Great Northern Mountain - Montana Mountain Project

On the top of Great Northern Mountain
When I first moved to Montana I couldn't figure out why in the Flathead Valley just outside Glacier National Park, it seemed that every third business includes "Great Northern" in its moniker. It turns out there is a mountain, a pretty big mountain, west of the Kalispell-Whitefish-Columbia Falls micro-megalopolis called Great Northern. It's the highest point in the Flathead Range, and the highest in the Bob Marshall Wilderness (not to be confused with the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, that highest point is Red Mountain) at 8,705'. It is difficult to see Great Northern from any road due to other mountains and trees obscuring its summit, but it is worth the trip to catch a glimpse.

Great Northern, the mountain, does not pull its name from its size, its prominence, or its northerly latitude. Rather it references the northernmost transcontinental railroad line, the Great Northern, that runs a few miles north of its base paralleling the Flathead River. The Great Northern forms the southern edge of Glacier National Park (a fact the company promoted heavily to tourists back in the day) and is responsible for building many of the original buildings in East and West Glacier.

Sara looking at the summit of Great Northern before reaching the main ridge
The line reached the feet of Great Northern Mountain after the 1889 exploration of Marias Pass by John Frank Stevens. Stevens was an engineer with a propensity for imagining tons of freight moving through difficult places to access. In addition to pushing for Marias Pass as a train route, he helped develop Stevens Pass in the Cascades for rail travel. Then, perhaps tiring of the cold Pacific Northwest, he moved south to become chief engineer on the Panama Canal.

We did not have to create our own route to the base of Great Northern like Mr. Stevens, and instead followed the wide dirt road heading south out of Hungry Horse. At the trail head Sara fit in a 10 minute power nap (we ran 40 miles in Glacier the day before) while I threw together some calories to power our hike.

The trail starts out steep. Really steep. Within the first 1.5 miles you climb nearly 2,500 feet. On a normal day your calves start talking to you, but the day after running in Glacier our calves were already tender and the steep grade made them scream sooner than normal. But with a few huckleberries lining the trail we could blame frequent breaks on berry picking rather than tired legs.

Enjoying a well-trod portion of the route above Stanton Glacier
After that initial climb the trail pops out onto a ridge of the ridge that leads to Great Northern. This short section is lightly treed affording some protection from the elements if needed, but also offers incredible views of the top of the mountain. From here it looks like there is no way Great Northern is a hike-able mountain: intimidating, even know there is an "easy" way up.

The common-use trail we were following took us to the main ridgeline where we turned south and began walking towards the looming mountain. Smoky air cut our view so we couldn't see too far into Glacier National Park, but we could still see a few miles into the Great Bear Wilderness. I always find myself staring down into the cirques and valleys below mountains like Great Northern, hoping to catch a glimpse of some epic wildlife battle from a safe distance. To date I have only seen a family of grizzlies flipping rocks, no battle royale between wolves and bears.

I figured, due to the name, that Great Bear Wilderness would be the place for this to happen. Created in 1978 as part of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, the Great Bear Wilderness is home to the Wild and Scenic Middle Fork of the Flathead River, meaning this area is double wild. Bears, wolves, wolverines, goats, sheep, moose, and other Montana things should have been frolicking below me, but we only saw rocks.

Sara playing on the ridge while descending
And by rocks I mean the ridgeline up to the summit is one of the most visually appealing, fun, hike-able rock-filled ridges you will ever find. The east side plummets straight down to a scree field, and the west side is a handful of degrees shy of cliff-like. Those few degrees, however, allow for all sorts of game and hiker trails to exist in a scree and talus wonderland.

As hikers we followed the uppermost trail keeping us on the top of the ridge as much as possible. Aside from being the path of least resistance, this also provided views in every possible direction and soon we were looking down onto Stanton Glacier.

Stanton Glacier is one that has been selected by the USGS for their Glacier Monitoring Program meaning that its mass balance is continuously recorded. Mass balance refers to the difference between accumulation and ablation (a fancy term for surface shrinkage). Variation in the mass balance of a glacier is the best indicator of glacial behavior for researchers. A glacier with a negative balance retreats, and one with a positive mass balance will advance. Between 1980 and 2012 the worldwide average of glacial mass balance was -16 meters, with 23 consecutive years of negative balances. Looking down on Stanton Glacier knowing that it has had a lot of negative mass balance years, and then looking up and see a smoke filled sky as what appeared to be all of Montana burned, we felt fortunate to be able to get out and see these incredible things while they still exist.

Looking down the ridge we came up
After having to use our hands to scramble up one section we topped out on the peak of Great Northern. From here we could look down the impressive ridgeline that forms the western rampart of the Great Bear Wilderness. On a clear day we'd be able to see hundreds of peaks in Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, the Swans, and a number of ranges to the West. This day though our views were limited so we turned our gaze closer. I have found that the silver (or hazy) lining to a smoky day is that I tend to notice more what's close to me. I see more flowers, rock formations, and goat herds. Instead of appreciating Great Northern as one of hundreds of mountains on the horizon, we could appreciate Great Northern for it's own impressive qualities.

We took our time on the summit. It was warm and less smoky than down at the car. We had the time to dawdle and enjoy being up high, feeling close to the sun. So we did. Plus our legs were tired and we weren't exactly looking forward to 5,000 feet of descending. Eventually though we turned our backs on Great Northern and dropped back to the car in time to find our next campsite.