August 6, 2013

Belly River to Many Glacier, by shuttle and tunnel


After not backpacking in Glacier National Park last summer, we returned this year and were able to pick up a permit for a route that's been at the top of our list for a while: Up the Belly River and out to Many Glacier via the Ptarmigan Tunnel.

Over the years, we've been stymied in hiking this route several times. A few times, we've gone too early and the tunnel has been closed. More often than that, we've lost out in the advance reservation process and backcountry campsites have been full when we've tried to get a last-minute "walk-in" permit. This year, we didn't get our advance reservation request, but a couple of sites were still available the morning we arrived in the park.

As has become our habit, we spent the first day lining up details of the rest of our trip, going on a dayhike and settling in for the night at the St. Mary Campground.

After getting our backcountry camping permit in Apgar, on the west side of the park, we began the 50-mile drive over Going-to-the-Sun Road to the campground on the east side. Atop the always-packed Logan Pass, we parked in a pullout along the road, cut through the crowd and scrambled up Mount Oberlin with the mountain goats.


The next day, we spent the morning in the Many Glacier area, packing and waiting for a 1 p.m. shuttle to the Chief Mountain trailhead. It made for a late, hot start to our hike, but was the only time the van ran from where we parked at our exit point to our entry near the Canadian border. (I've written in the past about using the park service and Glacier Park Inc. shuttle systems to put together point-to-point trips and still encourage it - you'll see much more than on an in-and-out hike.)

About 2 p.m., we were dropped off at the trailhead and set out for a couple of nights at scenic Cosley and Elizabeth lakes, and a long, uphill hike through Ptarmigan Tunnel and back to our car.

Day 1: Mount Oberlin


The 1,500-foot Mount Oberlin climb is one of the easiest in the park, but considering how popular the Logan Pass area is, it gets very little use. The only mention I've seen of it on the park website is on the trail/area closure page, but routes up it are described in the classic guidebook "A Climber's Guide to Glacier National Park."

Before setting out for Oberlin, we usually check with a ranger at the Logan Pass Visitor Center to make sure the area isn't closed due to sensitive plants. The trail begins a short distance northwest of the visitor center - look for the dirt track leading off the paved path behind a chain fence.

The route leads northwest through flower-filled meadows, up past a couple of small cascades on Logan Creek to a scree slope below Oberlin to the north and Mount Clements to the south. Here, the trail splits - the northern route climbs steeply through the scree, while the southern route ascends to the saddle between the mountains, then turns north and follows the rocky ridge.

We went up through the scree to reach the summit, where there are views out the McDonald and St. Mary valleys to the west and east, respectively, and across Clements to Mount Reynolds. At the top, we stopped to eat and were greeted by a mountain goat.


Having never taken the ridge route, we decided to try it on the way down. The footing is more stable, and the path fairly obvious if you pay attention to rock cairns. While it's not very technical, there are narrow ledges and a few spots that require lowering yourself down or pulling yourself up.

After passing a few more goats, we reached the saddle between Oberlin and Clements and scrambled - or, in my case, slid on the snow - back to the base of the scree slope. From there, we followed the trail to Logan Pass, stepping over the chain and back into the crowd.


Here are more photos from Mount Oberlin.

Distance: About 3 miles round trip.

Trailhead: The trail begins off the paved path northwest of the Logan Pass Visitor Center, 32 miles northeast then southeast on Going-to-the-Sun Road from West Glacier.

Day 2: Chief Mountain to Cosley Lake


The next day, we parked our car at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn and caught Glacier Park Inc.'s east-side shuttle from Many Glacier Hotel to the Chief Mountain trailhead, a couple of hundred yards shy of the Canadian border.

The trail begins by descending south into the Belly River Valley through a mixed pine and aspen forest. After three miles, the trail reaches the south bank of the river, then continues into and out of forests and meadows with views of Sentinel and Bear mountains to the west and Chief and Gable mountains to the east. It's an easy, rolling walk with little elevation gain or loss.


At about six miles, at the fence just before the Belly River Ranger Station, we turned west on the trail to Cosley Lake. A short distance later, we crossed the Belly River on a long suspension bridge, then climbed over a hill into the Mokowanis River drainage, taking in views back to the ranger station along the way. A little less than two miles later, we split off to see Gros Ventre Falls and the shady pool below it.


Back on the trail, we hiked a little more than three-quarters of a mile to the campground along the north shore of Cosley Lake. While each campsite was somewhat secluded in the trees just off the lake, all provided easy access to the pebble beach. After a hot afternoon of hiking, a swim in the cool lake relieved before dinner and a cloudless sunset with the last light glinting off Pyramid Peak, Mount Kipp, Cathedral Peak and others.


The next morning, I woke to see sunrise and the calm lake before we packed up again and headed back into the Belly River drainage.

Here are more photos from the trail to Cosley Lake.

Distance: 8 3/4 miles one way.

Trailhead: The Chief Mountain trailhead is a couple of hundred yard southeast of the U.S.-Canada border crossing on Montana Highway 17.

Day 3: Cosley Lake to Elizabeth and Helen lakes


The next morning, we started at a leisurely pace - we didn't have a long or difficult hike ahead of us, although we did want to explore once we reached our campsite at Elizabeth Lake.

After backtracking east along Cosley Lake, we turned onto a cutoff trail at the outlet. There, hikers must ford the Mokowanis River with the assistance of a cable strung from one bank to the other. Crossing was fairly simple as the water wasn't that deep or swift; Jen wore sandals and I went barefoot after leaving mine in the car to cut my pack weight.

Once on the other side, we followed the trail into the forest, rounding Cosley Ridge to the south. The route began quite overgrown, but we soon came across a trail crew that was cutting back the underbrush. About two miles from the river crossing, we reached Dawn Mist Falls, where a short path leads to the Belly River below and the main trail offers a view from above after a brief climb.


The trail roughly follows the river for about the next 1 3/4 miles, where it reaches a camp at the foot of Elizabeth Lake. We continued south along the west shore of Elizabeth to the camp at the head of the lake, Natoas Peak towering overhead.

After we set up our tent, we decided to continue south up the valley toward Helen Lake. The trail passed along the river, providing a look at fish swimming in the calm pools. After a couple of creek crossings, it arrived at a meadow with a good view up to Old Sun Glacier.


A short distance uphill and we arrived at the outlet of Helen Lake, crossing the creek and continuing on to the shore. The turquoise waters, fed by Ahern Glacier and other snowfields, made for a chilly swim, but we had plenty of time to relax on the gravelly beach afterward.

On the way back to camp, clouds began to build up, and they continued through dinnertime and after sunset. While rain wouldn't be a bother, thunderstorms could complicate the next day.


Here are more photos from Dawn Mist Falls, and Elizabeth and Helen lakes.

Distance: 5 3/4 miles one way to the head of Elizabeth Lake. Helen Lake is a little less than 5 1/2 miles round trip from there.

Day 4: Elizabeth Lake to Many Glacier


Our last morning in the park, we woke to fairly cloudy skies, hoping they would clear as we had our longest, most strenuous hike ahead of us. Before we started our trip, the forecast had been for thunderstorms to move in late that afternoon - any earlier and we could be forced to re-evaluate our route out through the mountains.

After an early breakfast, we set out back around the lake, spotting a fresh set of moose tracks at the water's edge along the way. At the outlet, we crossed a suspension bridge over the Belly River and began the 2,500-foot climb south up to Ptarmigan Tunnel.


Here, the trail steadily switchbacks up through the forest before reaching the junction for Redgap Pass and continuing across the mountainside. The pine forest started out tall but grew shorter higher on the trail, eventually disappearing along with any other foliage. With the clouds mostly gone, the views from above the valley extended from the Belly River to the north, across Elizabeth Lake to Natoas Peak, and southwest to Helen Lake and Ptarmigan Wall.

The trail continued across an open, rocky slope, turning into the towering peaks and hugging the side of a cliff. With all the climbing, we were fortunate to be on the shady side of the mountains. At the tunnel, about 4 3/4 miles above the lake, marmots scrambled among the rocks and we began to encounter an abundance of hikers who had started from the Many Glacier side.


Once through, we found ourselves in the warm sun, and after eating, we switchbacked down to Ptarmigan Lake, where the trail returned to the forest. Another 1 3/4 miles down through the trees and we arrived at the junction with the Iceberg Lake trail and, shortly thereafter, the small Ptarmigan Falls.

Most of the nearly 2 1/2 miles back down the trail from there was uneventful, with only a few views of Mount Wilbur and the Wilbur and Swiftcurrent creek drainages. For the most part, we were hiking against the crowd on their way up to Iceberg Lake, one of the most popular trails in Glacier.


Back at the trailhead, it was a short walk down the road to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, where our car was parked. We arrived with storm clouds towering overhead and a few drops of rain falling to the ground - a good time to head home!

Here are more photos from the hike through Ptarmigan Tunnel.

Distance: 11 3/4 miles one way.

Trailhead: The trailhead for Ptarmigan and Iceberg lakes is on the northwest side of road around the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn complex in the Many Glacier area.

August 4, 2013

Glacier sunset, in 11 seconds

We are recently back from Glacier National Park and are still sorting through photos, so here's a short time-lapse video for now.

The location is Cosley Lake, where we spent the first night of the backpacking portion of our trip, and the view is from the beach on the edge of our campsite.

This lime lapse is about 2 hours and 20 minutes compressed to about 11 seconds. It was created with my old Droid Incredible smartphone and the Lapse It app.