This hike is one the most popular in Glacier National Park. It includes old growth forest, spectacular waterfalls, a beautiful mountain lake filled with turquoise water, nestled in a picturesque glacial cirque. It is unique.
The maritime climate of the Pacific Northwest has its easternmost influence here. Moisture from the Pacific coast rises and condenses as it meets the Continental Divide. Consequently, large quantities of moisture are dropped and that supports the western red cedar – western hemlock forest habitat, which is also at the far east of its range.
These two species of trees have been growing in the area for hundreds of years. Some of the cedars around lower Avalanche Creek are over 500 years old.1 You will also find other plants that are adapted to this microclimate. These include trillium (also known as birth root and wake-robin), bead lily, devil’s club, club moss, and various ferns.
Sally Thompson, in her book People Before the Park, indicates that generations of Kootenai Indians were probably visiting the area to harvest bark from old cedar trees to make baskets and other necessities. They also valued the cedar wood for building the frames of their canoes and making bowls.3
Charles Howe, the first homesteader at the foot of Lake McDonald in 1892, is reported to be the first non-Indian to see Avalanche Lake. He did so from the top of Mount Brown. Howe told Dr. Lyman B. Sperry about the lake which he then visited in 1895. Sperry is also given credit for the name of the lake.2
Their exploration of this part of Glacier is pretty amazing given that there were no roads and the forest was referred to as “thick and tangled”. In fact, this is about the time that George Snyder was building accommodations for tourists on the site of the current Lake McDonald Lodge. Due to the lack of roads, he bought a steamboat to haul his guests from Apgar to his accommodations.2
There are a couple of ways to get to the trailhead. I would suggest walking the Trail of the Cedars to obtain the Avalanche trail. The Trail of the Cedars starts on the east side of the Going-to-the-Sun Road bridge over Avalanche Creek. There is a boardwalk which will carry you to the bridge over Avalanche Creek where it leaves the gorge. This is an excellent place to take a few photographs.
Proceed just a little further, and you will see a rail fence. The fence was placed there to protect the hillside. At one time, there was little undergrowth due to a large number of social trails.
My students and I collected seed from species that the park service personnel wanted to use to repair the area. We planted the seed in our high school greenhouse and then planted the seedlings in the spring. We did this for about 10 years. There were a lot of kids, now adults, that are pretty proud of that.
You will find the path to Avalanche Lake at the end of the fence. There is a ‘T’ in the route shortly after starting. Turn left. It is 2.3 miles to the foot of the lake with 500 feet of elevation gain. If you wish to explore the head of the lake, it will be an additional 0.8 miles.
After a short climb, there will be opportunities to look down into the Avalanche Gorge. This can be dangerous, especially if kids are involved. Be cautious.
The trail visits Avalanche Creek and then departs as it makes its way up to the lake. The low light cedar-hemlock forest with its lush green moss, lichens, and ferns is magical. When our kids were young, we would make up stories about elves, and fairies that lived in this enchanted forest.
When you come to a short side trail to the outdoor privy and see spiny-stemmed devil’s club along the path, know that you are close to the lake. From this point to the head of Avalanche Lake, I seem always to find the beautiful white, 3-petaled trillium when the first ground is exposed as the snow melts.
Not to be outdone, the round-leaved yellow violet competes for your attention in the same places where the trillium grows.
The waterfalls at the back of the cirque are stunning especially early in the season when you can hear them crashing down the cliffs even before you see them.
I found it interesting to read the research of the World Waterfall Database. They argue that the large spectacular waterfalls have never been officially named and have erroneously been referred to as Monument Falls.
Their research leads them to claim that Monument Falls refers to a 170-foot drop along a lower cliff band that is actually hard to see from the trail. The argument goes on to say that when Sperry Glacier was more massive, the water the glacier supplied to this stream made it stand out as the main inflow to Avalanche Lake.4 I’m curious if Dr. Sperry named the falls and why the designation of Monument Falls.
The head of the lake is a worthwhile extension to this hike. You will find a gravel beach that soaks up the warmth of the sun. On colder days, that makes it easy to linger a little longer.
Eventually, the time comes for the return trip. When you reach the beginning of the trail at the rail fence, you have the option of turning left which will lead you by the Avalanche Campground and to the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The exit will be near where you entered the Trail of the Cedars.
A fun Glacier National Park boat cruise and hike with history
I feel like I am favoring one child over another when I say that Two Medicine is my favorite area in Glacier National Park. I love the entire park. But, the Two Medicine Valley calls to me.
This special place is located on the east side of the Continental Divide and the Lewis and Clark Range in the southeastern corner of Glacier National Park. It’s a 20-minute drive from East Glacier.
What’s in a Name?
This area was and still is a sacred place to the Blackfeet Indians. The name Two Medicine comes from the Blackfeet name Na-too-too-kase which means Place of Two Medicine Lodges.12 Running Eagle Falls is named for a famous female Blackfeet warrior. Born Otaki, the male name Pitamakan or Running Eagle was bestowed on her by Chief Lone Walker for her bravery in battle. Her fate was sealed after she returned from her vision quest in the cave of rushing water – Running Eagle Falls. There she prayed and fasted for most of a week for direction in her life. The upshot was that she would never marry and would live in service of her people.9,11
The Two Medicine Road passes the trailhead for Running Eagle Falls. The 0.3-mile long trail is paved and handicap accessible. In addition to the spiritual connection to the Blackfeet, this feature has geological significance.
The sedimentary rock which makes up the mountains of Glacier National Park was formed from sediment deposited in the basin of the ancient Belt Sea from 1.6 billion years ago to about 800 million years ago. Starting about 750 million years ago, unimaginable tectonic forces shoved all of that rock 50 miles to the east resulting in the Lewis Overthrust Fault. The eastern terminus, the fault, is just below the limestone rock of Running Eagle Falls.1
Two Medicine was one of the most visited areas of the park when the Great Northern Railway was the primary mode of transportation that brought passengers to stay at the chalets they had built. After the completion of the Going-to-the-Sun Road in 1932, that changed. Even today, Many Glacier and Saint Mary visitors far outnumber those going to Two Medicine.7 I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.
On the Two Medicine Road, you will come to a particular place where a mountain fills most of the skyline. That is Rising Wolf Mountain (9,513 feet). A fitting name for a peak that greets visitors as they embark on their exploration of this region. I first assumed the name was derived from Canis lupus – the gray wolf that inhabits parts of Glacier National Park. Not so. Rising Wolf was the name the Blackfeet gave to the Hudson’s Bay trapper and explorer Hugh Monroe.8
Monroe joined the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1815 at the age of 16.8 In the early 1820’s, he was sent to live with the Blackfeet to ensure that they delivered their furs to Hudson’s Bay trading posts, scout for beaver, and ascertain what the competition from America was doing.10 He eventually went to live with Lone Walker’s band of the Blackfeet and married his daughter Sinopah. He is thought to have been the first white man to explore the region that would become Glacier National Park. Hugh Monroe became a legend in his own time and was written into history in the 1919 book Rising Wolf by James Willard Schultz.8
Once you reach the developed area at Two Medicine Lake, there is a decision that needs to be made. You can leave your car in the parking lot adjacent to the Two Medicine Camp Store and the boat dock. There is a small booth near the lake where tickets may be purchased. However, I would recommend buying tickets online at least 24 hours ahead of your arrival to ensure that there will be a seat for everyone in your group.
The other option is to park your car near the trailhead at Pray Lake, where you exit at the end of the day. From there you will need to walk a little over one mile to reach the boat dock where you embark on the Sinopah.
Take a moment or two to savor the spectacular mountain scenery. At the head of the lake, the beautiful Sinopah Mountain rises abruptly 3,100 feet above the water. The summit of Rising Wolf Mountain, to the north, looks down from 4,350 feet above your location.
Step back in time and visit the Two Medicine Camp Store, a National Historic Landmark. This building was originally the Two Medicine Chalets kitchen and dining hall built by the Great Northern Railway in 1912. President Herbert Hoover used the Two Medicine Chalets complex as his base of operations in August 1930. On August 5, 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave one of his famous Fireside Chats by the fireplace in the dining hall building.6
There are several options for getting to and returning from Upper Two Medicine Lake. If you choose to hike the North Shore Trail, it is 4.4 miles one way. The trailhead for this route begins by the campground parking lot near Pray Lake. If you take the South Shore Trail, it is about 5.5 miles one way. You will find the trailhead near the Two Medicine Camp Store and boat dock. Finally, there is the option of motoring to the west end of Two Medicine Lake aboard the Sinopah, hike 1.9 miles to Upper Two Medicine Lake, and then return 4.4 miles via the North Shore Trail for a total of 6.3 miles or 6.5 miles if you include Twin Falls. The remainder of this post will describe the third alternative.
Travel to the west end of Two Medicine Lake aboard the historic 45 foot, 49 passenger Sinopah. Constructed in 1926 by J.W. Swanson, Sinopah is the oldest wooden boat in the Glacier Park Boat Company’s fleet. She was bought by the company in the 1940s and moved from Saint Mary Lake to Two Medicine Lake. The name was then changed from Little Chief to Sinopah.2
To the north is the massive Rising Wolf Mountain, to the south Painted Tepee Peak (7,650 feet) and to the southwest is the majestic Sinopah Mountain. Toward the latter part of the trip, watch to the northwest to catch a glimpse of the light colored, pyramid-shaped glacial horn Flinsch Peak (9,225 feet). Enjoy the 30 to 45 minute trip and commentary by the boat captain.
After you disembark, you will cross a boardwalk over a boggy area. As you walk through the spruce and subalpine fir forest, watch for dark vertical lines on the trees. The lines will be from a few feet long to almost the height of the tree. These are frost cracks. They are a testament to the bitter cold and extreme temperature fluctuations that can happen in this area of the park. When they occur, it can sound like a gunshot.
This moist area produces large patches of thimbleberries. If you’re lucky, they’ll be ripe.
Watch for the park trail signs. The first junction gives you the choice of the South Shore Trail to the southeast or a path heading in a northwest direction. You will want to go to the northwest.
At about 0.7 miles from the boat dock and after a footbridge over Two Medicine Creek, you will reach another trail junction. Go left or westerly toward Twin Falls and Upper Two Medicine Lake. A right or easterly direction will put you on the North Shore Trail to the Two Medicine Campground. From the junction, it is about 1.2 miles to Upper Two Medicine Lake.
To your right, a large elongated cone-shaped mass of rock will eventually show itself. This is Pumpelly Pillar (7,620 feet). Glaciers carved both sides of this mountain into a narrow ridge (arete) as they flowed eastward toward the plains. The spire was known by the Kootenai Indians as Standing Arrow.12 It was renamed for Raphael Pumpelly who was the leader of the Northern Transcontinental Railway survey party. Traveling with Pumpelly was Major Logan, who became the first superintendent of Glacier National Park in 1910 and is also the person for whom Logan Pass was named. They crossed Pitamakin Pass in 1883.8
The spur trail to Twin Falls can be found approximately 300 feet after you cross a small creek on your way to Upper Two Medicine Lake. It is a worthwhile and easy 0.2-mile round trip.
Just before arriving at Upper Two Medicine Lake, the trail passes near a small body of water that will be on your left. Don’t be fooled. This is not your destination. Upper Two Medicine Lake is well over 100 acres.
When you do arrive at Upper Two Medicine Lake, the trail will lead you to the backcountry campground. The campground has four sites. Two of these can be reserved. There is a limited beach nearby.
This is an excellent spot to enjoy a bite to eat and take in the views. The end of the lake is dominated by Lone Walker Mountain (8,502 feet). Mount Rockwell (9,272 feet) is to the south, Mount Helen (8,538 feet) to the northwest, and Pumpelly Pillar to the north. Mount Helen, Lone Walker Mountain, and Mount Rockwell mark the Continental Divide.
You may have noticed that there is a lot of red rock in the surrounding mountains. This sedimentary rock is of the Grinnell Formation which can be up to 2,600 feet thick. The red color comes from the reaction of oxygen with iron. This happened to the sediment deposited in the shallow water of the ancient Belt Sea during the Precambrian Time – over one billion years ago.5 Preserved mud cracks and ripple marks can also be found in this formation.
To return the 4.4 miles via the North Shore Trail, hike back down the trail that you arrived on. Walk past the junction for the path that leads to the boat dock. About 1.6 miles from Upper Two Medicine Lake, you will come to a new trail junction. The park trail sign will indicate that the route to the left will go to No Name Lake and Dawson Pass. If you take that way by mistake, it will not take very long to realize the error. There is some pretty serious elevation gain.
The final 3.1 miles of the footpath has minimal elevation gain and loss. Huckleberries are an added bonus around the middle of July. Before you know it, the trail comes to a bridge over Two Medicine Creek and then toward the Two Medicine Campground. If you had parked by the Two Medicine Camp Store, there is roughly one more mile to walk to reach your vehicle.
A classic Glacier National Park hike – two mountain passes, two mountain lakes, fishing, incredible scenery, and wildlife.
Part of the fun of this hike is driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road to reach the Gunsight Pass Trailhead. The scenery is spectacular. Descriptions and pictures don’t provide a complete sense of what the men who carved this road into cliffs had to overcome. Driving it sure does!
In the fall of 1932, after 30 years of work, the first vehicle traveled over the entire length of this 50 mile national, historic, engineering marvel. However, it was not until 1952 that the road was completely paved. Traveling this trans-mountain road through glacial valleys and over glacially sculpted mountains is a terrific experience.
If you are traveling from the east, the Gunsight Pass Trailhead is about 13.2 miles from the Saint Mary Visitor Center. This route will take you through part of the 2015 Reynolds Creek Fire that burned 4,850 acres. Traveling from the west, you will find the trailhead about 4.3 miles east of Logan Pass.
Whether you make this a long day point to point hike or several day backpack trip, vehicle logistics will take some thought. Glacier National Park does have a free shuttle system. But, if you plan on hiking the 20.6 miles in one shot and maybe enjoy some fishing at Lake Ellen Wilson, you are looking at an 11 to 13 hour day. This could make using the shuttle a little tricky.
By the time you finish this challenging yet very rewarding hike through the landscape that will give you a feeling of awe, you will not only have put close to 21 miles on your boots, but you will also climb a total of 3,370 feet and descend a total of 5,450 feet.
Trailhead to Gunsight Lake
The trail starts at about 5,300 feet in elevation. Without much hesitation, it descends 665 feet in about 1.1 miles to Reynolds Creek and Deadwood Falls. The red rock through which Reynolds Creek cuts is of the Grinnell Formation formed from sediment deposited in the shallow water environment of the ancient Belt Sea during the Middle Proterozoic Eon over one billion years ago.6
The Gunsight Pass Trail Junction is another 500 feet beyond the falls. Keep to the right to continue on to the pass. The trail leads you to a long single hiker suspension bridge over Reynolds Creek and then to the Reynolds Creek two site backcountry campground. The Gunsight Trail continues up the Saint Mary River Valley in a general southwest direction.
Even though you will be walking through a lot of forest on this portion of the trail, there will be openings where grand views will present themselves. One such opportunity provides a picturesque view to the south of lush grassy meadows surrounding Mirror Pond with the 9,030 foot Citadel Mountain in the background. It is not uncommon for a moose to wander into this scene.
Consider bringing rain pants, a raincoat, and an extra pair of socks. This section of the trip is brushy. Morning dew or a recent rain can leave enough water on the vegetation to soak the early hiker.
The junction for the trail to Florence Falls is about 4.2 miles from the trailhead. The spur trail to the falls is 0.8 miles and can be overgrown with thick vegetation like thimbleberries and cow parsnips. According to the World Waterfall Database, Florence Falls drops 800 feet, but only the lower 440 feet can be seen from where the trail ends.8 That 440 feet of cascading water is a pretty sweet sight though. The entire falls can be seen from Sun Point on Saint Mary Lake.
The trail starts climbing the southwest flank of 8,750-foot Fusillade Mountain as it ascends to Gunsight Lake. About one mile past the Florence Falls junction, the path emerges from the trees to reveal the majestic 10,052 foot Mount Jackson. George Bird Grinnell named this mountain after William Jackson who was the grandson of Hugh Monroe. Hugh Monroe worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company and is believed to be the first white to explore the country that is now Glacier National Park. Jackson was also a scout for Captain Reno at the time of the Custer Battle on the Little Bighorn.7
Situated on the northeast side of Mount Jackson is the 200-acre Jackson Glacier. Jackson is the 7th largest glacier of the 26 remaining glaciers in the Park. To the east of Jackson Glacier is the 400 acre Blackfoot Glacier which is the 2nd largest glacier of the 26. Both of these were once one. In 1850, this one glacier covered 1,875 acres.
Today’s relatively small moving masses of ice are not the remnants from the Great Ice Age of the Pleistocene Epoch (two million to about 12,000 years ago). The valley filling glaciers from that age are to be given credit for the beautiful mountain sculpting for which Glacier National Park is famous. The glaciers we enjoy today had their origin about 6,000 to 8,000 years ago and probably increased the most during the Little Ice Age which started about 400 to 500 years ago and ended in 1850.1
According to Dr. Dan Fagre, a USGS Research Ecologist in Glacier National Park, this area is experiencing a rise in temperature that is about two times the global average rise in air temperature.2 Paleoclimate research has revealed that the climate warming today is happening much more rapidly than the changes of the last two million years. NASA Earth Observatory states that interglacial warming during the past two million years averaged 5 ℃ over 5,000 year periods. The predicted rate for the next 100 years is at least twenty times that rate.3
When President Taft signed the bill in 1910 making Glacier the 10th national park, there were an estimated 150 glaciers. Today there are 26. One computer model predicts all of the glaciers will be gone by 2030.2
About 0.5 miles before Gunsight Lake, you will cross an extensive debris field that was deposited by a massive avalanche during the winter of 2010/2011. The trail has since been improved. So, no bushwacking should be necessary.
At the lake, you will find the backcountry campground which has six sites, three of which can be reserved. The camp usually opens around July 15. Look toward the head of the lake and enjoy the majesty of Gunsight Mountain (9,258 feet) and Mount Jackson (10,052 feet). The low point in between the two summits is Gunsight Pass (6,946 feet). Gunsight Lake is at 5,351 feet.
During 1910 to 1912, the Great Northern Railway (GNR) established a tent camp for its guests coming and going from the Sperry Chalets and Saint Mary. From 1910 to 1911, GNR constructed the Gunsight Lake Chalets including a dining hall/kitchen and a 50 guest lodge at a location between the backcountry campground and the lake outlet near the shoreline. These opened in 1911.5
Sometimes things are just not meant to be. During the offseason of 1913 to 1914, the dining room building suffered significant damage from a hungry grizzly bear. The loss was repaired. Then, sometime in March of 1916, buildings were destroyed in an avalanche. Reconstruction never happened.
Gunsight Lake to Lake Ellen Wilson
I think that I had a constant smile on my face during this section of the hike. We left behind the shores of Gunsight Lake and continued on across a long suspension bridge which spanned the Saint Mary River. My lungs demanded a lot of the pristine alpine air as we climbed the 2.8 miles and 1,595 feet to Gunsight Pass. At the same time, my eyes provided a nice distraction as they fed my brain with jaw-dropping beauty as we gained altitude along the northern flank of Mount Jackson. Gunsight Lake shrunk below us. Waterfalls were thundering down rock faces, sometimes hundreds of feet, to the north and south of us.
There are several snowfields below the pass that can persist well into August. Some are steep and need to be negotiated with caution especially early in the summer. Check the Glacier National Park trail report. If they recommend an ice-ax and crampons, take it seriously. Be sure to know how to use the equipment properly. Sliding down the frozen face of a steep snowfield toward a cliff is not the ideal time to learn how to self-arrest.
Upon arriving at Gunsight Pass (6,946 feet), you will be treated to views of Lake Ellen Wilson far below to the southwest, Gunsight Lake to the northeast, Gunsight Mountain to the north, and Mount Jackson to the south. The rock shelter there was built about the same time that the Going-to-the-Sun Road was completed in the early 1930s. It was constructed for a cost of $638 to provide a safe haven in times of severe weather for those traveling between the Sperry Chalet and Saint Mary.4 It is evident that maintenance has been kept up.
Don’t be fooled by the apparent amiable nature of the mountain goats that are likely to be encountered at the pass. Some can be a bit clingy. The apparent lack of fear is a red flag for me. It may be my imagination, but their behavior is a little different than those that I have encountered in other parts of the park. The photo opportunities are excellent though.
Gunsight Pass is about 9.3 miles from the trailhead and close to the halfway mark. From the pass, the trail descends 1,017 feet on its way to Lake Ellen Wilson. The trail distance is about 1.7 miles from the pass to the trail junction that leads to the backcountry campground at Ellen Wilson. There is a beautiful little waterfall and stream that the trail crosses toward the bottom of the descent. On our trip, we met a group of mountain goats that were coming up the path and wanted to cross the stream at the same place as us. There was no negotiation. We stepped off of the trail a reasonable distance and let them pass.
Lake Ellen Wilson belongs to a glacial cirque at 5,929 feet elevation. She is a little over a mile long and about one-half mile wide. According to Fishes of Glacier National Park Conservation Bulletin Number 22, the only fish species in Lake Ellen Wilson is the Eastern Brook Trout. I can attest to the fact that they will rise to a fly. The backcountry camp has four sites of which two can be reserved. The camp usually opens around August 1.
The outlet empties into Lincoln Lake 0.25 miles away as a bird flies, but only after a spectacular 1,300-foot drop. Beaver Chief Falls is the name given to these thundering cascades. This picturesque lake was named in honor of President Woodrow Wilson’s first wife who died in 1914, the year following her husband’s inauguration.7
Lake Ellen Wilson to Lake McDonald Lodge Parking Lot
The hike from the Lake Ellen Wilson backcountry campground trail junction to Lincoln Pass is 2.3 miles and 1,121 feet of elevation gain. The pass, at 7,050 feet, is the highest point along this hike. From the pass, it is an easy 1.2 miles with 550 feet of elevation loss to the Sperry Chalet. If luck is with you, there may be some freshly baked huckleberry pie left for purchase at the kitchen and dining hall.
The two-story Sperry Chalet and the separate dining room/kitchen were completed in 1913 by the Great Northern Railway. They are built of native stone which was quarried from a talus slope behind the buildings and extending to the south. Both of the buildings are National Historic Landmarks. The only other remaining backcountry hotel in the park is the Granite Park Chalet situated on the Garden Wall.
The Sperry Chalet was named for Dr. Lyman B. Sperry from Oberlin College in Ohio. The gentleman explorer and ardent supporter of the national park concept led the first group of people to the glacier that now bears his name in 1896. He also negotiated a deal with the Great Northern Railroad to provide transportation to and from the park, tents, food, and supplies for himself and students. In return, during the seasons of 1902 and 1903, he and the volunteer students built a trail from Lake McDonald to Gunsight Pass with a spur trail to Sperry Glacier.7
On August 17, 2017, the Sperry Chalet was gutted by the 16,000-acre Sprague Fire. Reconstruction is now underway and is anticipated to be completed by the end of the 2019 summer.
A notable side trip from the chalet complex is the 2.7 mile, 1,500-foot climb to Comeau Pass and then another half mile from the pass to view the glacier. Allow at least six hours for a round trip.
Once you leave the chalet en route to the Lake McDonald Lodge parking lot, it is a 3,286-foot elevation drop over 6.1 miles. Your knees may whine a little by the time the trailhead arrives. The route is mostly in the trees along the Sprague Creek drainage on the south side of Mount Edwards and Mount Brown.
A great way to cap off an extraordinary day of hiking is with a refreshing beverage on the terrace of the historic lodge overlooking Lake McDonald.
You’ll work for it, but the sweeping views from the 7,522-foot Scenic Point are spectacular. The good chance of seeing bighorn sheep is an added perk.
We can thank Louis Hill and the Great Northern Railway for this route. Designated as the Mount Henry Trail, it was constructed in 1913 as a thoroughfare for moving tourists from the railway station at Midvale (East Glacier) and the Glacier Park Hotel to the Two Medicine Valley.2 This path is also a tiny part of the 3,100 mile Continental Divide Trail that stretches from Canada to Mexico.
The trailhead for this hike, in the Two Medicine region on the east side of Glacier National Park, can be found 2.7 miles past the entrance station. There you will see a parking lot with the trail on the east side.
The exhilarating, and lung stretching ascent into Glacier’s alpine country starts at an elevation a little less than one-mile high and then climbs 2,350 feet over 3.9 miles. I have been on this hike when it is t-shirt weather at the trailhead, but at the top, the wind was brutal and cold. Do yourself a favor and be prepared with layers, a hat, gloves, and some sort of windbreaker jacket. Be sure to bring plenty of water and food. Finally, never venture out in Glacier National Park without carrying quickly accessible bear-spray.
At 0.6 miles, there is a short spur trail to Appistoki Falls. Directly above is Appistoki Peak. Both were named for the Blackfeet deity who looks over everything and everyone.5 I think the side trip is worth it even though the viewing point does not provide a full view of the falls.
The main footpath gradually leaves the stands of subalpine fir and lodgepole pine and enters the alpine environment. The views continue to get better and better as you ascend. To the northeast, on the far side of Two Medicine Lake, is the red 9,513-foot Rising Wolf Mountain. Rising Wolf is the Blackfeet name given to Hugh Monroe who was a Hudson’s Bay Company trapper and trader and probably the first white to explore the lands that would become Glacier National Park. About 1815 or 1816, in his late teens, he was sent to live with the Piikani (Piegan) tribe of the Blackfeet Nation under the care of Chief Lonewalker. His duty was to learn their language, discover whether or not the American Fur Company was operating in their territory, and try to ensure that the Blackfeet continued their trade with the Hudson’s Bay Company. He would later marry Chief Lone Walker’s daughter Sinopah.2,4,6
After a mile into the hike, you will start seeing the bleached white remains of whitebark pine trees. They most likely met their demise from the introduced fungal pathogen that causes white pine blister rust. The whitebark pines in the park have been hit pretty hard. Seeds of this tree are high in fat and protein and have historically been an important food source for black bears, grizzly bears, red squirrels, and Clark’s nutcracker. Efforts to identify trees resistant to the disease and propagate them have been underway for years.
White Pine Blister Rust was introduced into North America about 1900 on white pine seedlings grown in European nurseries.3
The trail will eventually reach a saddle and then traverse the top of a bowl as it swings to the northeast and Scenic Point. This is where I have seen bighorn sheep. The path is narrow with a steep drop-off. Also, there can be a snow hazard there depending on the month. I was last there in late June, and most of the snow was gone. However, it is best to check the Glacier National Park Trail Status page before heading out. There is a short climb at the very end to reach Scenic Point.
Standing at Scenic Point and looking east one can appreciate why one of Montana’s nicknames is Big Sky Country. Try to locate the ‘Broken Mountains’ so named by Captain Meriwether Lewis. These are the Sweet Grass Hills and are about 100 miles away. From an imaginary line to the middle of those peaks, shift your gaze north about 5 degrees. Shorten the distance to roughly 25 miles. If you see signs of a creek meandering through the plains, you have located Cut Bank Creek and the general area where Lewis made his northernmost camp – Camp Disappointment, July 1806.1 The body of water more than 2,600 feet below you is Lower Two Medicine Lake.
Turn around toward the west, and you will see the family. Over the top of a ridge belonging to Appistoki Peak, you will see the beautiful and iconic Sinopah Mountain. Beyond Sinopah, Lone Walker Mountain is there looking over his daughter’s shoulder. Continuing clockwise is the massive Rising Wolf Mountain.
An old Swiss custom was to place bells on the tops of mountains and in passes for trekkers to ring as they arrived. Based on this custom, the Glacier Park Hotel Company, a subsidiary of the Great Northern Railway, petitioned the National Park Service to place locomotive bells in several locations within the park. Three sites were approved in 1926, and the fourth and last was approved for Scenic Point in 1929. In 1943, the bells were removed and donated to a World War II metal drive.5
If you are feeling the need for more adventure, you have the option of continuing on another 7 miles to East Glacier. Part of this 7 miles will pass through the Blackfeet Reservation for which you will need a Blackfeet Conservation and Recreation Permit. Of course, vehicle logistics will need to be worked out. The east side fee-based shuttle service may be able to help.
DeVoto, Bernard, ed. The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1953.
Guthrie, C.W. The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
Maloy, Otis C. “White Pine Blister Rust.” Plant Management Network (September 24, 2001). Accessed August 22, 2018.
Passmore, Blake. What They Called It. Kalispell, MT: Montana Outdoor Guidebooks, 2016.
Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
Schultz, James W. Rising Wolf: The White Blackfoot. 1919.
Over 100 years ago, guests staying at the former Going-to-the-Sun Chalets on Saint Mary Lake delighted in a hike to three beautiful waterfalls.1 Early in the season, my wife and I retraced the footsteps of those early visitors who invested considerable time and money to visit this incredibly beautiful place in the newly created Glacier National Park.
Finding the Trailhead
This hike begins at the renovated Sun Point picnic area, trailhead, and shuttle stop. From the west entrance to the park, it is 40 miles up and over Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The drive is only 10 miles from the east entrance.
As you stand in the picnic area facing the restroom facilities, the sidewalk to the right will lead you down to the Sun Point Nature Trail. Walk down this trail a short distance, and there will be a junction. Go left to reach Sun Point.
There is another way to Sun Point which is the path that we followed. The sidewalk going to the left of the restroom will intersect with a trail that will lead you up the east side of the rocky bluff that juts into Saint Mary Lake. This is Sun Point.
Before you hit the trail, be sure that you have your bear-spray where you can access it quickly.
The rock perch 100 feet above the surface of Saint Mary Lake was the location chosen for the Swiss-style chalets which were constructed during the years 1912 to 1915. Sun Camp, the informal name for the complex, accommodated 200 guests. These adventurers could only reach this impressive place by boat or packhorse. It was expensive and took a considerable amount of time to get there.1
The panorama to the west of Sun Point has never become commonplace for me. I am filled with awe when viewing the sheer rock faces of the three glacially carved mountains, Mahtotopa, Little Chief, and Dusty Star. These three massive peaks seem to be on a collision course with the pristine waters of the lake. In the distance, to the west, is the spire of Fusillade Mountain with a long thin silver ribbon to its north which is Florence Falls. To the northwest and monopolizing the skyline is Going-to-the-Sun Mountain.
Fusillade Mountain: Named by George Bird Grinnell in 1891 as a satirical gesture at W.H. Seward and Henry L. Stimson for firing a futile volley at a group of goats on the side of this mountain.2
After the Going-to-the-Sun Road was dedicated in 1933, Sun Camp slowly began to lose business much to the surprise of those who predicted just the opposite. The perceived value connected to the difficulty reaching such a magnificent and isolated place had dwindled. During World War II the buildings fell into disrepair and were finally razed in 1948.1
The total distance from Sun Point to Virginia Falls is 3.2 miles. If you don’t feel like making the entire return trip, there are three spur trails along the way that will allow you to access the Going-to-the-Sun Road and shuttle stops. From these locations, you can catch a free ride back to your vehicle. Be sure to make a note of these junctions as you pass them.
There is also the option of arranging for a boat ride from the Glacier Park Boat Company dock near Baring Falls to the Rising Sun dock and then using the free shuttles to get back to Sun Point. Finishing a great hike with a cruise on the historic 45-foot Little Chief built in 1926 would be a treat.
From Sun Point, walk west. This will put you on a nearly level path which follows the north shore of Saint Mary Lake for a while. At almost 10 miles long and 300 feet deep, this is the second largest body of water in Glacier National Park. Surprisingly, it is 1,500 feet higher in elevation than the largest lake in the park, Lake McDonald.
St. Mary Lake and Lower St. Mary Lake have had more than one name. The Piegan Indians called these lakes the “Walled-in Lakes,” while the Kootenais called them “Old Woman Lakes.”2
After only 0.8 miles, Baring Falls is the first of the three gems that you will experience. The bridge downstream from the falls offers photo opportunities, and there is also a short path that will give you different vantage points closer to the falls. Use caution around the wet rocks.
After leaving Baring Falls, a stroll of 1.6 miles will put you at Saint Mary Falls. Along the way, you will get to witness the regeneration of the forest that is happening following the 4,458-acre Reynolds Creek Fire of 2015. It didn’t take long for the next generation of trees and wildflowers to introduce themselves.
You will probably hear the cascades before you see them. There is a bridge that crosses the Saint Mary River just below the falls. This very accessible location can get crowded, but there is a small area on the far side of the bridge where you may be able to enjoy a snack and snap a few pictures. If it’s a hot day, the cold rush of air and the mist from the thundering water is a bonus.
Fewer people continue on to Virginia Falls. However, these spectacular waterfalls are only 0.8 miles beyond Saint Mary Falls, but it does include a climb of 285 feet in elevation. This short trail section is also part of the Continental Divide Trail.
As you approach the falls, you will come to a trail junction. Going to the left will keep you on the Continental Divide Trail. Take the right fork for a short distance to get up close and personal with the falls. Be very careful because the rocks can be extremely slick. More injuries and deaths in Glacier National Park are associated with water and the adjacent slippery stones than any other cause.
The hikers of the early 1900s had the Sun Camp dining room waiting for them at the end of the day. Even though it won’t be there for you, Two Dog Flats Grill at Rising Sun, just down the road from the Sun Point turn-off, offers casual fare and refreshing beverages.