, but it gives one a means to compare the relative difficulty of hikes.

The Hike

Water will not be available after you leave the lower portion of this trip. So, be sure to bring plenty. And, carry your bear spray where it is quickly accessible. Know how and when to use it.

Be aware that Glacier National Park has rules concerning pets in the park. It’s a good idea to be familiar with these park policies. You don’t want your fun money going to pay a hefty fine.

The trail leaves the parking lot in a northwest direction under the crowns of lodgepole pine and western larch. These trees probably sprouted after the 103,000-acre 1929 Half Moon Fire consumed the previous forest.

Glacier National Park, Apgar Fire Lookout Trail
Start of the Apgar Fire Lookout Trail

Several clues point to the character of the pre-fire forest. For example, thimbleberry, bead lily, fairy-bells, starry false Solomon’s-seal, growing under the lodgepole pine canopy, prefer moist, shady forest sites. Healthy western redcedar has become prominent in the understory. They too prefer wet, shaded places. Both lodgepole and western larch are intolerant of shade. So, left undisturbed, the cedar will be more successful at regeneration. Before the 1929 fire, this was probably a western redcedar, western hemlock forest similar to what we see in the Lake McDonald Valley.

Bears come to feed on the grasses, sedges, and dandelions in the moist areas. Later they take advantage of the berry crop produced here.

It doesn’t take long to emerge from this 90-100-year-old stand of trees and enter a sea of short “doghair” lodgepole pine. This fire-adapted species came through again and started the healing process after the 2003 Robert Fire. That summer, there were 26 wildfires in the park burning 13 percent of its area.

Glacier National Park, Apgar Fire Lookout Trail
Lodgepole Pine Regeneration Since the 2003 Robert Fire.

Ceanothus or buckbrush is a fragrant evergreen shrub you will see along the trail. This is a remarkable plant. Its seeds can survive in the soil for centuries waiting for a fire to start their germination process. But that’s not all. Ceonothus, together with bacteria that live in little nodules in their roots, take nitrogen from the air and convert it to a form that the plant can use. As they colonize a post-fire area, the shrubs also help improve the soil. Look for their tiny white flowers starting in June and into July.

Glacier National Park, Ceanothus
Ceanothus or Buckbrush

The trail makes three long switchbacks as it climbs a southwest slope of the Apgar Mountains. I was on this trail before the 2003 fire when trees provided shade. Not so today. This can be a toasty hike during warm summer afternoons.  

Glacier National Park, Apgar Fire Lookout Trail
Apgar Mountains and the trail as it winds up the southwest slope.

When you see an outhouse and a hitching rail, you’re close to your destination. There is a short trail to the right where the lookout comes into view.

Glacier National Park, Apgar Fire Lookout
Apgar Fire Lookout built in 1930.

At the Lookout

As you face Lake McDonald 2,000 feet (610 meters) below, Howe Ridge is to the left. At the end of Howe is Stanton Mountain, followed by Mount Vaught. The Garden Wall is at the far end of the valley. Snyder Ridge is on the right side of Lake McDonald. The first peak above the valley on that side is Mount Brown with Mount Cannon further to the northeast. Edwards Mountain is just east of Mount Brown, and the Little Matterhorn rises between the two. The spectacular spire of Mount Saint Nicholas stands proud to the southeast about 24 miles (39 kilometers) away.

Glacier National Park Mountain Peaks from Apgar Fire Lookout
View looking northeast over Lake McDonald in late May 2019.

The National Park Service initially built the Apgar Lookout in 1929. Within two weeks of completion, the Half Moon Fire destroyed it. The Park Service rebuilt the structure you see today in 1930. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places.¹


Notes

1. “Apgar Fire Lookout.” National Register of Historic Places, National Park Service.   Accessed May 2, 2019. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/1e5a2539-a0ec-4eac-a9d6-987509d132db.

2. Guthrie, C.W. The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.

3. Holcombe, Randall. “‘Energy Mile’ Theory Tested in Laboratory.” Western Carolina University. Last modified May 10, 2011. Accessed May 2, 2019. https://news-prod.wcu.edu/2011/05/faculty-students-test-‘energy-mile’-theory-in-lab/.

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.

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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.

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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