OverviewGlacier National Park affords an amazing array of outdoor opportunities that will undoubtedly satisfy hikers and mountaineers of all abilities. I first visited Glacier in 2007 and was completely humbled by the beauty and varied terrain of some of the park's popular maintained trails: Hidden Lake, Siyeh Pass, and the Highline. After completing these hikes, I felt like a whole new world opened up to me, one of day-long slogs over high mountain passes and steep approaches to high alpine lakes. However, after returning to the park the following summer as an employee of the park's main concessioner, I was introduced to the exciting world of off-trail hiking and climbing throughout the park. I learned that most of the park's faraway peaks and hidden lakes were accessible in one way or another. I learned how to route find, how to scramble up loose couloirs, what a game trail looks like, and what the true meaning of the word "exposure" is. It was an unbelievable experience. I felt truly privileged to know that I was one of the few people with the grit and wits to venture from the beaten path and partake in some very wild adventures. I returned to work in the park the summer of 2009, and was fortunate to experience the park even further.
One of my absolute favorite treks of the summer involved a wonderful mix of hiking and scrambling throughout the areas surrounding Ptarmigan Tunnel, Redgap Pass, and the Kennedy Creek drainage. J. Gordon Edwards' "Climber's Guide to Glacier National Park" gives the hardy hiker a seemingly never-ending amount of routes to various summits and destinations to some of the lesser visited areas of the entire park. I highly recommend the guide to anyone who is up for a serious adventure in Glacier, as his descriptions are quite detailed, and the tips he provides greatly increase one's chances of safely and successfully returning home after an exciting voyage through some of Glacier's pristine backcountry. Having followed Edwards' advice to various spots in the park the previous year, I came back with the desire to visit as many places as possible, weather and time permitting. Under the Many Glacier section of his guide, Edwards describes an exciting time saving route from the Ptarmigan Tunnel area to Redgap Pass. After starting from the Swiftcurrent parking area and hiking through Ptarmigan Tunnel, the route heads off-trail, and after a short scramble involves a tantalizing stretch on one of Glacier National Park's famed goat trails to Redgap Pass. From the pass, I decided to make the easy yet tiring class II-III scramble up to the summit of Seward Mountain, located just a 1/2 mile to the north. Returning to the Many Glacier Hotel via the Redgap Pass/Poia Lake Trail, the 20 plus mile trip allowed me to see a large chunk of the northeastern part of the park in just one day. The follow route description will help aid in properly completing this amazing day hike.
I've never been on the Ptarmigan Wall Goat Trail connecting Ptarmigan Tunnel to Ahern Pass, but I've heard it's arguably the most exciting stretch of hiking you'll find anywhere. It truly is supposed to be the pinnacle of goat engineering, and I thought I'd take a second to pause and give praise to the fantastic stewards of Glacier National Park that allow us to grace their precipitious trails. There's nothing I love more than to see these guys in their natural environment, perched safely atop some impossible ledge, looking down at all the world below them. The places they are able to get themselves tend to truly defy logic. Thanks goats!
Getting ThereNational Park Service website. The Many Glacier campground provides direct access to the route trailhead; it is the busiest of Glacier's car campgrounds and often fills well before noon during the peak summer months. Other accommodations in the region include the historic 214 room Many Glacier Hotel, beautifully perched on the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake, or the more modest cabins at Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. Both the Hotel and the Motor Inn are exceptionally popular, and room reservations are recommended well in advance at both locations. Refer to http://www.glacierparkinc.com/Lodging/PropertyDetails.asp?id=3&prop=M for information on rates and bookings.
Many Glacier Hotel to Ptarmigan Tunnel
First, and most importantly, START EARLY!!! Altogether, this route has lots of ups and downs, a long off-trail stretch that requires some route finding, and an approximate distance of 21+ miles. Thus, expect the entire route to take even the hardiest hiker upwards of 10 hours.
The route can be started from either the Many Glacier Hotel or the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn/Many Glacier Campground. Both will require a mile long walk along the shoulder of Many Glacier Road at the end of the hike. This can be a frustrating way to end a long day, so I will provide two slightly different return ideas at the end of the route. One involves the aforementioned road slog, the other a steep, downhill stretch of trail to the Many Glacier entrance station. Having completed this route from my backdoor at the Many Glacier Hotel, I'll describe it from there.
An extremely popular nature trail around Swiftcurrent Lake can be accessed from a beach on the lake's northeast corner; start here. Almost as soon as you've started, you'll encounter a split in the trail; follow the horse trail to the right, across Many Glacier Road. The trail winds through patches of forest for about 1 1/2 miles until joining up with the shared Iceberg Lake/Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail (trailhead begins from a small parking lot behind the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn - you can start the route from here as well). From there, this very popular trail follows the grassy, open slopes flanking Mount Henkel while very gently heading uphill. There are fantastic views down Swiftcurrent Valley, with the impressive east face of Mount Wilbur looming above all.
Crowfeet Mountain. Soon, serene Ptarmigan Lake is reached. If time affords it, take a rest here and enjoy the spectacular scenery, and keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. In several trips to Ptarmigan Lake, I've witnessed: two wolverines, bighorn sheep, a bull moose, mountain goats, male marmots fighting, and yes, even ptarmigans. The outlet is a great place to pump water; I'd highly recommend filling here, as there are no dependable sources of water for the next few hours of hiking. The main trail goes around the west side of the lake; however, there are some game trails along the lake's east shore as well, if you'd like to take a slight detour just off the beaten path. Notice the loose, scree-covered hillside to the north; three long, slicing switchbacks head uphill 700 feet over 0.9 miles to spectacular Ptarmigan Tunnel. Altogether, you should be able to cover the 6.2 miles from the hotel to the tunnel in no more than 3 hours.
Ptarmigan Tunnel to Redgap Pass via Goat Trail
Traveling through Ptarmigan Tunnel is truly an enlightening experience; as you exit the tunnel to the north, one of the more breathtaking trail vistas in Glacier National Park lights up in front of you. The lush Belly River drainage reaches out towards the plains of Alberta, Canada, with long, slender Elizabeth Lake inhabiting the valley's head. Study the colorful, crumbly cliffs to the northeast. The jagged ridge top looks quite inaccessible, but look for a large, noticeable notch in the top of the wall. In a short while, you'll begin your ascent to said notch. The next stretch of trail is quite memorable, as it begins its descent towards Elizabeth Lake. Steep green cliffs tower to the right and a red rock retaining wall protecting hikers from the steep drop borders the trail to the left. A few minutes downhill from the tunnel, the east face of Mount Merritt, flanked by glistening Old Sun Glacier, comes into view. Continuing on, the trail bends directly west around a tongue of scree; keep your eyes peeled, because this is the correct place to cut off-trail. Slog uphill through the scree, eventually angling up and to the left to stay safely beneath the steep green wall. Soon a broad drainage gully with smooth bands of grey and red rock is reached; cross it, and follow faint game trails and easy class II ledges beneath the cliffs. The trail becomes more solid as you continue uphill, and looking over your shoulder, Ahern Peak, Ahern Glacier, and Ipasha Peak all fully come into view. Continue to follow the most obvious route the hillside, with more and more peaks coming into view to the southwest. Soon, a broad, flat, lichen-covered rock is reached, which provides great views Mount Wilbur, Iceberg Peak, and Ptarmigan Tunnel. The head of Elizabeth Lake is visible, and to the west, one can catch a glimpse of the summit of Mount Cleveland. Scrambling upwards, the game trail comes around the bend to the right, and the notch in the wall is just a little ways further.
Heaven's Peak, one of the more photographed peaks in the park. Swiftcurrent Glacier also comes into sight, as do the peaks surrounding the Logan Pass area. After approximately 1/2 mile, the trail heads towards a narrow notch bordered by several chunky fingers of rock. Here's where the real fun begins. Straight ahead lies a marvelous goat trail, and Gordon Edwards describes the scene as follows: "A look down through that notch toward Redgap will surprise and delight even the most jaded mountaineer." Descend through the notch and down the goat trail, taking care to traverse the loose rock that litters the trail. A few class III stretches are encountered during the descent, but generally the exposure is never too severe, and I actually felt quite safe during the entire traverse. After 10-15 minutes a long, red saddle is reached, and many easy routes can be followed downhill to Redgap Pass (7,520 ft.). The pass should be reached in no more than 1.5 hours from Ptarmigan Tunnel.
Seward Mountain (8,917)
By this point, you've hiked and scrambled over nearly 8 miles on rugged, varied terrain, and you're a long way from anywhere! Redgap Pass requires a fair amount of fortitude to visit. It's seldom seen due to its remoteness; many of its visitors simply pass over it near the start or finish of a long backpacking journey through the heart of the park. Aside from the goat trail, there are two maintained approaches: 1) from the Poia Lake trailhead, its 12 miles one way with 3,115 feet of elevation gain, and 2) hike steeply downhill through Ptarmigan Tunnel 2.5 miles to the junction with Redgap Pass Trail, with 1,500 feet of elevation gain over 2 miles to the pass. Thus, although it will likely have taken 5+ hours to get to Redgap Pass via the goat trail, it is far and away the easiest, shortest route. With all the extra time you've saved, why not bag a peak along the way? Lying directly north of Redgap Pass is Seward Mountain. From the pass, it's a tiring, yet interesting class II scramble to the summit, which should take about an hour. I simply scrambled up loose scree and talus up the mountain's southwest ridge, and by the time I reached the rounded red summit, about 6 hours had lapsed since my departure from Many Glacier Hotel.
Chief Mountain dominating the landscape. A kaleidoscope of colored rock stretches out to the north across Seward Saddle towards pointed Gable Mountain. Mount Cleveland stands formidably to the west, with icy Vulture Peak behind. And views to the south are simply stunning! My journal entry from the summit reads as follows: "Divide, Siyeh, Allen, Blackfoot, Piegan, Jackson, Reynolds, Gould, Gunsight, Cannon, Heaven's Peak, Vulture, Iceberg, CANADA! EVERYTHING IS VISIBLE!" Needless to say, Seward's summit treated me awfully well.
From Seward, angle down soft scree slopes to the trail east of Redgap Pass. If care is taken, you can quickly descend the mountain in about 1/3 of the time it took to climb. The rest of the route is pretty self explanatory from here; it's about 6 miles to Poia Lake from Redgap Pass, and after some scenic switchbacks for less than two miles east of the pass, the trail enters a heavily forested area that offers sporadic views at best. Beautiful Kennedy Creek can be spotted, and most certainly heard, at times, and the slopes of Apikuni and Yellow Mountains can be glimpsed. After 3 miles in the trees, patchy open areas filled with gorgeous grasses and flowers are encountered. Poia Lake is soon reached. From the campground at the foot of the lake, it's a tiring 6 miles back to Many Glacier Road and the trailhead for Poia Lake/Apikuni Falls. It's another mile along the road back to the hotel.
Rather than hike the full 6 miles back to Many Glacier Road, there is an alternative trail that can be used to save time and energy. After 3 frustrating miles uphill from Poia Lake, the trail briefly follows the shores of Swiftcurrent Ridge Lake. A short while after the lake, the trail splits; Poia Lake Trailhead is about 3 miles down the right fork, and the Many Glacier entrance station is only 1 mile down the left fork. I've never taken the left fork, but my understanding is that it is incredibly steep, and in no more than 20 minutes will the entrance station be reached. If possible, why not park a car here at the beginning of the day and have it ready and waiting? Or just take your chances hitching a ride 4 miles to the hotel or 5 miles to the campground; you very likely won't have to wait long, as people tend to be more open to hitchers in the national park.
Essential GearOne more plug for J. Gordon Edwards' A Climber's Guide to Glacier National Park. Great route descriptions of peaks all throughout the park. I would also highly recommend bringing a compass and a map for the off-trail sections of the route, as well as for identifying peaks from the majestic summit of Seward Mountain.
The Many Glacier Valley is home to many dangerous animals, including mountain lions, black bears, and grizzly bears. Bring bear spray, a buddy to hike with, a loud voice, and you should be fine.
Bring water, or plan to treat water along the way. After Ptarmigan Lake, you'll likely be without water for several hours, and you'll be expending a lot of energy on the off-trail portions of the route. The next realistic place for dependable water is a few miles east of Redgap Pass, so filter as much as possible from the outlet at Ptarmigan Lake.
Sturdy, dependable hiking boots, first aid kit, rain gear, warm clothes, etc. All the necessary items for strenuous off-trail mountain scrambling and hiking.
The entire Many Glacier region is prime grizzly and black bear habitat; hence, it is necessary to take special precautions while hiking. The first four miles of the route cross the slopes of Mount Henkel and Altyn Peak, which are routinely closed for significant portions of the summer season to allow bears to forage for a variety of food. Bear sightings occur on these slopes on a daily basis, especially in latter half of July and most of August. The trail to Ptarmigan Tunnel also is closed occasionally, as is the trail from Poia Lake to Many Glacier Road. Make sure to enquire about bear warnings and follow all recommended precautions for safely hiking in bear country.
The rock at Glacier National Park is extremely old, and is notoriously loose and crumbly. Hence, extra caution needs to be exercise whenever hiking and climbing off-trail. In particular, after passing through Ptarmigan Tunnel and heading uphill towards the notch in the wall, it is extremely important to be aware of other hikers below you on the maintained trail. The stretch of trail between the tunnel and Elizabeth Lake is very popular with backpackers, you likely won't be the only hiker in this area at any given time. It would be very easy to send a large rock mercilessly tumbling down the side of the wall, potentially falling onto an unsuspecting hiker below. While scrambling up the wall, look back occasionally to make sure the trail is clear before moving through especially loose patches of terrain.
Things change suddenly in the mountains, and every alpinist has seen clear blue mornings turn into violent, stormy afternoons in the matter of an instant. Be aware of your surroundings, and find shelter or turn around if the weather worsens.
Fortunately, this route typically is not possible until sometime in July of each summer, as its completion is dependent on the opening of Ptarmigan Tunnel. Thus, snow shouldn't be too much of a problem along the way, except for one important stretch: the goat trail traverse to Redgap Pass. Gordon Edwards warns that if snow covers any part of the trail, an ice axe and crampons would be absolutely necessary to ensure a safe crossing. I wholeheartedly agree.