Ptarmigan Tunnel is a place of magnificent vistas in Many Glacier, Glacier National Park.
On the return hike from Iceberg Lake and standing at the Iceberg Lake / Ptarmigan Tunnel trail junction, the decision is either returning 2⅝ miles (4.2 KM) to the cabin at the Swiftcurrent Inn in Glacier National Park, Montana to complete the planned, easy, ramp-up day or, take advantage of position and add the Ptarmigan Tunnel hike to this day's hiking itinerary.
Ptarmigan Tunnel will add 5 miles (8 KM) and, more importantly, 1,600 ft (488 M) of gross vertical elevation, making it a long and considerably more aggressive than planned first day with a total of 15 miles (24 KM) and close to 3,000 ft. (915 M) of gross vertical elevation.
The collective decision ignores common sense. The hike to Ptarmigan Tunnel will proceed as this day's next hiking objective. The logic gets worse as the day continues!
'Ptarmigan' is pronounced 'tar-mig-an'. A ptarmigan is a bird. Following an initial short section of steep trail, there is a stretch of nicely graded trail through forest before breaking out into open ground heading north on the east flank of the long and massive Ptarmigan Wall.
Altitude is gradually gained above Ptarmigan Creek in the valley below. Weather is warming as skies are clearing and wind is decreasing to a gusty breeze. Beautiful Ptarmigan Lake appears with long switchbacks behind the lake, rising Z-like on Ptarmigan Wall and specifically reminiscent of Sentinel Pass above Larch Valley in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.
The views from Ptarmigan Wall are breathtaking from the switchbacks above Ptarmigan Lake. Since this hike is unplanned and has not been fully researched, there is a bit of unnecessary anxiety searching for the tunnel which remains hidden until just prior to arrival.
In 1930, the 250 ft. long Ptarmigan Tunnel was blasted through the north-east end of the wall, just below the ridge summit, at an elevation of 7,200 ft. (2,625 m). The tunnel is an important transportation feature needed to provide horse traffic access from Many Glacier to Elizabeth Lake and the Belly River Valley. The trail continues several miles through to, and beyond, the Canadian border into Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada.
In 1975, heavy iron doors were installed. They are open from mid-July until the first day of October. Further blasting created trail, with masonry retaining walls, in the cliff face on the other side, which links to natural, navigable features.
Hiking through the tunnel, plus a short distance down the other side of the ridge, provides excellent views of sizable Ahern Glacier high on Ahern Peak. The exit from the north side of the tunnel creates exposure to fierce wind and below freezing temperatures. This is the greatest temperature differential ever personally experienced in such a short distance and time.
Apparently, there is collectively insufficient intelligence to return to the warm side of the wall, so lunch is consumed in the bitter, cold wind, fully layered up, including toque and winter gloves, trying hard to get nourishment completed before dying of exposure and gross stupidity on the wrong side of the Wall.
The same route back is far more comfortable as the day's weather continues to improve and the hike is completed wearing T-shirts and shorts.
This day is the best day on this trip for wild life sightings in Glacier National Park. The moose in the morning on the Iceberg Lake segment is followed on the Ptarmigan Tunnel trail by sightings of ptarmigan, bear, and deer at close range along with ever prevalent mountain sheep and goats. Just a short distance before finishing there is a fawn beside the trail oblivious to our presence making it a special way to end the day.
Following a hearty and well-earned dinner at the Swiftcurrent Inn, the short drive around the end of Swiftcurrent Lake allows scouting out Many Glacier Hotel and the trail-head required for the best overall hike of this trip. Cracker Lake.