Hiking to scenic Iceberg Lake and Ptarmigan Tunnel
in Glacier National Park, Montana
Iceberg Lake has got to be one of my favorite hikes in all of Glacier National Park. This little gem is neatly tucked away in a mountain cirque, causing it to not get much sunlight during the day. You will often see blocks of ice that have slid off of steep cliffs surrounding the lake, and they float in the water as little icebergs. Even on a summer day, you can sometimes see over a dozen ice chunks covering the glassy lake surface. It is one of the coolest and most unique scenes in the Park!
The hike is about a 9.5 mile round trip from the trailhead, climbing 1,400 ft in elevation, so be sure to give yourself plenty of time for this hike. When I did it, I also took the side trip to Ptarmigan Tunnel which shares the first 2.7 miles of the trail until it veers off to the left at the Ptarmigan junction. Both can be done in a day, but count on it being a full day and take a lunch that you can eat on the trail.
To get to the trailhead, follow the Many Glacier Road on the east side of the Glacier to the parking lot of the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. Drive through the parking lot just past the motor inn and you will find the trailhead to Iceberg Lake/Ptarmigan Tunnel.
The trail begins with a short steep climb that gradually tapers off to a gentle slope above the trees. You will quickly find yourself gawking at the breathtaking alpine scenery that Glacier is famous for--wide open meadows surrounded by glacially carved mountains teeming with wildflowers.
This will be grizzly bear country, so make plenty of noise, go with a group, and carry bear pepper spray. But this is also a popular trail, so you will probably be around a lot of other hikers, so you don't have to worry as much. I went as a solo hiker knowing there would be others, so I didn't feel too threatened by bears. Make sure to keep your eyes peeled for mountain goats, bighorn sheep, moose, and elk as well!
Eventually, you leave the meadows, enter the forest and you will come upon a nice area to eat a snack or lunch. Ptarmigan Falls is a popular spot to take a break, take off your shoes and splash your feet in the chilly water. The falls are obscured from view below you, but the cool water pools are a welcome respite from a hot day. You can also refill your water bottles here if you have a filter.
After about 2.7 miles of hiking, you will reach the Ptarmigan Tunnel/Pass junction. Here, you can decide if you want to continue to Iceberg Lake or, if you started early enough, you can take the side trip to Ptarmigan Tunnel--an amazing tunnel that was blasted through 200 feet of rock to allow passage to the other side of the Ptarmigan Wall. If you feel strong and have the time, I highly recommend it.
Once on the Ptarmigan trail, you will find yourself climbing a bit, but you can take a few breaks to search for wild huckleberries that grow along this section of trail and gaze in awe at one of the most striking wildflowers unique to Glacier--the beargrass. It is a tall white cluster of flowers growing like a cattail, and it can reach up to 6 feet tall. It is considered a lily, and it is one of the best natural foods for deer and other wild animals in the Park. When you see a meadow full of these wildflowers growing along the trail, they are quite striking and something you won't easily forget.
Once you reach Ptarmigan Lake after about 1.6 miles of hiking, you will see a few switchbacks climbing up to the tunnel above the lake. Head up to the entrance, and be prepared to be amazed at the sight you will see...
The Ptarmigan Tunnel is an impressive feature blasted from the pure rocky face of the Ptarmigan Wall, an impassible natural blockade that prevented any travelers from passing over to the other side. Early rangers decided to solve this by blowing up a 200 foot tunnel through the mountain, gaining entrance to Elizabeth Lake and the Belly River area. Both sides of this tunnel offer commanding views of the valleys, and on the Elizabeth Lake side the trail is literally carved out of the mountain.
Another fun fact about this tunnel: it is large enough to pass a horse and rider through!
With its gigantic steel doors literally fastened into the mountain, once can't help but think about the scene from the Hobbit where the heroes were at the entrance to the dwarf kingdom of the Lonely Mountain, and Gandalf had to speak the secret words to pass though. You won't need a password for this tunnel, as it is only locked before the snows fly in the winter, but it is fun to let your imagination run a bit wild. It's not every day you find a door in a mountain!
After enjoying a bit of downhill trekking on your way back to the Iceberg Lake Trail (and some huckleberry picking), you will start to gradually climb once again until you reach a bowl in the mountains. Here, the trail widens to reach an open meadow near the lake and often, it is brimming with wildflowers. You will especially notice the crimson splashes of Indian paintbrush growing abundantly in the meadows among the golden glacier lilies.
The trail eventually flattens out and you cross a short bridge to see the Iceberg Lake before you.
I was fortunate enough to get to the lake in the later afternoon, and I was the only one there! I had a few brief minutes of serenity near the lake shore before I got chilled and decided I had better get back before it got too dark. The blue green icebergs were memorizing to watch, and the overall scene was very peaceful and tranquil.
When you are finished with the trail, get yourself a bacon cheeseburger and draft beer at the cafe of the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn! It will never taste so good as after a memorable, beautiful hike in Glacier National Park, and it will be waiting for you at the trailhead!
Thank you for reading this walk through of Iceberg Lake and Ptarmigan Tunnel in Glacier National Park. If you are so inclined, feel free to leave the author a tip for this article and it will help him write about more hikes!