Twig Adventures

PNT Day 30: Ptarmigan Tunnel Bonus GNP Day

Saturday July 30th, 2022, 0700-1200
Gable Creek Camp to Many Glacier via Ptarmigan Tunnel trail (then onto East Glacier for the Flop!), WEBO mm 0 alternate finish, Section 1 Rocky Mountains
14 miles, Gain 2630′, Loss 2530′, elevation 4500′

I could spend all summer just hiking around Glacier, it’s so special. It really makes me wonder sometimes why I’m walking hundreds of miles on roads in the middle of nowhere, in 100 degree heat, to complete the PNT. Today was a bonus hike I’d built into my schedule, just because. I’d actually hoped to do more hiking around Glacier but it was already almost August and I still had half the PNT waiting. One day was about all I could spare. Really it wasn’t even a bonus day since I would’ve needed to hike the miles to Chief Mountain anyway. Instead, I was hiking a few extra miles south to Many Glacier via the Ptarmigan tunnel… perhaps the most famous hike in the park.

The 240′ long tunnel was built in the 1930s by the CCC. It was made strictly for tourists and pack animals, connecting the Many Glacier and Belly River valleys. It was still closed for the winter when I hiked south on the CDT during my first visit to GNP. The route holds snow until pretty late and the deeply cut switchbacks are dangerous if obscured, so generally it doesn’t open until mid-July.  I’d hit it perfectly this time, with snow still dotting the landscape, the waterfalls pumping, and wildflowers everywhere. The lead up to the tunnel was glorious, with views into several valleys and down to numerous lakes. It was many miles of open alpine bliss.

I had breakfast at the meal prep area with Wolverine and Purple, a PNT WEBO that was starting his first full day. They knew each other from the CDT and he sounded pretty experienced. Overnight, I’d heard the ranger horses whinnying and galloping through the nearby field. I wondered what might be bothering them in the middle of the night… grizzlies, wolves, cougars? Probably just mosquitoes. Or perhaps just feeling frisky. As I was having breakfast, I did hear wolves howling…3rd time this year. Later, as I walked through the field, 2 horse and 1 mule greeted me. It seemed like they were some lucky beasts of burden to live in a field with such gorgeous views and bountiful grass. But I also noticed many scabs and rubbed-raw skin on their faces and necks, no doubt from all the bug bites. Poor things. I gave each a good scratch behind the ears, which in the case of the mule, was significant. I’d have gone insane by now without the refuge of my tent and clothing.

I haven’t gotten many pettings on this hike…mostly dogs, horses, and a few kittens.

I also spotted a bighorn sheep ram down by the river. I held the high ground, which is not a position bighorns like to be in. He quickly ran away. Other bighorns I’d seen in the park before had completely ignored me.  Besides the black bears the day prior, the wolves howling, the horses, and some marmots, this was the extent of my animal encounters in GNP this time around. Kind of disappointing. Still no grizzlies that I’ve ever seen.

The highlight of the day was definitely the tunnel…or rather the trail leading up to it on either side. I love when I can see a trail spanning ridges and switchbacks miles ahead of me and this was one of those classics. In fact, I could see the deep cuts of the terraced trail across the face of the arete for over an hour. As I approached, I went back and forth in believing that the cut could be the actual trail. I knew it wasn’t a natural cut but from far away, the rock face looked way to steep to be able to hold a trail. The anticipation of finding out the truth of the matter made the experience so interesting. I just couldn’t wait to hike ahead and see what unfolded. Thank goodness I didn’t see any other hikers traveling along the traverse because it would have ruined the suspense.

I love playing the game “where does this trail go?”
The deep cut of the trail goes across the rock face and disappears on the right side, into the tunnel.

Of course the cut was the trail. I have to admit, I was nervous that it was going to be steep and sketchy…even after all the rock scrambling I’ve done. How could one of the most touristy trails in the park be so dangerous? It was not. Once I was on it, I realized just how wide it was. There was also a rock wall built along the edge. One would have to be really unlucky to fall off the cliff (though I later read a tragic story about a woman that did just that when her horse spooked and pushed her off.. horses are dangerous!). On a beautiful mid-summer day, the trail was spectacular. And very easy.

The tunnel itself was nothing special but I did have it all to myself. On the north side, I’d only met one couple, who were perfectly situated to take my picture. As I came through the tunnel and looked down at the switchbacks below, I was surprised to see a train of people coming up. Apparently I’d hit it perfectly, avoiding the morning crowds that were just about to arrive at the top. It was kind of amazing to see so many hikers. For the previous 600 miles, I’d barely seen any, even in other parts of GNP. Now I’d entered a NYC sidewalk, it seemed like. It made sense, this being one of the most popular trails in the park and a fabulous summer weekend.

The sweeping switchbacks leading into the basin beckoned me. It would be so much fun to blast down such perfectly manicured trails, using the groups of people as obstacles to jump over. No, I didn’t do this but rather stopped for them to go by (uphill has right of way). But I did run in between the groups to make up for lost time (I had to stop a whole lot!). It was fun to people watch for miles on end and at least the trail was wide enough in places to be able to pass without stopping. I ran into some volunteer rangers who were hiking up. They were very friendly and made a comment about how I must have gotten an early start. I told them not really and that I’d come from the other side, already having gone about 10 miles. They didn’t believe me when I told them which campsite I’d started from or that my pack was large enough to be anything other than a day pack. I happily whipped out my permit to show them (even if it was my last day and technically I no longer needed to demonstrate a permit). This settled things and they wished me well. It’s good to play by the rules.

I probably dodged about 200 people on the way down. It was like being back on the AT in the Whites. I arrived at the commercial campground just shy of noon, perfect timing for a quick bite at the concessionaire. Prices were high, as expected, so I had a simple grilled cheese sandwich with unlimited refills on a coke. It was very hot outside, so I gulped down unspeakable amounts of caffeinated sugar water. This got me plenty amped up for the hitching endeavors of my big Flop (second part of the Flip), which were about to commence. I needed to get to East Glacier, which was probably close to 70 miles to the south. But I had high hopes, even if I was in one of the most touristy places on the planet. Well, it took a whole minute as the second car to come by stopped to pick me up.

The driver was a wonderful lady from France, Melody, living out of her van in Canada. We had shared passions for travel and would have made great companions, if only we weren’t going separate ways so soon. She drove me as far as the main north/south highway outside the park, as she had to turn north to head back into Canada. My second ride came minutes later from a nice Blackfoot couple, returning from the border after they were denied entry. They’d tried to visit a relative and didn’t know about all the new requirements to enter Canada (post-pandemic). It seemed like an injustice, since the Blackfoot nation spans both borders, and has done so long before there were borders. Politics and bureaucracy matters that I’ll just not go any further into here. They dropped me off at the junction to St Mary’s, since they were stopping to eat and shop. My 3rd ride was from another wonderful lady with an awesome husky dog, driving a Subaru Outback, of course. It’s become almost cliche, the types of people and vehicles that always pick up hikers: 1. Beat-up pick-up truck, 2. Subaru Outback, 3. VW bus or more modern Van-lifer. I’m still waiting for a hitch from a Tesla or BMW…

I will also add that I’m writing this almost 2 weeks later and regret that I neglected to write all these nice people’s names down at the moment, and thus my fallible brain cannot recall after so much time has passed. One of the best aspects of writing this blog is that it forces me to get people’s names…but only if I’m on top of things. The pace and remoteness of this hike has meant that I’ve fallen far behind and a lot of details have been lost. My apologies to all the kind souls that helped me along my way.

Anyway, this lady was so awesome, working as a field technician and biologist in eastern Oregon, near the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. I could tell we had so much in common, but alas, only an hour or so to share stories. She wasn’t quite going the way of my destination but delivered me straight to the hostel anyway. It was such a great day of hitching, as so many of my hitching experiences have been. I love that I get so many rides from women. I always joke that the dress/skirt gets me rides, but not in the way one would think. I’m guessing that it makes me more recognizable as a woman and hence, other women feel comfortable picking me up…or something like that.

I made it to East Glacier by 2:30 pm, with plenty of time to do some long overdue town chores. Skunkbear and Sashay arrived shortly after, followed by Wolverine. The couple had easily hitched all the way from Chief Mountain, while Wolverine, who had taken a longer hiking route over Red Gap pass, had scored one single ride all the way to EG. So actually, they’d all fared better than me. We reminisced and compared notes about our experiences in the park, all happy and in a celebratory mood. We stayed at the Looking Glass Basecamp, run by an adorable lady and tour de force, Luna (she was the one that went out of her way to help me get my boxes to Kalispell when I decided to flip). Her family used to run a restaurant but shortly grew tired of the difficulties of such an endeavor. So she opened the restaurant space as a crash pad for hikers in 2021. All my friends had stayed there when they finished the CDT, thus already knew Luna. Unfortunately she was gone for the day, on a rafting trip with her family. With so few thru-hikers coming in this time of year, the place kind of runs itself. We settled in and all went for dinner at the Mexican restaurant. I had an expensive, tiny and disappointing margarita to celebrate being halfway done. But hey, GNP had been a huge success and that’s what counts!

More of Skunkbear’s cute guest book doodles

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