The Two Medicine area has some of the best hiking and birding in Glacier National Park. Cobalt Lake up to Two Medicine Pass is one of my favorite trails, with jaw-dropping scenery, fields of flowers, and the potential, if you have the energy, to get up into the alpine with the possibility of seeing American Pipit, Rock Wren, Timberline Brewer's Sparrow, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch and, perhaps, White-tailed Ptarmigan.
This trail description starts at the junction of the South Shore Two Medicine Trail (described elsewhere) and the Two Medicine Pass trail, about 2.6 miles from the boat dock parking area at Two Medicine Lake. From the junction it’s another 3.2 miles up to the lake.
The first stretch of the Two Medicine Pass Trail brings you along the base of Mt. Sinopah where there is spruce-fir forest with several avalanche chutes. In the trees look for Mountain Chickadee, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Western Tanager, Pine Siskin and others.
The shrubby habitat of the avalanche chutes is pretty in its own right. Because there are few mature trees standing, these chutes have a lot of light making them great for shrubs, berries and a variety of wildflowers. Macgillivray’s and Tennessee Warbler, Black-headed Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting, Chipping Sparrow and others prefer this type of shrubby habitat to the forest.
Once out of the avalanche chutes you will enter a short spruce-fir forest with some lodgepole and an understory of huckleberry and false huckleberry. Listen for Varied Thrush and Yellow-rumped Warbler. Rockwell Falls is neither the biggest nor easiest to view, but here you are and it is an exquisite falls anyway. Have a quick snack and then it’s switchbacks, making your way up into the hanging valley that contains Cobalt Lake. Stop along the way and enjoy the inspiring view back toward Two Medicine Lake. Olive-sided Flycatcher, Varied Thrush, Hermit Thrush, Fox Sparrow and Chipping Sparrow are in this area along with lots of bear-grass and pink spirea as the forest gets shorter and more open.
Once you are up in the hanging valley you’ll continue to walk next to the river coming from Cobalt Lake. As you get higher there is the possibility of Dusky Flycatcher, Pacific Wren, Hermit Thrush, Cassin’s Finch and Pine Siskin. There are some great canyon-like portions of trail with big mossy rocks along the way. If you time things right, the monkeyflower will be in bloom. Just before Cobalt Lake are some of the most amazing meadows full of pink Lewis’ monkeyflower anywhere in the park. Forget birds and enjoy the flowers!
Cobalt Lake is a gorgeous spot. The lake is small and blue and is flanked by rock walls extending up toward Two Medicine Pass. Definitely spend some time relaxing along the shore. There is a fine “beach” and my kids often like to take a refreshing dip or just wade in the water. If you are lucky and quiet you might catch sight of a water shrew working the rocks along the shore. Water shrews are very small, brown, mouse-like mammals with a long pointy nose. They will dive under the water to go after insect nymphs and larvae like caddisflies and mayflies. You’ll see them dive under, swimming frantically to search along the bottom. Then, as soon as they stop swimming, the air bubbles trapped in their fur with bob them quickly to the surface.
If you camp at Cobalt Lake, listen for White-tailed Ptarmigan screaming at sundown and just before sunrise. They live in the moist spots with growing vegetation high above the lake.
If you have the time and energy, you need to continue up toward Two Medicine Pass. It’s worth the effort. This is a great, but vigorous, addition to your hike as it takes you up into the alpine. Along the way, you’ll see White-crowned, Fox and the Timberline Brewer’s Sparrow. The Timberline Brewer’s Sparrow has a very plain breast with light striping on the head. You’ll see Gray-crowned Rosy Finch and American Pipits up high. Also look and listen for White-tailed Ptarmigan and Rock Wren.
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"