Charlie Russell Nature Photography

Ptarmigan Falls Trail, Glacier National Park

This summer we went further afield in search of wildflowers than normal, looking in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. We found the BEST HIKE EVER, the Ptarmigan Falls / Iceberg Lake Trail in Glacier National Park.

OK, so this isn’t a “California Wildflower Hike”, but we sure found a lot of wildflowers. Plus spectacular scenery. Plus a grizzly bear…

Indian Blanket Flower, Gallardia aristata
Indian Blanket Flower, Gallardia aristata

Note: Click on any photograph to see a larger image.

The Hike

There are many hiking options in Glacier National Park, although many of them are longer hikes that we usually take. This hike is on the east side of the park, in the Many Glacier area.

The trail starts from the north side of the parking lot by the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn complex, behind the cabins. The starting elevation is a bit over 5000 feet. You head up the hill through the trees and then out into a fairly open area. The first few hundred yards are a bit steep, but the rest of the trail (to the falls) isn’t too bad.

Start of Ptarmigan Trail
Start of Ptarmigan Trail

Along the way you have a spectacular view of the mountains of Glacier National Park. Every once in awhile you just have to stop, look around, and say “wow!”

I’ve been on several hikes in the Sierra’s in California that have spectacular displays of wildflowers. However, the thing that was unique about this trail is that there were flowers at every step of the way. That is why you have to stop to look at the mountains – as I was hiking along I was always looking at the trailside and finding new flowers. If I didn’t stop and make myself look up I would have missed the beautiful views.

Ptarmigan Trail
Glacier vista

The trail goes along the side of the mountain, and there were several “seep” sections where the hillside was very wet. Great opportunities to look for orchids.

Later on you re-enter the forest. About 2.5 miles in you come to Ptarmigan Falls. The trail crosses the creek just above the falls, and there is a large open area where you can rest, enjoy the creek, and watch the VERY friendly squirrels that inhabit the area. I’m not sure what the elevation was here, but it is a bit under 6000 feet.

Ptarmigan Creek above falls
Ptarmigan Creek above falls

This was our turnaround point. You can continue up the trail towards Iceberg Lake, which is about 2 miles further on.

Timing is Everything

We visited this area in the first week of August. At first we thought that we were going to hit some bad weather, but it turned out to be a great day for hiking. The clouds kept it cool (mid to upper 70’s probably), and it did rain on us a bit, but not bad. No snow in the area.

The variety of flowers was wonderful! Certainly some flowers were past their peak (notably the Beargrass), but others were just getting started. I’m guessing that anything from mid July through mid August would be great (and possibly a wider range than that).


Glacier National Park has several fairly separate areas that you can visit. This hike is in the Many Glacier area, which is on the east side, north of the main entrance at St. Mary. We hadn’t planned on visiting this area, as we were anxious to go up the “Going-to-the-Sun Road” to get to the higher alpine area hikes. When a storm came through that morning we decided that hiking on the exposed alpine mountain trails might not be the best choice, so we headed north from St. Mary towards Babb, and then west into the Many Glacier area. Be sure to watch for flowers along the road by Lake Sherburne as you drive into the area.

Ptarmigan Falls trail
Seep section of trail

You drive in as far as you can to reach the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn area, where most of the trails begin.

If you hike in Glacier National Park I highly recommend getting a guide book. The advice you get from the information centers varies quite a bit – getting information on finding animals is a lot easier than finding information on wildflowers. The book that we purchased, which I like very much, is Hiking Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks by Erik Molvar.

The Flowers

Please feel free to help me with the identification of any “unidentified” flowers listed here, as well as correcting any errors I may make. Click on any photograph to see a larger image. I’ll start with a few favorites, and then the “gallery”. All pictures were taken with a Nikkor 18-135mm zoom lens, or a Nikkor 60mm closeup lens (except for the grizzly bear, when I was using a very long telephoto lens!).

I love finding orchids in the wild. Such delicate flowers. Other hikers probably thought I was silly, sitting on the trailside and trying to get them to look at the orchids! This is “Ladies Tresses”, also called Pearl Twist.

Ladies Tresses, Spiranthes romanzoffiana
Ladies Tresses, Spiranthes romanzoffiana

This is an interesting flower, lots of delicate details. My favorite name for a flower on this hike, “Fringed Grass of Parnassus”. Not a grass, though…

Fringed Grass of Parnassus, Parnassia fimbriata
Fringed Grass of Parnassus, Parnassia fimbriata

Another orchid, this was found in the “seep” area along the hillside. Very easy to find on this hike.

White Bog Orchid, Platanthera dilata
White Bog Orchid, Platanthera dilata

Mountain Deathcamas –  my wifes favorite flower on this hike, very pretty. And definitely NOT an edible plant.

Mountain Deathcamas, Anticlea elegans
Mountain Deathcamas, Anticlea elegans

The mountain views were gorgeous.

Iceberg Lake Trail, Glacier National Park
View from the trail

And, near the end of the trail, just around a bend in the trail, we found…

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0 Responses

  1. Great that you got to Glacier. My wife and I have been twice, and the 2nd time we had one of those bumper flower years, including more Bearbrush than we’ve ever seen. Loks like you got a very good variety.
    We just came back from Olympics and Northern Cascades, where we stumbled upon peak flowers! So great of a trip.

    1. David, the variety was spectacular. I’ll have some more articles coming up on another hike we did there, up in Logan’s Pass. And we were in Yellowstone for a few days also. Wonderful trip.

      I’ve been reading about the wonderful bloom going on in the Washington area and wishing I could get up there. Perhaps next year! Always looking for tips on where, and when, to go…

  2. On row one, the purple dr. seuss looking flower looks like a Wild Bergamont while the yellow one next to it appears to be a False Dandelion. On row four, the ball headed one is an anemone… most likely a cliff anemone (the sepals have fallen off). Next to the beargrass, it looks like One-sided Wintergreen and you have the Twinberry correct (it’s black twinberry). The tiny unknown is a Speedwell of some sort. Other than that, I think you did pretty well. One of your unknowns is an Aster, but there is too much confusion for me to be super great at them (I struggle all the time with the Aster and the Showy Fleabane) and the little pink flowers next to the Lewis Monkeyflower I believe are Twinflower, but the rain, angle, etc make it hard to tell. Were they low to the ground, flowers about a centimeter in length and paired up?

    I’m also a big fan of the orchids. The white bog orchid smells amazing! Did you try smelling the Subalpine Spiraea? It kinda looks like its domestic partner, but it smells like heaven!

    The squirrel you have is a Columbian Ground Squirrel if you wanted to identify him as well.

    Anyway, hope that helps a bit! I’ve got a pretty sweet backyard eh? 😉



  3. Thanks, Jake! I don’t think that is a Cliff Anemone, we saw too many of them like that to think that the sepals had fallen off. I think it hasn’t opened up yet.

    The other by the monkeyflower probably isn’t Twinflower, it was a larger plant than that and the flowers weren’t in pairs (I have some other pictures that I didn’t post here).

    I do appreciate your direction on the others, very helpful.

    And I’m in awe of your website and your hikes! Truly amazing!

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