Outdoors

For the Love of Hiking

Favorite summits, lakes, wildflower and wildlife viewing areas, and other memories from a Northwest Montana hiking addict

The annoying whir of a fly or mosquito in my ears, the tug of my pack on tight shoulders, the burn in my calves and lungs as I push up a steep hill, the step-after-step pounding on my soles and occasionally on my soul — these aren’t my favorite things about hiking.

And yet I’m addicted. At the end of the day, it feels so great to peel off soggy socks and dusty shoes and feel the strange buzz of exhaustion, which is adrenalized by both the relief and exhilaration of finishing a formidable hike. And the cold microbrew pulled out of a cooler in the car has never tasted so good.

But it’s not just the rewards at the end of the hike that make it so intoxicating. Within the hard work are magical moments. The suspense and surprise of rounding a corner that reveals another dramatic peak, a glistening lake below the trail, or wildflowers spattered across meadows like paint on an artist’s palette. The snow patches blanketing rose-colored rock slabs, streams of clear water racing down mountainsides through feathery ferns and cushy moss, and the dew-kissed morning air taking on aromas of dry grass and dirt as the noon sun beats down on the trail.

The rigors of hiking fade into the background when I remember the good times — the spectacular scenery and the memorable events that unfold in the unpredictable natural world. Here are a few of my favorite things about hiking.

Piegan Mountain view. The views are specular at the top of this Glacier Park mountain where snow lingers into summer. All photos by Kay Bjork

Summits

Most of our hikes are destination driven, and some of the most rewarding run out at the top of a mountain. Mountain summits can vary dramatically from a mellow ridge walk to a technical climb over vertical rock. I’m not fond of the more treacherous summits but have found plenty of moderate ascents that still offer the thrill of getting to the top, with virtually unobstructed views of mountains and valleys.

Two of the most memorable summit hikes offer very different experiences because of location and accessibility affecting their popularity. Reynolds Mountain in Glacier Park is a seven-mile hike with a 2,500-foot elevation gain to reach the summit at 9,125 feet. It’s popular because it’s less technical than many of the summits in Glacier Park that are characterized by unstable sedimentary rock and routes with exposure.

When we went, the first 1 ½ miles were more like hiking in the city, weaving through a crowd on the boardwalk, but changed quickly when we left the Hidden Lake trail at the high point, where we walked through a meadow splashed with colorful wildflowers, careful to avoid the fragile vegetation. We followed a primitive trail to reach the easiest route up the southwest side of Reynolds Peak, where the hike intensified. I became jittery as we started up a fairly steep talus slope and hikers above us kicked loose scree, which bounced wildly down the slope like popping corn. I was actually more at ease when we reached the narrow ledge along rock cliffs where I felt more protected. When we arrived at the top, I felt both relieved and ecstatic, surrounded by the spectacular views of Glacier Park circled by layers of craggy mountains spattered with snow, ice and turquoise lakes.

At the south end of the Mission Range, Lindy Peak answered my love for solitude with its vague and often disappearing trail through forest, along a rock ridge and up a band of cliffs. Early on, a portion of the hike passed through heavy timber and turned into the notorious bushwhacking that seems to be inevitable on most of our hiking escapades. Finally, I was surprised and elated when we broke into a casual saunter through wildflowers and snowfields up a broad ridgeline to reach the top. The views were magnificent.

The views seem endless from the top of Reynolds Mountain in Glacier Park.

More Favorite Mountain Peaks

Mount Aeneas – Jewel Basin

  • Elevation – 7,525’
  • Elevation gain – 1800’
  • Distance – 6 miles

* A busy trail, so it’s best if you go early in the morning or off-season. Highlights include great views of the basin and surrounding mountain chains and a good chance of seeing mountain goats.

Sixmile Peak – Swan Range

  • Elevation – 7,406’
  • Elevation gain – 3,400’
  • Distance – 9 miles

* A steady and moderate grade gets you to the top, where you can see views of Swan and Flathead lakes, Glacier Park, Great Bear Wilderness, Bob Marshall Wilderness, Hungry Horse Reservoir and the Mission Mountains on the west side of the Swan Valley.

Nasukoin Mountain – Whitefish Range

  • Elevation – 8,086’
  • Elevation gain – 3,000’
  • Distance – 11.6 miles round trip

* The highest point in Glacier View Ranger District with great views of the North Fork and Glacier Park.

Pyramid Peak – Swan Range

  • Elevation – 8,309’
  • Elevation gain – 3,100’
  • Distance – 12 miles

* You reach Pyramid Lake before heading up the slope on the west side of the lake. It’s a nice place to take a break or have lunch.

Warrior Mountain – Swan Range

  • Elevation – 7,903’
  • Elevation gain – Nearly 4,000’ on a roller coaster trail
  • Distance – 12 miles

* The Napa Point Trailhead is a scenic trail that rolls up and down an open ridgeline and affords great views of Swan Peak and the surrounding area. Warrior Mountain is reached by a relatively mellow ascent off of scenic Alpine Trail No. 7.

Information on how to get there, plus other details are found on the U.S. Forest Service website: www.fs.usda.gov/activity/flathead/recreation/hiking. Click on the day hiking link for specific hike details.

Wildflowers

Wildflowers are like nature’s exclamation point. Even though they normally peak in July in subalpine country, the mountainside is usually peppered with some kind of flowers at various elevations from April into September. There are hundreds of wildflower species in Montana. One of the first to pop up in the spring is the glacier lily, which I think of as an excited child who can’t wait to see what’s next, because it often pushes its yellow blossom up through the snow. The arrowleaf balsamroot is another favorite, with its yellow daisy-like flowers and arrow-shaped leaves. They’re frequently found on sunny slopes. Bear grass is probably my favorite, with its star-like blossoms circling a tall stalk. It is a mystical experience to wade through flowers so deep and so tall that you can lose children and dogs in them.

Indian paintbrush and fleabane daisy spill down the mountainside along the Birch Lake trail in the Jewel Basin.

Favorite Wildflower Locations

  • Wild Horse Island — Look for the arrowleaf balsamroot in May.
  • Glacier Park — Logan Pass, the Highline Trail and the east side of Logan Pass are just a few of the places you can find dozens of wildflower varieties that dot the landscape throughout the summer.
  • Napa Ridge in the Swan Range — Bear grass, Indian paintbrush and fireweed are three favorites that cover the mountainside.
  • Peters Ridge in the Swan Range — Wildflowers seem to flow down the open slopes as you wind up to the ridge and access to Alpine Trail No. 7.

Wildlife

Going into the wild often includes exciting — and potentially frightening — encounters with wildlife. I have been lucky enough to see many of our native species from the wee pika to the gigantic grizzly, and I’ve even spotted the elusive wolverine in Glacier Park three times. When we reported a wolverine sighting at Piegan Pass to a park ranger, he said, “You are lucky. You should buy a lottery ticket.” Glacier Park is one of the best places to view wildlife, with bighorn sheep and mountain goats often spotted at Logan Pass and along many of the alpine trails. We have seen a variety of other wildlife, including moose, elk, deer, mountain lions, eagles, and both black and grizzly bears, some from the road and others on the trail.

Mountain goats are a common sight on Mount Aeneas in the Jewel Basin, and they’re habituated to people, so don’t be surprised if they show up for lunch. We have had many meals with goats looking over our shoulders, probably hopeful that someone might leave a crumb, but from my experience they keep a polite distance.

Bear stories usually trump all. We have seen quite a few bears over the years, and most of the time we only see their rump as they’re making a hasty exit. But I have also had closer encounters. One was along Six-Mile trail when I was snapping photos of bear grass and was separated from my group. I felt a little uneasy by myself so I started singing “hi ho, hi ho” (you know, the one the seven dwarves in Snow White sing). Shortly afterward, I spotted my family waiting at a trail junction. When I reached the group, my husband pointed up the trail to where a little black bear was peering around a larch tree. The cub paused for a few more seconds before he scrambled up the tree, signaling that we should all hustle down the trail before mama bear showed up. In our future storytelling, he became the “peek-a-boo bear” who liked my singing (or at least the song.)

Another incident that occurred in Glacier Park involved a much larger and more frightening grizzly. We were on the last leg of our hike above Two Medicine Lake, and, once again, I fell behind taking photos. I was framing a photo of wildflowers against a mountain peak when a large animal suddenly appeared in my viewfinder. I thought, perhaps wishfully, “oh, a dog,” though it wasn’t very logical, since dogs aren’t even allowed on park trails. But I quickly ascertained that it was a bear casually coming down the trail toward me. I know you aren’t supposed to turn your back or run, but I wasn’t about to wait for him to reach me. My instinct was to make a calm but brisk retreat down the trail, looking frequently over my shoulder until I caught sight of my family and motioned them ahead, silently mouthing, “Bear!” They caught sight of him, and we quickly moved down the trail to reach the boat dock where several hikers were waiting for the Two Medicine shuttle boat. They told us they had watched the bear follow us down the trail. We don’t know where the bear ended up, but we were sure happy to be headed home on a boat.

Favorite Wildlife Spots

  • Logan Pass and along Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier Park — A wide variety of wildlife.
  • Jewel Basin in the Swan Range — Deer, elk and mountain goats.
  • Highway 83 — Famous for its deer population, we have also seen a variety of other wildlife on our way to a hiking destination, including elk, bears, coyotes, foxes, and mountain lions.
  • Napa Point Trail — Plenty of wildlife, including grouse, deer, elk, mountain goats, wolverines, and bears.
  • Wild Horse Island — This 2,164-acre island state park has walking trails that offer great opportunities to observe various wildlife, including bighorn sheep, mule deer, eagles, hawks, and wild horses.

Water

Cooling off. Sisters Kelsey and Risa share a little sibling rivalry and cold water at Rockwell Falls in Glacier Park.

A hot day feels a lot hotter when you’re on a strenuous hike, so my favorite warm weather adventures are often along creeks, waterfalls or alpine lakes. A stream provides a refreshing face wash, while a lake offers a great way to cool off before the trip back down. I have swum in over a dozen alpine lakes, and I love when I can lure someone else to join me for a plunge into water that can barely melt an ice cube. My friend Mary grew up in California but is a farm girl and always game for fun, so she happily agreed to follow me into Turquoise Lake in the Mission Mountains, even with the north shoreline still draped in snow. She launched into the lake with aplomb and then popped up like a cork, first gasping and then laughing uncontrollably. She scrambled out of the water to a warm rock, still laughing.

Another favorite moment occurred in the Two Medicine area of Glacier Park when my daughters had a water fight beneath Rockwell Falls on our way to Cobalt Lake. A photo captured the sparring, joyful camaraderie of the two sisters. Cold water and warm memories.

Favorite Lakes

  • Cold Lake
  • Mission Mountain Wilderness
  • Cedar Lake
  • Mission Mountain Wilderness
  • Ducharme Lake
  • Mission Mountain Wilderness
  • Upper Whitefish Lake
  • Whitefish Range
  • Hidden Lake
  • Glacier Park
  • Summer Snow

Snow lingers well into summer in high mountain country and never leaves in glacier country. On a trip to Mount Aeneas with visiting family members, while eating lunch, we watched a herd of mountain goats frolic in the snow, their white shaggy coats contrasted against deep blue skies. When we headed down the ridge to complete the loop past Picnic Lakes, a few members of the group followed my husband’s glissade down a snowfield, snow spraying and feet flying as they learned a new sport. For those not ready for a potential spill down the mountain, a snowball toss was plenty of excitement, while a niece built a hobbit-sized snowman.

Snow slide. Glissading down a snowy ridge in the Swan Range contrasts a sunny summer day.

Favorite Snowy High Places

  • Logan Pass
  • Glacier Park
  • Jewel Basin
  • Swan Range
  • Glacier View
  • Glacier View Ranger District

Lunch

The lunch break is a highlight of our hiking routine — from a sandwich garnished with wild onions picked in a soggy meadow, to my trademark double chocolate brownie, to a handful of fragrant huckleberries picked along the trail. The “lunchroom” is usually pretty spectacular, too — on a perch above lakes and valleys with endless views, a warm rock alongside a gurgling creek or a glistening lake, or maybe on a smooth log that lost its bark long ago.

Lunch provides a welcome break. Some may wander off to explore the area while others take a nap in the sun. My husband pulls out his maps, and where there is a lake, I go for a swim, followed by a sunbath to dry off before we head down the trail.

I always feel wistful when it’s time to go home, reluctant to leave a special place, view and time. But reaching the end of the trail presents its own reward and satisfaction. When we get to the car, I like to yell, “I’m alive!” Then we peel off our boots and grab a cold drink from the cooler, followed by a high-spirited toast with family and friends who shared a day of hiking — and a whole lot more.

* Read more of our best long-form journalism in Flathead Living. Pick up the summer edition for free on newsstands across the valley. Or check it out online at flatheadliving.com.

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