Tramping the Trails of Glacier National Park
“Far away in northwestern Montana, hidden from view by clustering mountain peaks, lies an unmapped corner—the Crown of the Continent,” George Bird Grinnell (1901).
Standing on the porch of our cabin at the Summit Lodge, just west of Marias Pass, I glanced at the mountain range rising overhead. The sheer ridge plummeting into the valley was breathtaking. I couldn’t wait to explore the trails concealed behind this ridge, trails that lead into the wilds of Glacier National Park. I was here with my daughter Annemarie, her son Daxton and my wife Nancy for four days, exploring the “Crown of the Continent”, so named by Gorge Bird Grinnell, a frontier visionary, who worked tirelessly for the protection of this glaciated mountainous region from exploitation and development.
Our cabin retreat was only a few steps from the Continental Divide Trail. I longed to jump on the trail and start hiking north through the park to the 49th Parallel, the border between the United States and Canada. I could also continue hiking, passing through customs, and on into Waterton Lakes National Park, Canada. “In 1932 the governments of Canada and the United States linked the two parks together as the world’s first International Peace Park. The global importance of this special place was reaffirmed in the 1970’s with the designations of Glacier and Waterton Lakes as Biosphere Reserves. In 1995 the International Peace Park again gained worldwide recognition when it was designated as a World Heritage Site”. (N.P.S)
The mountainous area was created 170 million years ago when the sedimentary rock bed of an ancient seabed buried deep within the earth was thrust upward and eastward 40 miles over younger rock strata of the Cretaceous Period. This is known as the Lewis Overthrust. Consequently, the rocks of the park contain some of the best examples of fossils from the Proterozoic Era, between 1.4 and 1.5 billion years old. Over millions of years, massive glacial action and erosion of the sedimentary layer of rock sculpted the mountains, valleys, cirques, towers and numerous lakes and ponds. In the mid-19th century it is estimated that 150 glaciers existed and by 2015 there are less than 25. It’s projected that all the glaciers in the park will disappear by 2030 due to climate change.
After arriving at our cabin retreat we explored the trails around Marias Pass. The U.S. Forest Service maintains a network of trails south of the park in the Flathead National Forest. It also manages a campground on the Continental Divide in Marias Pass, so a tramper can enjoy the mountainous region of the area without ever entering the park. Marias Pass at 5,213 feet in elevation has its own interesting history. In the late 1800’s the Great Northern Railroad was trying for years to find a passage though the Northern Rockies. John Frank Stevens, a Maine native and principle engineer of the railroad, found Marias Pass along with his Flathead Indian guide Coonsah. (In 1905 Stevens was recruited by Theodore Roosevelt as Chief Engineer of the Panama Canal). The pass was ideal because it followed the broad valley of the Middle Fork-Flathead River. Construction of the rail line through the pass began in 1890 and now serves as a major route of the BNSF (successor to the Great Northern) and Amtrak’s Empire Builder. Diesel engines pushing and pulling rail cars loaded with everything from coal, grain, containers of autos and perishable goods make their way from the northwest ports to markets in the east. Each time a train rumbled by our cabin, which was about every half hour, my grandson Dax would get excited and call-out, “choo-choo”.
After a day exploring the trails around Marias Pass, including a section of the Continental Divide Trail, we spent the next day driving the Going to the Sun Road. This park road bisects the park, passing over Logan Pass at 6,646 ft. The road is an incredible work of highway engineering and is one of the most spectacular highways in the world. Construction began in 1921 and was completed in 1932. The road is closed in winter due to the massive amounts of snow that bury the roadway. This year the road didn’t open until June 23rd, due to over 80 feet of snow blocking the road at Logan Pass and the threats of avalanches and rock sides. Fortunately, we were traveling the road three days after its opening. The 50 mile long road follows the shores of the park’s two largest lakes and hugs the cliffs below the Continental Divide. Many turnouts are located in scenic lookouts, including one lookout of Jackson Glacier, one of the largest remaining glaciers in the park.
Winding down the Going to the Sun Road on the eastern side of the park we pulled off at Sun Point on Saint Mary Lake for picnic lunch and a hike along the lake to Sunrift Gorge and Baring Falls. The wind was howling at about 35 mph as we fought our way out to Sun Point, a high rock ledge that juts out into the lake. A small tour boat was forging its way up the lake, fighting the wind gusts and waves that rocked the hull. Along the shore we were greeted by a mule deer that seemed undeterred by our presence. After a short two mile hike we returned to our car finishing the drive on the Going to the Sun Road and through the Blackfeet Indian Reservation to our cabin at Summit Lodge.
The next morning Annemarie and I were up early, anxious to begin a day hike into the Two Medicine Lakes area situated on the eastern edge of the park. With several trails leading out of the Two Medicine Lakes Campground (N.F.S.) we decided to hike the Continental Divide Trail to the summit of Scenic Point Mountain (7,522 ft.). When we arrived at the campground we were awed by the incredible views along Two Medicine Lake, into Dawson Pass with Pumpelly Pillar and Rising Wolfman Mountain towering over the valley. We were also struck by the fact that the campground was virtually empty. The other campgrounds in the park were full, not this one. I’ll be sure to make my reservation at the Two Medicine Campground next time I plan a visit to the park.
Annemarie and I began our 8 mile climb to Scenic Pont Mountain by following a stream churning with snow melt and then passing through a woodland of western pine and spruce. Within a quarter mile we emerged above tree line, and were astounded by incredible views of mountain passes, hanging cirques, lush valleys and Upper Two Medicine Lake, along with a never ending backdrop of glacially carved mountains. We weren’t long into our hike when we were greeted by several bighorn sheep grazing on the tundra vegetation of grasses and shrubs. Bighorns tend to live in large herds and occupy drier regions of mountainous area where snowfall is limited to about sixty inches per year. It’s interesting to note that the eastern part of the park is much drier than the central or western section. As we made our way to the summit of Scenic Point Mountain I came to realize that it was aptly named due to the views westward into the peaks of the park, eastward to the high plains of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, northward into Canada and Waterton Lakes National Park and southward along the spine of the Rocky Mountains.
After reaching the summit we returned by the same route and were again met by a herd of bighorn sheep, who were undeterred by our presence. Because of our early start we climbed Scenic Point without the swarms of hikers we met on our return to the campground. This was an unforgettable hike with my daughter Annemarie that will be long remembered. It also gave me a taste and a craving to return this the “Crown of the Continent.” Next year I hope to hike through the park via the Continental Divide Trail, a trek of about ten days. Any takers?
For comments or questions, Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He would happy to hear from you.