The 35-mile stretch of sometimes jarring, sometimes dirt road that leads from Columbia Falls and tracks along the western edge of Glacier National Park should be driven with respect, but visitors who brave the journey to this remote corner of the park will not regret it.

Named for the North Fork of the Flathead River that borders the park, this is one of the least crowded and most remote sections of Glacier, and must be accessed by private vehicle.

Those who make the trek are rewarded with a living laboratory of fire ecology in recently burned areas, as well as peak-studded views of Bowman and Kintla lakes, a homesteading site, and the opportunity to see and hear rarefied wildlife like wolves.

A series of wildfires over the decades have etched the mountain-scape with a mix of forest growth, each drawing a unique complement of species, including rare bird species, like the Northern Three Toed and Black-backed woodpeckers.

Visitors accustomed to modern comforts should be warned that few services exist up the North Fork, and cell phones stop chirping as the pavement turns to wash-boarded dirt.

Self-reliant visitors will appreciate the dearth of amenities, as well as the thin crowds.

Allow a full day to drive to and from Kintla and Bowman Lakes, and be sure to kick around the historic homesteading outpost of Polebridge, where a vibrant mercantile, bakery and saloon are open for business.

TOP HIKES

1. Bowman Lake

This pristine lake six miles up a dirt road from Glacier Park’s Polebridge entrance station is about one mile wide and eight miles long, with a front-country campsite at its head and a backcountry campsite at its base.

A destination in its own right, multiple trails lead away from its shores and zigzag into the alpine country, but a simple stroll on a rolling trail along the northern lakeshore will be well worth the rewarding views.

2. Numa Ridge Lookout

This 5.6-mile one-way hike to an active fire lookout offers stunning views of Rainbow Peak, Square Peak and Mount Carter, as well as sprawling Bowman Lake nearly 3,000 vertical feet below.

Pack plenty of water and a snack for this sustained climb up switchbacks that will seem a little relentless until you top out at this gorgeous perch.

3. Quartz Lakes Loop

This 13-mile day hike (or overnight trip if you’ve procured a backcountry permit) is a tireless classic that will leave you tired – and hungry for more.

The trail for the Quartz Lakes begins at the foot of Bowman Lake and traces its south shore, climbing over Quartz Ridge at two locations.

The route is perfectly suited for a fine loop, which can be dispatched as one long day hike, or with a planned overnight at either Quartz Lake or Lower Quartz Lake.

The aptly named pair of crystalline lakes is nestled into a valley carpeted with wildflowers and peppered with birds and wildlife, and provides terrific fishing for the able angler.

Bucket List

Polebridge Mercantile

No journey to the North Fork is complete without a stop at the legendary Polebridge Mercantile, a barn-red building where fresh-baked huckleberry bear claws, sticky buns and pocket sandwiches line the shelves alongside handy-dandy items you might have forgotten to pick up in town.

Built in 1914, the “Merc,” as it’s affectionately known, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and remains a classic piece of Montana history, but under new ownership in recent years it has adopted a host of eco-friendly ethics, evidenced by its newly expanded solar array.

Also new this year is a fruit and produce stand. To learn about the history of this region, and about ongoing conservation efforts, stroll along the nearby Transboundary Trail, located just north of the Merc and offering nine interpretive stops along the path.