A Day Hike on the 18-Mile Dawson-Pitamakan Pass in Glacier National Park
I have been wanting to do the Dawson-Pitamakan Pass Loop for a few years now. I had it planned for August 23rd of this year when friends were flying in from California. Unfortunately, the Thompson Fire shut down the trail at the end of August this year.
The trail has reopened and we had this weekend free and I decided to put out a plea on a hiking/climbing Facebook group to see if I could find anyone to come with me. Turns out it is hard to find people to hike 18 miles in one day! But I got ridiculously lucky — a man named Bryan responded to me and he was willing to drive and meet me the next day to do this hike. I was not only lucky to have someone to go with, I also lucked out because he is a great hiking partner. Enjoyable company for a long day hike!
This was one that my kids had to sit out. This was too far and would not have been safe to have them in the packs up on the trail. Of course, my husband would have loved to have joined me, but unfortunately someone had to stay at camp with our daughters, and he happily sent me on my way. They had a great day enjoying Two Medicine and playing in the lakes.
This hike is somewhere just under 18 miles if you don’t take the boat. The boat is no longer running this time of year, so I didn’t have an option. If you take the boat, it will cut off around 3 miles.
Bryan and I met at 7am and started off, deciding that we would head up Dawson Pass first. Friends had recommended to start up Pitamakan, but I think that Dawson ended up being the best choice. It is shorter on the Dawson side, making the elevation gain more in a shorter distance, but I love getting the “up” part done and knowing the rest will be downhill or fairly level.
Getting around Two Medicine Lake (about 3 miles) is quick and easy. The mountains on the east side of Glacier National Park turn a brilliant red in the morning sunlight.
Eventually you hit the turn where you will go right up to Dawson instead of left to Twin Falls and Upper Two Medicine Lake. The trail starts up for a short while, with beautiful views of the Pumpelly Pillar. You will be able to start to look back for some views of Two Medicine Lake as you climb.
The trail then levels out until you get to No Name Lake. Here we began to see tracks on the trail that looked like bear. Those disappeared after a bit and next we saw huge moose tracks and then there was a crash in the bushes. We come around another corner and there are two huge moose just off the trail staring at us. I was able to grab a few photos before he turned to look at me, so we continued along the trail.
Not long after the moose, there was a large pile of bear scat in the trail. The freshness and size of it didn’t make me feel great!
I recommend getting to No Name Lake in the early morning when the sun is still on the mountains above, before the sun moves and covers the lake in shade. We were lucky to get the perfect reflection on this lake. I only wish I had had my inflatable kayak to put on this incredible lake, so I could have gotten out in the sunlight for my photos.
From No Name Lake, you start heading up Dawson Pass. This begins in the trees, and then the last half or so is above the treeline and makes for amazing views behind you toward No Name Lake and Two Medicine Lake below. Here you can admire how far you have come already! Some parts of the trail had been dug up by a bear, and there were massive bear prints through a bit of snow right at the top.
As we were hiking up the pass, a girl hiking alone approached from behind. She quickly sped past me – I think her stride was twice as fast as mine! When we got to the top of the pass, she asked if she could stick with us for the rest of the day because of all of the bear sign that morning. We quickly welcomed her into our group, but she moved quickly (didn’t stop for as many photos as us), and she ended up only staying with us until Old Man Lake. She told me she did not own a smart phone — I think she is doing life right!
Reaching the top of Dawson Pass feels like reaching the top of the world. Here you look into what seems to be every peak in Glacier National Park. I wouldn’t turn around here though. I actually prefer the views at the Pitamakan Overlook and Cut Bank Pass to Dawson Pass.
You think you have reached the highest elevation when you get to Dawson Pass, and then you keep hiking and the trail leads you up a bit more. A few more switchbacks and then you drop down behind Flinsch Peak, and the next few miles will take you on a somewhat sketchy, level trail along the Continental Divide.
The views were interesting along this entire section this year thanks to the Thompson Fire. This fire burned most of the forest you view from the backside as you hike.
At one point you pop up and look down into Old Man Lake, but you have to continue along behind the peaks to get around to the other side of Old Man Lake and to Pitamakan Pass.
Eventually you reach what I have read is known as the Pitamakan Overlook. This outcropping of rock is just asking you to stop and enjoy lunch. Some of the best views are from this point, looking into two different valleys. Here we encountered a couple that told us there was snow along the next section of the trail.
Then you come out onto Upper Pitamakan Pass, that I refer to as Cut Bank Pass, which was super windy the day we were up there. Here you look down into the Cut Bank Valley, and you can see Pitamakan Pass just down from you. The trail splits, and you will want to head to your right and begin down toward Old Man Lake. Here and down begins the views of the breathtaking Pitamakan Lake, as well as Old Man Lake once you reach Pitamakan Pass.
I still think that Pitamakan Lake is prettier than Old Man Lake though. The colors! I couldn’t get enough.
From here you head down several switchbacks until you reach Old Man Lake, which requires a slight detour down the trail to get to the actual lake. I figure if you have come this far, you may as well swing in to see it up close. People hiking behind us even jumped in for a swim. It was freezing in September! I may have done it earlier in the summer. I will keep telling myself that anyway.
The hike out from here somewhat feels like the never-ending valley after having come this far. It was beautiful though, with beautiful red colors and open hillsides.
Bryan happened to look to his left at one point and we were lucky enough to see a beautiful grizzly bear and her two cubs. Her cubs were a gorgeous white/golden color, some of the prettiest I have ever seen. It reminded me just how large these creatures are, and I was glad they were far away, although I wished I could have gotten better photos of them. I did not have my zoom lens.
At that point, Bryan set his hiking poles down to take photos of the bears. We continued walking and he realized he had forgotten them. He turned around to get them, and I waited on the trail. As I was looking around (hoping no bear came along), I look up to see another black bear up on the hillside digging for food. Pretty fun to see 4 bears on this hike!
Just when you think the hike has to be almost done, you hit the sign that splits off to go down to the entrance station, or to go right to the campground. Since we were camping at Two Medicine, we turned right….and still had over two more miles to hike! I didn’t realize we still had that much left. Rising Wolf Mountain is larger than it appears. The trail is mostly flat here, except for one last section of uphill that is short but still not what you want to do after hiking this far! We did hike through some beautiful yellow trees here.
I am so thankful for Bryan for joining me for this incredible day on the Dawson-Pitamakan Pass Loop in Glacier National Park! Hopefully next time I can take my husband along!
Warm Wishes from Big Sky Country,
Alex M. Neill
Montana Vacation Blog