St. Mary Area Waterfalls Hike
|Trail Features:||Waterfalls, Lake views|
|Trail Location:||St. Mary Falls Trailhead|
|Roundtrip Length:||5.2 Miles|
|Total Elevation Gain:||700 Feet|
|Avg. Elev Gain / Mile:||269 Feet|
|Highest Elevation:||4845 Feet|
|Trail Difficulty Rating:||6.60 (moderate)|
|Parking Lot Latitude||48.6746|
|Parking Lot Longitude||-113.60807|
The St. Mary Area Waterfalls hike, which visits three named and two unnamed waterfalls, begins from the St. Mary Falls Trailhead, located 10.6 miles west of the St. Mary Entrance Station on the Going-To-The-Sun Road. This hike description assumes you'll be returning to the St. Mary Falls parking area from Sunrift Gorge via the Going-To-The-Sun Road shuttle.
With limited parking, and all three waterfalls in this area being popular destinations, parking can be an issue during the summer season. I would recommend arriving early to find a space, or taking the shuttle from Sun Point or Rising Sun to reach the St. Mary Falls Trailhead.
The hike begins on the St. Mary Falls Cutoff Trail. For a brief segment near the beginning of the trail, as you pass through an opening in the forest, hikers will have commanding views of 8064-foot Dusty Star Mountain as it towers directly in front of you. Looking towards the south will be 8922-foot Almost-a-Dog Mountain and 9541-foot Little Chief Mountain. And if you look towards the west you’ll see Fusillade, Reynolds and Heavy Runner Mountains.
Soon the trail enters the canopy of a dense conifer forest, and at roughly one-quarter of a mile from the parking area, hikers will arrive at the Piegan Pass Trail junction. Hikers should turn right here, and then walk a few more yards where you'll reach another junction. The Piegan Pass Trail continues up the hill towards the right. To continue on towards St. Mary Falls hikers should veer left onto the St. Mary Lake Trail at this juncture.
At six-tenths of a mile hikers will reach the St. Mary River. Soon afterwards you'll hear the thunder of crashing water, and in another quarter-mile, will finally arrive at St. Mary Falls, one of the more spectacular waterfalls in Glacier National Park.
St. Mary Falls drops roughly 35 feet in three separate tiers, with the two largest being the most photogenic. A smaller waterfall can be found below the footbridge. Even on a hot August day the rush of water forces a cool breeze down the narrow gorge. You'll also notice the incredibly beautiful aqua-green color of the pools just below the falls.
Look for American dippers, also known as water ouzels, diving under the water in search of food near the falls. These small birds usually nest in the area as well.
Shortly after passing St. Mary Falls the trail begins following Virginia Creek. In between St. Mary and Virginia Falls are two very impressive series of cascades and waterfalls, both of which would be notable destinations in and of themselves. However, being located between two absolutely spectacular waterfalls, the relative aesthetic quality of the two unnamed falls may be somewhat diminished. That being said, however, they're still well worth a stop.
At 1.2 miles you'll reach the first unnamed falls, a quite impressive cascade that drops in a series of four separate tiers. Unfortunately many people mistake this for Virginia Falls. A quarter-of-a-mile up the trail is the second series of cascades and falls. Again these are quite impressive and well worth a visit.
At 1.7 miles hikers will arrive at the Virginia Falls Viewpoint Trail junction. Staying towards the left continues along the St. Mary Lake Trail. To visit Virginia Falls hikers should take the right fork. The base of the upper falls is less than a tenth-of-a-mile from this junction.
Virginia Falls is another multi-tiered waterfall, with the main fall dropping roughly 50 feet, another secondary chute, and then a short cascade section at the bottom. Stepping up to the base of the main falls and feeling the spray and the blast of cool air is like instant air conditioning, even on a hot August day. You may want to note that the rocks around the falls are quite slick.
I would have to rate Virginia Falls as probably the most impressive waterfall in Glacier National Park. That's just my humble opinion, though.
To continue on towards your next destination, Baring Falls, requires hikers to backtrack all the way to the St. Mary Lake Trail / Piegan Pass Trail junction. Up to this point you will have hiked roughly 3.6 miles. Although the sign at the junction doesn't indicate that Baring Falls is in this direction (it only indicates Sun Point), you'll have to make a right turn at this juncture. Baring Falls will arrive long before ever reaching Sun Point.
This next section of trail more or less follows the Going-To-The-Sun Road. You may even hear a truck or motorcycle for a very brief portion. Hikers will also have sporadic views of Saint Mary Lake and the surrounding mountains.
At roughly 4.1 miles hiker will reach the Gunsight Lake Horse Cut-off Trail, which leads to the shuttle stop just east of the trailhead.
A quarter-mile past the junction you'll reach a vantage point that provides sweeping panoramic views of Saint Mary Lake. This perch sits roughly 100 feet above the lake, and is an outstanding spot for lunch, or to simply take a long break to soak in the incredibly beautiful scenery.
From here the trail continues to descend towards the lake. At 4.7 miles you'll reach a small boat dock along the shores of Saint Mary Lake. Baring Falls is now only a little more than a hundred yards away.
Baring Falls is a pleseant waterfall that drops roughly 25 feet. After tumbling over the rock ledge, Baring Creek flows another hundred yards before spilling into Saint Mary Lake. The area around the falls is another good place to look for water ouzels.
After viewing the waterfall hikers will cross a footbridge, and shortly thereafter, at roughly 4.9 miles, will reach the Siyeh Pass Trail junction. To continue on towards the parking area hikers should turn left here.
At roughly 5.2 miles you'll reach the Sunrift Gorge area on the Going-To-The-Sun Road. To return back to your car at the St. Mary Falls Trailhead, hop on the shuttle to the St. Mary Falls shuttle stop. Note that this is not the same location as the trailhead. You'll still have to walk another tenth-of-a-mile up the road to reach the trailhead parking area.