Features: Birding — Fall Colors — River/Creek — Waterfall — Wildlife
Dogs: No Dogs
Trail running is generally discouraged in Glacier due to the risk of stumbling upon and startling bears. That said, this trail is in a busy area of the park so the chances of a bear encounter are relatively unlikely.
The official trailhead to Upper McDonald Creek is on the north side of N McDonald Creek Rd, 800 ft after you cross the bridge that spans the creek. The trail heads into the trees and veers left for about a third of a mile until the McDonald Ranger Station Horse Trail
juts off to the left. In this initial section, you may see one or more unofficial connector trails that jut right to join up with a spur of the Upper McDonald Creek Trail that runs along the creek. To stay on the main trail, keep left and avoid any connectors until you reach the ranger station trail, at which point the trail heads right back toward the creek.
The main trail meets the creek near a bench and heads left up the creek. The aforementioned spur trail (Upper McDonald Creek Alternate
) turns right from this juncture and runs down the creek back to the road, offering a great view of McDonald Creek Falls, worth the short detour. It is also possible to start on this spur trail from the road, 100 yards after the road bridge that crosses the creek, but this is not an official trailhead. You may also notice a trail that runs parallel to the road immediately after the bridge - this is a horse trail that starts as the Upper McDonald Creek Connector
and becomes a spur of the Upper McDonald Creek Trail after the falls spur splits off and into the trees.
Turning left at the bench, the main trail continues north, offering picturesque views of the creek with glimpses of Glacier's characteristic glacial blue-hued water as it passes through several rapids and waterfalls. Do not to fall into the creek - many have drowned in it. After a while, there is a bridge on your right to cross the creek, which is part of the Johns Lake
Loop Trail (that trail was joined with the creek trail south of this juncture). Upper McDonald Creek Trail does not cross the creek, but continues north along it, eventually cutting inland near a beaver pond. You may also see a feeder creek, depending on the time of year and the water level. The trail used to run all the way up Upper McDonald Creek, it now peters out around 3.5 miles in.
Note regarding trail conditions: This trail is often snow-free in the spring before many of the other trails in the park. However, it is often muddy due to its location along the creek and at the base of Stanton Mountain. The trail is accessible in the winter via snowshoes or skis, but you can't reach it by car because Going to the Sun Road is gated off at Lake McDonald Lodge
The softwood/coniferous trees are primarily Ponderosa Pine, Lodgepole Pine, Douglas Fir, and Western Larch. Of note, Western Larch is unique in that it loses its needles in the fall. Also of note, the Lodgepole Pine is a fire-dependent species, requiring the heat of a forest fire for its cones to release their seeds. The hardwood/deciduous trees you are likely to see on this trail are cottonwoods and cedars.
You are relatively unlikely to see most of the animals Glacier offers on this trail, due to the fact that it is near such a heavily trafficked area. That said, there are no hard and fast rules about sightings in Glacier. Mammals you are most likely to see are White Tail Deer, Black Tail/Mule Deer, squirrels and chipmunks. Keep an eye out for water fowl in the creek, including Glacier's prized Harlequin Ducks, which are known to nest almost exclusively in the park.