This out and back hike leads to a very unique location in North America. Triple Divide Peak (8,020 feet), which towers above Triple Divide Pass (7,397 feet), is referred to as the hydrologic apex of North America. This is where the Continental Divide and the Northern Divide intersect.
Water draining down the west side of the peak travels to the Pacific Ocean via Pacific Creek, the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, the Clark Fork River, Pend Oreille River, and finally the Columbia River. Water flowing down the northeastern side drains to Hudson Bay via Hudson Bay Creek, Medicine Owl Creek, Red Eagle Creek, Saint Mary Lake, Saint Mary River, Oldman River, Saskatchewan River, and the Nelson River. Water on the southeastern slopes of Triple Divide Peak flows to the Gulf of Mexico by way of Atlantic Creek, the North Fork of Cut Bank Creek, the Marias River, Missouri River, and the Mississippi River.
The turn to the Cut Bank area is located between St. Mary and Two Medicine. Travel about 14 miles south from Saint Mary along highway 89 or north of East Glacier approximately 16 miles along the same road. There is a five-mile-long gravel road that leads to the ranger station, campground, and the trailhead.
The Cut Bank Ranger Station, built in 1917, is one of the first buildings constructed by the National Park Service (NPS) in Glacier National Park and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The station had a permanent year-round ranger until the late 1930s when the NPS made the decision to staff the ranger station only during the summer months. In 1935, the ranger station barn was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps for about $1,300.1
West of the ranger station is the Cut Bank Campground. This no-frills, 14 site campground does have a vault toilet, but no potable water. The North Fork of Cut Bank Creek is nearby. So, filtering or boiling your water is an option. RV’s and truck trailer combinations are not recommended.
The trailhead is located close to the campground. However, there is not an abundance of parking spaces. This entry into Glacier National Park will give you access to other trails that will lead both north and south along the eastern side of the park.
This is grizzly bear habitat. Always carry bear spray where it is immediately available and practice removing the canister from its holster. Be sure that any packaging material has been removed from the safety clip and that you can remove the clip safely and quickly. The time to learn is not when you have a bear encounter. Make plenty of noise to alert bears of your presence. Surprising a bear can ruin your day.
The hike from the Cut Bank Trailhead to Triple Divide Pass climbs 2,380 feet over 7.2 miles.
On the Trail – The Easy Part
The hike to Triple Divide Pass starts off through meadows that can be loaded with wildflowers. The trail roughly follows the North Fork of Cut Bank Creek in a southwest direction. Bad Marriage Mountain (8,350 feet) fills most of the skyline to the south. At 3.9 miles from the trailhead, you will come to a trail junction. Going left, to the south, will take you to Morning Star Lake and Pitamakin Pass. Stay right for Triple Divide. From this location to the pass, you will be on a section of the Continental Divide Trail which stretches 3,100 miles from Mexico to Canada. The Atlantic Creek backcountry campground is just a short distance up the trail at 4.2 miles. While you are still relatively close to water, you may want to consider replenishing your supply.
At 4.6 miles, there is another trail junction. The trail to the left leads to Medicine Grizzly Lake. Stay right to continue on to Triple Divide Pass. If you are interested in visiting Medicine Grizzly Lake, it is about 1.4 miles from the junction to the foot and 1.9 miles to the head of the lake. This beautiful lake has numerous waterfalls plunging toward it from Triple Divide Peak, Razoredge Mountain (8,570 feet), and Medicine Grizzly Peak (8,315 feet).
The lake gets its name from the Blackfeet Legend of Medicine Grizzly. According to this legend, a Blackfeet warrior named Nis-ta-e was severely wounded while trying to escape with horses that he and fellow Blackfeet had stolen from the Snake tribe. A grizzly bear found him and supplied him with food. When Nis-ta-e was strong enough, the bear carried him on his back to a location close to his people. The bear asked that in return for saving Nis-ta-e that neither he nor his people would kill a hibernating bear.2
On the Trail – The Tougher Part
From the junction to Medicine Grizzly Lake, it is about 2.6 miles to Triple Divide Pass. Don’t count on access to water from here on. The trail climbs up the southern flank of Mount James (9,375 feet) and gains about 2,000 feet in elevation by the time it reaches the pass. The scenery is spectacular. The view looking down on Medicine Grizzly Lake with water cascading hundreds of feet down the headwall is quintessential Glacier. Be sure to keep an eye out for bighorn sheep and mountain goats.
At 7.2 miles, relish the views from the pass back to the southeast along the Atlantic Creek drainage or to the north along the Hudson Bay Creek valley. While looking north, you should be able to see signs of the 2006 Red Eagle Fire that burned over 32,000 acres. This fire burned to the northeast and out of the park and onto the Blackfeet Reservation. From the pass, the notable Triple Divide Peak rises 621 feet to the west and Mount James 1,980 feet to the east.
In addition to bighorn sheep and mountain goats, hoary marmots are also inhabitants of this area. When we sat for lunch, the marmots didn’t waste any time positioning themselves for an irresponsible handout. Please don’t feed them.
With some planning, this hike could be extended into a nice overnighter. Continue north down the Hudson Bay Creek valley 7.8 miles to the head of Red Eagle Lake. There is a backcountry campground there with four sites – two of which are reservable. Or, add another 0.8 miles to reach the foot of the lake and another backcountry campground with the same number of sites.
From the foot of Red Eagle Lake, it is 8.1 miles to the trailhead which is located at the parking area for the historic 1913 St. Mary Ranger Station – built three years after the establishment of Glacier National Park and three years before the creation of the National Park Service.3
1. “Cut Bank Ranger Station Historic District.” National Register of Historic Places, United States Department of the Interior, npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP. Accessed 10 July 2018.
Many Glacier and the Going-to-the-Sun Road are the two most common starting points for accessing Piegan Pass. This blog will describe a trip beginning at the trailhead on Siyeh Bend, 2.2 miles east of Logan Pass, and ending at the Many Glacier Hotel. The total distance is about 13 miles and the elevation gained is 1,750 feet to the pass over 4.5 miles. Starting at the Many Glacier Hotel requires climbing 2,540 feet to the pass over a range of about 8.5 miles.
It’s going to take some planning to ensure that you get back to your vehicle at the end of the day. One option is to leave your car at Siyeh Bend and schedule a Xanterra Hiker Shuttle to pick you up at the Many Glacier Hotel and take you to the east entrance station at St. Mary. Catch the free Glacier National Park Shuttle from there to Siyeh Bend. Note that parking is relatively limited at Siyeh Bend. So, get there early.
Another possibility is to leave your vehicle at the Many Glacier Hotel and take the Xanterra shuttle to St. Mary and then the Glacier National Park shuttle to Siyeh Bend to start the hike.
A Little Background
The Blackfoot Confederacy or Niitsitapi is composed of three main tribes. The northernmost Siksika (Alberta, Blackfoot), the Kainai (Alberta, Bloods), North Piegan (Alberta, Aapatohsi Pikunni), and the South Piegan (Montana, Aamsskaapi Pikunni).6 Piegan Pass, Piegan Mountain, and Piegan Glacier were all named for the Montana South Piegan by the fur trader, guide, and author James Willard Shultz in 1885.4
Tragically, a small band of the South Piegan, the Small Robes, led by Chief Heavy Runner lost a large number of their people to smallpox.2,6 In January of 1870, the U.S. military mistakenly killed 173 men, women, and children of the Small Robes. The military attack was in retaliation for the killing of a white man by the Piegan who had taken revenge for the rape of a Piegan woman. Chief Heavy Runner’s band was not involved.6
Siyeh (Sai-yeh) is a Blackfeet name that means Crazy Dog or Mad Wolf. Siyeh mountain, creek, glacier, and pass were all named for a Blackfoot man of this name by George B. Grinnell.4
Siyeh Bend to Piegan Pass (4.5 miles, 1,750 feet elevation gain)
This amazingly beautiful hike begins at an elevation of 5,810 feet, climbs 1,750 feet to reach the pass at 7,560 feet. The 4.5 miles of trail leading to the pass will provide you with jaw-dropping grandeur in all directions.
On the lower parts of the trail under the spruce and fir trees during June you will notice sweet smelling, 3-5 foot plants with white umbrella-shaped flower tops. These are cow parsnips and a favorite food of grizzly bears.
The first 1.2 miles is a short spur that joins with the main Piegan Pass Trail. At 2.7 miles is the junction for Preston Park and Siyeh Pass. Look to the south-east. The mountain that dominates your view is Matahpi Peak. To the west is Piegan Mountain and just to the north is Mount Pollock. All three are over 9,000 feet in elevation. As you climb higher, look to the south, and you will see the 10,052 foot Mount Jackson looking over the white masses of Jackson Glacier and Blackfoot Glacier. In 1850, the glaciers were one.
As the trail bends toward the west, you will pass along the south-west slopes of Mount Siyeh (10,014 feet). The north side of this crag has a near vertical wall of over 4,000 feet that stands proudly above Cracker Lake.
Look to the north-west and just east of the pass. That massive slab of rock that has been thrust up into the air is Cataract Mountain. The 1,100-foot drop on its north side is impressive.
If you keep an eye out, you will see ancient mud cracks and ripples in the rocks. These features formed in the sediment deposited close to the shoreline of the ancient Belt Sea approximately 1.5 billion years ago. In total, 18,000 feet of sediment were eroded from the barren land and deposited into the sea.3,5
Unimaginable tectonic forces, starting about 150 million years ago, shoved the rock that was to become Glacier National Park 50 miles eastward up and over the top of the much younger formations. Then about 2.6 million years ago until about 12,000 years ago, during The Great Ice Age or Pleistocene Epoch, the valleys filled with glaciers.3 The results of the sculpting done be those glaciers resulted in the cirques, horns, aretes, hanging valleys and u-shaped valleys that you see everywhere in Glacier National Park.
When surrounded by majestic mountains, it’s easy to overlook the treasures on the ground. Keep an eye out in moist sites for the white colored western pasqueflower and Sitka valerian. The drier places may treat you to the purple colored silky phacelia.
At Piegan Pass, you will find the remnants of an old stone shelter with part of its metal roof buried in the rubble. Also, at the pass and slightly above the trail, you will find a stone base built in the fall of 1926.1,4 This stone foundation once supported a bell.
The advertising agent for the Great Northern Railroad W.R. Mills and the manager of the Glacier Park Hotel Company H.A. Noble started their petitions to the National Park Service for permission to place the bell in 1925. Approval came in September of 1926. Clangers were put at Piegan Pass as well as Swiftcurrent, Siyeh, and Gunsight Passes during the following two months. In the summer of 1929, a fourth bell was placed on Scenic Point in the Two Medicine area. The unusual practice supposedly was borrowed from the Swiss. During the fall of 1943, the Hotel Company removed the bells and donated them to a World War II scrap metal drive.4
Piegan Pass to Many Glacier Hotel (8.5 miles, 2,540 feet elevation loss)
As you face north and begin your descent through the Cataract Creek drainage, it is hard to ignore a massive mountain to the north-west. Mount Gould is the mountain with the distinctive black horizontal band. This band is igneous rock – diorite to be specific. Around 750 million years ago, magma oozed between the layers of the sedimentary limestone rock. The white color immediately above and below the dark band is a marble that resulted from the extreme heat of the magma working on the limestone.3
A little north of the 9,553 foot Mount Gould is Angel Wing at 7,430 feet. The impressive Feather Plume Falls will become more spectacular the closer you get to the junction of The Piegan Pass Trail and the trail that leads to Grinnell Lake and Lake Josephine. As you descend through the switchbacks, keep a look out for Morning Eagle Falls to the west. Eventually, the trail will come very close to Cataract Creek and the view of the falls looking back up the creek is sure to please.
At the trail junction, the right fork is the main Piegan Pass Trail which leads to the Many Glacier Hotel. The Piegan Pass Trail gets a lot of horse traffic and can be a muddy mess. I regretted choosing that route on a hike one July day.
The left fork will also deliver you to the Many Glacier Hotel by way of Grinnell Lake and the trail along the south shore of Lake Josephine. Less mess will cost about an extra one-half mile. The route along the southern edge of Lake Josephine is cut through thick forest with thimbleberries crowding the path at times. Be sure to make noise and have your bear spray handy. Be aware of the signs at trail junctions to ensure that you end up at the Many Glacier Hotel.
As you finish up the trip, notice Grinnell Point that dominates the view across the lake. On the north side of Grinnell Point is the Swiftcurrent Creek Valley. If you have not explored that area of the Park, definitely consider it.
The historic Many Glacier Hotel is a sight to behold. The building has Swiss chalet architecture which was part of the “American Alps” promotional package of the Great Northern Railroad. Construction began in 1914 and wrapped up on July 4, 1915.1
Guthrie, C.W. The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
Juneau, Linda. “Small Robe Band of Blackfeet: Ethnogenesis by Social and Religious Transformation.” The University of Montana. Accessed July 5, 2018. https://scholarworks.umt.edu/etd/890.
Raup, Omer, Robert Earhart, James Whipple, and Paul Carrara. Geology Along the Going-to-the-Sun Road Glacier National Park, Montana. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Associaton, 1983.
Robinson, Donald. Through the Years. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Association, 1973.
No matter how often I hike in the Many Glacier Valley among the massive chiseled crags, I am always filled with awe. The grandeur of the panorama is both exhilarating and humbling. Once on the trail, the sights, sounds, and smells that command my attention result in a restorative therapy that for me is second to none. Grinnell Lake and Hidden Falls offer an opportunity for this experience.
At the junction of the Going-To-The-Sun Road and Highway 89 in Saint Mary, turn north toward Babb Montana then drive for about 9 miles. The junction of the Many Glacier Road and Highway 89 is just before the town of Babb. This road will follow Swiftcurrent Creek towards the west. Be aware that this road can be quite rough in several spots. Also, note that before you see the sign that indicates the border for Glacier National Park, you are traveling through land that is part of the Blackfeet Reservation. Please be respectful.
Once inside the park, the Many Glacier Road skirts the north side of Lake Sherburne. The land is now hidden by the reservoir, but in the first decade of the 1900s, oil drilling operations were in full swing. Cassidy Curve, located about 1.3 miles from the Glacier National Park border, was named for Mike Cassidy. His oil well location is now under water. Cassidy drilled from 1905 to 1909. His reward was a little natural gas which he used to heat and light his home for a few years.1
About halfway along the lake, you will come to the Many Glacier Entrance Station. After the entrance, start watching for the Many Glacier Hotel sign three miles past the entrance. Travel about one-half mile further after the turn for the hotel and look for the Many Glacier Picnic Area and Grinnell Glacier Trailhead signs. This is where the hike described below will start.
Another option is to start at the trailhead located near the Many Glacier Hotel. The trail from there will wind its way through the heavily forested southeast sides of Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. You could end up on the trail that is used by horses. This will not be pleasant. I know this from experience.
There is a third option. It is possible to buy passage on two different launches that transport you across two different lakes. The 45-foot, 49 passenger 1960s era launch, Chief Two Guns, will take you across Swiftcurrent Lake. From the dock at the head of Swiftcurrent Lake, it is a very short walk to the dock at the foot of Lake Josephine where you can board the 45-foot, 49 passenger Morning Eagle which was built in 1945. This launch will deliver you to the head of Lake Josephine. From the Lake Josephine dock, it is about a one-mile hike to Grinnell Lake. To return, you can either hike back or catch the launches at a later time in the day. More information can be found at the Glacier Park Boat Company .
The Many Glacier region is grizzly bear habitat. Be sure to carry bear spray where it is quickly accessible and know how to use it. Never hike alone and be sure to make plenty of noise. Surprising a bear can make a great day into a really bad day quickly.
It is 3.6 miles and a modest 160 feet of elevation gain from the trailhead at the Many Glacier Picnic area to Grinnell Lake. The trail and trail junctions are well marked with signs noting destinations and distances.
The Grinnell Glacier Trail will guide you along the north shore of Lake Josephine. Views to the south across Lake Josephine toward 9,376-foot Allen Mountain provide many photo opportunities. If you visit this area from June to July, the Beargrass bloom can be spectacular.
In shaded moist areas along the trail, keep an eye out for the Bead Lily. The single white blossom is on display from June to July. Later, a single glossy blueberry is displayed proudly at the top of a stem. It might look tempting, especially to children, but don’t eat the berry.
Stay on the Grinnell Glacier Trail for 2.1 miles. There you will encounter a junction that will allow you to proceed toward Grinnell Lake. Turn left off of the Grinnell Glacier Trail. If you miss the turn, you will end up at Grinnell Glacier. (Note there is another trail junction at about 1.6 miles from the Many Glacier Picnic area. I prefer the route using the junction at 2.1 miles. However, both paths will end up at the same location.)
After leaving the Grinnell Glacier Trail, walk about 0.3 miles to another junction. Watch carefully for the Grinnell Lake sign. Veer right and in 1.1 miles the lake will come into view. There is a short spur trail to Hidden Falls just before the lake.
This 130 acres of turquoise beauty is at the center of an exhilarating panorama. Angel Wing is to the south. To the west at the headwall, Grinnell Falls thunders 960 feet carrying meltwater from Grinnell Glacier.3 Mount Grinnell rises 3,800 feet above the lake to the north.
Grinnell is a name attached to many features and rightfully so. They are the namesake of George Bird Grinnell who was a man of many accomplishments. He earned his Ph.D. from Yale in 1880. Grinnell served as a naturalist on one of General Custer expeditions but declined a similar offer before the hapless foray in 1876.2
Grinnell was a friend of Teddy Roosevelt and also a prominent figure in the early conservation movement. He started the first Audubon Society and was a founding member of the Boone and Crockett Club. Importantly, he was influential in establishing Glacier National Park.2
The Return Trip
There are several options. Backtrack and see the view that was to your back earlier in the day. Or, from the last junction, follow the trail that borders the south side of Lake Josephine to the head of Swiftcurrent Lake and then to the Many Glacier Picnic area.
If you made arrangements earlier, board the Morning Eagle at the head of Lake Josephine and enjoy the cruise. Disembark at the foot of the lake and follow the Grinnell Glacier Trail to the picnic area.
Robinson, Donald. Through the Years. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier NaturalHistory Association, 1973.
This is an outstanding backpacking trip that begins and ends in Many Glacier. It includes a side trip to the head of Elizabeth Lake and a short hike to Helen Lake.
The total trip from trailhead to trailhead, including the side trip, is 35.2 miles. If you decide to start at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn parking lot, add another couple of miles for the walk back to your vehicle from the Red Gap Pass Trailhead located along the Many Glacier Road.
The trek described below starts at the Iceberg Lake/Ptarmigan Trailhead close to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. You will notice that the Inn is pretty humble compared to the grand 191 room, 760 foot long, Many Glacier Hotel. This beautiful hotel, built between 1914 and 1915, was the brainchild of the Great Northern Railway president Louis Hill and was designed and built to lure wealthy American tourists away from Europe to the ‘Alps’ of America.2 Of course, his railroad provided the transportation.
The Many Glacier Hotel is located along the eastern shore of Swiftcurrent Lake. George Bird Grinnell named the lake and creek in the mid-1880’s. He derived the name from the Blackfeet moniker which meant ‘Swift Flowing River’. Interestingly, the name was changed to Lake McDermott to honor a lumberman in the late 1890’s. The name was officially changed back to Swiftcurrent in 1928.5
In contrast, the main building of the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn (general store on the east end) was built in 1935 and was situated in the forest. The addition of the restaurant and lobby on the west end was completed in 1941. These were built to meet the demands of the relatively new auto tourist. This new tourist was not dependent upon the railroad, had limited funds, and was, therefore, more interested in lodging and meals that were easier on the pocketbook. The wealthy clientele seeking European style and comfort, during the period of 1910-1930, was replaced by this new mobile tourist.
Iceberg Lake/Ptarmigan Trailhead to Ptarmigan Tunnel (5.3 miles)
The trail doesn’t waste any time testing your legs. This is just a teaser, however. The 5.3-mile climb up to the Ptarmigan Tunnel includes 2,300 feet of elevation gain with most of that gain in the last couple of miles. Be sure to make noise, keep your bear spray handy, and know how to use it. This trail passes through some prime grizzly bear habitat. It’s not uncommon for the trail to be closed because of bears.
As you travel northwest along the trail, the Ptarmigan Wall with its many pinnacles rises in front of you. This sharp mountain ridge, known as an arete, was carved by the glaciers of the Pleistocene Epoch. This time lasted from about 2.5 million years ago to around 11,700 years ago. To the east of the trail is Mount Henkel (8,770 feet). To the west is Mount Wilbur (9,321 feet) which nestles Iceberg Lake in a glacial cirque between itself and the Ptarmigan Wall. At about 2.7 miles, the Ptarmigan Trail splits off to the north. You will end up at Iceberg Lake should you continue straight on.
Ptarmigan Lake is a nice place to stop before the final climb to the tunnel. There is also an inviting spot below the lake on Ptarmigan Creek to filter water and replenish your supply. Depending on the time of year, it could be awhile for the next opportunity.
After a few switchbacks, you top out at an elevation of 7,200 feet and the Ptarmigan Tunnel – a National Historic Place. The 250-foot tunnel was built by men of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the summer of 1930. Two groups worked with jackhammers and dynamite and approached each other from both sides of the Ptarmigan Wall. Both the north and south entrances are shielded by heavy metal doors which were installed in 1975. They are typically opened around mid-July, depending on the snow, and closed October 1. Before entering the tunnel, take in the views to the south. To your left is Crow Feet Mountain (8,914 feet) and to your right is part of the Ptarmigan Wall. In the distance are Mount Wilbur (9,321 feet), Mount Grinnell (8,851 feet), and Mount Gould (9,553 feet).
Imagine traveling back in time as you enter the tunnel. This engineering marvel was drilled through the red rock of the Grinnell Formation. This formation can be over 3,000 feet thick and is seen in many parts of the park. The Grinnell rock and most all of the other layers of rock in the park were formed from sediment that was deposited into the ancient Belt Sea during the period of time from 1.5 billion to 800 million years ago.6
The Belt Sea was located in what is now eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana. There is also geological evidence that Siberia and Australia may also have contributed sediment when they were connected to the precursor to North America.3
Starting about 150 million years ago, during the Jurassic Period when dinosaurs like Allosaurus and Stegosaurus roamed, and ending about 60 million years ago, when dinosaurs were ancient history, unimaginable tectonic forces pushed an enormous slab of rock several miles thick and several hundred miles wide 50 miles eastward and up over the top of much younger rock. The Lewis Overthrust Belt on the eastern edge of the park is the eastern terminus of that gargantuan slab of rock of which the Grinnell Formation is part.4
The Grinnell Formation gives us a wonderful snapshot of the distant past. Although not particularly evident in the tunnel, other exposures of this formation display preserved water ripple marks, mud cracks, and fossilized stromatolites. Stromatolites are mounds created by lime-secreting cyanobacteria which were widespread and abundant on our planet as far back as 3.5 billion years ago.4
Cyanobacteria are photosynthetic and played a critical role in the production of oxygen that changed the Earth’s atmosphere. There is no fossil evidence of any kind of land organism, including plants, found in this red rock or any other rock in the park that was deposited between 1.5 billion to 800 million years ago. Consequently, the surface rock of the ancient supercontinent had nothing to protect it from the weathering and erosion which produced the sediment, that would become the mountains of Glacier National Park.
Ptarmigan Tunnel to Head of Elizabeth Lake (6.4 miles)
When we emerged from the north end of the tunnel, a world class panorama was there to greet us. Mount Merritt, a hulk of a mountain at 10,004 feet in elevation, could be seen to the northwest. A little to the northeast of Mount Merritt was Natoas Peak (9,475 feet). Looking downward 2,300 feet, we saw the beautiful Elizabeth Lake adorning the glacier-carved, u-shaped valley of the Belly River. The Ptarmigan Trail that we were on continued northward and downward along the west side of Crowfeet Mountain’s northern ridge. After crossing Redgap Creek, the trail merged with the Redgap Pass Trail at about 2.8 miles from the tunnel.
That trail to the southeast would eventually take us back to Many Glacier. We continued northwest for another two miles where we arrived at the foot of Elizabeth Lake, a backcountry campground, and the junction of three trails – the Helen Lake Trail, the Belly River Trail, and the Redgap Pass Trail. Great place for a photo op. We continued on the Helen Lake Trail for 1.6 miles to the head of Elizabeth Lake and the backcountry campground located there.
The campground was our home base for a full day and two nights. Part of the time we used to explore Helen Lake and part of the time we used to enjoy the fishing at Elizabeth Lake. And, the fishing made me feel like a little kid again. It was exciting. I still have these mental movies of standing on the gravel bar where the Belly River flows into the lake. The clouds were low, the morning mist was rising from the lake surface, two trumpeter swans were swimming nearby, and my fly was drifting along the feeding lane. Just as the water erupted and I felt the strike, the clouds let some sunshine through. The rainbow trout in its aerial acrobatics was throwing water that looked like diamonds in the sunlight. It makes me smile just to think about it again.
For two evenings and one morning, we caught and released rainbow trout and the iridescent arctic grayling in numbers and sizes that would lead one to question my truthfulness.
Head of Elizabeth Lake to Helen Lake (5.4 miles round trip)
Several sources indicated that there were no fish in Helen Lake. So, we left the rods behind. The scenery is well worth the hike though. Helen Lake (5,085 feet) is at the head of the Belly River and is situated in a glacial cirque surrounded by Ipasha Peak (9,572 feet) to the northwest and Ahern Peak (8,749 feet) to the southwest. Between Ipasha Peak and Ahern Peak is Ahern Glacier. Meltwater from the glacier plummets about 1,600 feet creating some pretty spectacular waterfalls. Further to the south was Ahern Pass which has connections to the infamous Joe Cosley. It is said that in 1929, the 59-year-old Cosley snowshoed across Ahern Pass in order to beat the authorities back to his cache of poached beaver pelts in the Belly River Valley. He did beat the law and then disappeared into Alberta.2 The pinnacles above Ahern Pass and southeast of the lake are part of the Ptarmigan Wall.
There is a nice backcountry campground built within a stunted subalpine fir stand not far from the lake. A nice surprise was that the beargrass was in full bloom in the surrounding meadows. I imagine that the night sky would be amazing from Helen Lake.
Head of Elizabeth Lake to Poia Lake (11.7 miles)
As much as I hated to leave, it was time. We backtracked 1.6 miles along Elizabeth Lake to the junction with the Redgap Pass Trail. From there we climbed 2,647 feet in 4.4 miles to reach Redgap Pass (7,539 feet). The pass is well above timberline and appropriately named.
The red rock is of the same formation that we saw in the Ptarmigan Tunnel. To the northeast is the russet colored Seward Mountain (8,917 feet) which was named for President Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state.5 Seward reaches down to the pass with its southwest ridge. To the south is Kennedy Lake which lays in a glacial cirque on the north side of Mount Henkel and the east side of Crowfeet Mountain (8,914 feet). There is no developed trail to Kennedy Lake. To the southeast is Apikuni Mountain (9,068 feet). Apikuni (formerly Appekunny) is the name the Blackfeet Chief Running Crane gave to the trader, explorer, and author George Willard Schultz who was also a friend of George Bird Grinnell. The name Apikuni describes a hide that was badly tanned.5 I wonder if Schultz had a skin problem or a bad buffalo robe?
The trail left Redgap Pass and began its 5.7 mile and 1,754-foot descent to Poia Lake. After a series of switchbacks and about 2.5 miles, 1,500 feet of the elevation loss was in the books. The trail eventually parallels Kennedy Creek most of the way to Poia Lake and loses the remaining 254 feet of elevation in the final 3.2 miles. Enjoy a different perspective of the country just traveled through. To the southwest is the now massive Apikuni Mountain, to the west is the multilayered Crowfeet Mountain with the red ridge extending east to Redgap Pass. The extensive Yellow Mountain rises to the north.
After camp was set up and our last trail dinner was consumed, we climbed around to the east of the lake above the outlet and some nice waterfalls. From there, views of the sunset were spectacular.
This seems like an opportune time to introduce the Blackfeet legend of Poia.
The Blackfeet maiden Feather-Woman fell in love with the bright and beautiful morning star that she viewed in the heavens. Morning Star, a god, sensed her love, came to earth and took her away to the Sky Country. The hole through which they entered the Sky Country was plugged with a Great Turnip. Feather-Woman was forbidden to remove this turnip
Feather-Woman and Morning Star were married and had a son that they named Star-Boy. Life was good until she decided to dig the Great Turnip. Through the hole, she could see her people and became homesick. Morning Star returned the shamed Feather-Woman to her people with her son. Knowing that she had brought unhappiness into the world, she died of a broken heart. The orphaned Star-Boy lived with his earthly grandparents and suffered through years of ridicule because of a scar that he had on his face. Poia (Scarface) is the nickname given to him by those who delivered the torment. In desperation, he decided to turn to a medicine woman for help. She told him that the only way to rid himself of the scar was to have his grandfather the Sun do it. So, he set out on an epic journey to where the Sun lived. His grandfather removed the scar and sent Star-Boy (Poia) back to his people with much knowledge including how to perform the Sun Dance (Okan) which was designed to honor his grandfather the Sun.1
Poia Lake to Redgap Pass Trailhead (6.4 miles)
These backpacking treks end all too soon. On this fourth and final day in the backcountry, we had a short hike in front of us. Most of the hike out is in the forest with limited views. However, the views that we did get were a pleasure. A bull moose feeding alongside the trail was a nice diversion for a short time.
We had been in the backcountry for three nights and almost four days and had not even seen a bear and very little sign. That came to an end. We exited at the trailhead and had only walked a short distance on the Many Glacier Road when my hiking partner yelled “Tom. . . left”. I looked left and saw nothing from my vantage point. Then about 30 to 40 feet away from behind some shrubs, a grizzly bear sow stood up. I saw at least one cub and possibly two. She hissed at me, which I thought was weird. Teeth clacking I have heard, but never hissing. I slowly increased the distance between us.
A Red Bus driver was in front of what now had become a line of cars stopped to see the bears. He pulled the bus in between us and the sow and yelled for us to pile in – which we were more than happy to do. The bear ran behind the bus not long after the door was shut. Our generous rescuer delivered us to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn parking lot where we had begun.
Guthrie, C.W. Glacier National Park: The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
Halpin, Jacqueline, Torsten Jensen, Peter McGoldrick, Sebastien Meffre, and Ron Berry. “Authigenic monazite and detrital zircon dating from the Proterozoic Rocky Cape Group, Tasmania: Links to the Belt-Purcell Supergroup, North America.”Precambrian Research. Accessed June 28, 2018. https://bit.ly/2yOCZef.
Raup, Omer, Robert Earhart, James Whipple, and Paul Carrara. Geology Along Going-to-the-Sun Road. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, 1983.
Robinson, Donald. Through the Years. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
The Cracker Lake hike is one of those must-do hikes in the Many Glacier region of Glacier National Park. The scenery at the lake is spectacular and the history surrounding this unique area only adds to the day’s adventure.
A Brief History
Glacier National Park, from the continental divide to the plains, was once part of the Blackfeet Reservation created by the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty. It seems that word of the gathering arrived too late in order for Blackfeet delegates to attend the treaty gathering. However, 10,000 other Indians from several plains tribes were in attendance. The Musselshell River, Missouri River, Yellowstone River, and the Rocky Mountain Range were set as the boundaries for the Blackfeet Reservation.
By executive order in 1873, President Ulysses Grant changed the boundaries of the reservation thereby reducing the Blackfeet land. Grant received quite a bit of pressure over this action. Consequently, the land was restored in 1875. But, this was short lived. The land was taken away again in 1880 by the executive order of President Rutherford Hayes.
President Benjamin Harrison signed the proclamation admitting Montana to the union on November 8, 1889. During the period of 1890 to 1893, word spread like wildfire that there were rich deposits of copper to be found in the mountains. Of course, it was illegal to do any prospecting or mining on the land east of the continental divide because it was part of the Blackfeet Reservation. The Great Northern Railroad arrived in East Glacier (Midvale) in 1891. The stage was set for miners and supplies to pour into the region.
Due to mounting pressure from the mining community, Congress appointed William C. Pollock, George Bird Grinnell, and Walter M. Clements to negotiate the purchase of the portion of the Blackfeet Reservation east of the continental divide to the prairies and from Canada south about 60 miles. They were successful. The United States Congress ratified the purchase of the “Ceded Strip” for 1.5 million dollars in 1896.
In the year 1897, L.S. Emmons and Hank Norris were following a mineral lead located near the head of Canyon Creek. They stopped for lunch on the shore of what was then known as Blue Lake. According to the popular story, they left their crackers and cheese at their lunch spot. Thereafter, they referred to the lead that they were following as “the lead where we left our crackers”. This eventually morphed into the cracker lead. It happens that the lead went under Blue Lake. Eventually, the lake inherited the name of the lead and became known as Cracker Lake.
In 1898, the “Ceded Strip” was opened for mining. The Cracker Mine at the head of Cracker Lake opened in the same year. The town of Altyn was built near the mouth of Canyon Creek largely because of the mine. This one-time robust little town was named for Dave Altyn, one of the financial backers of the mine. At its peak, Altyn boasted a post office, saloons and dance halls, a store, a hotel, tent-houses, and cabins. The Lake Sherburne dam was constructed in the years 1914-1921. Now the reservoir hides this local history.
The mining frenzy was short lived. As mining experts had predicted, little to no minerals were found. For all practical purposes, the bonanza was finished by 1903. The Cracker Mine land exchanged hands several times over the years. Finally, the tax deed was obtained in September 1953 by the Glacier Natural History History Association for $123.96. The Association transferred the land to the federal government in October of that year for the same amount of money.
The out and back to Cracker Lake starts behind the Many Glacier Hotel at the south end of the parking lot near the horse stables. The park shows the mileage as 6.4 miles one way. However, I would suggest continuing on to the head of the lake to view the Cracker Mine ruins. This increases the one-way distance to 7 miles. The total elevation gain is 1,400 feet. Plan on six to seven hours for the round trip to allow for sauntering, exploring, picture taking, eating, etc.
Know that this is prime grizzly bear habitat and the Cracker Lake Trail is well known for its bears, especially during berry season. The trail has also been posted for mountain lions. Make it a point to check the Glacier National Park Trail Status Reports. The vegetation can get thick and there are plenty of blind curves. Make a lot of noise, hike in a group, carry bear spray where it is easily and quickly accessible. And, be sure that you have practiced taking the canister out of its holster and removing the safety clip.
The first couple of miles of trail are shared with the Swan Mountain Outfitter horses. Consequently, it can be a muddy mess or a dusty, rutted trail with the recognizable fetor of equine deposits. After about 1.3 miles, the horses split off onto the Cracker Flats Horse Loop. This loop rejoins the trail at about 1.5 miles. The trail improves substantially after this junction.
The trail crosses a footbridge over Allen Creek at 1.6 miles and then climbs up a ridge. Allen Creek is to the west of the ridge and Canyon Creek to the east. To the west is the behemoth Allen Mountain and Wynn Mountain to the east. Canyon Creek, which flows from Cracker Lake, is crossed at about 4 miles. At five miles from the trailhead, views of the headwall will come into view.
There is a great overlook about 6 miles from the trailhead. The magnificent milky turquoise water of Cracker Lake, the ten-thousand-foot, Mount Siyeh, with its sheer north face rising more than 4,000 feet from the head of Cracker Lake, and Allen Mountain to the west makes for a memorable photo op. Keep an eye out for mountain goats and hoary marmots.
The backcountry campground is below the trail that leads to the head of the lake and the old Cracker Mine site. There are only 3 campsites and no trees. Privacy there is not. Outstanding views without a doubt.
The adit for the 1,300-foot mine tunnel has been collapsed, but it is pretty obvious where the mine was located. The rusted remains of equipment can be seen down toward the lake shore. One piece of equipment that I found, was made by Atlas Engine Works of Indianapolis, Indiana.
Charles Nielson of East Glacier was contracted to haul the mine’s 16,000-pound concentrator from Fort Browning to the mine site. I assumed that Fort Browning was located somewhere close to Browning Montana. After I did a little research, I found that Fort Browning was a trading post located on the Milk River outside the town of Dodson in eastern Montana. That is no less than a 250 to 300-mile trip just to arrive at the mouth of Canyon Creek. Mr. Nielson used a large freight wagon and twelve stout mules on a trip where there was little in the way of roads. Block and tackle were used to haul the equipment up Canyon Creek. For this monumental task, he was paid $25 per day. The job took 29 days.
The Many Glacier Hotel is an excellent spot to finish the day. The Great Northern Railroad completed the construction on July 4, 1915. Spectacular panoramas to the west include Swiftcurrent Lake, the iconic Grinnell Point, and Mount Wilbur. Recent rehabilitation work has ensured that this National Historic Landmark can be enjoyed for years to come.
Good company, a cool beverage, stories and quintessential Glacier. Life is good!
If you are looking to take a trail less traveled, this hike may be for you. The Glacier National Park Citizen Science Project for mountain goat monitoring was my reason for going to Harrison Lake and I was not disappointed. Memories of the 11-mile round trip still bring a smile to my face.
The trail to the lake can be accessed a few different ways. At West Glacier, hop on the South Boundary Trail and walk for about 7 miles to the trail junction for Harrison Lake. Or, as I opted, ford the Middle Fork of the Flathead River east of Ousel Creek to eliminate a lot of miles. Some people use a site in the vicinity of Moccasin Creek.
Once on the north side of the river, I continued north until my path intersected the South Boundary Trail. The path into Harrison Lake was about one mile east.
More people die from drowning in Glacier National Park than from any other cause. Fording the river can be very dangerous, especially early in the summer. I recommend talking to the knowledgeable folks at the Glacier National Park Backcountry Office. They will provide you with up to date information on the best place to ford the Middle Fork as well as a map to help you find the location. If you have never forded a river before, you should learn the safe way to do so or go with experienced folks.
Just before the trail junction, coming from the west, you will find the dilapidated Doody cabin. John Fraley in his book Wild River Pioneers provides an entertaining description of Dan and Josephine Doody. The following are some of the highlights from his book.
Josephine Doody 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. The town no longer exists, but the site is located about 6 miles west of Marias Pass. Apparently, she took a liking to opium while in that town. 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 to his 120- acre homestead near Harrison Creek. There they started a lucrative moonshine business. Great Northern Railroad trains would stop and place their orders by blowing their whistles to indicate the number of quarts that they desired. Dan was hired as one of the six original rangers after Glacier National Park was established in 1910. He didn’t last long at that job. Excessive poaching was the reason for his short tenure as a ranger. Dan died in 1919, but Josephine stayed on the property and guided fishermen into her 70’s. She left the park in 1931 and died in 1936 at the age of 82.
I was surprised to learn that the Trust for Public Land purchased the Doody’s 120-acre homestead and then transferred the ownership to the National Park Service in July 2012.
From the old cabin, it’s a short distance to the Harrison Lake Trail. I hiked the three miles from the junction to the foot of the lake on a day that was cool with a light rain. Memories of the solitude, earthy smells, bear scat on the trail, the incredible quiet, except for wolves howling to the north of me, are like a favorite movie that I can call up any time I want.
Harrison Lake is about 2.5 miles long with an elevation of 3,693 feet. The cold, clear glacial water is home to bull trout and the non-native lake trout. The meltwater comes from Harrison Glacier which is situated on the southeast slope of Mount Jackson (10,052 feet) at the far north end of the valley. The glacier was 466 acres in 2005 and the largest in the park. The good news is that it appears to be shrinking more slowly than other park glaciers.
From the foot of the lake, it is an up and down 1.8 miles to the backcountry campground with three campsites. Along the trail, there will be breaks in the trees that offer glimpses of Mount Thompson (8,527 feet) to the northeast.
Another 0.5 miles beyond the campground you will find the Harrison Lake patrol cabin. This small, one-room cabin is on the National Register of Historic Places and is situated about 100 feet from the shoreline of the lake. It was built around 1928 for the rangers patrolling out of the now abandoned Nyack Ranger Station 15 trail miles to the south. The 103,000-acre Half Moon Fire of 1929 burned the area, but the cabin escaped.
I was hoping that the low lying clouds would burn off so that I could collect the data on the mountain goats of the area. But, no such luck. As I headed back to the Middle Fork, several loons called through the fog that hugged the lake. Their crazy laugh-like tremolo and eerie wail were a definite bonus that I spliced into the mental movie of the day.