I really like this hike, but only early in the morning. It’s important to get there early because it is packed after 11 a.m. during the height of the summer season. You will walk primarily through the 2015 Reynolds Creek burn, which is interesting in itself. But, there are also amazing waterfalls, slot canyons, beautiful rock gardens, mossy cliffs, old spruce and fir and towering vantage points from which to view St. Mary Lake. Along with the great views of the mountains that the burnt trees allow, you also have excellent views of birds. Often in the forest, if you hear a bird it can be very difficult to find it. Here in the burn, it is much easier. Watch also for nest holes of woodpeckers and Tree Swallows.
Park at Sunrift Gorge and walk up the short trail to see the long slot canyon. The rushing water tends to be rather loud, so finding birds here is difficult. Dusky Flycatcher and others are possible here. American Dippers are probable along much of this hike that parallels river courses or where there are waterfalls. Dippers love these fast rushing rivers that provide good habitat for the insect nymphs and larvae they feed on. Listen for their almost cricket-like flight call and watch for a slate-gray fat little bird cruising up or down the river.
Head down and under the bridge toward the first of the three falls, Baring Falls. As you go under the bridge, look up and notice the soda straw structures. These are geologic features often found in caves that form when water picks up, then deposits minerals as it drips from the ceiling. The soda straw gets longer as water flows through the middle of the straw and hangs in an evaporating droplet on the tip. That droplet slowly evaporates, leaving minerals and thus a longer soda straw behind. When the middle of the straw gets plugged for any reason, the water will flow along the outside of the soda straw, depositing minerals along the way and creating a stalactite.
For most of this hike you will walk through the 2015 burn, however, you will find some living spruce-fir forest containing Douglas fir and lodgepole pine. Young lodgepole pine, spruce and fir trees will begin growing over the next few years. The understory is loaded with dogbane, thimbleberry, huckleberry, red twinberry, Rocky Mountain maple and a great diversity of wildflowers such as yarrow, arnica, twisted stalk, false Solomon’s seal, birch-leaf spirea and others. All the dead trees mean good insect habitat, which means a buffet for insect eating birds. As you are heading down (and I mean down; it’s steep!) the winding trail toward Baring Falls, enjoy the beautiful views while watching for Dusky Flycatcher, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Swainson’s Thrush, Warbling Vireo, Macgillivray’s Warbler, and Wilson’s Warbler. Check out the hummingbirds going after the nectar in the twisted stalk flowers. They are pollinators of the bell-shaped, single flowers hanging from each axil of this plant.
Take a right at the junction and you will quickly reach Baring Falls where you should spend some time at the shore watching for American Dippers. Scan the rocks by the water at the base of the falls, then downstream. There is often a dipper nest near where the water actually falls. Sometimes it is right behind the veil of water, so you may see an American Dipper fly through the water of the falls as it exits its nest. Scan especially the rocks near the falls for nests. Dipper nests are typically made of moss and lichens and will usually look like a light- or mustard-brown dome. If you do get lucky and see the American Dipper family, spend some time watching. It’s not often you get to see birds flying under water unless you are in the Antarctic watching penguins. And besides, the red, green and tan rock make this a really beautiful waterfall.
Grizzly and Black Bears began using the burned area immediately after the fire. In spring 2016, a couple female grizzlies were trapped and given collars as part of an ongoing study of breeding success and mortality. One was well over twenty years old with teeth worn down to the gums. She was bony, scrawny with bad hear and hip bones protruding due to muscle loss from advanced age. Amazingly, the old girl had a cub of the year with her. Our bears tend to have pretty bad teeth thanks to the fact that 15% of their total diet is candy: Huckleberries!
After leaving Baring Falls you’ll take a short walk down to the boat dock. Scan the lake then continue around the cliffs and up the trail. Here comes the prettiest stretch of trail. As you climb, there will be gorgeous, mossy cliffs on the upslope side of the trail covered with wildflowers such as yarrow, mariposa lily, ragwort, paintbrush, columbine, and shooting stars. Listen for the raspy Robin-like song of the Western Tanager and find the singer. The sight of the gorgeous yellow, red and black bird will be worth the effort. As you get higher and higher above St. Mary Lake, the trail has several high cliffy viewing points where you are hundreds of feet up, looking almost straight down at the lake. In some spots you could take a big swan-dive down into the lake, but I don’t recommend it. These are fantastic wildflower rock-gardens loaded with buckwheat, blue penstemon, ragwort, desert parsley, chokecherry, paintbrush, stonecrop, mariposa lily, common yarrow, spotted saxifrage and blue-pod lupine. These are also great birding spots for scanning the lake for waterfowl, scanning the trees around the lake (especially at the inlet) for Bald Eagle, and looking into the tops of trees below you for songbirds. At these gaps look in the tops of trees for Hairy Woodpecker, Dusky Flycatcher, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Mountain Bluebird, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Warbling Vireo, Yellow-rumped Warbler and Chipping Sparrow. Then, watch for Calliope and Rufous Hummingbirds going after nectar in paintbrush and other flowers.
There are two Saint Mary cutoff trails that bring you back up to the road, but take the left fork to keep going toward St. Mary Falls. Between those two junctions is the best of the high spots overlooking St. Mary Lake. Definitely take out your trail mix and sit down with your wildflower guide and hang out for a while as you watch birds in the treetops at eye-level.
As you continue walking, enjoy the view of massive Virginia Falls across the valley through the burned trees. Back in the burn, watch and listen for Black-backed Woodpecker, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Hairy Woodpecker, Rufous Hummingbird, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Red-breasted Nuthatch, House Wren, Swainson’s Thrush, Warbling Vireo, Northern Waterthrush, Yellow Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-headed Grosbeak, Western Tanager, and Dark-eyed Junco. Also watch for Hawk Owls.
Then you are at St. Mary Falls—a spectacular, powerful two-tier falls with a massive amount of water flowing over it. The swirling, churning water below the bridge makes you instinctively hang on to your kids and pull out your camera. Oh, and watch for American Dippers. In 2016, the nest was just to the right of the second level of the falls. It was a rusty clump of vegetation just above green moss no more than a foot or two from the raging water.
Walking around the corner you’ll start going uphill toward Virginia Falls. After about 200 yards you leave the burn and enter a tall spruce and fir forest with thimbleberry, purple virgin’s bower and beargrass understory. It’s a good idea to listen for Pacific Wren, Varied Thrush, Wilson’s Warbler, and Townsend’s Warbler along the stretch between Virginia and St. Mary Falls. Golden-crowned Kinglet, Swainson’s Thrush and, if you are lucky, White-winged Crossbill are all possible here. Also, take advantage of the few great places to view the cascading river along the way to the big falls, always looking for American Dippers and staying away from any wet rock. This would be a great spot to have lunch or a snack. And, while you are resting, notice the Grinnell argillite (rusty red rock) and look for ripples preserved in the rock that were formed in the ancient, one-billion-year-old sea bed.
When you get to the first sign for Virginia Falls, go ahead and cross the bridge and enjoy the view from the rocks on the far side. While you are there, notice the “fossilized” mud cracks in the billion year-old rock at your feet.
Definitely take the last short walk up to the viewing area for Virginia Falls. It is worth it just to get a feel deep in your gut for the power of the water crashing over the falls. You will be impressed. And you will likely get a bit wet from the spray, so hide your optics under your arm.
Top of page photo by Randy Patrick
David Benson Ph.D.
White-tailed Ptarmigan researcher and National Park Service Ranger Naturalist in GNP since 1995. "The Bird Ranger"