Saturday, September 26, 2015

Multiple waterfalls await on Glacier NP trail

Route leads to famous St. Mary and Virginia falls

With melting glaciers and high mountains, waterfalls can be found aplenty in Glacier National Park. You can enjoy one of the park’s most photographed falls on the Many Falls Trail.
Topo map for trail to St. Mary Falls (top) and Virginia Falls (bottom).
Click on maps for larger photo.

The 1.7-miles round trip offers a 260-foot change in elevation, which is moderate for this mountainous area. Due to heavy snowfall, the trail typically is only open June through mid-September.

To reach the trail, from the St. Mary Entrance Station take the Going-to-the-Sun Road about 10.6 miles to the St. Mary/Virginia Falls parking area. Parking can be an issue in summer during the peak tourism season, so you may want to consider taking a park shuttle to the trailhead.

Towering mountains
Start on the St. Mary Falls Cutoff Trail, heading through forest. That woods then opens up, allowing a great view of majestic mountains. Directly ahead on the trail is 8064-foot Dusty Star Mountain while to the south is 9541-foot Little Chief Mountain and 8922-foot Almost-a-Dog Mountain. Each summit looms nearly a half-mile above the trail.

After entering a dense conifer forest, the trail reaches the Many Falls Trail junction, about 0.25 miles from the trailhead. Turn right/southwest onto the trail and follow it to the next trail junction, which is where the Piegan Pass Trail begins. Veer left/south onto the Many Falls Trail.

In another 0.6 miles, the trail reaches the powder blue St. Mary River. The waterfall is another quarter mile ahead, but you'll still hear the falls' thundering water upon arriving at the river.

St. Mary Falls drops 35 feet over three tiers into a narrow gorge. Standing on the footbridge crossing the river, you'll feel a breeze rushing at you as the gorge walls trap the water-cooled air.

St. Mary Falls
American dippers often can be seen diving into the river near the falls while hunting for food. Also known as water ouzels, the stocky, dark grey bird feeds on insect larvae, dragonfly nymphs, crayfish and tadpoles.

A second, smaller falls sits just below the footbridge. But if you’ve got the energy, continue another 0.6 miles (an additional 1.2-miles round trip) to see the even more spectacular Virginia Falls. Tall and narrow, it drops 50 feet. Be aware, however, that sometimes the trail beyond St. Mary Falls closes due to bear activity.

Final note: Some literature refers to the route as the “St. Mary Falls Trail.”

Learn about other great national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.