Hike Location: Glacier National Park
Geographic Location: west of St. Mary, MT (48.69539, -113.71836)
Length: 2.8 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: August 2018
Overview: A high-elevation out-and-back to an overlook of scenic Hidden Lake.
Park Information: https://www.nps.gov/glac/index.htm
Hike Route Map: http://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=706689
Directions to the trailhead: This hike starts at Glacier National Park’s Logan Pass Visitor Center, which is located at the highest point on the park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road 17.6 miles west of the park’s east entrance at St. Mary. Ideally you can park in the Visitor Center’s parking lot, but because the lot fills quickly during the peak season you may need to park at either the Apgar Visitor Center or the St. Mary Visitor Center and ride the free park shuttle up to Logan Pass.
The hike: Located flush against the Canada border, Glacier National Park protects over 1 million acres of some of Montana’s highest land. The park is named for the numerous small glaciers that populate its mountainsides. While much press has been given to the fact that the glaciers are shrinking, the icefields still exist for now, and one of them (Jackson Glacier) can still be seen from a shuttle stop a few miles east of this trailhead on the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road.
The park largely owes its existence to George Grinnell, the co-founder of the Audubon Society who in 1908 gave this place the nickname “Crown of the Continent.” This nickname is fitting for at least two reasons. First, two of North America’s major watershed divides run through the park. The well-known north-south continental divide separating the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean basins runs through the park, but the lesser-known Laurentian Divide, which separates the Atlantic Ocean and Hudson Bay basins, also starts here before heading east to northern Minnesota and then northeast through Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains. The two divides meet at Triple Divide Peak in the southern part of the park, so water landing on Triple Divide Peak could drain to any one of three places: east into the Missouri River and the Atlantic Ocean, west into the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean, or northeast into the Saskatchewan River and the Hudson Bay.
Second, the area’s geography makes the park a convergence zone for North America’s ecosystems. North and South Rocky Mountain species migrate into the park from their respective directions, prairie species come in from the east, and maritime species come in from the west. To see this biological diversity up close, you will have to hike one of the park’s many trails. Fortunately, hiking is the main attraction at Glacier National Park, as nearly every natural feature of interest requires at least a short hike to reach.
The hike described here starts at Logan Pass, the highest point on the park’s famous and scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road, and roughly follows the north-south continental divide to an overlook of Hidden Lake. Thus, while this hike may not go to the tip of the continent’s crown, it does take you along the rim of it. Because the hike stays between 6600 and 7200 feet of elevation for most of its distance, the trail usually does not become snow-free until July, and you will get winded faster than usual. Therefore, do not underestimate the difficulty of this hike.
|Hidden Lake Trailhead|
A small maze of asphalt trails exists behind the Logan Pass Visitor Center, but you want to take the one marked by the brown “Hidden Lake Trailhead” sign. The bare rock of Clements Mountain looms straight ahead, and Mount Oberlin towers off to the right. The trail surface starts as asphalt, but soon it starts alternating between boardwalk and dirt.
Unlike wetland areas where the boardwalk keeps your feet dry, the boardwalk up here protects the fragile alpine environment from getting damaged by human feet. Tree line on the park’s eastern slopes is about 6000 feet above sea level, so although you see some pine trees near the trailhead you quickly enter the barren alpine tundra. Brown carsonite posts warn you to stay on the well-defined trail.
|Dirt portion of Hidden Lake Trail|
|Looking down Reynolds Creek ravine|
The trail climbs on a moderate grade, gaining 350 vertical feet over its first 0.6 miles. Clements Mountain gets closer as you climb, and nice views open up to the east down the Reynolds Creek ravine. The north-south continental divide follows the ridge to your right. When I hiked here on the first day of August, I encountered the first field of melting snow near 0.7 miles. The snow did not block the trail, and its runoff created attractive streams and waterfalls for my viewing and hearing pleasure.
At 0.8 miles, the grade intensifies again as you head up a finger ridge projecting from the south side of Clements Mountain. Wildlife frequent this area. In addition to small animals such as squirrels and marmots, I saw several mountain goats only a few feet from the trail. Also, I spotted a grizzly bear on the slopes of Reynolds Mountain above me and to my left.
1.1 miles into the hike, you top the last steep section as you reach Hidden Lake Pass. A short descent and gradual climb bring you to the continental divide and the wooden platform that is Hidden Lake Overlook. The lake sits roughly 780 feet below the overlook, and the entire lake is in view. The water is the usual brilliant blue that you would expect in Montana. Tree line on the western slopes is about 6900 feet above sea level, so you will see some pine trees not far below you. Rocky and pyramid-shaped Bearhat Mountain rises abruptly from the lake’s far shore. Take some time to enjoy this impressive viewpoint.
|Lower end of Hidden Lake|
|Hidden Lake and Bearhat Mountain|
The trail continues past the overlook and descends all the way to Hidden Lake’s shore. While the hike to the shore can easily be done as a dayhike, choosing that option adds 2.4 miles to the hike’s round-trip distance, and you will have to clamber back up to this overlook to get back to the trailhead. Feeling the ill effects of a stomach bug, I turned around at the overlook. After you top Hidden Lake Pass on the return trip, you can see the trail ahead of you, probably with an almost continuous line of people, all the way down to the Logan Pass Visitor Center. The short asphalt interpretive trail behind the Visitor Center tells you a lot about the alpine tundra you just walked through and makes a nice way to end your visit to the rim of the continent’s crown.