Glacier National Park: A Tale of Two Waterfalls, or Into the Woods

Deadwood Falls

On Saturday, August 4, we decided to do the wooded hike to Florence Falls, 4.6 miles from the trailhead at Jackson Glacier Overlook on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Our hikes the previous two days had been up in the alpine heights, and the following day we’d be hiking to a glacier, so a hike through a valley to a waterfall was perfect for seeing another side of Glacier National Park.

Florence Falls

Since we were unconcerned about finding parking at the trailhead, we slept in until 8am.

And we took our time over breakfast at the Glacier Perk coffee shop at the St. Mary Lodge. We took over a sofa and some chairs in the lobby dining room and sat chatting about privilege and playing a slow game of musical chairs as we each went and visited the restroom.

Then we were headed back up the Going-to-the-Sun Road. I drove again for the legroom. Plus not only were we not going to the crazy part of the road, we weren’t even going all the way to Logan Pass.

As we rose up the side of Going-to-the-Sun Mountain, I had to be careful of senior citizens powering uphill on tandem bikes. They were hardcore.

We set out at 9:45am. 

The first portion of our route was a fairly steady 1.3-mile descent on Piegan Pass Trail on the lower flank of Going-to-the-Sun Mountain. We dropped from the road to the valley drained by the Saint Mary River.

Red Elderberry

Streambank Globemallow

Thimbleberry

Little Chief Mountain (left) and Dusty Star Mountain

Image: Sean M. Santos

Falsegold Groundsel

The trail was heavily wooded with a thick understory of ferns, shrubs, and wildflowers.

Solomon Berry

It grew warm, and we removed our jackets.

Deadwood Falls

Near the bottom of the trail, we reached a magical place, Deadwood Falls, where Reynolds Creek carves an undulating channel through the red rock of the Grinnell Formation. The formation consists of layers of sedimentary rock with a high iron oxide content, hence the striking red hue.

Deadwood Falls

Deadwood Falls

Deadwood Falls

Deadwood Falls

Deadwood Falls

Deadwood Falls

Video: Sean M. Santos

Little Chief Mountain

Deadwood Falls. Image: Angela Hayes

The spot was all the more magical because neither Angela nor Dan nor Barbara had said anything about it. Sean and I knew we were going to Florence Falls, but se were totally surprised by Deadwood Falls.

Deadwood Falls

Deadwood Falls

Image: Angela Hayes

Deadwood Falls

Reynolds Creek

Western Admiral Butterfly on Western Mountain Aster

Bumblebee on Western Mountain Aster

Reynolds Creek

Deadwood Falls

Yellow-Rumped Warbler (Audubon’s)

Just below Deadwood Falls, we reached Gunsight Pass Trail, which headed southwest up the valley drained by the Saint Mary River between Dusty Star Mountain and Heavy Runner Mountain.

From here, it was a largely flat 2.7 miles to the junction to a spur trail to Florence Falls.

Reynolds Creek

But first, we had to cross Reynolds Creek on a rough-and-ready swinging bridge.

Reynolds Creek. Image: Angela Hayes

Reynolds Creek

Reynolds Creek

Reynolds Creek

Reynolds Creek

Immediately on the other side, we came upon Reynolds Creek Campground, consisting of a few sites for backpackers, a pit toilet, a food preparation area, and a post for hanging food.

We took a break and availed ourselves of the pit toilet.

Angela and Sean practiced ballet positions.

Then we continued on through the forest on the valley floor.

Black Elderberry

Alsike Clover

Harebell

Wandering Daisy

Citadel Mountain

Red Osier Dogwood

Lyall’s Angelica

Citadel Mountain

Eventually the sightlines opened up as we reached the Saint Mary River. From this point on, the trail followed the river on its north bank. We kept our eyes peeled for Moose, but saw none.

Citadel Mountain

Western Swamp Laurel

We also made a fair amount of noise. We were walking trhough shrubby patches of huckleberries and thimbleberries. Prime bear country (although it was warm and the middle of the day, so with any luck the bears wouldn’t be active). Whoever was in front was in charge of leading the clapping or call-and-response.

Pale Paintbrush

Dusty Star Mountain

Huckleberries. Image: Angela Hayes

We helped ourselves to the huckleberries as we hiked along. Visitors are welcome to eat berries, but not collect them.

Twin Bearberry

I kept lagging behind because I was taking photos, so the others slowed the pace a bit.

Florence Creek

Florence Creek

Even after slowing the pace, it only took us an hour and fifteen minutes to cover the 2.7 miles from the campground.

It was now 12:15pm, but we decided to go up and see the falls before we stopped for lunch.

The 0.6-mile spur trail to the falls climbed gently on the north side of Florence Creek between Reynolds Mountain and Fusillade Mountain.

Bumblebee on Sitka Mountain Ash

Florence Falls

Only about seven minutes up the trail, we could see the falls through the trees.

Yellow Columbine

Dusty Star Mountain

Fusillade Mountain

The final approach to the falls was so overgrown that it was hard to tell where the trail was. Angela was our leader, and she got us through. And also passed back warnings about stones on the trail so that we didn’t trip.

Florence Falls

Florence Creek drains a high valley between Fusillade and Reynolds Mountains and then washes down a steep cliff terraced by sedimentary rock. Once a side glacier from the higher valley must have met the much larger glacier descending from Gunsight Pass all the way down to the foothills at this point.

Florence Falls

Florence Falls

Florence Falls. Image: Angela Hayes

Florence Falls

Florence Falls

Florence Falls. Image: Sean M. Santos
Video: Sean M. Santos and Brandon Hayes

Florence Falls

Florence Falls

The others descended to the base of the falls, but I was content to stay up at the trail’s end.

Florence Falls

Florence Falls

Florence Falls. Image: Sean M. Santos

Florence Falls

Fusillade Mountain

Florence Creek

Florence Creek

As we started back down, we met a hiker heading up toward the falls. I think it’s fun when we get to have something to ourselves and then continue on so someone else can have the same experience.

Fireweed

Spreading Dogbane

Dusty Star Mountain (left) and Citadel Mountain (right)

Orange Agoseris

Blackfoot and Jackson Glaciers

We were high enough above the forest to see Blackfoot and Jackson Glaciers off in the distance. Blackfoot Glacier and the snowmelt around it are the source of the Saint Mary River.

Blackfoot Glacier

Red Osier Dogwood

Huckleberries. Image: Angela Hayes

Florence Creek

We ate lunch at a quarter after one along the banks of Florence Creek at the bottom of the spur trail, where a sturdy footbridge crossed the creek and continued Gunsight Pass Trail.

Florence Creek

Howell’s Fleabane

Bristlestem Hempnettle

Larmarca came out of my pack to see what there was to see.

Then it was time for the return hike.

Citadel Mountain

Police Car Moth on White Spiraea

Dusty Star Mountain and Saint Mary River

I took far fewer photos on the way back, so we moved at a pretty quick clip.

Dusty Star Mountain

Cedar Waxwing

Dusty Star Mountain

Dusty Star Mountain (left) and Citadel Mountain (right)

Dusty Star Mountain and Saint Mary River

Saint Mary River

Thimbleberry

We were getting pretty goofy near the end of the shrubby section on the valley floor. Any bears could have heard us coming a long way off as we carried on. At one point, Sean did his impression of Maya Rudolph doing Whitney Houston. I whistled “Mallard Island Hymn” from Ken Burns’ The National Parks.

Mirror Pond

Mariposa Copper on Pearly Pussytoes

Citadel Mountain and Dusty Star Mountain (foreground) with Saint Mary River

Dusty Star Mountain

Going-to-the-Sun Mountain and Reynolds Creek

And then we were back at the bridge.

Video: Sean M. Santos

Of course the final 1.3 miles was a fairly steady climb on tired legs. Particularly, the final few switchbacks were rough. Descending hikers encouraged us.

We were all wiped out when we reached the trailhead. No wonder, since we’d covered the four miles from our lunch spot and its steep conclusion in an hour and forty-five minutes.

In all it was a 9.2-mile round trip day hike to two waterfalls, lots of wildflowers, and views of mountains, streams, and glaciers in five hours, forty-five minutes with a stop for lunch.

We drove back to camp and then drove over to the showers since we were hot, sweaty, and tired.

After we were all freshly scrubbed, we drove over to St. Mary for dinner at the Snowgoose Restaurant in the lodge. It was partly to celebrate our trip and partly to celebrate Angela’s birthday, which was the next day.

We had gooseberry-laced cocktails and charcuterie on a board shaped like Montana. It was an all-around feast. Our entrees were osso bucco, ribs, bison meatloaf, bison stroganoff, and lamb chops.

Sean and Dan noticed that a some boy at an adjacent table had a red “Fake News” hat, probably not ironically.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Happier sights were out the window, though. A minivan full of a family drove up and parked outside. To Sean’s immense delight a great big Newfoundland dog bounded out of the van and literally frolicked in the grass.

Sean was extremely excited because he would like to have a Newfoundland named Doug the Dog. It’s a whole thing that he thinks he has to convince me by making me think that Doug is a Hermit Crab. But if we found a place to live that was more appropriate for a large dog than a third-floor walk up in a building that doesn’t allow dogs, I’d be fine adopting a Newfie.

“Cultural Appropriation Pam?” Image: Sean M. Santos

After dinner, we checked out the wares in the gift shop one last time.

Chipping Sparrow

Back in camp, it was still fairly early, and Angela and I went for a twilight walk to see if we could spot a moose. They had seen one in the campground earlier in the trip.

Common Nighthawk

While we didn’t see moose, we did stand and watch a nighthawk swirling and hunting on the fly. We have nighthawks in our neighborhood back in Chicago, and I love hearing their screams at dusk and dawn. It’s a bit of wild in the city.

Cedar Waxwing

Saint Mary River

Western Canada Goldenrod

Wild Bergamot

East Flattop Mountain and Silver Sagebrush

As we circled back to the campground, we watched an NPS ranger make a traffic stop.

East Flattop Mountain and Saint Mary River

Back with the others, it was time for that evening’s campfire and conversation before bed.

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