Distance: ~13 miles round trip
Season: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter
Range: Flathead Mountain Range
Location: Flathead County, Montana, USA
It’s May in Montana and having just camped in the North Fork of Glacier National Park, my best friend Sarah Cuiksa and I are enjoying what we’ve officially dubbed a serious contender for the world’s greatest breakfast sandwiches. Procured from the Polebridge Bakery, a tiny middle of nowhere gem infamous for its incredible pastries full of local pastured bacon dripping in gooey cheese with an egg on top and piled on fresh baked buns. We’re slap happy and don’t even bother to wipe them off our smiling faces as we pull out of Polebridge and head towards Oldman Lake on the east side of the park.
“I hope we get to see another mountain lion tonight.” Cuiksa remarks, recalling the predator we had nearly run into in this spot at dusk last night. It’s not every day that two Polish girls from Cleveland get an intimate peek at a lioness mid hunt. Remembering the speed and precision with which her massive, focused body moved across the road and into the tall grass where her unsuspecting prey awaited its demise, we’re still feeling awestruck.
Since, like much of Glacier’s one million acres, the epic 50 mile (80 km) Going-To-The-Sun Road, remains under snow cover, Cuiksa and I are winding our way around the southeastern boundary of the park towards Two Medicine (aka Two Med) the access point for the Oldman Lake and Pitamakan Pass routes. We hope the snow will have melted and the trails here will be warmer than our other hiking options.
Two Med was once Glacier’s most heavily trafficked area, but that changed with the opening of Going-To-The-Sun road, which bisects the interior of the park with endless trails, and is now often touted as America’s most scenic drive.
Though it’s bright and sunny today, there’s barely a soul in sight, and arriving at the Two Medicine store, blissfully free of tourists, we walk inside and beeline it for the petite white-haired woman at the counter.
Inquiring about hiking conditions, we learn that the route we had planned on taking, the North Shore Trail near Two Medicine Lake — where we are currently parked — is still under solid snowpack. She advises us instead to retrace our steps, return to the the Two Medicine Entrance, and try our luck on the Dry Fork Trail, a south facing, drier, and less-traveled path to Oldman Lake.
We park the car, cross the street and enter a wet, green, fresh smelling forest of densely packed Aspen and Lodgepole Pine trees.
It’s cool and I gratefully zip up my GORE-TEX® shell to fend off the breeze. Each step up takes us through increasingly drier Lodgepole forest, and I can feel the layers of dewy moisture dissipating from the air. Cuiksa stops to take a photo and I notice a beam of light flickering through a clearing in the trees ahead. I move towards it and the trees begin to thin.
Suddenly, crossing over some invisible barrier, I’m transported to another world. Lighter green and full of color, it seems to be awakening from its winter slumber. I marvel at the springtime meadow and the startling change in alpine scenery. The afternoon sun warms my body.
Cuiksa catches up to me and we stop to admire our first glimpse of the 9,513 foot Rising Wolf Mountain above. We shed our jackets and unzip the bottom halves of our convertible hiking pants, then it’s back to the trail.
Approximately 2.7 miles in, we reach the Pitamakan Pass Two Medicine Trail Junction — where we could hang a left back to the Two Medicine Store where we had started. I try pull out my camera, but Cuiksa hurries me along.
“Dag, we’ll have plenty of time for photos later, let’s get to the beach before the sun goes away.” She tells me pushing forward.
We reach the north side of Rising Wolf Mountain (still 4 miles away from our destination) and take the Pitamakan Pass Trail directly up a broad valley. Our westward path serpentines shady lodgepole forest and sunny meadow. I undergo a wardrobe change — jacket on, jacket off, zipping and unzipping my convertible pants — at every corner to account for the massive temperature changes.
Everything is massive in Glacier and the drastic temperature changes only highlight the extremes. From the sheer mass and striking variability of its colorful landscapes to the lions and bears that roam its land, Glacier never fails to leave me in complete awe.
Nearly three miles of wardrobe changes later, we discover a whole new world, again. The stretch before us was colder, darker, and infinitely more foreboding than the blue skyed meadows below.
Thick grey clouds shadow the landscape chills set in as I stare across the snow field before us.
This giant patch of snow stands between us and the glorious beaches of the bright blue alpine cirque at the end of our hike. We stare out at Flinsch Peak, Mount Morgan and Pitamakan Pass towering just beyond the sketchy snowpack separating us from Oldman Lake at their base.
“How stable is it?” I wonder.
I try to justify the path.
Constant cloud cover and frigid temperatures surely keep the snow crystals in tact.
We notice some older foot tracks ahead, proceed and instantly drop calf deep into powder. Cuiska looks even more frustrated than I feel. We debate turning back but the beaches of Oldman Lake beckon us forward.
Tired and sulking, we finally arrive at a haunted forest of ghostly silver trees and the short side trail to Oldman Lake. We wind our way through a thicket of dead whitebark pine trees.
Distracted by the eerie forest, it takes us several minutes to realize that there would be no sunbathing, blue water, or sunny skies today.
Jaw dropped and eyes wide open in horror, I turn to look at Cuiksa, and see that she too is stunned. What is this ugly grey monstrosity before us and where is the pretty high alpine cirque from the guidebook photos?
Cold, wet, and less than thrilled over our thwarted glacial lake sunbathing plans we stand at the edge of an icy body of water.
“How could this happen?” I ask, looking over at the sharply sloping face of 9,225 foot Flinsch Peak to our left. We expected the crystalline blue Montana hue.
“I don’t know Dag, I just don’t know.” Cuiksa replies, as she breaks into laughter.
It’s infectious, and I too can’t help but laugh at our error. Taking one final look at Pitamakan pass and the 8,781 foot Mount Morgan that sits due West, we turn back and head home. The murky waters won’t ruin a wonderful day in the mountains.
Hiking Gear for Glacier National Park
- Hydration pack
- Bricks Bars Paleo Protein Bars
- Sony Alpha a7 Mirrorless Digital Camera
- Black Diamond Liquid Point Pant
- SmartWool PhD Outdoor Medium Crew Socks