Ptarmigan Tunnel Hike
A hike to Ptarmigan Tunnel is a wonderful day out in the Many Glacier area of Glacier National Park. The stunning Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail is known for its beautiful forest, streams, lakes and sheer cliffs. The path through the Tunnel takes you into another world, with totally different, even more breathtaking views.
To start the Ptarmigan Tunnel trail, head into Many Glacier Area on the pock-marked road, remaining watchful for animals – you may encounter bears in early summer. Park anywhere near the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. Parking here can fill up fast, so arrive early or be prepared to walk some ways down the road from where you parked!
|When to do|
June through September
Out and back
Ptarmigan Tunnel Hike
Ptarmigan Tunnel Route Description
Halfway down the parking lot beside the Motor Inn there are signs pointing towards Ptarmigan Tunnel and Iceberg Lake. These signs direct you up a road, past several small cabins to a tiny parking lot for guests staying at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. Just past the small parking lot you’ll find the trailhead for both trails.
The first 4.5km of the path between Ptarmigan Tunnel and Iceberg Lake, passes through dense pine forest. You will climb out of the trees and hug the right side of the valley as you veer right below Mount Henkel. Here you will enjoy great views across the valley with glimpses of Mount Grinnell and Mount Wilbur. The gradient is slightly uphill, although the path doesn’t get too steep. You will re-enter the trees as you approach the junction. Right before the junction are the beautiful Ptarmigan Falls, where you’ll find a smooth rocky place to sit – a perfect halfway break!
After crossing over a small bridge and passing the pit toilets, you will arrive at the junction. Turn right to continue to Ptarmigan Lake and Ptarmigan Tunnel. The 1.0km after the junction is quite steep, climbing up through a forest that allows for occasional views of the surrounding peaks. However, after the initial climb, you will find yourself surrounded by beautiful alpine wildflowers and scattered trees. Continue along the left side of the valley, below Ptarmigan Wall, with views across to Crowfeet Mountain.
Remain along the trail, entering and exiting spare trees, until you reach Ptarmigan Lake. From here, you can see the long switchbacks working their way up to the tunnel reflected in the stunning lake. As you pass around the left side of the lake you will start the final climb of the Ptarmigan Tunnel hike. The three long switchbacks climb all the way up to just below the pass, where the tunnel suddenly pokes through the rock. It is a tough hike here, and the height gain is deceptive.
Crossing through the tunnel grants a completely different view. The path clings to the stunning red mountainside as it snakes around and down to Elizabeth Lake. Looking across the valley, you’ll see Natoas Peak and the ridge that extends to the right of it. The red stained mountains are a magnificent sight to behold. Look back and up and you may also catch flashes of yellow and green among the grey mountains.
Return the way you came, after an epic day hiking in this glorious scenery. If you have the energy, consider a quick jaunt up to Iceberg Lake when you come to the junction!
Hiking Trail Highlights
The Civilian Conservation Corp built the Ptarmigan Tunnel in the 1930s to facilitate horseback tours of the park. The tunnel itself passes straight through the Ptarmigan Wall, at an elevation of 2200m. The 76m passageway was constructed in less than three months, by drilling with steel jackhammers from either side, and with the help of a little dynamite. The rock that was excavated from the finished tunnel was used to make the path on the far side, and can be seen as you exit the tunnel on this hike.
The tunnel was originally constructed to save travelers and tourists a stiff hike over the rocky mountains, and to allow easy access on horseback to some of the region’s most glorious scenery. Steel doors were added in 1975 and are closed during the winter, but in the summer months, this is one of the most magical places for hiking in the Many Glacier area. The angular doors create an other-worldly atmosphere, and the sensation of passing under the rock and emerging to a magnificent view at the other side is one of the best features of this hike.
Ptarmigan Lake is perched just below the iconic Ptarmigan Tunnel, and is one of the highlights of this wonderful hike. The lake is around 240m long and 130m wide, and its vibrant blue waters reflect the craggy surrounding peaks, providing a wonderful photo opportunity. This dramatic alpine hike passes above the lake, but there is a path that leads down to the waterside, where it’s possible to make a pit stop and admire the fabulous scenery.
The Ptarmigan Falls tumble for 61m in a series of cascades down into the Ptarmigan Creek. This beautiful waterfall can be seen from the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail, although the cascade is partially obscured by the dense woodland. There’s an excellent picnic spot just above the Falls, where you can watch the water flow steadily downward through the beautiful, lush scenery.
This hike can be paired with Iceberg Lake, but it’s a long 25.0km+ day.
Spend a weekend in Many Glacier and explore all the wonderful valleys.
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