Big Horn Sheep, Mountain Goats, Grizzly Bears, Oh My!
Here’s the thing about Glacier: pictures cannot, and will not, do it justice. The place is gorgeous, it glows… it’s mega-fauna filled, wildflower-abundant, u-shaped valley-loaded… and access to alpine areas is easily available by car – and extra bonus. Words do not do it justice either. Just go, see it for yourself. If you’re a hiker/backpacker who loves big, grande places, you’re sure to fall in love.
Another summer, another trip out West
Each August I plan a 1-week backpacking excursion in the Western US. Most times I’ve read an article, or seen a picture that inspires me. But Glacier didn’t appear in a glossy photo or enticing backpacking article. Instead, a hiking buddy really, really wanted to go, and my boyfriend had a interest too when asked. So without much photographic inspiration I grabbed a guidebook (with poor photos) and started looking up backpacks and day hikes. I grabbed another faithful hiking buddy and applied early for backpacking permits. We got what we wanted (shocking!), and before I knew it… it was time to pack up and head to Montana.
We had 4 days to cram as many day hikes as we could before our backpack. We traveled to a variety of locations throughout the park, including the Lake McDonald area, Logan Pass Area, Two Medicine, Many Glacier, at St Marys.
Our first trip was recommended by the cashier at a trinket shop in West Glacier:) The hike starts at Siyeh Bend along the Going to the Sun Road, one of the more challenging feats of road-building in the early 1900s. Thanks to this road, non-hikers and hikers alike can enjoy expansive views as they wind around hairpin turns and steep cliff faces, as one might on a strenuous, above treeline hike. The high point of the road is Logan Pass, as 6646 ft, where you can find a Visitor Center, Ranger station, and a large parking lot filled with cars by 10am.
Starting on the Siyeh Bend Trail, you soon end u on the CDT, and finally onto the Siyeh Pass Trail through Preston Park, over the scree-filled pass, and onto a platform with an wide-open view of a giant, U-shaped valley, iron-stained red mountains, several small lakes below, and a fin of rock that Chris and I had to scramble (having seen a few others hike it before us). The fin of rock started on a scree slope, goat trail, and merged into a 2-6 wide foot platform of rock, with a sheer drop on either side. We walked and crawled our way for 20 minutes or so, until we had to jump over a small gap to continue. A natural fear of heights and sheer-cliffs got the best of me here and I called this my limit. We looked around in amazement and crawled out way back to the 5-6 foot wide portion with relief.
That scramble was a thrill I will not soon forget. It’s these little off-trail excursions that make hiking out West such a joy. While most trails out East hike to summits, not all trails do out west, unless you put away those poles and engage in a little hand-over-foot crawling.
The hike continued to the other side of the pass via several switchbacks with views of St. Mary Lake below. Upon our decent, some neighboring hikers alerted us that a bear was running above us on the scree. Sure enough that bear was running across the rocks in a blurr of fur and fury, running away from something, but what? He was about to run into another surprise…. hikers, as he was headed for Siyeh pass. Within a minute or two, the same bear was ran by again, in the other direction, and faster, downhill, and soon out of sight. Another thrill of the Siyeh Pass hike! The day was not yet over, as we gorged on huckleberries along the trail down, collected some for breakfast, and gorged some more. All in all, this was an five star hike for views, optional scrambles, treats on the trail and wildlife viewing. That night we ate our first car camp meal and bedded down at Avalanche Creek Campground.
The following morning was sunny and beautiful again, so we decided to hike the Highline Trail to Granite Park, with stops to the Garden Wall view of Grinnel Glacier and Swiftcurrent Mtn. The Highline starts at Logan Pass, and over the length of the hike, hugs the Continental Divide skirting several mountain including Piegan, Pollack, Bishops Cap and Mount Gould. The trail is loaded with open views and wildflowers of all shapes, sizes and colors. The trail drops off steeply to the west tumbling some 4000ft down, with grande views over to Mt Oberlin, Clements and Cannon across the way. Below the trail you can spot cars silently gleaming as they curve round the hairpin turns of Going To The Sun Road. We stopped for lunch at viewing spot and started seeing some wildlife at a distance, including white, shaggy mountain goats, herds of elk, and much closer, Colombian Ground Squirrels, ubiquitous at popular lunch stops in these parts.
When the Garden Wall side trail came into view, we plodding up slowly but intently, curious to see what would be at the top. As we reached the viewpoint, the clouds parted and whoa, Grinnell Glacier lay below us, as did the Salamander (snowfield?), Upper & Lower Grinnell Lakes, Josephine & Swiftcurrent lakes too. Chris and I decided to scramble a little further up for even better views, which did not disappoint. I could have stayed here for a long, long time, studying the glacier ice, the patterns, and the people far, far below clustered on a beach at some other trail’s end.
But we had more of our hike to do, so after a snack and long look we tumbled down the trail towards Granite Park, a collection spot for weary hikers, plunking themselves down on the porch, at the picnic tables, or inside the lodge to purchase snacks. We wasted no time here and instead marched up to Swiftcurrent Mtn, with a manned firepower, spotting goats along the way and hiking through shock of white, bare trees burned from a forest fire years ago, Finally, finally, got to the top. No one was on the summit or in the tower, but we peeked inside: it was a sweet little firewatch home complete with a bed, stove, desk, library, etc. We sat on the stone steps in amazement of the view one had from here: looking north over the Divide, east to Swiftcurrent Creek & Many Glacier, south to Mt Oberlin and Glacier Wall and west into the Livingston Range. Absolutely outstanding. The view from the Loo wasn’t bad either! We parted this peak with much reluctance and visited Granite Park Chalet briefly. This was once a place visitors would come on horseback, stay overnight and enjoy whatever they had for 1920’s luxury. Nowadays you can stay overnight in modest bunkhouses or the campground nearby. We high-tailed it from here to Going To The Sun Road, where we grabbed a free shuttle back to our cars (another great thing about Glacier)… but not without a lovely dip in a waterfall at The Loop just before the finish. It was just the thing we needed after a hot, dry decent through an old burn area. Back at the campground, we saw our first black bear saunter though down the road. A moment later, several cars and camera-bedecked couple followed behind.
The third day we left Avalanche Creek and drove southeast to Two Medicine, with a stop at St. Marys Visitor Center. We quickly nabbed a campsite at Two Medicine and squeezed onto the boat across the lake. While we would have loved to hike both Dawson and Pitamakan Pass in the same day, we were tuckered out from hiking 18+ mi the day before. So instead we hiked to Dawson Pass, taking in the jagged peaks of the Lewis Range, Mt Philips, Tinkham and Flinch Peak. We made our way back via boat in a lightning storm (fun!) and took shelter in the local camp store (the only store in Two Medicine) while the rains whipped off the lake. The storm passed quickly and soon we were enjoying dinner and the sunset, walking around the lake where bears could be seen foraging for food on a nearby hillside.
Soggy Permits & Plan B
The next morning we drove to Many Glacier in the north east of the park to pick up our permit and day hike in the area. The ranger looked glum and we re-checked the forecast Wed: Chance of rain 90%, Thursday 100%, Friday: 100% (with snow possible) Saturday: 70%…. and so on. Hmm, this was not good for a 5 day backpack. And on top of it, the rangers re-routed our trip due to bear activity at the Fifty Mountain campground (a bear walked into someone’s tent). The re-route would have been fine, but the forecast looked wet, cold and miserable. A storm of some sort was on its way for sure. The ranger said weather in Glacier is becoming more and more unpredictable these days. Instead having lovely sunny stretches in their short summer, they complain of seeing more rain, more unseasonably cold weather, and yet their glaciers continue to melt at a rapid pace. There were still spots at the campground, so we grabbed a spot for ourselves while we thought about a Plan B.
After a little scheming and re-packing, we got our packs ready and day-hiked most of the first day of our cancelled backpack. Starting at Many Glacier, we hiked up to a spur trail to Iceberg Lake, a lovely cirque of high-walled rock, cradling a cold lake with large, blue & white ice chunks floating within. We continued up the main trail to Ptarmigan Tunnel, a tunnel cut through the wall of rock, popping out the other side looking out to Elizabeth Lake and the Belly River area, where our backpack would have gone. Views from the tunnel in either direction we lovely, more red-iron mountain sides, more lakes, peaks, and hardly anyone was around. Gazing at Elizabeth Lake shoreline, I was sad to see the place that we would have been camping. However the next morning, when I awoke to pouring rain, I wasn’t all that sad. Nor was I sad to have a hot diner-made breakfast and my first hot shower in a few days right there in Many Glacier.
Plan B consisted of leaving the park and driving south to Missoula, where we hoped things would be drier. It was a pleasure to drive out of the clouds and into the sun. The vast Montana, the skies, ever expansive, full of various-shaped clouds, and the ground was different too, tall and wheat-like, golden in color. During our 3.5 day trip, we visited the Museum of Plain Indians on the Blackfeet Reservation, drove through the National Bison Range, stopped in Big Fork for a little shopping, visited The Garden of 1000 Buddahs, and finally reaching Missoula for dinner, a hotel, shopping, cafes hopping, and a few hours at the art museum. We loved Missoula where the small, funky businesses were thriving. We also camped at a nearby State park and chilled out for a day, reading a relaxing with nothing particular planned. By the time our little diversion was over, the weather had cleared in the park so we drove back, got another campsite at Avalanche, and went for a hike to Avalanche Lake and Trail of the Cedars. These were very popular, fairly easy hikes, but thanks to our late start, it wasn’t as crowded as a Saturday afternoon hike might be. Trail of the Cedars was particularly lovely and mellow as it passed along an elevated boardwalk through a grove of cedars and other tree species, wide and towering above you.
After camp dinner we stopped at the Lake McDonald Lodge for a slideshow talk about the power of water (appropriate). The lodge itself looks like a lovely place to stay, its also a great place to visit for ranger talks, last minute purchases at the store, or a longer pause at the HUGE fireplace or lakeside back porch lined with rocking chairs.The interior is a marvel of raw wood, more trees than beams since all the bark is still in tact. Huge animal heads, stuffed and mounted above you are everywhere, it’s a little much, but you certainly get that 1920s lodge feel.
On our final day, we hiked up the very popular Hidden Lake Trail. This is one of those views you see printed on postcards, fridge magnets, calendars, etc. It’s a highly accessible trail out the back of the Logan Pass Visitor’s Center, a fairly easy boardwalk-step trail to a viewpoint. But go a little farther, passing where the crowds stop and off the boardwalk, you’ll find more trails to higher, farther-flung scrambles, or lower, to the shores of Hidden Lake. We had lunch at the lake and with the help of a visitor’s binoculars, spotted 2 more mountain goats perched up high on Bearhat mountain. Just as we were leaving, Chris spotted a mother goat and her baby galloping towards us on the open landscape, what a treat! We hiked out to the cars for the last time, catching a plane home to Boston that afternoon. Even a month later, I still think about the animals we saw, the views I enjoyed in the excellent company of friends, and I smile with a longing to go back, and see more… there is so much more to see!
Glacier National Park is an epic place, truly a gem of the US National Park System. And another whole section of the park went unexplored by us: Waterton Lakes NP in Canada. Both parks make up the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park World Heritage Site, where two nations have come together to protect this beauty of a landscape. While I can’t speak for the backpacking experience (yet), the day hike experience was one of the best I’ve ever experienced in the US… and backpacking could only get wilder, more secluded, with views that photos won’t do justice.
This post was written by former Trail Ambassador Julie LePage.