Includes Ptarmigan Falls, Ptarmigan Lake, Ptarmigan Tunnel
Ptarmigan Tunnel in Glacier National Park.
Trailhead: Swiftcurrent Motor Inn parking lot, Many Glacier Area
Distance: 5.1 miles to Ptarmigan Tunnel (one way)
Elevation Gain: 2,492 vertical feet (Ptarmigan Tunnel)
Elevation Loss: 2,520 vertical feet (Elizabeth Lake)
Includes Ptarmigan Falls, Ptarmigan Lake, Ptarmigan Tunnel
Ptarmigan Tunnel along the Ptarmigan Trail (a.k.a. Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail) is a very popular Glacier Park hike in the Many Glacier Area. The Ptarmigan Trail (which includes Ptarmigan Tunnel) is also a very popular entrance trail or exit trail for multi-day hikers entering or leaving the Belly River Area (which
includes Elizabeth Lake), as well as the exit trail for those multi-day hikers who are hiking the Red Gap Pass Trail (which includes Poia Lake and Red Gap Pass).
The Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail in Glacier National Park climbs 2,492 vertical feet as it takes you through Ptarmigan Tunnel, which is at an elevation of 7,200 feet above sea level. With this in mind, we strongly recommend that hikers be in good physical condition before attempting this popular Glacier Park hike.
Once you reach Ptarmigan Tunnel and after you've enjoyed the view on the other side, then we highly recommend that you continue hiking about about a half mile down the other side along the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail so you can get an exception view of the magnificent Mount Merritt and the famous Old Sun Glacier that rests on Merritt's east face. It's really worth the extra effort!
Finding The Trailhead
The trailhead for the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail in Glacier National Park is located at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn parking lot in the Many Glacier Area. There is a sign that shows you exactly where to go, which is located near the northwest corner of the parking lot, near the west end of the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn Restaurant.
The sign will say both Iceberg Lake Trail and Ptarmigan Tunnel... which is the same identical trail for the first 2.5 miles. Technically, this first section of the trail to Ptarmigan Tunnel and beyond is called the Iceberg Lake Trail.
Trailhead at Swiftcurrent Motor Inn (mile 0.0)
The Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail (officially called the Iceberg Lake Trail on this section of the hike) in Glacier National Park climbs quite abruptly for the first half mile or so, then levels off, so don't panic this first half mile... but it will get you attention that's for sure! The trail will then gradually work its way around the south base of the towering Mount Henkel, which is above you directly to the north. Look for bighorn sheep, black bear and grizzly bears on this open slope above you. You may also see a moose below you (left) in the willows and pines above Wilbur Creek. And during certain times of the season, this open slope will be covered in wildflowers, whether it be bear grass or several of the other common wildflowers in the area, such as Lupine, Mountain Asters, etc.
As the trail continues to gradually climb in elevation as it works it's way to the northwest, the views to the south and west get more and more incredible as you gaze into the amazing Many Glacier Valley. You can't help but notice the towering sharp peak of Grinnell Mountain to the southwest, as well as Swiftcurrent Glacier just west of Grinnell Mountain. Directly to the west is the mighty Mount Wilbur, and further beyond Wilbur to the south is Swiftcurrent Mountain. The entire hike up to the Ptarmigan Tunnel is extremely scenic and enjoyable, so take your time and take it all in!
Ptarmigan Falls, Ptarmigan Creek Bridge (mile 2.4)
Hikers taking a break along Ptarmigan Creek... Is that hiker really looking at her smart phone??????
About 2.4 miles into your Glacier Park hike to the Ptarmigan Tunnel and beyond, you will see the Ptarmigan Falls through the trees to your left. This is a very difficult falls to photograph because trees block the view. It's still very pretty, especially during the early summer when the snow melt is still very high. Just beyond the Ptarmigan Falls is a well built foot bridge that crosses Ptarmigan Creek. This is an extremely popular place for Glacier National Park hikers who are returning from either Iceberg Lake or Ptarmigan Tunnel to take a break and enjoy the creek.
Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail Junction (mile 2.5)
Only about a tenth of a mile from Ptarmigan Creek foot bridge in Glacier National Park, you will encounter the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail Junction. Take a right at this junction, which is the official start of the Ptarmigan Trail. If you go straight (left) you will end up at Iceberg Lake.
At the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail Junction in Glacier National Park, the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail begins to head straight north as it works its way through a heavily wooded section of forest. As the trail climbs in elevation, you will begin to see a unique view of Mount Wilbur to the south.
The further up the trail you get, the steeper the trail becomes, so get ready for a great cardiovascular workout... with or without an overnight pack on your back! The forest eventually opens up and you may luck out and see large open meadows of bear grass if your timing is right. To your left (west) is the famous Ptarmigan Wall (a.k.a. Pinnacle Wall), which the trail will parallel all the way to Ptarmigan Tunnel. We have seen mountain goats high above on these cliffs.
Ptarmigan Lake (mile 4.2)
About 1.7 miles from the Ptarmigan Trail Junction in Glacier National Park, you will encounter Ptarmigan Lake. This gorgeous lake is a beautiful turquoise color if the sun and sky are right, and it rests in an impressive open cirque, nestled under the towering Crowfeet Mountain that rises above you to the east. There is an obvious spur trail that takes you down to the outlet of the lake, which is a popular place to have a snack or rest as you take in the beauty of this amazing Glacier Park mountain lake.
Ptarmigan Lake with a view of the Ptarmigan Tunnel at the head of the cirque.
The Ptarmigan Trail will stay to the west (left) of the lake as it continues to climb upward to Ptarmigan Tunnel. And by the way, early in the season this area of the trail may be covered in snow, so make sure you ask a ranger what the status is of the Ptarmigan Trail is before you head out on this hike!
Just beyond Ptarmigan Lake, the trail begins to really gain in elevation as it works its way up the rocky cirque. Keep an eye out for grizzly bears during the months of August and September, as they have been known to "moth" in this open cirque. There may also be a herd of bighorn sheep ewes and lambs in this cirque, so keep an eye out for them.
This is the south view from the south entrance of the Ptarmigan Tunnel in Glacier National Park.
The closer you get to the Ptarmigan Tunnel, the steeper the trail becomes, and you will thank the several switchbacks along this section of the Ptarmigan Trail for making this elevation gain less strenuous. As you climb in elevation, you will enjoy a great view of Ptarmigan Lake below you to the south, as well as great views of Mount Wilbur, Mount Gould and Grinnell Mountain.
Ptarmigan Tunnel (mile 5.1)
The Ptarmigan Tunnel in Glacier National Park was built in 1930, for the purposes of connecting the Many Glacier Area with the Belly River Area for multi-day hikers and tourist /guide horses. This amazing tunnel is 250 feet long, and is always a blast to walk through. The heavy steel doors were added in 1975, and are opened in early July.
The exact date of its opening is different every year because it depends on how much snow has accumulated near the tunnel.
Both the South Entrance and the North Entrance of the Ptarmigan Tunnel provide outstanding views, so you'll probably spend plenty of time snapping photos from both of these entrances.
As you walk through the tunnel and reach the north entrance, the view of the Belly River Valley, including Elizabeth Lake, is remarkable. And as you look over edge, you'll probably gasp at the 1,400 foot cliff that the trail is resting on. The north entrance is where most day hikers choose end their hike, which is really unfortunate because if they just walk about a third of a mile further, they would get a spectacular view of the magnificent Mount Merritt and the famous Old Sun Glacier that rests on Merritt's east face. Also, it's really a treat to walk down the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail a little ways as the 1930 masonry and stonework on this section of the trail is very impressive, and is fun to hike on. So in other words.... KEEP GOING A LITTLE FARTHER!!!
The north entrance (Belly River Valley side) of the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail in Glacier National Park.
A view of the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail and the north entrance of the Ptarmigan Tunnel in Glacier Park .
North Entrance of the Ptarmigan Tunnel in Glacier National Park.
Best View of Mount Merritt and Old Sun Glacier (mile 5.4)
As you work your way down the north side of the Ptarmigan Tunnel about a third of the mile at the most, you will not only enjoy the trail as it hugs the great red colored cliff by incredible masonry work done in the early 1930's, but you will also really get a great view of one of the most famous mountains in Glacier Park, which is Mount Merritt, as well as one of the most famous glaciers of Glacier National Park, which is Old Sun Glacier. Mount Merritt is one of the six peaks that are over 10,000 feet in the park, and this remote mountain really looks great from this vantage point.
View of Mount Merritt and Old Sun Glacier from the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail in Glacier National Park.
Red Gap Pass Trail Junction (mile 7.8)
About 2.7 miles beyond the Ptarmigan Tunnel to the north, you will reach the Red Gap Pass Trail junction. The Red Gap Pass Trail begins about 3 miles east of the Many Glacier Hotel along the Many Glacier Road, and this multi-day hike takes Glacier Park hikers to Poia Lake and Red Gap Pass before it reaches this junction. From here the Red Gap Pass hikers will hike down to the Elizabeth Lake (Foot) Campground where they will spend the night. Many of these hikers end up coming back up to this junction, where they will then hike through the Ptarmigan Tunnel and onward to the Many Glacier Area once again, completing this popular loop.
For those of you heading to Elizabeth Lake along the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail, at the Red Gap Pass - Ptarmigan Trail Junction, stay left and hike steeply downhill towards the Belly River Valley floor. You will reach the foot of Elizabeth Lake and the Elizabeth Lake (Foot) Campground in about 2 miles.
Elizabeth Lake and Elizabeth Lake (Foot) Campground (mile 9.8)
Once you reach the Elizabeth Lake and Elizabeth Lake (Foot ) Campground, you will likely spend the night here. From there, you can either head further up the Belly River Valley to Helen Lake via the Helen Lake Trail, or you can head for the Mokowanis River Valley and the Stoney Indian Pass Trail. Or, after a good night's sleep, you can head back up to the Red Gap Pass Trail junction and hike to Poia Lake. In other words, once you're in the Belly River Valley at Elizabeth Lake, you have several options...All of which depend on what backcountry reservations you have made in advance. By the way, you dropped 2,500 vertical feet from Ptarmigan Tunnel to the shore of Elizabeth Lake!