Piegan Pass

The classic view of St. Mary Lake on a beautiful morning

We had another perfect weather day. Even before we started hiking our first order of business was to get some good photos of St. Mary Lake. The day before we had been in a hurry to try to catch the shuttle, which hadn't worked out anyway. But on our way back I had scouted the best spots for photos. So this morning with a perfect blue sky I was able to get my pictures. The favorite photo spot is where tiny Wild Goose Island is visible in the lake. I have to admit that it is as beautiful as anywhere I have ever been in the world. And I have traveled in a lot of mountains.

Our hike for the day was to Piegan Pass. The trailhead is on Going-to-the-Sun road about half way up to Logan Pass at a place called Siyeh Bend. From the road the trail climbs 4.4 miles to Piegan Pass. On the other side the trail descends along Cataract Creek, eventually reaching Many Glacier Hotel in another 8.4 miles. That would be our next stop on the trip. The guidebook claimed that a through trip was possible by arranging the appropriate shuttles. After our experience the day before we didn't have a lot of confidence in the Glacier Park shuttle service so we didn't even consider it. We were going to hike up to the pass and then back to our car. Simple. Straightforward. We'd drive around to Many Glacier the next day.

A pretty stream on the early part of the trail

The trail began in forest. There was another pair of hikers that started out just ahead of us. After our bear encounters the day before we were glad to have someone else to walk point and be the ones to run into any bears that were ahead. But it wasn't very long before they stopped to do some major adjustments to their gear. They were nice enough to move aside to let us go through. On the spur of the moment I couldn't come up with a good excuse for waiting for them so we took the lead. Not much later two park service employees caught up with us. A young man and a young woman, both carrying shovels and pick axes and big packs, zoomed past us. They didn't seem very worried about bears. They both were hiking fast with their heads down and not doing anything special to make extra noise. We followed them for a while but eventually had to give up. Working on a trail crew every day probably gets you in good shape. Even with our light loads we couldn't keep up. So we just settled into our own rhythym of hiking. We talked a lot about Sandy's class this fall, sometimes because we were interested and sometimes just to make noise. Sandy was also wearing a bear bell that I had bought in St. Mary the night before. She said that it was really annoying but I thought that was a good thing. It did make a continuous noise. Hopefully the bears would find it irritating too and get out of the way. On the other hand, bear bells are sometimes jokingly referred to as dinner bells. Bear bells would prove an interesting topic throughout the trip and I will talk more about them in later posts.

Bambi greets Sandy on the trail

At one point I turned a corner and there right in the middle of the trail was a deer. It was a small doe and only about ten feet away. The deer didn't seem too worried about us. At first we stopped so I could take pictures and we could watch the deer. It just kept munching on the foliage beside the trail. Eventually we were ready to continue hiking and I started walking along the trail towards the deer again. I got to about five feet from it. It was watching me closely but it still wasn't moving off the trail. Since even deer can be dangerous if you get too close to them (they have a very nasty kick) I clapped my hands and start yelling at it. That finally made it jump and move off the trail. Not very far, maybe about twenty feet, but at least we could get by. It was pretty cool to see the deer up close but it did shoot down the theory about animals hearing us coming on the trail and getting out of the way before we even got there.

The pass is a long way and a lot higher than it looks

Eventually we got to where the Park Service trail crew was working. There were half a dozen of them doing trail maintenance. It sounds cool, to be working outside every day in a beautiful National Park. But they didn't really have any view of the scenery. The work was hard. The bugs, which were not bad while you were hiking, started to bother you when you stopped in the forest for any significant length of time. And of course they couldn't pick where they needed to work on the trail.

Our hike was about nine miles round trip with over 1700 feet of elevation gain. A good days work but nothing overwhelming. After about an hour and a half of plodding through the forest though it was getting warmer. Finally though we broke out of the trees and entered open meadows. Now we started to catch a nice breeze blowing down from the pass which cooled us off. Eventually the meadows ended and we had a long rising traverse across open scree slopes to the pass. It didn't look that far but the scale of big mountain basins can be deceiving. It took us about an hour. It was probably two miles. And it was way more elevation gain than it looked.

Piegan Mountain

Twice we had to cross snow slopes. The snow was not steep enough to be worrisome but just slick enough to require extra work to kick good steps. The irony of sweating in the heat while we labored to cross the snow fields wasn't lost on us. Although the pass was still quite a way off, we were encouraged because we could see three people who had passed us earlier in the day sitting at the pass. We kept getting closer. The views along this section of the hike were fantastc. We could see all of the peaks surrounding our valley, and spectacular peaks and glaciers far to the south. This kind of hiking is both Sandy's and my favorite, high traverses with long views in every direction. It feels like walking in the sky. Near the pass we met a park ranger coming down. He stopped to ask how we were doing. He also suggested that we go a few hundred yards over the pass to get the best view of the other side. By around noon we were at the pass. Reaching a pass is always exciting, that moment when after hours of hard work you get to see what is on the other side. And the view was spectacular.

Garden Wall and Mt. Gould from Peigan Pass

We took the ranger's advice and continued on for about three hundred yards and found a great spot with a wonderful view. We could see Mt. Gould from an unusual angle as well as the back side of the Garden Wall, which we had admired from the other side the day before above Logan Pass. We found some rocks for seats and sat down to enjoy our lunch. There was a nice breeze which made it very comfortable and made sure that we weren't bothered at all by bugs. But after a while we did attract the attention of some hoary marmots who lived at the pass. Marmots are cool animals that live in boulder fields in alpine areas and I always enjoy seeing them. Usually they stay well away from people but one started to get closer and closer. He was obviously interested in our lunch. Sandy was starting to get nervous so I pitched a rock about a foot in front of the marmot. He took off at high speed and disappeared into the rocks. We never saw him or any of his buddies after that. It was effective but I have to admit that I felt a little badly for scaring the poor little guy.

Crossing the snowfields on the way down

Eventually it was time to head down. The long, high traverse was even better going back. It was less work going down hill and we were facing towards the best scenery the whole way. Even crossing the snowfields seemd easier on the way back. It still took us about an hour to reach the forest though. After that it was just head-down plodding back to the car. The last part of the hike it was getting hot so it was more work than fun. There were lots of people just heading up though. We were glad that we had been able to do the hard work of climbing while it was cooler in the morning. Then for comic relief we met a couple of groups near the trailhead that asked us about the route. One couple was asking how far to the pass. By our estimate they had only gone a half mile from the trailhead. When we told them at least two hours, they didn't look too happy. Then just before we were back to the trailhead we met an Asian family, all in street clothes and street shoes. They didn't speak much English but they kept asking if they were close to the glacier. When we asked "What glacier?" they kept saying they wanted to go to the glacier that was supposed to be only a short walk and that you could walk up to and touch. Somehow we had missed it. We convinced them that they had bad information and they turned around and headed back to their car.

It's still a long way back down to the car

Back at the hotel in St. Mary, we decided that even though the restaurant was good, two nights in a row had been enough. We opted for the bar where we could get a cold beer and a buffalo burger. They sure were good. We even ran into our hiking friends Randy and Nancy from our Virginia Falls bear encounter. It was their last night and they were driving to Calgary the next day to fly home. We would have a short drive to the Many Glacier area where we would do another hike and spend a night at the historic Many Glacier Hotel.