National parks are known for their spectacular mountains, from Denali to the Tetons to the Smokies. One mountain, Triple Divide Peak, is the only place in the United States where rain and snowmelt flow into three different oceans.
In the middle of the Rocky Mountains, near the border between Canada and the United States, one summit sits at the very spot where two continental divides meet.
A “divide” in this context is the boundary between watersheds — the line that marks the break where water will flow into one river system or another. Though every continent has multiple watersheds and, by extension, multiple continental divides (North America has five major continental divides), it is rare to have two such boundaries meet in one spot.
The appropriately named Triple Divide Peak, near the eastern border of Glacier National Park in Montana, is the only point in the United States where this rare phenomenon occurs. Droplets of rain or flakes of snow that land just inches apart on this summit eventually take very separate journeys through different river basins, draining into the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, as well as the Hudson Bay. Although the Hudson Bay primarily drains into the Atlantic, it also contributes a significant amount of freshwater to the Arctic Ocean, sending some of Glacier’s cold, clear waters to the north. (Some skeptics question whether the peak is an authentic triple divide, since the Hudson Bay mainly feeds into the Atlantic, but the mountain’s direct connection to the Arctic Ocean is indisputable, and respected sources maintain the legitimacy of the three-ocean phenomenon.)
It’s no wonder the park serves as the headwaters for a large portion of the continent. Glacier, Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park and the larger region surrounding these adjoining protected areas are often referred to as the “Crown of the Continent,” an expanse of largely undisturbed lands and waters spanning more than 10 million acres.
The easiest way for visitors to see this unusual mountain is by taking a drive along the park’s famously scenic main thoroughfare, Going-to-the-Sun Road. Hikers can venture closer to it and enjoy spectacular views by traveling to the Triple Divide Pass on foot from the Cut Bank Trailhead, if they are willing to take the strenuous 14.4-mile round-trip trek. Summiting the mountain is an even more daunting adventure involving the same long hike, plus a steep and challenging climb of nearly a mile to the top — though intrepid souls who make the journey report that this multi-day commitment is an exhilarating experience.
The double continental divide at Triple Divide Peak is extremely rare, but it is not unique. In fact, you can find another example of this hydrological phenomenon just a few hundred miles north of Glacier at the boundary between Banff and Jasper National Parks in Canada. Snow Dome, another peak in the Rocky Mountains, sits on the border between Alberta and British Columbia, and its waters also feed the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic Oceans.
About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer writes, edits and moderates online content for NPCA.