Views That Are Worth the Effort
From St. Mary Lake
The view from the summit of Mount James is undoubtedly one of the very best in Glacier National Park not requiring backpacking to reach. Set just east of the Continental Divide in the little-known Cut Bank area, and being by far the highest peak in that area, the mountain has a commanding view of some of Glacier’s best-known and most dramatic peaks. A sampling, roughly left to right facing west: Flinsch Peak, Medicine Grizzly Peak, Razoredge Mountain, Mt. Pinchot, Mt. Stimson, Triple Divide Peak, Norris Mountain, Reynolds Mountain, Split Mountain, and Mt. Siyeh. Massive Mt. Stimson probably steals the scene just because it is so huge and towers behind relatively diminutive Triple Divide Peak, but it has close competition from closer peaks like Razoredge, whose ridgelines explain the name quite well; Norris, also massive and sheer; and Split Mountain, whose challenging summit will inspire almost any climber. Also on display are extensive snowfields, several unnamed lakes and small glaciers, and a sprawling snow-filled basin reached by no trail. Because James is not on the eastern front of Glacier’s peaks, it means that there are mountains, big ones and beautiful ones, in all directions.
And you get all this for just a simple, albeit long and steep, walk-up. J. Gordon Edwards, author of the Bible of Glacier mountaineering, A Climber’s Guide to Glacier National Park
, describes the route to the top as being about 9 miles, 7 of them on a maintained trail, with about 4500’ of elevation gain. The off-trail portion of the route is Class 2 and 3. The Class 3 sections can be bypassed easily.
Come up and take a look...
Start from the trailhead at Cut Bank and follow trail signs for Triple Divide Pass. The signs indicate that the distance is 7.2 miles, but it feels a little shorter, and my GPS device confirmed that feeling both ways. However, it is better to budget your time and supplies for the longer given distance. The trail does little climbing (about 500’) for almost 5 miles (this stretch is also not very exciting, but that is the price to pay for the solitude you get in the Cut Bank area), but after the junction with the trail to Medicine Grizzly Lake, you must climb 1800’ in about 2.5 miles to reach Triple Divide Pass. Many accounts, including Edwards’s, warn that this part is hot, dry, and exhausting. In my opinion, it wasn’t that bad; although the trail climbed steadily, it lacked the types of flat sections that mean harder sections elsewhere and the very steep grades that just burn the legs and the lungs. Plus, this long climb to the pass has outstanding scenery the entire way. A word of caution, though: in late spring and early summer, especially after winters that saw heavy snowfall totals, steep snowbanks will cross the trail in places, and it will be difficult and dangerous to negotiate them without an ice axe or at least trekking poles.
Triple Divide Pass is at almost 7400’ and is more than satisfying as a destination all on its own. Spectacular views of Razoredge Mountain, Triple Divide Peak, Norris Mountain, and Split Mountain greet you. To reach Mount James, hike northeast up the long, steep ridge, making sure to turn around occasionally to take in the views that just keep getting better and better. The Class 3 sections Edwards alludes to are at the lower end of the ridge among some outcrops of dark volcanic rock. These sections are interesting and worth doing, but if you prefer to skip them, it is easy to hike around them; staying to the right of them appears to be the better way.
You will gain about 2000 vertical feet en route to the summit. Most of the hike is on talus, but it is solid most of the way, and there is mercifully little of that loose scree that makes so many Class 2 ascents unpleasant affairs. Edwards says the ridge is about two miles long, and an estimate on a map seems to back that up, but it seemed shorter based on the time it took me to get up. Again, though, plan your time and supplies for the longer distance given.
There is a register atop the summit. It contains just a few pages, and although I did not read the register, a scan showed entries from at least 2005. This peak doesn’t see a lot of visitors, and that’s all the more reason to climb it. It will be a long, tiring day for most people, but it will be worth it.
The road into the Cut Bank area leaves U.S. 89 five miles north of Kiowa (junction of MT 49 and 89) and 15 miles south of St. Mary. A gravel road winds for about 5 miles past the park boundary and a ranger station to a small parking lot just before the entrance to a campground.
The Cut Bank area may be little-known, but it is not unknown. The small parking area may be full by late morning on a weekend, and then you will have to add distance to your hiking as a result of parking farther away.
Although there is a $25 fee to enter Glacier National Park, there is no entrance station at Cut Bank.
This is prime grizzly country, so exercise due caution.
Camping and Lodging
Backcountry camping is available at Atlantic Creek. Reserving a site is strongly advised.
Backcountry camping information
If doing this as a day trip, you can camp at Cut Bank, which is small but often doesn't fill ($10). Two Medicine Campground ($20), a half-hour drive south, is larger and usually fills late or not at all. There is also a camp store there. St. Mary or Rising Sun Campground (sites can be reserved at the former) are farther away (on Going-to-the-Sun Road) but are closer to more services. Those campgrounds have a fee of $20 per night.
You could also stay at the Rising Sun Motor Inn, which is a one-hour drive from the trailhead. Historic Glacier Park Lodge is closer (in East Glacier) but more expensive.
There are motel options in Saint Mary and East Glacier as well.