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.
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
The arch that survived that historic flood supports the decking you walk across to access the trail on the opposite side of the river.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 this engineering masterpiece and the surrounding wilderness. See it here on Apple Books.
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.
Guthrie, C.W. The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
Outstanding views of the Livingston Range and the North Fork with history and the possibility of bonus berries.
This hike starts in the southwest corner of Glacier National Park in the Apgar Mountains. From the bridge over McDonald Creek near the village of Apgar, travel along the Camas Road about 5.4 miles. You should see the sign for the Huckleberry Fire Lookout and a parking lot on your left not far after the McGee Meadow overlook.
The trailhead is at about 3,771 feet in elevation. The trail climbs 2,725 feet over 6 miles to reach the Huckleberry Lookout at 6,496 feet. It’s about the same distance as walking into Sperry Chalet and about 2 miles less than climbing to Granite Park Chalet from The Loop. However, I found the return downhill portion caused less pain in my knees than Sperry or Granite.
Since water is not available along the path nor at the lookout, be sure to pack enough for a 12-mile day. This is grizzly and black bear habitat. Make sure that you have bear spray where it will be quickly available and know how to use it. You probably don’t want to wait until you see the whites of a massive grizzly bear’s eyes to determine how quickly you can take the spray from its holster and remove the safety clip.
The day starts by walking through a mostly lodgepole pine forest. As you increase elevation, there will be more and more subalpine fir, and they will become further and further apart. As more sunlight is able to shine on the forest floor, there will be more and more huckleberry bushes.
The infamous 1910 fire burned a substantial part of the Apgar Mountains. This was followed in 1926 by the Huckleberry Fire which merged with the Half Moon Fire and consumed 95% of the Apgar Range. The Apgar Flats Fire of 1929 burned 19,000 acres including Huckleberry Mountain. In 1967, the Huckleberry Mountain Fire and Flathead River Fire burned a large part of the Apgar Mountains. It is believed that the 1910, 1926, and 1929 fires set the stage for the extensive growth of huckleberries in the area.4
Huckleberries are well adapted to fire. They primarily regenerate by root propagation rather than by seed after a burn.4 In fact, “hucks” need to burn at least every 10 to 20 years to produce well. If the forest canopy closes in around them, due to the absence of fire, it can result in fewer flowers and unripe fruit. In general, the bushes produce few berries if they go more than 60 years without burning.6 Of course, weather can complicate things. A late spring freeze or mid-summer frost can also affect production as can drought.
All of this great food has not gone unnoticed by grizzly and black bears. This is a hot spot for the bruins if the crop is good. In the Apgar Mountains where there are huckleberries, the highest probability of seeing bears is from the middle of July until late fall. Both the grizzlies and blacks feed on huckleberries in the lower to mid-elevations. But, as the timber becomes more sparse at a higher elevation, it’s mostly grizzly. Apparently, the density of the forest has an effect on the competition between the two.4
After 4 miles, the trail will go through a saddle, and the lookout tower can be seen. There is a steep drop-off as the path wraps around to the north side of the ridge. Even into the end of June, this section has the potential to be dangerous because of a lingering snowfield. It’s a good idea to check the Glacier National Park Trail Status Reports before heading out.
Also, in this section of the hike, you will see some beautiful red rock. Some of the boulders have ancient ripple marks that were formed over 1 billion years ago. Continental masses were separating during the second half of the Proterozoic Eon. This created an inland body of water that has been named the Belt Sea. The East African Rift Zone and the Red Sea is an example of something similar happening today.
The sediment that was eroded from the lifeless Earth surface was carried and deposited into the sea. The red rock results from deposits made in shallow water where there was enough oxygen to react with iron in the sediment. This formed iron oxide.5 It is the same chemical reaction that forms rust. There is evidence that indicates at least some of the deposit came from the west and southwest from land masses that eventually became Siberia and Australia.3,7
About 65 to 70 million years ago, toward the end of the reign of dinosaurs, an enormous section of the sedimentary rock that had formed under the Belt Sea was forced eastward 50 miles and uplifted over the younger formations of eastern Montana. The mountains of Glacier National Park are made of that rock.
Notice also that the Apgar Mountains do not have the knife-edged ridges as seen in other areas of the park. The more rounded form is the result of this range being wholly covered and then eroded by glacial ice during the Great Ice Age of the Pleistocene Epoch.4
As you approach the summit of Huckleberry Mountain, views to the west of the Whitefish Range and to the east of the Livingston Range are spectacular. From the summit, one can see into Canada on a clear day.
The Huckleberry Fire Lookout tower was built in 1933 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Before this structure, there was a cabin topped with a cupola lookout. It was constructed in 1923.2
The only original example remaining of this type of building that I could find is the U.S. Forest Service Hornet Fire Lookout. It is also on the National Register.1 Hornet is about 24 air miles to the northwest of Huckleberry Mountain and perched on the summit of Hornet Mountain. This piece of history can be rented for overnight stays from mid-June to October for a nominal fee.
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.
Rockwell, David. Exploring Glacier National Park. Guilford, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 2002.
This is a hike that I’ve done in the past. It’s definitely worth sharing. So, I dusted it off and spruced it up a bit. Hope you like it.
A Little History
Firebrand Pass is a unique name that is descriptive of its origin. The background story is fascinating.
In 1910, fires were burning throughout the Idaho panhandle, western Montana, Washington, and Oregon. This was the same year when President William Howard Taft, on May 11, signed the bill that designated an area larger than the state of Rhode Island as Glacier National Park.
The newly formed park had little funding to fight fires. Consequently, the U.S. Forest Service took responsibility. The firefighting efforts of these agencies were joined by local citizens, workers from lumber mills, the Great Northern Railway, and the military.2
During the two terrifying days of August 20 and 21, hurricane force winds caused “The Big Blowup” in which over three million acres burned, most within a six-hour period. Smoke from these fires reached New England, and ash reached as far as Greenland. 3,5
It was during this time that Forest Service Ranger Ed Pulaski made history as he led a group of 45 firefighters into an Idaho mine shaft to survive the inferno that surrounded them. 5
According to Stephen Barrett’s Fire History of Southeast Glacier National Park, during the summer of 1910, a human-caused fire started near Essex and crossed the continental divide near Firebrand Pass. This fire was one of the hundreds that were burning that summer.1
If you are looking to get away from the crowds, this hike in the southeast corner of Glacier National Park might be for you. Firebrand Pass (6,951’) is a saddle that is situated between Red Crow Mountain (7,891’) to the north and Calf Robe Mountain (7,920’) to the south.
The trailhead is east of Marias Pass near mile marker 203 on US Highway 2. There is a small gravel parking lot below the highway and near the railroad tracks. Be aware that it is not well marked. This hike is a 9.6 mile in and out with about 2,200 feet of elevation gain.
The hike begins at the Lubec Lake Trailhead on the far side of the railroad tracks and then meanders northwest along the Coonsa Creek drainage.
This is grizzly bear habitat. So, as you pass through the meadows and aspen stands be sure that your bear spray is handy and that you know how to use it. Don’t be shy about making plenty of noise. Better to let the bear know where you are than to surprise one. During my last hike to Firebrand Pass, we came upon grizzly bear tracks soon after the trailhead. My boot fit inside the rear paw print with room to spare.
The trail heads directly toward Calf Robe Mountain. Further to the southwest is Summit Mountain (8,770’) followed by Little Dog Mountain (8,610’). The trail eventually leaves the meadows and aspen stands and enters lodgepole pine stands. After about 1.5 miles, the path intersects the Autumn Creek Trail. Turn right (north) and follow this trail for about 1 mile to the junction with the northern end of the Ole Creek Trail. Turn left at the trail junction. It is 2.6 miles to Firebrand Pass from that junction.
The trail continues through the lodgepole pine forest while it wraps around the northeastern flank of Calf Robe Mountain. When the path turns from a westerly direction to the south, you will enter a beautiful basin with views of the pass to the southwest.
There is usually a sizeable and steep snowdrift below the pass early in the season. The trail leads directly into this snowfield. Exercise caution. Try climbing around the snow or save the pass for another day if you do not have the equipment and training to self-arrest should you find yourself sliding down the icy slope toward the rocks below.
A keen eye may be rewarded with a sighting of elk in the basin. Bighorn sheep and mountain goats frequent the rocky slopes and cliffs. If you find yourself in this area in mid to late August, ripened huckleberries are an additional treat.
There is a feast for your eyes at the pass. The Ole Creek drainage seems to go on forever to the southwest. The picturesque summits of Eagle Ribs Mountain (8,290’), Mount Despair (8,582’), and Brave Dog (8,446’) separate the Ole Creek drainage from the Park Creek drainage further to the west.
Red Crow Mountain and Calf Robe Mountain, the massive sentinels of the pass, fill your views to the north and south respectively. The Continental Divide passes through the summits of these two mountains as well as Firebrand Pass.
The Return Trip
The return trip can be as straightforward as just retracing the steps that got you to the pass. However, another option is to climb the north side of Calf Robe Mountain from the pass and descend the south slope and then travel off-trail until you intersect the Autumn Creek Trail.
The climb is only about 0.5- mile, but the elevation gain from the pass is 970 feet. It’s steep and the views are outstanding. The bonus on our trip was descending through a dispersed herd of about 12 bighorn sheep.
If you are interested in the climb, I would suggest reading “Calf Robe Mountain,” pages 34-41, of Blake Passmore’s Climb Glacier National Park, Volume 2. The information, photographs, and illustrated routes are valuable information for planning.4
This hike is one the most popular in Glacier National Park. It includes old growth forest, spectacular waterfalls, a beautiful mountain lake filled with turquoise water, nestled in a picturesque glacial cirque. It is unique.
The maritime climate of the Pacific Northwest has its easternmost influence here. Moisture from the Pacific coast rises and condenses as it meets the Continental Divide. Consequently, large quantities of moisture are dropped and that supports the western red cedar – western hemlock forest habitat, which is also at the far east of its range.
These two species of trees have been growing in the area for hundreds of years. Some of the cedars around lower Avalanche Creek are over 500 years old.1 You will also find other plants that are adapted to this microclimate. These include trillium (also known as birth root and wake-robin), bead lily, devil’s club, club moss, and various ferns.
Sally Thompson, in her book People Before the Park, indicates that generations of Kootenai Indians were probably visiting the area to harvest bark from old cedar trees to make baskets and other necessities. They also valued the cedar wood for building the frames of their canoes and making bowls.3
Charles Howe, the first homesteader at the foot of Lake McDonald in 1892, is reported to be the first non-Indian to see Avalanche Lake. He did so from the top of Mount Brown. Howe told Dr. Lyman B. Sperry about the lake which he then visited in 1895. Sperry is also given credit for the name of the lake.2
Their exploration of this part of Glacier is pretty amazing given that there were no roads and the forest was referred to as “thick and tangled”. In fact, this is about the time that George Snyder was building accommodations for tourists on the site of the current Lake McDonald Lodge. Due to the lack of roads, he bought a steamboat to haul his guests from Apgar to his accommodations.2
There are a couple of ways to get to the trailhead. I would suggest walking the Trail of the Cedars to obtain the Avalanche trail. The Trail of the Cedars starts on the east side of the Going-to-the-Sun Road bridge over Avalanche Creek. There is a boardwalk which will carry you to the bridge over Avalanche Creek where it leaves the gorge. This is an excellent place to take a few photographs.
Proceed just a little further, and you will see a rail fence. The fence was placed there to protect the hillside. At one time, there was little undergrowth due to a large number of social trails.
My students and I collected seed from species that the park service personnel wanted to use to repair the area. We planted the seed in our high school greenhouse and then planted the seedlings in the spring. We did this for about 10 years. There were a lot of kids, now adults, that are pretty proud of that.
You will find the path to Avalanche Lake at the end of the fence. There is a ‘T’ in the route shortly after starting. Turn left. It is 2.3 miles to the foot of the lake with 500 feet of elevation gain. If you wish to explore the head of the lake, it will be an additional 0.8 miles.
After a short climb, there will be opportunities to look down into the Avalanche Gorge. This can be dangerous, especially if kids are involved. Be cautious.
The trail visits Avalanche Creek and then departs as it makes its way up to the lake. The low light cedar-hemlock forest with its lush green moss, lichens, and ferns is magical. When our kids were young, we would make up stories about elves, and fairies that lived in this enchanted forest.
When you come to a short side trail to the outdoor privy and see spiny-stemmed devil’s club along the path, know that you are close to the lake. From this point to the head of Avalanche Lake, I seem always to find the beautiful white, 3-petaled trillium when the first ground is exposed as the snow melts.
Not to be outdone, the round-leaved yellow violet competes for your attention in the same places where the trillium grows.
The waterfalls at the back of the cirque are stunning especially early in the season when you can hear them crashing down the cliffs even before you see them.
I found it interesting to read the research of the World Waterfall Database. They argue that the large spectacular waterfalls have never been officially named and have erroneously been referred to as Monument Falls.
Their research leads them to claim that Monument Falls refers to a 170-foot drop along a lower cliff band that is actually hard to see from the trail. The argument goes on to say that when Sperry Glacier was more massive, the water the glacier supplied to this stream made it stand out as the main inflow to Avalanche Lake.4 I’m curious if Dr. Sperry named the falls and why the designation of Monument Falls.
The head of the lake is a worthwhile extension to this hike. You will find a gravel beach that soaks up the warmth of the sun. On colder days, that makes it easy to linger a little longer.
Eventually, the time comes for the return trip. When you reach the beginning of the trail at the rail fence, you have the option of turning left which will lead you by the Avalanche Campground and to the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The exit will be near where you entered the Trail of the Cedars.
This 18-mile hike, which crosses the Continental Divide from east to west and then back over again, is spectacular. It includes walks through subalpine forests, mountain meadows, and high windswept alpine ridges with panoramic views into the craggy park interior. There is also a high probability of seeing moose and bighorn sheep.
The trailhead is located in the Two Medicine Valley of the southeast region of Glacier National Park. Find the Two Medicine Campground and then the parking lot near Pray Lake. This will be both your beginning and ending location – assuming that you do not decide to motor across the lake on the Sinpopah launch.
Clockwise or Counterclockwise?
Since this is a loop, it can be hiked clockwise or counterclockwise. I have found that there are pros and cons for both directions.
Clockwise (Dawson Pass first)
The light for photography tends to work better in this direction
Most of the elevation gain is accomplished in the two miles just before the pass. The rest of the hike is relatively level or downhill.
Toward the end of the 18 miles, there is a small ridge on the east flank of Rising Wolf Mountain that must be climbed.
Counterclockwise (Pitamakan Pass first)
The 2,400-foot elevation gain to Pitamakan Pass is spread out over 7.6 miles.
There is an option to catch a ride on the Sinopah across Two Medicine Lake at the end of the day. This could reduce the mileage of the hike by about 3 miles.
The steep descent from Dawson Pass can be a killer for some people’s knees.
A Few Things to Consider
First, be honest about your hiking ability and physical condition. If you are not in shape, postpone this one for another day. There are plenty of other hikes to enjoy that will be more in line with your ability.
This trek can take 9 to 10 hours. You want to make sure that you are not hiking in the dark. Not a prudent plan. It’s a good idea to check sunrise/sunset tables when you are planning for the trip.
The route covers 18 miles with over 5,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. So, don’t skimp on the energy that your body will require. Bring the amount of food that you think you will need and then throw in a little extra. There will be no water for a good part of this trip. Prepare accordingly. It wouldn’t hurt to include a water filter to use on the latter part of the journey when you do have access to water.
Be prepared for quick weather changes. Parts of the trip will be above 7,000 feet. The last time I did this hike, it was excellent autumn weather at the beginning and snow and blowing snow around the passes. Bring clothes that can be combined in layers. Include a hat, gloves, and some sort of a windbreaker jacket and pants. The wind can blow pretty hard up there.
Use common sense on extremely windy days. There will be some parts of the trail that are narrow with long steep drop-offs. Call it a day before you get into trouble. The mountain is not going anywhere.
Trekking poles are a good idea for a balance aid, especially on windy days. Some people claim that they help with knee pain on descents.
Finally, bring bear spray. Make sure that it is quickly available and know how to use it. On our last trip, we saw bear scat on the trail in more than one place. Parts of the route were posted with signs warning of grizzly bears frequenting the area. Additionally, it’s recommended to hike in a group and always make plenty of noise.
The rest of this post will describe the hike going in a clockwise direction – starting with the 6.5 mile and 2,435-foot climb in elevation to Dawson Pass.
From the parking lot, walk about 300 feet toward the foot of Pray Lake and cross the bridge over Two Medicine Creek. Continue another 300 feet to the ‘T’ in the trail. Go left. You will then be on the Dawson Pass Trail.
The trail proceeds in a general southwest direction. The enormous red hulk of Rising Wolf Mountain will be on your right. To the southeast across Two Medicine Lake and proceeding clockwise are Never Laughs Mountain, Grizzly Mountain, Painted Tepee Peak, and the majestic Sinopah Mountain.
The beautiful mountain at the head of Two Medicine Lake was named after Sinopah, a Blackfeet Indian maiden. She married Hugh Munroe, a Hudson’s Bay trapper and trader who lived with her people for some time. The Blackfeet gave him the name Rising Wolf for which the mountain was named.2
The rock that makes up these great mountains in the park was formed over an 800 million year time span which began 1.5 billion years ago. During that time, sediment was eroded from the surrounding lifeless land and deposited into the ancient Belt Sea. That sea was located where eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana are today. Preserved ripple marks and mud cracks in some of the formations are a testament to the water environment of that very distant past.3
The surrounding mountains have a lot of red color in them. That is the rock of the Grinnell Formation. The color was caused by oxygen reacting with the iron in the fine sediment that was deposited in the shallow water environment. The Grinnell has many ancient ripple marks and mud cracks.3
Starting in the Jurassic Period, 150 million years ago, and continuing into the end of the Cretaceous Period, 60 million years ago, Earth’s tectonic plates shoved a mass of rock several hundred miles wide and several miles thick 50 miles to the east.3
The magnificent horns, aretes, cirques, and u-shaped valleys that we enjoy today are the results of continent size glaciers working on the rock deposited here by the tectonic forces. The glaciers scraped and gouged from about 2 million years ago until 12,000 years ago.3 Glacier National Park, the sculpted masterpiece, is now sought by visitors from around the world.
The vistas that we seek out today in Glacier National Park have been in the making for the last one-third of the Earth’s entire existence.
At about 3.1 miles, you will come to a junction with a trail that exits on your left. This will lead to the South Shore Trail and the dock for the Sinopah launch at the head of the lake. This path will also connect with the trail to Upper Two Medicine Lake. Stay right. On our last trip, after this junction, we met a red fox trotting down the path and encountered a bull moose laying where we needed to walk.
The spur trail to No Name Lake will be found at 4.6 miles from the trailhead. After this, the route gets steep. You will climb through the Bighorn Basin via a series of switchbacks. As you continue to gain elevation, Flinsch Peak, a glacial horn, will come into view to the northwest. You will notice that Flinsch is not red. It’s tan colored limestone is of the Siyeh Formation. This rock is above and younger than the argillite of the Grinnell Formation.3
In the limestone rock near Dawson Pass, we found fossilized cyanobacteria colonies commonly known as stromatolites. Although the fossils are not this old, these single-celled photosynthetic organisms have been living on our planet for over 3 billion years.1 These simple creatures are mostly responsible for the Earth’s atmosphere becoming more oxygen rich and less carbon dioxide saturated.6 They are not as abundant as they once were, but places like Shark Bay in Western Australia still support these tiny oxygen factories.
At 6.5 miles and 7,598 feet in elevation is the rocky, windswept Dawson Pass. There is a rock cairn marking the site. You will also find a rough rock wall that can provide a little shelter from the wind. The views are magnificent and include park icons such as the spire of Mount Saint Nicholas to the southwest and Mount Stimson to the west.
From Dawson Pass, the path heads north and is basically benched into the steep, barren, rocky, western slope of Flinsch Peak. The Pitamakan Overlook is toward the north end of this segment where the trail juts out west and then abruptly back to the east. This is part of a steep ridge belonging to Mount Morgan. If you aren’t concerned with exposure, make your way out to the end of the overlook for a breathtaking vantage point.
The trail continues to the northeast and wraps around the northern slope of Mount Morgan before descending to Pitamakan Pass.
Pitamakan was a famous female Blackfeet warrior. Born Otaki, the male name Pitamakan or Running Eagle was bestowed on her by Chief Lone Walker for her bravery in battle. Running Eagle Falls are also named for her.4 It is in the cave of rushing water, Running Eagle Falls, that she committed herself to a vision quest which changed her life. She renounced marriage and devoted her life to the service of her people.5
Hundreds of feet below the pass to the north are two alpine gems – Seven Winds of the Lake and Pitamakin Lake. There is a trail, accessed from near the pass, that leads between these two lakes and down the North Fork of Cut Bank Creek to the backcountry campground near Morning Star Lake. This is part of the Continental Divide Trail. Staying on this footpath will lead over Triple Divide Pass, to Saint Mary Lake, Many Glacier, and eventually, Goat Haunt at the Canadian Border.
From the pass, it is a 7.6-mile downhill trek in the Dry Fork drainage back to the trailhead. This section is also part of the Continental Divide Trail. The spur trail to Old Man Lake will appear on your right about 1.5 miles from the pass. The massive mountain to the south is Rising Wolf. The circumnavigation of this enormous landmark is almost complete.
About 4 miles from Pitamakin Pass or 15.5 miles from the beginning, there is another trail junction. Proceeding straight ahead for 2.8 miles will put you at the Two Medicine Entrance Station. Take the right fork toward the Two Medicine Campground. Within this last section, there will be a bit of a climb over a ridge that extends from Rising Wolf Mountain.
Hopefully, when you reach the end of the trail and your vehicle, there are refreshments and other goodies waiting in a cooler for you. There is much to celebrate!
Awramik, Stanley M., and James Sprinkle. “Proterozoic stromatolites: The first marine evolutionary biota.” Historical Biology13, no. 4 (May 8, 2009): 241-53. Accessed October 1, 2018.
Guthrie, C.W. The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
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. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
Schultz, James W. Running Eagle: the warrior girl. 1919.
A fun Glacier National Park boat cruise and hike with history
I feel like I am favoring one child over another when I say that Two Medicine is my favorite area in Glacier National Park. I love the entire park. But, the Two Medicine Valley calls to me.
This special place is located on the east side of the Continental Divide and the Lewis and Clark Range in the southeastern corner of Glacier National Park. It’s a 20-minute drive from East Glacier.
What’s in a Name?
This area was and still is a sacred place to the Blackfeet Indians. The name Two Medicine comes from the Blackfeet name Na-too-too-kase which means Place of Two Medicine Lodges.12 Running Eagle Falls is named for a famous female Blackfeet warrior. Born Otaki, the male name Pitamakan or Running Eagle was bestowed on her by Chief Lone Walker for her bravery in battle. Her fate was sealed after she returned from her vision quest in the cave of rushing water – Running Eagle Falls. There she prayed and fasted for most of a week for direction in her life. The upshot was that she would never marry and would live in service of her people.9,11
The Two Medicine Road passes the trailhead for Running Eagle Falls. The 0.3-mile long trail is paved and handicap accessible. In addition to the spiritual connection to the Blackfeet, this feature has geological significance.
The sedimentary rock which makes up the mountains of Glacier National Park was formed from sediment deposited in the basin of the ancient Belt Sea from 1.6 billion years ago to about 800 million years ago. Starting about 750 million years ago, unimaginable tectonic forces shoved all of that rock 50 miles to the east resulting in the Lewis Overthrust Fault. The eastern terminus, the fault, is just below the limestone rock of Running Eagle Falls.1
Two Medicine was one of the most visited areas of the park when the Great Northern Railway was the primary mode of transportation that brought passengers to stay at the chalets they had built. After the completion of the Going-to-the-Sun Road in 1932, that changed. Even today, Many Glacier and Saint Mary visitors far outnumber those going to Two Medicine.7 I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.
On the Two Medicine Road, you will come to a particular place where a mountain fills most of the skyline. That is Rising Wolf Mountain (9,513 feet). A fitting name for a peak that greets visitors as they embark on their exploration of this region. I first assumed the name was derived from Canis lupus – the gray wolf that inhabits parts of Glacier National Park. Not so. Rising Wolf was the name the Blackfeet gave to the Hudson’s Bay trapper and explorer Hugh Monroe.8
Monroe joined the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1815 at the age of 16.8 In the early 1820’s, he was sent to live with the Blackfeet to ensure that they delivered their furs to Hudson’s Bay trading posts, scout for beaver, and ascertain what the competition from America was doing.10 He eventually went to live with Lone Walker’s band of the Blackfeet and married his daughter Sinopah. He is thought to have been the first white man to explore the region that would become Glacier National Park. Hugh Monroe became a legend in his own time and was written into history in the 1919 book Rising Wolf by James Willard Schultz.8
Once you reach the developed area at Two Medicine Lake, there is a decision that needs to be made. You can leave your car in the parking lot adjacent to the Two Medicine Camp Store and the boat dock. There is a small booth near the lake where tickets may be purchased. However, I would recommend buying tickets online at least 24 hours ahead of your arrival to ensure that there will be a seat for everyone in your group.
The other option is to park your car near the trailhead at Pray Lake, where you exit at the end of the day. From there you will need to walk a little over one mile to reach the boat dock where you embark on the Sinopah.
Take a moment or two to savor the spectacular mountain scenery. At the head of the lake, the beautiful Sinopah Mountain rises abruptly 3,100 feet above the water. The summit of Rising Wolf Mountain, to the north, looks down from 4,350 feet above your location.
Step back in time and visit the Two Medicine Camp Store, a National Historic Landmark. This building was originally the Two Medicine Chalets kitchen and dining hall built by the Great Northern Railway in 1912. President Herbert Hoover used the Two Medicine Chalets complex as his base of operations in August 1930. On August 5, 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave one of his famous Fireside Chats by the fireplace in the dining hall building.6
There are several options for getting to and returning from Upper Two Medicine Lake. If you choose to hike the North Shore Trail, it is 4.4 miles one way. The trailhead for this route begins by the campground parking lot near Pray Lake. If you take the South Shore Trail, it is about 5.5 miles one way. You will find the trailhead near the Two Medicine Camp Store and boat dock. Finally, there is the option of motoring to the west end of Two Medicine Lake aboard the Sinopah, hike 1.9 miles to Upper Two Medicine Lake, and then return 4.4 miles via the North Shore Trail for a total of 6.3 miles or 6.5 miles if you include Twin Falls. The remainder of this post will describe the third alternative.
Travel to the west end of Two Medicine Lake aboard the historic 45 foot, 49 passenger Sinopah. Constructed in 1926 by J.W. Swanson, Sinopah is the oldest wooden boat in the Glacier Park Boat Company’s fleet. She was bought by the company in the 1940s and moved from Saint Mary Lake to Two Medicine Lake. The name was then changed from Little Chief to Sinopah.2
To the north is the massive Rising Wolf Mountain, to the south Painted Tepee Peak (7,650 feet) and to the southwest is the majestic Sinopah Mountain. Toward the latter part of the trip, watch to the northwest to catch a glimpse of the light colored, pyramid-shaped glacial horn Flinsch Peak (9,225 feet). Enjoy the 30 to 45 minute trip and commentary by the boat captain.
After you disembark, you will cross a boardwalk over a boggy area. As you walk through the spruce and subalpine fir forest, watch for dark vertical lines on the trees. The lines will be from a few feet long to almost the height of the tree. These are frost cracks. They are a testament to the bitter cold and extreme temperature fluctuations that can happen in this area of the park. When they occur, it can sound like a gunshot.
This moist area produces large patches of thimbleberries. If you’re lucky, they’ll be ripe.
Watch for the park trail signs. The first junction gives you the choice of the South Shore Trail to the southeast or a path heading in a northwest direction. You will want to go to the northwest.
At about 0.7 miles from the boat dock and after a footbridge over Two Medicine Creek, you will reach another trail junction. Go left or westerly toward Twin Falls and Upper Two Medicine Lake. A right or easterly direction will put you on the North Shore Trail to the Two Medicine Campground. From the junction, it is about 1.2 miles to Upper Two Medicine Lake.
To your right, a large elongated cone-shaped mass of rock will eventually show itself. This is Pumpelly Pillar (7,620 feet). Glaciers carved both sides of this mountain into a narrow ridge (arete) as they flowed eastward toward the plains. The spire was known by the Kootenai Indians as Standing Arrow.12 It was renamed for Raphael Pumpelly who was the leader of the Northern Transcontinental Railway survey party. Traveling with Pumpelly was Major Logan, who became the first superintendent of Glacier National Park in 1910 and is also the person for whom Logan Pass was named. They crossed Pitamakin Pass in 1883.8
The spur trail to Twin Falls can be found approximately 300 feet after you cross a small creek on your way to Upper Two Medicine Lake. It is a worthwhile and easy 0.2-mile round trip.
Just before arriving at Upper Two Medicine Lake, the trail passes near a small body of water that will be on your left. Don’t be fooled. This is not your destination. Upper Two Medicine Lake is well over 100 acres.
When you do arrive at Upper Two Medicine Lake, the trail will lead you to the backcountry campground. The campground has four sites. Two of these can be reserved. There is a limited beach nearby.
This is an excellent spot to enjoy a bite to eat and take in the views. The end of the lake is dominated by Lone Walker Mountain (8,502 feet). Mount Rockwell (9,272 feet) is to the south, Mount Helen (8,538 feet) to the northwest, and Pumpelly Pillar to the north. Mount Helen, Lone Walker Mountain, and Mount Rockwell mark the Continental Divide.
You may have noticed that there is a lot of red rock in the surrounding mountains. This sedimentary rock is of the Grinnell Formation which can be up to 2,600 feet thick. The red color comes from the reaction of oxygen with iron. This happened to the sediment deposited in the shallow water of the ancient Belt Sea during the Precambrian Time – over one billion years ago.5 Preserved mud cracks and ripple marks can also be found in this formation.
To return the 4.4 miles via the North Shore Trail, hike back down the trail that you arrived on. Walk past the junction for the path that leads to the boat dock. About 1.6 miles from Upper Two Medicine Lake, you will come to a new trail junction. The park trail sign will indicate that the route to the left will go to No Name Lake and Dawson Pass. If you take that way by mistake, it will not take very long to realize the error. There is some pretty serious elevation gain.
The final 3.1 miles of the footpath has minimal elevation gain and loss. Huckleberries are an added bonus around the middle of July. Before you know it, the trail comes to a bridge over Two Medicine Creek and then toward the Two Medicine Campground. If you had parked by the Two Medicine Camp Store, there is roughly one more mile to walk to reach your vehicle.
Estimated Walking Time: 9 hours 43 minutes (average 2.5 miles-per-hour and allowance for elevation gain)
Part of the fun of this hike is driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road to reach the Gunsight Pass Trailhead. The scenery is spectacular. Descriptions and pictures don’t provide a complete sense of what the men who carved this road into cliffs had to overcome. Driving it sure does!
In the fall of 1932, after 30 years of work, the first vehicle traveled over the entire length of this 50 mile national, historic, engineering marvel. However, it was not until 1952 that the road was completely paved. Traveling this trans-mountain road through glacial valleys and over glacially sculpted mountains is a terrific experience.
If you are traveling from the east, the Gunsight Pass Trailhead is about 13.2 miles from the Saint Mary Visitor Center. This route will take you through part of the 2015 Reynolds Creek Fire that burned 4,850 acres. Traveling from the west, you will find the trailhead about 4.3 miles east of Logan Pass.
Whether you make this a long day point to point hike or several day backpack trip, vehicle logistics will take some thought. Glacier National Park does have a free shuttle system. But, if you plan on hiking the 19.5 miles in one shot and maybe enjoy some fishing at Lake Ellen Wilson, you are looking at an 11 to 13 hour day. This could make using the shuttle a little tricky.
By the time you finish this challenging yet very rewarding hike through the landscape that will give you a feeling of awe, you will not only have put close to 19.5 miles on your boots, but you will also climb a total of 3,819 feet and descend a total of 5,876 feet.
Trailhead to Gunsight Lake
The trail starts at about 5,300 feet in elevation. Without much hesitation, it descends 665 feet in about 1.1 miles to Reynolds Creek and Deadwood Falls. The red rock through which Reynolds Creek cuts is of the Grinnell Formation formed from sediment deposited in the shallow water environment of the ancient Belt Sea during the Middle Proterozoic Eon over one billion years ago.6
The Gunsight Pass Trail Junction is another 500 feet beyond the falls. Keep to the right to continue on to the pass. The trail leads you to a long single hiker suspension bridge over Reynolds Creek and then to the Reynolds Creek two site backcountry campground. The Gunsight Trail continues up the Saint Mary River Valley in a general southwest direction.
Even though you will be walking through a lot of forest on this portion of the trail, there will be openings where grand views will present themselves. One such opportunity provides a picturesque view to the south of lush grassy meadows surrounding Mirror Pond with the 9,030 foot Citadel Mountain in the background. It is not uncommon for a moose to wander into this scene.
Consider bringing rain pants, a raincoat, and an extra pair of socks. This section of the trip is brushy. Morning dew or a recent rain can leave enough water on the vegetation to soak the early hiker.
The junction for the trail to Florence Falls is about 4.2 miles from the trailhead. The spur trail to the falls is 0.8 miles and can be overgrown with thick vegetation like thimbleberries and cow parsnips. According to the World Waterfall Database, Florence Falls drops 800 feet, but only the lower 440 feet can be seen from where the trail ends.8 That 440 feet of cascading water is a pretty sweet sight though. The entire falls can be seen from Sun Point on Saint Mary Lake.
The trail starts climbing the southeast flank of 8,750-foot Fusillade Mountain as it ascends to Gunsight Lake. About one mile past the Florence Falls junction, the path emerges from the trees to reveal the majestic 10,052 foot Mount Jackson. George Bird Grinnell named this mountain after William Jackson who was the grandson of Hugh Monroe. Hugh Monroe worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company and is believed to be the first white to explore the country that is now Glacier National Park. Jackson was also a scout for Captain Reno at the time of the Custer Battle on the Little Bighorn.7
Situated on the northeast side of Mount Jackson is the 200-acre Jackson Glacier. Jackson is the 7th largest glacier of the 26 remaining glaciers in the Park. To the east of Jackson Glacier is the 400 acre Blackfoot Glacier which is the 2nd largest glacier of the 26. Both of these were once one. In 1850, this one glacier covered 1,875 acres.
Today’s relatively small moving masses of ice are not the remnants from the Great Ice Age of the Pleistocene Epoch (two million to about 12,000 years ago). The valley filling glaciers from that age are to be given credit for the beautiful mountain sculpting for which Glacier National Park is famous. The glaciers we enjoy today had their origin about 6,000 to 8,000 years ago and probably increased the most during the Little Ice Age which started about 400 to 500 years ago and ended in 1850.1
According to Dr. Dan Fagre, a USGS Research Ecologist in Glacier National Park, this area is experiencing a rise in temperature that is about two times the global average rise in air temperature.2 Paleoclimate research has revealed that the climate warming today is happening much more rapidly than the changes of the last two million years. NASA Earth Observatory states that interglacial warming during the past two million years averaged 5 ℃ over 5,000 year periods. The predicted rate for the next 100 years is at least twenty times that rate.3
When President Taft signed the bill in 1910 making Glacier the 10th national park, there were an estimated 150 glaciers. Today there are 26. One computer model predicts all of the glaciers will be gone by 2030.2
About 0.5 miles before Gunsight Lake, you will cross an extensive debris field that was deposited by a massive avalanche during the winter of 2010/2011. The trail has since been improved. So, no bushwacking should be necessary.
At the lake, you will find the backcountry campground which has six sites, three of which can be reserved. The camp usually opens around July 15. Look toward the head of the lake and enjoy the majesty of Gunsight Mountain (9,258 feet) and Mount Jackson (10,052 feet). The low point in between the two summits is Gunsight Pass (6,946 feet). Gunsight Lake is at 5,351 feet.
During 1910 to 1912, the Great Northern Railway (GNR) established a tent camp for its guests coming and going from the Sperry Chalets and Saint Mary. From 1910 to 1911, GNR constructed the Gunsight Lake Chalets including a dining hall/kitchen and a 50 guest lodge at a location between the backcountry campground and the lake outlet near the shoreline. These opened in 1911.5
Sometimes things are just not meant to be. During the offseason of 1913 to 1914, the dining room building suffered significant damage from a hungry grizzly bear. The loss was repaired. Then, sometime in March of 1916, buildings were destroyed in an avalanche. Reconstruction never happened.
Gunsight Lake to Lake Ellen Wilson
I think that I had a constant smile on my face during this section of the hike. We left behind the shores of Gunsight Lake and continued on across a long suspension bridge which spanned the Saint Mary River. My lungs demanded a lot of the pristine alpine air as we climbed the 2.8 miles and 1,595 feet to Gunsight Pass. At the same time, my eyes provided a nice distraction as they fed my brain with jaw-dropping beauty as we gained altitude along the northern flank of Mount Jackson. Gunsight Lake shrunk below us. Waterfalls were thundering down rock faces, sometimes hundreds of feet, to the north and south of us.
There are several snowfields below the pass that can persist well into August. Some are steep and need to be negotiated with caution especially early in the summer. Check the Glacier National Park trail report. If they recommend an ice-ax and crampons, take it seriously. Be sure to know how to use the equipment properly. Sliding down the frozen face of a steep snowfield toward a cliff is not the ideal time to learn how to self-arrest.
Upon arriving at Gunsight Pass (6,946 feet), you will be treated to views of Lake Ellen Wilson far below to the southwest, Gunsight Lake to the northeast, Gunsight Mountain to the north, and Mount Jackson to the south. The rock shelter there was built about the same time that the Going-to-the-Sun Road was completed in the early 1930s. It was constructed for a cost of $638 to provide a safe haven in times of severe weather for those traveling between the Sperry Chalet and Saint Mary.4 It is evident that maintenance has been kept up.
Don’t be fooled by the apparent amiable nature of the mountain goats that are likely to be encountered at the pass. Some can be a bit clingy. The apparent lack of fear is a red flag for me. It may be my imagination, but their behavior is a little different than those that I have encountered in other parts of the park. The photo opportunities are excellent though.
Gunsight Pass is about 9.3 miles from the trailhead and close to the halfway mark. From the pass, the trail descends 1,017 feet on its way to Lake Ellen Wilson. The trail distance is about 1.7 miles from the pass to the trail junction that leads to the backcountry campground at Ellen Wilson. There is a beautiful little waterfall and stream that the trail crosses toward the bottom of the descent. On our trip, we met a group of mountain goats that were coming up the path and wanted to cross the stream at the same place as us. There was no negotiation. We stepped off of the trail a reasonable distance and let them pass.
Lake Ellen Wilson belongs to a glacial cirque at 5,929 feet elevation. She is a little over a mile long and about one-half mile wide. According to Fishes of Glacier National Park Conservation Bulletin Number 22, the only fish species in Lake Ellen Wilson is the Eastern Brook Trout. I can attest to the fact that they will rise to a fly. The backcountry camp has four sites of which two can be reserved. The camp usually opens around August 1.
The outlet empties into Lincoln Lake 0.25 miles away as a bird flies, but only after a spectacular 1,300-foot drop. Beaver Chief Falls is the name given to these thundering cascades. This picturesque lake was named in honor of President Woodrow Wilson’s first wife who died in 1914, the year following her husband’s inauguration.7
Lake Ellen Wilson to Lake McDonald Lodge Parking Lot
The hike from the Lake Ellen Wilson backcountry campground trail junction to Lincoln Pass is 2.3 miles and 1,121 feet of elevation gain. The pass, at 7,050 feet, is the highest point along this hike. From the pass, it is an easy 1.2 miles with 550 feet of elevation loss to the Sperry Chalet. If luck is with you, there may be some freshly baked huckleberry pie left for purchase at the kitchen and dining hall.
The two-story Sperry Chalet and the separate dining room/kitchen were completed in 1913 by the Great Northern Railway. They are built of native stone which was quarried from a talus slope behind the buildings and extending to the south. Both of the buildings are National Historic Landmarks. The only other remaining backcountry hotel in the park is the Granite Park Chalet situated on the Garden Wall.
The Sperry Chalet was named for Dr. Lyman B. Sperry from Oberlin College in Ohio. The gentleman explorer and ardent supporter of the national park concept led the first group of people to the glacier that now bears his name in 1896. He also negotiated a deal with the Great Northern Railroad to provide transportation to and from the park, tents, food, and supplies for himself and students. In return, during the seasons of 1902 and 1903, he and the volunteer students built a trail from Lake McDonald to Gunsight Pass with a spur trail to Sperry Glacier.7
On August 17, 2017, the Sperry Chalet was gutted by the 16,000-acre Sprague Fire. Reconstruction is now underway and is anticipated to be completed by the end of the 2019 summer.
A notable side trip from the chalet complex is the 2.7 mile, 1,500-foot climb to Comeau Pass and then another half mile from the pass to view the glacier. Allow at least six hours for a round trip.
Once you leave the chalet en route to the Lake McDonald Lodge parking lot, it is a 3,286-foot elevation drop over 6.1 miles. Your knees may whine a little by the time the trailhead arrives. The route is mostly in the trees along the Sprague Creek drainage on the south side of Mount Edwards and Mount Brown.
A great way to cap off an extraordinary day of hiking is with a refreshing beverage on the terrace of the historic lodge overlooking Lake McDonald.
Before You Go . . .
If you’ve found this post 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.
The spectacular Iceberg Lake day hike in Glacier National Park should be on your must do list while in the Many Glacier region.
The beginning of the Iceberg Lake and Ptarmigan Trails can be found by following the Many Glacier Road to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn and cabins. There is a road on the west end of the restaurant and camp store building, which leads to limited parking and the trailhead. If you’re not there early, it is probably better to leave your car in the main parking lot in front and walk back to the trailhead. It’s not far.
The restaurant, camp store, and gift shop, along with many of the small, simple cabins in the back, are part of the Swiftcurrent Auto Camp Historic District. In the early 1930s, the Great Northern Railway (GNR) subsidiary, Glacier Park Hotel Company, began building the facility in response to the new automobile tourist. This mobile visitor with limited funds started replacing the wealthy clientele courted by the GNR from 1910 to 1930.2
Notes for a Heavily Used Area
Iceberg Lake is a very popular hike. So, a few words about trail etiquette are in order. Generally, hikers going uphill have the right of way. That being said, if I’m alone going uphill and encounter a group coming down, it makes sense that I yield to the group. It’s a lot easier for me to move to the side than it is for the entire group to do the same.
We all hike at different speeds. Know that it’s considered rude to crowd folks in front of you. Use your favorite friendly greeting so that the people ahead know that you’re there. They should step aside and let you pass. If not, a polite request should do the trick.
There is a pit toilet about 2.6 miles from the trailhead just before the footpath crosses Ptarmigan Creek. If that doesn’t work out, the potty zone is at least 200 feet from the trail and any water. Using an average adult pace distance of 2.5 feet, then 80 paces should put one at about the correct distance from the path or surface water. One should dig a small cat hole to bury paper or solid waste.
I should also note that the Ptarmigan Trail and the Iceberg Lake Trail go through prime grizzly bear habitat. During July and August, berries are ripening. Both black and grizzly bears come to take advantage of this food source, and you will pass through their cafeteria. Be wise and let them know where you are by making noise. Keep your bear spray where you can access it quickly, and know how to use it. The park maintains a webpage with closures and postings for trails and backcountry campgrounds. It’s wise to check this information before heading out.
A Little Geology
The stories behind the chiseled, multilayered mountains make the trip even more spectacular. Trying to comprehend the time that has passed from the early stages of sediment eroding from a lifeless Earth surface to what we see today stretches the imagination. And, this only goes back one-third of the way to Earth’s beginning.1
During the Great Ice Age, that began around two-million years ago and ended around 12,000- years ago, enormous glaciers filled the valleys and ground away at the mountains like a gigantic rasp.3Aretes, knife-edged ridges, resulted when ice rivers worked on two opposing sides of a mountain. Straight ahead to the northwest are the pinnacles of the glacial arete named the Ptarmigan Wall. When ice scoured rock on three sides, a horn remained. The glacial horn Mount Wilbur (9,231 feet) rises to the southwest.
The ice sculptor also exposed colorful layers of rock deposited over a billion years ago in the ancient Belt Sea. Then, seawater lapped a shoreline 50 miles west of Glacier National Park. Sediment deposited in shallow water reacted with oxygen resulting in reddish colors. That deposited into deeper water with minimal oxygen ended up being green. The beige and tan colors result from the remains of coral forming organisms.1
Red argillite of the Grinnell Formation makes up the base of Mount Wilbur. Just above the Grinnell Formation is the younger buff-colored limestone of the Siyeh Formation which caps both Mount Wilbur and Mount Henkel. If you look carefully at the east face of Mount Wilbur, about halfway between the base of the cliffs and the summit, there is a light gray band about 60 feet high. That is within the Siyeh Formation. This band extends through the Ptarmigan Wall above Iceberg Lake. That gray rock is rich with fossilized algae, which formed a reef hundreds of millions of years ago in the Belt Sea.1
The dark band toward the top of Mount Wilbur and the Ptarmigan Wall is a diorite sill. This band of igneous rock is approximately 100 feet thick and formed when magma was forced between the layers of sedimentary rock in the Siyeh Formation. The 1,000 to 2,000 degree Fahrenheit magma changed the resident limestone into marble. Notice the lighter-colored stone immediately above and below the dark gray sill. That’s the marble.1
The first quarter of a mile is steep. But don’t let that dampen your enthusiasm. The slope of the path decreases to about 6% as it passes along the southwest slopes of Mount Henkel (8,770 feet). During May and June, the large, showy yellow flowers of arrowleaf balsamroot provide an excellent early season contrast to the slopes on which they grow. This open section of the trail offers quintessential Glacier National Park scenery.
The footpath enters a forest about 1.5 miles from the trailhead. Farther down the trail, where the path uses a bridge to cross Ptarmigan Creek, is a perfect place to rest and grab a snack. Shortly after this is the junction to Iceberg Lake. Take the left fork. Going to the right will lead to Ptarmigan Tunnel. At three miles, the footpath emerges from the trees, and the glacial cirque holding Iceberg Lake comes into view.
After you cross the footbridge over Iceberg Creek, you’ll enter a beautiful alpine meadow painted with a multitude of colors during July and August. Purple subalpine fleabane, white Sitka valerian, pink mountain heather, and light blue penstemon contribute to the show. It’s a sure bet that you’ll also see Columbian ground squirrels.
Iceberg Peak, to the west, and Mount Wilbur, to the southeast, rising more than 3,000 feet above the lake. Scan the rock faces for mountain goats. Golden eagles, with wingspans of six to eight feet, also hunt this area.
Expect a frozen lake, if you arrive in June. Icebergs should be plentiful in July and mostly gone by the middle of August. For me, no matter the month, sitting on the shoreline and taking it all in is rejuvenating.
“… we saw a mass of ice as large as a house part from the glacier, splash down into the deep lake …” James Willard Shultz, September 1, 19154
After the Hike
If you have never visited the historic Many Glacier Hotel, I recommend that this be the time to do so. The sprawling hotel, modeled after Swiss alpine chalets, was constructed by the Great Northern Railway during the years 1914 and 1915. Then, only the wealthy could afford to enjoy it. Now you can relax there with your hiking partners and enjoy refreshments while being wowed by the surrounding peaks with names like Mount Gould, Angel Wing, and the spectacular Grinnell Point that dominates the view across Swiftcurrent Lake.
4 hours 39 minutes (at 2.5 miles-per-hour and allowance for elevation gain)
* For Comparison: Red Rock Lake: 4.3, easy; Grinnell Lake: 8.2, moderate
Before You Go . . .
If you’ve found this post 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.