48˚ NORTH BY TRISTAN SCOTT
While Glacier National Park offers visitors a suite of gentle hikes and bikes, a panoply of beach sides, car rides and campsites accessible to all comers, many of its most prized geological features, its grandest two-mile-high views and its steepest headwalls, lay off the beaten path. They are best experienced away from the crowds, high above the roads and the riff raff, off-trail and in the midst of the Crown Jewel’s wild, inhospitable terrain.
These hikes and climbs are neither for the faint of heart nor the ill prepared, and this list is by no means a guide. Interested parties should consult a guidebook, procure a map from the ranger station, and travel with experienced hikers.
But in the immortal words of Edward Abbey: “May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.”
Rated: Strenuous, Class 2 and 3, off trail
Beta: The Floral Park traverse is a mostly off-trail route that conjoins Logan Pass (6,646 feet) to Lake McDonald (3,153 feet) and features a definitive catalog of the park’s most amazing geologic features – glacial lakes and melt ponds shimmering with mind-bending shades of turquoise-blue and marine-green; snowfields, crevasses and glaciers, stained red by algae and pockmarked by fallen ice and rock; mountain goats blithely traversing sheer rock-faces; and tenacious wildflowers that thrive in this rarefied alpine climate.
The traverse is best attempted July through September. For a thorough route description, see J. Edward Gordon’s “A Climber’s Guide to Glacier National Park.”
Gunsight Pass Trail to Lake McDonald
Rated: Strenuous, Class 1
Beta: This hike combines the beauty, distance and elevation of the Floral Park traverse without requiring the same route-finding prowess, scrambling or comfort with exposure. The entire 20-mile hike is on trail, and begins at the Jackson Glacier Overlook. Follow the trail to Gunsight Lake, then hike over Gunsight Pass (an ideal lunch spot) and descend the switchbacks to the sparkling blue waters of Lake Ellen Wilson. From there, continue to a boulder-strewn plateau, atop which sits Sperry Chalet, before beginning the six-mile descent to Lake McDonald.
Rated: Moderate, Class 1
Beta: The 240-foot Ptarmigan Tunnel, which runs through the great spine of Ptarmigan Wall, was built by members of the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930s, originally meant for horseback tours. Drilling from both sides with steel jackhammers, and with a few well-placed charges of dynamite, the workers broke through the mountain in three months. The 10.7-mile round-trip hike to the Ptarmigan Tunnel begins at the Iceberg Lake Trailhead, behind the cabins near the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn.
Ptarmigan Wall Goat Trail Traverse
Rated: Very strenuous and exposed, Class 3, off trail
Beta: This classic, pinnacle-studded alpine traverse is anchored at its southern end by Iceberg Peak and at its northern end by an unnamed feature, often referred to as “Ptarmigan Spire.” On the backside of Ptarmigan Tunnel, a goat trail hugs the sheer cliffs for nearly four miles between the Ptarmigan Tunnel (north end) and Ahern Pass (south end). The route is highly exposed but, despite some Class 3 scrambling to complete it, including a steep descent to Iceberg Lake from Iceberg Notch, is mostly a hike, albeit one that requires total concentration.
Locating the goat trail and the descent to Iceberg Lake is not difficult if climbers correctly follow the route description provided in J. Gordon Edwards’ “A Climber’s Guide to Glacier Park.”
Rated: Strenuous, Class 2 and 3
Beta: Located about four miles northeast of Logan Pass, this peak is named for the Blackfeet word “Sai-yeh,” meaning Crazy Dog, or Mad Wolf. Despite being the fifth-highest peak in Glacier Park, and one of just six peaks in the park over 10,000-feet high, summiting the peak is a strenuous but mostly non-technical scramble.
The views from the summit are unrivaled, and a vertigo-inducing glance down the steep north face is a reminder that this is one of the highest rock faces in the lower-48.
The two most common routes on Mount Siyeh (South Slope and Piegan Pass) are most easily approached via the Piegan Pass Trail, beginning at Siyeh Bend about 3 miles east of Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road.