Fourth in a series about Glacier National Park, Montana
Glacier National Park has many picturesque lakes of every shape and size. According to the National Park Service, there are 762 of them, of which only 131 have names. Iceberg Lake, located in the Many Glacier region in the northeast section of the park, might be the most distinctive…or at least the most peculiar. I hope this doesn’t spoil the surprise, but the lake’s name was not chosen at random. Even in late summer, large chunks of ice fall from the snowfields located on the steep cliff walls surrounding the lake and float around for a while. I’m not entirely sure if they’re technically icebergs by scientific standards, but golly gee, they sure do look like icebergs. Certainly, it’s a lot more of a treat to see icebergs in Glacier than in the North Atlantic, as the passengers of the Titanic can attest.
The morning of Tuesday, August 19, 2014, we parked at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn and stocked up on trail food for the roughly 10-mile (16.1km) roundtrip hike. The trailhead is near some cabins behind the main inn building. The start of the trail (technically a connector between the inn and the Ptarmigan-Iceberg Trail) is the steepest portion. After joining the main trail, the hike continues uphill with a more moderate slope for a total elevation gain of 1275 feet (388.9m). The trail route heads northwest from the trailhead, paralleling Wilbur Creek along the lower reaches of Mt. Henkel. To the west, handsome Mt. Wilbur – an imposing 9,321 feet (2,841m) – initially blocks the view of the Iceberg Cirque, the amphitheater of rock that surrounds Iceberg Lake on three sides.
The trail initially travels through light vegetation. The plants include what I’m pretty sure were huckleberries, a favorite of local people as well as bears. It’s probably no coincidence that we saw a young grizzly bear foraging downhill towards the creek. (I’m no ursine expert, but designate the bear as “young” because he didn’t look much bigger than a black bear even though it had the distinctive shoulder hump.) It was the only grizzly we saw during the trip, which maybe is just as well considering we weren’t carrying “bear spray”.
The trail scenery transitioned to forest, limiting the view of the surrounding mountains. The sound of rushing water grew loud as we approached Ptarmigan Falls. Trees along the trail unfortunately obstruct the view of the falls.
The rocky area just upstream from the falls is a popular spot for hikers to stop and rest. As a result, it is a haven for ground squirrels that like asking for handouts instead of earning an honest living. We stopped to snack on trail mix, which we did not share with the beggars.
Ptarmigan Falls is a little over halfway between the trailhead and Iceberg Lake. The trail crosses Ptarmigan Creek just upstream from the falls. Shortly thereafter, the Iceberg-Ptarmigan Trail splits. We continued straight (northwest then west) towards Iceberg Lake, while the other trail split off to the right (northwest then north) towards Ptarmigan Tunnel, a shortcut drilled through the Ptarmigan Wall in 1930.
Not too long after the splint in the trail, we came out of the forest. This was the first time we got a good look at the Iceberg Cirque, which up until this point had been hidden behind Mt. Wilbur. The trail eventually jogs west, leaving the lower reaches of Mt. Henkel for the bottom of the Ptarmigan Wall. (Or Iceberg-Ptarmigan Wall in some sources, seeing as there is not a clear division where one stops and the other starts.) The trail passes through the valley that glaciers carved between the Iceberg Cirque, Ptarmigan Wall, and Mt. Wilbur. Iceberg Lake was not yet visible due to a slight rise in elevation on the valley floor (which I guess you could call a hill or mound).
The valley floor had quite a few wildflowers of many different types. We crossed over Iceberg Creek on a small wooden bridge. As the name implies, Iceberg Creek flows out of Iceberg Lake. The creek soon flows into an unnamed smaller lake or pond, then continues down through the valley until it merges with Ptarmigan Creek to form Wilbur Creek.
Oh yeah, about that unnamed smaller lake. It really does deserve a name, seeing as it is quite scenic. Little Iceberg Lake wound probably work given its close proximity to the larger Iceberg Lake (though nitpickers might object to its lack of icebergs). Lake Lowell also has a nice ring to it. The lake is surrounded by conifers and a meadow filled with wildflowers.
It was easily the most scenic part of the hike thus far, but with our excitement growing as we got close to Iceberg Lake, we didn’t linger. Finally, we came to the top of the hill and got our first look at the lake. Judging from other photos I’ve seen of the lake, there were fewer icebergs in late August than earlier in the season, but there were plenty remaining nonetheless.
Iceberg Lake is a tarn, or glacial lake. The same glacial action which formed the lake carved Iceberg Cirque, the amphitheater-shaped rock formation encircling the lake. This cirque is the key to the development of the icebergs. The cirque is composed of portions of Iceberg Peak and Mt. Wilbur that were carved by a glacier in a way that left very steep rock walls towering above the lake. The walls at the southwest corner of the lake receive very little direct sunlight. As a result the snowfields there persist late into the summer even as other snowfields at the same elevation melt. So, while Iceberg Cirque is by no means the only cirque in the park, it is the only one that has conditions conducive to making icebergs all summer long.
The shore of the lake was crowded with hikers. One idiot brought wore his Speedos on the hike and swam out to the closest iceberg. He clamored on top and bellowed with victory. A piece of the berg broke off when he jumped back into the lake. On the one hand, I have to give him props for having the courage to do a “polar plunge” dozens of miles from reliable communications or medical care. On the other hand, I have to say: Seriously dude, if people really wanted to see hairy guys wearing skintight swimsuits, they would have gone on vacation to the beach, not the mountains.
Although the edge of the lake was rather crowded, we found a trail to a somewhat more secluded potion of the shore slightly to the south. I love Glacier National Park and had a cunning plan to make sure Rachel always wanted to return there. I’d originally planned to propose the following day at Avalanche Lake, but that plan was derailed when Rachel convinced me to go white water rafting instead. Even starting out on the Iceberg Lake Trail, I wasn’t sure I would actually propose, but when we crested that hill, I knew it was the right spot. I’m sure nobody cares about the mushy details, so here’s what happened: We sat on boulders by the lake and we said magic words that (abracadabra!) transformed Rachel from my girlfriend into my fiancée.
Within minutes of getting engaged, however, our prospects of living happily ever after looked in doubt. A thunderstorm blew in from the other side of the Continental Divide. There was no shelter (with the possible exception of the disgustingly stinky pit toilet nearby) so we retreated from the lake. I’d debated leaving my raincoat in the car to save on weight hiking on what had been a beautifully sunny day up until now. I was glad I did the smart thing and brought it. We hadn’t made it too far from the lake when a downpour began. Fortunately there was relatively little lightning.
The rain eased up as we re-entered the forest. By the time we exited it past Ptarmigan Falls, the sun was back out. The return hike provided some great views down the valley towards the mountains on the far side of Swiftcurrent Lake, which had been behind us and not so easily appreciated on the outbound hike.
We swiftly retraced our steps to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn and then drove to the classy Many Glacier Hotel, the Swiss chalet-themed hotel that is celebrating its centennial this year. The hotel, like all of the historic lodges inside the park, sells out for the entire summer season many months in advance. It was fully booked well before I started planning the trip, so I’d reserved a slot at the Fish Creek Campground instead. Fortune smiled on us, however, and we did indeed end up with better lodging that evening than a muddy campsite. But that is another story.