Firebrand Pass in Glacier National Park is a favorite fall hike of ours. This year, we decided to add a little bonus by climbing Red Crow Mountain. Maybe it was all that clean air and blue skies. Either way, it was all smiles on a perfect September day in our favorite park.
I’ve spent most of my summer away from Glacier National Park. While I’ve been gone, and even when I’ve been back, fires in the western part of the country and in Canada have made getting outside a bummer. With the cooler temperatures and a couple of little rain events, we’ve seen a great diminishing of the smoke. Sunday looked good, so we planned to head out.
While we drove over, we saw a few active fires and were already thinking about plan B, but by the time we came over Marias Pass near the trailhead, we knew that we had made the right choice.
As soon as we got out of the car, the classic blue skies and whipping wind greeted us and we set out. While the aspens hadn’t really started turning, many plants already had, so as we worked our way up the trail, the oranges, purples, golds, and reds delighted our eyes.
I love hiking east of the Continental Divide because you get open meadows fairly frequently in the lower elevations and then quickly transition to shorter trees and open vantages. Firebrand Pass embodies this sort of hike and it wasn’t very long before we were looking up at mountains and back out to rolling hills and plains. A couple of Cooper’s Hawks landed in a dead tree for a few minutes before flying high and onward… most likely migrating south.
We arrived in the subalpine, looking up the Railroad Creek drainage at the wonderful, rocky summits of Bearhead and Dancing Lady before turning up towards the basin with Firebrand Pass. Ruby red fireweed danced over golden grasses as we skirted low-growing subalpine fir and huckleberries a mere six inches tall. After a few switchbacks, we settled into a steady gate up the long traverse to Firebrand Pass with howling winds.
While bracing against the wind, we took a few pictures and planned our attack of Red Crow Mountain. We opted to sneak around the north side of the shoulder to stay out of the wind which proved to be wise and rewarding. A main Bighorn Sheep trail takes off on the west side of the pass which we followed, then took off on a more subtle sheep path up a chute.
Once we reached the other side, we found a more established trail and a herd of six Bighorn Sheep that apparently frequent this route. It looked like two ewes and four lambs. We went below them and back up on the ridgeline, staying to the north (and leeward) side of the ridge, passed through a cool darker rock outcropping and onto the final approach.
A tall, thumb-shaped mountain stood imposing and initially fooled me for Mt. St. Nicholas, but I realized it was made of red rock and was a couple of ridges too far to the east. After looking at a map, this mystery summit turned out to be the delightful Eagle Ribs Mountain and beckoned me to climb it some day.
From there we walked the gentle approach to the summit which featured a staggering cliff on the north side down to Lena Lake. We also used this opportunity to scout a route or two for the future.
We backtracked a bit, then headed for the outlet of the cirque. We stumbled upon a couple of Dusky Grouse before joining up with the trail where we shook rocks out from our shoes, then hustled back to our cars.
I don’t know what it is about Firebrand Pass in Glacier National Park that makes me want to explore it so much in the fall… oh wait, I know why. It’s stunning with the colors. You should try it some time.