The Swan Valley

The little community of Condon is in the Upper Swan Valley 70 miles south of Glacier National Park. In 2008, American Wildlands ranked the Swan Valley the highest in terms of habitat quality, value, and importance as a linkage zone in the Crown of the Continent. The Swan Valley Growth Policy Committee describes the valley as one of the most wild and natural human inhabited ecosystems in the lower 48 states and one of the most aesthetically beautiful, glaciated mountain regions of Northwest Montana.

This world-class wild landscape supports a dispersed community of friendly and independent souls dedicated to protecting its rural culture, the natural integrity of the valley, its wildlife and grandeur. The vast majority of the land in the valley is public, managed by the USFS. The intricate and complex landscape offers views of high mountain peaks, glaciated hanging valleys, waterfalls, inspiring pinnacles, saw-toothed cliffs, and ever-changing patterns of light.

The Swan Range four miles to the east is often called the Alps of Montana and forms the boundary of 4.5 million acres of protected lands found in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, the Rocky Mountain Front and Glacier Park. The Mission Mountain Range four miles to the west is equally spectacular and forms the Mission Mountain Wilderness Complex, which includes the only designated tribal wilderness lands in the United States.

The Swan Valley supports more species with more diversity and more charismatic mega-fauna than most national parks and Wilderness Areas outside of Alaska. There are more grizzly bears than students in the local elementary school. Endangered Grizzly Bears, Lynx and Bull trout are all found in the Swan Valley. The US Census designates Condon in the Upper Swan Valley as a “Frontier Community,” because it is so small, wild, and rural.

Holland Lake is the beating heart of the Swan Valley, gateway to the Bob Marshall and the Swan Mountain Face. The Lake is small at 413 acres, less than a half mile wide and 1.75 miles long. It is picturesque with a large waterfall visible in the Swan Face above the eastern shore of the lake.

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Seeking the light…

This happens after a dreary cloudy cold March day.

Aspen and cottonwoods reach for the sunset at Two Elks Ranch

There is a metaphor and story behind this image taken yesterday. Over the last couple of years, I haven’t enjoyed the disharmony and political conflict that inculcated so much of the content on FB and social media. I slowly went from posting images daily to weekly, then monthly, then almost not at all. I heard from many fans asking what happened, but remained mostly silent.

Now, with the Covid-19 crisis afflicting our nation, state, communities, friends and neighbors, it is clear that we are all going to have to work together and put aside our differences to overcome the challenges we face. I have been racking my brain how to somehow help or contribute from the Two Elks Ranch in rural Swan Valley, Montana. What could an old guy from western Montana offer? We are by virtue of our location “social distancing,” what else could I do.

Yesterday while photographing this gorgeous sunset I felt such peace, and joy that I almost felt guilty. Then I remembered the research a hospital provided when they invited me to place my images in their surgical center. There is quite a bit of professional literature on how fine art and nature’s beauty helps healing, depression and promotes a general sense of well being, to the point that hospitals make an effort because they get better results with their patients. Right then during this sunset, I realized that I could contribute in some small way by posting this image inviting others to walk in beauty with me through the many 1,000s of images I have on this website, galleries and Facebook. 

So for all my friends and fans and anyone who is looking for a little beauty to lighten your day, for folks that are suffering from illness, Covid-19 or just from stress over the crisis – I invite you! Peruse at your leisure and walk in beauty as I share once again images from the Swan Valley. It doesn’t cost anything to look except a little time. This is a labor of love for me. In a way, it is like the Aspen and Cottonwoods in the image reaching to the sunset after a dreary day. Please enjoy and check back often for new images. I promise I will not be so wordy but I wanted to finally respond to all the fans that have asked where I have been. 

≈ John K Mercer

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This weekend October 13 – 14 2018 is the Annual Tour of the Arts

Fall comes to the high country

Right now the fall colors in the Swan Valley are popping! The Aspen, Cottonwoods and other broadleaf are in full color, and the Western Larch is turning fast!

Sponsored by the Alpine Artisans, the tour is a greets time to see the fall colors in Montana’s Swan Valley, Seeley lake and Blackfoot.

You can download map, directions and brochure TOA Map

We are #5 on the Map –1540 Guest Ranch Road.

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Epic Spring Sunset Light Storm

Two Elks Ranch in the Crown of the Continent experienced a spring sunset light storm in Montana’s Swan Valley at the end of May. Strong winds, rain and swirling clouds presented a challenge to be in and shoot.

Epic storm blows in over the old homestead.

This grateful photographer took his camera and walked out into the pasture that evening at 9:00, in the rain under the most dark threatening cloud bristling with lightning. It was an act of hope, maybe faith and perhaps stupidity.

Looking grim.

But then the storm started to swirl around the ranch and develop colors and cloud formations never before seen that took his breath away. From 9:00 to 9:29 he spun the camera on the tripod around in 360 degrees capturing 89 images.

As the storm clouds and colors grew so did the wind. It was so strong he had to hold his 20 pound tripod/camera rig down with one hand while shooting.

There were colors in every direction  with high winds, rain and clouds full of sunset light. He was spinning around the tripod shooting as fast as he could. Sometimes using a timed exposure as it was sunset dark, sometimes with timed exposure and graduated neutral density filters, and sometimes higher ISO.

But all the time he kept capturing images of the amazing sky as it glowed and changed. Toward the end it began raining so hard with thunder and lightning all around, he had to wipe the lens off for every shot.

The amazing storm lasted for 33 minutes. During that time, out of the 89 images he captured, many were sequenced into giga pixel panoramas like these that can be printed 60 inches wide or wider. The end result is a 48 image gallery, an amazing gift from a sunset storm in the Swan Valley.

The Light Storm Begins.

You can see the 48 image gallery of this storm at Epic Spring Sunset Storm

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Spring finally comes to the Swan Valley…

This was a winter for the record books. It started snowing in October and quickly began to accumulate. By early December, the snow on the ground was measured in feet, not inches.

Winter coats

It just kept snowing, and the snow built up. The deer and elk were struggling. But it was incredible snow for skiing, snowmobiling and winter play.

Winter Storm over Crazy Horse Burn

It was hard not seeing the sun for days at a time with all the storms. But there were some astounding sunsets to watch.

Gentle good night

Finally it began to thaw, sort of… at least the snow melted off of the river, sort of…

Swan River Green Ice

Seven months later in April we still had snow on the ground and were beginning to wonder if it was a new ice age? “What happened to global warming?” people in the Swan Valley asked. But then we started to see signs that spring was actually coming. The snow continued to melt, the wetland ponds begin to fill with water and the migratory birds arrived.

Spring wetlands in the Swan Valley

Winter didn’t want to let go and a big storm dumped over two feet of snow in the first week of April. Many of those migratory birds were pretty unhappy. But spring finally did arrive and the elk starting playing in the wetlands.

Elk splashing

Then the green came and the valley floor finally was free of snow and winter was actually over!

Holland Peak reflections

Spring in the Swan Valley is finally here.

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October is one of my favorite months…

Come to my studio and see the over 100 giclée on canvas gallery wrap images I have hanging.
They range in size from 18″x 12″ to 84″ x 36″. Fall is when we open our ranch, studio and gallery as part of the Alpine Artisans Tour of the Arts. It is held in October when the fall colors are glorious. The Swan Valley is full of Western Larch, which as the only deciduous conifer in Montana, turns brilliant gold before it drops its needles.


Fall is my favorite time of year and this image has it all.

Autumn Gold

Autumn Gold is a large 60×36 panorama that lights up any room with a cheery presence.

The nights are cooler and as the sun changes position with the change of season there is a very special light that appears.

Fall comes to the high country


The Tour of the Arts is for two days and takes in artists from just south of Swan lake through the Upper Swan Valley to Seeley Lake and then Big Blackfoot River.

Swan Lake is 30 minutes from our ranch in the Swan Valley.


It is a great time to see some beautiful county and wonderful art. And of course it is a great time to stop in at our ranch have some coffee and home baked cookies in the cook house and see these images hanging full size in the galleries.

Peaceful equine sunset at the old homestead.

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Fall Rains

The clouds clear ennough to let the sunset color them over Mollman Pass in the Mission Mountain Range.

The clouds clear enough to let the sunset color them over Mollman Pass in the Mission Mountain Range.

Fall rains pound on the steel roof while I sort and edit images. The snow line creeps down the mountains, but I am gratefully dry and warm.  Still even with this rain we are in the midst of one of the mildest falls I have seen in quite some time. A fall with spectacular colors.  I appreciate beauty once more as I sort images showing off  fall colors that give a little bit of the sun back to us.

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