The winter 2005 edition of The Inside Trail, a quarterly newsletter published by the non-profit Glacier Park Foundation, is dedicated to the memory of the late Gordon Edwards. Author of the classic A Climber's Guide to Glacier National Park, Edwards legacy still lives on as his vivid, enthusiastic route descriptions continue to guide and inspire climbers to this day. In this newsletter, I was particularly struck by a wonderful black and white photograph of Gordon and his daughter Jane on a cliff face accompanied by the following caption: "Gordon and Jane traversing one of the many goat trails he 'sniffed' out over his half-century of exploration in Glacier Park". His knack for not only identifying these ancient trails, but sharing their secrets with others, is perhaps his greatest legacy. Anytime I find myself on one of his goat trail routes, I am so floored by the experience that I have a difficult time putting it into words. I feel lucky, like I've stumbled upon some old secret world. It's a place where crumbly trails, carved into the changing landscape by the regular beat of the goat's hoof, take seemingly impossible shortcuts to some incredible destinations.
Yellow Mountain is one of those places that is perhaps best reached by the way of the goat. It is a somewhat remote and obscure peak located in the northeastern corner of the park, and it does not see much human activity. The landscape is covered by a rocky kaleidoscope of colors: red, grey, black, green, white, and of course, yellow. It is a place where I have seen more mountain goats than anywhere else in Glacier. They seem to love it out here. Countless goat superhighways crisscross wild basins and meander along the top of Yellow's incredibly long summit ridge. It's an absolutely perfect area for them to spend the short summer months. And it's a great place for hikers to spend a day in some rugged and spectacular country.
The Many Glacier Valley from the park boundary.
Yellow Mountain is located between the popular Many Glacier Valley and Chief Mountain in the northeastern section of Glacier National Park. It is several air miles northeast of Many Glacier Hotel, which provides the most practical starting point for any long day excursions to the peak. Many Glacier is accessed from US-89 via the small, unincorporated town of Babb, Montana. A paved, pothole ridden road winds 12 miles from Babb to its terminus one mile past the hotel at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn; this is the only way to enter Many Glacier via automobile. Babb is located 8 miles north of St. Mary, a small, busy tourist village at the east entrance of Going-to-the-Sun Road, and 11 miles south of the US-Canadian border crossing at the Port of Piegan in Carway, Alberta.
Two approach options exist further to the north from Montana Highway 17 (Chief Mountain Highway), a bumpy paved road that begins four miles north of Babb off US-89. They will be discussed in some detail in the "Route Information" section below.
All paths to Yellow Mountain require a long cross country approach. In my opinion, the most exciting and scenic approach begins at the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trailhead near Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. The route has everything: a beautiful trail to start, a manmade tunnel, miles of windswept ridgetops and a few thrilling goat trail. This starting point enables parties to plan for a nearly complete loop route ending at the Poia Lake Trailhead two miles east down the entrance road. I recommend stashing a car at your end point; the prospect of hiking along the road at dusk for two miles, thumbing for a ride, is less than ideal after 10+ hours on the mountain.
Elevation gained from the trailhead to the summit is 3,900 feet, with lots of ups and downs along the way. I estimate that there is an additional 2,000+ feet of elevation gained when it's all said and done. As for distance, the loop route from Ptarmigan Trailhead to the Poia Lake Trailhead is around 21 miles long. Nearly half is off trail, so this route will take even strong hikers at least 10 hours to complete, but it could take as long as 14. A special note: many hikers are frustrated by 1,400 foot climb out of Poia Lake over Swiftcurrent Ridge. It's a tiring stretch, and disappointing in that you lose the 1,400 feet right back over the final three miles to the trailhead. I guess what I'm trying to say is, plan your day accordingly. Wait for good weather, and do not attempt the goat trail before the middle of July without ice axe, crampons, and the ability to use them. Since this route may be a stretch for a day trip for some folks, I'll discuss options for shorter outings that involve backcountry camping further down the page.
PTARMIGAN TUNNEL TO REDGAP PASS GOAT TRAIL
Please visit my route page for diagrams, photos, and descriptions of this exciting shortcut. Start at the Ptarmigan/Iceberg Trailhead behind the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. Hike 2.5 miles to Ptarmigan Falls, and just past this nice cascade the trail splits uphill and climbs steadily to Ptarmigan Lake. From the lake, three enormous switchbacks lead to the north to Ptarmigan Tunnel, a fantastic destination in its own right. Pass through the tunnel, and take in the spectacular view north to Elizabeth Lake. About 1/2 mile downhill, you can scramble off trail up and to the right to locate a marvelous goat trail that provides a shortcut to Redgap Pass.
Left: The start of the route from Ptarmigan Tunnel. Center: Looking down the start of the goat trail. Right: Looking back at the goat trail from Redgap Pass.
View west from Seward Mountain.
The first hump.
From Redgap Pass, there are two options, one of which includes the tiring, but easy class II slog up Seward Mountain. It's 1,400 feet, takes no more than an hour, and affords spectacular views. To continue to Yellow Mountain, simply follow the summit ridge east-southeast. The other option from Redgap Pass is to locate and follow a fantastic network of of game trails that lead east across the great scree-covered south slope of Seward. Both routes head towards a small sharp red hump that protrudes on the ridge, where a well-worn game trail leads easily around the north face.
Bypass this prominent outcropping on the south (left in this photo).
Keep going! The summit block is hidden from view behind this rounded hump.
Cross over to the east side of the ridge and follow it towards the northeast. It's best to descend a bit here as well, as the ridgetop rises to a small hump and soon ends in rotten cliffs. Work down through class III cliffs toward easier terrain, then continue northward to pass beneath the cliffy hump. Regain the ridge and follow it toward a prominent yellowish tan peak, bypassing below cliffs on the east (right). As you continue eastward, take note of the broad ridge that branches off to the southeast; this is the fastest and easiest way back to Poia Lake, a solid human trail, and eventually civilization.
Continuing on, detour around the next small rounded summit, where the summit block finally comes into view. The view to the east is mesmerizing, as the rocks transition to a brilliant yellow hue. The summit cairn is located at the eastern end of the block. The actual high point is NOT yellow, and it is nothing more than a tiny rise on top of a broad pile of rocks. Although the summit itself is not that spectacular, the views certainly are! The ridge continues on for what seems like forever, and could be followed all the way toward the east summit of Yellow (marked at 8,655 on topo maps), but this would certainly add time to an already long day. Gordon Edwards describes this area as a "garish moonscape", which I believe is quite fitting.
Approaching the summit block (left). The long summit ridge transitions to its namesake yellow hue in the background.
Looking back at descent route from meadows west of Poia Lake.
To descend to Poia Lake, retrace your steps to the west along the winding ridge. A gorgeous blue lake sits in the desolate basin to the south. Turn south (left) and follow the ridgetop to the southeast as it hooks high above the lake. Stick to the ridgetop for better footing, and climb over the top of a wide hump for a good vantage point of the surrounding terrain. Eventually, Poia Lake comes into view far below. Locate one of many open grassy slopes that lead easily downhill. If cliffs are encountered, look for easy detours. Just keep working your way down on mostly class II terrain, and soon open meadows and the foot trail will be reached a short distance west of Poia Lake. Head east on the trail, which follows the north end of the lake until crossing a footbridge at the outlet. In a minute you'll pass the Poia Lake backcountry campsite, and from here it's 6.5 miles to the trailhead on the Many Glacier entrance road. As I mentioned at the beginning of the routes section, the first half of this trail hike tends to be extremely frustrating. It climbs some 1,400 feet through the thick forest over 3.25 miles to gain the crest of Swiftcurrent Ridge. From here, it's another 3.25 miles, and you guessed it, 1,400 feet of elevation lost to the road. Hopefully you will have a car waiting with a couple of ice cold beers in it; otherwise, it's a one mile walk along the road to the hotel, and one additional mile to the Ptarmigan Trailhead.
Alternate Exit Point
There is a way to cut off two miles of trail hiking from Poia Lake back to the Many Glacier entrance road. Shortly after the trail crosses its high point over Swiftcurrent Ridge and begins its descent to the south, there is a split. A steep marked trail breaks off the left, losing 1,400 feet in just over a mile. It terminates at the Many Glacier entrance station. If you are utilizing multiple vehicles to complete this route, consider stashing a car here instead of the Poia Lake Trailhead.
POIA LAKE APPROACH
It's much shorter to start at either of the Poia Lake trailheads located off the Many Glacier entrance road. Keep in mind that shorter is relative, as a day outing would still likely require 10 hours. If you would like to cut down on the long approach, there is a decent backcountry site at Poia Lake that would serve as a nice base camp. Simply retrace the descent route I outlined above. The route will miss most of the splendid ridge walk, and will not be anywhere near as exciting as the goat trail to Redgap Pass. The Poia Lake Trailhead is one mile east of Many Glacier Hotel and has parking for maybe 10 cars. The alternate starting point, the shortcut from Many Glacier entrance station, cuts off two miles one way on a very steep trail.
SLIDE LAKE APPROACH
Yellow Mountain viewed from the outlet of beautiful Slide Lake.
In 1914, a large rockslide occurred on the north slopes of Yellow Mountain. It dammed a large creek draining the rugged valley, and Slide Lake was formed. There is a great backcountry site at the lake, and on a trip to nearby Gable Mountain in June of 2012, I noted that Yellow could be approached from open meadows a few miles west of Slide Lake. There are two trails that lead to Slide Lake. One begins at the Lee Ridge Trailhead 1/2 miles south of the Canadian border on Montana Highway 17 (Chief Mountain Highway). It's eight beautiful miles up Lee Ridge, over Gable Pass, and down to Slide Lake. Otherwise, a gravel road leads across the Blackfeet Indian Reservation to the park boundary and the Slide Lake Trailhead. Inquire locally for directions. The trail travels for about six miles through forest to the lake. From the campground, follow trails around the north shore of Slide Lake. Ford the shallow creek above the head of the lake and head west through mixed timber and meadows. In a short while, the ruins from an old mining cabin are reached, backed by a tremendous waterfall a bit farther to the west. Easy routes exist around the east side of the falls. Follow game trails under the impressive crumbly cliffs of Yellow Mountain, and soon a series of broken meadows is reached. Continue to the southwest, and the cliffs will give way to a very broad drainage that climbs up hill to the southeast. Follow the drainage all the way to the ridgetop, to a point just west of the summit. Walk the easy ridge to the summit from there.
Please note that I have not completed this route. I know a party that started at Poia Lake, climbed up to Yellow Mountain via the "Alternate Poia Lake Route" mentioned below, and descended to the meadows far west of Slide Lake in late summer 2011. They reported no difficulties whatsoever on their descent.
ALTERNATE POIA LAKE ROUTE
The group that I mentioned above took an interesting ascent route from near Poia Lake that is at least worth noting. On the Many Glacier National Geographic Topo Map, Point 6432 is marked just to the east of Poia Lake. Several drainages confluence in the vicinity of this point, and eventually tumble over a large cliff into Kennedy Creek in the form of a beautiful waterfall. The group began climbing a bit east of the falls, heading generally towards Point 6432, from where they simply followed the incredible ridge towards Sherburne Peak. They did not venture out to Sherburne, but rather followed the ridge over Yellow's east summit (8,655 feet) all the way to the main west summit. From there, they descended to the northwest and camped in the expansive meadows of the Seward Mountain drainage. The next day they hiked over Gable Pass and down Lee Ridge in what sounds like an incredible trip! I hope to attempt this alternate ascent route in 2013, and will be certain to update this page when I have more information.
Yellow Mountain affords a very interesting vantage point, and there are great views in all directions. The wild Otatso Creek drainage to the north is bordered by the impressive boulder fields surrounding Gable and Chief mountains. Mount Merritt and Mount Cleveland rise prominently to the west. All the major peaks of the Many Glacier Valley are visible, and its enjoyable to pick them out from this unique vantage point.
When to Climb
Due to extreme winters along the Continental Divide, problematic snow can linger on trails and mountain slopes well into July and August. Hence, the climbing season in Glacier is rather short, and often begins in June and can last into October, weather permitting. However, some lower peaks and southern facing slopes can be safely attempted much earlier in the season. Your best bet is to inquire locally about snowpack and weather conditions. I use the NOAA for detailed weather forecasts for the greater Glacier area; check out the website here.
Snow will greatly complicate the goat trail connecting Ptarmigan Tunnel to Redgap Pass, so it's best not to attempt this route before mid-July. Some amount of snow will likely remain on/near the goat trail for the duration of the summer, but enough melts off to where a safe path can be taken. If you arrive at the entrance to the goat trail and find the path blocked by snow, it's best just to turn around and live to see another day. I would not expect to encounter any other problematic snow on the long Yellow Mountain ridge, except during a very early season ascent.
The Yellow Mountain ridge is incredibly long, and very exposed. Afternoon thunderstorms are common during the summer in the northern Rockies, and I can speak from experience that this ridge is a very bad place to be when the weather turns. It's best to attempt this ridge walk when the forecast is in your favor.
Where to Stay
The Many Glacier Valley affords three different lodging options. There are 110 sites at the beautiful and popular Many Glacier Campground near the end of the main entrance road. The campground almost always fills well before noon during the busy summer months and there are NO RESERVATIONS, so I recommend arriving very early in the morning to ensure you obtain a site. Cost is $20 per night as of 2012. Visit the NPS website for more information on camping throughout the park. The historic Many Glacier Hotel sits on the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake, and offers spectacular views of Grinnel Point, Mount Gould, and Mount Wilbur. The hotel is also very popular, and is often booked solid for the short time it's open (first week of June to late September). The hotel recommends booking at least six months in advance if at all possible. Finally, the more modest cabins at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn are available for about half the price of a hotel room. The Motor Inn sits right next to the campground, and provides easy access to some great trails and decent pizza. Refer to this website for information on booking at Many Glacier Hotel or Swiftcurrent Motor Inn.
Permits are required for all backcountry camping in Glacier. Sites at Poia Lake and Slide Lake are the best jumping points for Yellow Mountain if you wish to avoid a very long day trip. Click for here for information regarding backcountry camping, or inquire at the nearby Many Glacier or St. Mary ranger stations.
Other places to stay outside of the park but within close proximity to the Many Glacier area can be found in Babb, Duck Lake, and St. Mary.
Red Tape, Wildlife, etc.
A fee is required for all persons entering Glacier National Park. As of 2012, single vehicle rates were $25 for a seven day pass, or $35 for an annual park pass. A full explanation of the entrance fees can be found here.
Glacier is subject to extreme winter weather conditions, and as such, much of the park is virtually innaccessible for the majority of the year. The Going-to-the-Sun Road is completely only open from mid-June to mid-September, and as such, many of the civilzed areas of the park (including the historic lodges and many of the campgrounds) operate for a short window as well. All of the services in Many Glacier are closed by the end of September, and after it starts snowing, the road is not plowed until May, so plan your trip accordingly.
The ancient rock in Glacier National Park tends to be quite crumbly and rotten; as such, a special rock grading system has been developed to help climber's safely approach peaks throughout the park. Refer to the Glacier Mountaineering Society's website for detailed information.
The park is home to lots of potentially dangerous wildlife, including moose, black bear, grizzly bear, and mountain lions. Hike loud, carry bear deterrant spray (and know how to use it!), and let someone know your intended route before heading out into the park.
Pick up a copy of J. Gordon Edwards classic A Climber's Guide to Glacier National Park. It's an absolute must for anyone who wants to safely venture to one of the park's many accessible mountain summits. His route information is often invaluable, and it will introduce you to many exciting climbs and off-trail hikes scattered all throughout the park.
Visit the FANTASTIC Glacier National Park page, a labor of love by late Summitpost member sainitgrizzly (R.I.P.), or the NPS page for more detailed information.
Thanks to my buddy Josh Olson for helping with some route information and photographs. I ran into a nasty storm on my trip to Yellow Mountain on July 19, 2010; the weather didn't afford me much spare time to stop and take photos. His contributions are greatly appreciated. Special thanks to Zach Eagan, my climbing partner for this 14 hour epic!
Due to Yellow Mountain's enormous size and relatively remoteness, it is a difficult peak to capture via photograph. Here are two shots that provide different perspectives on this great mountain.
Left: Yellow Mountain from nearby Apikuni Mountain. Right:Viewed from Gable Pass.