Gail Crossed Ptarmigan Tunnel off Her Bucket List
We were off to make a dream come true for Gail: achieve the hike to Ptarmigan Tunnel. For some reason, in all of the years of GiG, she had never done this hike. The weather looked good, and the Park Service had just reopened the trail after more than a month of closures due to bears.
The day started off at 5:15 a.m. and took us through fog, lot of it, slowing us down as we drove around Duck Lake, amaking us worried that we would have a bad day of hiking despite the "mostly sunny" predictions. As we started the trail, we noticed the path to the Many Glacier Hotel was closed with a Danger-Due-to-Bears sign. We realized that the bears must have moved over just slightly; all day long we saw piles of bear scat on the trail, full of currants and berries.
We did have fog for the first part of the hike; however, we had beautiful glimpses of snow-dusted Mount Wilbur, Gould and Grinnell, that got hit with the white stuff the night before. The trail had a few puddles to prove that the weather had come and gone, too.
But what really impressed and wowed us were the fall colors: reds of the huckleberries and fireweed, salmons of the spiraea, oranges of the currents, yellows of the silverberry, aspen and thimbleberry. The brightness almost hurt our eyes. And we couldn't stop taking photos, which probably cost a half an hour of time, but who cares?
Another surprise was that some of the trees around Ptarmigan Falls must have fallen down as we could get a full view of this before-hidden cascade.
As we took the turn toward Ptarmigan Lake, the trail took an uphill slant, but we kept moving and pretty quickly. The wind started coming up as well, chilling us. Just before we got to the lake, we heard a large animal walking around and hitting rocks in the creek below us; however, the willows and other brush was too thick for us to see. We imagined it was a moose due to the willows. A little later we heard what sounded like gunshots and some rocks falling from the mountainside to our right. From past experience, we knew that bighorn sheep were in the cliffs butting heads, but alas, we couldn't see them even though we looked and listen for a bit. We wondered if what we heard before was sheep crossing the creek before heading up the hillside.
At the lake, we took a very short break, grabbing a quick lunch and putting on more layers. Then we had to remind Gail about Susan's advice: do not look up. At this point, it is easy to get discouraged, look up at the switchbacks through the scree and give up. But we weren't going to let that happen. We were going to make it no matter how long it took, so slowly, slowly we did just that. It took about 50 minutes from the lake to the tunnel. We took a few pictures at the overlook and in front of the tunnel before heading through it.
And the views! Wow, we had fantastic sights into Lake Elizabeth and the Belly River country. Most of the hikers we met going down as we headed up said they were unable to see the lake due to fog and clouds, but by the time we got there, the clouds had lifted. We commented that sometimes there is a benefit for taking your time.
Then we went a bit further down the trail so that we could see Old Sun Glacier, one of the few that isn't melting rapidly and in some years actually grows a bit. It sits higher than the others at 8,200 feet and has a mostly northern exposure, further protecting it. Read more
We admired the striated rock and the lime-green lichen clinging to it, before heading back through the tunnel to descend. On our descent, the colors were still popping, even a bit more, since the sun had poked its head out of the clouds. The underbrush on the side of Grinnell Point really stood out.
At the parking lot, we saw three huge, silver-backed grizzlies above the trail--luckily they were quite far off. Several people had spotting scopes to get an up-close look at them.
We had a nice early dinner (4:40) at the Swiftcurrent Inn before heading back home. On the way, we saw one black bear and four more grizzlies. We arrived in Great Falls around 9:15
Who went: Gail and Katie