Mount Hefty

At the northern tip of the Whitefish Range, Mount Hefty’s twin summits straddle the U.S.-Canada border. The tallest (7,578’) is in Montana; the slightly shorter (7,450′) is just a few hundred meters north in British Columbia. Standing just west of Glacier National Park, Mt. Hefty’s lightly trafficked summit offers incredible views out to the jagged peaks of Glacier and Waterton Lakes (Alberta) National Parks.

We called the Glacier View Ranger Station a couple weeks prior to hiking to get a trail status update, knowing its elevation and northern location could make it prone to late-season snow cover. A congenial woman informed us that, while the portion of trail to Thoma Lookout (an active fire lookout) was clear, the National Forest Service no longer maintained the northern part of trail #15 to Mt. Hefty. She cheerfully suggested it would be ‘an adventure,’ and asked us to give her a trail update when we returned.

Two weeks later, we finally headed for Hefty to find out what ‘adventure’ awaited us. Little did we know the drive would turn out to be the most challenging part of the day. Google Maps routed us toward Ten Lakes Wilderness, an area we were familiar with as we’d visited a couple weeks prior. Three-quarters of the route was the same, following Grave Creek Road up to NF-114 and NF-319. Easy enough, we figured. However, Google Maps’ final instruction to take a right onto NF-114A (Trail Creek Rd) proved disastrous.1 After traveling for about 6 miles and 25 minutes up the washboard, dirt road that was NF-114A, we reached a Kelly hump crowned with a giant red and white barrier marking the road’s closure. We were stunned… pissed off and jaws-dropped stunned. We’d driven for the better part of two hours only to be thwarted 7 miles from the trailhead.

Not knowing what the f— to do next, I remembered seeing a right-hand turn on NF-114 about 11 miles back that looked like it would be at least in the correct direction of the trailhead. Before entirely aborting our hike, we figured we’d go back and see if it looked reasonable. I checked the map as we drove, and it indeed looked like we could get there – albeit in just over an hour and a half. Refusing to throw in the towel on our hike, we pushed on. We found the turn-off (now to our left) and begrudgingly headed east on NF-114.

After driving 12 miles on arguably one of the worst roads I’ve ever seen, and nearly four hours after we’d left home, we finally arrived at the Thoma-Colts Creek (#18) trailhead. It was almost noon. For us, a late start on the trail is usually around 9–9:30 a.m. We speculated whether or not we’d make it to the summit, but weren’t about to leave without at least trying.

From the #18 trailhead, it was about 2.6 miles to the intersection with the Mt. Hefty Trail (#15). The trail began along the vestiges an old forest service road – mockingly, the unkempt remnants of our old nemesis, NF-114A. After just under a mile, a cairn marked an abrupt right-hand turn off the road and onto a more conventional trail, quickly dipping us down into a wooded drainage area. For the next two miles, the trail meandered through a dense forest along Colts Creek before eventually climbing gradually to the intersection with trail #15.

At the junction of #18 and #15, you can either take a right and head south to Thoma Lookout (about 1 mile), or take a left and head north to Mt. Hefty (about 2.7 miles). With Hefty’s summit still our goal, we followed the trail to the left. Climbing gradually, the trail quickly popped out onto a stunningly scenic ridgeline, with extraordinary views of Glacier’s dramatic peaks to the east. At this point, I was snapping pics every 10 or so feet. It was gorgeous.

As we made our way along the ridge, we noticed that the trail suddenly disappeared about a mile from the junction with trail #15.2 A large cairn was visible in the middle of a clearing just before the hillside dropped off, but we found no hint of a path. After our morning driving fiasco where the roadway abruptly terminated, this turn of events seemed annoyingly fitting. Double checking our map, we could see Hefty’s summit off to our left (northwest). With just over a mile left, we could easily see the part of the saddle we’d need to navigate to get over to the summit. With eyes rolling, onward and off-trail we went.

Although there was no well-worn trail or markers, getting over the treeless saddle was effortless, and we soon had reached Hefty’s summit. From the peak, the views were similar to those along the ridge – sweeping views of Glacier/Waterton to the east, the more humble, rolling crests of the Whitefish Range to the west. From Hefty’s summit, we were afforded a bird’s-eye view of the ‘Slash,’ a 20-foot-wide, deforested strip that runs for 1,349 miles, marking the boundary between the U.S. and Canada. For some hard-core geography enthusiasts, a visit to the ‘Slash’ – part of the world’s longest international border (5,525 miles) – is something to check off a bucket list.

After immensely enjoying a well-earned, 3 p.m. ‘lunch’ at the summit, we headed back toward the trailhead. While we’d initially considered hiking south on the way back to check out Thoma Lookout, our morning debacle left us more interested in a getting home for an 8 p.m. dinner, rather than pushing it back another couple hours.

If you’re looking for a killer view of some of Montana’s most striking summits – or are interested in totally geeking out over the meticulously-carved ‘Slash’ – this is a great trail. Even if you’re not comfortable going off-trail and don’t want to venture all the way out to Hefty’s highpoint, the views from the high ridge about a mile before the summit are similarly exceptional.

Total distance:  11.0 miles
Elevation gain:  2,996 feet

Notes:

1When navigating to the Thoma-Colts Creek Trail (#18), use Tuchuck Campground as a waypoint. The trailhead is off NF-114A (Trail Creek Rd), however it can only be accessed from the southern portion of the road (NF-114A north of the trailhead is closed). The turn-off for NF-114A (and the trailhead) is 4 miles east of Tuchuck Campground. The #18 trailhead is about 3 miles up NF-114A where the road dead ends.

If traveling from the west (via Highway 93), NF-114A is 12 miles from the right-hand turn onto NF-114 (from NF-114/Grave Creek Rd). If traveling from the east (via North Fork Rd), NF-114A is 5 miles from the left-hand turn off the North Fork.

2The trail is not obvious for the last mile or so, but the basic route down to the saddle and up to Hefty’s summit can be discerned if you know what peak you’re looking for. If you have a GPS app (Gaia GPS or the like) with the mountain labeled, you should be able to find your way pretty easily to the summit. If route finding feels a little daunting, stop along the high ridge while the trail is still discernible – the views from here are still fantastic and comparable to those you’ll get from the summit.

Alternatively, you could opt to head to Thoma Lookout (about 7 miles round-trip). While we weren’t able to make it out there, it’s along the same ridge line so it should afford similarly impressive views out to Glacier.

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