One of the more challenging destinations in the Many Glacier area of Glacier National Park is Ptarmigan Tunnel. It’s slightly more than 5 miles, one way, to the tunnel, making this a challenging most-of-the-day hike. During my visit, the bridge just below Ptarmigan Falls had washed out, and hiking on up to the tunnel was not possible. So, I made Ptarmigan Falls my destination — a 5-mile round-trip.
I had already done quite a bit of hiking during my day at Many Glacier, but I wasn’t ready to call it quits for the day. So, I set an ambitious goal: to hike to Ptarmigan Falls. Since the trail was closed at the falls, I wouldn’t be tempted to go any further. A five-mile round-trip, though, would still be a challenge.
The trail started with a warning: at the falls, the bridge was out. Anyone hiking the trail had to pass underneath the rope. There’s no way to say you didn’t see that sign.
The first quarter-mile of the Ptarmigan Falls Trail was so challenging, I almost gave up. The day’s earlier hikes had sapped my energy, and I didn’t have enough leg-power to handle a trail that was uphill all the way. Fortunately, I quickly discovered that this trail is only steep at the start. Once you’ve quickly gained some elevation, it becomes less challenging. You’ll still be gaining elevation for the rest of the trip, but it’s a gentle grade, once that starting slope is finished.
This is the great part of this trail. With the steep climb behind you, you head towards the mountain, on a path that cuts across the slope at the foot of Apikuni Mountain (on your right, elevation 9,068 feet/2,764 meters). Looking forward is somewhat shady during the evening hours…
… while the real treat is behind you. Late afternoon sun shines on the mountains to the east, towards the entrance to the Many Glacier valley. This view will get even better on the return trip.
Much like the Grinnell Glacier Trail, which I hiked earlier in the day, there are numerous small streams that flow over the trail. You’ll hike past one tiny waterfall after another. None of them create a challenge to cross.
As you look towards the southwest, you’re looking at the Garden Wall — the dramatic, glacier-carved cliffs that mark the Continental Divide.
Our trail continues forward…
… with an occasional patch of wildflowers along the way. I was visiting in late June, which was a good time for wildflowers, but probably a few weeks early for the best of them.
Look straight up on your right-hand side, and you’ll see that the water in this waterfall has to make a long journey!
Patches of red rock add some color to the trail…
… especially when they are combined with a waterfall.
All of the waterfalls along this trail (and my desire to photograph them all!) made this trail take a lot longer than it would have, otherwise.
Once you reach this curve, you’re almost there!
Ptarmigan Falls is an impressive waterfall, but unfortunately it’s difficult to photograph. From the trail, it’s slightly around a curve, and there are trees blocking the view. Getting any closer would be difficult and dangerous.
The best view of the falls is at the brink of the falls. You can (relatively safely) climb out onto this rock for a photo.
Beyond the falls…
… you will soon reach the damaged bridge. As of June, 2014, this was effectively the end of the trail (although I did see some hikers on the other side — they must have found a place to cross the creek, although I doubt it was a safe thing to do). The bridge will probably be repaired by the time you read this, but I’d still suggest you check with park rangers.
I’m not exactly sure what happened to the bridge. It looked cut-off, not washed-out.
Just above the bridge, there are more little cascades that you may enjoy photographing.
The good news is, I didn’t see any bears. The better news is, this is the back of the ‘bridge out’ sign. It wasn’t posted as a bear warning. But, it still allowed me to freak-out some friends at home.
Since this is an out-and-back trail, you return to the trailhead on the same trail.
In late June, the sun doesn’t set at this latitude until around 9 p.m., and it doesn’t get dark until well after 10. So, I had plenty of time to enjoy the waterfalls on my return hike.
A few rain clouds were threatening me on the way back. I alternated between stowing my camera gear when it sprinkled, and pulling it out when the drizzle subsided.
The Grinnell Glacier Trail is located on the other side of that ridge. From that trail, you have even better views of the Garden Wall area.
I was worried that these clouds and occasional showers would spoil the final hours of the day. Instead, this was the set-up for a remarkably beautiful drive back to my cabin in East Glacier Park Village.
The rainbow-colored rocks in Glacier National Park make the waterfalls even more special!
Just before finishing the trail (shortly before reaching that steep section), a break in the clouds lit-up the surrounding mountains. I’m fairly certain this is Mount Grinnell, the prominent peak at the center of the valley (although from the trail, you’re seeing it from a much different angle than you would from the road).
I would have loved to have stayed here for sunset, but the drive south on US 89 was even more beautiful!
The Bottom Line
I would love to hike this trail again, on a day when the entire trail is open, and I could climb all the way up to Ptarmigan Tunnel. But, for a half-day hike, the walk up to Ptarmigan Falls provided a very nice experience.
If you have to choose just one trail in Many Glacier, I would recommend the Grinnell Glacier Trail. But, if you have time for two, Ptarmigan Falls is a good choice. And if the trail is open all the way to Ptarmigan Tunnel, I’d strongly consider it over Grinnell.
Trails to Ptarmigan Falls, Ptarmigan Tunnel, and Iceberg Lake begin at a trailhead located behind the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn (which is located at the end of the road into the Many Glacier area of Glacier National Park).
Ptarmigan Falls is 2.5 miles, one way. Just after the falls, the trail splits, and it’s another 2.4 miles to Iceberg Lake, or 2.8 miles to Ptarmigan Tunnel.
If your destination is Ptarmigan Tunnel, it’s wise to check with park rangers to make sure the tunnel doors are open.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive into Many Glacier…
…and out of Many Glacier: