Home > Garden Wall to Point 8,479

A Taste of Paradise in Glacier National Park: Garden Wall to Point 8,479

July 23, 2011

Culebra and Red map

Unnamed Point 8,479, Glacier National Park
Round-trip distance: 17.5 miles,
Elevation gain: 3,750 feet

An epic snow year in Glacier National Park kept us guessing on what route we would be able to do for our long-awaited big hike, right up until the day we actually set out to do it. Our goal was to get to the Garden Wall and hopefully the Grinnell Glacier Overlook. With the Highline Trail still closed due to snow, and the Grinnell Glacier Trail closed due to grizzly activity, our only option was to hike the Swiftcurrent Pass Trail to the Garden Wall and then descend the same way.

Note: Click on picture to see high resolution photograph in separate window:

Indian Paintbrush

Even for that hike, conditions were unclear, except that an ice axe was recommended for anything beyond Bullhead Lake. Upon entering the park, we learned from the ranger at the Many Glacier park access booth that there was a "near-vertical ice slope at Devil's Elbow, with a sheer 2,000-foot drop below." This sounded ominous since we had not brought crampons along, but we just decided we'd go as far as we could. It was 9a.m. when my Dad, Uncle John and I took to the trail.

Mount Grinnell: one of the towering mountains surrounding Swiftcurrent Valley

The first four miles of the trail were as easy as expected, and the scenery was better than we thought it would be. Fishercap Lake, Redrock Lake and Falls, and Bullhead Lake formed the colorful foreground to the backdrop of the towering Mount Grinnell, Garden Wall, Swiftcurrent Mountain and Glacier, and Mount Wilbur--to name a few.

Swiftcurrent Pass and Mountain

At Bullhead Lake, Uncle John stopped to snap a picture of the glacial water visible through the trees, when my Dad asked if he was photographing the moose. Uncle John had not even seen the cow moose, but his camera caught the sun glinting off the big animal's back as it loafed in front of the green water of the lake.

Bullhead Lake and the Garden Wall

Nearing the end of the valley, I gave some self-arrest lessons on the solidified snow slopes. Before beginning the ascent of the switch-backs, we had to find a way across the creek. For whatever reason the wooden foot-bridge was moved away from the creek, and it was too heavy for the three of us to move. So, we ended up taking off our shoes and fording the cold creek to the other side, where we sat to dry off and power up for our climb ahead.

Creek Crossing Time

The easy switchbacks along the cliffs gained altitude quickly. Because of all the recent snow melt, the cliff walls around us contained more than a dozen waterfalls, most of them cascading hundreds of feet to the valley below, and to the north and below us the beautiful Windmaker Lake became visible.

The snow field at Devil's Elbow was nothing like what we had been led to believe. I was glad we had ice axes along to cross it, and indeed many other hikers turned around at that point, but ahead of us there were others who crossed without the aid of an axe. As we neared Swiftcurrent Pass, the snow cover became more constant, but the angle was much lower here. We crossed the final snow slopes to the pass, where we surveyed the route ahead.

Crossing the slope at Devil's Elbow

While all the other hikers turned right to ascend the switchbacks to the fire tower atop Swiftcurrent Mountain, we were excited to abandon the crowds and find our own route south--along the Garden Wall.

We started by bush-whacking through thick fir trees then abandoned the trees for a nice 400-foot snow slope which took us to near the top of the first hump along the ridge of the Garden Wall. There, an intimidating cliff we had seen from below was easily overcome with a few 3rd Class moves up a surprisingly-solid gulley to the ridge-top. The higher we went, the more the views opened up in every direction, and we moved forward with the adrenaline of pure awe at our surroundings.

Fun scrambling on the Garden Wall above Swiftcurrent Pass

The first slight dip along the ridge revealed a sheer drop-off to the Swiftcurrent Glacier below, and from here on it would be more of the same: abrupt, in-your-face, world-class scenery. Heavens Peak highlighted a line of endless mountains to the south and west. The sun reflecting off the water running down its rock slabs between snow slopes gave the mountain a literal glow--something we could not stop catching glimpses of as we walked.

Heavens Peak

The route along the Garden Wall proper was for the most part dry, but as we tried to reach the saddle above the Swiftcurrent Glacier, we ran into a problem. We cliffed out everywhere we tried along the ridge, and we determined the normal route must take the one steep couloir between cliffs, but on this day it was still filled with near-vertical snow.

Along the Garden Wall

We back-tracked along the west slopes of the Garden Wall, trying to find a weakness in the cliffs that would let us through. We had to go further than we expected, and before we knew it we were bush-whacking our way through steep slopes of low-growing, thick fir trees. It was becoming a mess, as we kept coming to more cliffs among the trees, and I was beginning to lose hope of making it any further along the ridge. However, Uncle John discovered a steep chute of red-colored scree that, with a little bit of additional downhill scrambling through the cliffs, allowed us access to some lesser-angled slopes. None of this was standard human territory, as evidenced by having to walk through trees which were covered in goat wool. Another couple hundred yards of bushwhacking through such intensely thick firs led us out to wide-open grassy slopes--below the saddle along the Garden Wall!

Route-finding fun. This red scree gulley was the key to making it around the cliffs and back to the Garden Wall:

Elated to have made it beyond the cliffs and bush-whacking, we stepped across the saddle and onto the top of the Swiftcurrent Glacier to enjoy an otherworldly view for lunch.

The next hump along the ridge of the Garden Wall looked tough, especially with all the snow still clinging to its north side, but a surprising trail led us along the ridge all the way to the top. My Dad said this was the favorite part of the hike for him. We stopped at this ridge-top perch to figure out what to do next. He said he would rest there and we could go further if we wanted. My hope was to make it to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook, which was now in our sight, but there was no quick way to get there, and before long daylight would be running short.

Garden Wall Bliss

At least wanting to get a peek into the Grinnell Glacier Basin, Uncle John and I started up the ridge toward Point 8,479. About halfway up the ridge-line, I opted to abandon the ridge-crest to follow a goat trail around brown scree slopes, in the direction of the overlook. There were two unexpected gulleys we had to cross, but shortly after getting past those obstacles we arrived on the grassy shoulder of a slope overlooking the Grinnell Glacier. We were actually well above the overlook at this point, but we had the view I had been trying to get to: of the amazing north face of Mount Gould, the spires of the Garden Wall, and the Grinnell Glacier--just beginning to melt enough in pockets near the bottom to reveal the deep turquoise color of the Upper Grinnell Lake.

After a photo shoot of our awesome surroundings, I happened to notice how easy the slopes to Point 8,479 looked from where we were sitting. Because of the time and the route-finding required, climbing Mount Grinnell was out of the question at this point, but a quick discussion led us to decide we had to go for Point 8,479 while we were so close.

Our route to Point 8,479

And we were glad we did. Point 8,479 is not a 'true' ranked or named summit, but standing on that apex provided me probably the best 360-degree view I've ever experienced in the Lower 48 States. The mix of glaciers, glacial lakes, towering peaks and sweeping snowfields, striated cliffs, waterfalls, green valleys--there was so, so much to take in. Words and pictures can only go so far; nothing can do the actual experience justice. Here's a taste:

Uncle John and I stayed on the summit maybe 15 minutes, taking pictures and video to record the moment as best we could, before finally starting back to join Dad, who was able to watch us from his position on the Garden Wall. We left the summit at 5:30p.m., now eager to get back to trail-hiking so we could make it out of the valley before dark.

I had some problems route-finding back to the ridge before getting to Dad, but eventually I was able to correct my mistake. From there on we had no problem following the track I had kept on the GPS to get through the section of bush-whacking and cliffs.

The crowds of the Swiftcurrent fire tower were long gone as we approached the pass. Dad and I glissaded down the 400-foot snow slope as Uncle John plunge-stepped his way to Swiftcurrent Pass.

Heading back to Swiftcurrent Pass

Once on the trail, we picked up our pace, and were happy to find at the bottom of the switchbacks that someone had moved the foot-bridge across the creek--no wading required this time!

At Bullhead Lake we saw two moose this time--a cow and a calf. Less than 5 minutes later we had a close encounter with a bull moose, and a few minutes after that we saw yet another moose at a distance. After that there was no more stopping the rest of the way out the trail--except to try to swat away the hordes of gnats around Redrock Lake.

It was just after 10 o'clock--and just getting too dark to see without a light--when we arrived at the Swiftcurrent Lodge. Still on a high from spending this day in that little slice of Paradise, I had no problem driving the 2 1/2 hours to where we were staying in Columbia Falls.

Until next time...