CDT 2021: Day 149, East Fork Pentagon Creek to Strawberry Creek

Showing you the way, leaving no doubt

Pentagon Mountain

The foliage here in Northern Montana gradually began to shift to fall colors in the last couple of days.

The changes had been subtle, but that was not the case today. Instead of just hints of yellows and reds here and there, those colors appeared everywhere I looked. It was as if the trees and shrubs had become impatient with the slow transition and decided to burst out their new colors all at once.

DateWednesday, September 8, 2021
WeatherPartly cloudy and smokey; temperatures from the mid-40s to low-70s
Trail ConditionsMostly clear trail with many switchbacks
Today's Miles21.1
Trip Miles2228.1

This remarkably sudden change wasn't due to an elevation change, as I would have expected. Fall colors appeared today regardless of where I walked.

Perhaps I was startled to see this because of what I'm used to. Fall colors typically peak where I live in East Tennessee the third week of October, and it takes nearly a month for the transition to happen.

Not so here. We're barely past Labor Day and are already rushing into fall.

The climb to Switchback Pass

Despite camping near a creek at a lower elevation, I had another dry and comfortable night. There would be no need again today to stop and dry my gear.

As I noted when I looked at the trail profile last night, the day began with a long climb. Starting at an elevation of about 5,500 feet, I had to climb to 7,700 feet. That was where I would reach Switchback Pass. The distance was close to 3.5 miles.

Smoke obscures a view across a valley

The climb wasn't as steep as I assumed, though I still had difficulty going up. I lacked energy, feeling like I was dragging my body up to the pass.

It didn't help that the few views along the way were so smokey that there wasn't much to see.

A downed tree was cut to clear the trail

I found signs of work done by the trail maintenance crew mentioned in the Guthook comments Top O' and I read yesterday. The trail was clear to the top of the pass, with a couple of downed trees recently cut.

There were many switchbacks on the climb, which is presumably why the top was named Switchback Pass. The distance was at least twice as far as it would have been if the trail went straight up.

I will never complain about switchbacks because they serve a helpful purpose. Still, I was getting tired long before I got to the pass.

Switchback Pass

I didn't reach the top of Switchback Pass until nearly 10 a.m. I should have needed under two hours to get there, but the climb took more than 2.5 hours. At least I had already completed the most difficult section of the day. There would be more climbs ahead, but they would be shorter and less steep.

The trail descends from Switchback Pass

The next 7.5 miles included some of those shorter climbs but also lost all of the elevation gain. The trail dropped to a lower altitude than where I started this morning.

Smoke made the air quality extremely poor this morning. The sky was a dusty yellow-brown.

Basin Creek

As I hoped, I began to pick up my pace on the descent. I stopped for water and a short break at Basin Creek before starting the first of the short climbs.

The trail climbs toward Pentagon Mountain and Dean Lake

That climb was relatively easy, going up only 200 feet in a mile. My speed was now closer to what I would have expected.

Dean Lake

Dean Lake was near the top of that climb. It was on a nearly-barren ledge, surrounded by dead trees and Pentagon Mountain (8,873 feet). I stopped to look at the lake when I noticed some loons floating in the water.

Montana is home to the largest population in the western United States of these aquatic birds. Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks lists loons as a species of concern because of a loss of habitat and other problems associated with human disturbance. They will only live on lakes that are five acres or larger with clear water and have a sufficient supply of food.

I tried to photograph the loons swimming in Dean Lake, but they were too far away to get a clear shot.

Fireweed along the Trilobite Range

When I left the lake, the trail followed below a ridge called Trilobite Range. It was formed through a geologic action called thrust faulting. When this happens, older rock layers get pushed above younger ones. It was similar but less grand than the Chinese Wall.

This section of trail was severely burnt in a large wildfire several years ago. Recovery has been slow, with fireweed still the most prominent new growth.

Fall colors in Montana

After 8.8 miles, the Spotted Bear Alternate turned, and I headed down the Clack Creek Trail. I could see trees ahead and decided to look for a place to stop for lunch when I reached some shade.

I still hadn't caught up to Top O', but that was no surprise, and I didn't see him the rest of the day. The climb at the start of the day made sure that wouldn't happen, even if the trail was now much easier for me.

The time was 1 p.m. when I found a shady spot to stop for lunch. I had only hiked 9.6 miles so far.


As I hoped, my speed after lunch continued to be faster than it was this morning. I had to slow down, however, when a couple of grouse decided I was walking on their trail. They didn't want to give me room to pass.

I still hadn't seen any other thru-hikers except Top O' since we left our camp by the Chinese Wall yesterday morning. I was beginning to wonder if everyone was following the official CDT route instead of the Spotted Bear Alternate like we were doing.

El Dorado crosses a river

When I arrived at Middle Fork Flathead River at 3 p.m., I was unsure how to cross it. The wide stream bed was shallow, with rocks and logs randomly scattered across it. I didn't see an obvious way to get across that would keep my feet dry, however. Some of the logs looked like they were spread too far apart for me to use them to get across.

I stood at the river bank for several minutes and scanned the stream for a possible way across. Just as I was about to give up and wade across, El Dorado arrived. Now I knew Top O' and I weren't the only hikers on the alternate.

We chatted briefly, then El D started to make his way across. I watched as he methodically stepped from one log to another, across a couple of rock slabs and some exposed rocks, and then across more logs. His youthful agility made it look easy.

I had previously thought of going the way he went but didn't think my legs were long enough to step across some of the gaps between logs and rocks. Seeing El D gave me the confidence to try. It turned out to be easier than I thought, and I got to the other side without getting my feet wet.

Gooseberry Ranger Cabin

Gooseberry Ranger Cabin was a short distance away on the other side of the river. El D stopped there, and when I arrived, he told me he planned to wait for Thirteen.

The cabin was closed and locked. Like others I've passed on hikes, this one was intended to be a short-term outpost and storage building rather than a residence for rangers. It was smaller than the "baked potato" cabin we saw on Day144.

It's no wonder the cabin on Welcome Creek was wrapped in aluminum foil. Because of regulations written into the Wilderness Act of 1964, a cabin cannot be replaced if it is lost due to a fire or other disaster. New man-made structures aren't allowed in a designated wilderness, and these are only allowed to stand because they were built before the land was protected under the act.

Telephone lines used to be strung between the cabins for communication, but they were removed when portable radio equipment became more available.

Some cabins had airstrips near them. They were abandoned in the 1930s after the U.S. Forest Service's chief of the Division of Recreation and Lands in the Washington Office of the Forest Service objected to them. His name was Robert "Bob" Marshall.

Marshall was a leading proponent of wilderness protection and a co-founder of The Wilderness Society. He died at age 38 in 1939. When the Wilderness Act was signed into law and created legally defined wilderness areas, Bob Marshall Wilderness was named in his honor.

A trail register was at the cabin and I signed it. Leafing through recent pages, I found entries from several hikers I recognized. For example, the Bennett family was here a week ago.

Middle Fork Flathead River

After I left the cabin, I followed the trail as it went upstream next to the river. The Flathead River's middle and south forks flow north, while the north fork flows south from its source in British Columbia, Canada. The confluence of the middle and north forks is near West Glacier, Montana. This fork of the river has been federally protected since 1972 as a wild and scenic river.

About a mile upstream from the cabin was the source of the middle fork, Strawberry Creek. The trail then followed it upstream.

The junction where the CDT connects with the Spotted Bear Alternate

The end of the Spotted Bear Alternate came soon after that. This is where I rejoined the CDT to continue north. I had to stop and double-check my directions first because the sign at the junction was lying on the ground. This made it uncertain which way the sign's arrows were supposed to point.

Dead trees

The valley where Strawberry Creek flowed was wide, and the elevation gain was modest. The trail didn't always stay near the creek's meandering route, so the stream wasn't always visible.

The trail continues near Strawberry Creek

The trail followed the creek for the rest of the day. I crossed the creek once, then continued three more miles until I came to another trail junction. This one wasn't marked, and I had to stop again to be sure I went the right way.

Then I heard Top O' shout out to me. He was standing just off to my left, where he had set up his tent. The campsite he found was spacious. When El D and Thirteen arrived about 20 minutes later, there was room for them, too.

Although I had a sluggish start to the day and struggled to get up the first climb, I made up most of my lost time the rest of the way. I also completed 21 miles for the day, and that's nothing to feel sorry about.

I may be starting to wear down from this long hike. Still, my spirits are buoyed by a couple of thoughts. The chief one is I know I'm closing in on the end.

It's impossible to say how many days it will take to reach the Canadian border. We won't know that until we secure our camping permits in Glacier National Park. Still, I'm certain the end is less than two weeks away.

The other thought that keeps me feeling positive comes after looking at the terrain. I knew today's climb would be difficult after I saw the trail profile yesterday. When I did that, I also scrolled ahead to see what to expect for the next few days.

There won't be many more noteworthy climbs until I enter Glacier. It looks like I can expect about three easier days until then.

Till the morning comes
It'll do you fine
Till the morning comes
Like a highway sign
Showing you the way
Leaving no doubt
Of the way on in or the way back out


"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.