Thursday, February 7, 2013

Early Season Hiking in Glacier National Park

Kintla Lake Trail

By Seth Eagleton

        It’s February and this time of the year is when cabin fever is at its peak for most of us surviving the frozen northland. Right about now is when we can’t keep from daydreaming about which trails we will hit as soon as the snow starts to melt and let us into the backcountry. Even though the Going-to-the-Sun Road is several months away from transforming into its three month-ish long drivable state, we can’t help but remember our last trip over Logan Pass, now almost a half a year ago. The last warm rays of sunshine and golden leaves of last fall are a distant memory. 
We wanted to share one of our favorite early season hikes into Glacier National Park with you. The Kintla Lake Trail begins 20 miles beyond Polebridge and you’ll have to drive over some pretty rough road to get there. The road opens sometime in mid-May, after the snow melts on a normal year. Most people driving a sedan will turn back after a mile or two because of the rough condition of the road, so make sure and take the truck. You won’t have to shift it into 4x4, but you’ll need the clearance. If you get there early enough, take a few minutes at Round Prairie and turn of the ignition as this is one of the best locations in Glacier to have a chance to hear any wolves. The road is slow going, and not what you would expect in Glacier National Park, but traverses some of the most beautiful and untouched parts of the Park accessible by vehicle. 
        This is a moderate to difficult trail, not because of the elevation gain that is typical of the trails in Glacier, but because of the length. The trail stays along the valley floor without much elevation change at all, but you will have put in 18 miles or so by the time you get back to the truck. For most of the hike, the shore of Kintla Lake is visible. There is a piece from the old steam ship that used to cruise the lake still half-submerged at the Kintla Lake Head backcountry campground which is a nice place to take a break around the 6 mile mark, so don’t miss that. By the time you make it to this great camp site, you’ll have already noticed evidence of bear activity and it’s about to increase. The 2.5 miles between the upper and lower lakes will wind through a several year old burn and some avalanche chutes and is well worth the time to explore around. About a half-mile from the Upper Lake, you will go through an avalanche chute that slides most years. Plan on taking a few minutes to explore up this creek. As you get a little higher up (1/4-1/2 a mile) the creek has eroded away into the bedrock, creating wash bowls and some unique formations that are visible later in the season and worth the very steep climb. If the water is flowing too high, these may not be exposed yet. You’ll know you are almost to the upper lake when you leave this avalanche area and enter into what seems to be the Fire Swamp. (Remember the Princess Bride?) Don’t feel like a sissy if you want to keep your pepper spray out and make some noise. In about a half of a mile, you’ll be at Upper Kintla Lake and in one of the most remote areas of Glacier. You are less than two miles from Canada and you may not see anyone other than those in your party until you get back to the trailhead. 
It’s a long day, so an early start is recommended, which should get you back to the trailhead in time to catch some evening rays of light over the lake, so save some of your memory card for that. On your drive out, make sure to stop in at the Polebridge Mercantile for one of their hot homemade sandwiches to replace some of the calories that you burned up! You may find some cell signal around the Polebridge area, but plan on a day without contact to the outside world for the most part. 

Upper Kintla Lake 

Upper Kintla Lake with Kinnerly Peak 

Kintla Lake with Long Knife Peak

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Fairy Slipper Orchid

1 comment:

  1. The artifact at the head of the lake is related to the oil well drilled there before parkhood. It seems to be part of a boiler, not a steamship.