Painted Tepee Peak, sometimes called the Painted Tepee, juts out from the ridgeline of Chief Lodgepole Peak and Two Medicine Pass, and it is easily seen and admired from the shores of beautiful Two Medicine Lake. Although it is low compared to its neighbors and perhaps not even a separate mountain (it rises only about 250’ from its connecting saddle with Chief Lodgepole), it gives away nothing in form and color and draws many an eye and many a camera. It also draws the attention of climbers.
The summit offers an excellent perspective of the area. North-northeast are Two Medicine Lake and Rising Wolf Mountain. East is the imposing pinnacle Mt. Ellsworth. South to west, the view encompasses Continental Divide Peaks such as Grizzly Mountain, Chief Lodgepole Peak, and impressive Mount Rockwell, with the dramatic spire of Vigil Peak rising beyond. The view directly north is dominated by the sheer cliffs of Sinopah Mountain, the mountain that towers straight ahead and directly over Two Medicine Lake when one stands at the lake’s eastern shore.
Painted Tepee is interesting, and perhaps frustrating for some, because it is just a hike all the way to the summit, where one finds a collection of outcrops and pinnacles. Most of them require at least Class 3 scrambling to get up, and a few are Class 5. The highest of the pinnacles, and thereby the highpoint of the mountain, requires a short, exposed Class 3 scramble that borders on Class 4 (it roughly matches the description of Glacier Park Class 4).
Some other interesting things I learned about the peak while climbing it are that J. Gordon Edwards, author of the highly respected A Climber’s Guide to Glacier National Park and someone who is probably rarely wrong about anything Glacier, is wrong twice about Painted Tepee. First, he says that the highpoint is a 10’-high “balanced rock” that most people won’t be able to climb without a boost. That balanced rock is there, but it is not the highpoint; I photographed the balanced rock from the highpoint, and it was unquestionably below me. Second, Edwards says the one-way distance to Painted Tepee is 10.5 miles. The trail signs say it is 7.9 to Two Medicine Pass, making it about 8 miles to where one summits Chief Lodgepole Peak and leaves the maintained trail to hike to Painted Tepee (more in the route section). And the distance from Chief Lodgepole to Painted Tepee is a mile, if that.
Edwards suggests two different ways to climb the peak; the longer and easier of them requires about 18 round-trip miles (21 in his book) and an elevation gain of about 2500’.
The first is the hiking option, and it is simple to follow. From Two Medicine Lake, hike the South Shore Trail; at trail intersections, keep on the path for Cobalt Lake and Two Medicine Pass. After Rockwell Falls, the trail starts its first real climbing and maintains a moderate grade to Cobalt Lake, after which it climbs steeply to Two Medicine Pass on the Continental Divide. Once atop the ridgeline above the lake, the trail heads southeast for the pass, but first it approaches a minor summit called Chief Lodgepole Peak. The official trail starts descending before it reaches the summit, but a spur will take you all the way up. From the 7682’ summit, descend to a 7400’ saddle and then hike the rest of the way up Painted Tepee. Atop the summit ridge, there is a series of pinnacles and outcrops which can be bypassed by staying lower or which can be negotiated directly (specific routes will vary, but I found everything from Class 3 to low Class 5 spots as I made my way along). The “balanced rock” Edwards mentions is at the northern end of the summit ridge, where there is also a large cairn and wind shelter (the hiker’s summit). As the balanced rock comes into view, so does a spire which looks and is higher. It also looks unclimbable, but a journey to its other side reveals the route up it. It is a short scramble, but it is exposed and loose and narrow (in places just wide enough for a pair of feet). The moves are Class 3, but the exposure and the rock quality make the scramble feel more like Class 4.
There is a small cairn atop the true highpoint. It is visible from below, and it serves as confirmation that the scramble is worth doing.
Edwards’s other suggestion is to scramble up from just about anywhere around the base. I chose such a route for my descent (this cut 3 miles from my return route). Again, specific routes will vary in length and difficulty, but the one I chose, which took me back to the trail close to Rockwell Falls and was half a mile long (from the summit to the trail, that is), included all of the following: scree sliding, scrambling, a spot of Class 5 stemming, bushwhacking, and glissading. So be prepared for all of those if you try such a route.
WIND WARNING: Two Medicine Lake is one of the windiest places in the park. It is the norm and not the exception to have strong breezes blowing off the lake. When strong winds are blowing, be aware that the winds will be even stronger on the ridges. The day I climbed Painted Tepee, there were winds so strong that they would have knocked me over or pushed me off the trail had I not bent into them as I went along. Such gusts were present as I made the climb to the actual highpoint, and in one very narrow, very exposed section, I crawled a few feet, pride be damned.
It is possible to cut some distance from the trip by taking the boat across Two Medicine Lake. This option has some drawbacks, though. First, it does not save much hiking. The ride across the lake covers two miles, but it is a 1.25-mile hike from the landing to the Two Medicine Pass Trail. Since it is 2.35 miles to that junction via the South Shore Trail, the boat ride only saves about 2 miles round-trip. Second, and more importantly, the first “cruise” across the lake isn’t until 9 A.M. This means you will be in the alpine areas around the time thunderstorms typically become a concern. Also, the boats stop running around 5 or 5:30, so you might miss out on a ride back. Finally, the trail from the boat landing involves elevation gain and loss that the South Shore Trail does not. Consider all that, plus the fact that the ride costs some money, before you decide to go.
The entrance to the Two Medicine area of Glacier National Park is off MT 49; it is 4 miles north of East Glacier Park, 8 miles south of the U.S. 89/MT 49 junction (Kiowa), and 28 miles south of St. Mary, the Eastern terminus of Going-to-the-Sun Road. Drive 7 miles to the road’s end at Two Medicine Lake.
There is an entrance fee of $25, good for a week at all park entrance stations.
This is grizzly country. Be alert and know how to behave. Leave your I-Pod in the car, and remember that it’s easier to avoid bear encounters than it is to get out of them.
Camping and Lodging
The Two Medicine Campground has almost 100 sites, and all are available on a first-come, first-served basis. The nightly fee is $20 (2008). There is a store nearby. The campground usually fills late in the day or not at all.
East Glacier Park has several motels, and it is the site of the famous but expensive (and overrated, in my opinion) Glacier Park Lodge. At Kiowa, there is a nice little place called the Kiowa Resort that has small but clean rooms, quiet that East Glacier Park lacks, and very reasonable rates.