Updated on March 10, 2020
Day 12 of 2019 Western US Tour, July 23, Hiking to Iceberg Lake and Ptarmigan Tunnel
Our third day in the wonderful world of Glacier National Park. Today, I set off on my own to hike Iceberg Lake and Ptarmigan Tunnel.
A note that, to visit both Iceberg Lake and Ptarmigan Tunnel in one day was a 24.75km hike that I tracked 7.5 hours. And since I was by myself I moved faster than most people on the trail. This should only be attempted by the physically fit, carrying ample water.
And since I was in no hurry to catch a timed-boat, I got up slightly later today and began my hike at 9:23am, at the back of Swiftcurrent Motor Inn.
Here’s GPS tracking of the day:
About 10 minutes later, the first surprise of the day.
The bear was less than 5 meters from the trail, far less than the minimum distance recommended by NPS, so I joined a group of people waiting for it to move on. But the gentleman in the previous photo certainly ran out of patience, and with more than a dozen people (bears rarely attacked large groups) waiting, he bravely led us past this furry creature.
And I took these photos as we walked past.
As a side note, I didn’t recommend bear spray on Grinnell Glacier Trail, but for Iceberg Lake and Ptarmigan Tunnel, bear spray certainly seemed like a useful insurance.
After that, the trail followed the side of Mt. Henkel, with wonderful views of nearby mountain peaks.
The day’s getting warmer, and I got rid of my trousers.
About 3km into the hike, the trail briefly entered some forest. If I remembered correctly there’s a pit toilet in the woods.
An hour and 4.2km from trailhead, it’s Ptarmigan Falls. (Named so because it was on Ptarmigan Creek, which originated from Ptarmigan Lake below Ptarmigan Tunnel.)
Shade from high trees and natural rocks made the area around Ptarmigan Falls a perfect place to take some rests.
And not far from Ptarmigan Falls, the trails to Iceberg Lake and Ptarmigan Tunnel forked.
I took Iceberg Trail first.
And just like yesterday on Grinnell Glacier Trail, blooming flowers and mesmerizing beargrass were a perpetual companion among these mountains.
A little bit over 2 hours and 8km from trailhead, I was at the side of Iceberg Lake. I guess the snow patches on Ptarmigan Wall weren’t sizeable enough to be categorized as glaciers, and the lake visually seemed much smaller than Upper Grinnell Lake of the previous day.
It’s also quieter, visited by much fewer people. So I could find a spot on the shoreline just by myself, bathing in the refreshing breeze from the lake. The imposing Ptarmigan Wall blocked most of the sunlight, so the lake water was in a spellbinding dark emerald green color.
Speaking of enjoying some good solitude, I had a packed lunch on the shores of Iceberg Lake. Probably, fewer visitors meant fewer food and fiercer competition for the local squirrel population, thus I was harassed pretty badly by a panhandler of them.
So after 30 minutes at Iceberg Lake, I headed back.
The trail to Iceberg Lake wasn’t very steep, but once I got past the fork and headed on Ptarmigan Trail, it’s hard not to notice that elevation gain was hastened.
On the maps, it may seem that Ptarmigan Trail and Iceberg Lake Trail ran parallel for quite some distance, and there could be a tempting shortcut. Fact was that Ptarmigan Trail was much higher in elevation than Iceberg Trail.
Ptarmigan Trail was much less visited than Iceberg Lake Trail, so to scare away the bears, I played music most of the time.
Yes, half of Ptarmigan Trail after the fork was among bushes and trees like this, making it the prefect hideout for bears.
After the previous waterfall, it was Ptarmigan Lake, presumably created by molten snow water from nearby mountains. From Ptarmigan Lake to Tunnel the trail made a few switchbacks on a hillside, while gaining 200 meters in elevation. A last stretch to finish line.
Just like a few days back at Scenic Point Trail, water on this hillside was limited, meaning plants could only survive in clusters where there’s underground water flowing.
Finally, at about 2:20pm, I was at the gate of Ptarmigan Tunnel.
The 76-meter Ptarmigan Tunnel was built in 1930 to avoid a strenuous climb over the hill, despite that even to this day, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of through-hikers passing the tunnel.
It’s a surreal experience passing the tunnel. To begin with, the temperatures in the tunnel was much lower than the outside world, giving people like me a first-hand sense of how snow-patches were lying next to hikers in full summer gear.
And it’s a totally different world on the other side of the tunnel, with the entire hillside of Seward Mountain colored in flaming red.
After about 15 minutes in a different world at the other end of tunnel, I headed back.
This time, I took a detour to the side of Ptarmigan Lake.
Then it’s the cheerful downhill stroll back to the parking lot.
At about 4:50pm, I was back at the parking lot where I started. After a quick replenish of water at the nearby Swiftcurrent Motor Inn and with still daylight left, I decided to pay another visit to Many Glacier Hotel.
Despite that we passed the hotel twice the previous day, we were in too much hurry to appreciate this “gem of the West” as described by the Great Northern Railway company when it’s promoting services to this park almost a century ago.
And I also took a walk at its surroundings.
It’s rumored that when Many Glacier Hotel first opened in 1914, the main attractions in the park was horseback riding. And that certainly lived on till this day.
Since I was in no hurry at all, on my way back, I made a few more stops to capture landscapes in the soft light near dusk.
And that includes these mountains near St Mary, captured at Beaver Pond Trailhead.
Day 12 of 2019 Western US Tour, July 23, Hiking to Iceberg Lake and Ptarmigan Tunnel by Huang's Site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.