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||>|| Belly River Trail
Includes Belly River Ranger Station, Helen Lake Trail,
Cosley Lake Cutoff Trail, Elizabeth Lake, Helen Lake
Trailhead: Chief Mountain Customs
Distance: 13.6 Miles to Helen Lake Campground (one way)
Elevation Gain: 475 feet
Elevation Loss: 741 feet
(See Trail Map at Bottom of Page)
The Belly River Trail in Glacier National Park takes you into the remote Belly River Valley, which is an extremely scenic region of Glacier Park. This 13.6 mile trail is a "one way" trail, therefore you will have to do
some back-tracking. The highlights of the Belly River Trail are Elizabeth Lake and Helen Lake, as well as the incredible mountainous scenery the entire way.
A nice feature of the Belly River Trail is there is not a lot of elevation gain or loss, which makes it ideal for overnight backpacking when you're not in the mood for a big mountain pass to hike over... that is if you decide to simply return the way you came. The trail drops 741 feet in the first few miles, then the rest of your hike into the Belly River Valley is relatively level.
The Belly River Trail is a good choice for an early summer multi-day Glacier Park hiking adventure because the snow leaves this low elevation valley quite early... even possibly by mid to late June.
To exit the Belly River Valley, overnight backpackers can end up doing a little back tracking and then hiking up nearly 2,000 vertical feet to Ptarmigan Tunnel and then ending their hike at Many Glacier.
Or backpackers can back track along the Belly River Trail to their car that's parked at the Chief Mountain Customs Trailhead parking lot.
The Belly River Trail is also used to gain access to the Stoney Indian Pass Trail, which is one of our "Favorite Multi-Day Hikes" in Glacier National Park.
Finding The Trailhead
The Chief Mountain Customs Trailhead is located along the Chief Mountain International Peace Parkway in the northeast corner of Glacier National Park, about 100 yards before the U.S.- Canadian Border Crossing. There is a large parking lot to your left just as the Border Crossing comes into view.
Chief Mountain Customs Trailhead (mile 0.0)
The Belly River Trail descends quite abruptly for the first 2 miles of your Belly River Trail hike in Glacier National Park (741 vertical feet), as it works you through a mixed pine and aspen forest. Be careful if the trail is wet due to a recent rain storm because it can become very slick.
Belly River Valley Floor (mile 2.0)
After dropping 741 vertical feet in the first two miles of your Belly River Trail hiking adventure in Glacier National Park, the trail finally reaches the Belly River Valley floor, thus leveling out so as to make for a more enjoyable hike with an overnight pack on your back. You will hike through open meadows and groves of aspens, as well as pine trees as the trail turns to the southwest.
Gable Creek Campground (mile 5.8)
About 3.8 miles southwest from where the trail reached the Belly River Valley floor, you will encounter the Gable Creek Campground. This backcountry campground is popular for those hikers who stayed the night at Slide Lake and hiked up and over Gable Pass to enter the Belly River Valley (see photo below).
This is a view from the south slope of Bear Mountain of the trail system near the Belly River Ranger Station in Glacier National Park.
Stoney Indian Pass Trail Junction (mile 6.0)
Approximately 2.2 miles south of the Gable Creek Campground in Glacier National Park, you will reach the Stoney Indian Pass Trail junction. Stay left to continue onward along the Belly River Trail. You can't help but notice the towering Gable Mountain complex to your left (east), as well as Chief Mountain further to the northeast (see photo above).
Belly River Ranger Station (mile 6.1)
Belly River Ranger Station in Glacier National Park.
This is a view of the Belly River Ranger Station from the Stoney Indian Pass Trail in Glacier National Park.
Only about a tenth of a mile from the Stoney Indian Pass Trail junction, you will cross a wooden fence and enter the large open meadow where the Belly River Ranger Station is located. You will also see the Gable Pass Trail junction near the station. Stay right (straight) to continue on your Belly River Trail hiking adventure in Glacier National Park. The Belly River Trail then takes you through a densely wooded, fairly level section of the trail.
Shannon hiking along the Belly River Trail in the wide open meadow near the Belly River Ranger Station in Glacier National Park.
Cosley Lake Cutoff Trail Junction (mile 7.6)
In about 1.5 miles, you will then encounter the Cosley Lake Cutoff Trail junction. This cutoff trail is for hikers coming from Elizabeth Lake (probably from the Ptarmigan Trail starting at Many Glacier), and are heading for the Mokowanis River Valley (Stoney Indian Pass Trail). The Cosley Lake Cutoff Trail requires a Mokowanis River ford just before it reaches the Stoney Indian Pass Trail. This is a wide ford, and there is a cable that crosses the river here for backpackers to hold onto to while they cross this large body of water (see photo below).
This photo from the south slope of Bear Mountain shows you the Belly River Valley trail system, as well as the beginning of the trail into the Mokowanis River Valley (Stoney Indian Pass Trail). Note the Cosley Lake Cutoff Trail junction along the Belly River Trail.
Belly River Valley, Glacier National Park.
Of course stay left (straight) at the Cosley Lake Cutoff Trail junction to continue on the Belly River Trail, and it eventually crosses the Belly River to the west bank on a well built suspension bridge. Just after this river crossing you will encounter the short spur trail to Dawn Mist Falls at mile 8.1.
Elizabeth Lake and Elizabeth Lake (Foot) Campground (mile 9.3)
After hiking up the Belly River Valley through a wonderful pine forest for 1.7 miles from the Cosley Lake Cutoff Trail junction, you will reach the foot of Elizabeth Lake along the Belly River Trail in Glacier National Park. The Elizabeth Lake (Foot) Campground is located here, as well as the Ptarmigan-Red Gap Pass Trail junction (see photo below).
This is a view of the Elizabeth Lake Area in the Belly River Valley of Glacier National Park.
Ptarmigan-Red Gap Pass Trail Junction (mile 9.3)
The Ptarmigan-Red Gap Pass Trail is used by hikers who are coming from the Red Gap Pass Trail (via Poia Lake) and are planning on spending the night at the foot of Elizabeth Lake before they once again take this trail back up until reaching the Ptarmigan Trail junction. From there they will hike through the Ptarmigan Tunnel and end up back at Many Glacier, thus completely the Red Gap Pass Trail - Ptarmigan Trail "Loop". The Ptarmigan-Red Gap Pass Trail is also used by hikers coming directly from Many Glacier, and who have hiked through the Ptarmigan Tunnel via the Ptarmigan Trail, and are either heading up the Belly River Valley to Helen Lake, or are on their way to the Mokowanis River Valley, which is where the Stoney Indian Pass Trail is located (see photo above).
At the Elizabeth Lake (Foot) Campground, the Belly River Trail becomes the Helen Lake Trail, as it wraps around the foot of Elizabeth Lake and follows the west shore of Elizabeth Lake all the way to the lake's head. From this vantage point, you will get a great view of the bright red Seward Mountain and the Red Gap Pass area above you to the east.
A view of Helen Lake Trail from the Ptarmigan Tunnel in Glacier National Park.
Elizabeth Lake (Head) Campground (mile 10.9)
After hiking along the west shore of Elizabeth Lake for 1.5 miles, where Natoas Peak looms high above you to the west, you will then reach the Elizabeth Lake (Head) Campground. From there, the Helen Lake Trail begins to climb slightly as it works its way to Helen Lake. After the trail crosses a large creek that comes down from Ipasha Glacier and Old Sun Glacier, you will get a glimpse of the gigantic Mount Merritt to the west (right), which is one of the tallest peaks in Glacier National Park. You will see the famous Old Sun Glacier as well, resting on the east face of Mount Merritt. To the east (left), the ominous looking Ptarmigan Wall (a.k.a. Pinnacle Wall) dominates the view.
A view of the Helen Lake Trail and Helen Lake in the Belly River Valley of Glacier National Park.
Helen Lake and Helen Lake Campground (mile 13.6)
About 2.7 miles from the head of Elizabeth Lake in Glacier National Park, you will finally reach Helen Lake, which marks the end of the Helen Lake Trail. From this point you can see the incredible east face of Ahern Mountain beyond the head of the lake, as well as the magnificent Ptarmigan Wall to the east. You will also get a glimpse of Ahern Glacier high above you to the west, as well as Ahern Pass that is located along the Northern Highline Trail.
Helen Lake as viewed from Ahern Pass in Glacier National Park.
A view of Helen Lake from the summit of Ahern Peak in Glacier National Park.
Once you enjoy your time at Helen Lake in Glacier National Park, you now have the choice of either back tracking all the way back through the Belly River Valley to your vehicle that's parked at the Chief Mountain Customs Trailhead parking lot, or back tracking to the Ptarmigan-Red Gap Pass Trail junction at the foot of Elizabeth Lake, and then hiking the Ptarmigan Trail through the Ptarmigan Tunnel, and ending up at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn parking lot at Many Glacier.
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