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. 

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. Ⓐ 

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

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.

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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.

Crow Creek Falls

Crow Creek Falls is variously known as the “jewel of Helena National Forest” and the “Crown Jewel of the Elkhorn Mountains.” I’m not sure the hyperbole is entirely deserved, but local thrill-seekers have enjoyed visiting the waterfall since at least 1895, when a local newspaper described the hike as a mere “one day’s ramble.” These days—thanks to a well maintained (and well traveled) trail—it takes significantly less time to complete the 6 mile round trip. The waterfall is named for its source, Crow Creek, itself a reference to the Crow tribe who hunted in the area before Euro-American colonization. While the walk and its eponymous destination are certainly worth the uncomfortable drive to the trailhead, the site has a particularly colorful backstory which renders the trip a more interesting experience.

In 1905, Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed large tracts of land around and including Crow Creek Falls as the brand new Elkhorn Forest Reserve, which merged with the designation of Helena National Forest a few years later. Unfortunately, Crow Creek Falls was privatized in 1924 under terms allowed by the General Mining Act of 1872. This law, which simply handed public lands over to plunderers and private fortune-seekers, allowed three aspiring gold miners to sequester the area as they transformed it into a placer mine and scoured the land for pay dirt.

By 1978, the policy of happily accommodating the acquisitive aspirations of any idiot who fancied himself a miner began began to crumble and the Forest Service banned the use of motorized vehicles in this section of Helena National Forest, thereby halting construction of a road to the waterfall. Meanwhile, the original patented mining claim traded hands several times and was eventually sold in 1981 to a man named Robert Lynn. Because of changes to the 1872 mining law and the designation of a portion of the Elkhorns (including Crow Creek Falls) as a wilderness study area, Lynn’s request to divert the waterfall was placed on hold.

Tired of waiting for the bureaucratic wheels to turn, Lynn decided to more forward with his plans without approval. He posted “No Trespassing” signs and, over a period of years, flagrantly violated numerous restrictions placed on the claim, illegally blasted large sections of land, and constructed a road through the forest to the falls. He was arrested and fined repeatedly as he diverted the waterfall without permission and dredged the plunge pool. Unable to find much gold, Lynn then tried to sell the land; he even took out an ad in the Wall Street Journal. Local activists organized to purchase the claim to no avail. By 1989 Lynn was destitute, unable to pay thousands of dollars of court-ordered restitution for his illegally constructed road.

Bill and Russ Schneider devote an entire page to the sordid affair in their excellent book Hiking Montana:

The Forest Service let it happen. The Montana Mining Association let it happen. The politicians let it happen. They all let it happen because they felt they had to, because Crow Creek Falls was private land. … At best this law [the Mining Law of 1872] is an absolute embarrassment to a civilized society, and there is no better testimony of this description than the desecration of Crow Creek Falls.

For years, the fate of Crow Creek Falls remained in limbo. Several attempts by the Forest Service to buy the land fell through and  the site was finally purchased in 2002 by the American Land Conservancy. After a protracted clean-up effort, the Forest Service finally acquired Crow Creek Falls in 2004, incorporating it (once again) within the Helena National Forest. Jodie Canfield has a much more detailed account of the waterfall’s outrageous story on the Forest Service’s website.


Mountain bluebells.

As for the hike itself, many guidebooks I’ve seen describe it as easy, but I’d say it’s really closer to moderate—mainly because there are a handful of rather steep grades (especially down to the waterfall itself) and narrow sections of talus rock alongside precipitous drops to the creek below. It’s certainly not a hike for anyone who suffers from vertigo. Getting to the trailhead involves a 15.3 mile drive along a fairly decent gravel road, which slowly deteriorates. Still, because the hike is relatively short and culminates with a spectacular reward, it seems to be very popular. We parked alongside at least ten other cars and passed many families with small children on the way down. Such heavy traffic has taken its toll on the land and the trail is lined with nearly as many dandelions and other alien weeds as it is Mountain Bluebells and Aster.

The waterfall’s immediate environs, moreover, might be an improvement since its days as a placer mine, but is nevertheless pocked with multiple informal fire rings, empty beer cans, and the visible degradation of frequent primitive campers. Leave No Trace principles expressly discourage people from setting camp in such close proximity to flowing water, but I’ve long ago realized that such considerations are simply ignored whenever a site is located within a short distance of the trailhead—four miles seems to be the magic number. Anything longer than that dramatically diminishes tourist appeal, thereby sparing the land an onslaught of irresponsible and obnoxious bipeds of various ages. In a region that boasts other more beautiful trails with better opportunities for solitude, it’s not a hike I intend to revisit in the future, but I’m glad we did it nonetheless.


Crow Creek Falls

Unfortunately the hamlet of Radersburg didn’t appear to appear to offer much in the way of local fare and neither did its sister town of Toston. Both were rather bleak looking communities containing nearly as many derelict cars as houses—though I was interested to learn that the iconic actress Mynra Loy grew up in Radersburg.

We settled on Peking for our post-hike feast, a Chinese restaurant in Three Forks located just across from the historic Sacagawea hotel. It was a spectacularly tacky little place, replete with artificial flowers and bamboo wallpaper but the food was probably the best Chinese I’ve had in Montana. Of course, the Kung Pao shrimp was about twice as expensive as its New York City counterpart, but one does get rather bored of Montana’s beer and burger culinary culture.


0.0 miles: Ample parking at the trailhead. Pay attention to mileage. Some guides suggest 17 miles of gravel road but my odometer read 15.3

0.7 miles: Cross Crow Creek.

3.0 miles: Crow Creek Falls.

6.0 miles: Return to trailhead.

Crow Creek Falls.png

My route highlighted in green.

Trailhead GPS: 46°19’17.2″N 111°45’46.0″W
Elevation gain: ~500 feet
Distance: 6 mile out-and-back
Maps: U.S.G.S. Crow Creek Falls; Helena National Forest Map

Ⓐ Hiked by the author, May 28, 2017

The Trask Lakes

The Trask Lakes lie in the Flint Creek Range just west of Deer Lodge but unless you have a high clearance vehicle, getting there is a bit stressful. The last 12 miles or so traverses dirt roads ranging the spectrum of quality from moderate stretches of cow shit-scattered gravel to what might be described as bisections of miniature ravines. I kept my Chevy Spark in first gear for at least the last five of those miles and still felt a bit uneasy about it. Fortunately, the weather was fine, because I would have aborted the trip in more uncertain conditions.

This is a simple out-and-back hike to Lower Trask Lake with options for camping and fishing at the lakes, which are scattered across a large basin above Rock Creek Lake (really a reservoir). While the hike is rewarded with excellent views, getting there involves a fairly humdrum forest walk. Though very well maintened by the Forest Service—foot bridges are conveniently placed over streams and muddy banks—the trail is littered with loose stones, nearly causing me to twist an ankle on several occassions.

The path closely follows Rock Creek for most of the way, which means water is abundant. I filled up at the lake for my return trip, but could easily have dispensed with more water weight than I did at the outset, simply filling up as needed from the numerous streams. I can’t imagine what the conditions are like in the early summer, but I’d guess very, very wet.

Once you arive at the lakes, the trail continues alongside several others, making for good additional trips if you choose to camp. The fishing is said to be excellent. Alas, that was not my intention and after snapping a few pictures, I headed straight back.


It took me a bit of effort to dig up any information on the lakes’ namesake, but I seem to have found it at a defunct school in nearby Deer Lodge: the Montana Collegiate Institute, which opened in 1878. As the Monta Historical Society explains:

The nonsectarian, coeducational college offered both high school classes and a classical graduating course “as comprehensive and thorough as that of most seminaries and female colleges.” Architects H. DeWitt and Henry L. Gay of Chicago designed the institute’s first building. However, the building committee stripped the design of much of its ornamentation after it received the initial construction bids.

Unfortunately, the institute closed within a year under financial strain and was acquired by the Presbyterian Church, which opened a private liberal arts college on the site and, in 1883, renamed it the College of Montana. In the process, they also named the original building at the site Trask Hall for a Mr. Alanson Trask of New York City, who balanced the remaining $6,000 of debt incurred by its construction and paid the salary of the school’s first president for a period of three years. The Reverend George Edwards’ describes the affair:

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 11.58.39.png

Despite the monetary salvation he seems to have bestowed upon the school, there’s no evidence I can find that Alanson Trask remained in Montana for very long or established any further connection with the territory.

The College of Montana eventually closed in 1900 and exchanged hands several times reopening intermittently until 1917, when the school was shuttered for good. In 1982, Trask Hall was listed in the Register of Historic Places.

I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to conclude that the lakes lying only a few miles to west of the school were also named after the mysterious benefactor from New York. It would be a pretty amazing coincidence if not.

UPDATE: In the comments, Matthew Trask writes that the lakes were actually named after his grandfather, Frank Trask. The Trask family seems to have roots in the area going back to the 19th century. I wonder if there’s any connection to Alanson Trask? It looks like the family came from England in the 16th century and settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where they remained for several generations. At some point, a branch of the family headed West—as far as Wisconsin and Iowa and later out to Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. It seems likely that the Deer Lodge Trasks are one branch of the same family and perhaps it was a this connection that brought Alanson Trask through the area to begin with (maybe even establishing enough of a connection to inspire his philanthropy). Whatever the case, Alanson also visited Yellowstone National Park during his stay in the region and an obituary in the New York Times notes that he was a “great traveler.” The moral of the story: I really wish the federal government had easily accessible records noting the origins of place names!

When I made it back to Deer Lodge, I searched in in vain for a decent place to eat. Most of the restaurants were closed or shuttered. Someone pointed me to the Broken Arrow Steak House and Casino, a dingy, dark, and depressing dive with a handful of slot machines and a dining room like something from a 1980’s B-western. Several emaciated octogeniarians ordered up a round of Sex-on-the-Beaches and broke change, they announced, to continue on their “lucky streak.” Several cheered as one man counted his winnings and had them faithfully dispensed by the young woman at the bar—$1,400 in fifties. Meanwhile, I sat contently with a burger of adequate quality and a local IPA, while the spokesmen for the hunters on a television reality show silently explained the secrets of their sanguinary art.


0.0 miles: The parking lot at the trailhead is quite small. From there proceed along a jeep track for half a mile.

0.5 miles: Rock Creek Trail 8053 begins at the boundary of the Forest Service’s land. A sign indicates mileage to the Trask Lakes as well as Thompson Lake.

2.3 miles: Turn left at the junction with Trask Lakes Trail 8063, unless you plan to visit Thompson Lake.

6.3 miles: Arrive at Lower Trask Lake. From here, you can explore the other Trask Lakes as well as nearby Elbow Lake or retrace your steps back to the trailhead.

12.6: Return to the trailhead.

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My route highlighted in green.

Trailhead GPS: 46°24’58.5″N 112°57’30.4″W
Elevation gain: ~1,750 feet
Distance: 12.6 mile out-and-back
Maps: U.S.G.S. Rock Creek Lake, Pike’s Peak, and Pozega Lakes; Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest Map (North)

Ⓐ Hiked by the author, August 26, 2016

Hollowtop Lake

After a couple of months abroad, it’s good to be back in Montana during the glorious month of August. For my 32nd birthday, we headed to the tiny (ghost) town of Pony, a gateway to the Tobacco Root Mountains with convenient access to a large swath of the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest.

Named for an early prospector of an unusually small stature, Pony was a 19th century gold boom town with a population of 5,000. Today, it’s a registered ghost town with about as many crumbling buildings as it has occupied. As one guide to rural Montana explains:

Pony’s early population reflected the whims of the gold seekers, growing larger when a miner struck pay dirt and dwindling when someone found a bigger lode somewhere else. By the 1880s, mines like the Boss Tweed and the Clipper were yielding fortunes in gold ore.

It didn’t last. By 1918, the population fell to only 300 and Pony today is a bleak little town with a miniscule population, a collection of old houses, empty shops, and a single bar. Still, it’s a haunting place, full of decaying charm. As one might imagine, the town has its share of amusing tales. Many seem to revolve around a former Marshal of the town, William B. Landon, who was known for his interest in rock chiselling.

Once of the marshal’s enduring works can be found near the town of Potosi, where he scrawled “One Mile to Hell.” Near the city dump is another Landon masterpiece consisting of strange letters, Landon’s initials, a Maltese cross, and the date of 1921. Rumor has it around Pony that the marshal did it all as a joke, thinking some of the more gullible would think it was a secret treasure map.

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 15.11.59

If you’re interested in reading more about Pony, there’s a good overview in Ghost Towns of the Northwest, by Norman D. Weis.

So much for Pony.

The main street eventually transforms into a dirt road winding past the ruins of former dwellings to the North Willow Creek Trailhead. We followed the 12.5-mile loop route described by Bill and Russ Schneider in their excellent guide Hiking Montana, but it can easily be adapted for an overnight backpacking trip or a shorter out-and-back day hike. Hollow Top Lake has great fishing (so I hear) and the surrounding area would make a pleasant spot to camp. It certainly offers easy access to other trails leading to lesser subalpine lakes as well as Hollowtop, Jefferson, and Potosi Peaks.

At 10,604 ft., the peak with which Hollowtop Lake shares its name is the tallest in the Tobacco Root Range. My suspicions as to the origins of the name “Hollowtop” were confirmed in a book I found on Montana place names, which emphasizes “the peculiar bowl-shape the mountain presents when viewed from the north or northeast.”

After an initial 1.5 miles along a two-track ATV road, this is a nice forest walk through groves of spruce and fir. Best of all, it’s mercifully devoid of people during the week. Though a sign at the trailhead welcomes ATVs, we didn’t see (or hear) any. The only people we encountered were a handful of horseback riders led by a guide, likely tourists on a chartered trip.

The trail ascends slowly up to a beautiful lake basin and finishes with a stunning ridge walk featuring excellent views of the Tobacco Root Range. Water is abundant thanks to the proximity of North Willow creek—though the last four or five miles are dry so plan accordingly. The trail passes over the creek at several points and crossings might be difficult in the spring or early summer.

I thoroughly enjoyed this hike. The only real downside is the ubiquitous presence of cows—and their inevitable mounds of shit. Cows were the only fauna of any size we encountered, which was a bit disappointing. The full spectrum of fecal dessication was on display from the fresh and steaming to the dry and flakey, forcing us to watch where we walked. The stench was overpowering at times. Still, this is a minor issue for an otherwise wonderful trail.

By the time we returned to the trailhead, hunger had set it so we thought to try the fare at The Pony Bar. Unfortunately, the kitchen was not yet open at 4.30 P.M. so we drove to the (slightly) larger community of Harrison instead and enjoyed a meal at the the Town Haul Diner before heading back to Butte.



Hollow Top Lake


0.0 miles: N. Willow Creek Trailhead. Begin at North Willow Creek Trail 6301 at the northwest side of the parking lot, near the privy.

1.5 miles: Keep right at the junction with Albro Lake Trail 6333.

2.0 miles: Pass through a barbed wire fence gate.

4.0 miles: Keep right at the junction with Potosi Peak Trail 6365 to continue on to Hollow Top Lake. The sign here is a bit confusing. When we came through it looked like someone had messed with the trail numbers. Just keep right. The trail should start climbing more steeply and become fairly rocky for the last stretch up to the lake.

5.0 miles: Reach Hollow Top Lake. The area around the lake has some good camping areas andturn around and retrace your steps one mile back to the junction with Potosi Peak Trail 6365.

6.0 miles: Turn right at the junction with Potosi Peak Trail 6365 and continue past Trail 6306 not long after after. (Bear in mind, Trail 6306 is not indicated in the description printed in Hiking Montana, so always refer to current maps.)

7.5 miles: Turn left at the junction with Albro Lake Trail 6333, an ATV road.

8.5 miles: Keep left at the junction with Trail 6303.

9.0 miles: Keep right at the junction with Loop Park Trail 6302 and enjoy the stunning scenery along this ridge. The trail in this stretch is not always clear. Remain alert and follow the wooden posts. Somewhere around mile 11.5, you pass over another barbed wire fence gate before switchbacks take you back down to the parking lot.

12.5 miles: Finish at the Loop Park trailhead on the opposite (southwest) side of the parking lot from where you began.

Hollowtop Lake Map.jpg

Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest Map (Central)

Trailhead GPS: 45°39’01.0″N 111°54’36.0″W
Elevation gain: ~2,500 feet
Distance: 12.5 mile loop
Maps: U.S.G.S. Pony and Potosie Peak; Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest Map (Central)

Ⓐ Hiked by the author, August 12, 2016