On the drive in to Two Medicine, Tyson ooh’d and aah’d at all the mountains, especially the skiable snowfields. I pointed out a trail which traversed several of the mountains he particularly liked. Tyson looked it up in the guidebook and declared that was a good first hike.
The morning dawned with clouds hanging on the mountain peaks. We started early since we were still on east coast time. The trailhead was a short walk from camp. Right at the trailhead we saw a small group of big horn sheep passing through the woods. They stopped and looked at us and we took photos.
The trail started out in the woods. There was one plant in particular that was really neat. It looked like a clump of grass with an asparagus stalk growing out of the middle. A few of the stalks were more mature and starting to turn into compound white flower buds that looked like they might blossom into the big white poof balls we had seen along the highway. They remained a mystery to us for several days until Mom figured out they were Bear Grass, a type of lily.
The next feature on the trail was a waterfall overlook. Above the waterfall, we popped out of the forest into alpine meadow and rocks. The views of all the mountains towering above us were stunning. Many of the peaks were still obscured by clouds, but we occasionally glimpsed bits of them. The high river valley was covered in snow and other snowfields hung about here and there. On the far side of the valley, there was a sheep track that crossed a recent large landslide. Farther up, a side stream had ripped it’s banks and poured a streak of mud on top of the snow covering the main stream. Another group of big horn sheep stopped twenty feet away from us, waiting to cross our trail. We moved out of their way and they cautiously walked by before hurrying away. The group, led by a big ram, included several adults and two little ones. Across the valley, we saw a large herd run down their main trail and then very gingerly cross the recent landslide.
The other wildlife we saw were chipmunks and something that looked like very much like a fat squirrel or a really small ground hog. We guessed it might be a ground squirrel. We later verified they were Columbian ground squirrels.
I started out the hike bemoaning the limited flowers because the snow has so recently melted, however, the farther we hiked the more flowers we saw. I eventually conceded it was good enough. The terrain varied between dry rocky soil thinly covered by small alpine vegetation, to rocky bands and talus fields with lichen and an occasional hardy plant, to lush green patches where snow melt kept the ground wet, and an occasional stand of krumholtz or gnarled trees. We saw a whole lot of white bleached dead trees. Our initial guess was that they died in a forest fire, but we could find no evidence of char.
The trail climbed steadily upward until the waterfalls and talus slopes which had felt a world above us were now at eye level or left below, and the forest and valleys were a long ways down the plummeting hillside. The trail was cut at an easy grade so it wasn’t until I turned around to look at the view that I realized how high we had hiked. Four people had passed us during the climb, but otherwise we had been entirely alone. The clouds had almost entirely cleared.
We ate an early lunch at a saddle with a good view back into the park. We could see lower and upper two medicine lake and several other valleys with potential trails for the next day. From there the trail passed over the ridge to where it was covered by a steep snowfield. Two of the folks who had passed us were already returning and guided us to the use trail around the snow. In general we try not to take use-trails since they destroy the vegetation. In this case, the snow was far too steep to cross without crampons and, as we saw from the other side, corniced. Also there was a single, well-trod trail around rather than a maze of paths.
From there, the trail transitioned onto a high plateau covered in yellow flowers. We followed the plateau to a small rise near the end called Scenic Point. The trail continued onward. It was actually part of the Continental Divide Trail. Scenic Point was well named. In one direction, we could see the snow covered cliffs and peaks of the park. In the other direction was prairie in the Blackfeet reservation. By this point in the day, hikers who had started at a reasonable hour were passing us. We chatted with one group who knew the area well and received suggestions for good trails to try the next day.
The trip was an out-and-back, so the views and flowers and waterfalls were much the same on the way back. The saddle where we had eaten a solitary lunch was now crowded with people. We met a ranger there and asked about trail conditions. He contraindicated the trails suggested by the other group due to water hazards and suggested yet a different trail. We also learned from him that the swaths of dead trees had been killed by white pine blister rust. It is an invasive fungus which had killed something like 98% of the white pine in the area.
Watching all the other folks hiking up past us, I noticed that most of them had made a completely different risk assessment than us. We had our big hiking packs stuffed full of water, food, jackets, first aid, repair kits, microspikes, foam pads, etc. They, on the other hand had bear spray. Most had a small pack and the bear spray tucked in a holster. A few held it in hand ready to use. So, were we massively over prepared with all our emergency equipment? Were they excessively paranoid of bears? We discussed this question for a while and decided that, if nothing else, the local outfitters made a good profit on bear spray. The other thing we noticed on the way down was that there was more water flowing down the falls. The sun and warmth must have caused significant snow melt.
Right at the trail junction for the waterfall overlook, we saw our last significant wildlife for the day — a large big horn ram ambling up the trail towards us. We stepped back onto the side trail to let it pass. Isaac excitedly pointed at it and repeatedly exclaimed “puppy!” Most everything on 4 legs is a “puppy”.
From there it was not far back to the ranger station for a trail status report for the next day and to the camp store for ice cream and a blanket for Tyson.