Crown of the Continent

Dance the mountaintops of the pristine, million-acre Glacier National Park in Montana, where you can ride your own horse, or use an outfitter to take you into the backcountry.

[PHOTOGALLERY uniquename=”galleria-azur”] Journey to Montana’s Glacier National Park, known as the Crown of the Continent. There, you’ll experience trails that take you through land inhabited by almost 300 species of birds and mammals, and more than 1,100 plant species.

Elevation ranges from 3,150 feet, where old-growth forests flourish, to more than 10,000 feet, where the hardiest alpine plants struggle to survive.

Glacier became a national park in 1910, through the efforts of farsighted people, such as George Bird Grinnell, cofounder of the Audubon Society and the Boone and Crockett Club.

Grinnell lobbied tirelessly for Glacier’s park status; he wanted to protect the glacier-carved peaks, turquoise and emerald lakes, and abundant wildlife.

Grinnell also coined the name “Crown of the Continent” for Glacier National Park. The park is now also called the “Crown Jewel of the Continent.”

Swan Mountain Outfitters There are two ways to explore Glacier on horseback, on your own horse and with outfitters. The only licensed outfitter in Glacier is Swan Mountain Outfitters.

We visited with the managers, Erik and Aubrie Lorona. Aubrie told us their goal is to make horseback riding the highlight of a guest’s visit to Glacier National Park.

The Loronas maintain four corrals in and around the park, where they provide one-hour, two-hour, half-day, and full-day rides, as well as dinner rides and overnight trips.

Swan Mountain’s West Glacier Corral is located about two miles from the west entrance of the park. Several rides go out from here, including overnight pack trips. The overnight pack trip includes food and a stay in wall tents at the outfitter’s camp.

The cowboy cookout ride features a fabulous steak dinner and a return to the corral with the setting sun.

Swan Mountain’s Apgar Corral is located inside the west entrance to the park. These trails meander through tall lodgepole pines and offer opportunities for riders to see bear, coyote, and deer.

The Lake McDonald Corrals are located on the west side of the park across from Lake McDonald Lodge. Trails here offer views of McDonald Creek and Lake McDonald.

An all-day, seven-mile ride from the Lake McDonald Corrals climbs 3,300 vertical feet up to the historic Sperry Chalet, built in 1912. You can reserve a night, complete with meals. When I first hiked to Sperry Chalet in 1972, the cost was $12.50 for lodging and dinner; now it’s $166 (rates subject to change).

The Many Glacier Corral is located on the east side of the park across from the Many Glacier Hotel. Swan Mountain Outfitters offers a number of rides in this area, from one hour to all day.

Stock Trails & Corrals Generally, most trails in Glacier are open to horse use. There are some trails unsuitable for horses. Also, certain conditions can close trails, such as high bear activity or adverse weather.

For park regulations and a list of trails closed to stock, go to the Glacier website, click on “plan your visit,” then “brochures,” then “private stock use.”

Most of the trailheads in Glacier don’t have large parking areas. Get an early start to help ensure a parking area.

Hay is prohibited in the park, so leave forage at camp when you trailer in for each day’s ride. However, you may haul hay on Highway 2, which connects the east and west sides of the park.

There are several places near Glacier that you and your horse may stay. On the west side, you may keep horse at the Bowman Lake Corral. Access to this is a dirt road, which may not be suitable for large trailers. Check with the park service before attempting this drive.

From the Bowman Corral, you may ride to Lower and Upper Quartz Lakes, along Bowman Lake, and to Akokala Lake.

A more convenient place to stay on the west side of the park is Timber Wolf Resort in the town of Hungry Horse. Resort owner Phil Marshall is happy to share ride ideas.

The east side of the park has two places you can stay with horses. Campgrounds in this area that allow stock are Arrowhead Ranch, 11 miles east of Babb, and Johnson’s Campground and RV Park near St. Mary.

Gorgeous Glacier Rides The two main riding areas on the east side are Two Medicine and Many Glacier. Two Medicine has three gorgeous rides.

Our favorite ride here is a trail to Cobalt Lake. After six miles of good trail and a 1,700-foot elevation gain, you reach a crystalline blue lake nestled among mountain peaks. There’s a handy hitching rail near the lake. This beautiful lake sometimes has small icebergs drifting in the water.

An easy ride with gorgeous mountain views is to Upper Two Medicine Lake. Take the trail on the north side of Two Medicine Lake and follow it about 4.5 miles to the upper lake. As you ride along, notice the irregular patches of snow, scattered like shards of broken pottery, on the mountaintops.

A third ride at Two Medicine begins from the north end of the parking lot and goes six miles to Old Man Lake. We were fortunate to do this ride when wildflowers were bursting with color, like mute fireworks in the meadows.

Old Man Lake is particularly photogenic. It’s situated at the base of the sculptured peaks that form the Continental Divide.

Many Glacier is our favorite area of the park. If you have time to visit only one region for trail riding, this is it. Many Glacier is a fabulous cirque, ringed by stately mountains mantled with glaciers. Historic Many Glacier Hotel, built in 1914, sits on the edge of Swiftcurrent Lake and welcomes visitors today just as it has done for the last 100 years.

Our first ride here took us on a trail in front of the Many Glacier Hotel. Back in the 1920s, as many as 60 saddled horses would await morning riders here.

To access the trail to Cracker Lake, go past the Many Glacier Hotel, the parking lot, and the Swan Mountain Outfitters’ corral. You’ll go 6.2 miles and ascend a 1,200-foot elevation gain to reach this pristine, alpine lake destination.

After the first couple of miles, notice beautiful Lake Sherburne on the left. After passing this lake, take the first fork to the right. The trail then begins switchbacking its way earnestly uphill to Cracker Lake.

After reaching Cracker Lake, proceed halfway down the lake on the left, and you’ll find hitching rails below a large rock. Climb up on the rock for lunch, and reward yourself with a year’s quota of high-country beauty in one spot.

Dramatic Mount Siyeh rises above the lake with Siyeh Glacier hanging precariously on the side. Glacial silt gives Cracker Lake its stunning turquoise color. Watch for mountain goats in the cliffs.

Poia Lake is another all-day ride. The parking lot for this ride is on the north side of the highway just before reaching Many Glacier Hotel.

The ride to Poia Lake has grand views of the entire Swiftcurrent Valley as you cross Swiftcurrent Ridge. The trail then drops down to Kennedy Creek and on to peaceful Poia Lake, the perfect picnic spot!

The last two rides take off from the Swiftcurrent Inn parking lot about a mile past the turn off to the Many Glacier Hotel. This is a congested parking lot, so arrive early. If the lot is full, there are usually places to park along Swiftcurrent Lake before reaching the Inn.

The ride up to Ptarmigan Lake from Swiftcurrent Inn is 4.6 miles with a 1,700-foot elevation gain.

Ptarmigan Lake is another turquoise jewel set in the mountains. You can see switchbacks across the lake going up to the famed Ptarmigan Tunnel that was driven through a rock mountain.

You can ride up to the tunnel, but space can be tight and this is definitely not recommended. A few years ago, a rider and his horse both fell to their deaths.

Our last ride in the park was from the Swiftcurrent Inn parking lot straight up the Swiftcurrent Valley. This is an easy, fun ride that goes 4.7 miles up the valley, past several lakes to the base of the Garden Wall. On this journey, we saw four moose and two grizzlies, all from a safe distance.

Once you reach the base of the Garden Wall, you and your horse can stand in a rock cirque and admire the silvery curtains of waterfalls cascading down the mountains. This amazing sight was a fitting closure to our time in Glacier.

Kent and Charlene Krone combine their interest in photojournalism with a passion for horses. They enjoy sharing their horseback adventures in the United States and Western Canada. During riding season, you can usually find them on the trail, checking out new places to ride.

Resource Guide

Arrowhead Ranch(406) 338-5128

Glacier National Park(406) 888-7800;

Johnson’s Campground and RV Park (406) 732-4207;

Many Glacier Hotel (406) 732-4411;

Sperry Chalet (888) 345-2649;

Timber Wolf Resort (406) 387-9653;

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