The hike to Tuchuck in the Whitefish Range of the Flathead National Forest is epoch. We’ve taken this hike several times and all agree that it’s the toughest and most satisfying of all the hikes we know in the Flathead. The reason is you’re climbing not one but two complete mountains.
I’ve not been able to discover the name of the “mountain before the mountain” that is Tuchuck, but you do indeed ascend almost 2,200 feet then down almost 700 feet before you start the final ascent up to Tuchuck. That qualifies as two mountains in my book.
Once you hit the ridge of the “mountain before the mountain” approximately 3 miles into the hike, the views are spectacular all the way to the top of Tuchuck.
Difficulty: Medium to hard mainly because of the length and change of elevation
Total Distance: 13.2 miles round trip
Approximate Time from the Trail Head and Back: 7-8 hours
Highest Elevation: 7,736
Difference from Start Elevation: 5,065 feet
Total Ascent: 4,383 feet (that’s a lot of going up and down)
Coordinates for Start of Trail: Latitude: -114.578852 Longitude: 48.955590
What do you need?
Take plenty of water. There are few water sources and these dry up by the end of the summer. Also take plenty of sunscreen and a hat, especially in the summer. There are portions of the trial that have very little shade. There are no bathroom facilities, so be prepared to deal responsibly with that. Finally, bring your bear spray at all times of the year. There are plenty of grizzly and black bears in this region.
What makes this hike so perfect?
First, it is in the Flathead National Forest which means that it is much less crowded than hiking just across the North Fork of the Flathead River in Glacier National Park. Next, you can bring your dog along and it’s perfectly legal. In season, you can carry along your weapon of choice and do a bit of hunting along the way. A portion of the trail moves along a ridge where you have beautiful views of mountains and lakes on both sides of the trail. Finally, at the top of Tuchuck you have an unparalleled view into the Canadian Rockies. Beautiful.
Where did the name Tuchuck come from?
Like Nasukoin, our research indicates that it is a word from the Kootenai language. The Kootenai are a Native American/First Nations people in British Columbia, Idaho and Montana, and the Kutenai language is also known as Ktunaxan or Kitunahan. In the Kootenai language, Tuchuck means “thumb.” Well, it does sort of look like a thumb sticking out from the ground.
Getting to the Trail Head
There are two ways to get to the trail head. The easiest by far is coming from Columbia Falls Montana on the east side of the Whitefish divide via the North Fork road. The second more “scenic” route is to come from the west over Trail Creek road from Highway 93.
Coming from Columbia Falls Montana
You take the North Fork road out of Columbia Falls until you leave the pavement. Continue on this road for about 38 miles until you see a sign for Trail Creek Road on your left.
Turn left onto Trail Creek Road and drive approximately 5 1/2 miles along scenic Trail Creek. You’ll eventually see a sign for 114A on the right. Take this road for a very long six miles and you’ll eventually hit a kelly hump in the road blocking an old logging road called Frozen Lake Road. Park anywhere in the area.
From Whitefish Montana
The second way of getting to the trail head from Whitefish is a bit rougher, but doable in mid summer when the Trail Creek Road is open. Drive 42 miles north on Highway US-93 until you see a sign for Grave Creek Road on your right. This eventually turns into NF-114 and will ultimately take you to the North Fork Road in 31 very rough miles. From the US-93 turnoff, the left turn onto NF-114A is 25 1/2 miles. Then follow the directions from above.
Trail Creek Road has an interesting history. Trail Creek was one of the original routes across the Whitefish divide. In its Trails of the Past Series, the U.S. Forest Service says…
Native Americans traveled through the mountains by conforming to the natural routes of travel. If time, distance, and elevation changes were not determining factors, they followed high, open ridges, the edges of high river terraces, or game trails. In the 1800s the Salish and Kootenai traversed the Flathead area on their semi-annual bison-hunting expeditions, until the buffalo were nearly exterminated. They traveled both on horses and unmounted, and in the winter they traveled on snowshoes. Plains groups, particularly the Blackfeet, crossed from east to west to raid for horses. All groups also made trips into the mountains for hunting, fishing, and gathering.
Trail Creek was one such route. Even today, if you know where to look, you can see where the feet of many Native Americans have left clear trails in the rock scree. There is also a cave painting of unknown origin but is without a doubt very old.
Finally, there is an interesting natural phenomenon where at one point the creek dives underground and disappears for awhile, reappearing suddenly as if it’s a large underground spring. The locals call this area the “bubble ups.” Nice place for a picnic.
Once you’ve parked, there are actually two trail choices. Going straight ahead, you get to the kelly hump that blocks Frozen Lake Road. This trail takes you to Thoma Lookout or Mount Hefty eventually. The one you want, however, is the earlier trail to the left down a disused Forest Service road.
At the clearing, you see a trail heading up on the right through the woods. Take that and you begin to climb through forest for about 1.5 hours (approximately 3 miles) towards the top of the ridge.
The views begin to open up as you climb up the mountain where you eventually get to this totally cool ridge where you can see the White Fish Range on both sides. The ridge walk is approximately a mile.
Watch out for the huckleberries. All along the Tuchuck hike there is evidence of huckleberries (see the red fall foliage throughout this post). Huckleberries can be found in Montana in subalpine areas (3,000-9,650 feet) that are relatively open either by virtue of the terrain or the fact that there has been a recent fire that cleared out the trees. As the trees grow back in a burn area, the huckleberries decline. Flowering begins during the first week of May and the berries are ready to pick sometimes as early as late August or the beginning of September.
Black and grizzly bears love the berries and leave huge piles of poop filled with half digested berries. Grouse also love these berries.
During October, the huckleberry bushes turn bright red adding their color to the Montana fall palate of green conifers, golden larches, and gray White Bark Pine deadfall.
Here’s an interesting fact about huckleberries from a U.S. Forest Service website: Foliage of big huckleberry is of low flammability, allowing for survival after low severity fires, with top-kill resulting from higher severity fires. Top-killed plants resprout from rhizomes, not from seeds. If the habitat is favorable and the fire not too intense, huckleberries will surge back better than ever in 3-7 years.
At one point you’ll see a lake. No amount of research has yielded up this lake’s name, so if you know it please let me know.
After walking along the ridge for a mile, you’ll start to see signs. You want to leave the ridge at this point, following the signs down the other side of the mountain. Take a moment to look around from this ridge vantage point.
Continue walking down this side of the mountain for 500 feet and you’ll see Tuchuck Mountain on your right along with some other great views. Notice the switchbacks that lead up Tuchuck. That’s where you’ll be in just a little while.
At this point the trail starts to move away from your goal. You start thinking to yourself, have we messed this up and are we heading towards Tuchuck Campground rather than Tuchuck Mountain? Don’t make the mistake we made the first time we took the trail and strike out along the ridge heading directly for the mountain. That way leads to hell. Just keep following the main trail which takes you to a series of switchbacks that leads down the west side of the “mountain before the mountain” for about a quarter of a mile.
Interestingly, along this stretch we saw plenty of evidence that bears had been there before us, tearing up the rocks and dirt looking for food.
At this point, you’ll leave the “mountain before the mountain” behind and walk about 1/2 mile to the base of Tuchuck. This is a beautiful stretch, especially in the spring where there are plenty of native wildflowers about. All the while, those Tuchuck switchbacks are getting closer and closer.
And then you’re there, at the base of the mountain looking up at a series of steep switchbacks that seem to go on forever. Of course you’re tired by this point; you’ve already walked over 5 1/2 miles. Take heart, though. The almost one mile of switchbacks to the top aren’t as steep as they look and you’ll be entertained by new views around every corner.
Suddenly you come around a corner on the south side of the mountain and you find yourself on top, finally.
Here you’ll find what remains of an old fire lookout and some beautiful views.
Mago Tip: Be careful if you’ve brought your dog along. There is plenty of broken glass at the top that could well cut up unprotected and unsuspecting paws.
Interesting Stuff about the Fire Lookouts
The first permanent lookout building on the Flathead National Forest was built on Spotted Bear Mountain in 1914 and replaced in 1933. The Forest Service did not have enough funds for more than a few high lookout cabins until the 1920s (trails, roads, and phone lines had a higher priority in the early years). Over the years, though, the Forest Service built more and more lookouts, especially during the 1930s, until in 1939 there were 147 lookouts and towers in the Flathead National Forest. By 1930, approximately 800 peaks or points were occupied in Region One.
Tuchuck Lookout, built in 1930, was one of a chain lookouts that were inspired by fires in 1910. Again from Trails of the Past… When Roy Davis arrived at Tuchuck Mountain in 1930, the first season it was used as a lookout, the trail crew had built a phone line to the point but there were no other improvements. Davis built a map and alidade stand, then hooked up the portable telephone. He next cut and hauled up a ridge pole and tent supports. Later that summer pre-cut lumber for a lookout building and blueprints arrived, and two men came up to build it. Davis spent one night in the new lookout building before heading down the mountain at the end of the season.
With rising costs of maintaining and manning lookouts and a belief that technology would fill the gap, only a few now are manned during the fire season and many of the lookouts in the Flathead National Forest were destroyed; all that remains is often the dump, concrete pylons, phone wire, and depressions indicating locations of buildings and structures. Given that the Tuchuck Lookout was destroyed in 1957, it’s amazing how much junk and glass are still at the top of the mountain.
If you are interested in the preservation of the historic forest fire lookouts in Northwest Montana, you should check out the Forest Fire Lookout Association: Northwest Montana Chapter. In recent years the Forest Service and a small group of dedicated volunteers started restoration work on several historic lookouts in the Flathead National Forest. These preservation efforts inspired the formation of the Northwest Montana Chapter of the Forest Fire Lookout Association in 2013. If you’re interested, you’ll have an opportunity to join and/or donate on their website.
Check out Your Next Hike
While you’re at the top of Tuchuck Mountain, check out the view of Review Mountain to the south. As you can see from the photo above, it looks like a bowl or crater and has a trail that loops joining with Trail 23 back to Tuchuck Campground. Review Mountain Trail (113) with its elevation gain of 2,641 feet and length of 8.7 miles is rated as difficult, but offers outstanding views of Canada and Glacier National Park.
Special Thank You
We wish to extend a big thank you to the seven-person Montana Conservation Corps crew that spent a week during August, 2014, restoring the switchbacks, cleaning the tail, clearing out the avalanche debris below the saddle to the creek bottom, and in general making this trail a pleasure to Hike. We also want to thank the Frank Vitale who packed their supplies in an out on his mules and everyone involved for all of their hard work maintaining the trails in our Montana home. And a special thank you to Darin Fisher, the trails manager at the Flathead National Forest, for pursuing and obtaining the funding to pay for this project.
Below is an interactive map you can use to see photos and read descriptions all along the hike route. Click on the “Terrain” option under the Map pulldown to see the trail with elevation data. By the way, if you’re having trouble seeing the map, check to see whether or not your browser is asking for permission. Probably somewhere near the top.