Many visitors to Glacier National Park use the Lake McDonald Valley as a hub of activity on the west side. Massive glaciers filled the area thousands of years ago, slowly carving that broad u-shaped valley that one can see today while looking out from the lake shore. People flock from all over to witness spectacular vistas, hike various trails, and chance to peek at elusive wildlife.
For our last final visit to Glacier National Park, we took half day to hike Howe Lake Trail and then explore Lake McDonald.
We drove about five miles from Lake McDonald along the Inside North Fork Road. The drive on the dusty narrow road left our truck covered in a fine coat of dirt. The trailhead only offered four parking spots, with only one spot occupied.
The hike is a mild 4-mile in-and-out trail and a nice easy capstone to our visit. Lush undergrowth seemed to consume the narrow trail in the first quarter mile to the lake. Then the way opened up to reveal a forest recovering from a forest fire in 2003. Bright patches fireweed dotted the landscape, while ferns, trilliums, and beargrass scattered beneath the conifers. The thick smell of pine and wildflower reminded of the Pacific North West.
During the hot mid-day, we scarcely heard any birds along the trail. But upon reaching Lower Howe Lake, I spotted a few loons skittering the shimmering waters. A marshland grass surrounds much of the lake and connects it with Howe Lake proper, which can be reached by hiking another 1.8 miles upward.
We sat on a log near the shore and listened for wildlife. I saw a few ducks on the lake. We heard the calls of a few chickadees, titmice, and thrushes. We even had a brief visit a hummingbird.
Beyond the lake, I can see where the trail connects with Howe Ridge Trail. Rangers use Howe Ridge Trail is a secondary fire access trail. Hikers can use it to cross along with an eastward ridgeline from the Howe Creek bridge to its junction with the Trout Lake Trail, just above Kelly Camp Trailhead. Leaving the solitude of Howe Lake, we make our way back to the truck and head toward Lake McDonald.
The Kootenai Indians call Lake McDonald “The Place Where They Dance.” For generations, the Kootenai returned to the foot of the lake to dance and sing songs, invoking wisdom and guidance the spirits. The ancient tradition ended with the arrival of homesteader Milo Apgar and other white settlers in the early 1890s.
Just before the arrival of European settlers, several different tribes inhabited the Glacier National Park area. The Blackfoot Indians mastered the vast prairies east of the mountains, while the Salish and Kootenai Indians occupied in the western valleys. Each tribe traveled over the mountains in search of game and to hunt the great herds of buffalo on the eastern plains.
Today, the Apgar area is filled with tourist and gift shops. During the summer at the nearby at the campground amphitheater, Blackfeet, Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreille tribal members share their perspective on the meaning of the place we today call Glacier National Park. The Native American Speaks program bridges the gap and teaches non-natives about local tribal culture.
Upon the lake shore, we ate a simple picnic lunch then rented a double canoe. Lake McDonald is the largest lake in Glacier National Park. The waters that feed the lake come from rainwater and glaciers found deep within the park. At 10 miles long, and over a mile wide and well over 400 feet deep, the lake fills a valley formed by a combination of erosion and glacial activity. Grizzly bears, black bear, moose, and mule deer tend to occupy the north shore of the lake, away from where tourists tread.
Looking down into the clear blue waters, we spotted numerous fish, probably several kinds of trout, whitefish, and salmon. Even on the water, I can spot several types of spruce, fir, and larch. A wonderous lake view scene, and a perfect way to end our final day at Glacier National Park.