Glacier National Park is hiker’s bliss. Though relatively few roads cut through the park, much of Glacier’s splendor can be accessed via hiking trails. Its hard to find a bad trail in Glacier, but some trails are particularly fine. Firebrand Pass is one such trail. Hiking to the pass provides a cross section of Glacier. Beginning at a relatively low elevation marsh dominated by water, willows and wildflowers, the trail climbs through a variety of environments before reaching the harsh subalpine terrain at the pass.
I always love hiking through the gnarled, twisty aspen trees at the beginning of the hike. Relentless wind prevents the trees from growing straight and flattens the branches of these trees so that they look like a forest of lily pads – thin white trunks reaching up to a floating carpet of foliage.
Farther up the trail, the effects of wind are more noticeable. Vegetation is scrubby and stout. Strong roots force their way through rocky soil, anchoring a mat of low-lying leaves to the windswept ground. As the trail wraps around the end of a ridge, mountains spring up all around, making one feel rather small.
My previous trips to Firebrand Pass all took place in July or August, once most snow had melted. Traveling in mid June, our party encountered numerous snowfields.
Snow still lingers over much of Glacier’s higher elevations, yet hardy wildflowers have already bloomed. The landscape which looks barren from a distance explodes with an abundance of buds and blossoms when examined closely.
The valley below the pass is home to a forest graveyard of sorts. The remains of large trees litter the entire valley. Because of the harsh, dry climate and extreme wind, the stumps have barely weathered, and the wood inside is solid, completely free from rot or degradation. Though many decades old, the outsides of some of the stumps are fresh and rosy, due to “sandblasting” by wind driven snow.
Firebrand pass finally comes into view after most of the hike is over. Two snowfields still block the trail, making access to the pass difficult. Anticipating the snow, however, we’ve brought crampons and ice axes so that we can cross the snowfields safely and confidently.
Cresting the pass, we’re greeted by gusts of wind strong enough to blow the tears out of our eyes. Despite blurred vision from the extreme wind, we take a few moments to soak in the views before retreating back down the trail to escape the wind.