While not the most notable summit in Glacier National Park, Mount Helen sits just above Dawson Pass in the Two Medicine area and is a wonderful addition to your day, that is, if you have any gas left in your tank after climbing to the pass.
On paper, our plan was to take the boat across Two Medicine Lake, climb up to Dawson Pass, summit Flinsch Peak, then head back down to the pass and climb Mount Helen, hustle back down to the boat dock and enjoy the lazy ride back to our cars. Instead, we missed the boat by a couple minutes (it was full anyway) which had us walk the road over to the trailhead. Part one of our plan was changed.
The new plan was to hike the North Shore Trail, summit both peaks, then come down and take the boat back (of which we now had two return tickets for.) We started out on the trail on a perfectly lovely day. The air was clear, super light breeze, loads of wildflowers and birds sang all around us.
Not long on the trail, we came across a young bull moose who passed on by us below the trail. We continued on smelling flowers and enjoying the mostly level hike to the Dawson Pass Trail. Once at that junction, we turned up and began the notorious climb up to Dawson Pass. The good news is that the wildflowers and views are great, giving you loads of enjoyment while you catch your breath. Pumpelly Pillar rises in front of you while the valley opens up below.
The flowers changed as we gained elevation and we began encountering Glacier Lillies, American Globeflower, and Buttercups as we climbed up to the higher, subalpine meadows. We had only a short section of mushy snow as we approached the pass, but otherwise we had wonderful, dry trails.
At the beginning of the hike, a backcountry ranger cautioned us about forecasted afternoon thunderstorms and we were watching them develop as we approached Dawson Pass. There were some particularly dark clouds over Flinsch Peak while Mount Helen still looked okay, but everything was in flux and we weren’t sure if the pass was our destination. We definitely knew that two peaks were now out of the question. Part two of our plan was now changed.
Things were fairly calm at the pass, but the sky was plenty foreboding. We discussed climbing Mt Helen and eventually surmised that it looked like we had enough time if we grabbed some food and ate as we worked our way up. From the pass to the summit was about a mile with approximately 1,000ft vertical gain. We were about 200ft into it when some larger drops of rain and small hail started falling…. soooo we turned around and headed back to the pass.
Then, as we approached the pass, we thought that we may be able to sneak up there before the weather really hit, so we turned back around and worked in earnest for the summit. We kept our eye on the approaching curtains of rain in the distance while enjoying the amazing views.
The “scramble” up to the summit is a non-technical affair with a long, gradual ridge. At one point, a cliff band stands in the way, but is easily navigated by going to the right of it. At no point is there any exposure (unless you purposely walk along the cliff edge) and the route is straightforward. Along the way, the ground has ample alpine vegetation which is easily avoidable by stepping along the rocks (and please do!).
We finally got up to the top, touched the summit cairn, took some photos/videos, a selfie, and then turned around to hustle back down.
Not long after we began descending, a thunder clap was heard over Mt Stimson to the west which reminded us that there was no room for dilly-dally. As we approached the pass, we started to get a few drops on us again and thunder rumbled from down below in the Two Medicine valley. We dropped down into the drainage and out of the exposed rocky ridge and hustled down, stopping to put on our rain gear as it started to drizzle.
Our timing for the boat was just off, so it was either wait for an hour and a half or just hike out along the North Shore trail, which we opted to do. Part three of our plan was changed. The sun came back out again and the rain gear came off. We arrived back at the trailhead and walked the road back to our car (adding insult to missing the boat… literally). Just as we were approaching our car, the sky darkened and it started raining buckets. We hopped in our cars, just in time after a big, full day.
While we had a plan in our minds of what we were going to do, remaining flexible still gave us a great day… and we stayed safe. We also ended up seeing a moose that we wouldn’t have seen had we taken the boat. Just part of getting out and exploring in the unpredictable wilderness!