Friday, August 31, 2018

Glacier National Park: Hidden Lake Trail to Overlook (Blog Hike #709)

Trail: Hidden Lake Trail
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.

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.
Jackson Glacier
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.
Melting snowpack
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.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Glacier National Park: Baring, St. Mary, and Virginia Falls (Blog Hike #708)

Trails: Sun Point Nature and St. Mary Falls Trails
Hike Location: Glacier National Park
Geographic Location: west of St. Mary, MT (48.67654, -113.57957)
Length: 6.7 miles
Difficulty: 7/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: July 2018
Overview: A somewhat long out-and-back passing three major waterfalls.

Directions to the trailhead: This hike starts at Glacier National Park’s Sun Point, which is located on the park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road 9.4 miles west of the park’s east entrance at St. Mary.  Ideally you can park in the Sun Point parking lot, but because the lot fills quickly during the peak season you may need to park at the St. Mary Visitor Center and ride the free park shuttle up to Sun Point.

The hike: For my general comments on Glacier National Park, see my forthcoming hike that starts at Logan Pass.  The hike described here is the most popular hike in Glacier National Park’s very popular St. Mary section.  This hike passes three major waterfalls without pegging the difficulty meter, and its relatively low elevation makes the trail snow-free for more of the year than the park’s higher elevation trails.  Also, while I have listed this hike as a 6.7 mile out-and-back, in peak season you can shorten the hike to only about 5 miles by using the free park shuttle, an option I will describe at the end of the hike.
Sun Point Trailhead
            Start at the signed Sun Point Trailhead, which is located at the southeast corner of the Sun Point parking lot.  The gravel trail immediately enters the pine forest and heads gradually downhill.  Ignore a short-cut trail that exits right and quickly arrive at the sunny rock outcrop known as Sun Point.  Sun Point juts well out into St. Mary Lake, so it offers fantastic lake views in three directions.
St. Mary Lake near Sun Point
            The trail surface turns to dirt as it curves right at Sun Point to begin heading west-northwest with the lake downhill to your left.  The park’s official name for this trail is the Sun Point Nature Trail, but very little on the ground indicates such.  Most of this hike passes through an area that burned in a wildfire a few years ago, so it is exposed to the sun these days.  Drink plenty of water and wear a hat and/or sunscreen.
Baring Falls
            After descending only 100 vertical feet over the first 0.9 miles, you reach the base of Baring Falls.  Water falls about 20 feet over a rocky ledge, and the surrounding sheer rock cliffs make for a stark setting.  Just past the waterfall, you pass the park’s boat dock at the lowest elevation on this hike.  For a fee you can ride a concession boat from Rising Sun to this point, and this boat gives another option to reduce this hike’s length if so desired.
            The trail continues its westward course as a gradual climb ensues.  The added elevation gives more nice views across St. Mary Lake to the finger ridges that lead up to Mount Logan from its south shore.  At 1.6 miles, the spur trail to the St. Mary Falls Parking Lot on the Going-to-the-Sun Road exits right.  Do not confuse this parking lot with the St. Mary Falls Shuttle Stop; the trail to the shuttle stop exits to the right at 2 miles into the hike.
Hiking toward St. Mary Falls
            Now officially on the St. Mary Falls Trail, the meandering trail descends moderately through more area that burned a few years ago.  At 2.2 miles, the backpacking trail to Gunsight Pass and Piegan Pass exits right, and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) enters from the right here.  Now heading southbound on the CDT, continue descending and soon reach the bank of the St. Mary River, where the trail curves right to begin heading upstream.
            2.5 miles into the hike, you reach St. Mary Falls.  This waterfall impresses with power rather than delicacy: the river provides lots of water to fall, and the sheer grey rock cliffs make for another stark setting.  Because this waterfall lies less than 1 mile from the Going-to-the-Sun Road, it is a very popular destination, and there were at least 50 people here enjoying the aquatic setting when I passed through here.
St. Mary Falls
            To bag your third waterfall of this hike, cross the footbridge over the river just below the falls and briefly walk downstream along the south bank of the St. Mary River.  Soon the trail curves right to begin heading up Virginia Creek.  At this point you leave the burned area and reenter the dense greenery that will accompany you the rest of the way to Virginia Falls.  I spotted a moose deep in the greenery here, the first moose I have seen while on a hike.
Lowest waterfall in Virginia Creek
            Virginia Creek contains several small waterfalls that give preludes of what is to come.  The grade remains moderate, as this trail gains about 300 vertical feet in the last 0.7 miles to the falls.  At 3.3 miles, you reach the highest elevation of this hike at the base of 50-foot Virginia Falls.  Though it has far less water than St. Mary Falls, Virginia Falls is a taller more elegant ledge-type waterfall with some surrounding greenery.  Also, while Virginia Falls still attracts quite a few visitors, its more secluded location means it does not see the crowds that St. Mary Falls does.  Take some time to enjoy this attractive spot.
Virginia Falls
            The CDT continues by following the St. Mary Lake Trail as it heads east away from Virginia Falls, but there are no more nearby points of interest.  Thus, most day hikers turn around at Virginia Falls.  To reduce the retracing of steps and shorten the hike, you could take the spur trail to the St. Mary Falls Shuttle Stop (NOT the one to St. Mary Falls Parking Lot) and ride the free shuttle back to Sun Point.  The spur trail is 0.3 miles long, and it climbs moderately through a slightly rocky area to reach the shuttle stop on the Going-to-the-Sun Road.  Ride the shuttle east to Sun Point to complete your three-waterfall tour.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Glacier National Park: Swiftcurrent Nature Trail (Blog Hike #707)

Trail: Swiftcurrent Nature Trail
Hike Location: Glacier National Park
Geographic Location: west of Babb, MT (48.79725, -113.66832)
Length: 2.6 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: July 2018
Overview: A fairly flat circumnavigation of Swiftcurrent Lake.

Directions to the trailhead: This hike is located in Glacier National Park’s Many Glacier section.  From US 89 in Babb, drive Many Glacier Road west for 13.5 miles to reach the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead, where this hike begins.  The parking at this trailhead can fill quickly during peak season, so you may need to park anywhere you can find a space in the park’s Many Glacier section and walk to the trailhead.

The hike: For my general comments on Glacier National Park, see my forthcoming hike that starts at Logan Pass.  Most people enter Glacier National Park on the park’s famous Going-to-the-Sun Road, which may be the most scenic drive in the United States.  My visit started with the park’s more remote Many Glacier section mainly due its location in the northern part of the park; I came to Glacier after visiting Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park to the north.
            Some people think the Many Glacier valley is Glacier National Park’s most scenic area.  While it is hard to pick one valley as the park’s most scenic, Many Glacier’s tight dimensions and multi-colored rocks make for an impressive sight.  Many hikes start at Many Glacier, but the short hike around Swiftcurrent Lake described here allows you to see much of the valley’s scenery without taking on much difficulty.
Grinnell Glacier Trailhead
            There are several places where you could start the Swiftcurrent Nature Trail, but this trail description starts at the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead.  Named for George Grinnell, the cofounder of the Audubon Society who was instrumental in establishing Glacier National Park, the 5.3 mile one-way hike to Grinnell Glacier that begins here is one of Many Glacier’s most popular hikes.  The glacier viewpoint is worth the trip if you have the time and energy to make the journey.
            The combined Grinnell Glacier and Swiftcurrent Nature Trails head south from the trailhead on a packed gravel treadway.  Small black interpretive signs identify common plants along the trail.  Dense pine and birch forest line either side of the trail, and Many Glacier provides prime habitat for moose and bear.  I did not see any moose on this hike, but I did see a black bear just a few feet off of the trail further around the loop.
View up Swiftcurrent Creek
            At 0.3 miles, you cross Swiftcurrent Creek on a nice wooden footbridge.  The water in Montana’s streams is extremely clear and reflective, and a nice view of Mount Wilbur opens up to the right as you look upstream from the bridge.  The trail surface now turns to dirt, and soon you reach the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake.  The pine tree-lined shore and the foothills of Mount Allen across the lake can be seen from here, and a family of ducks was enjoying its day on the lake.
            0.7 miles into the hike, you reach the park shuttle boat dock at the south end of Swiftcurrent Lake.  For a fee you can start at Many Glacier Hotel, ride one boat to here, get off and walk a short distance to nearby Lake Josephine, and then ride another concession boat across Lake Josephine to reduce the hiking distance required to reach Grinnell Glacier.  Immediately after passing the boat dock, the Grinnell Glacier and Swiftcurrent Nature Trails part ways at a signed trail intersection.  Turn left to continue the Swiftcurrent Nature Trail.
Altyn Peak
            As you round the south end of Swiftcurrent Lake, fantastic northward views open up across the lake.  Many Glacier Hotel gets dwarfed by colorful Altyn Peak behind it.  Just shy of 0.9 miles, you cross the creek that feeds water from Lake Josephine into Swiftcurrent Lake.  Like the creek you crossed earlier, this creek is a beautiful, pine tree-lined, clear-flowing waterway.
Grinnell Point

Grinnell Point and continental divide
            Now heading northeast, the trail stays close to the east shore of Swiftcurrent Lake.  Fantastic views emerge across the lake of stark, rocky Grinnell Point and the continental divide beyond.  The trail surface turns to asphalt just before you reach Many Glacier Hotel at 1.7 miles.  Stay between the building and the lake and walk through a gravel employee parking lot.  A snack shop and gift shop in the hotel’s lower lobby invite you to stop and have a snack while admiring the hotel’s scenic location.
Many Glacier Hotel
            Past the hotel, use the park road bridge to cross Swiftcurrent Lake’s outflow, and note that a rocky waterfall called Swiftcurrent Falls sits to the right here.  After crossing the bridge, angle left to begin the final trail segment.  The Continental Divide Trail also uses this segment of trail.  Now heading west along the lake’s north shore, more nice views of Many Glacier Hotel emerge and a kayak launch ramp is passed before you return to the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead to complete the hike.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Waterton Lakes National Park: Bertha Falls and Bertha Lake (Blog Hike #706)

Trail: Bertha Lake Trail
Hike Location: Waterton Lakes National Park
Geographic Location: Waterton, Alberta, Canada
Length: 11.4 kilometers (or 7.1 miles)
Difficulty: 9/10 (Difficult)
Last Hiked: July 2018
Overview: A somewhat long out-and-back, steep for about half its distance, passing two waterfalls en route to a sub-alpine lake.

Directions to the trailhead: The signed parking lot for the Bertha Lake Trail is located on Evergreen Avenue near the southwest corner of the Waterton townsite.  If you arrive early you can park in the gravel trailhead parking lot; otherwise you will have to park anywhere you can find a space in Waterton and walk to the trailhead.

The hike: For my general comments on Waterton Lakes National Park, see the previous hike.  This hike starts at the Waterton townsite featured in the previous hike but quickly enters the park’s natural areas.  The hike’s ultimate destination is Bertha Lake, an attractive medium-sized subalpine lake, but it passes two view-worthy waterfalls and some nice overlooks on the way.  Be warned that this trail is fairly popular especially up to the first waterfall, so staying overnight in Waterton and getting an early start like I did will be rewarded during the peak season.
Bertha Trailhead in Waterton townsite
            Start at the signed Bertha Trailhead at the southwest corner of the parking area.  The somewhat narrow dirt trail immediately starts climbing on a gradual to moderate grade.  The townsite quickly disappears over your left shoulder, and nice views of Upper Waterton Lake emerge as you climb higher.
            Near 1 kilometer into the hike, a brief rocky area will need to be negotiated as you continue to climb moderately.  At 1.4 kilometers, you reach a bench perched on a bare rocky outcrop that provides the best vista thus far.  Upper Waterton Lake sits below you to the left, while Mount Bertha and Mount Richards stand above you to the right.
Upper Waterton Lake

Mt. Richards behind Mt. Bertha
            Just past this overlook, you reach a signed trail intersection.  The Lakeshore Trail exits left to continue heading south for 4.3 kilometers before reaching the United States.  This hike continues straight to keep heading for Bertha Falls and Bertha Lake.  Now heading more west than south, Upper Waterton Lake disappears behind you as you round a low finger ridge.
            Next comes the only downhill section on the outbound portion of this hike as you descend gradually into the ravine that contains Bertha Creek.  Cascading Bertha Creek soon comes within earshot, and the gradual climb resumes.  Part of the enormous September 2017 Kenow wildfire burned in this ravine, and as I looked up the ravine I could see a patchwork of black and green representing burned and unburned areas.
Looking up Bertha Creek ravine
            The signed horse trail bypass exits right just before you reach the base of Lower Bertha Falls at 2.7 kilometers.  Lower Bertha Falls is a cascade-type waterfall that ends very abruptly when the water enters an inclined rock chute.  The dense pine forest can make it difficult to get a good view of the waterfall, but some rocks make nice places to sit, rest, and enjoy the cascading water before this hike’s difficulty picks up.
Lower Bertha Falls

Lower Bertha Falls and footbridge
            Some people turn around at Lower Bertha Falls, and for people in less than good health that is a good decision: thus far you have covered roughly half the distance but only one-third the elevation gain required to reach Bertha Lake.  Prepared and conditioned hikers will cross the locally famous wooden footbridge below Lower Bertha Falls and begin climbing the 21 switchbacks (this math professor did indeed count them!) required to reach Bertha Lake.  In general, the early and later switchbacks are long and hard while the ones in the middle are short and easy.  The footing on the dirt trail is quite good throughout.
Mt. Vimy across prairie
After the first switchback, you pass through an interesting sunny prairie area that affords a nice view of Vimy Peak to the east across Upper Waterton Lake.  At the fifth switchback, you pass a tree with an unusual horseshoe-shaped tree trunk.  Some hikers use this tree as a bench, but plenty of rocks along the trail also serve that function well. 
Tree with horseshoe-shaped trunk
            At the 16th switchback, you get your best view of Upper Bertha Falls.  Upper Bertha Falls is another cascade-type waterfall, but it is much taller than its lower brother.  Dense greenery again somewhat impedes the waterfall view, but a nice view of Bertha Peak to the northwest emerges as you make your way past the waterfall.
Bertha Peak

Upper Bertha Falls
            The remaining switchbacks passed through some of the heaviest burned area on my visit; only charred tree stumps remained.  After topping the last switchback, you reenter the unburned area, and a fantastic view opens up to the northeast through a narrow gap in the trees.  Upper and Middle Waterton Lakes now sit well below you, and the plains of Alberta unfold beyond the lakes.
Upper and Middle Waterton Lakes
            A little more climbing brings you to the highest elevation of this hike, which stands nearly 550 meters (or 1800 feet) above the trailhead.  Bertha Lake can be seen through the trees from here, and a brief descent brings you to the lake’s eastern shore.  The lake’s clear, lightly rippling waters are surrounded by pine-covered mountains with some sheer rock cliffs visible at the lake’s west end.  Some ducks were enjoying their day at Bertha Lake while I enjoyed mine.  You have earned your spot at Bertha Lake, so take some time and have a rest and trail snack while you sit at the water’s edge.
Bertha Lake
            A gravel beach and a primitive campground lie just to the right, and an unmaintained 4 kilometer trail circles the lake if you have time and energy for more adventure.  The only way to reach Bertha Lake is the trail you hiked up, so eventually you will have to turn around and hike back down the way you came up.  While going down, you will find views that you missed on the way up.  Also, on the Sunday in late July when I hiked here, I passed almost nobody on my climb up, but I seemed to pass the entire population of Calgary on my way down.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Waterton Lakes National Park: Townsite and Prince of Wales Trails (Blog Hike #705)

Trails: Townsite and Prince of Wales Trails
Hike Location: Waterton Lakes National Park
Geographic Location: Waterton, Alberta, Canada
Length: 6.1 kilometers (or 3.8 miles)
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: July 2018
Overview: A double loop around the Waterton townsite and the Prince of Wales Hotel.

Directions to the trailhead: This hike starts at Cameron Falls, which is located on Evergreen Avenue along the west side of the Waterton townsite.  If you cannot find a parking spot near the falls, you will need to park wherever you can find a spot in Waterton and walk to Cameron Falls.

The hike: Straddling the United States/Canada border, Waterton Glacier International Peace Park was created in 1932 as the union of two previously existing adjacent national parks: Waterton Lakes National Park in southern Alberta and Glacier National Park in northern Montana.  The union was the world’s first international peace park, and it forms the centerpiece of a transboundary area with unique geography, flora, and fauna.  In spite of the designation, the two parks are administered separately by their respective governments, they require separate entrance fees, and a passport is required to cross the border.  I had the privilege of visiting both parks on my summer 2018 hiking trip, starting with Waterton Lakes, Alberta and working my way south.
            Narrowing focus to the Canadian park, Waterton Lakes National Park was established in 1895 as Canada’s fourth national park.  The park gets its name from the three Waterton Lakes in its eastern part, which in turn are named for Charles Waterton, a Victorian naturalist and conservationist.  Waterton Lakes are the deepest lakes in the Canadian Rockies, and lake cruises on commercial cruise lines are offered several times per day during the summer.
            The only developed site in Waterton Lakes National Park is the Waterton townsite, so almost everyone visiting the park will find themselves in the town of Waterton at some point.  When I came here in July 2018, most of the park was closed in the aftermath of the enormous Kenow wildfire that burned a large area west of Waterton in September 2017.  Thus, I hiked the Townsite and Prince of Wales Trails described here partly because they were among the few trails that were open.  While these trails stay near civilization for their entire distance (see the next hike if you want an excursion into the park’s undeveloped area), they provide a nice introduction to the townsite and surrounding areas, which are still quite scenic.
Cameron Falls
            You could start this hike almost anywhere in Waterton, but I chose to start the trail description at Cameron Falls partly because it is easy to find and partly because its parking area experiences high turnover, thus making it fairly likely that you can find a parking spot.  Cameron Falls is a cascade-type waterfall in Cameron Creek, and the creek provides plenty of water to fall over the inclined rock layers.  Cameron Falls is one of the most popular and scenic sites in the Waterton townsite, so take a few minutes to enjoy the aquatic action.
Exiting Cameron Falls area
            After viewing the waterfall, begin the Townsite Loop by walking across the road and picking up the asphalt trail that heads southeast with Cameron Creek on your left.  The trail heads through a mowed grass area dotted with only a few trees as the Townsite Campground comes into view on the right.  As you cross the campground access road, notice the constructions along Cameron Creek that stabilize the banks of the creek’s channel.
            At 0.8 kilometers, the trail curves left to cross Cameron Creek on a sturdy footbridge.  An excellent view south across Upper Waterton Lake opens up here, and Parks Canada has placed a couple of their famous red Adirondack chairs at this point to mark the scenic view.  Vimy Peak rises from the lake’s far shore, and Mount Crandell towers over the townsite to the north.
Mount Crandell
            For the next 1.3 kilometers the trail heads northeast along the shore of Upper Waterton Lake.  Picnic shelters, lodging establishments, and other town buildings lie just left of the trail, so the Townsite Loop earns its name on this section.  Near 2 kilometers, you reach the International Peace Park Pavilion, which occupies a peninsula that juts north and separates Upper Waterton Lake from Emerald Bay.  The famous Prince of Wales Hotel stands atop the hill across Emerald Bay, and this point gives you a great view of that elaborate building.
Prince of Wales Hotel
            The trail curves left again and heads northwest past the Waterton Cruises dock and ticket booth to begin this hike’s journey around Emerald Bay.  A shady section comes next, and some benches here make nice places to sit, rest, and watch the lake just shy of this hike’s midpoint.  At 2.6 kilometers, you reach Waterton townsite’s main entrance road.  Do not cross the road, but instead turn right to leave the Townsite Loop and walk on a paved trail that parallels the road.
            After rounding the head of Emerald Bay, turn right and walk through the Emerald Bay Picnic Area, which was very popular on the warm and sunny Saturday afternoon that I hiked here.  At the rear of the picnic area, pick up the unsigned Prince of Wales Trail as it heads across a gravelly (as opposed to sandy) beach on Emerald Bay.  The beach offers another excellent view south across Upper Waterton Lake.
View south across Upper Waterton Lake
            3 kilometers into the hike, you reach the east end of the gravelly beach, where a brief rocky section needs to be traversed before you reach a second smaller beach.  When you exit the second beach and return to single-track dirt trail, the body of water on your right is now Middle as opposed to Upper Waterton Lake, but it is hard to tell the difference.  The hillside is steep and the trail narrow, so even though horses are allowed on this trail, large animals would struggle to fit through.
Hiking the Prince of Wales Trail

Vimy Peak across Middle Waterton Lake
            As you continue around the Prince of Wales Trail, the woods get denser, and another face of Vimy Peak appears across the lake.  At 4.2 kilometers, you reach the northeastern corner of the Prince of Wales Trail.  The Linnet Lake Picnic Area, a boat launch, and restrooms sit here.  Trails exiting left climb to the Prince of Wales Hotel and loop around Linnet Lake, but both of these trails were closed on my visit.  Thus, I had to head southwest on the roadside sidewalk that goes up and over a hill to get back to Waterton townsite.  Use the sidewalks in Waterton to return to your car and complete the hike.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Makoshika State Park: Switchback, McCarty, and Ponderosa Trails (Blog Hike #704)

Trails: Switchback, McCarty, and Ponderosa Trails
Hike Location: Makoshika State Park
Geographic Location: south of Glendive, MT (47.06400, -104.68079)
Length: 3.4 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: July 2018
Overview: A hike through badlands topography, mostly easy/moderate but with one steep section.

Directions to the trailhead: In eastern Montana, take I-94 to Glendive’s Merrill Avenue (exit 215).  Exit and go south on Merrill Ave.  Drive Merrill Ave. 1.9 miles to Douglas Street and turn left on Douglas St.  After passing under the railroad tracks, turn left on Barry Street.  Drive Barry St. 0.3 miles to Taylor Avenue and turn right on Taylor Ave.  Drive Taylor Ave. 0.4 miles to Snyder Street and turn left on Snyder St.  Snyder St. becomes Makoshika State Park Road when it exits Glendive.  All of these turns are marked, so a simpler way to say what I just wrote is “follow signs to Makoshika State Park.”  Enter the park, pay the entrance fee if necessary (only required for out-of-state vehicles as of this writing), and drive the main park road to the signed pull-off parking area for the Switchback Trail on the left.  This pull-off is large enough to accommodate 3 or 4 vehicles.

The hike: As I drove across the length of Montana on my summer 2018 hiking trip, I realized that Montana is almost a microcosm of the American west due to its range of topography: badlands, high plains, foothills, canyons, and “real” rocky mountains.  Located in the eastern part of the state, 11,500-acre Makoshika State Park (accent goes on the second syllable) is the largest state park in Montana.  The park’s name comes from the Lakota Indian word that translates to “bad land,” and it is a fitting name because the park preserves 20% of Montana’s contiguous badlands.
            Like the badlands of nearby North Dakota and South Dakota, Makoshika’s badlands consist of soft clays and shales topped by a harder layer of sandstone.  Badlands do a fantastic job of preserving prehistoric fossils, and fossils from 10 different species of dinosaurs have been found within the park’s boundaries in addition to some petrified wood.  Some of these fossils are on display at a dinosaur museum near I-94, exit 215 that you drove past on your way to the park.
            As is common for state parks in this part of the country, Makoshika State Park has limited amenities: a few picnic shelters, some rustic campsites, and a 15-site developed campground.  Thus, the park’s main attraction is its trail system, which features trails for horses, mountain bikers, and hikers.  The route described here climbs steeply out of a canyon to reach a grassy and pine-covered plateau, which in turn offers excellent views down into the canyon and beyond.  Thus, this hike gives a nice sample of the park’s habitats and a nice sample of the park’s hiking and mountain biking trails.
Switchback Trail trailhead
            From its roadside trailhead, the Switchback Trail heads southeast parallel to the park road.  The initial segment of trail was quite narrow and overgrown with prairie grass on my visit, but the path was still distinguishable.  Also, park managers close the Switchback Trail after substantial rains: the water makes the rocks you will soon be climbing very slippery, and it turns the badlands’ dirt into a thick, goopy mud, thus making for unpleasant or dangerous hiking.
Blue wire trail markers buried in ground
            The trail dips to cross normally dry Cains Coulee without the aid of a bridge before beginning the steep climb to the canyon rim.  The trail gains 300 feet of elevation is less than 0.3 miles, and it offers a true rugged, rocky, sunny, hot badlands experience.  The meandering route is marked by an occasional brown carsonite post and some neon blue wires buried in the ground, but you will have to be looking for the wires in order for them to help you stay on the trail.  The badlands rocks feature interesting color bands and rock shapes, and I even passed what looked like a petrified log in this area.
Petrified log
            The trail starts to level out as you climb out of the badlands and onto the grassy plateau, which is dotted with clusters of ponderosa pines.  I also got attacked by swarms of flies once I reached the plateau on the seasonally cool cloudy late-July morning that I hiked here.  Just past 0.5 miles, you reach the Switchback Trail’s upper end at a junction with the McCarty Trail, which goes right and left.  We will eventually go both directions, but for now turn left to head for the park’s amphitheater.
            In only a few hundred feet you reach the park road and the parking area for the amphitheater; vault toilets are also located here.  Head straight ahead and downhill to reach the park’s amphitheater, which occupies a pleasant spot in a grove of pine trees with a nice north-facing badlands view behind the stage.  Exit the left side of the concrete stage (as you approach it from the front) to find the dirt trail that heads a short distance into the badlands to reach Twin Sisters.  Twin Sisters is a pair of balancing boulders each of which is perched atop a narrow shaft of softer rock.  Water and wind continue to erode the softer rock, and if you look around this area you will see some other “sisters” that have already fallen from their perches.
Twin Sisters
            The trail ends at Twin Sisters, so you need to turn around and retrace your steps through the amphitheater to the upper end of the Switchback Trail.  Continue straight on the McCarty Trail to explore the area south of the Switchback Trail.  The trail heads across the grassy plateau before crossing the driveway for the McCarty Cabin, which you will visit in a few minutes.  After dipping through a steep but shallow ravine, you reach a fenced-in pond where the trail curves right to pass along the north and west sides of the pond.
            At 1.4 miles, you reach the signed south end of the McCarty Trail at its intersection with the Ponderosa Trail, which forms a loop.  Turn right to begin a counterclockwise journey around the Ponderosa Trail.  Contrary to its name, the Ponderosa Trail only passes a few ponderosa pine trees, and it spends most of its distance in the plateau’s sunny grassland.
Hiking the Ponderosa Trail
            1.8 miles into the hike, you reach the Cains Coulee Overlook.  Perched at the end of one of the plateau’s peninsulas, the overlook gives a great view northwest down the coulee.  Many badlands rock formations and color bands can be seen, and you may even be able to see your car at the trailhead more than a mile away as the crow flies.  Take a few minutes to enjoy the best view on this hike.
Cains Coulee Overlook
            The trail curves sharply left at the overlook to head back up the south side of the peninsula.  The dryness of the plateau supports some desert plants including yuccas, but a light shower started to fall on me as I hiked this trail.  At 2.2 miles, where a spur trail exits right to another parking area, turn left to finish the Ponderosa Trail’s loop.
McCarty Cabin
            At 2.4 miles, you close the loop.  Rather than retrace your steps to the Switchback Trail, after passing the pond take the faint trail to the left that heads into a ravine.  In only a couple hundred feet, this trail comes out at the McCarty Cabin, a 20-foot by 20-foot log cabin restored in 2014.  Take the narrow trail to the right to climb away from the cabin and rejoin the main McCarty Trail, then turn left to descend the Switchback Trail back to your car and complete the hike.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park: Young Hawk and Little Soldier Loops (Blog Hike #703)

Trails: Young Hawk and Little Soldier Loops
Hike Location: Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park
Geographic Location: south of Mandan, ND (46.76526, -100.84591)
Length: 3.2 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: July 2018
Overview: A lollipop loop featuring the site of a former infantry post.

Directions to the trailhead: On the west bank of the Missouri River, take I-94 to Mandan Avenue (exit 153).  Exit and go south on Mandan Ave.  Drive Mandan Ave. south 0.6 miles to Main Street and turn right on Main St.  Drive Main St. west 0.3 miles to SR 1806 and turn left on SR 1806.  Drive SR 1806 south 7 miles to the signed park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park, pay the park entrance fee, and park in the blacktop lot in front of the Visitor Center.

The hike: The year was 1872 when companies B and C from the United States’ 6th Infantry built an infantry post along the future route of the Northern Pacific Railroad near where it would cross the Missouri River in North Dakota.  The post was originally called Fort McKeen, but less than six months after its construction the name was changed to Fort Abraham Lincoln to honor the recently assassinated President.  Soon a cavalry post was added, and about 650 men were stationed at the fort, which consisted of 78 separate buildings.  The fort’s first commander was Lt. Col. George Custer, who used the fort as a base during the American Indian Wars including the Battle of Little Bighorn, where Custer was famously killed.
            As the Indian Wars subsided, the fort lost its importance, and it was abandoned in 1891.  The fort’s site was deeded to the State of North Dakota by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907, and starting in 1934 the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) began building park infrastructure on the site.  Today Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park is one of the best state parks in North Dakota.  In addition to the historic sites, the park offers a 114-site campground, 2 cabins, and 2 tipis for lodging.
            In terms of trails, the park contains 7 miles of trails most of which are open to hikers, mountain bikers, and horses.  All of the lodging and historic sites are accessible by trail, though some of them are hard to incorporate into a single nice loop.  The lollipop loop described here takes you through the site of the infantry post while offering a tour of the park’s more remote areas and excellent views from some of the park’s highest land.  Note that most of this hike is exposed to the sun, so wear sun protection and drink plenty of water during the warmer months.
Trailhead at Visitor Center parking lot
            Start on the asphalt bike trail that departs the southwest corner of the Visitor Center parking lot.  The trail crosses the main park road, curves right, and begins to climb.  Although the trail is paved, this initial segment is actually the steepest climb of the hike.  Ignore an old road that exits left through a vehicle gate and heads toward the cavalry post.
            At 0.2 miles, you reach the signed start of the Interpretive Trail (also signed as the Scout Trail), which exits left.  Turn sharply left to leave the asphalt and begin the dirt Interpretive Trail.  The climb continues but on a more gradual grade as the trail works its way around the hill on which the infantry post stands.
Cavalry post and Missouri River
Views of the cavalry post and the Missouri River to the south get better the more you climb; the breeze may intensify as well.  The treadway on this part of the hike was somewhat narrow and rutted, but the route was easy to follow on my visit.  Numbered carsonite posts suggest the existence of an interpretive guide though none were available at the trailhead.
Climbing toward the infantry post
            At 0.7 miles, you reach a trail intersection near carsonite post #13 where you need to turn sharply right to remain on the Interpretive Trail; the option going straight leads to a cemetery and deeper into the trail system.  The trail next crosses the steep asphalt road that gives vehicles access to the infantry post, and soon the infantry post’s reconstructed blockhouses come into view.  Walk up to the southern-most of the three blockhouses and climb the steep ladder to its top for a 360-degree view.  These blockhouses were rebuilt by the CCC in 1935, and they provide great views from the highest point on this hike.
Approaching the first blockhouse
            After climbing the first blockhouse, take the concrete sidewalk-like trail to the northeast that heads to the next blockhouse.  The former sites of some other buildings are signed, and in some cases remnants of the foundations are visible.  At 1.2 miles, you reach the second blockhouse and the northern end of the infantry post site.  Take the grass/dirt trail to the right of the blockhouse to continue north, exit the infantry post site, and re-enter the park’s natural area.
Site of former infantry post structure
            Now on the Little Soldier Loop, the sidehill trail descends gradually with the top of the finger ridge on the right and a ravine falling to the left.  Prairie plants dominate the northern part of the park, and some bright red honeysuckle berries brightened my path on the seasonally cool July evening that I hiked here.  Mountain bikes also traverse this part of the trail system, so step off the trail and let them pass if people riding bikes approach.
            Just past 1.5 miles, you reach a trail intersection where you need to angle right to remain on the Little Soldier Loop.  Now approaching the park’s northern boundary, the trail makes a sweeping 180-degree right turn around the north end of the finger ridge.  A nice view of the North Dakota State Capitol and downtown Bismarck over the Missouri River emerges to the northeast.
View northeast toward Bismarck
            Now heading south, a gradual climb precedes a gradual descent as the Heart and Missouri Rivers appear below you ahead and to the left.  Near 2.5 miles, you enter a grove of cottonwood trees that constitutes the only wooded portion of this hike.  The asphalt Mandan-Fort Lincoln Bike Trail can be seen downhill to the left.
Hiking through the cottonwood grove
            At 2.8 miles, the Little Soldier Loop ends where you reach a stone CCC-built picnic shelter with a nearby vault toilet and drinking fountain.  Angle left to walk out toward the main park road, then turn right on the asphalt bike path.  Walking along the bike path for 0.3 miles returns you to the Visitor Center parking lot to complete the hike.
            Before you leave the park, there are at least two other places you should visit.  Located behind the Visitor Center, the On-A-Slant Village recreates a Mandan Indian village that was inhabited on this site between the late 1500’s and the late 1700’s.  The village gives a nice flavor of what life was like here during the pre-fort days.  Also, while this hike explored the infantry post, the cavalry post is located near the park entrance; it features Lt. Col. George Custer’s house among other structures.  The park offers daily tours of both of these historic places, so get the most out of your park entrance fee by seeing all the historic sites the park has to offer before leaving.