A Stunning Mountain!
below prior to finalizing climbing plans for this mountain!
McDonald Peak is the highest, most dominant peak in the incomparable Mission Range of northwestern Montana. In a range of spectacular summits, McDonald Peak lords over all with its sheer bulk and cloud-scraping height. Plainly and equally arresting from either the Mission Valley to the west or the Swan Valley to the east, the mountain's appeal is unmistakable—and unavoidable—for anyone living or passing within sight of it.
The Missions are big mountains—the southern half of the range the more so, courtesy of a Continental Ice Sheet riding up and over the range's northern portion, grinding those summits to a somewhat more diminutive status than the lofty southern giants, which were subjected to serious hacking and carving, but not actually buried by the ice (there are still several relatively small, but respectable, glaciers in the Missions, including McDonald Glacier on the peak's north face). All the major peaks in the Southern Missions involve elevation gains in the vicinity of 6,000 feet, and if you are careless in your approach to McDonald (such as, from the west, not taking Red Horn Lane all the way to its end—and you'll need something a bit higher and tougher than a passenger car to do so), you could well end up climbing considerably closer to 7,000 feet than 6,000 (and even that's assuming you traverse above the Ashley Lakes...but more on that later)!
The crux of most any McDonald climb lies in the approach. The Missions receive copious precipitation that nourishes not only a deep, long-lasting snowpack on the peaks, but a dense jungle of vegetation below the snowline. There is no trail up this big mountain, and getting to treeline is 3/4ths the battle. There are approaches from both east and west that, to a certain extent, minimize the bushwhacking below treeline, but be warned—this peak, from any direction, under any conditions, at any time, is a lot of work.
It is relatively easy reaching the "trailhead" for this climb.
Minor Epic on McDonald Peak), we made the decision to eliminate as much non-trail work as possible, descending to the Ashley Lakes so as to take
So...four miles north of St. Ignatius, head east on Red Horn Lane (NOT the Ashley Lakes road, which is three miles north of St. Ignatiusthat is, one mile south of the just-mentioned Red Horn Lane). Do not veer from this eastern heading; keep going straight, eventually crossing a canal, eventually going from pavement to gravel, eventually going through a probably closed gate (close gate behind you!), and soon the road begins to deteriorate. Stay on the road (ignoring any signs such as "Dead End Road"which, of course, it eventually is), which begins to meander a bit, and also begins a steady climb. You'll need an SUV, pickup, or Jeep for comfortable progress—by off-roading standards this one is not bad, but I definitely wouldn't take a passenger car. It is approximately six miles to road's end, where there is limited space for parking—and camping, if you choose. You're where you need to be for a western assault on McDonald Peak. (As a matter of information, this is also a common starting point for climbing West McDonald Peakalthough the routes diverge within a quarter mile or so.)
Route Page, McDonald Peak from the west (Mission Valley) side.
mr kieran, the page's original maintainer. The description seems excellent, and, not having climbed McDonald from the east, I've left it just as written. See also his Southwest Face Route page.)
From the east (Swan Valley) side, the most expedient approach is via the Glacier Lake Trail. To reach the Glacier Lake Trailheadthe Mission Range's most popular trailheadtake Highway 83 north from Seeley Lake about 25 miles or south from Swan Lake about 30 miles and turn onto the Kraft Creek Road, which is actually about midway between those two points. From the north, it's just past the Hungry Bear Steakhouse, which I heartily recommend. The trailhead is about 15 miles from the turnoff (just follow the trailhead signs) and has a pit toilet and register.
To reach the base of the peak, you must first cross over the Mission divide above Island Lake, and this involves a substantial amount of bushwhacking between Heart Lake (the end of the officially maintained trail) and the outlet of Island Lake, 7 miles from the trailhead. From Island, a primitive (but mostly visible) trail climbs to the prominent Post Creek Saddle, which acts as the boundary between the Mission Mountains Wilderness (USFS) and the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness (Flathead Reservation). The area beyond is all encompassed by the Grizzly Bear Conservation Zone (see RED TAPE). You also get your first view of McDonald Peak since leaving the highway, and if you happen to be here after July 15 and before Oct 1, this a great spot to sit, eat lunch, and take in the view, 'cause this is as far as you're going.
From here (assuming the Conservation Zone isn't closed), you must immediately lose 600 or so feet of elevation to drop to Cliff Lake, aiming for the outlet which must be forded. The trail is fairly obvious from the divide to the lake, but it is steep, steep, steep. To access the southwest side of McDonald, which offers the safest line of ascent, you must work your way up the basin and around the prominent south buttress of the peak to the Ashley Creek Divide just above Icefloe Lake. Lots of steep beargrass slopes and broken cliffs make just getting to the base of the real climb pretty challenging. After all that, the ascent is a cinch.
Total approach distance from the Glacier Lake Trailhead is around 12 miles. You'll gain over 6,000 feet of elevation during the course of this venture.
Red Tape, Cautions, & Wildlife
If approaching McDonald Peak from the east, to the best of my knowledge there are no unusual restrictions or regulations in the Mission Mountains Wilderness beyond that which exist in all federally designated wilderness areas. Trails and access are generally a bit "better" than in the neighboring Tribal Wilderness (some of these trailsnot using game paths as their sourceactually have switchbacks!), and permits are not required to camp alongside lakes, or in the backcountry. For information on the very different management philosophies and styles of the Mission Mountain Tribal Wilderness and the Mission Mountain Wilderness, this link will take you to the Mission Range page.
grizzly country [an excellent, informative link!]; they insist on being left alone—disagreement on that point is not an argument you’ll win! Bear spray and noise should be part of every foray you make into the back country. Black bears will be found in the forests, grizzlies commonly venture onto the above-timberline tundra, sometimes, when in pursuit of such delicacies as ladybugs or cutworm moth larva, even to the summits (see McDonald Peak Grizzly Closure information above)!
In addition to the wildlife already mentioned, the Missions are home to elk, Canadian lynx, bobcat, deer, wolves, the occasional grumpy wolverine (all wolverines are grumpyit's a rule with them), badgers, martens, innumerable rodents large and small, both bald and golden eagles, osprey, and loons (over 50 different species of birds!), and flowers. And to top it all off, in the spring of 2005, a pair of trumpeter swans took up residence on the Mission's eastern flank, nesting on one of the Seeley-Swan Valley's many lakes. The female was killed when she flew into power lines, but the male raised the cygnets, and the fervent hope is that the family will return each summertrumpeter swans are wonderful!
When To Climb, & Necessary Equipment
In TributeOn March 1, 2011, Vernon Garner, Saintgrizzly, left us after losing a bold, inspiring fight against pancreatic cancer. Or maybe he won, for he is at last free of his pain and has "shuffle[d] off this mortal coil."
Vernon was an important contributor on SummitPost, but beyond merely making good, informative pages, he actually inspired many who read his work. No one put more work into his or her pages than Vernon did, and many of those pages, especially those related to Glacier National Park, the place he loved above all others, are works of art in both the writing and layout. More than one person has wanted to visit Glacier or go back to Glacier largely due to what he shared about that magnificent place.
Many people on SP counted Vernon among their friends, and many more saw him as one of the best, one of those who exemplified the spirit of this site. He was one of the best of us, he will be missed, and he will not be forgotten.
As a tribute to him, Vernon's pages will remain in his name. Any member who sees a need for an addition or correction should please contact site management via the "Send PM to the Elves" feature.
Rest well and climb on, Vernon.