Triple Divide Peak, also known as the Crown of the Continent, is truly one of a kind. Well, three of a kind technically. It and its sister summits, Mount Snow Dome in Canada’s Jasper National Park and an obscure peak in Northern Siberia, are considered hydrographic apexes, places where water from the tops runs off to three different oceans. The Continental Divide separates the Atlantic watershed to the east from the Pacific watershed to the west. From Triple Divide, which is located along the Continental Divide, water runs to both these oceans as well as to Hudson Bay, which is part of the Arctic Ocean. Compared the population of many other, even more technical peaks in Glacier National Park, Triple Divide is relatively ignored due its fairly remote location. Only a few have claimed its summit.
Even if peak bagging doesn’t excite you, the pass alone is well worth the hike, and it will inspire return trips again and again. At 7.2 miles one way to the pass at the base of the peak, the pass makes for a pretty epic out-and-back hike in some of Montana’s most spectacular terrain. Add a trip to the summit and you'll have an unforgettable 15-mile round-trip hike.
And unlike the western side of Glacier National Park, East Glacier is far less crowded with tourists. Reaching this region of the park requires more driving, and there are few hiking options that aren’t long and moderate to strenuous treks, so its’ a great way to escape the crowds of Logan’s Pass and Going-to-the-Sun Road while still having some of the park’s most spectacular scenery.
Park at the Cutbank Trailhead, located just west of Browning, Montana. Begin hiking along on Pitamakan Pass Trail and follow the crystalline waters of Cut Bank Creek for 3.9 miles along relatively flat terrain with some mild uphill sections. You could definitely pack in a packraft and float down the creek on the way back to the trailhead. This part of the trail leads through lots of dense forest and beautiful wildflower meadows.
You’ll reach Triple Divide Pass Junction, where a left turn will take you onward to Medicine Grizzle Lake at the bottom of the valley and a right turn will lead up along the right wall of the valley to Triple Divide Pass. You’ll reach the Atlantic Creek Campground just a half mile from this junction.
There are a handful of nice campsites there, though the ones closer to the creek are the most solitary. This stream is a great place to filter and refill your water, and it is your last opportunity later in the season. Near the creek is a single communal pit designated for campfires. You are in a national park and a densely forested area, so be respectful of fire restrictions and please do not build fires outside this pit.
How you choose to structure your trip from here varies. You can hike in, set up camp, continue on to Triple Divide, and returned to camp to hike out the next day. Alternately, you can hike in, set up camp and stay overnight, get an early start and tackle Triple Divide, return to camp and break it down, and hike out. Obviously your specific itinerary will depend on your own timeline (i.e. how many nights you want to camp, what time you are starting on Day 1, what time you need to be out on Day 2). Summiting on Day 1 is nice because it calls for a pretty satisfying night at camp. You can complete a full out-and-back to the pass in a day, as well. If you do camp, remember that Glacier National Park is in the heart of bear country, so be bear aware at all times, especially below tree line. Carry bear spray and tie up your food before leaving camp.
The trail beyond Atlantic Creek Campground climbs steadily and consistently upward; it is not extremely steep, but it is definitely sustained. Almost 2,000 feet of elevation, nearly all the elevation gained over the whole trail, is climbed over the last 2.6 miles to the pass. Follow the clearly marked and well-trodden trail laterally across the southern side of Mount James and enjoy stellar views of Medicine Grizzly Lake in the valley below on your left after you ascend out of the tree line. Keep an eye on the valley floor for bears and the occasional wolf, and watch the rock alpine slopes above for mountain goats and big horn sheep.
Depending on the season, you’ll cross numerous waterfalls and cascading streams tumbling down from the steeper slopes of Mount James. You can use these to rehydrate along the way. Because these streams are so remote and high above tree line, you really don’t need to filter water. There are some big game that wander the alpine slopes, so take whatever chances with water-borne diseases that you’re willing to take. Be careful about relying on these for water sources later in the season, however, as they dry up by the time the snow melts in August. In June and early July you’ll encounter lots of snowpack and maybe even a few icy snow caves arching over the trail. Be careful on these snowy patches because the drop-off on your left is almost always one you won’t be likely to recover from.
The pass stands at 7,397 feet, and from here you will be able to see Saint Mary Lake on the west side of the park. The trail actually continues all the way down to Saint Mary and the Red Eagle Trailhead, a total of 23.2 miles one way including the 7.2 miles you’ve already hiked. The pass is a great spot to rest and take it all in, regardless of whether the pass or the peak is your final destination. In July you might make some hoary marmot friends who will pop out of their holes and try to sneak some food.
The peak is unassuming from a distance, but it is a proud-looking prow nonetheless. It only begins to look menacing when you’re at its base. From the pass, your way is obvious: It’s the huge rock scramble tumbling down from the sheer shale cliff. This is the east face of Triple Divide, the easiest path of ascent. Begin with a pretty low key scramble up the talus until you get into narrower rock chutes. The exposure is nerve-racking, no doubt, but the ledges are all moderately sized and fall on the higher end of Class IV and the lower end of Class V climbing, though most choose not to rope up or use any gear protection. It is helpful, however, to have a background in mountaineering or rock climbing before attempting the peak. For the novice rock climber, the mental component and feeling of vulnerability might be too much to climb safely unprotected. A word of caution for even the most experienced climber: Winds can be devilish up there, which makes even the easiest free-solo a sketchy and terrifying one.
The steep section tops out on the south ridge, which is less exposed with only a Class III ridge walk remaining between you and the summit. From there, the view is awe inspiring, and the sheer solitude is breathtaking. Triple Divide is not the highest peak of the area, and is in fact dwarfed by Mount James, Medicine Grizzly Peak, and Razoredge Mountain, all of which you will see from the summit. But somehow, standing on such a unique geological feature makes Triple Divide even more marvelous. If you have a healthy supply of water remaining, feel free to pour some on top of the summit cairn knowing that a little bit of it will end up in three oceans.