Spring to Columbia Mountain

Spring to Columbia Mountain – Travel Guide

Claire Walter

In northern Montana, where winter lingers, it’s not easy to find a trail where the snow melts early. When nearby Glacier National Park still slumbers under a mantle of white, locals take to Columbia Mountain, just off U.S. 2.

The multiuse Columbia Mountain Trail begins in a thick forest with intermittent views of the valley below. Eventually it bursts into the open, where the vistas are panoramic. The bottom portion switchbacks past shale bands, then climbs the mountain’s western flank, with one big dip before the final pull to the top. As it emerges from the trees, the trail steepens into a series of challenging switchbacks. The total elevation gain of more than 4,000 feet is daunting to many people, but the first half is mellow enough for casual hikers.

At first, the highway, the Flathead River, and the railroad line seem just beyond reach; trucks, kayaks, and freight trains look like toys. Only when the valley recedes do your immediate surroundings come into focus.

Even hikers who don’t make it all the way to the top can appreciate Columbia Mountain’s stunning diversity of flora. Douglas firs, junipers, larches, and aspens flank the trail. Pillow-soft moss clings to shaded rocks. Streams and waterfalls trickle down the lower mountain, and wildflowers pop up in small clearings; look for bear grass, glacier lilies, shooting stars, spring beauties, trilliums, and yellow bells.

At the 7,200-foot crest, a million-dollar vista unfolds: the craggy, snowcapped summits of Glacier National Park, the humpy Whitefish Range, the rugged Bob Marshall Wilderness, and gleaming Flathead Lake, the West’s largest natural freshwater lake. The ski trails of Big Mountain, to the northwest, look like a giant, three-dimensional trail map.

Whitewater thrills are available on the nearby Middle Fork of the Flathead River, where much of The River Wild was filmed, and anglers fly-fish for native cutthroat and rainbow trout on the Middle and North Forks, as well as on the main Flathead.

WHERE: From U.S. 2 and County 206 in Columbia Falls, Montana, take U.S. 2 east 1.1 miles, turn right onto Monte Vista Rd., and go about 1 mile. Turn left at the T-intersection onto Berne Rd.; go 2 miles to the trailhead parking lot.

DISTANCE: 8 miles one-way to peak.

DIFFICULTY: First 2 1/2 miles moderate; last 5 1/2 miles challenging.

CAUTION: This is grizzly bear country; be aware.

CONTACT: Hungry Horse Ranger District; (406) 387-3800.

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COPYRIGHT 1999 Sunset Publishing Corp.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group