Coal Creek to Beaver Woman Lake

Sat. August 4

Daily miles: 10.5
Cumulative miles: 55.2

The concerns raised about the trail Beaver Woman Lake had intrigued me and now I wondered if this section would be more interesting than the rest of the Nyack Loop. I break camp within 15 minutes of waking, the order of each morning now falling into a routine that has almost become second nature. Breakfast is an unremarkable affair: two homemade energy bars and a few mouthfuls of peanut butter, all crudely chewed and swallowed between labored breaths.

The valley is damp and silent at this hour before the sun penetrates the valley and breathes a life of sound into the forest. My path winds along Coal Creek for much of the day and there are several stream crossings before noon. At one of them I meet my friend from yesterday who spent last night at Beaver Woman Lake. I wonder how he found the trail…

“How was the trail out to Beaver Woman? I heard some crazy stories from people last night who said they lost their way.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty overgrown out there, but doable.”

Pretty overgrown? Sounds like more of the same to me. The entire Nyack Loop is “pretty overgrown” apart from the few miles near the trailheads along Highway 2. I thank him and we each continue on our separate trips—his back to the Highway and a warm shower, mine deeper into this magnificent mountain realm.

Within an hour, it is evident that Martha’s Basin is not just “pretty overgrown.” It is the most overgrown section of the Nyack Loop by far. It takes my full attention just to keep from losing the trail. Worse, the tall grass and shrubs obscuring the way forward are thoroughly soaked and my trail runners rapidly absorb the runoff as I push my way through.

Unlike so many places in Montana, the lakes, rivers, and mountains of Glacier National Park often retain their indigenous place names, but it is frequently unclear how many of these names reflect the actual usage of the Blackfeet tribe. G.B. Grinnell was an earnest friend of the Blackfeet and an anthropologist who pushed to preserve the Blackfeet names (albeit in translation) but he and those who followed his example sometimes did so arbitrarily. At least as often as they honestly attempt to reflect indigenous traditions, others appear to have been assigned random—redolent of the generic Indian pastiche presented to tourists in the park’s early years.

My destination for the day, Beaver Woman Lake, was officially named by the federal government in 1939/40, three decades after the park was founded. But it is not the only Beaver Woman Lake in the park. From shortly after the park’s founding until 1928, the spectacularly beautiful Swiftcurrent Lake in the Many Glacier area was known as McDermott Lake, named for some long forgotten turn-of-the-century lumberjack. Earlier still (certainly before the incursion of whites), according to the 1916 book Blackfeet Tales of Glacier Park, the same lake had been known by the Blackfeet as Beaver Woman’s Lake.1 There is no mention of this early name in the United States Geographic Board’s work card for Swiftcurrent/McDermott Lake, but it is amusing to observe that the card does note the Park Service’s strong opposition to the name McDermott—whose “sole contribution to the park was despoiling its forests and his name should not be perpetuated.” (It sounds like the Park Service was once more outspoken and principled than its current defanged incarnation.) In any case, Swiftcurrent/McDermott Lake has nothing to do with what is today known as Beaver Woman Lake, located in a completely different area of the park. Presumably, once the original Blackfeet name had been supplanted, the park recycled “Beaver Woman” to a hitherto unnamed lake elsewhere. Did the Blackfeet known my destination as Beaver Woman Lake or was this simply the romantic flourish of some anonymous white bureaucrat? I strongly suspect the latter, especially because nearby Buffalo Woman Lake (a name “recommended” by the General Manager of the Glacier Hotel Co. after a “Blackfeet Indian”) was officially recognized in 1929, ten years earlier than Beaver Woman. At some point over the next decade, someone at the Park Service felt Buffalo Woman deserved more than an unnamed counterpart and Beaver Woman it became. This is of course a speculative conclusion, but a definitive history of the park is not available.

Beaver Woman Lake (but not the original)

After many hours of bushwhacking and scrambling over more fallen trees than I care to remember, I arrive at the spur trail to Beaver Woman Lake and Buffalo Woman Lake. I nearly miss the turn-off as the sign had been toppled by yet another tree and lay partially obscured upon the forest floor. A short hike through tall huckleberry bushes eventually brings me to the rather expansive and scenic Beaver Woman Lake Campground at the base of the eponymous lake.

Beaver Woman Lake Campground

I have my pick of the campsites and select a beautiful spot facing a view of the waterfalls feeding into the lake. After a brisk swim in the lake and warm meal, I am grateful to realize that tomorrow will be my last day on the Nyack Loop. It will be a long slog back up to Cut Bank Pass—but at last I will see something of the rest of this park.

1. James Willard Shultz, Blackfeet Tales of Glacier Park (Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1916), 226.

Middle Fork Flathead River to Coal Creek

FRI. August 3

Daily miles: 11.8
Cumulative miles: 44.7

My bowels finally realize what I’m up to this morning. I jolt awake with the dire urge to relieve myself. There’s no question of using the WAG Bag, but neither is there any time to dig a cat-hole. In general, I try to adhere to Leave No Trace principles, but sometimes you just need to go. With the help of several large stones, I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

By the time I’m packed and on my way, the sun is beginning to cast light through the trees. Steam rises from the dewy grass as it warms, producing dreamlike clouds alongside the trail. I pass the junction to the Middle Fork Flathead River and State Highway 2, which follows the park’s boundary.

GNP’s southern boundary on the Middle Fork Flathead River

As the trail ascends, I begin to see cars winding along Highway 2 as well as a stalled train of endless UPS containers. The now-defunct Great Northern Railway company is intimately connected with Glacier National Park’s history. As a way of creating markets, the Great Northern’s president, James J. Hill, invested in towns all along his northern route from St. Paul to Seattle. What would become Glacier National Park in 1910 was for Hill an opportunity to fill his trains with tourists. Drawing on the patriotic fervor of the First World War, the slogan became “See America First”—an effort to lure gilded age aristocrats away from Europe. Glacier was promoted as an American rival to the Swiss alps and a huge amount of money was poured into kitsch accommodation for bourgeois tourism. An important part of this process involved the removal of Native Americans from the land. As one scholar summarizes this sordid history, “Glacier and many other national parks, are built upon an illusion.”1

They seem to offer us a rare chance to experience the continent as it was, to set eyes on a vista unspoiled by human activity. This uninhabited nature is a recent construction. The untold story behind our unspoiled views and virgin forests is this: these landscapes were inhabited, their features named, their forests utilized, their plants harvested and animals hunted. Native Americans have a history in our national parks measured in millennia. They were forcibly removed, and later treaty rights to traditional use such as hunting and fishing were erased, often without acknowledgment or compensation. Immediately after these removals, the parks were advertised as a showcase of uninhabited America, nature’s handiwork unspoiled.

For years, the United States pursued a policy of weakening the Native American presence in the plains by exterminating the buffalo. By 1895, when the negotiations for what would become Glacier National Park began, the Blackfeet (actually three semi-independent tribes: the Piegan, Blood, and Northern Blackfeet) had already been relegated to an area that included the contemporary reservation borders as well as the eastern half of the Park. The Blackfeet didn’t want to sell, but the decimation of buffalo meant that they faced the threat of starvation during the winter. They grudgingly agreed to a price of $1.5 million for the eastern half of the Park.

Upon the conclusion of negotiations, Chief White Calf reportedly stated, “Now my head is cut off. The mountains have been my last refuge.”2 Even the limited access retained in the agreement of 1895 was eventually stripped when Congress established Glacier National Park in 1910. As early as 1912, a park ranger evicted members of the tribe who had been caught hunting in the park, issuing them a warning that “they will no longer be permitted in Glacier National Park, and if found within the [park] they will be summarily ejected.”3

After being effectively coerced into ceding their land, members of the tribe were commissioned to set up a camp at the train station in East Glacier, where were to greet throngs of tourists as they streamed in. Apparently, traditional Blackfeet garb didn’t align with Hill’s idea of what Native Americans should look and he insisted that they wear Sioux dress instead.4

Blackfeet Indians at the Many Glacier Hotel

All this is to say that while Glacier National Park contains some of the most impressive mountain scenery on the continent, the modern park was founded on ethnic cleansing, racism, and private profit. Glacier would serve as a playground for wealthy (white) Easterners in search of a look at the “American Alps” replete with a human zoo of romanticized “Indians,” who were themselves barred entry, even if they were willing to pay.

I had read all about this history before I arrived in the park, but seeing the train tracks laid a century before along Highway 2 made it suddenly real for me. We had driven through the town of Browning on the Blackfeet Reservation on our way to East Glacier. The poverty is palpable in these places, immediately adjacent one of the most popular national parks in the country. The average life expectancy of a member of the Blackfeet nation today is 15 years less than a white resident of Montana. This is what enduring injustice looks like.

The trail continues for some time along Park’s boundary, gradually ascending above the river, but eventually turns back into the Park’s interior. This stretch of the Nyack Loop contains the best maintained trails by far, which I attribute to the access Highway 2 provides for day hikers. No one is around to shatter my solitude this early though.

Around noon, I stop for a snack at perhaps my fourth stream crossing. Just as I’m throwing down my pack, a young man on my tail catches up to me. He’s got an enormous pack in the fashion of a traditional backpacker. It looks to be 60 lbs or more with spare shoes and fancy water-bottles stashed in the side pockets. We chat for a bit. He’s just come across the Middle Fork Flathead River and is bound for Beaver Woman Lake tonight (my destination tomorrow), then back out the next day. Just an overnight trip. I wonder what he needs 60 lbs of gear for. He had wanted to hike another section of the park but there were no permits available. It wasn’t his first choice. He sets off and I allow him a ten minute head start to avoid crossing paths again.

Southern section of the Nyack Loop

I’m heading for the Coal Creek campground, but it was full when my permit was issued so I’m authorized for another night of undesignated camping. Still, I didn’t enjoy looking for a spot yesterday so I plan to hang around Coal Creek and see if anyone shows up. The rest of the day is very pleasant. There are no mosquitos or biting flies and the weather is perfect—sunny but not too hot. The trail to Coal Creek is clear, easy, and level. I arrive at the spur trail to the campground by early afternoon.

Two young men greet me as I arrive. They’ve driven from Nebraska and, like the other hiker I met, were also disappointed by the permits available and opted for undesignated camping out here in the Nyack/Coal Creek area. Apparently the ranger told them this area was “crazy” and they do seem to be rather jarred by the experience. Their permit placed them at Beaver Woman Lake tonight but they had turned back this morning after meeting some other hikers heading in the opposite direction. These “mountain men,” as the kids described them, apparently all carried guns and had lost the trail, finding it again only after six hours of aimless wandering. The story had so terrified these inexperienced Nebraskans, they thought it reckless to proceed. If weathered mountain men with guns had lost the trail, how could they ever hope to manage? So they had returned to Coal Creek, technically in violation of their permit—“but the rangers have to understand, right?”

Interesting. Could the trail to Beaver Woman really be so bad? There was no question about turning back for me. I simply had to get through. If it turned out to be a difficult trail, I had the GPS after all.

Coal Creek Campground

Two other men turn up before dinner: a Theatre Ph.D. about my age from Los Angeles and an older guy from Iowa who runs a non-profit committed to promoting commercial development rural parts of the state. They had just come from Beaver Woman Lake, taking their time apparently, but had a different story to tell about the trail. Sure, it was overgrown at times, but manageable. Good. This dispelled any doubts the Nebraskans had imparted.

Like me, the rock climbers were also permitted for undesignated camping and thought they would check out the campground. None of us—not me, not the Nebraskans, not the rock-climbers—had a permit for the Coal Creek Campground, which was supposedly full. Whoever held those permits remains a mystery. They never did turn up and we helped ourselves the empty sites.

Though the evening is hot, I light a campfire to cook my dinner and we have a wonderful time sharing stories and discussing the abysmal state of academia well into the evening. At length, I take my leave and fall asleep contemplating the special joy and intensity of these single-serving encounters with other hikers. Tomorrow: Beaver Woman Lake!

1. Isaac Kantor, “Ethnic Cleansing and America’s Creation of National Parks,” Public Land & Resources Review 28 (2007): 42.
2. Cited in Mark David Spence, “Backbone of the World: The Blackfeet and the Glacier National Park Area,” in Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 80.
3. Cited in Kantor, 52.
4. George Bristol, Glacier National Park: A Culmination of Giants (Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press, 2017), 88.

Upper Nyack to Middle Fork Flathead River

Thurs. August 2

Daily miles: 15.4
Cumulative miles: 32.9

I awake naturally just before dawn, break down the tent, and collect my food bag from the dining area. This process has not yet become routine and I fumble with the order of it all, accidentally packing my food before removing the day’s snacks. In a day or two every step will be second nature. I’m running about forty minutes behind my ideal start of 6.00 AM, but there’s no immediate rush today. I set off just as I hear the others emerging from their tents.

The overgrown trail is covered in a layer of dew and it’s still pretty dark. While the sun has reached the upper slopes above Nyack Creek, I remain tucked in a narrow mountain corridor of burned out trees and endless stretches of fireweed. It’s cold and wet, but I feel great and today’s trail should wind easily along Nyack Creek until it spills into the mighty Middle Fork Flathead River.

Nyack Creek

As the morning progresses, Nyack Creek plunges deeper and deeper into the gorge until it lies hundreds of feet below me to the left. The trail crosses several streams and I spend time at each one diligently removing my shoes and socks and then clipping them to my pack before carefully crossing. There are no bridges in the Nyack/Coal Creek area, a consequence of its special ruggedness. Even this late in the summer, there will be many more—and much larger—streams to cross in the coming days.

One of several crossings

Some time in the late morning, I pass a man heading in the opposite direction + a fishing pole and a pistol holstered on his side. Some people are surprised to learn that firearms are permitted in National Parks. Hunting is obviously not allowed—so why have a gun? Well there’s really only two possibilities: it’s either for protection (against bears? people?) or it’s a manifestation of the psycho-sexual insecurity so common among second amendment fundamentalists. In truth, it’s probably a bit of both.

The protection argument at least, is simply not based in reality. You would have to be a crack shot with light speed reflexes to rapidly kill an aggressive brown bear. And you can forget about a Grizzly. Most attacks take people by surprise. On the other hand, numerous studies now show that bear spray is highly effective at deterring bear attacks.1 So guns are pretty much useless in the backcountry of our National Parks. But maybe having a gun strapped to his side makes this guy feel like a Real Man™, just in case he needs to launch a spontaneous libertarian insurrection against a tyrannical government. Or maybe he’s just a douchebag with a gun in a place where guns don’t belong, the law notwithstanding.

In any case, the gun-bearing fisherman is the only person I encounter until I get much closer to the trailheads accessible from Highway 2 on the Park’s southwestern border. I pass the Lower Nyack Campground which looks dank and buggy. As the day gets warmer the mosquitos grow more and more insistent. By the early afternoon biting flies join in the feast and prod me to a brisk pace of four mph (according to the Garmin). Even at this speed, I’m barely outrunning the swarm and every time I stop, my legs are instantly covered in two dozen mosquitos and at least four or five biting flies each. Blood was shed in this stretch, make no mistake.

Patrol cabin

So far, I was not very impressed with the Nyack/Coal Creek Loop. At least the trail is easier to follow today but it remains in the woods for most of the day, obscuring the surrounding views. As far as I could tell, the eponymous creek was not markedly more impressive than any other creek one encounters in this part of the country—and the bugs were driving me to the edge of insanity.

By early afternoon, I reach the intersection with the border trail and follow it to a major crossing of Nyack Creek. There is no bridge, but the current is very gentle so there’s no real risk posed by a foot-crossing. Besides, it’s hot and I’m arriving at my undesignated destination for the day, so I welcome the opportunity to soak myself. I’m also tired and not thinking straight. As I enter the creek, I fail to notice that my water bottle—the only one I brought with me—becomes buoyant and pushes out from my backpack.

When I’m halfway across, I stop to look up and down the creek… and I see my water bottle floating downstream!

“Some idiot littering in Glacier National Park,” I think to myself in the split second before I realize what has actually transpired.

Frantically, I race to shore, drop my pack, and dive back into the creek after my water bottle, which I manage to retrieve with less difficulty than I deserve for making such a mistake.

Now where to camp? As I mentioned earlier, the Nyack/Coal Creek area is the only section of Glacier National Park in which “undesignated” camping is permitted, but now that I come to it there don’t seem to be any good spots available. The forest is extremely dense in this area and while scouting for a site, I discover what appears to be the remains of an old bridge that once spanned the creek here, now almost completely overgrown. I wonder when it was removed (or destroyed?).

The forest reclaims an old bridge

Eventually, I find a tolerable spot to pitch the tent between two fallen trees a short distance from the creek. Still, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to hang my food. The trees are all very large pines in this area with few branches lower than twenty feet above the ground. So I ultimately decide to wedge the Ursack I was loaned in Two Medicine under a large stone some distance from my camp. We’ll see if it’s as impenetrable as advertised.

Once my camp is set up, I rehydrate dinner (clam penne) and spend a long time swimming in the creek, which is somewhat warmer than the snowmelt streams elsewhere in the park. Later, as I’m reading the New Yorker and sipping tea with my feet in the water, I observe several helicopters flying overhead carrying massive shipments of lumber into the park’s interior. There must be some kind of construction going on.

Mosquitos eventually drive me from the creek and I read in my tent until it begins to get too dark. I spend a long time on the Garmin trying to send a message to Isabel before turning in for the night.

1. Smith, Tom S., Stephen Herrero, Cali Strong Layton, Randy T. Larsen, and Kathryn R. Johnson. “Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska.” The Journal of Wildlife Management 76, no. 5 (July 2012): 1021–27. See also Herrero, Stephen, and Andrew Higgins. “Field Use of Capsicum Spray as a Bear Deterrent.” Ursus 10 (1998): 533–37; Mazur, Rachel L. “Does Aversive Conditioning Reduce Human—Black Bear Conflict?” The Journal of Wildlife Management 74, no. 1 (2010): 48–54.

Two Medicine to Upper Nyack

Wed. August 1

Daily miles: 17.5
Cumulative miles: 17.5

Our hostel doubles as a bakery so we grab a couple of coffees and pastries before heading out. The valley is misty as we drive back to the Two Medicine entrance. Nice cool weather. Perfect for starting a long trip! I’m bound for Oldman Lake, but because the campground there is unavailable tonight, I’ll have to push on to Upper Nyack—a much longer first day than I would have chosen.

I ask the ranger at the entrance to point me in the direction of the trailhead. My maps show that it should be just short of the park entrance on the north side of the road but I don’t see any signage. I say goodbye to Isabel and Otília, who nearly breaks my heart as she bursts into tears and sobs “Papa, I love you so much.” Eventually I manage to extract her from my arms and watch the car as it heads back to East Glacier and the four-hour trip home.

Saying goodbye.

After walking at least half a mile down the road looking for the trailhead, I decide that I must have missed it and return to the entrance more than a little irritated. This is a national park! Why wouldn’t the sign be more obvious? As the entrance comes back into view, the ranger spots me and frantically points toward the woods. Okay, now I see the trailhead sign, almost entirely obscured by tall overgrowth. I had walked right past it. Not an auspicious way to begin this trip, but at least I’m finally off.

The trail ascends slowly through the forest and eventually intersects with the Continental Divide Trail. I’m unlikely to see yesterday’s thru-hikers again though. They would be starting much further south. Still, I pass a steady number of people on the trail: an overweight but enthusiastic Dad with a couple of dour teenagers, a gay couple, a solo elderly woman outfitted with very new (and very expensive) equipment. With my Panama hat and Garmin inReach Explorer clipped to my left shoulder strap, more than one person mistakes for for a ranger.

A group of German tourists below Red Mountain are clustered around a man aiming his camera at the North slope.

“A bear,” they announce as I approach. “And two cubs.”

I stop and look but don’t see anything. Even in the grainy photograph I took, it’s difficult to tell if it’s even a bear—let alone a mother on an outing with her cubs. Still, a possible bear sighting within the first few miles of my trip was encouraging. Maybe I would get to see a Grizzly after all.

Flinsch Peak above Oldman Lake

I take the spur trail to Oldman Lake, intent on refilling my water. Clouds of mosquitos herald my arrival at the shore. A group of college women throw down their packs and fumble for their bug spray.

The views at Oldman Lake are impressive with Flinsch Peak towering above, but I can’t linger so I begin to treat my water with the Steripen. It had worked at home but now it doesn’t respond when I press the button. Hmmm, very strange. Looks like I’ll be risking untreated water on this trip. I fill up and head back to the trail up to Pitamakan Pass.

This section is very steep and I pass the moody teenagers again.

“Hey, how did we get in front of you?” Dad asks in a goofy voice. “Ah, you must have down to the lake. Really buggy, right?”

“That’s right,” I say without stopping.

The ascent from Oldman Lake up to Pitamakan Pass is the first real challenge of the day, but I take it slow, stopping periodically to enjoy the panoramic views above Oldman Lake. The other side is even more impressive from the top. It’s a beautiful clear day and I can see for miles north out to Morning Star Lake and beyond—my destination a few days from now.

Looking down at Pitamakan Lake from Pitamakan Pass

Pitamakan Pass is abuzz with activity. I smile at two men leading a group of young boys down the side of Mt. Morgan and observe at least seven people ambling along the switchbacks below me toward Seven Winds of the Lake and Pitamakan Lake. At a fork in the trail, I veer right to Cut Bank Pass and contour around McClintock Peak before beginning the long descent into the Coal Creak area via the Pitamakan Pass trail.

On the other side of Cut Bank Pass, it is suddenly silent. No one is heading in this direction. Just the wind and the warmth of the sun on my back amidst the magnificent detritus of geological spacetime. But I still have miles to go and the descent is extremely steep in this section. To make matters worse, the trail disappears entirely on the way down to Nyack Creek and it takes some basic route-finding skills to navigate successfully. A forest fire has made the task a bit easier by helpfully clearing out a great deal of the growth along the rockier stretches, but I still have to retrace my footsteps several times. It will not be fun coming back up in a few days.

Tinkham Mountain from Cut Bank Pass

The Nyack/Coal Creek area is located in the park’s southwestern extremity and I didn’t know this before I left, but it contains the only trails in the park that are not actively maintained. The area is left “as is,” which explains some of the craziness it contains for the few who venture out here. I had assumed that navigation wouldn’t be a problem in a national park. Instead, I found myself painstakingly scrutinizing subtle shifts in the pattern of plant growth to determine where exactly the trail went—and to make sure I did not wander too far from it if I took a false path.

The Pitamakan Pass Trail terminates at the Nyack/Coal Creek Loop at which point I head north along Nyack Creek to my destination for the day: Upper Nyack Campground. It’s already late afternoon by the time I arrive. The temperature is sweltering and my shins are rubbed raw from bushwhacking through endless overgrowth.

No one else is around yet, so I pitch my tent in a site closest to the creek and take a quick dip. As expected, the water is bracingly cold, but it feels good after a long first day. I rinse out my clothes and allow them to dry on me as I prepare dinner, a new concoction of mine: dehydrated cheesy tuna with brown rice and veggies. I had forgotten how good food tastes on the trail.

Hand-drawn map at Upper Nyack Creek

An older couple and their son about my age stroll into camp and we exchange pleasantries as they unload their gear and hang their food. After the initial encounter, they don’t seem very interested in chatting with me, so I make a cup of tea and leaf through a copy of Harper’s magazine—a story about climate change driving ever more frequent and intense wildfires in Montana. The state rarely makes the national media and when it does it’s usually bad.

Unfortunately, there are large ants everywhere and I’m plucking them off in the dozens as I read. The tent is no more comfortable in the full glare of the sun at this time of day, but I strip and try to withstand the heat.

The temperature plummets with setting sun and I surrender to the somnambulant drone of Nyack Creek. A good introduction to Glacier. 

Charleston Peak Loop

For Thanksgiving this year, we drove down to Las Vegas to see my brother. Frankly, I can’t stand the town. I don’t enjoy gambling and I loathe frat party culture. I regard The Hangover films as quasi-journalistic in that they unapologetically fetishize the (white male) juvenilia around which the city’s economy really does revolve. As a New Yorker in exile, it occurs to me that Las Vegas is what passes for culture West of the Hudson. Put differently, if New York City is the epicenter of American consumerism, “Sin City” represents its vulgar extremity—all spectacle, no taste. Trump must love Las Vegas.

On top of it all, the city’s flagrant disregard for basic sustainability strikes me as particularly obscene in our time of ecological crisis. This little patch of sand consumes far more water than nature would otherwise grant and Ed Abbey’s ruminations return to me:

Water, water, water. . . . There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount , a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, insuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.

A city where no city should be. When it comes to Las Vegas, this is a multilayered sentiment.

As soon as we met my family at the hotel, I began looking for ways to escape the oppressive kitsch that is the Strip. Unlike some cities of its size, it is very easy to get away from Las Vegas in Las Vegas. We had stopped at Valley of Fire State Park on the way down and did a couple of short but quite lovely hikes. We made plans to visit nearby Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area as well, a popular site west of the city maintained by the Bureau of Land Management. Red Rock Canyon sees 2,000,000+ visitors annually and Thanksgiving is the busiest time of the year, as I was told over the phone. I wanted to hike somewhere less saturated with tourists, however, and this is usually no more complicated than increasing the mileage. Flipping through a copy of Bruce Grubbs’s Hiking Nevada, I settled on a long but promising day hike to the summit of Mt. Charleston (officially Charleston Peak).

My Dad had recently been training for a marathon and decided to join me. 15 miles would have been more than he had ever hiked in a single day, but he was in good physical condition and felt up to the challenge. We scheduled our trip for the day after Thanksgiving. I had wanted to be on the road by 5.30 AM (the trailhead is about an hour’s drive) but Thanksgiving revelry kept us up until 1.00 so we delayed things a bit and arrived at the trailhead by 7.30.

The trail (FT 041) rises steadily from the Trail Canyon Trailhead at the edge of the small community of Mt. Charleston. Both mountain and town are named after the city in South Carolina, apparently by southern emigres who settled in the area.

Two miles from the trailhead, we intersected with the North Loop trail (FT 042) to the summit and continued to climb. My father was doing very well. Light snow covered the trail as we ascended, but nothing too serious. As the morning clouds began to clear, spectacular views emerged across the valley. We could make out our route all the way to the switchbacks up Mt. Charleston’s bald and rather unremarkable peak. From there, a ridge walk along the Spring Range would round the loop before a steep descent returned us to the valley floor a short walk from the car. Surveying the topography, it didn’t look like 15 miles to me. I suspected the guide was a bit off. Just a bit.

Old growth trees, large enough to resist the area’s frequent avalanches.

Because I didn’t know what to expect from my father and because I wasn’t sure how challenging the ascents would be, I had estimated a worst-case pace of 1.5 mph. If we started at 8.00 AM, that would have us summiting in the early afternoon and off the mountain by 6.00 PM.  A long day but probably realistic. I wasn’t hiking alone, after all.

At 11,916 feet, Mt. Charleston is the eighth highest in the state of Nevada. Strange as it sounds, I’ve never hiked at such altitudes (the peaks in my Glacier National Park trek were almost entirely in the 7,000-8,000 ft. range) and my Dad began to experience minor signs of altitude sickness. His fingers swelled and his breathing became labored. Our perfectly respectable initial pace of 2.5 mph slowly evaporated as the trail became higher and steeper. But it wouldn’t ascend indefinitely and I felt confident that we would make up time on descent. We were on course to easily beat my 1.5 mph worst-case estimate.

Then my Dad injured his knee.

As we began to switchback up to the summit, he stepped into a snowdrift and twisted his leg. A minor irritation in his knee became an excruciating pain. He could scarcely bend his leg, which made walking extremely difficult. According to my GPS we had already come nine miles. If the trail was 15.4, there was no point in turning back now that we were (supposedly) more than halfway through. We would press on. I tied a rudimentary knee brace for my Dad from a small towel and he began to hobble along throwing his lame leg ahead of him without bending it and then stepping forward with the bad knee locked. I also lent him my trekking poles, which prevented countless falls and additional injuries. Our new pace was excruciatingly slow but steady and we reached the summit of Mt. Charleston at about 2.30 PM.

At the summit.

Few mountains in this area rival Mt. Charleston for height and the views at the peak are certainly spectacular. One can see as far as Arizona and California. A small ammunition box at the summit is filled with souvenirs and tokens of hikers who came before us, including love notes, business cards, an empty beer car (which I packed out), photographs, and a small American flag with a tribute to fallen comrades in Vietnam. We took a few selfies before I insisted that we continue. Sunset was officially at 4.28 PM, less than two hours away.

At the height of the Cold War in 1955, a CIA transport plane crashed atop Mt. Charleston while headed to Area 51 to test the U-2 spy plane, killing all 14 passengers aboard. The wreckage still lies strewn upon the mountainside but we must have passed it without realizing because the sun was rapidly setting as we proceeded along the ridge.

Mile after mile we continued with no end in sight. Now my GPS said we had gone 14 miles! Through the burned forest along the ridge, we could see our car in the trailhead parking lot far—very far—below us at the base of the valley. It was dark by the time we got to the intersection with the Griffith Peak spur-trail and began a steep descent. The desert temperature was plummeting. With all my layers on, I pulled out my headlamp and began a ludicrous routine that was to be repeated without end throughout the night: I would run about 30-40 feet ahead of my father and then light his path forward, pointing out large rocks, roots, and other obstacles as I went. And then again and again, until increments of feet slowly became miles.

At one point, the trail spilled out onto a large flat spot atop a sheer cliff and I wasn’t sure which way it continued. I was suddenly jarred to hear a dog growling menacingly and noticed that it was coming from a small tent erected near the trail. Someone within quickly zipped up the flap as they realized they were not alone and the dog continued to growl. Hoping to avoid being mauled by a feral canine, I attempted to defuse the situation: “Hi, do you know which way the trail goes from here?”

After a long pause, a deep voice responded simply. “No.”

“Oh, ok. Thanks.” For nothing, I thought. We soon found the trail again and continued for another couple miles of icy switchbacks.

Following the trail at night was difficult, but easier than I would have expected. The moon had been full on Thanksgiving and it illuminated our way whenever the trees became thin, which was often. When we were forced to rely primarily on the dim light of my small emergency headlamp, however, it was absolutely essential not to lose our way—not that we would have been lost per se. Even without GPS our general course to the car was obvious and we could theoretically have made our way down the mountainside without the trail, but it would have been that much slower going overland and through heavier snowfall on this side of the valley. Moreover, I had not anticipated being out after dark and my Dad simply wasn’t dressed for it in shorts and a light hoodie. He wore no gloves and as the temperature was now 28 F, I worried about frostbite. I must have asked how he was doing at least several hundred times throughout the night, wondering when our circumstances might slouch towards an emergency. Fortunately, there was no wind or snow. Had there been, our situation may have been dire. As my Dad never once complained and, on the contrary, insisted that he was good to keep going, we simply continued at a glacial pace of slightly less than one mph.

Finally, around 10.00 PM with the GPS indicating 22.2 miles, we came the Cathedral Rock Picnic Area, where I had planned to leave leave my Dad and sprint the final 1.5 miles to the car. To my great dismay, as I ran the perimeter of the picnic area, I discovered that we were trapped inside the picnic complex. The 10-foot fence of vertical bars looked impossible to climb and I frantically searched for a way out. Obscured by trees near Kyle Canyon Rd., I found a section of fence that had been ripped from its joints and strewn nearby. The handiwork of local teenagers, perhaps? Or else other wayward hikers? Whatever the case, I took the opportunity and ran down the road until my lungs heaved and burned in my chest, past houses adorned with premature Christmas lights and silent driveways leading to garish mountain McMansions. I found the car sitting alone in the parking lot, started it up, and blasted the heater as I sped back to the picnic area.

It was possible to drive into the picnic areas, but after several fruitless efforts, it became obvious that the main complex was indeed fenced off. I left the car by a “no parking” sign near the section of errant fencing and, running in the darkness through one identical picnic area after the next, made my way (with no small amount of help from the GPS) back to my Dad. All the while, I was shouting, “Dad! Daaaaad!” Yet no one answered. Where was he? Was he in shock? Asleep? Arrested for trespassing by an overzealous recreation officer? As I approached the restroom where we parted, I apprehended a dark figure leaning casually against the structure.

“Dad?” I asked.

“Nope,” the figure responded in a listless voice that almost sounded like my father’s.

“Uh, Dad?”

“Oh, sorry Kris. I didn’t recognize you with the dog.”

It was him. Dog? He must have dozed off and been dreaming, which at least explains why he didn’t respond to my hysterical screaming. I apologetically explained our predicament and we hobbled the last quarter mile through the hole in the fence to where I had left the car.

It was some time before the heater penetrated our frozen bodies on the drive back to Las Vegas. All said and done, we hiked just over 22 miles in fourteen hours (not counting my road run)—a daily average of about 1.57 mph. My worst-case scenario pace turned out to be presciently accurate.

what WE did wrong

There’s no question that I screwed up on this trip. I wasn’t fully prepared for an outcome that would keep us on the mountain long after dark. We were lucky and I’m just grateful that our bad situation didn’t become an emergency situation. It was a stark reminder that poor planning opens the way to disaster.

Sure, I had a headlamp, a first aid kit, extra food, and a poncho for each of us—but I didn’t insist that my Dad bring proper layers and I lacked an extra layer myself in case the weather changed for the worse. What if it had been snowing or even raining? What if there had been a strong wind? What if it had been 10 degrees colder? If I thought either of us was facing hypothermia or frostbite, I would not have hesitated to press the SOS button on my Garmin, but we should have been better prepared.


0.0 miles: Begin at the Trail Canyon Trailhead at Mary Jane Falls Campground.

2.4 miles: Intersection with North Loop Trail. Keep left.

3.0 miles: Spring.

9.5 miles: Summit Charleston Peak. Continue on South Loop Trail.

17 miles: Spur trail to Griffith Peak.

22 miles: Trail terminates in Cardinal Rock Picnic Area.

23.5 miles: Return to Trail Canyon Trailhead.

Trailhead GPS: 36°15’58.7″N 115°39’30.8″W
Elevation gain: 4,190 feet
Distance: 23.5 mile loop
Maps: U.S.G.S. Charleston Peak; U.S.F.S. Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest – Spring Mountains National Recreation Area

Ⓐ Hiked by the author, November 23, 2018.

Permits at Two Medicine


We arrive at the tiny town of East Glacier around 3.00 PM after four hours in the car with an impatient two year old, passing garish tourist campgrounds and motels before taking the road into Glacier National Park. The Park complex is visible for miles before you arrive, a series of walls rising distantly on the horizon above fields beaten and dry under the relentless Montana sun.

When we pull in, the Two Medicine campground is abuzz with tourists of all kinds—families with small children running around in bathing suits, old couples, college kids. Someone is playing Led Zeppelin. Motorboats and SUVs fill the parking lot and the smell of grilled hot dogs wafts all around as I step into the small Ranger Station. Last March, I attempted to reserve 14 nights in the backcountry… but Glacier has seen record visitors in recent years and by the time I had submitted my application (within the first five minutes of the website opening), thousands of others had already beaten me to it. And so, a month later, the Park declined my reservation because “the sites on your application were full for the dates you requested.” Perfect. Fortunately, the Park retains at least half of the backcountry sites for walk-in requests and I had arrived here a day before setting out in the somewhat desperate hope that it would be possible to reserve 14 nights in person.

The Ranger Station is a small two room structure decorated with large maps, a white board where tourists have scrawled recent wildlife sightings (7/26 bighorn sh. 7/27 GRIZ!!!), and a large pair of antlers apparently belonging to an elk killed some time in the 90s by a Grizzly Bear near Two Medicine Lake. A young ranger sits at a small desk as three hikers, two bearded men and a woman, hover impatiently above him. By their “hiker trash” appearance (and unmistakable odor), these are not day hikers. Probably completing the Continental Divide Trail, I think. They’re negotiating with the ranger.

“Are you sure you can handle those miles? I can’t have you violating the permit.”

“Yeah, definitely, definitely.”

“And you have your passports with you for Canada?”

They nod.

“Good, I just need you to watch a short safety video.”

He shuffles the three off to a corner of the room with a small television and presses a red button. The video begins with a dramatic monologue: “You have entered Glacier National Park, home to towering forests, alpine tundra, and tender flowered grasslands…” The hikers chuckle softly among themselves and the ranger turns to me.

“Can I help you?”

I learn that it will not be possible to spend my first night at Oldman Lake after all (other walk-ins have nabbed the last spots) and decide to make it a longer first day to Upper Nyack Campground in the Coal Creek area instead. The Coal Creek area is the only part of the Park where “undesignated camping” is allowed (with a permit). If the other official backcountry sites are full, I figure it should be possible to get a day or two of undesignated camping without altering my trip substantially. And I’m right about this. Coal Creek Campground is full so I reserve two nights of undesignated camping followed by Beaver Woman Lake. The rest of my trip falls easily in place after that. Most people don’t plan trips for longer than two or three nights so vacancies open up once you secure the first few dates.

Counting every ounce.

The ranger prints my permit, which is peppered with special advisories just for me, including: ITINERARY NOT RECOMMENDED! And because I’m going undesignated for two nights,  there are  a few other matters to discuss. He hands me a small plastic item and smiles ironically.

“We can’t have undesignated campers digging catholes out there. You’re going to have to poop and pee in this and pack it out.”

It’s called a “WAG bag.” It chemically coagulates human excretion in handy little plastic wraps—and I have have absolutely no intention of using it.

“Oh, ok sure,” I say with as much conviction as I can muster.

“This means you’ll have to carry it with you until you reach the first trash can on your trip…” He looks over a large map on the desk. “…at Reynold’s.”

That’s six days into my trip. There is no way I’m carrying my own shit for six days, I think.

“Ok, no problem.”

Appeased, he has me watch the safety video. I’m interested in what it has to say about Grizzly Bears. Glacier has been the site of a number of fatal Grizzly attacks and they nearly always involve solo hikers—like me! Because of this, I have read and reread Stephen Herrero’s Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, so the video simply confirms what I already knew. Bears do not ordinarily pose a threat to humans. Attacks are rare for a reason. Taking a few measures to avoid confrontations is very simple, but everyone in Glacier is so palpably paranoid when comes to Grizzles that it was beginning to make me nervous.

I pay for my permit and, before leaving, ask about the hikers who had been ahead of me in line.

“Oh, that was just a stupid permit I issued. Shouldn’t have done it. They’re taking on too much.”

“How much?” I ask.

“90 miles in two days. It’s a one night permit. They’re hiking the entire park in two days.”

I wonder if they made it. 45 miles per day is insane mileage. It’s one thing on flat and easy terrain, but 45 miles in Glacier means a lot of elevation gain and loss per mile. 30-40 miles is doable—but 45? If they began hiking at 5.00 AM both days and maintained a brisk pace of 3 mph without breaks, they could have gotten to camp at 8.00 PM. And maybe that’s what they did. Who knows.

With my permits secured, we head back into East Glacier, book a private room at Brownie’s hiker hostel and get dinner at the restaurant next door. The 45-milers are already there eating copious amounts of food, as hikers do: large burgers all around and then huckleberry pie with double scoops of ice cream. Eavesdropping confirms they’re finishing the Continental Divide Trail. I wonder if they were deceiving the ranger about their mileage and really plan to take an extra day. It would save them money, certainly. But they don’t bring it up and, if anything, seem to be serious.

“I dig it,” one of the beards announces as he stretches his legs to leave. “Long miles, light pack, the end in sight. I dig it.”

Perhaps they managed 90 miles in two days after all.

Both hostel and restaurant are entirely staffed by European kids on a summer gig. They chatter in Polish, French, and German. They tell tell us there is no drinking allowed in the rooms, which I find a bit infantilizing, but whatever. As with the WAG bag, there is no way I can possibly agree to this and we spend the evening in a sweltering room trying to get Otília to sleep (she’s way too excited) over a few clandestine glasses of terrible boxed wine.

I have an extreme case of butterflies in the stomach. I’m here! I’m in Glacier National Park! I know the next two weeks will be wonderful, but the prospect of leaving my family always makes me a bit blue before I head off. Eventually we all fall asleep and I dream about being eaten by a family of bears. Ⓐ 

Mann Gulch

On a lonely mountainside, overlooking a particularly beautiful stretch of the Missouri River, lie a dozen concrete crosses.1 Fractured, sun-bleached, and barely visible through the dry grass, each of the tiny monuments is emblazoned with the name of a smokejumper who died here in the devastating Mann Gulch fire of 1949.

Even by Montana standards, Mann Gulch is a harsh and remote place. A steep ravine roughly two and half miles long, it spills out into the Missouri River 20 miles north of Helena in a section named the “gates of the rocky mountains” by Meriwether Lewis in 1805 after the immense limestone cliffs that line the river for several miles here:

this evening we entered much the most remarkable clifts that we have yet seen. these clifts rise from the waters edge on either side perpendicularly to the height of 1200 feet. … the river appears to have forced its way through this immense body of solid rock for the distance of 5-3/4 Miles … I called it the gates of the rocky mountains.

Abundant wildflowers in late spring.

More than a century and a half later, in 1964, this place was formally designated the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area by an act of Congress and is now managed by the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest. At only 28,562 acres, it is Montana’s smallest wilderness area, but the sheer beauty it contains—from sweeping mountain vistas to views alongside and well above the Missouri River—is truly astonishing. The tragic history of this area adds an additional layer of significance to the site, which is still regarded by many as an open-air mausoleum.

Their crosses are quiet and a long way off, and from this remove their influence is quiet and seemingly distant. But quietly they are present on every fire-line, even though those whose lives they are helping to protect know only the order and not the fatality it represents. For those who crave immortality by name, clearly this is not enough, but for many of us it would mean a great deal to know that, by our dying, we were often to be present in times of catastrophe helping to save the living from our deaths.2

Norman Maclean’s beautiful book, Young Men and Fire (Chicago University Press, 1992) is almost certainly the most comprehensive account of the Mann Gulch fire. Of the sixteen men who jumped into Mann Gulch on August 5, 1949, only three cheated death. Two managed to reach the Northern ridge of Mann Gulch before the fire caught up with them, while foreman R. Wagner “Wag” Dodge spontaneously innovated the use of an escape fire to avoid the conflagration by depriving it of fuel in the area immediately around him. Of the unlucky others, eleven mercifully suffocated before the fire consumed their bodies, while another two succumbed to extreme burns before dawn the next day.

The Forest Service learned a great deal from the tragedy and, as forest fires go, Mann Gulch’s legacy seems to have been more consequential than most. Besides improving safety standards with respect to communication and chain-of-command, Dodge’s successful use of his escape fire guaranteed the tactic a firm place in the canon of firefighting maneuvers. The importance of this innovation, can scarcely be overstated. As Maclean writes, “The Mann Gulch Fire,” Maclean writes, “would never have attained its preeminence in the history of forest fires if foreman Wag Dodge had not set his escape fire.”3

The Missouri River ascending from Meriwether Picnic Area.

For the hiker, this is a phenomenal trip, both stunningly beautiful and historically compelling. That said, it is an extremely strenuous route I chose, ascending relentlessly from the Missouri River Canyon Trailhead and then down to the Missouri River—more than 1100 feet in the first three miles. And this is all a mere prelude to the “fifteen-hundred foot precipice” ascending vertically from Meriwether Picnic Area up to the south slope of Mann Gulch. Fortunately the trail is very well maintained and the switchbacks ease the ascent tremendously. At the top of the ridge, there is an interpretive display detailing the Mann Gulch tragedy. From here the trail continues along the slope for another two miles to the north slope, where the tragic events unfolded and where the memorial now lies.

The complete out-and-back is about 20 very difficult miles and I would only recommend this route as a day trip to hikers in top physical condition. It is certainly possible to break the trip up  by spending a night at Coulter Campground or Meriwether Picnic Area. Approaching overland from the North, as described in Bill and Russ Schneider’s Hiking Montana, is probably a much easier trip out to the crosses, but their route wouldn’t provide the unrivaled views of the Missouri River on the way.

Coulter Campground, an idyllic spot along the Missouri River.

Finally, there’s the climate to consider. The Gates of the Mountains Wilderness is extremely dry and hot. In his “fire report,” Norman Maclean describes Mann Gulch as “one of the hottest hillsides in … one of the roughest pieces of country east of the Continental Divide.”4 That’s an accurate assessment. Already when I was there in early June, the sun was scorching. I cannot imagine attempting this trip in the heat of July or August, let alone fighting a raging wildfire in such temperatures. Except for the short section along the Missouri, there is no water to be had.

View of Beartooth Mountain from the ridge above the smokejumpers memorial.


0.0 miles: Begin at the Missouri River Canyon Trailhead (Trail 257) off American Bar Rd.

4.0 miles: Coulter Campground

5.0 miles: Meriwether Picnic Area. Ascend the near-vertical trail up to the top of the ridge.

6.0 miles: Devil’s Kitchen rock formation.

8.0 miles: Reach the top of the ridge, the south slope of Mann Gulch. There is a large interpretive display here detailing the tragedy.

10.0 miles: Smokejumpers memorial crosses. Henry Thol Jr.’s is the closest to the top of the ridge. This is the turn-around point unless you wish to explore the other memorials.

20 miles: Return to the Missouri River Canyon Trailhead.

Trailhead GPS: 46°49’06.0″N 111°53’53.3″W
Elevation gain: 1,500+ feet
Distance: 20 miles out-and-back
Maps: U.S.G.S. Upper Holter Lake, Beartooth Mountain; U.S.F.S. Helena National Forest Forest

Ⓐ Hiked by the author, June 6, 2018

1. While there were originally 13 erected at the site, David Navon’s cross was replaced with a marker bearing a Star of David in 2001 to reflect his Jewish heritage. 

2. Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2017), 246.

2. Maclean, 313.

4. Maclean, 224.

Sypes Canyon

June in Montana is still too early for hiking without snow-shoes above a certain elevation, so we settled on a popular Bozeman-area hike for our Saturday family excursion. Like many of the short trails around Bozeman, this four-mile out-and-back through Sypes Canyon is (unfortunately) a dual purpose trail. Mountain bikers abound—none of whom seem aware of their responsibility to give hikers right-of-way—and the trail displays all the erosive indications of “pedalphilia.” And yet the bikers, though irritating, barely register next to the steady stream of trail joggers periodically punctuating our morning saunter with shouts of “Excuse-me-can-I-just-get-by-you-thanks!” or, worse, the oblivious dog owners who permit their slobbering beasts to indulge in gratuitous and extremely non-consensual sniffs at our crotches while feebly muttering “It’s-OK-he’s-just-friendly.” Whatever the virtues of Sypes Canyon, solitude and quiet contemplation are not among them.

As a rule, I usually avoid trails that are either easily accessible from urban centers or that provide scenic rewards for less than four miles of effort. They always attract too many people and Sypes Canyon falls into both categories. From trailhead to overlook, the Sypes Canyon Trail ascends a paltry two miles and so it was, predictably, one of the most crowded trails I have ever hiked, easily rivaling the notorious first mile of New York’s Breakneck Ridge. If Butte is the town of aging opioid-addicted Wobblies and Missoula that of man-bunned gluten-free hippies, Bozeman is populated by the kind of people one suspects take their membership at REI very seriously. At times, the procession of brand new gear on display (by human and canine alike) led me to wonder if we had accidentally stumbled into some kind of immersive photo shoot for outdoor casual wear. Because of its extreme popularity, the trail is heavily worn—compacted 10 feet wide in places!—and frequently pocked with hitchhiking dandelions.

Larkspur is abundant in the Spring.

But enough of my complaining. If you can resign yourself to the crowds, the trail does offer a beautiful array of wildflowers, particularly Low Larkspur (Delphinium bicolor) at this time of year and Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata). The scenic lookout, moreover, provides wonderful views of Bozeman across the Gallatin Valley and out to the Madison, Gallatin, and Tobacco Root ranges beyond. (When we were there, the view was slightly diminished by two young men blaring a radio while practicing their boxing moves and a dog that nearly ran off with my daughter’s lunch.) As the trail connects with the Bridger Foothills National Recreation Trail, there are many options for those interested in a longer outing.

Unfortunately, the origin of the name “Sypes” eludes me. I would suppose that the canyon takes its name from a family that may have lived in the area, but a cursory search produces nothing obvious. A Sypes family seems to have been involved with gold mining in Atlantic City, Wyoming and perhaps some of their relations settled in Montana, but this is just speculation. Moreover, no one by the name Sypes is listed in Bozeman’s White Pages, though there are a number of “Sipes” in Bozeman and throughout the state. As Sipes is itself an anglicization of the German surname Seip, it might simply be a case of the spelling evolving over time.

Sagebrush rebellion.


0.0 miles: Begin at the Sypes Canyon Trailhead, walking past the sign along a grassy fenced corridor.

0.5 miles: Reach the top of a ridge before descending into the canyon.

1.0 miles: Curve right along the edge of the national forest boundary.

2.0 miles: Scenic lookout. Turn-around point.

4.0 miles: Return to the trailhead.

Trailhead GPS: 45°44’42.8″N 111°00’28.6″W
Elevation gain: 1,000 feet
Distance: 4 miles out-and-back
Maps: U.S.G.S. Bozeman, Kelly Creek; U.S.F.S. Custer Gallatin National Forest Forest

Ⓐ Hiked by the author, June 2, 2018

Convento dos Capuchos to Monserrate

We’re in Portugal for a few weeks visiting family and I thought it might be fun to look into hiking here. Like much of Southern Europe, the concept of recreational walking is thought to be more than a little odd. Walking for fun? This mentality is slowly changing however and the country now boasts at least one long-distance trail. Still, there is no comprehensive hiking guidebook for the country and only after a careful search was I able to find an out-of-print book by the small Cornwall based Pili-Pala Press entitled Walking in Portugal (2nd ed. 2000). As my partner’s family lives near the coastal town of Cascais, just a short drive from the picturesque Sintra region, we decided to give their Sintra walk a try.

This walk begins in the town of Colares on the N247, the main road through Sintra to the coast, but it quickly leaves tarmac behind and ascends into the lush greenery for which Sintra is so well known. Through cascading flowers, cork groves, and aromatic eucalyptus, the path winds among ruined villas, magnificent old quintas, and sleepy mountain villages.

The Convento dos Capuchos resembles something out of a fairy tale and is worth a visit whether or not you choose to show up on foot. Founded in 1560 by Franciscan monks, the devout inhabitants had a clear-eyed ecological sensibility and the structure seems to rise organically out of the earth. Frivolous ornamentation is completely absent and the rooms are impossibly small, almost as if a colony of hobbits or some other diminutive creatures might have once inhabited the tiny cork-lined cells.

The Convento dos Capuchos

The walk from the convent to Monserrate is rather more confusing as it passes through a matrix of forestry roads—some active, others not so much. I’ve done my best to indicate the route below, but I mainly relied on intuition. We didn’t have the energy to explore Monserrate and instead pushed on to complete the loop, but I’ve heard great things about the 18th century English garden. The town of Gigueirós is a particularly idyllic spot with bougainvillea-lined stone walls and beautiful views across the valley.

There’s something nice about taking a break from wilderness hikes to undertake a lazy walk on old village paths. Barring a few aggressive dogs and their aloof owners (a good reason to carry a walking stick), it was a wonderful day.


0.0 miles: Begin walking south along Rua José Franco da Costa at the intersection of the N247 and the N375 in Colares.

0.1 miles: Pass a church to the right, the Capela da Misericórdia de Colares ou Antiga Capela da Família Melo e Castro, then continue past the square as the road becomes first Rua da República and then Rua Dezasseis de Infantaria.

0.25 miles: Turn left at the Rua das Flores, a small road that quickly becomes a dirt path.

0.7 miles: Take a left at a T-junction marked with an azulejo tile sign as Caminho Boca da Mata. Shortly afterward, note a fork running off the left signposted Caminho do Rio Velho. This will be your return route (see mile 6.12), so ignore it for now and continue straight ahead. There was an enormous pile of manure for sale at the fork when I came through.

Ongoing deforestation in this stretch might be confusing, so just ignore any small roads and paths and stick to the main track. Shortly after crossing the valley, take a right turn uphill so that you are almost doubling back on yourself. Unfortunately, there are no signs to the convent, but you should eventually pass a small reservoir on the left.

Charming azulejo tiles mark your route.

1.8 miles: Pass straight through a series of forestry roads.

2.0 miles: Pass a gate at the Convento dos Capuchos picnic area. The complex used to be accessible here. No longer. To tour the convent, you must continue to the main entrance.

2.17 miles: Turn right at the junction for a short walk to the main entrance to the convent. A large stone wall should be on your left and you will pass a spring (convenient for refilling water).

2.35 miles: Arrive at the Convento dos Capuchos. When you’ve finished at the convent, continue to Monserrate by retracing your steps with the stone wall now on your right and staying straight at the junction.

Pathfinding in this section can get tricky very quickly because of all the crisscrossing roads. At one time, there were white blazes marking the road to Monserrate, but forestry seems to have obliterated these guides.

2.67 miles: Pass a white building to the left as the trail slopes downhill.

2.75 miles: Keep right at the fork in the road. Stay on the main track, ignoring side roads.

3.0 miles: Pass a pond on the right, the Lagoa dos Mosqueiros (Mosques Lagoon). A path from the right intersects with the trail but stick to the main path. Soon after, ignore a couple of roads heading left.

Note: If you have a copy of Walking in Portugal, bear in mind that my path through the woods at this point between the convent and Monserrate deviates slightly because the dirt roads seem to have changed in the last 17 years.

3.4 miles: Arrive at a three-pronged fork and take the center path, which quickly becomes a cobblestone road. Follow this road downhill past a couple of ponds and several interactive signs with information about the local ecology. There is a small parking area and you may encounter some tourists before passing a green gate and arriving at the N375.

3.72 miles: Take a right at the Rua Barbosa do Bocage (N375) and walk a short distance to the main entrance of Monserrate. When you are finished at Monserrate, walk back along the road (stay alert for cars!) and continue past the point where you emerged a short while ago.

4.24 miles: Pass the gate to a large estate named Quinta da Capela.

4.32 miles: Just before passing a house on the road (part of the Quinta da Capela) take the dirt road heading uphill to the left.

4.43 miles: Stay right at the fork. The left is marked Proprieda da Privado (private property). Keep to the right after passing an old reservoir.

5.0 miles: Emerge from the forest before a wooden gate and turn right into the small village of Gigueirós along the Caminho de Rio de Milho.

5.17 miles: Take at left the intersection and continue through town. Once you leave the town, the tarmac road becomes dirt once more.

5.5 miles: Pass the gated entrance to the magnificent Quinta do Carmo. The trail hugs the perimeter wall of this converted convent and offers views across the Quinta’s citrus orchards and gardens to Colares beyond.

6.0 miles: Follow the azulejo tile sign indicating the Caminho do Rio Velho. The path becomes cobblestone, passes a few houses, and crosses a stream.

6.12 miles: Keep right at the intersection with Caminho da Boca da Mata (see mile 0.7) and keep right again at the azulejo a short while later to return to Colares.

6.6 miles: Arrive back in Colares and retrace your steps another quarter mile through town to the N247.

Click to view the waypoints in Google Maps.

Trailhead GPS: 38°47’58.3″N 9°26’40.8″W
Distance: 6.8 mile lollipop
Maps: Parque Natural de Sintra-Cascais

Ⓐ Hiked by the author, July 14, 2017.

Stanton Lake

My mother was in Montana recently to see her granddaughter (now 15 months!) and as she orients her travel plans around the timeshares she owns, she booked a stay at Whitefish Mountain Resort—just days before they officially opened for the summer season. The place was deserted, but we made the best of it and tried to determine which area hikes it would be possible to do so early into the season. The last time my parents were around, we hiked Leverich Canyon, just outside of Bozeman. It was May then and we slogged through quite a bit of snow, much to the irritation of my father, who suffers from a kind of mild basophobia. Each of us slipped and fell down at one point or another, which wouldn’t have been quite so concerning if I hadn’t had a dozing two-month-old strapped to my chest! My mother was adamant: this time around, snow was out of the question.

The first day in Whitefish, we attempted the well-known Danny On Memorial Trail to the summit of Big Mountain, but our plans were stymied by snow (as expected). Still, that trail was teeming with wildflowers for the first two miles and the ski slopes we passed along the way offered great views of Whitefish Lake and Kalispell beyond.

Searching the internet for easy early-season hikes that evening, we came across Stanton Lake, a leisurely 2.8 mile out-and-back to a beautiful lake in the Great Bear Wilderness, which borders Glacier National Park on the south side of US-2. The trailhead is almost immediately after the Stanton Creek Lodge, just a short drive (about 15 miles) beyond West Glacier, the gateway to Glacier National Park. This is a fairly popular trail and we encountered several people carrying fishing rods up to the lake. More concerning is the conspicuous damage done to the beargrass along the trail. Unattractive patches of decapitated plants mark the route nearly the whole way.


Stanton Lake (view of Stanton Glacier obscured by clouds)

Once you arrive at the lake, the trail runs along the western shore, so the day hiker has the option to continue or turn around. Typically, this hike culminates with excellent views of Stanton Glacier and Great Northern, but the glacier was sadly obscured by clouds on the day we were there. More’s the pity considering the glaciers in this area are rapidly melting thanks to climate change.

Screen Shot 2017-06-21 at 2.11.49 PM

T.W. Stanton (1860-1953)

As for the origins of the lake’s name (also shared by the nearby glacier, mountain, and creek), I cannot be absolutely sure. However, a scientist by the name of Timothy William Stanton seems to have taken a number of photographs of the glaciers in and around Glacier National Park for the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

Stanton was a paleontologist who specialized in the study of Cretaceous invertebrates. A 1954 obituary in Science called him “one of the outstanding figures of American geology.” It seems likely, given this connection, that Stanton Glacier was named after the man.


T.W. Stanton’s photograph of Grinell Glacier in Glacier National Park. Taken in 1911, the glacier has retreated significantly since then.

Today the Smithsonian Institute hold Stanton’s papers and their file describes his career:

His 46-year career with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) began in 1889 when he was appointed Assistant Paleontologist to support the work of Charles Abiathar White. By 1903 he had advanced to the position of Chief of the Section of Paleontology and Stratigraphy, USGS. In 1932 he became Chief Geologist, USGS, and remained in the position until his retirement in 1935. For many years, Stanton also acted as Chairman of the USGS Committee on Geologic Names. He also served as Custodian of Mesozoic Invertebrates, Department of Geology, United States National Museum (USNM) from 1894 to 1953.Stanton’s career with the USGS was marked by extensive field research, especially in the western and southwestern United States. He was active in the geological profession and served as President of the Paleontological Society in 1921. In the same year he served as Vice-President of the Geological Society of America.

As always, please let me know if I’m wrong about the name. If there’s another Stanton, I’d very much like to know about it. Until then, I’ll assume this beautiful lake is named after an obscure mustachioed turn-of-the-century paleontologist/photographer.


0.0 miles: Ample parking at the trailhead.

0.9 miles: Intersection with Grant Ridge Trail. Keep right.

1.2 miles: Stanton Lake; trail continues along the western shore.

2.4 miles: Return to trailhead.


My route highlighted in green.

Trailhead GPS: 48°24’00.0″N 113°42’54.4″W
Elevation gain: ~260 feet
Distance: 2.4 mile out-and-back
Maps: U.S.G.S. Stanton Lake; Great Bear Wilderness Complex Map; Flathead National Forest Map

Ⓐ Hiked by the author, June 13, 2017.