Although Going-to-the-Sun Road has not fully opened for the season, Glacier National Park makes a wonderful Memorial Day Weekend getaway. The one million acre park, which celebrates its centennial anniversary this year, has far more to offer than a scenic drive over Logan Pass.
The Belly River meanders through the northeast corner of Glacier National Park before crossing into Canada. Due to its relatively low elevation, the Belly River Trail offers one of the best early season hikes in Glacier. About 8.2 miles up the trail, Dawn Mist Falls provides an amazing destination for a day trip. Trail crews work on clearing this trail early in the season. According to Glacier’s webpage, the Belly River suspension bridge was installed on May 19th opening up access Dawn Mist Falls and beyond.
The Belly River Trail begins at a small parking area along Highway 17 just south of the Chief Mountain border crossing. From the trailhead, the route descends for two miles through thick forest into the Belly River Valley losing 809 feet in elevation. The loss in elevation is a pleasant way to start the trip, but recognize it will be a hard climb up at the end of a long hike. After reaching the valley bottom, the trail changes little in elevation as it follows the winding river. Have no doubt, this is bear country. While hiking to Dawn Mist Falls over Memorial Day Weekend in 2007, my friend and I followed a large set of black bear tracks for over a mile before the bear finally left the trail. We were prepared to turn back at the first sign of danger. Bring bear spray and make lots of noise to avoid a surprise encounter. The Belly River Ranger Station provides a nice landmark about 6 miles into the trip. Located near the ranger station, a group of backcountry campsites known as Gable Creek Camp lays a short distance off the trail. If you plan on camping in the backcountry, you must obtain a permit at a visitor center or ranger station. Nearly two miles past the ranger station, the trail crosses the Belly River on an impressive suspension bridge. At 8.2 miles, shortly after crossing the river a spur trail branches off to the left leading to Dawn Mist Falls. The beautiful Dawn Mist Falls rushes over a moss covered cliff into a tranquil emerald pool. Take a break and enjoy the falls before returning along the same route.
Look over the hiking information on Glacier National Park’s webpage to learn about other trails to enjoy at this time of year. Sun Point to Virginia Falls along St. Mary Lake offers a scenic trip past three water falls on the east side of the park. On the west side, try hiking to Avalanche Lake and along the Trail of Cedars. Glacier provides current trail condition updates which help tremendously when planning a trip. Enjoy your Memorial Day Weekend with a trip to one of Montana’s most spectacular places.