As you might guess from the title, this post involves bears. Many of them. In fact, this is the story of the time our plans almost got thwarted by bears twice in one day.
In July 2011, three friends and I embarked upon a three-week Canadian Rockies adventure in which we camped our way through Glacier, up into Waterton Lakes, Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta, and finally over to Vancouver and Seattle before heading back to Montana. I’ve already written about the rest of the trip, but I excluded our time in Glacier before for the sake of combining all of my Glacier posts together.
We’d made reservations to camp at Rising Sun Campground in the Saint Mary area but the road to Logan Pass was still covered in snow and not fully open. So we spent most of our time up in the Many Glacier area instead.
We’d arrived at Many Glacier knowing that trails in this area are quite often closed due to bear activity. Wildlife is abundant everywhere in Glacier, but for some reason there are many more bear sightings up in this region of the park. I remember camping at Many Glacier with my family when I was a kid; we were sitting outside the camp store waiting for our laundry to finish and scanning the nearby hillsides with binoculars. We must have spotted 5 or 6 bears in the course of those couple of hours.
Well, true to form, when we arrived we found the Swiftcurrent Trail closed due to recent bear sightings. But that wasn’t a problem because our plan was to hike up the other valley formed by Mount Wilbur, Iceberg Peak, and Mount Henkel. A trail leads up the valley to Ptarmigan Falls, then forks to lead to Ptarmigan Tunnel and Iceberg Lake.
So we grabbed our gear and headed off across the parking lot to the trailhead. About 100 feet (30 m) away, my friend stopped, pointed up ahead, and said, “Guys, what’s that?”
Well, that was a mother grizzly bear and her two cubs, hanging out approximately 25 feet (7.5 m) from some unobservant hikers who were just getting out of their car (after turning around and seeing everyone pointing in their general direction, they spotted the bears and got back into their car). The bears also happened to be about 15 feet (5 m) from the trailhead. As more people joined us, the bears eventually ran off into the woods somewhat in the direction of the trail.
Meanwhile, we turned around and headed back to the ranger station, both to report the bear sighting and to decide what to do. Their advice was to wait about 20 minutes to give the bears time to wander off and then just stick together and make lots of noise. So we headed back to the trailhead, fell in line behind a group of ten people, and played a rather loud game of Harry Potter trivia for the entire hike.
The trail is wide open at first before entering a forested area. At around mile 2.5 (4 km) is Ptarmigan Falls. Ptarmigan Falls is very pretty, fairly tall… and very difficult to see. It’s at an odd angle and there are trees in the way. However, there’s a nice area at the top of the falls to relax and have a snack.
Just beyond Ptarmigan Falls, the trail forks; the right fork leads to Ptarmigan Lake and Ptarmigan Tunnel, which is blasted through a mountain and opens up into the Elizabeth Lake drainage. The left fork leads to Iceberg Lake. We headed left.
The trail to Iceberg Lake isn’t overly steep, though it’s labeled as strenuous. Perhaps the 4.8-mile (7.7 km) one-way distance contributes to this more so than the elevation change. Anyway, the trail soon opens up and gifted us a view of the Iceberg Lake Valley up ahead. The trail then begins to traverse the south face of the Ptarmigan Wall, which is a tall, thin glacially-carved ridge of rock that rises about 1,500 feet (450 m) above the trail.
Eventually, the trail crosses Iceberg Creek and leads past a small lake off to the right; we dubbed it Mini Iceberg Lake, but I don’t think it has an official name.
Finally, up ahead is Iceberg Lake, in the shadow of Iceberg Peak and Mount Wilbur. The lake receives very little sun and is therefore covered in snow for most of the year. We were there in mid-July and not only was the lake almost entirely covered in snow, but so was the last ½ mile (0.8 km) of the trail. We probably walked on top of Iceberg Creek without even knowing it.
Late July or early August is probably a better time to hike to Iceberg Lake – the meadow would be filled with flowers and the lake would be at least a little more visible. We were also there following a particularly snowy winter, which didn’t help. Nevertheless, Iceberg Lake is a pretty destination and the trail, particularly the last 2 miles (3.2 km), is wide open and beautiful.
And we made it all the way there and back without encountering any bears!
The round-trip hike to Iceberg Lake took us about 4 hours, leaving us with a good portion of the afternoon still available. So we decided to hike up the Grinnell Glacier trail to Lake Josephine, which I mentioned in last week’s post.
We relaxed on the shores of Lake Josephine for a while, taking our hiking boots off and soaking our feet in the cool, clear water. Across the lake, we could see Mount Grinnell, The Garden Wall, and Mount Gould rising up to form the Continental Divide.
Eventually we turned around to head back to our car, only to be stopped by a boat captain at the Swiftcurrent Lake boat dock. Apparently, there was a mama black bear and her two cubs on the trail back to Swiftcurrent, leaving us with the option of taking the trail around the other side of the lake and then walking a ways up the road to get back to our car.
Not exactly what we wanted to do after having hiked about 12 miles (19 km) already, but we didn’t have much choice. Better to hike an extra mile or two than risk ending up between a mama bear and her cubs. That’s near the bottom of the list of places I’d like to be.
Moral of the story: the Many Glacier area is really pretty. And watch out for bears!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: the Swiftcurrent/Many Glacier area is the northeastern section of the park, located 25 minutes west of the town of Babb, MT
- Fees & passes: $30 per car for a 7-day pass; Interagency Annual Pass accepted
- Camping: Many Glacier campground (109 sites, $23 per night, reservations accepted for half of the sites during peak season) is the only option in this area of the park
- Hiking: Iceberg Lake – 9.6 miles (15.5 km) round-tip, 1200 feet (366 m) elevation gain; it’s classified as difficult but I’d put it at moderate; for information on the many other hikes in this area, click here
- Other: this is probably pretty obvious after reading this post but… watch out for bears, and be prepared! Bear spray, hike in groups, make lots of noise, etc.