GLACIER NATIONAL PARK – Legend has it, park rangers opened the doors of the Ptarmigan Tunnel one spring to be greeted by a hungry – read, grumpy – grizzly bear. Seems the bruin had denned in the tunnel, not realizing there would be no escape once winter’s snows blocked all retreat.
The story came courtesy of a retired, longtime ranger who once led a gullible pack of politicians, reporters, land managers, business owners and conservation leaders up 2,480 feet to the Ptarmigan Tunnel and across the rocky scree to Elizabeth Lake, in the heart of Glacier National Park.
We were believers, although we may have been woozy from the altitude and exertion.
The Iceberg-Ptarmigan trailhead is just north of Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, in the ever-serene Many Glacier area. For 2.5 miles, the trek is an easy one around the southern slopes of Altyn Peak and across Ptarmigan Creek at its stair-step falls.
Mount Wilbur commands the scene on your left; the Ptarmigan Wall is before you. At the junction just beyond the falls, the Ptarmigan Tunnel trail is to the right – or north.
For the next 1.5 miles, the trail ascends through a forest to the foot of Ptarmigan Lake. Then comes the steepest mile of the day, that last push to the tunnel up the side of the Ptarmigan Wall. But oh, what a vista lies ahead.
The Ptarmigan Tunnel was blasted through the 7,200-foot divide in 1931. It’s an eerie piece of civilization in the wilderness, but a fortuitous one for hikers enjoying the relatively easy access to Elizabeth Lake and the Belly River country. Walk through the tunnel to the north for your lunch stop. The view is unmatched: the sheer wall, the lake below, Natoas Peak rising above the water.
About a half-mile north of the tunnel is another spectacular vantage: Mount Merritt, Old Sun Glacier, Helen Lake, Ipasha Peak, the heart and soul of Glacier Park’s backcountry. The 4.8 miles downhill to the campground cross glacial scree, gnarly whitebark pine stands and mixed forest.
The campground is surely one of the loveliest sleepover spots in the park. The lake is crystalline. The fish are abundant. There’s another grizzly bear story to be told around the campfire. And the loons wake you with the dawn.
Location: Glacier National Park.
Distance/duration: A 10-mile roundtrip day hike from Swiftcurrent Motor Inn to Ptarmigan Tunnel; or 9.8 miles to the Elizabeth Lake campground for an overnight stay.
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous.