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Glacier with fewer folks - Two Medicine Valley offers plethora of scenic opportunities
Glacier with fewer folks - Two Medicine Valley offers plethora of scenic opportunities

The Two Medicine Valley has been attracting visitors for centuries, with good reason. The mountains surrounding the lake have some of the best descriptive or poetic names in the park. Sinopah, Painted Tepee, Rising Wolf and Appistoki peaks all seem intended for storytelling.

And just behind them to the southwest is one of the creepiest zones on the map: the jumble of Skeleton Mountain, Lost Basin, Barrier Buttes, Brave Dog Mountain and Mount Despair.

If you can't make a good campfire story out of that material, burn your marshmallow stick and go home.

According to Jack Holterman's "Place Names of Glacier National Park," Two Medicine refers to a pair of Blackfeet sun dance lodges that were raised on either side of the creek draining the lakes of that valley.

The area was also popular with the Kootenai tribes for vision quests. Holterman reported that Kootenai seekers from as far as present-day Columbia Lake in British Columbia would come here for spiritual journeys. Two Medicine requires just enough extra thought to cull the road-trip tourists who think Going-to-the-Sun Road is the sum of Glacier National Park. It hides between East Glacier and St. Mary, on a twisty road. There are actually three lakes, Lower, Two Medicine and Upper Two Medicine, in the chain. All the services and trailheads are at the middle lake.

Last year, Two Medicine endured well under half the crowds that visited either St. Mary or Many Glacier. In July, 39,597 people came through its entrance. St. Mary had 107,770 and Many Glacier let in 56,589. And those are fractions of the flood that came through the park's West Glacier entrance: 355,112 in July alone.

That's still a lot of people with whom to share the silence of the mountains. For what it's worth, they're all self-contained at Two Medicine. There are no lodges or hotels there.

Overnight visitors are limited to RVs and tents in the extensive National Park Service campground, or whatever they can carry into the backcountry sites.

There are five of those within 10 miles of the Two Medicine trailheads. One is a short walk from the parking lot. Others involve 3- to 6-mile hikes into the deep glacial valleys that surround the trailhead.

A tour boat loops around Two Medicine Lake several times a day. It can cut several miles off a beginning or ending hike, making it easier for families or older folks to penetrate the upper valleys.

But the valley's scenic opportunities almost favor the strong over the prepared. The Dawson-Pitamakin Trail around Rising Wolf Mountain is one of the most striking 17-mile loops in the park. It has campgrounds at two strategic spots.

But using them implies hauling all that gear over two mountain passes. Better, perhaps, to make it a day trip with a folding chair and a big dinner waiting in the motorized campground.

That campground surrounds tiny Pray Lake, which is an afterthought of the central Two Medicine Lake. Although very shallow, it's also shockingly cold, even in mid-August.

Nevertheless, its beach is littered with flat rocks just right for skipping practice. Pleasant trails follow either side of Two Medicine through open meadows. Small children can easily manage a couple of miles on these routes, which eventually become more challenging as they head for Dawson or Two Medicine passes.

Another short, steep hike leads to Scenic Point. A turnaround point 3 miles in presents a postcard-worthy view of the whole Two Medicine Valley.

The more vigorous can tramp another 7 miles and reach East Glacier.

Another must-see is Running Eagle Falls, just a half-mile jaunt off the road into Two Medicine Lake. It used to have the more touristy "Trick Falls" name, no doubt for the remarkable underground passage that makes it seem to emerge from a sheer cliff face.

During spring's high-water period, a second falls tumbles off the top of the cliff next to the main flow. The unusual formation was held in great spiritual regard by both Blackfeet and Kootenai visitors.

The National Park Service officially restored the traditional Blackfeet name, Running Eagle, in 1981.

This is an updated version of a story that has run earlier in the Missoulian.

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