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.

Apgar Bike Path

A trip through a Glacier National Park forest in transition.

The Apgar Bike Path is one of three trails in Glacier National Park where bicycles are permitted. Of course walking is okay too. The trailhead can be found south of the Backcountry Permit Office in Apgar Village. This nearly level, paved path through a lodgepole pine forest can be surprisingly void of people. It’s suitable for many ability levels and an excellent early season option.

Glacier National Park Apgar Bike Path
Apgar Bike Path

This can be a relaxing saunter through a forest in transition. In 1929, the 39,000-acre Half Moon Fire consumed the western hemlock/western red cedar forest that grew in the area. Now, shade intolerant pioneer species, like lodgepole pine and western larch, predominate the overstory near the trail. But given enough time and lack of disturbance, shade-tolerant species will prevail.

Check out the understory and one future for this forest. I found western white pine and Douglas fir, which are intermediate in shade tolerance. To my surprise, there are many shade-tolerant species alive and doing well. These included: grand fir, Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, western hemlock, and western red cedar. The stage is set for the later stages of forest succession.

Click or Tap Pictures for more information.

If you visit this path in June, there will be bear grass blooms appearing like puffs of white smoke among the trees.  Huckleberries are a bonus later in the summer. However, bears are known to visit this area. So, don’t leave your bear spray in the car.


The Route with Options

The three-mile round trip starts out in a southwest direction from the trailhead near the Backcountry Permit Office. It soon crosses the Camas Road. At about one-half mile, there is a short spur trail leading to the Ox-Bow Overlook on McDonald Creek. The trail course changes to the southeast and does not veer right or left for over a mile. The makers were efficient in getting from point A to point B. As near as I can tell, this is the old road way from the Belton Bridge to Apgar.

The path crosses the Glacier Institute Road at 1.4 miles and ends at the Going-to-the-Sun Road 1.5 miles from the trailhead in Apgar Village.

Extend the trip by continuing on the path another one-half mile to the intersection of Grinnell Drive and Mather Drive in the Glacier National Park Headquarters area. Walk or ride about one-quarter mile to the end of Mather Drive. There you will find a gravel path, the beginning of the South Boundary Trail, that proceeds down an embankment and then upstream along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River reaching the Belton Bridge at 2.75 miles from the Apgar trailhead. Believe it or not, this was the original entrance into Glacier National Park.

Glacier National Park Mather Drive
End of Mather Drive Looking South
Glacier National Park South Boundary Trail
Original Roadway into the West side of Glacier National Park

There can be a lot of action here during rafting season. Have a snack and take a few pictures down along the river before the return trip. Or, continue across the bridge and follow the road into West Glacier.

Glacier National Park Belton Bridge over the Middle Fork of the Flathead River
Belton Bridge over the Middle Fork of the Flathead River

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

 

 

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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.

Going-to-the-Sun Road

a late October bike ride

The weather and fall colors have been extraordinary this year, and I couldn’t resist the urge to go for a bike ride. The Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed for the season as it always is after the middle of October. But, it was open as far as Avalanche Creek on the west side. Perfect.

I rose early and arrived at Avalanche Creek with color in the sky. However, I missed the good stuff. No big deal. I was the only one in the parking lot!

My truck thermometer indicated 24℉. The cables on my bike were a little stiff, and the seat was cold and hard. No big deal. I had this part of the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park all to myself! Nobody is tailgating me. If I want to stop and check something out, I’m not interfering with anyone else’s experience. My face was starting to ache from the smile.

The early morning light was illuminating the snow-covered peaks as I rode through the dark old growth western cedar and hemlock forest. Every once in a while the needles of a solitary larch stood out like a golden lantern. Most of the black cottonwoods still retained their fall colors.

About 1.5 miles north of Avalanche Creek is a place called Red Rock Point. The observation deck at the end of a short trail overlooks the beautiful McDonald Creek. The path is bordered with large red boulders that offer numerous examples of riffle marks made in the shallows of the ancient Belt Sea. These are over one billion years old.

Garden Wall from just north of Red Rock Point.
A Peek at the Garden Wall from the Going-to-the-Sun Road

The section of the Going-to-the-Sun Road that was leading me to Logan Creek was completed during the period 1924 to 1925. Construction workers first cut their way through the thick, tangled forest to establish the 4.5-mile route from Avalanche Creek to Logan Creek. Enormous stumps were wrenched from the forest floor so that the road grading could proceed. The distance doesn’t seem like much in a car, but a bike provides the gift of a different perspective.

I have driven over Logan Creek countless times and never stopped. There was too much that had gone on there in the past for me to ignore it any longer. When I arrived, there was no water to be seen in the stream bed. It will be a different story in the spring.

According to the park service signs, the bridge that joins the banks on either side was built during 1926 and 1927. I was curious why it took two years. It turns out that the bridge was completed in 1926 with only one arch. The stream flooded in the fall of that year. Consequently, the park service and the Bureau of Public Roads decided to add another arch to the west end of the bridge in the summer of 1927.2

click

The Logan Creek Patrol Cabin is upstream a short distance from the bridge. It was constructed in 1925 as part of a system of cabins a day’s walk apart. This allowed park service rangers to patrol greater areas without having to return to their headquarters as often. I’ll bet that this old place has a few stories it could tell.

The application for the National Register of Historic Places mentions an item inside the cabin that was labeled with the letters CCC.3 That would be the Civilian Conservation Corps instituted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  The program hired unemployed, unmarried men ages 17 to 28 from 1933 to 1942. Their contribution to building the park infrastructure in addition to fighting fires was invaluable.

The windows of this log structure were heavily fortified with steel bars and interlacing strands of barbed wire. It looked like something had been chewing or clawing the bottom of the door frame. Nails had been hammered into the wood to try and discourage this from continuing. I assume that the structure is still used because there was a cord or two of firewood that had been put up under a nearby pole shed.

Construction of the next phase of the road from Logan Creek to Logan Pass started in 1925 and ended in 1928. This was considered the most challenging section of the entire Transmountain Highway because it had to be literally carved or benched into the side of cliffs of the Garden Wall. Even surveying the route was dangerous.1

Construction Camp 1 was established at Logan Creek. It was comprised of the headquarters, supply cabin, mess hall, and tents for 50 to 60 men. The now nonexistent Logan Pass Trail began there too. The path was used to establish and supply Camp 5 above what would become Triple Arches and Camp 6 at the future Oberlin Bend.1

McDonald Creek and Garden Wall, Glacier National Park
McDonald Creek and Garden Wall

Logan Creek is also where the road starts its climb at a 6% grade to Logan Pass 10 miles away. I hopped on my bike and started up toward the West Tunnel 2.7 miles away. Heavens Peak to the west was in splendid form. The combination of light snow and the bright sun caused the rock structure of this beauty to stand out.

Not far from the tunnel along the eastbound lane, I spotted the wavy, layered telltale signs of stromatolites in the rock face. Stromatolites are the structures made by photosynthetic blue-green algae. At one time in the Earth’s past, they were the most abundant and widespread form of life. These simple creatures are primarily responsible for transforming the Earth’s atmosphere from one nearly void of oxygen into one with over 20% oxygen.

I arrived at the West Tunnel, took my pack off and with camera in hand started exploring. Construction began in 1926 and ended in 1928. For a wage of 50 cents to $1.15 per hour, incredibly tough men labored in temperatures as low as -30 ℉ to hammer, chisel, and blast the tunnel that is 192 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 18 feet high.1 They also created two windows that are 16 feet wide and 20 feet high. These portals provide spectacular views of Heavens Peak and the upper McDonald Creek Valley.

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After having lunch while lounging in the sun on the road parapet, I rode another one-half mile to The Loop. This is the only switchback on the entire Going-to-the-Sun Road. The competing design by George Goodwin had the road ascending the Logan Creek valley with the use of 15 switchbacks to reach Logan Pass. The more elegant design of Thomas Vint, even though more expensive, is the one that we enjoy today.1

I was down to a t-shirt and light pull over while at The Loop. But, after I started my descent back to the truck, I needed to keep adding layers. Even by mid-afternoon, the sun had not had much of an effect on the cold dense air that was lying in the bottom of the valley. According to the thermometer on the cabin, the temperature was 28℉ – not much warmer than when I started shortly after sunrise.

At Avalanche Creek, my vehicle was just one of many. No big deal. I have the memories of the morning and gratitude for the temporary solitude.


End Notes

  1. Guthrie, C.W. Going-to-the-Sun Road: Glacier National Park’s highway to the sky. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2006.
  2. Historic American Engineering Record. “Logan Creek Bridge Spanning Logan Creek, on the Going-to-the-Sun Road.” Accessed October 24, 2018. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/mt0250/.
  3. National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places. “Logan Creek Patrol Cabin.” Accessed October 3, 2018. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/AssetDetail?assetID=049ea627-f879-4cca-9563-58c942b96371.
Icons made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com is licensed by CC 3.0 BY

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.

Dawson Pass/Pitamakan Pass Loop Hike

This 18-mile hike, which crosses the Continental Divide from east to west and then back over again, is spectacular. It includes walks through subalpine forests, mountain meadows, and high windswept alpine ridges with panoramic views into the craggy park interior. There is also a high probability of seeing moose and bighorn sheep.

The trailhead is located in the Two Medicine Valley of the southeast region of Glacier National Park. Find the Two Medicine Campground and then the parking lot near Pray Lake. This will be both your beginning and ending location – assuming that you do not decide to motor across the lake on the Sinpopah launch.


Clockwise or Counterclockwise?

Since this is a loop, it can be hiked clockwise or counterclockwise. I have found that there are pros and cons for both directions.

Clockwise (Dawson Pass first)

Pros

  • The light for photography tends to work better in this direction
  • Most of the elevation gain is accomplished in the two miles just before the pass. The rest of the hike is relatively level or downhill.

Cons

  • Toward the end of the 18 miles, there is a small ridge on the east flank of Rising Wolf Mountain that must be climbed.

Counterclockwise (Pitamakan Pass first)

Pros

  • The 2,400-foot elevation gain to Pitamakan Pass is spread out over 7.6 miles.
  • There is an option to catch a ride on the Sinopah across Two Medicine Lake at the end of the day. This could reduce the mileage of the hike by about 3 miles.

Cons

  • The steep descent from Dawson Pass can be a killer for some people’s knees.

 


A Few Things to Consider

First, be honest about your hiking ability and physical condition. If you are not in shape, postpone this one for another day. There are plenty of other hikes to enjoy that will be more in line with your ability.

This trek can take 9 to 10 hours. You want to make sure that you are not hiking in the dark. Not a prudent plan. It’s a good idea to check sunrise/sunset tables when you are planning for the trip.

The route covers 18 miles with over 5,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. So, don’t skimp on the energy that your body will require. Bring the amount of food that you think you will need and then throw in a little extra. There will be no water for a good part of this trip. Prepare accordingly. It wouldn’t hurt to include a water filter to use on the latter part of the journey when you do have access to water.

Be prepared for quick weather changes. Parts of the trip will be above 7,000 feet. The last time I did this hike, it was excellent autumn weather at the beginning and snow and blowing snow around the passes. Bring clothes that can be combined in layers. Include a hat, gloves, and some sort of a windbreaker jacket and pants. The wind can blow pretty hard up there.

Flinsch Peak, Two Medicine, Glacier National Park
Flinsch Peak in September

Use common sense on extremely windy days. There will be some parts of the trail that are narrow with long steep drop-offs. Call it a day before you get into trouble. The mountain is not going anywhere.

Trekking poles are a good idea for a balance aid, especially on windy days. Some people claim that they help with knee pain on descents.

Finally, bring bear spray. Make sure that it is quickly available and know how to use it. On our last trip, we saw bear scat on the trail in more than one place. Parts of the route were posted with signs warning of grizzly bears frequenting the area. Additionally, it’s recommended to hike in a group and always make plenty of noise.

The rest of this post will describe the hike going in a clockwise direction – starting with the 6.5 mile and 2,435-foot climb in elevation to Dawson Pass.



Onward

From the parking lot, walk about 300 feet toward the foot of Pray Lake and cross the bridge over Two Medicine Creek. Continue another 300 feet to the ‘T’ in the trail. Go left. You will then be on the Dawson Pass Trail.

The trail proceeds in a general southwest direction. The enormous red hulk of Rising Wolf Mountain will be on your right. To the southeast across Two Medicine Lake and proceeding clockwise are Never Laughs Mountain, Grizzly Mountain, Painted Tepee Peak, and the majestic Sinopah Mountain.

Two Medicine Glacier National Park
Looking Across Two Medicine Lake

The beautiful mountain at the head of Two Medicine Lake was named after Sinopah, a Blackfeet Indian maiden. She married Hugh Munroe, a Hudson’s Bay trapper and trader who lived with her people for some time. The Blackfeet gave him the name Rising Wolf for which the mountain was named.2

The rock that makes up these great mountains in the park was formed over an 800 million year time span which began 1.5 billion years ago. During that time, sediment was eroded from the surrounding lifeless land and deposited into the ancient Belt Sea. That sea was located where eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana are today. Preserved ripple marks and mud cracks in some of the formations are a testament to the water environment of that very distant past.3

The surrounding mountains have a lot of red color in them. That is the rock of the Grinnell Formation. The color was caused by oxygen reacting with the iron in the fine sediment that was deposited in the shallow water environment. The Grinnell has many ancient ripple marks and mud cracks.3

Starting in the Jurassic Period, 150 million years ago, and continuing into the end of the Cretaceous Period, 60 million years ago, Earth’s tectonic plates shoved a mass of rock several hundred miles wide and several miles thick 50 miles to the east.3

The magnificent horns, aretes, cirques, and u-shaped valleys that we enjoy today are the results of continent size glaciers working on the rock deposited here by the tectonic forces. The glaciers scraped and gouged from about 2 million years ago until 12,000 years ago.3 Glacier National Park, the sculpted masterpiece, is now sought by visitors from around the world.

The vistas that we seek out today in Glacier National Park have been in the making for the last one-third of the Earth’s entire existence.

At about 3.1 miles, you will come to a junction with a trail that exits on your left. This will lead to the South Shore Trail and the dock for the Sinopah launch at the head of the lake. This path will also connect with the trail to Upper Two Medicine Lake. Stay right. On our last trip, after this junction, we met a red fox trotting down the path and encountered a bull moose laying where we needed to walk.

The spur trail to No Name Lake will be found at 4.6 miles from the trailhead. After this, the route gets steep. You will climb through the Bighorn Basin via a series of switchbacks. As you continue to gain elevation, Flinsch Peak, a glacial horn, will come into view to the northwest. You will notice that Flinsch is not red. It’s tan colored limestone is of the Siyeh Formation. This rock is above and younger than the argillite of the Grinnell Formation.3

Looking East Toward Two Medicine Lake, Glacier National Park
Looking East Toward Two Medicine Lake

In the limestone rock near Dawson Pass, we found fossilized cyanobacteria colonies commonly known as stromatolites. Although the fossils are not this old, these single-celled photosynthetic organisms have been living on our planet for over 3 billion years.1  These simple creatures are mostly responsible for the Earth’s atmosphere becoming more oxygen rich and less carbon dioxide saturated.6 They are not as abundant as they once were, but places like Shark Bay in Western Australia still support these tiny oxygen factories.

At 6.5 miles and 7,598 feet in elevation is the rocky, windswept Dawson Pass. There is a rock cairn marking the site. You will also find a rough rock wall that can provide a little shelter from the wind. The views are magnificent and include park icons such as the spire of Mount Saint Nicholas to the southwest and Mount Stimson to the west.

Dawson Pass with Flinsch Peak, Glacier National Park
Dawson Pass with Flinsch Peak

From Dawson Pass, the path heads north and is basically benched into the steep, barren, rocky, western slope of Flinsch Peak. The Pitamakan Overlook is toward the north end of this segment where the trail juts out west and then abruptly back to the east. This is part of a steep ridge belonging to Mount Morgan. If you aren’t concerned with exposure, make your way out to the end of the overlook for a breathtaking vantage point.

Looking Into Nyack Creek Drainage from Pitamakan Overlook, Glacier National Park
Looking Into Nyack Creek Drainage from the Pitamakan Overlook

The trail continues to the northeast and wraps around the northern slope of Mount Morgan before descending to Pitamakan Pass.

Pitamakan was a famous female Blackfeet warrior. Born Otaki, the male name Pitamakan or Running Eagle was bestowed on her by Chief Lone Walker for her bravery in battle. Running Eagle Falls are also named for her.4 It is in the cave of rushing water, Running Eagle Falls, that she committed herself to a vision quest which changed her life. She renounced marriage and devoted her life to the service of her people.5

Hundreds of feet below the pass to the north are two alpine gems – Seven Winds of the Lake and Pitamakin Lake. There is a trail, accessed from near the pass, that leads between these two lakes and down the North Fork of Cut Bank Creek to the backcountry campground near Morning Star Lake. This is part of the Continental Divide Trail. Staying on this footpath will lead over Triple Divide Pass, to Saint Mary Lake, Many Glacier, and eventually, Goat Haunt at the Canadian Border.

Seven Winds of the Lake and Pitamakan Lake with Red Mountain, Glacier National Park
Seven Winds of the Lake and Pitamakan Lake with Red Mountain

From the pass, it is a 7.6-mile downhill trek in the Dry Fork drainage back to the trailhead. This section is also part of the Continental Divide Trail. The spur trail to Old Man Lake will appear on your right about 1.5 miles from the pass. The massive mountain to the south is Rising Wolf. The circumnavigation of this enormous landmark is almost complete.

Old Man Lake and the Dry Fork Drainage, Glacier National Park
Old Man Lake and the Dry Fork Drainage

About 4 miles from Pitamakin Pass or 15.5 miles from the beginning, there is another trail junction. Proceeding straight ahead for 2.8 miles will put you at the Two Medicine Entrance Station. Take the right fork toward the Two Medicine Campground. Within this last section, there will be a bit of a climb over a ridge that extends from Rising Wolf Mountain.

Hopefully, when you reach the end of the trail and your vehicle, there are refreshments and other goodies waiting in a cooler for you. There is much to celebrate!


 

End Notes

  1. Awramik, Stanley M., and James Sprinkle. “Proterozoic stromatolites: The first marine evolutionary biota.” Historical Biology13, no. 4 (May 8, 2009): 241-53. Accessed October 1, 2018.
  2. Guthrie, C.W. The First 100 Years. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press, 2008.
  3. 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.
  4. Robinson, Donald H. Through the Years: in Glacier National Park. 5th ed. West Glacier, MT: Glacier Natural History Association, Inc., 1973.
  5. Schultz, James W. Running Eagle: the warrior girl. 1919.
  6. “Stromatolites.” Accessed October 1, 2018. http://www.indiana.edu/~geol105b/images/gaia_chapter_10/stromatolites.htm.