The Ptarmigan Tunnel trail is on the east side of Glacier National Park, in the Many Glaciers area. We stayed to the west of the park, which meant that we had to drive the whole length of Going to the Sun Road, leave the park for several miles into the Blackfeet Reservation, and re-enter in a different place. Allow at least two hours for this. The road to Many Glaciers is gravel and full of potholes, slow going.

We parked in a large lot in front of the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. (Swiftcurrent is the name of a glacier, and the river formed by its meltwaters.) At the back of the parking lot, several people had set up large, expensive-looking spotting scopes, focused on the slope of the mountain we were headed for. “What are you looking at?” we asked. “Grizzles,” they replied. Ah.

The trailhead has the usual bear warnings: wear bells, carry bear spray, don’t run, don’t approach, etc. Fortunately we never saw one. The trail started steeply, then took a long, left, gradually-rising switchback through meadows and pine forest. There were other hikers, but traffic was relatively light.

Actually, “Many Glaciers” doesn’t have many glaciers.

A couple of miles in got us to Ptarmigan Falls. These falls are about 50′ high and feature a strong, noisy flow. Many people stopped near the falls for a snack break, we did too. There is no ideal spot to get a clear photo of the falls, so try to imagine them. Pine-scented candles will help.

Shortly past the falls, the trail splits. To the left is Iceberg Lake, to the right is the Tunnel. The Tunnel hike is over 10 miles with over 2000′ elevation gain by itself. Seeing Iceberg Lake as well would add more miles and more elevation, so we just decided to skip it. The Tunnel trail goes steeply uphill for the next half a mile.

Just before the tunnel is Ptarmigan Lake. We kept expecting to come to the lake, and it kept being farther away than we thought. The trail follows a twisty valley, the former path of the Ptarmigan Glacier. Eventually, the valley ends in a bowl (technically, a “cirque”) with sheer walls and the lake at the bottom.

Looking up at the cirque walls. Trail is faintly visible in jagged switchbacks.

Once in the cirque, there is no shade. It was surprisingly hot in early September, so the trek up the switchbacks was slow going.

Looking down at the lake.

Eventually we reach the Tunnel. It’s an actual tunnel, with serious “Mines of Moria” type doors. I suppose they must shut them sometimes, but I don’t know why.

The tunnel is over 200′ long.

On our sunny day, the tunnel was dim but there was enough visibility to navigate. On a darker day a flashlight would definitely help. The other side of tunnel is surprising. First of all, it’s several degrees cooler because of the shade. The rocks are a completely different color, and the view is an area we haven’t even glimpsed before.

This is Lake Elizabeth.

Everywhere is the signature U-shape of a glacially-carved valley. We walk out a little farther and turn around.

Old Sun Glacier

The trail continues all the way down to Lake Elizabeth, but we’ve already done a lot and have to go back the way we came.

…which is back through that little hole.

The return trip is all downhill, so much easier. Including the drive from Glacier’s west side, this is a long day. Good one, though.