Kids’ hike to Iceberg Lake

There’s good reason Iceberg Lake in Many Glacier is one of the most popular trails in Glacier National Park. With exceptional scenery, including a phenomenal wildflower display, it’s one of those trails that beckons you to keep going.

As part our of homeschool group’s Nature Club, we set up a hike for the weekend so more of the fathers could join us, ending up with 22 people, including 9 kids and a baby in a backpack. Moving this many takes more time than smaller groups, so we officially hit the trail by 11:30 a.m. enjoying absolutely perfect temperatures and bluebird skies. The kids led the way taking turns up front, stopping occasionally to allow the group to gather together, along with shedding the extra people who basically were caught up within our hiking train.

We had quite the line of hikers.

At 9.7 miles gaining 1275 ft. in elevation along the way, Iceberg is considered a moderate hike. The first quarter mile is a bit of a pull, but if you take it slow (especially with children) it’s simply a good warm up. From there it’s more rolling terrain that you barely notice being too busy looking at the outstanding beauty. Snow still hangs in the mountains above the green, lush valleys filled with flowers of all colors.

Flowers lined the trail.

Beargrass dominated the scene this year with a display we only enjoy every 5 to 7 years highlighting the cycle for each individual plant. Huge swaths poured down the hillsides, and the air smelled mildly sweet from all of the blooms.

Each beargrass plant blooms once every 5 to 7 years.

Not to be outdone, the bright orange Indian paintbrush put on quite the show in several areas, along with sticky geranium, mariposa lily, purple phacelia, valerian, thimbleberries, pink spirea, and the bright yellow cinquefoil. And where water was present in several areas, the ornate white bog orchids thrived along the side. Since many people consider orchids a purely tropical species, they’re surprised to learn that Glacier boasts 22 species of native orchids within its borders. This is just one of the beautiful example of these hardy and adaptive plants.

White bog orchid
Thimbleberry, spirea, and valerian
Indian paintbrush, cinquefoil, balsamroot, mariposa lily

Since we hit the trail so late, it was a less than an hour before we stopped for lunch. Everyone was hungry, and the break allowed kids to chat and my husband to glass the slopes for mountain goats. Throughout the day he spotted well over 2 dozen on the mountains around us.

Looking for mountain goats

At roughly the 2.5 mile mark, Ptarmigan Falls is a popular place to rest and sometimes turnaround. But it was such a beautiful day that it didn’t seem nearly long enough to be out, and we continued down the trail to see if we could find snow. At another point past the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail junction (which was closed because of a carcass on the trail, plus the tunnel is weeks away from being opened) we considered heading back once again because impending rain looked to dampen our excursion. We had no problems with bears, even though we found distinct evidence of their past presence, and after enduring a brief storm with very big rain drops pelting us, we continued up the trail in search of snow.

Bear sign (albeit old) was pretty obvious
The sign at Ptarmigan Tunnel Junction

Constant reports from hikers returning from Iceberg encouraged us forward, and heck, once you’re within a mile how can you turn back? Plus, the kids were going full steam, especially when we started running into the snow fields and avalanche chutes. Each one meant a new snowball fight, and as we were in total snow closer to the lake, they more resembled otters trying to cross the slick footing. The big game was who could remain upright. I joked with my friend that we traveled back in time during this hike. We started out in spring with beargrass and thimbleberries in bloom. Gradually we ran into glacier lilies, one of the flowers that bloom shortly after the snow melts, and eventually, we stepped back into winter.

Glacier lilies
The first avalanche chute
The kids loved the snow

Sam gave us a short report of the hike. It would have been longer except for a few technical glitches.

Iceberg Lake wore ice over 90 percent of its surface, and one of the kids learned how cold it was when he fell in up past his knees. Wearing jeans, he was chilled until they dried out on the way back. There were no brave hikers diving in that day like they do in the summer when icebergs on a hot afternoon are hard to resist.

Intrepid explorers at Iceberg Lake

As a lark, Sam and I put the GoPro under the water to gain a bit of perspective of the environment below the ice.

Since the boys were running out of water in their Camelbacks, we gave the new Katadyn BeFree water filtration bottle a try. So far we’re giving it a big thumbs up. The bottle section is soft, squishable, and lightweight making it easy to shove into the pack just to use for this purpose. It was easy to fill up the bottle, screw on the filtering cap, then carrying it to sip on along the way being able to refill at waterfalls and streams. It’s kind of difficult to keep in the bottle holders on the side of the backpack, but as long as you understand that, it’s a terrific way to have clean, cold water along the hike. And water from Iceberg Lake was delicious.

Giving the Katadyn BeFree a try

The return hike took on a brisker pace with few stops, except for potty breaks and to take pictures along the way, in an attempt to make it back to the car at a reasonable time since we had a 3-hour 15-minute drive ahead of us back to Great Falls. We were back at the trailhead within 2 hours and 20 minutes giving us enough wiggle room to swing into the camp store at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn for a few snacks to be on the road at 7 p.m.  Instead of the leftover roast beef waiting at home, dinner consisted of Wheat Thins, yogurt, cheese, salami, and potato chips. Not exactly the healthiest fare, but it hit the spot with this hungry crew.

Climbing the snow field above the lake
Hiking back

While going all the way to the lake wasn’t the original plan, I’m glad we did. The kids did phenomenally well, enjoying each other’s company and the ample snow for ammo. Sam already wants to return when the ice is gone and the icebergs decorate the water, so we’ll have to make that happen before the season is over.

A beautiful hike at any time of the season

Hiking Tower Rock

A few months ago my friend Katrina and I decided to create a Nature Club as part of our homeschool group. Our initial inspiration was the field sketch work of John Muir Laws, and while we do like to bring along the sketch books to be able to sit for a moment and draw what we see, not every outdoor adventure is conducive to it.  Tower Rock was one of them.  We’ve been itching to get back out on the trail this winter, yet after several cancelled trips due to extreme weather (we’re tough, but I below zero with single digit wind chill is a bit much) it was good to finally have a semi-decent day. Tower Rock is an ideal winter hike since the trail is short (less than 1/2 mile one way) and would be easy enough to scramble back to the car. 

This is what Nature Club is all about.

And besides being outdoors, hiking this distinct landscape with the black rocks jutting out of the rolling landscape as the prairie rolls up to the Missouri River in this region are where the Lewis and Clark expedition members gained their first glimpse of this completely unknown territory. From what I understand, they at least had some concept of the territory traversing the plains since it was similar to that in the Dakotas, but once they reached this area, they were witnessing a landscape like they’d never seen. They followed a native trail to the top of Tower Rock to gain  a better perspective, and Lewis wrote:

a large rock of 400 feet high wich stands immediately in the gap which the missouri makes on it’s passage from the mountains by a handsome little plain which surrounds it base on 3 sides and the Missouri washes it’s base on the other, leaving it on the Lard. as it descends. this rock I called the tower. it may be ascended with some difficulty nearly to its summit, and from there is a most pleasing view of the country we are now about to leave. from it I saw this evening immense herds of buffaloe in the plains below. (Moulton 1987, 4: 387)

 

Where the trail ends and the climbing begins

For us, Tower Rock is part of the Montana State Park system, and is easy to find from Great Falls being located 10 miles past Cascade at exit 247. Although a county dumpsite is located right next to the parking area, the trailhead is pleasant and easy to find. Eleven kids with moms started the easy trail through the prairie landscape gradually climbing up the volcanic remnants. Every time we drive past this area, I look to see possible routes to the top, and at one point, I suggested we try a side trail. After a mad scramble on steeper-than-it-looked grass and rocks, we decided that was a bad choice and turned around. We followed the established trail to the sign where it said it ended, then continued farther to the base of Tower Rock. The last part was a steep haul, and a couple of additional students with their mom joined us by the time we reached the top. 

Once we were as high as we were going to go, since climbing the actual rock is best accomplished with ropes and a helmet, our main objective was keeping the kids from falling over the cliffs. I understand it’s a fabulous view from up there, but it gave every mother a heart attack as the kids all seemingly wanted to be way to close to the edge. 

Snow, actually more of a grauple, started while we were close to the top, and stung our faces on the walk down. But the kids were troopers and I don’t think there was much for complaining. They liked seeing the mule deer bedded down in the brush on either side of the trail, and simply had a good time being outdoors.

It’s nice to have the flexibility to take our education outdoors where the kids can not only burn off energy, they can examine the nuances of the natural world, and even walk in the footsteps of history. Tower Rock was a good kick off to this season’s hikes with many more adventures in the near future.

Tower Rock in the background as we head back to the vehicles.