Swiftcurrent Pass is a spectacular hike in Glacier National Park, Montana.
Following yesterday’s hiking fiasco in Grinnell Valley, there is an argument to take the day off and ponder the possibility of embracing a different passion.
The Swiftcurrent Pass trail-head is located at the far end of the Swiftcurrent Inn parking area so, after a hearty, early morning breakfast of buckwheat pancakes, packing up gear is followed by a short hike to the trail-head.
This day, the hike will pass through the Swiftcurrent Valley. Depending on how perplexing weather unfolds, there are three variations available. Round trip distances are:
- Swiftcurrent Valley 7 miles (11.2 KM) Elevation: 275 ft. (84 M)
- Swiftcurrent Pass 13.4 miles (21.6 KM) 2,200 ft. (670 M)
- Swiftcurrent Lookout 15.8 miles (25.4 KM) 3,474 ft. (1,266 M)
Swiftcurrent Pass trail travels through forest, avalanche chutes and on multiple bridges across streams originating as waterfalls from surrounding mountains. The valley contains a chain of lakes separated by small but spectacular waterfalls. The excellent trail is dry and relatively flat. Morning sky is overcast with dense ceilings clipping mountain tops around 6,000 ft. (1,829 m). Temperature is cool.
At the robust beginning, the first side trail to Fishercap Lake is missed. Initial forest landscape soon changes to open ground created by the ferocious Heaven’s Peak fire of 1936 which swept the length of Swiftcurrent Valley in 45 minutes. The Many Glacier Hotel was spared but the Swiftcurrent Inn’s 27 cabins, built in 1933 by the Superior Building Company, the 1934 campground and cabins constructed by Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corp., and the General Store built in 1935 were destroyed.
In less than an hour, the arrival at a rise overlooking Redrock Lake with a view of Redrock Falls at the far end justifies a photographic interlude.
Bordering mountains contain massive deposits of red Grinnell Argillite. The pictures will illustrate the visual feast this provides to those who choose to venture through this valley.
Redrock Falls is a twisting, turning cascade of white water pounding through red stone. There is no vantage point where the complete falls can be seen from one location. Several minutes are spent proving that and wading across the shallow, fast-running stream to locate potentially better views from the far side is given consideration. After leaving the falls the hike continues west on trail bordered by forest and dense underbrush which occasionally provides glimpses of the tiny, shallow, unnamed lakes to the left.
Along the way there is the clear sound of a powerful waterfall but there is no obvious access point, so the hike presses on with 8,851 ft. (2,680 M) Mount Grinnell to the left, 9,321 ft. (2,841 M) Mount Wilbur to the right and the sheer cliffs of the Continental Divide directly ahead.
Massive Mount Wilbur is referred to as Heavy Shield Mountain by the Blackfeet. Collectively, it is an amazing vista. Wilbur Creek is crossed on the swing bridge.
Another rise provides a view over Bullhead Lake which is the final lake in the chain. Many slender waterfalls cascade thousands of feet down the cliff face at the end of the valley. Bullhead Lake’s mirrored reflections are visually stunning and the sound of falling water echoes from surrounding rock surfaces.
At the far end of Bullhead Lake by 10:30 AM, the time arrives to make a shallow creek crossing and tackle the well-graded switchbacks which will ascend on good trail with daunting, vertical cliff exposure to the face of the cliffs and beyond as the impressive trail winds its way towards Swiftcurrent Pass.
The edgy trail requires strict discipline of placing feet carefully, stopping, and then looking around. Hiking and gawking around at the same time could be highly inadvisable and potentially harming. About half way up there are breathtaking views of all the lakes in the valley, as well as Swiftcurrent Lake hosting the speck of Many Glacier Hotel and the long, slim profile of Sherburne Lake beyond.
For a very brief span of trail, there is a view straight down to Windmaker Lake, an emerald, tear-shaped gem at the base of Mount Wilbur. The view is breathtaking. When combined with the constant roar of falling water, the hiking experience in this localized component is a powerful sensory experience.
The rising sun has not made itself visible but clearly the sun is having an effect as the dense fog ceiling slowly raises and lowers with a slow pulse that makes the clouds appear alive. The trail levels to less aggressive gain after passing through an area with typical sub-alpine characteristics where snow fields stubbornly survive.
There is bear scat on the trail but no bears make their presence known. Shortly past noon arrival at the top of Swiftcurrent Pass signals the time to sit by the cairn to enjoy lunch and a rest. There is an impressive cairn marking the exact location of the Continental Divide.
The summit at Swiftcurrent Pass is surrounded by evergreen trees and the view is underwhelming. There is a trail continuing to the Fire Lookout at the summit of 8,436 ft. (2,572 M) Swiftcurrent Mountain on right but it is embedded in cloud so there would be no panoramic view.
The hike to the Fire Lookout is a short distance with significant elevation gain. Since arriving at Glacier National Park, the daily trend on this hiking mission, has seen rain developing near mid-afternoon and it is wise to avoid presence at higher elevation if that trend continues today. So, shortly after lunch, the return hike begins via the same route taken in.
Almost immediately, cloud begins to break up and the sun finds openings to brighten the valley. There is no single vantage point where everything can be captured simultaneously so good panoramic views are selected. Ceilings lift and the Swiftcurrent Glacier is now visible directly across from my location. A short video of the surroundings above Swift Current Valley is captured but there is no alternative to standing here in wonder and awe.
The hike down is even more spectacular as colors and lighting reveal the magnificent splendor of Swiftcurrent Valley. The red rock and early fall colors come to life in the sun.
On the return hike, the sound of the mystery waterfall appears again, between the unnamed Lake and Redrock Falls. There is a cleverly disguised trail on the top of a red rock ridge that will provide access through the forest to the waterfalls. The well-hidden apparition is a beautiful, broad, flat, cascading waterfall dancing in the sun. The opportunity is taken to sit, observe and listen for awhile.
Back on the main trail, several small but beautiful waterfalls and a perfectly engineered beaver dam are highlights along the retreat.
Close to completion of this day hike, there is time to hike the short trail into Fishercap Lake which pops out from forest onto the narrow but sandy shoreline. The lake is peaceful and beautiful but the highlight is a moose and her calf on the far shore. The camera zooms in on them for a photo prior to retreat to finish this day’s outstanding hike in late afternoon.
The hike through Swiftcurent Valley has been an outstanding and forever memorable day with absolutely amazing scenery. The trail-head begins from the parking area at Swiftcurrent Inn so there was no need to drive the car today. The exciting plan for tomorrow will make it unnecessary to drive the car for the second consecutive day.
Additional photos of the day reside below. Click on any single photo to enlarge for viewing.