If you’re interested in a longer trail in Glacier National Park that will get you away from the crowds, the hike up to Swiftcurrent Lookout is a pretty scenic option. Beginning from the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn in Many Glacier, the trail traverses lakeshores and small waterfalls before climbing steadily to Swiftcurrent Pass. There, it meets up with a short spur leading to the lookout – the highest maintained hiking route within the national park.
Perched atop Swiftcurrent Mountain at an elevation of 8,435 feet, the historic Swiftcurrent Lookout was built in 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps to the tune of $7,500. It’s one of nine remaining fire lookouts within the national park (there were originally 17), and one of only four that are still actively staffed.
Beginning at the Swiftcurrent Pass Trailhead in Many Glacier, the trail winds through the picturesque Swiftcurrent Creek Valley – a densely forested basin peppered with crystalline chain lakes and miniature waterfalls. The first four miles of trail are virtually flat, passing alongside Fishercap Lake (0.25 miles), Redrock Lake (1.5 miles), Redrock Falls (2 miles), and Bullhead Lake (3.4 miles).
For nature lovers, Bullhead Lake is a good place to spot moose; and we were both lucky and surprised to stumble across one feeding in the lake’s shallow water. To be honest, I had no idea that moose fed on aquatic plants, nor that they were so adept in the water – even being able to hold their breath for upwards of a minute. Evidently, aquatic vegetation tends to be higher in sodium and mineral content than many terrestrial plants. Studies have shown that moose feed more heavily on these lacustrine plants in the warm, summer months, and that the animals show a preference for plants rich in sodium. We were enthralled at this unexpected behavior, and stood there watching the unconcerned bull for a good ten or fifteen minutes while he grazed away contentedly.
About a half mile past Bullhead Lake, the trail finally begins switchbacking up the hillside. The ascent to Swiftcurrent Pass from here is about three miles with 1,900 feet of vertical gain. After about a mile of moderate switchbacks through scrubby vegetation, the trail pops out onto an open ridge. This stretch of ridgeline is known as ‘the Devil’s elbow’ and offers some really spectacular views into the valley below. As the hillside drops away steeply, you get unobstructed views of Bullhead and the other chain lakes. Mt. Wilbur and Mt. Henkel stretch along the north side of the valley, and Mt. Grinnell looms overhead to the south.
As the trail makes a sharp, southwesterly turn toward Swiftcurrent Pass, the expansive views quickly fade. After gaining the pass, exactly seven miles from the trailhead, the trail comes to a signed junction. Continuing straight leads to Granite Park Chalet (0.7 miles) and, just beyond the lodge, to the intersection with the Highline and Granite Park Trails and the continuation of the Continental Divide Trail. Alternatively, a short 1.5-mile spur to the right leads up to Swiftcurrent Lookout.
Following the spur to the historic lookout atop Swiftcurrent Mountain, the trail gains another 1,300 vertical feet over 1.5 miles. It’s fairly steep, though made significantly easier by the impressive 33 switchbacks (if I counted correctly) that zigzag to the top. The ridgeline is entirely exposed, offering unrelenting views of Heavens Peak, Swiftcurrent Glacier, and Mt. Gould as you make your way to the top.
The views from the 8,435-foot summit are pretty incredible, especially the imposing ridgeline of neighboring Mt. Wilbur. Looking down into the valley, Windmaker Lake sits directly below, with Bullhead Lake and the chain lakes stretching into the distance. The drop-off on this side of the mountain is seriously sheer, and it makes you wish you had wings so you could fly up and get a better look.
To the south of Swiftcurrent’s summit, you can look down on Swiftcurrent Glacier, resting in a cirque on the east side of the Garden Wall. In the distance, Mt. Gould’s massive summit dwarfs everything else around it. The only downside to our views was that the light was terrible looking due south at the glacier… but such is life when you’ve got seventeen miles to cover.
In sum, this is a pretty awesome trail. It offers a great look at the diverse landscape found within the Many Glacier area of the park, in addition to sweeping views and a glimpse at one of the park’s original fire lookouts. For us, looking out on Glacier’s jewel-toned lakes and colossal summits will just never get old.
Total distance: 16.8 miles
Elevation gain: 3,882 feet
If you’re looking for a shorter route, rather than the 17-mile roundtrip to Swiftcurrent Lookout, there are a number of scenic stopping points along this trail. Here are a few potential out-and-back hikes from the trailhead at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn: