A Snowy Trek to Hidden Lake in Glacier National Park

 

It was still early when I started my drive up Going-to-the-Sun Road toward Logan Pass on the Continental Divide.  My drive through the construction zone went much smoother than the day before.  Not only that, I was able to find a parking spot at Logan Pass right away, which is pretty rare.

Once I parked, I threw on my backpack, and marched up the outdoor staircase next to the Visitor Center.  I was very excited to get hiking.  Even more so since I was about to hike to Hidden Lake, an extension of one of the best short trails I had ever hiked.

The Hidden Lake trailhead is located behind the Logan Pass Visitor Center.  The trail to Hidden Lake Overlook is likely the most popular hike in the park, and rightfully so.  It is only three miles round-trip with a moderate elevation gain of 460 feet.  The entire trail passes through spectacular alpine scenery.  It traverses mountain meadows painted with wildflowers and is surrounded by colossal peaks towering overhead.  Small mountain streams, snowfields, glacial ponds and moraines accompany the pathway.  The trail is also popular with a variety of wildlife.

I hiked to the overlook on my first visit to Glacier and loved the hike, so I figured I’d do it again.  Except this time I planned to continue down to the lakeshore, adding three miles and 675 feet of elevation loss and gain to the hike.  It would make the trek twice as long and twice as difficult, but I was confident that it would be well worth the extra effort.

I started west along a wide paved path from the trailhead.  It began as a nice and easy stroll.  The smooth blacktop pathway was mostly level as it led me away from the commotion of the Logan Pass Visitor Center and parking lot.  After a couple of minutes I arrived at the start of the seemingly endless alpine meadows that would escort me to the overlook.  At that point the paved path was replaced by a raised wooden boardwalk.  It was a couple of feet wide and elevated a few inches above the meadow.  The boardwalk protects the fragile alpine environment from the crowds of people that cross over the unspoiled setting.  Unspoiled apart from the boardwalk, of course, but it is a necessary evil to protect the land.

The entire trail is roughly at tree line, so it is almost completely open and exposed.  There are only a few clusters of firs battling the elements throughout the area.  This expanse gets battered by violent winds year-round and buried by snow nine months of the year.  The cool temperatures and constant wind at the Continental Divide made up for the lack of shade.

After a few minutes on the boardwalk I had to stop and pull out my camera for a photo shoot.  Less than 100 yards to my left was a group of a dozen rams lounging in the meadow together.  Most were laying down, some sitting up.  All looked very comfortable in the high elevation environment.  After taking a few photographs of them I turned around and snapped some photos of the magnificent mountain scene to my right.

There was a long wall of connected mountains to the north forming the Continental Divide.  The near-vertical fin-like mountains that form the Garden Wall ran parallel to the trail.  They were probably a little less than a mile away.  Vast beautiful meadows blanketed with yellow wildflowers stretched to the gray mountains with dark green pines at their base.

I saw more amazing wildlife and impressive mountain scenery in a quarter mile of the trail than I had seen on many hikes that were considerably longer.  And there was plenty more to come.

The boardwalk gradually climbed a large hill using several sections of steps spread out along the way.  It was deceptively steep, because there were never more than five steps at a time.  I never would have expected a boardwalk to gain much elevation, so it caught me by surprise.  I would guess that a couple hundred feet of the trail’s ascent took place along the boardwalk.  The air was thin up there, too, making it a little more demanding.  Still it was a pretty easy jaunt to that point, just a little harder than expected.

The walkway was packed with people.  It was a few feet wide, so there was usually enough room to pass slower hikers.  Due to its length, level of difficulty, and accessibility the trail drew all sorts of hikers.  I passed several senior citizens along the boardwalk and lots of families with children.  However, I noticed that by the time most kids reached the overlook they were exhausted and complaining.

Spanning most of the horizon in front of the wooden walkway was Clements Mountain.  This was a behemoth of a mountain that sat atop the stony moraine we crossed over.  I could see patches of snow on its lower reaches.  The mountain was shaped like a triangle with the top point sliced off.  It looked especially rocky and foreboding.  It looked like the trail would eventually skirt the mountain to the left.

I continued on the long wooden boardwalk as it slowly ascended the hill towards Clements Mountain.  After I climbed one last section of steps the boardwalk came to an end.  I was about a half-mile from the trailhead then.

The trail continued onto a wide dirt path.  It climbed up the hill at a steep grade.  The pathway was wet with snowmelt, which was not surprising, judging by what I saw next.  There were several snowfields just ahead, most of which crossed over sections of the trail.  They varied in size from a few feet to over 100 feet long.

Snowy Hike

When I walked onto the first patch of snow I almost fell down.  It was very hard and slippery.  It looked like it melted under the sun and then refroze at night into a very smooth, hard-packed consistency.  However, there were some slushy, mushy, and downright messy sections that I imagine were a result of too much foot traffic.

I wasn’t the only one having trouble walking on the snow.  Nearly everyone I saw was slipping, sliding, and fumbling around on the slick snow.  Some people were purposefully sliding around, looking like amateur ice skaters.  I, however, was not feeling too stable on my feet.  As a result, I was moving very slowly up the snowfield.  It required cautious and measured footsteps.  Most people over 25 years old were moving up the trail at a similar snail-like pace.

Then I had an idea that made me feel like a genius.  I stepped off the trail and out of the way of the long line of slow-moving, sliding hikers.  I took off my backpack and took out my pair of hiking poles.  I wouldn’t have brought them just to go to the overlook, but I figured they would help my knees on the steep descent down to the lake.  I was very happy to have them, because they were a life saver on the snow.  They drastically improved my balance, allowing me to easily move across the snowfields at a fast pace.  I went from bumbling around on the iced-over snow to passing everyone on the trail.

The whole experience of hiking across multiple large snowfields on the 28th of July was surreal.  I felt like I was high up in the mountains of Alaska or even some snowy mountain range in the eastern hemisphere.  It could have been the Swiss Alps or the Himalayas.  I felt on top of the world, literally and figuratively.  Not only was I in the middle of an otherworldly landscape, but just being in such a glorious place gave me an emotional high.

Once I passed the final patch of snow I was back on the wide and wet path.  I passed a couple of small snowmelt streams that cascaded over the trail.  The portion that covered the path was normally only an inch deep.  Multicolored wildflowers flourished in the fertile meadows that were clear of snow.  Some small stands of fir still persisted, but the higher I got the less common they became.

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The trail curved southwest away from Clements Mountain.  It began to lead towards Bearhat Mountain, an enormous pyramid-shaped peak.  Other rugged mountains stood in the distance.  The look and makeup of the mountains surrounding me seemed unusual.  They looked more like the monoliths, mesas, and plateaus I had seen in the southwest.  It spurred memories of Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks instead of more mountainous parks like Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, and Olympic.

I soon scaled a small hill that brought me up to another glacial moraine.  There were two sapphire ponds in a pristine marshy environment.  Water builds up there from snowmelt.  The entire area looked moist and swamp-like.  The shallow ponds were clear and placid.  The surrounding meadows were littered with rocks that varied in size from tiny pebbles to large boulders.  They were randomly dispersed across the delicate environment by receding glaciers long ago.

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After continuing through the magnificent mountain meadows a little farther I came to another small hill.  Upon reaching the top I arrived at Hidden Lake Overlook.  There was a wooden viewing platform perched on the brink of a cliff.  I walked up and onto the viewpoint and graciously laid my eyes on the jaw-dropping panorama before me.  Directly across from me was the massive 8,684 foot tall Bearhat Mountain, which looked almost as wide as it was tall.  The peak had several snowy horizontal stripes climbing its eastern face to the summit, veiled by a stream of charcoal clouds.  It towered more than 2,000 feet above Hidden Lake.  The long, thin lake stretched around the base of Bearhat Mountain at the bottom of an immaculate valley.  The lake was a dark blue-gray with a glassy sheen to it.  Dark green fir trees lined most of the lakeshore about 700 feet below me.  The green mountainside spilled down into the valley before me, interspersed with clusters of tall skinny pines.  Small patches of snow were scattered across the valley’s slope beneath the lookout with large boulders protruding from the grass.

Hidden Lake 3

I remained at the wondrous vista for a while, competing with several others for the best views.  I then sat down in an area a little out of the way for a snack and water break.  The entire time I was at the overlook it was overrun by a rotating crowd of a couple dozen people.

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As popular as the Hidden Lake Overlook Trail is, very few people continue down to the lakeshore.  The farther hike is about twice as hard, but based on how amazing the hike to the overlook is I’m surprised more people don’t go farther.  Even as I took my break at the lookout I kept an eye on the trail and noticed almost everyone headed back east to Logan Pass.  That fact made me even more excited to start down toward Hidden Lake.  As expected, the amount of fellow hikers I saw on the trail over the next three miles was exponentially reduced.

The trail from the viewpoint started out mostly level, despite the short distance to the lake.  I knew it would have to get steep soon since there is a lot of elevation change packed into a mile and a half.  But I certainly didn’t mind the start of the trail being easy and scenic.

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I followed the path along the mountainside as it paralleled a row of broad peaks behind Clements Mountain.  The pathway led me through an enchanting boulder field on the side of the valley.  There were again rocks and boulders of many different sizes, but most were large.  They also varied in color.  Most were gray or black, but some were yellow, red, and even green.

Soon the trail began to slowly lead me down to the lake.  It started with a couple of long sweeping switchbacks.  A few small patches of snow spanned parts of the first long switchback.  Crossing them was harder than the large ones earlier on the trail.  It got a little dicey because I was on the side of a mountain and the ground was at an angle.  There was a fairly steep drop-off to my left.

The first few hundred feet down toward the lake went quickly, because the grade was gradual.  But once I got closer to the lake it got a little intense.  The switchbacks grew shorter, rockier, and much steeper.  The descent wasn’t too bad, but I knew the return trip up those steep sections would be brutal.

The final stretch was literally painful.  The last couple of switchbacks looked like they were built out of large rocks.  They were more like a staircase with very tall steps than a trail.  I had to take huge knee-pounding steps down the path of doom despite being well equipped with long legs.  My hiking poles helped at first, but by the time I reached level ground near the lakeshore my knees were throbbing.

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Being on flat ground was a huge relief on my lower body.  The hike really wasn’t that bad until I was a quarter-mile from the lake.  As I slowly walked into the coniferous forest at Hidden Lake’s edge I suddenly felt like I was being followed.  I didn’t hear any footsteps, but I had that feeling that someone or something was watching or following me.  I quickly spun around and was shocked to see a mountain goat a few feet behind me.  I nearly jumped in surprise and think I spooked the goat for a second.  He was less than ten feet behind me and moving very quietly.  At no point did I feel the slightest bit threatened.  It calmly followed in my footsteps as I walked until I stepped to the side of the trail and let it pass.  I then turned the tables on the mountain goat and followed him with my camera as he weaved in and out of the trees beside the lake.

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Hidden Lake was just as impressive and stunning up close as it was from 700 feet above at the overlook.  The perspective was much different though.  The two-mile long lake looked much bigger up close.  It was shaped like a curved oval, almost like a wide boomerang.  The water itself was flat, clear, and motionless.  It looked like a giant sheet of glass that I could walk on.  The lake perfectly reflected its pristine surroundings.  I stood over the water’s edge, at the north shore, and saw thousands if not millions of small stones coating the bottom of the lake.

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Bearhat Mountain soared high above the lake’s western shore, with its grass-covered base extending into the lake.  The lower reaches of Reynolds Mountain bordered most of the east and south shores with a sheer gray wall lining the water’s edge.  Tall, skinny firs lined most of the shore on my side of the lake.  If the lake were split into two semi-circle halves, the top half would be bordered by trees and the bottom half by mountains.

Spur trails led off in both directions along the shore.  I went to the right, towards Bearhat Mountain.  An outhouse surrounded by bugs was a few dozen yards from the lake.  I continued through the woods for a while.  I found a few people on a rocky beach and a few more mountain goats in the woods.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I ended up seeing more mountain goats than humans near the lake.

I eventually followed the path to Hidden Creek, which connected to the lake.  The creek was wide and rushed with a fury away from Hidden Lake to the west.  I followed a thin path beside the creek until it ended near some whitewater and a small waterfall.  I walked back to a small stony beach next to Hidden Lake where I rested for a little bit.  I took some more photographs then decided it was time to start my hike back uphill.

I got back on the trail and immediately confronted the dreaded rock staircase that destroyed my knees on the way down.  Hiking downhill put a lot of pressure on my knees, but going uphill would stress my quadriceps.  I extended my trekking poles once more and slowly climbed the steep rocky switchbacks.  As long as I took the hardest, steepest sections slowly, my knees and legs did just fine.  I still agree with most people in the thinking that hiking uphill is more difficult than downhill.  But sometimes it’s not that simple.  Long, steep steps can tip the scales in the opposite way as far as my knees are concerned.

Once past the steep, short switchbacks I was able to pick up my pace on the longer, more gradual segments of the uphill path.  I took my time walking through the colorful rocky moraine on the way up.  The entire hike was so scenic and breathtaking that I had to stop every few minutes for more pictures.

I was back up at the overlook with the crowds faster than expected.  I stopped there again, because I had a different perspective on the impressive lake.  I couldn’t help but look at the lake in a new light after having hiked all the way to its shore.

Mountain Goats

Shortly after I got back on the boardwalk I came to a stop.  There was a big group of people looking to the south side of the trail.  When I got closer I saw that they were viewing a group of four mountain goats grazing in the meadow just off the trail.  There were three adults with horns and one child.  They were all within thirty feet or so of the boardwalk.  The biggest one was digging like crazy.  Grass and dirt were flying everywhere.  After just a couple of minutes the goat had created a bed of dirt.  Once complete, the goat promptly lied down on the dirt to cool off.  The youngest mountain goat was chewing on the edge of a metal “Restoration Area” sign and succeeded at tearing it partially off its post.  I was amused by the fact that people were staying off the area that park officials were trying to restore and improve, but the wildlife was ripping it apart.

A little farther down the boardwalk I saw a professional photographer with a large camera atop a massive tripod.  He had his gear set up just off the trail facing a neighboring peak.  A mountain goat was high up on the snowy mountain.  The photographer left his camera focused on the goat then stepped away to talk to his assistant who was approaching with more camera gear.  In the short time that the men were away from the camera the mountain goat foiled their plans.  The mountain goat quickly slid all the way down the steep snow-covered wall, which was at least a couple hundred feet high, and then walked right up to the camera for a close-up.  The curious goat sniffed and licked the tripod.  The photographer did not look pleased, but I was entertained.

The remainder of the hike back to Logan Pass went smoothly.  The rams were still relaxing in the meadow near the start of the boardwalk, so I stopped there for a moment.  I also slowed down near the end since I was almost done with an awesome hike and didn’t really want it to come to an end.  I paused and admired the flower-filled meadow in front of the Garden Wall once more and then returned to the bustling parking lot on the other side of the Visitor Center.

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These are my other posts on Glacier National Park:

The Story Behind the Photo: The One-Horned Mountain Goat

The Story Behind the Photo: A Swiftcurrent Lake Sunset

Grizzlies vs. Moose

The Red Eagle Forest Fire

The Story Behind the Photo: The Curious Ram

 

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4 thoughts on “A Snowy Trek to Hidden Lake in Glacier National Park

  1. Wow, Hidden Lake is beautiful from down at the lake level! I’ve tried to hike that trail twice but both times it was closed. Looks like I definitely need to give it another shot. Great photos!

    Liked by 1 person

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