J. Gordon Edwards' A Climber's Guide to Glacier National Park is considered by many to be a classic by alpine enthusiasts. It extensively covers many interesting routes to the park's towering, jagged summits, and provides the serious adventurer with a seemingly endless array of mountaineering and off-trail hiking opportunities throughout the park. Although Edwards' text is incredibly thorough, there are some peaks that were omitted from his guide, likely due to the fact that not every single peak and route could be climbed and documented by the man himself. I feel like these mountains may be overlooked by mountaineers, as the uncertainty involved with exploring an uncharted route up a distant peak can seem very daunting, time-consuming, and impractical. Seward Mountain, located north of Redgap Pass in the northeastern sector of the park, is one of these mountains.
Seward Mountain was named so by George Bird Grinnell, naturalist, explorer, and early advocate of preserving the wonders of what would become Glacier National Park. He coined the term "Crown of the Continent" to describe the entire area, a name that still applies to not only the park but the surrounding ecosystem encompassing portions of Waterton Lakes National Park to the north and the Bob Marshall Wilderness to the south. Grinnell named the peak in honor of William H. Seward, Secretary of State under President Lincoln. I am not sure if Mr. Seward had any actual connection to the park, but nonetheless, the mountain has been named as such, and the following page will provide photographs and route information about one of the lesser-known gems of Glacier National Park.
Seward Mountain is located in the northeast sector of Glacier National Park. The nearest developed area within the park is Many Glacier, which is accessed from US-89 in the small, unincorporated town of Babb, MT. A windy, pothole ridden 12 mile paved road leads from Babb to its terminus in the Swiftcurrent Valley; this is the only way to enter Many Glacier via automobile. Babb is 8 miles north of St. Mary, a small, busy tourist village that sits at the easternmost extent of the famed Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Many Glacier can also be accessed via several well-maintained trails. The Highline Trail passes Grante Park Chalet, and detouring east over the Continental Divide on the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail will bring hikers to Many Glacier Campground and Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. The spectacular Piegan Pass Trail, which originates at Siyeh Bend east of Logan Pass on Going-to-the-Sun Road, ends along the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake right next to the Many Glacier Hotel. Hikers coming in from the Belly River Valley can also climb up the steep trail through Ptarmigan Tunnel, which terminates at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn.
Seward Mountain is not a difficult summit to attain from a technical standpoint; scrambling the 1,400+ feet up its southwest ridge is rather tiring, but it is primarily Glacier NP Class II, with the occasional short class III stretch. However, due to the mountain's rather remote location, climbing it in one day will require a great amount of stamina and fortutude. As such, why not consider climbing Seward Mountain as part of a backcountry camping excursion? Redgap Pass can be accessed via two established trails and one fantastic off-trail route, all three of which will be discussed here.
Poia Lake Trail
One Way Distance: approximately 12.75 miles, 12 on human trail
Elevation Gain: approximately 4,000 feet
The Poia Lake Trail begins about 1 mile east of the Many Glacier Hotel, and shares a parking area off the north side of the road with the Apikuni Falls Trail. The trail climbs 1,000 feet over the first 3.5 miles through dense forest, with scenic views limited to a few open meadows along the trail. The trail reaches the crest of Swiftcurrent Ridge, and skirts the west shore of a lake bearing the same name. From the lake, the trail descends into the Kennedy Creek drainage, and again, scenery is limited. Eventually the forest is left behind, and the trail winds through large blocks of talus between the bulks of Apikuni Mountain (south) and Yellow Mountain (north). Poia Lake is reached after a total of 6.4 miles from the trailhead. A quaint backcountry camping area sits in the woods near the southeastern shore of the lake; this would be a nice spot to spend the night if the idea of tackling this long trek in one day is not feasible. The next 3 miles wind through gorgeous meadows and patches of forest along Kennedy Creek before beginning a steep ascent to Redgap Pass. Seward's southwest ridge beckons to be scrambled from the pass, and it can be safely and easily climbed from this point in no more than an hour.
As mentioned, there is backcountry camping at Poia Lake. It's not the most spectacular spot in the park, but the lake is quite scenic, and offers interesting hiking opportunities. It would be quite possible to camp at Poia Lake and wake early the next morning to hike to Redgap Pass. After climbing Seward, rather than returning down the Redgap Pass Trail, why not explore another vastly different peak in the area? A newtork of solid game trails wind across the broad, scree-covered south slope of Seward, and following them provides access to obscure, otherwordly Yellow Mountain. Due to the massive amounts of bright red scree covering this side of the peak, Edwards notes that history professor Dick Schwab suggests they be referred to as "The Red Scree Strolls", a fitting title for a truly marvelous sample of off-trail hiking in the park. From Yellow Mountain, you can descend straight down to Poia Lake. See the Climber's Guide for detailed information on safely ascending/descending Yellow Mountain.
Ptarmigan Tunnel / Elizabeth Lake Trail
One Way Distance: approximately 11 miles, 10.25 on human trail
Elevation Gain/Loss: total gain = approximately 4,900 feet / total loss = 1,200 feet
WARNING: It's a bit of a yo-yo route this way - uphill 2,300 feet to Ptarmigan Tunnel, downhill 1,200 feet to Redgap Pass Trail junction, uphill 1,500 feet to Redgap Pass, uphill 1,400 feet to Seward Mountain. I wouldn't necessarily recommend this approach, but wanted to present it nonetheless.
north from Ptarmigan Tunnel
Starting from the trailhead at Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, the Ptarmigan Tunnel/Iceberg Lake Trail climbs steeply over 1/2 mile before flattening out along the open southern slopes of Mount Henkel. Views of Mount Wilbur, Mount Grinnell, and the Swiftcurrent Valley are fantastic, but eventually the trail dips into the woods before arriving at Ptarmigan Falls. After crossing above the falls on a wooden foot bridge, the trail bifurcates, with the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail diverting uphill and to the right (very well marked by trail signs). The trail steadily plods uphill for about 2 miles before reaching Ptarmigan Lake. This high alpine tarn is a worthwhile destination unto itself, but hanging high above the lake to the north is Ptarmigan Tunnel, a unique and scenic spot that is certainly worth the extra effort. A series of three long switchbacks lead north of the lake up to the tunnel. Traveling through the tunnel, one is rewarded with an absolutely stunning view of the Belly River Valley and Elizabeth Lake far below. Over the next 3 miles, the trail descends gradually, with great views of the Mount Merritt massif to the west. A junction with the Redgap Pass Trail is encountered, and from there the trail climbs uphill 1,500 feet over 2.5 miles to the pass. Ascend Seward Mountain via the southwest ridge.
From the Redgap Pass Trail junction, it's a steep 2 mile hike downhill to wonderful Elizabeth Lake, which has great backcountry campsites located at its foot near the source of the Belly River. It's very scenic, with great fishing, so you could definitely make this into a multi-night backpacking trip. I would recommend a three day itinerary as follows: hike to Elizabeth Lake via Ptarmigan Tunnel on day 1, ascend to Redgap Pass and Seward Mountain on day 2, and to make your backpacking trip a little more interesting, hike 9.5 miles out to Chief Mountain Customs via the Belly River Trail on day 3. It's much less tiring than hiking back uphill 2,300 feet through Ptarmigan Tunnel, and will afford you the opportunity to experience yet another fantastic stretch of trail in the park. A shuttle system operated by Glacier Park Inc. (GPI) stops at Chief Mountain Customs daily, and for a fee, you could get a ride back to your car at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. Note that these shuttles are operated by a private company and cost money, unlike the free Going-to-the-Sun shuttle operated by the National Park Service. Please refer to GPI's website for info about schedules and fees.
Ptarmigan Tunnel to Redgap Pass via Goat Trail
One Way Distance: approximately 8.5 miles
Elevation Gain/Loss: total gain = approximately 4,500 feet / total loss = approximately 800 feet
As mentioned, the previous route via Ptarmigan Tunnel is a long, incredibly tiring approach. Although incredibly scenic, by the time you'd arrive at Redgap Pass, you could find yourself in quite the conundrum; you've hiked over 10 miles to Redgap Pass, you're exhausted, you're far away from virtually anywhere, and you still have a steep slog up a loose ridge to attain the summit of Seward. Thus, I would recommend an exciting, off-trail route involving a wonderful goat trail traverse. It's much shorter than hiking downhill from Ptarmigan Tunnel to the Redgap Pass Trail junction, and although the off-trail section requires a fair amount of fortitude, is ultimately easier than stomping up and down maintained trails all day. For detailed information on this route, please refer to the Ptarmigan Tunnel to Redgap Pass via Goat Trail page.
goat trail #1
goat trail #2
goat trail #3
When to Climb
The climbing season will vary from year-to-year, but typically, safe ascents of Seward Mountain can be done from late June/early July through September. Ptarmigan Tunnel tends to open sometime in July, as large amounts of snow accumulate on the trail, so an early season ascent via this route will depend on the status of the tunnel. Also, Gordon Edwards warns that the goat trail shortcut from Ptarmigan Tunnel to Redgap Pass would be particularly dangerous if any part were to be covered with snow, making rope, ice axe, and crampons an absolute necessity. An approach from Poia Lake could be attempted earlier in the season, but the switchbacks leading up to Redgap Pass will likely still be snow-covered and potentially hazardous. Also, there is a stretch of trail that crosses near a seasonal cascade, and has been the site of a death and a serious injury in recent history. Check out FlatheadNative's interesting, humbling article onaccidents in Glacier National Park for more information.
Summit views are absolutely spectacular. Views to north and east are particularly interesting, as a kaliedescope of colored rock spills out before you. Sharp Gable Mountain looks unclimbable from this vantage point, and the loose west face of Chief Mountain towers over Slide Lake and the Otatso Creek drainage. Two of Glacier's 10,000 footers, Mount Merritt and Mount Cleveland, dominate the scenery to the west, with sledner Elizabeth Lake lying some 4,000 feet below in the lush Belly River Valley. Behind these massive monsters lies the distant peaks of the Livingston Range, and views to the south bring many of the notable peaks of the Lewis Range into full view. Unfortunately, a bright July sun prevented me from grabbing any summit photos to the south, but I was able to capture some nice scenes to the west, north, and east.
view to the NE
Yellow Mountain to the east
Where to Stay
The Many Glacier Valley affords three different lodging options; the Many Glacier Campground is a beautiful, immensely popular campsite located in the heart of the Swiftcurrent Valley. The Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail starts from a parking area near the campground. The campground often 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. 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 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 tasty pizza. Refer to this website for information on booking at Many Glacier Hotel or Swiftcurrent Motor Inn.
Other places to stay outside of but within close proximity of the park 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.