Swiftcurrent Lookout

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

Alternative hikes:

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:

  • Redrock Lake – 3 miles roundtrip; ~150′ elevation gain
  • Redrock Falls – 4 miles roundtrip; ~200′ elevation gain
  • Bullhead Lake – 7 miles roundtrip; ~350′ elevation gain
  • Swiftcurrent Pass – 14 miles roundtrip; ~2,500′ elevation gain

One Response

  • The summer of 1968 was the 1st time my wife and I worked for Glacier Park as Swiftcurrent fire lookouts. It was an amazing start to our marriage 6/8. We arrived in Glacier June 11th. 1 week of fire fighting and lookout training followed. June the 18th the helicopter finally could make the wind swept summit. Tail was hanging over north side of mountain and cockpit hovering next to front door in picture. They dropped us and our supplies and flew away. Nothing but snow was visible in all directions as far as we could see. What had we gotten into? Two weeks later we were out of supplies and a blizzard approaching. Our boss back at West entrance said we needed to hike to Granite Park Chalet. It was only 2.5 miles west. We packed and started down the mountain with snow shoes. The snow was around 30 to 40 feet deep at the valley. The blizzard had started. We were scared and could not tell direction. Luckily we chose the west direction. Bushes later were 40 to 50 feet tall trees. Stephanie was crying, but I comforted her and said I hear running water under the snow. We followed it knowing it goes down hill. Lucky it took us to the chimney sticking out of the 2 story Granite Park Chalet near the back door. Snow steps were dug out that we took to the back door. Park employees answered our knocks and were in shock anyone was out in the blizzard. After entros, we were given a room on 2nd floor. Had dinner, heated a brick on the pot belly stove and slept with it rapped in wool in bed. Our 2 way radio and theirs were not working. Next morning Park rangers dropped a streamer out of a plane with a note,”wave if the Feller’s made it? We waved. If you would like us to write a book about this 3 month adventure, please reply!

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