Eagle Pass Trail - Mission Mountains, MT
Getting to the Trailhead
About 5.5 miles south of Ronan, MT, turn east off of Hwy 93 onto Eagle Pass Road. Follow it east for 3.9 miles. Before you enter the Cheff Ranch, turn left (north) onto the potholed canal access road and proceed for 0.8 miles to an unsigned, forested parking area on the left and below the road grade. There may be wire range gates across the canal road. Make sure to close any that you open. Parking is limited, perhaps enough for 10 cars at most. Do not park along the narrow canal road. The hike begins at the footbridge that crosses the canal, located a few steps north of the parking area. Trail running shoes are appropriate. An ice axe will be helpful in early season or in high snowfall years. Bear spray is a must for all hikers.
Wilderness to Yourself In general, the Mission Mountains get very little use despite their easy access, adequate trail system, numerous fishable lakes, and abundant alpine peaks (notably McDonald and Calawahcan). Close proximity to Glacier National Park (an international destination) and the Tribal permit system keep people away (though it shouldn't). Don't expect to see many other hikers on west side trails - small parties and a horse packer or two in later summer. Most weekenders from Missoula/Kalispell hike into a few popular lakes on the Swan Valley side of the divide.
Permits Required to Hike
The west side of the Mission Mountains, accessed via the Mission Valley/Hwy 93, is CSKT Tribal Wilderness (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe/Flathead Reservation). The east side of the range, accessed via the Swan Valley/Hwy 83, is USFS-managed wilderness (no permit required). Obtain a tribal recreation permit at Westland Seed, located on Round Butte Road just west of Ronan. Annual pass is $20 for MT residents and $26 for non-residents. Day passes and fishing permits are also available.
The canal in Fall.
Parking area for Eagle Pass Trailhead.
Access road on west side of canal.
Footbridge at trailhead.
Cross the footbridge and follow the good trail through open forest to a few wooden posts (a gate of sorts) and a two-track jeep road. Cross the ruts directly and continue along the gentle, moss-lined path that gently rises out of fir and pine into a dark cedar stand. In a few minutes you will hear a stream ahead on your left. Shortly after, the trail takes a hard right, ascending a couple switchbacks to gain a low ridge. Logs have been conspicuously laid across the old path. Look for cut logs lining the new path.
The trail intersects an old, partially overgrown skid road. Bear right and keep ascending the easy grade. Continue to ascend the track (graded for horse packers) for a couple of miles, winding through forested slopes with occasional views back to the Mission Valley. The way is obvious and the trail good, if a bit brushy in spots.
At around the 4 mile mark, the path makes a short drop into the formerly-glaciated cirque and vertical rock walls appear ahead. The trail narrows here. Ascend for the next mile through a series of chutes and steps formed by bouldery moraines, avalanche rubble, and bedrock benches toward the open subalpine bowl above. The track steepens only slightly. Expect firm snow along portions of the trail before July 4th. Here, like most of the upper valleys along the Mission's western front, the trail lies atop a boulder field covered by enough soil to support stands of slide maple, devils club, and lupine that grow tall by late July.
The trail emerges into the upper bowl where a prominent rock tower is visible at right, on the low point of the divide. If your goal is to camp, look for the flat rock bench, located a few hundred feet above and to the left of the trail. Few other flat spots exist in the upper bowl. If your goal is to climb the tower, or cross the divide and continue into the alpine lakes basin beyond, or to complete the ~15 mile loop hike that exits via the McDonald Lake Trailhead, continue moving upward toward the tower. Gain the steep, forested ridgeline (Eagle Pass) at the tower by kicking steps in consolidated snow for a couple hundred feet. Mountaineers will have no trouble. The less sure-footed may. Distance from the parking lot to the pass is just under 6 miles.
A curious strip of dense cedar (cool, wet microclimate), only a few hundred feet wide, occurs along the base of the Mission Mountains. Above and below are stands of ponderosa pine and fir with bear grass beneath.
Cross this pretty little stream early in the hike. It appears to be the turn around point for many dayhikers.
Track of a grizzly cub in the snow near Eagle Pass.
Views to the Mission Valley and Ninepipes Reservoir area from about the midpoint of the hike.
The second half of the trail traverses forested steps and brushy slopes, some with hellebore. June photo.
The trail steepens slightly through a series of chutes and short steps before emerging into the upper bowl (glacial cirque).
A wide, flat rock bench provides the best camping spot in the upper bowl. Tower on the ridgeline is located at the saddle (Eagle Pass) where the trail crosses into the lakes basin beyond. Snow lingers into July. June photo.
View to the south of the craggy cliffs that form the upper bowl. The prominent rock tower is just out of view to the left.
Upper bowl looking east. The only steep portion of the trail is the last few hundred feet below the Pass.