St Mary Falls and Virginia Falls

Glacier National Park / St Mary Lake, Montana, USA

About St Mary Falls and Virginia Falls


Hiking Distance: 1.6 miles round trip (St Mary Falls); 3.6 miles round trip (Virginia Falls)
Suggested Time: 2-2.5 hours (both falls)

Date first visited: 2010-09-24
Date last visited: 2017-08-06

Waterfall Latitude: 48.66011
Waterfall Longitude: -113.61322

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St Mary Falls (or Saint Mary Falls if I spell it all out) and Virginia Falls were the waterfalling highlights of a popular trail that not only took in both these falls, but they also encompassed some impressive intermediate cascades as well.

I suspect that waterfalls in general tend to be popular attractions, but in Glacier National Park, accessible waterfalls that you can get close to were few and far between.

Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_142_08062017 - Virginia Falls
Virginia Falls

That said, with both the St Mary Falls and Virginia Falls, you have two such accessible waterfalls (not even counting the intermediate cascades seen along the way).

St Mary Falls was said to be 35ft in cumulative height dropping over a pair of tiers where we could even make out some of that powder-blue color in the spray.

The color in the water resulted from the glacial flour action that occurred further upstream as glaciers would scrape its surroundings and introduce such sediment into the stream resulting from its meltwaters.

Virginia Falls was said to be only 50ft, but it seemed much taller than that because I think they’re only counting the main drop.

Glacier_NP_181_09242010 - St Mary Falls when we first saw it back in late September 2010
St Mary Falls when we first saw it back in late September 2010

Speaking of seeing the entire drop of the falls, we found it easier to do since the 2015 wildfires that burned most of the trees here because it cleared out a lot of the obstructing trees and foliage.

Summary of the hike to St Mary Falls and Virginia Falls

To take in all the waterfalls, we went on a trail from the St Mary Falls Shuttle Stop (see directions below).

There was another trailhead further to the east closer to the nearest parking spaces, but that appeared to add another 0.3 miles to the overall hiking distance.

Speaking of distances, the length of this hike from the shuttle stop to St Mary Falls was about 1.7 miles round trip.

Glacier_NP_154_09242010 - Context of the mountains of Glacier National Park backing the trail leading down to St Mary Falls and eventually Virginia Falls
Context of the mountains of Glacier National Park backing the trail leading down to St Mary Falls and eventually Virginia Falls

The length of the entire hike to the foot of Virginia Falls was about 3.6 miles round trip.

It took me under 2.5 hours to do the entire hike, but I probably took my time as I stopped for each of the intermediate waterfalls as well as both St Mary and Virginia Falls.

It was also possible to combine this hike with the Baring Falls hike, which started from the Sunrift Gorge.

That would add another 1.8 miles to the round trip distance if you include that waterfall.

Hiking from the St Mary Falls Shuttle Stop to the St Mary Falls

Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_016_08062017 - With the Reynolds Creek Fire that ripped through this area in 2015, it was now easier to see St Mary Lake from the St Mary Falls Trail
With the Reynolds Creek Fire that ripped through this area in 2015, it was now easier to see St Mary Lake from the St Mary Falls Trail

For the purposes of this writeup, I’ll only focus on the hike beginning from the St Mary Falls shuttle stop.

So from that shuttle stop, the path descended through a fire-affected area.

Curiously, the signage at the trailhead suggested longer distances than what has been mentioned thus far.

For example, they stated that it would be 2.6 miles round trip to St Mary Falls, 4 miles round trip to Virginia Falls, and 2 miles round trip to Baring Falls.

Glacier_NP_205_09242010 - Looking in the distance between some trees towards the Virginia Falls backed by some snow-dusted mountains as seen during our September 2010 hike, when there was a lot more foliage around prior to the Reynolds Creek Fire
Looking in the distance between some trees towards the Virginia Falls backed by some snow-dusted mountains as seen during our September 2010 hike, when there was a lot more foliage around prior to the Reynolds Creek Fire

Anyways, when Julie and I first did this hike, the vegetation was so thick that there wasn’t much to see except for the surrounding mountaintops in good weather at the very beginning of the descent.

But since the fire, much of the obstructing foliage thinned out and now we were able to see St Mary Lake, Virginia Falls way in the distance, and more of the surrounding mountains.

We were even able to see the trail that came from the nearest parking lot further to the east of the St Mary Falls Shuttle Stop!

After going past the trail junction that joined the two different starting points (about 0.3 miles into the hike), the trail continued its fairly gentle descent amongst the burnt trees.

Glacier_NP_160_09242010 - Looking ahead towards the footbridge fronting the St Mary Falls
Looking ahead towards the footbridge fronting the St Mary Falls

After another trail junction at the half-mile point with the Piegan Pass Trail, we continued on the waterfalls trail, which eventually rounded a bend right before the St Mary River at about 0.6 miles from the start.

At this point, the trail continued descending as it eventually made its way to the footbridge fronting the St Mary Falls (at a little over 0.8 miles from the start).

Prior to the bridge, there were some informal scrambling paths accessing the St Mary River, and that was where I saw several people in swimming trunks and bikinis getting slowly into the water or by doing a cliff diving plunge.

Once on the other side of the bridge, I was able to get more direct views of the St Mary Falls.

Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_210_08062017 - Looking towards the St Mary Falls from the southern end of the footbridge, where there was one onlooker providing a sense of scale
Looking towards the St Mary Falls from the southern end of the footbridge, where there was one onlooker providing a sense of scale

It was also possible to scramble a little closer to the turbulent plunge pool, but it didn’t seem safe to get into the water from there (the cliff jumpers did their thing further slightly further downstream).

Hiking from St Mary Falls to Virginia Falls

Further beyond the bridge fronting St Mary Falls, the trail started to climb.

It got back the 215ft elevation that was lost to this point, and it continued to gain the remainder of the 525ft to the trail’s end.

This was where the trail was closed when Julie and I first did it in September 2010 due to grizzly bears foraging for berries to fatten up for the Winter.

Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_099_08062017 - One of the intermediate cascades between St Mary Falls and Virginia Falls
One of the intermediate cascades between St Mary Falls and Virginia Falls

However, on my second visit, I merely continued along the well-defined trail that seemed to have noticeably less people than on that stretch between the shuttle stop and the St Mary Falls.

This trail would continue its climb alongside Virginia Creek, where I encountered several intermediate waterfalls on Virginia Creek (roughly 0.2 miles beyond the footbridge or about a mile from the Shuttle Stop trailhead).

The first of these intermediate cascades appeared to twist and turn before ultimately reaching its base far below the trail.

In another 500ft upstream, there was a small and modest-sized intermediate cascade on Virginia Creek spilling over a red-rock bench whose colors were even more pronounced from the water wetting the rocks.

Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_110_08062017 - Another intermediate cascade seen between St Mary Falls and Virginia Falls
Another intermediate cascade seen between St Mary Falls and Virginia Falls

In another 0.1 mile, I encountered yet a third intermediate cascade on Virginia Creek.

This one had a fairly long drop followed by three smaller drops in succession further upstream.

Then, after another 0.2 miles, I reached a signed fork, where the Virginia Falls View Point was another 0.2 miles on the right, while the Horse Ford was on the left.

I kept left to check out the Horse Ford first, which actually dropped to a one-sided footbridge over Virginia Creek.

Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_130_08062017 - Another set of intermediate cascades on the hike up to Virginia Falls
Another set of intermediate cascades on the hike up to Virginia Falls

On the opposite bank of Virginia Creek, I managed to scramble further upstream to a contextual view of Virginia Falls, which was where I took the photo at the top of this page from.

For swimming and cooling off, it appeared that the plunge pool near the Horse Ford was the place to be.

However, to conclude the hike, I had a choice of backtracking to the signed trail junction or taking a steep and narrow informal trail that I noticed some people take to cut the distance.

Either way, I finally made it up past some boardwalks skirting and traversing parts of Virginia Creek before I finally arrived at the foot of the main 50ft drop of Virginia Falls.

Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_185_08062017 - At the base of the main drop of Virginia Falls with a handful of onlookers
At the base of the main drop of Virginia Falls with a handful of onlookers

This was the conclusion of my hike, and it took me about 75 minutes to cover the 1.8 miles to get here (including plenty of stops along the way).

The spray from the Virginia Falls felt very refreshing after sweating from all the exertion it took to get here.

Plus, the view downstream across the valley as well as down towards the Horse Ford were attractive.

After having my fill of the falls, I returned the way I came, which descended all the way to the St Mary Falls footbridge before climbing back up to the St Mary Falls shuttle stop.

Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_056_08062017 - Looking back at the context of the footbridge fronting St Mary Falls in the Summer with lots of people playing in the water as well as others doing cliff jumps near the footbridge
Looking back at the context of the footbridge fronting St Mary Falls in the Summer with lots of people playing in the water as well as others doing cliff jumps near the footbridge

That return hike took me only 50 minutes though I did pause for a few more minutes at the St Mary Falls before continuing on for the home stretch.

Authorities

St Mary Falls and Virginia Falls reside in Glacier National Park near St Mary in Glacier County, Montana. They are administered by the National Park Service. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website.

Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_012_08062017 - Dropped off by one of the Glacier National Park shuttles at the St Mary Falls shuttle stop for the hike to St Mary Falls and Virginia Falls
St_Mary_Falls_011_08062017 - Looking down at some hikers starting their hike towards the St Mary and Virginia Falls among lots of burnt trees from the Reynolds Creek Fire of 2015
Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_020_08062017 - It used to be that St Mary Lake was difficult to see from the St Mary Falls Trail, but the Reynolds Creek Fire did a lot to burn off most of the foliage
Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_027_08062017 - On the scenic descent as I finally got around to doing the hike to Virginia Falls in the mid-afternoon
Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_030_08062017 - Descending among the extensive charred remains of burnt trees left behind by the Reynolds Creek Fire in 2015 en route to the St Mary Falls
Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_036_08062017 - The trail to St Mary Falls meandering through lots of burnt bare trees resulting from the Reynolds Creek Fire in 2015
Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_049_08062017 - Looking ahead towards the footbridge fronting the St Mary Falls with some people hanging out
Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_060_08062017 - Looking downstream from the St Mary Falls footbridge towards the mountain scenery looking over the St Mary River
Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_068_08062017 - Looking upstream from the footbridge towards the upper two drops of St Mary Falls
Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_074_08062017 - More recent direct view of St Mary Falls from the footbridge over the St Mary River
Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_083_08062017 - Contextual look down towards the St Mary River with people cooling off in its waters near the St Mary Falls
Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_084_08062017 - Unlike my first visit to St Mary Falls in 2010, it was a very busy and festive scene the second time around in 2017
Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_086_08062017 - Looking back at the footbridge over St Mary River. Note the person standing on the cliff ledge on the topleft ready to make his daring cliff jump
Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_088_08062017 - Another contextual look back across the St Mary River from past its footbridge with people cooling off in the river's clear water
Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_208_08062017 - Another look back at the footbridge over St Mary River showing some of the amazing colors in the water
Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_105_08062017 - Continuing beyond the St Mary Falls on the moderate uphill hike to Virginia Falls with some attractive mountains in the distance
Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_115_08062017 - Looking down at another one of the intermediate cascades on Virginia Creek seen alongside the trail to Virginia Falls
Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_123_08062017 - This was yet another one of the intermediate cascades on Virginia Creek between St Mary Falls and Virginia Falls
Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_149_08062017 - Looking back at the one-sided bridge at the so-called Horse Ford
Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_137_08062017 - This was the view of Virginia Falls from near the Horse Ford
Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_152_08062017 - Traversing some footbridges in the final stretch of the Virginia Falls Trail
Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_154_08062017 - Direct look up at Virginia Falls from the informal connecting trail between the end and the Horse Ford part
Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_177_08062017 - Looking down across the top of the middle tier of the Virginia Falls as seen from the end of the trail
Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_241_08062017 - Looking up at some of the surrounding mountains on the final uphill stretch leading up to the shuttle stop
Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_223_08062017 - Looking downstream from the footbridge in front of St Mary Falls after returning from Virginia Falls
Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_258_08062017 - My St Mary Falls and Virginia Falls hike wasn't done when I got back to the shuttle stop because I still had to walk further to retrieve the parked rental car from this random pullout
Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_260_08062017 - Distant contextual view back towards the Virginia Falls backed by gorgeous mountains in the late afternoon as seen from the Going-to-the-Sun Road near the pullout where I had parked the rental car
Glacier_NP_148_09242010 - Julie on the trail to St Mary Falls with some warning signs about bear activity when we first did this hike back in late September 2010
Glacier_NP_149_09242010 - Julie continuing on the wet trail leading down to the St Mary Falls from our September 2010 visit
Glacier_NP_151_09242010 - Julie entering an open part of the St Mary Falls Trail where we could get a good glimpse of the signature sharp peaks of Glacier National Park along the way during our September 2010 visit
Glacier_NP_156_09242010 - Trail junction with the Piegan Pass Trail leaving to the right. Note the bear warning signs, which foreshadowed an impact to our hike in September 2010
Glacier_NP_157_09242010 - Trail closure before the Virginia Falls area due to grizzly bear activity in September 2010
Glacier_NP_158_09242010 - Julie on the forested path towards St Mary Falls walking slowly since she was pregnant during our 2010 visit
Glacier_NP_160_09242010 - Looking ahead towards the footbridge before the St Mary Falls and the St Mary River as seen on a morning in late September 2010 just as a storm was starting to clear
Glacier_NP_169_09242010 - Looking downstream from St Mary Falls towards mysterious mountains revealing themselves just as the rain clouds started to lift in late September 2010
Glacier_NP_172_09242010 - Looking up at some cascades beneath St Mary Falls. This was precisely the reason why it wasn't a good idea to access the plunge pool upstream from the footbridge
Glacier_NP_181_09242010 - Direct view of St Mary Falls with a hint of some Fall colors in September 2010
Glacier_NP_191_09242010 - Focused on the St Mary Falls as seen from our September 2010 hike
Glacier_NP_195_09242010 - Final climb back up to the St Mary Trailhead car park as the weather improved during our 2010 visit
Glacier_NP_203_09242010 - This was the waterfall we saw in the distance that we turned out to be Virginia Falls

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The St Mary and Virginia Falls trailhead begins from a shuttle stop or some limited trailhead parking another quarter-mile to the east on Going-to-the-Sun Road.

From St Mary, the trailhead parking was about 11 miles (20 minutes drive) to the west on Going-to-the-Sun Road.

St_Mary_Falls_007_08062017 - Context of the St Mary Falls Shuttle Stop when looking towards the west at the beautiful mountains towering over the burnt trees nearby
Context of the St Mary Falls Shuttle Stop when looking towards the west at the beautiful mountains towering over the burnt trees nearby

From West Glacier, the trailhead parking was about 39 miles (over an hour drive) east on Going-to-the-Sun Road (or about 7 miles or 13 minutes drive) east of Logan Pass.

For some geographical context, West Glacier is 26 miles (over 30 minutes drive) east of Whitefish, 33 miles (45 minutes drive) northeast of Kalispell and 136 miles (2.5 hours drive) north of Missoula.

Meanwhile, St Mary was about 8.5 miles (10 minutes drive) south of Babb, 30 miles (under an hour drive) north of East Glacier Park Village, 29 miles (over 30 minutes drive) northwest of Browning (administrative center of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation), and 202 miles (3.5 hours drive) north of Helena.

The Glacier National Park Going-to-the-Sun Road Shuttles

Since parking can be very limited at the trailhead, it’s also possible to catch park shuttles as far west as the Apgar Village and as far east as the St Mary Visitor Center and get dropped off at the St Mary Falls Shuttle Stop.

Virginia_and_St_Mary_Falls_012_08062017 - The Glacier National Park Shuttle stopping at the St Mary Falls Shuttle Stop
The Glacier National Park Shuttle stopping at the St Mary Falls Shuttle Stop

The line linking Apgar Village to Logan Pass is the “West Shuttle” while the line linking St Mary Visitor Center to Logan Pass is the “East Shuttle”).

That said, in our experience, the interarrival times of the shuttles at each stop were on the order of 30-45 minutes.

However, the wait could be even longer because shuttles have limited space and they frequently fill up by the time they arrive at your stop (they’re not set up for having standing room).

Obviously, the highest percentage spots of not getting shut out are at the ends at Apgar Village, Logan Pass (make sure you caught the correct shuttle though), and St Mary Visitor Center.

Hidden_Lake_004_08062017 - The insane parking conditions at Logan Pass, which sat right in the middle of Glacier National Park's Going-to-the-Sun Road and was the only stop that served both the West and East Shuttles
The insane parking conditions at Logan Pass, which sat right in the middle of Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road and was the only stop that served both the West and East Shuttles

However, since we have a situation here where you’ll want to hop on or off in between these stops (especially the St Mary Falls Shuttle Stop), that’s where the shuttle situation can be a source of tension and stress.

Given the park’s lack of funds (as of peak season in 2017) to run more frequent shuttles, staff more drivers, or at least reconfigure each shuttle to accommodate standing riders, I’m afraid even this option can be just as stressful as trying to find parking or dealing with traffic.

Full video showing the various ways to experience St Mary Falls as well as the deep swimming hole further downstream


Sweep following one of the intermediate cascades en route to Virginia Falls


The Horse Ford view of the entirety of Virginia Falls


Full sweep panning around the base of the main drop of Virginia Falls


Fixated on the two-tiered falls


Left to right sweep starting from the falls and ending at the mountains further downstream away from the falls

Trip Planning Resources


Nearby Accommodations




Tagged with: glacier, national park, st mary, lake, wild goose island, montana, rocky mountains, waterfall, going-to-the-sun, sunrift gorge



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Johnny Cheng

About Johnny Cheng

Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of the award-winning A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
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