Dawson Pass-Pitamakin Pass Loop
Glacier National Park
July 9-11, 2015
In my opinion if you can start a backpacking trip with a boat ride, you probably should. There is a certain satisfaction in stepping off a boat and onto a trail that just doesn’t compare to closing a car door at the trailhead. When my permit for a two-night trek in the Two Medicine area of Glacier National Park was approved it didn’t take much effort to convince myself to shave a few miles of shoreline walking from my route by taking the tourist boat across Two Medicine Lake. The fact that I wouldn’t be able to start my hike until late afternoon made this time and energy saving arrangement even more ideal.
So, on a mid-summer afternoon I found myself sitting inside the Sinopah as it cruised across the lake; my pack and trekking poles waited at the bow for me to grab upon arrival at the dock. Once I reached the shore I’d begin a 16-mile loop with two lakeside campsites and some outstanding ridgecrest walking in between. A mellow but scenic-views-guaranteed introductory trip through the park referred to as “the crown of the continent.”
At half-past five the boat motored away from the dock and I shouldered my fairly light pack. Perhaps “fairly light” will become the new “ultralight” or “superlight” in a few years. I struck many of the non-essential items from the packing list on this trip, which was actually an easier task than I’d anticipated. With plenty of light left in the sky, I eagerly strolled up the trail, passing an “Entering Grizzly Country” within a few dozen feet. It was only about two miles to No Name Lake and the campsite where I would stay the first night, but I added a half-mile detour to the route so I could check out Twin Falls. The easy hike was definitely worth it; I never really consider making a trip to a waterfall to be “out of the way” and I’ve never met a waterfall I didn’t like. Since Twin Falls is technically two waterfalls it was an irresistible side trip and also a good way to warm up for the climb to No Name Lake.
The trail to the lake was lined with wildflowers in places and provided some nice views when it wasn’t immersed in the forest. It hopped over a few small streams, which made for great places to splash some water on my face and cool down a bit. It was a warm, but by no means uncomfortable day. I met a Park Service ranger along the trail and we enjoyed a brief conversation once the obligatory permit check was completed; after backpacking almost exclusively in wilderness areas this year it was a bit of a novelty, but given the amount of use Glacier National Park receives it is an absolute necessity.
I reached the spur trail to No Name Lake after less than an hour of hiking and began the brief descent into camp feeling like I’d only just begin to put energy into the hike. The spur trail leading down to the lake is the type of path that almost seems designed to increase a hiker’s anticipation of the beauty at its terminus. Gorgeous serrated cliffs towered above the not-yet-visible lake as the trail slipped through a fragrant evergreen forest. Although there were limited views of the lake from the campsites and the food preparation area,the small beach was a great place to take in the lake. Once my food was hung and my tent set up, and greetings exchanged with the other campers, I spent most of the evening at the lakeside. A moose snacked on leaves just out of my view and kept my attention for fifteen or so minutes before he (I did manage to catch a glimpse of his antlers through the trees) moved on to greener pastures. I cooked a late dinner, headed to bed shortly before 10 p.m., and enjoyed a solid night’s rest. The inlet stream of the lake provided an ideal amount ambient noise that made it almost impossible to lay down for more than a few minutes without falling asleep.
I woke up a bit later than I’d anticipated and packed up relatively quickly, at least when compared to my usual lackadaisical approach when backpacking. Most of my motivation was due to the fact that of the approximately seven miles that I would be hiking, about half of that would be above treeline. Wishing to avoid both the midday sun and any afternoon thunderstorms, I skipped coffee and opted instead for a caffeine-infused Clif bar. I left camp shortly after 9 a.m., not as early as I would have liked but not late either. The trail climbed steeply toward Dawson Pass and provided breathtaking views into the cirque containing No Name Lake as well as the larger Two Medicine valley. With wildflowers lining the trail in most places and a blue sky overhead there wasn’t a bad place to take a break, which I did several times on the way up to both appreciate the scenery and catch my breath.
I suppose a person shouldn’t be surprised when the views from a mountain pass in Glacier National Park are absolutely phenomenal, but it was difficult to be adequately prepared for the absolute majesty that stretched before my eyes upon arrival at Dawson Pass. A lush valley dotted with lakes, a massive mountain, a remnant glacier, a dozen or more peaks — the scene was one that stretched the limits of sight and spirit. A sense of giddiness filled me and goofy grin broke out across my face when it struck me that I’d be hiking for the next few miles with such scenery as a backdrop. This wasn’t a view isolated to a specific promontory, this was a sustained view with a dynamic element to it as well, changing subtly at times and drastically at others as I hiked further along the ridgecrest and as the light changed throughout the day.
Despite finding some solace in this fact, my “stop and smell the roses” style of backpacking couldn’t be suppressed and after only a few minutes of hiking I stopped at flat boulder beside the trail. In the shade of the boulder I removed my boots and socks and let my feet enjoy some of the fresh mountain air while I brewed a cup of coffee. The day just wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t have a cup of coffee before noon. I stretched out on my sleeping pad on top of the boulder and sipped my coffee, read, and watched the clouds drift overhead before continuing toward Pitamakin Pass. A nanny mountain goat and a yearling mountain goat briefly crossed the trail and posed on a rock before making their way down the steep slope.
I think it would be impossible to overstate what a perfect section of trail I had the pleasure of walking — amazing views, good tread, and just enough exposure to keep things interesting. I yielded the right of way to a few groups, but had several stretches of solitude on the trail. When the views opened up the east, I was able to glimpse down and see Oldman Lake, my destination for the night, sparkling below. While enjoying some trailside banter with a family a rumble of thunder drew our attention to the dark but slow-moving clouds in the north. I reluctantly but prudently increased my pace after our conversation wrapped up, but still took time to admire the views from an overlook comprised of large blocks jutting up from the ridge. As I rounded Mount Morgan the wind picked up and a few more rumbles of thunder came down from the clouds. I made good time toward the junction that would put me on the final 1.8 mile downhill stretch to the campsite, but found myself sidetracked by a bold marmot who followed me down the trail after I took a few pictures of him (just guessing on the gender there). When I stopped to take another picture the marmot crept up and licked at my boot and trekking poles, which was both amusing a tad bit disconcerting. Glimpses of two lakes below and snow covered slopes above helped calm me down after my near-death experience with the furry and vicious animal.
The descent to Oldman Lake was sublime. Some of the best sections of wildflowers I had seen on the hike, or anywhere for that matter, were along the well-graded and efficiently switchbacked trail that led down the sloped and into the forest. Views of the lake and the peaks and ridge that served as a skyline were so stunning they made it difficult to concentrate on the mechanical task of hiking. I reached the campsite just before a steady rain began to fall; I had time to hang my bear bag, say hello to two other campers, and put on my rain gear but that was about it. Rather than set up in the rain, I decided to just wait it out in my rain gear and explore around the lake after stashing my pack under a large downed tree. Within an hour the rain moved on out and I set up my tent without struggling against the rain.
I spent most of the evening by the lake, stretched out on the closed-cell foam pad that supplements my sleeping pad and allows me to make even gravelly lakesides supremely comfortable. A light rain sprinkled on the lake and on me a few times, but neither of us seemed to mind. I read some poetry and studied the map, but mostly just sat around and did nothing, which made the following line in the book of poetry (“Actual Air” by David Berman) especially fitting:
I was in high school
when I realized that not doing anything
was categorically different from deciding to do nothing,
but beauty blew a fuse, the hold music put me in a trance,
and what was black and heading toward me
transported me here like a cow in a comic hurricane.
After the rain had stopped falling and the wind ceased, the lake became a mirrored surface only occasionally interrupted by trout snatching bugs (hopefully mosquitoes) when they dared to touch the water. The lighting created by the clouds and the setting sun provided a charismatic illumination of a beautiful scene that only that most basic human need, hunger, could cause my departure. Reluctantly, I headed back to the food prep area to make my dinner of Pad Thai noodles and jerky. I had some enjoyable conversation with the other campers; in an interesting coincidence one of the other campers was also a librarian. Out of the seven campers, two (including myself) were librarians. Quite the well-represented profession in the backcountry. I turned in to my tent an hour or so earlier than I had the previous night, but heavy winds at time prevented me from getting as restful sleep as I had the previous night.
Despite the less than a solid night’s sleep, I found myself packing up shortly after 7 a.m. and on the trail about an hour later. A storm seemed to be moving in from the west, and a steady wind was at my back as I was hiking out. The section of trail on the way out was steadily downhill and provided some great views up and down the valley. Close-up views of interesting rock formations mixed with aspen groves, meadows, and mountains to keep the hike from earning the term “monotonous”. A large waterfall stood out the most and nearly tempted me to hike down to it, but the storm clouds and increasing wind caused me to focus more on forward progress than on trailside attractions. I made it back to the car before noon and raindrops began to fall as I pulled out of the campground and headed toward the highway. I’m sure I couldn’t have picked a “bad” first backpacking trip in Glacier National Park, but for some reason I feel like I really picked a great one. It had a little bit of everything — lakes, wildlife, mountain vistas, wildflowers — that make the park such an amazing place.