Rockwell Falls

. . . a Two Medicine Hike with options

In the southeastern corner of Glacier National Park is a region known as Two Medicine. It’s a place of lore, rich history, and majestic landscapes.

The name can be traced back to an 1801 map drawn by Akomakki, a Blackfeet chief. Peter Fidler, employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company to map the region, somehow ended up with Akomakki’s work. It subsequently became part of the Company’s records. Noted on the drawing is a location the Blackfeet referred to as Na-too-too-Kase – “Place of Two Medicine Lodges.” We know it as the Two Medicine River.6

By the 1890s, Two Medicine was one of the most visited locales in what would become Glacier National Park. The Great Northern Railway (GNR) brought wealthy adventurous souls to Midvale (East Glacier) where they mounted horses and traveled over the Mount Henry Trail to the Two Medicine Valley.4 It didn’t take long for the word to get out.

To accommodate the growing demand, GNR began a bold development campaign. Louis W. Hill, Great Northern Railway’s chairman of the board, commissioned nine Swiss-style chalets between 1910 and 1913.3 On the eastern shore of Two Medicine Lake in 1913, GNR built a large resort which included two chalets,  a dormitory, and a large building that housed the kitchen/dining room. The kitchen and dining hall is the only survivor of that complex. Today, it’s the camp store.7,8 The fireplace in that building provided an appropriate setting for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to deliver his fireside chat to the nation in 1934.3

Excerpt from FDR’s speech:

There is nothing so American as our national parks. The scenery and wildlife are native. The fundamental idea behind the parks is native. It is, in brief, that the country belongs to the people, that it is in the process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us. The parks stand as the outward symbol of this great human principle.1

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1934
Glacier National Park: Two Medicine Chalets
Two Medicine Chalets ca. 1914. Courtesy of NPLAS.

Besides the chalets, GNR built miles of trails. These grand routes, with unassuming names like the Northern and Southern Circles, and Inside Trail, were the thoroughfares used by cowboys and wranglers to give guests a backcountry experience second to none. Once the Inside Trail was completed around 1916, guests saddled-up for multi-day horseback trips from Two Medicine to Saint Mary via Pitamakin and Triple Divide Passes.2

After the Going-to-the-Sun Road opened in 1933, the popularity that Two Medicine enjoyed in the early days began to wane. But, it’s bustling again. Don’t be surprised to find the parking lot full before lunchtime.


The Trailhead

Follow the Two Medicine Road past the ranger station toward the lake. You will pass the camp store on your right while entering the small parking lot. Look toward the lake and locate the boat landing. The trailhead is nearby.

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

The sweeping mountain scene from the shore will most likely grab and hold your attention for a while. Sinopah Mountain, across the lake, is the quintessential Glacier. The peak was named after a Blackfeet maiden and the daughter of Lone Walker who was a powerful Blackfeet chief. You can see his mountain in the background to the right of Sinopah. To your right, is a massive red mountain. Its name is Rising Wolf, who was the husband of Sinopah. That was the Blackfeet name given to Hugh Monroe. Born in 1798 in Quebec, he came west at 16 to apprentice with the Hudson’s Bay Company. They sent Monroe to live with the Blackfeet, specifically Chief Lone Walker, and encourage trade.5

To the left (south) of Sinopah Mountain is the pyramid shape of Painted Teepee Peak. Proceeding counterclockwise, Never Laughs Mountain is the next summit. The enormous mass of Appistoki Peak looming in the southeast is unmistakable.


Two Medicine South Shore Trail

This is bear habitat-both grizzly and black. Before you head out, be sure to have bear spray. Educate yourself on when and how to use it. Just as important, let bears know where you are by making noise from time to time. Strong winds ripping through the trees can be deafening. Be loud. 

The path heads out into subalpine fir, lodgepole pine forest. The understory includes bear grass which puts on quite a show in June. Elongated white flower clusters borne at the top of a two to four-foot stalk are spectacular. Huckleberries also grow here. The sought after purple fruit is usually ripe by the end of July to the first part of August. These berries are a significant food source for both black and grizzly bears. So, be especially vigilant during that time.

Fool’s huckleberry or Menziesia shrubs grow alongside huckleberries. However, it’s poisonous when eaten. Distinguish the two by crushing a leaf and then smell it. A skunky smell is characteristic of Fool’s Huckleberry.

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

At 0.2-miles (0.3-kilometers) from the trailhead is the Paradise Point Trail junction. The 0.4-miles (0.6-kilometers) path leads to a cozy little beach on Two Medicine Lake. Rising Wolf Mountain, reaching over 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) above the water surface, fills the view to the north. It’s a beautiful place for a picnic.

About 0.5-miles (0.8-kilometers) from where you started the South Boundary Trail, you will walk by ponds created by beavers. Out in the water, there are dome-shaped structures made of interwoven branches and twigs and packed with mud. That’s their lodge. These 60-pound (27-kilogram) rodents survive the harsh Two Medicine winters in their grass and leaf-lined living quarters. Using an underwater entrance, they access food stashed at the bottom of the pond while bitter winds drive snow over the ice above.

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

By creating a pond, beavers change the habitat, which attracts different plants and animals, including moose, fish, insects, amphibians, and birds that make their living near water.  

After many years, the pond fills with silt and plant debris. The beavers exhaust their food supply and move. Without maintenance, the dam collapses and the water drains. A meadow develops in the fertile soil. Eventually, trees will take over the location again.

At 1.2 miles (1.9 kilometers), the Aster Park Trail leaves the South Shore Trail. This footpath leads to Aster Falls (0.1-miles/ 0.2-kilometers) and Aster Park Overlook (0.7-miles/1.1 kilometers). The overlook is a steep climb, but well worth the effort. Unbroken views of Two Medicine Lake, Rising Wolf, Flinsch Peak, and Sinopah are outstanding.

By the time you reach the bridge over Paradise Creek, the trailhead is 2.3 miles (3.7 kilometers) away. This undulating and swinging suspension structure over fast moving water may test your balance. Just go slowly and keep your hands on the side cables.

Glacier National Park: suspension bridge
Suspension bridge over Paradise Creek

The Two Medicine Pass Trail leaves the South Shore Trail at 2.6 miles (4.2 kilometers). The path to the right leads to a boat dock at the head of Two Medicine Lake. If space is available, one can buy a return ticket aboard the launch, Sinopah.

Stay to the left on the Two Medicine Pass Trail to reach Rockwell Falls. This route passes beneath the southeast slopes of Sinopah Mountain. From this perspective, one would never guess from photographs it’s the same beauty seen from the foot of the lake. Nevertheless, Sinopah presents a different but spectacular profile.

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

The next footbridge crosses the stream that has just made the plummet over Rockwell Falls. The short path to the right ends up near the base of the last cascade. From this location, most of the cascades and pools are not visible. However, a way to view the upper falls exists.

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

Retrace your steps back across the footbridge and walk up the incline on the far side of the creek. Near the top, a trail heads up the slope. The footpath is steep with loose gravel in sections, and rock cliffs near the falls can be wet and slick from the mist of the falling water. Use caution.

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

Summary Distances and Elevation Gains

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

Notes

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

Snyder Lake and Upper Snyder Lake

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

Glacier’s Southern Boundary Trail

Flood, fire, and moonshine.

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

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

Finding the Trailhead

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

Crossing the River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

Apgar Fire Lookout

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

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

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

Finding the Trailhead

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



Difficulty

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

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

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

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

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

The Hike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glacier National Park, Ceanothus
Ceanothus or Buckbrush

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

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

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

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

At the Lookout

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

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

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


Notes

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

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

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

Glacier’s Beauty

 

I’m switching it up for this post. Rather than describing a hike, I’ve posted a few of my favorite photographs. Hope that you enjoy them.

 

The East Tunnel on the Going-to-the-Sun Road and Clements Mountain Glacier National Park
The East Tunnel on the Going-to-the-Sun Road and Clements Mountain

 

 

Two Medicine Lake from the Scenic Point Trail, Glacier National Park
Two Medicine Lake from the Scenic Point Trail

 

 

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

 

 

Bird Woman Falls, Glacier National Park
Bird Woman Falls

 

 

Mount Gould and the View Northwest from Piegan Pass, Glacier National Park
Mount Gould and the View Northwest from Piegan Pass

 

 

Gunsight Pass Trail Above Gunsight Lake, Glacier National Park
Gunsight Pass Trail Above Gunsight Lake

 

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

Heavens Peak and Granite Park Chalet, Glacier National Park
Heavens Peak and Granite Park Chalet from the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail

 

 

Saint Mary Lake from Sun Point, Glacier National Park
Saint Mary Lake from Sun Point

 

 

Belton Bridge and Middle Fork of the Flathead River, Glacier National Park
Belton Bridge and Middle Fork of the Flathead River

Christensen Meadows & Rogers Meadow

This area is off the radar for most visitors during the summer. After the snow has blanketed the high country trails in the fall, this is a good option. If you’re ambitious, it is a definite consideration for a midwinter ski trip.

The Drive

From the West Entrance Station of Glacier National Park, drive to the ‘T’ intersection and then turn left onto the Camas Road. Travel about 1.2 miles and turn right onto to the Fish Creek Campground Road. After another mile, you should arrive at the junction for the Inside North Fork Road. Turn left and proceed along the narrow winding gravel road for 6.6 miles. Its blind curves can be dangerous. Be sure to stay on your side of the road.

In 1901, the Butte Oil Company carved a 40-mile path through the wilderness from Apgar to Kintla Lake. The rough, ungraded wagon road with stumps and bogs was made to haul oil drilling equipment to exploit the oil seeps found near the head of Kintla Lake. The well was drilled. It did not produce and was eventually abandoned.4 The original wagon path morphed into our Inside North Fork Road.2

Your clue that the drive is coming to an end is the bridge over Camas Creek. Shortly after crossing the stream, you should see the Camas Creek Trail sign on your right. The road is closed to automobiles a couple hundred feet beyond the trailhead.

Repeated flooding near Anaconda and Logging Creeks has rendered the road unsafe for cars and trucks. It’s an expensive fix. The park service has been evaluating their options. Despite that, hikers and bikers are welcome to use the road.


To Christensen Meadows

Straightaway, the path enters a lodgepole pine forest. But after only 0.3-miles, it breaks into extensive open areas. This is the beginning of Christensen Meadows.

Christensen Meadows, Glacier National Park
Christensen Meadows

Although the scenery does not match that of Rogers Meadow, the history is every bit as interesting. Ernest Christensen established his 160-acre homestead in 1896. He paid $16/acre which at the time was considered to be at the high end of its value.1

He and his neighbor Josiah “Joe” Rogers went away for a while to serve as packers in the Spanish-American War of 1898. When Christensen returned, he continued making improvements to his homestead. Some of these included the construction of a new log home, barns, root cellar, well, and fencing. He raised timothy hay and sold it to tourists and the Park Service. This hardworking settler also did horse packing with Joe Rogers and operated his own tourist business at Lake McDonald.1


Onward to Rogers Meadow

As you continue down the trail, you will notice that Camas Ridge, to the north, has burned in the past. The 70,609-acre lightning-caused Moose Fire of 2001 is to blame. To the south is Howe Ridge. The most recent burn, of course, was the Howe Ridge Fire. But, the man-caused Robert Fire of 2003 consumed 52,747 acres which included Howe Ridge. That promoted thick lodgepole pine growth and left an abundance of sizeable dead timber. The summer of 2003 has been referred to as the “Summer of Fire.” Fires that season burned 13% of Glacier National Park. It was the worst fire season in the park’s history.3

The trail continues in a northeast direction up the Camas Creek drainage and wanders in and out of forested areas. At 3.2 miles, the beautiful Rogers Meadow comes into view. Camas Creek slows here and meanders with full looping curves through the wetlands.  The peaks of Stanton Mountain, Mount Vaught, Heavens Peak, and Rogers Peak are the striking backdrop to all this.

Rogers Meadow, Glacier National Park
Rogers Meadow

If you’re lucky, you might spot one of the beaver, river otters, or moose that call this place home. Bears and wolves are also known to move through this valley. This is the stuff of movies – the beaver slapping the water with his tail, the stream falling away from a moose’s antlers as he pulls his head from the water, the mournful howl of a wolf, and the silhouette of the humpback grizzly bear wandering across the meadow. It could happen.

Rogers started his homestead in 1896 too. When he and Christensen returned from the war, he began building his ranch. At one time, Josiah had 100 horses besides cattle. He raised 50 acres of timothy and constructed 1.5 miles of fencing. Oil exploration businesses and the U.S. Geological Survey crews used his packing services as did many visitors to the Lewis Glacier Hotel on the east side of Lake McDonald. Somewhere he found time to court the woman whom he married in 1902. He lost her to illness in the winter of 1908. Joe sold his ranch in 1914.1


Options

If you call it a day here and return the same way you came in, it will be a 6.4-mile round trip. The end of the Camas Trail is another 10.7 miles. The trail passes Trout Lake in 4 miles, Arrow Lake in 7.1 miles, and finds Camas Lake at the end. The path from Arrow to Camas requires several stream fords and can get pretty brushy. Probably best planned as an overnighter.

Another option is to continue up the Camas Creek Trail to the West Lakes Trail. That junction is a little south of Trout Lake. This route will lead you up and over Howe Ridge exiting at the north end of Lake McDonald. Christensen and Rogers most likely used the same path. The distance to the West Lakes Trailhead at Lake McDonald is about 7.5 miles from Rogers Meadow. Naturally, vehicle logistics will need to be worked out.


End Notes

  1. Bick, Patricia. Homesteading on the North Fork in Glacier National Park. West Glacier, MT: National Park Service, Glacier National Park, 1986.
  2. National Park Service, Glacier National Park. “North Fork Homesteads Resource Brief.” Accessed November 26, 2018. https://www.nps.gov/articles/north-fork-homesteads-brief.htm.
  3. National Park Service, Glacier National Park. “Fire History.” Accessed November 27, 2018. https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/nature/fire-history.htm 
  4. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years: in Glacier National Park. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.

Numa Ridge Fire Lookout

A place set apart.

If you are looking to escape the summer crowds in Glacier National Park, you may want to consider this hike.

The Numa Ridge Fire Lookout is located in the remote northwest corner of the park above Bowman Lake. Getting there involves driving the outside North Fork Road and then gaining entrance to the park via Polebridge. If you have never experienced this route, you’re in for a treat.

Before heading out, you should know that there is no fuel in Polebridge and no cell service. They are off the grid. Generators and solar panels produce the needed electricity.


The Drive

Option number one starts in Columbia Falls and is pretty straightforward. Drive north on Nucleus Avenue. When you reach the ‘T” intersection, turn right and then motor 35 miles to Polebridge.

A small part of the first 11 miles is paved. However, the section that is not paved can be incredibly dusty and a teeth-rattling enduro – especially during the peak of the rafting season. If you are not in a hurry and you don’t mind a little dust, you’ll see some great scenery.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
View into Glacier National Park from the North Fork Road in March

The alternative is to drive from Columbia Falls to West Glacier. Once inside the park, use the Camas Road to access the outside North Fork Road. From there to Polebridge, the road is not as wash-boarded or dusty. Plus, this route gives you eight more miles of terrific scenery.

As any local knows, you cannot venture into this region without first stopping at the historical, 100+-year-old Polebridge Mercantile located just outside the park boundary. The Mercantile is affectionately referred to as ‘The Merc’ in the local vernacular.

Polebridge_Mercantile_300x173

There will probably be someone around by 7 AM in the summer. Might I suggest their Huckleberry Bear Claws and a cup of dark roast coffee? If you arrive around dinner time, check out the Northern Lights Saloon and Cafe located next to the Merc. I doubt that you will be disappointed.

From the Merc, drive northeast to the Polebridge Ranger Check Station. It’s another 0.3 miles from there to the Bowman Lake Road. Turn right and then after a bumpy 6 miles on a narrow, winding, dirt road you will enter the Bowman Lake campground and day use area. The parking lot for day use visitors is where you will want to leave your vehicle.

The aftermath of the 1988 Red Bench Fire is pretty obvious as you travel from Polebridge to Bowman. The inferno consumed 38,000 acres, 25 homes, the bridge over the North Fork of the Flathead River, 5 buildings of the Polebridge Ranger Station complex, and took one firefighter’s life. That was the same summer that over one-third of Yellowstone National Park burned.

You might want to entertain the idea of making the Bowman Lake Campground your base of operations for a few days to take advantage of other hikes in the area. The campground has 46 sites, vault toilets, and potable water from May to September. Different walks include Quartz Lake, Lower Quartz Lake, Akokala Lake, and the backcountry campsite at the head of Bowman Lake.


Hitting the Trail

This hike will be 11.2 miles round trip with 2,930 feet of elevation gain. The steepest part is closer to the lookout. The Bowman Lake Trail is at the north end of the main beach. It will lead you to the path that ends at the lookout.

Bowman Lake near Trailhead, Glacier National Park
Bowman Lake Near the Trailhead

About 1 mile down the footpath, the Numa Ridge Lookout Trail heads off to the north. The sign that says there is no water available on the trail or at the lookout is not kidding. Since the route traverses a south, southeast exposure, it can get warm. So, bring plenty of water.

I would be thoughtless if I didn’t throw in a reminder here to carry bear spray in a quickly accessible location. And, know how to use it. Also, you should know that it can get quite buggy.

Bowman Lake, Glacier National Park
Bowman Lake

Most of the route is cut through a subalpine fir and lodgepole pine forest. But, a little over a mile from the lookout, you will start breaking into an outstanding panorama. Bowman is a quintessential glacial valley lake. You will see its 7-mile-length as if you were in an airplane. To the east is the massive 9,892-foot Rainbow Peak. Its summit is over a mile above the lake surface. To the northeast is the 9,003-foot Numa Peak. As you close in on the lookout, glimpses of the 10,101-foot Kintla Peak to the north are a bonus.

Rainbow Peak, Glacier National Park
Rainbow Peak in July

The lookout has been perched on its 6,960-foot site since 1935. It is still in use and happens to be one of the busier posts in the park. We were fortunate to be invited up into the tower for a little “Lookout 101”.

Numa Ridge Lookout, Glacier National Park
Looking East

Imagine experiencing a thunder and lightning storm or 360-degrees of stars on a clear night from a fire lookout tower. That would be something.


Options

Fly fish? Bowman Lake has cutthroat and bull trout populations (bull trout must be released). However, fishing can be a little slow. If you have some time on your hands, I would suggest the Nork Fork of the Flathead River.

The catch will be mostly cutthroat trout in the 7″ to 10″ class. The fish aren’t huge, but I’ve found that there is plenty of action on dry flies mid-July to early fall. (The knowledgeable and friendly folks at Lary’s Fly and Supply in Columbia Falls will be glad to help you choose flies to match the hatch.)

This day should give you plenty to talk about over a cold beverage and delicious dinner at the Northern Lights.

Life is good!


 

End Notes

Polebridge Mercantile photograph: Thomas Joel Wagner [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Huckleberry Fire Lookout

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.

Looking East at the Livingston Range from Huckleberry Fire Lookout Trail, Glacier National Park
Looking East at the Livingston Range from the Huckleberry Fire Lookout Trail

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.

Huckleberry
The Prized Huckleberry

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.

Huckleberry Fire Lookout, Glacier National Park
Huckleberry Fire Lookout

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

Red Argillite Rock with Ripple Marks, Glacier National Park
Red Argillite Rock with Ripple Marks

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.

Maintenance Work on the 1933 Huckleberry Fire Lookout 2018, Glacier National Park
Maintenance Work on the 1933 Huckleberry Fire Lookout, 2018

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

Glacier National Park 1923 Huckleberry Fire Lookout
Huckleberry Fire Lookout: Built 1923 Dismantled 1940. Courtesy Montana Memory Project

Hornet Lookout. Luke Channer
Hornet Fire Lookout. Luke Channer

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.

Looking Down the South Ridge of Huckleberry Mountain, Glacier National Park
Looking Down the South Ridge of Huckleberry Mountain


End Notes

  1. National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places. “Hornet Lookout.” Accessed November 1, 2018. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/AssetDetail?assetID=8fe0ab8a-3e69-47b6-a54b-96a37ff4e5f8.
  2. National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places. “Huckleberry Fire Lookout.” Accessed November 1, 2018. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/AssetDetail?assetID=22312362-033d-48b5-a72f-2427c0c81565.
  3. Sears, James W., Raymond A. Price, and Andrei K. Khudoley. “Linking the Mesoproterozoic Belt-Purcell and Udzha Basin Across the West Laurentia-Siberia Connection.” Precambrian Research. Accessed November 2, 2018. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301926803002857.
  4. Shaffer, Stephen C. “Some Ecological Relationships of Grizzly Bears and Black Bears of the Apgar Mountains in Glacier National Park, Montana.” Scholarworks at University of Montana. Accessed November 1, 2018. https://scholarworks.umt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4636&=&context=etd&=&sei-redir=1&referer=https%253A%252F%252Fscholar.google.com%252Fscholar%253Fhl%253Den%2526as_sdt%253D0%25252C27%2526q.
  5. 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.
  6. Rockwell, David. Exploring Glacier National Park. Guilford, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 2002.
  7. Ross, Gerald M., and Mike Villeneuve. “Provenance of the Mesoproterozoic (1.45 Ga) Belt basin (western North America): another piece in the pre-Rodinia paleogeographic puzzle.” Geo Science World. Accessed November 2, 2018. https://pubs.geoscienceworld.org/gsa/gsabulletin/article-abstract/115/10/1191/1936/provenance-of-the-mesoproterozoic-1-45-ga-belt?redirectedFrom=fulltext.

Firebrand Pass

Going to the mountains is going home. John Muir

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


Firebrand Pass Hike, Glacier National Park Map
Firebrand Pass Hike


Getting There

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

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.

Grizzly Bear Track, Coonsa Creek Trail, Glacier National Park
Grizzly Bear Track

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.

Calf Robe Mountain, Glacier National Park
Calf Robe Mountain

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.

Firebrand Pass, Glacier National Park
Firebrand Pass

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.


 

View West From Firebrand Pass
Looking West From 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


 

End Notes

    1. Barrett, Stephen W. Fire History of Southeastern Glacier National Park: Missouri River drainage. 1993. Accessed October 19, 2018. https://www.fort.usgs.gov/sites/default/files/products/publications/3306/3306.pdf.
    2. Minetor, Randi. Historic Glacier National Park: the stories behind one of America’s great treasures. Guilford, CT: Rowan and Littlefield, 2016.
    3. National Forest Foundation. “Blazing Battles: the 1910 Fire and its legacy.” Accessed October 19, 2018. https://www.nationalforests.org/our-forests/your-national-forests-magazine/blazing-battles-the-1910-fire-and-its-legacy.
    4. Passmore, Blake. Climb Glacier National Park: illustrated routes for beginning and intermediate climbers. Vol. 2. Kalispell, MT: Montana Outdoor Guidebooks, LLC, 2012.
    5. Wikipedia. “Great Fire of 1910.” Accessed October 19, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Fire_of_1910.

Avalanche Lake

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



Trail fo the Cedars, Glacier National Park
Trail of the Cedars

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.

Avalanche Creek Gorge, Glacier National Park
Avalanche Creek Gorge

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.

Avalanche Creek Entering the Gorge, Glacier National Park
Avalanche Creek Entering the Gorge

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.

Avalanche Creek
Avalanche Creek

Trillium, Glacier National Park
Trillium

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.

Round-Leaved Yellow Violet, Glacier National Park
Round-Leaved Yellow Violet

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.

Head of Avalanche Lake, Glacier National Park
Head of Avalanche Lake

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.


 

End Notes

  1. National Park Service. “Trees and Shrubs.” Accessed October 4, 2018. https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/nature/treesandshrubs.htm.
  2. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years: in Glacier National Park. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
  3. Thompson, Sally. People Before the Park. Helena, MT: Montana Historical Society Press, 2015.
  4. World Waterfall Database. “Monument Falls, Montana, United States.” https://www.worldwaterfalldatabase.com/waterfall/Monument-Falls-478.