Ptarmigan Tunnel, Red Gap Pass Loop

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.

Elizabeth Lake from the Ptarmigan Trail, Glacier National Park
Elizabeth Lake from the Ptarmigan Trail

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, Glacier National Park
Ptarmigan Lake

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).

North Door of Ptarmigan Tunnel, Glacier National Park
Ptarmigan Tunnel on the North Side of the Ptarmigan Wall

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

Ripple marks in red rock of Grinnell Formation
Ripple Marks in Red Rock of the Grinnell Formation

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)

Mount Merritt and Old Sun Glacier, Glacier National Park
Mount Merritt and Old Sun Glacier

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.

Elizabeth Lake, Glacier National Park
Elizabeth Lake

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.

Arctic Grayling
Arctic Grayling Courtesy of Andrew Gilham USFWS

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)

Helen Lake, Glacier National Park
Helen Lake

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.

Red Gap Pass, Glacier National Park
Red Gap Pass

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.

Poia Lake, Glacier National Park
Poia Lake

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.

Red Bus Driver Glacier National Park
Quick Thinking Red Bus Driver

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.


End Notes

  1. First People. “The Story of Poia – A Blackfoot Legend.” Accessed June 28, 2018. http://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/TheStoryofPoia-Blackfoot.html.
  2. Guthrie, C.W. Glacier National Park: The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
  3. 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.
  4. Raup, Omer, Robert Earhart, James Whipple, and Paul Carrara. Geology Along Going-to-the-Sun Road. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, 1983.
  5. Robinson, Donald. Through the Years. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
  6. Tapanila, Lori, and Paul Link. “Mesoproterozoic Belt Supergroup.” Idaho State University. Accessed June 28, 2018. https://digitalgeology.aws.cose.isu.edu/Digital_Geology_Idaho/Module2/mod2.htm

Cracker Lake

Tucked away in a glacial valley near the eastern border of Glacier National Park is a turquoise gem curiously called Cracker Lake. To be sure, the name has a story behind it. This and the spectacular scenery make for a unique adventure.

Cracker Lake and Mount Siyeh, Glacier National Park, Many Glacier region
Cracker Lake and Mount Siyeh

A Brief History

From the continental divide to the plains, Glacier National Park was once part of the Blackfeet Reservation created by the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty. Ten-thousand Indians from several plains tribes gathered at the conference. Somehow word of the gathering arrived too late for the Blackfeet delegates to attend. The treaty set the Musselshell River, Missouri River, Yellowstone River, and the Rocky Mountain Range as the boundaries for the reservation.1

By executive order in 1873, President Ulysses Grant changed the boundaries, reducing the Blackfeet land. Grant received a lot of criticism over this action. Consequently, he restored their land in 1875. However, this was short-lived. By executive order in 1880, President Rutherford Hayes retook the property.1

President Benjamin Harrison signed the proclamation admitting Montana to the union on November 8, 1889. During the years 1890 to 1893, word spread like wildfire that there were abundant deposits of copper in the mountains. However, 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.3

The Great Northern Railway arrived in East Glacier (Midvale) in 1891. The stage was set for miners and supplies to pour into the region.

Because of the pressure Congress received from the mining powers, President Cleveland appointed William C. Pollock, George Bird Grinnell, and Walter M. Clements to negotiate the purchase of that portion of the Blackfeet Reservation east of the continental divide to the prairies and from Canada south about 60 miles. They were successful. In 1896, the United States Congress ratified the purchase of the “Ceded Strip” for 1.5 million dollars.3

In 1897, L.S. Emmons and Hank Norris followed a mineral lead near the head of Canyon Creek. They stopped for lunch on the shore of Blue Lake. According to the famous story, they left their crackers and cheese at their lunch spot. After that, Emmons and Norris referred to the ore-bearing vein that they were following as “the lead where we left our crackers.” This eventually morphed into the cracker lead. Ultimately, Blue Lake inherited the name and became known as Cracker Lake.3

In 1898, the “Ceded Strip” opened for mining. The Cracker Mine at the head of Cracker Lake opened in the same year. Folks who hoped to profit from the mining operations built the town of Altyn near the mouth of Canyon Creek. This onetime robust little settlement got its name from Dave Altyn, one of the mine’s financial backers. At its peak, Altyn boasted a post office, saloons and dance halls, a store, a hotel, tent-houses, and cabins.2 The Bureau of Reclamation built Lake Sherburne Dam during the years 1914-1921. Now the reservoir hides this history.

Old Mining Town of Altyn
Old Mining Town of Altyn 1888 – 1902,
Courtesy of Glacier National Park

 

The mining frenzy was short-lived. As mining experts had predicted, profitability was a pipe dream. Essentially, the bonanza ended by 1903. The Cracker Mine land exchanged hands several times over the years. Finally, the Glacier Natural History Association purchased the mine’s tax deed in September 1953 for $123.96. The Association transferred the land to the federal government in October of that year for the same amount of money.3

Trailhead

About four miles past the entrance station for Many Glacier, a road leads to the historic Many Glacier Hotel. Follow this road to the parking area east of the hotel. At the south end of the parking lot, the trail for Cracker Lake begins.



The Hike

Know that this is prime grizzly bear habitat. In the past, park officials have also posted this trail for mountain lions. Make it a point to check the Glacier National Park Trail Status Reports before heading out. The vegetation can get thick, and there are plenty of blind curves. Make noise, hike in a group, carry bear spray where it is easily accessible. Be sure you have practiced taking the canister out of its holster and removing the safety clip.

Grizzly Bear
Grizzly Bear Courtesy of Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith

Hikers and the Swan Mountain Outfitters’ horses share the first couple of miles of trail. 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 footpath improves substantially after this junction.

The trail crosses a footbridge over Allen Creek at 1.6 miles and then climbs a ridge between Allen Creek to the west and Canyon Creek to the east. From the ridge, the path descends into the Canyon Creek valley. Most of this section is in the trees. But there are glimpses of Allen Mountain to the southwest and Wynn Mountain to the east. At five miles from the trailhead, the headwall will appear to the south.

20130710_GNP_MG_bridgeCanyon Ck300x225
Canyon Creek Bridge

When the lake comes into view, one can’t help but pause. Cracker Lake’s milky-turquoise water, the ten-thousand-foot Mount Siyeh with its sheer north face rising over 4,000 feet from the head of Cracker Lake, and Allen Mountain to the west makes for a great photo op. Keep an eye out for mountain goats and hoary marmots.

Toward the lake’s head, the trail passes above a backcountry campground with only 3 campsites and no trees. Privacy, there is not—outstanding views without a doubt. The historic Cracker Mine site is about 0.3-miles beyond the spur trail to the campsites.

Cracker Lake Backcountry Campground, Glacier National Park, Many Glacier region
Cracker Lake Backcountry Campground

Cracker Mine

Park personnel collapsed the entrance to the 1,300-foot mine tunnel. Still, it’s obvious where the mine was located. The rusted remains of equipment lie scattered about near the lakeshore. Atlas Engine Works of Indianapolis, Indiana, made at least one piece. It boggles the mind how that enormous chunk of iron got from there to here.

Charles Nielson of East Glacier got a contract to haul the mine’s 16,000-pound concentrator from Fort Browning to the mine site. Fort Browning was a trading post on the Milk River outside the town of Dodson in eastern Montana. That is a 250 to 300-mile trip to reach the mouth of Canyon Creek. Mr. Nielson used a large freight wagon and twelve stout mules on a journey with few roads. To haul the equipment up Canyon Creek, he used a block and tackle. For this monumental task, Nielson received $25 per day. The job took 29 days.3

The Return

Many Glacier Hotel Past and Present, Glacier National Park
Many Glacier Hotel Past and Present

Many Glacier Hotel is a superb place to finish the day. The Great Northern Railway 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 we can enjoy this National Historic Landmark for years to come.

Good company, a cool beverage, stories and quintessential Glacier. Life is good!

Cracker Lake Hike Summary

Total Distance13.0 miles
Total Elevation Gain1,873 feet
Total Elevation Loss835 feet
Difficulty16.7, strenuous*
(Score calculated using the Petzoldt equation for energy-rated miles.)
Walking Time 6 hours 8 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.

Notes

  1. “Blackfeet Reservation Timeline, Blackfeet Tribe.” Montana Office of Public Instruction. Last modified , 2017. Accessed August 14, 2020. https://opi.mt.gov/Portals/182/Page%20Files/Indian%20Education/Social%20Studies/K-12%20Resources/BlackfeetTimeline.pdf.
  2. Guthrie, C.W. The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
  3. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years: in Glacier National Park. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.

Harrison Lake

Harrison Lake, Glacier National Park
Harrison Lake

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.

Bull Trout
Bull Trout courtesy of Jim Mogen USFWS

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.

Harrison Lake Patrol Cabin, Glacier National Park
Harrison Lake Patrol Cabin

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.

Hike Summary

Total Distance (backcountry cabin): 14.5 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 1,217; Loss: 722
Difficulty: 16.9, strenuous
(Calculated using Paul Petzold’s Energy Rated Mile Equation.)
Walking Time: 6 hours 25 minutes
(Calculated using an average speed of 2.5 mph and Naismith’s Rule.)
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