Thursday, March 25, 2010

Glacier National Park

This blog entry is a bit different than the others in that I have prepared a companion set of photographs on Flickr. The photos illustrate this narrative.

Glacier National Park in Montana is one of my favorite National Parks. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the more I think about it, the more I like it, and one day I may simply call it my favorite. Several years ago, my uncle said with complete certainty that Glacier is the most beautiful National Park. I was a bit skeptical since I had seen many very beautiful parks, but I kept it in the back of my mind. Not long after I got to the park, I sent him a postcard agreeing completely with what he had said.  One factor in my affinity for Glacier is that I went by myself. Glacier has the reputation for having grizzly bears, and my wife wanted no part of it. All in all, I prefer having my wife there to share the experience, but going solo allowed me to become one with the park. For several days it was just me and the park. This builds a strong connection that is hard to describe.

Glacier is not the easiest park to get to. Calgary is a logical place to fly into, but flying into Canada is ridiculously expensive. After considering various alternatives including Amtrak, I chose flying into Spokane as the best compromise between cost and convenience. Spokane is 300 miles from Glacier, a reasonable driving distance. There was the added bonus of being able to drive through Idaho, one of the few states I had not been in. (Idaho was my 44th state.) As a further bonus, I got to fly into and out of Seattle on the same trip. This is my favorite flight in the United States. Depending on the weather, you can see Mt. Rainier and several other volcanoes stretching all the way to Mt. Shasta in California. You want to be on the left side of the plane flying in and the right side flying out.

I got into Glacier National Park in early afternoon, and after taking the obligatory entrance sign shot I hiked the Apgar Lookout Trail, a 5.6 mile round trip. This trail leads up a hill with what I assume to be a fire lookout on top. From the lookout, I got my first view at the mountains and Lake McDonald. It was a great view that made me even more excited to be there than I already was. Signs of a fire from 2003 are clearly evident from the trail. That night I stayed at the Village Inn in Apgar. It is right on the shore of Lake McDonald, and I was already looking forward to taking sunrise pictures the next morning.

The next morning did indeed provide a beautiful sunrise, and it was hard to put the camera away to get going on today’s event: driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road to the other side of the park and stopping at points of interest on the way. It is often said that Going-to-the-Sun Road is the most beautiful drive in America. I haven’t been on every scenic drive in the country, but I would not argue with that designation. A few miles after Lake McDonald dropped out of sight I came to the trailhead for the Avalanche Lake Trail. It is a 4.6 mile round trip through the woods to the lake. The lake has very steep mountains behind it, and there are several streams of water cascading down.  It was a pretty enough scene, but really didn’t do much for me. The hike through the forest was quite pleasant, though.

The next stop was Logan Pass. The main visitor center is there, as well as two trailheads. I saw some bighorn sheep near the road as I approached the pass. After checking out the visitor center and buying some books, I took the Hidden Lake Overlook Trail, which is a 3 mile round trip on a boardwalk. You can hike past the observation platform down to Hidden Lake, but I did not have time for that. As I was walking, it was hard to keep my eyes off of the moon setting over Clements Mountain. Another distraction was the mountain goat right next to the boardwalk. The view of Hidden Lake and the surrounding area was well worth the easy walk. The other trail that starts from Logan Pass is the Highline Trail, which goes along the Garden Wall cliff. I considered taking that trail during the trip, but did not. It seems that no matter how long the trip, there is always something that you don’t get around to. It is number one on my list for a return visit.

Further up the road, I stopped at the Jackson Glacier Overlook. My final stop for the day was at Sun Point on St. Mary Lake, where I walked 1.6 miles to see Baring Falls and Sunrift Gorge, which is very thin. That night, and for the rest of my visit, I stayed at St. Mary Lodge & Resort in the town of St. Mary. Most of my hiking would be on this side of the park. Many people eat at the Park Cafe, which is known for its pies, but I ate at Two Sisters Cafe, which is nine miles up the road in Babb. They have an excellent buffalo burger with home-made tortilla chips. Since I was by myself, I didn't hesitate to take the nice thick onion slice on the burger. I liked Two Sisters so much that I ate there every evening and even bought a T-shirt.

Well before I visited Glacier, I had heard of the Ptarmigan Tunnel. It always seemed so cool to me: a tunnel bored through the Ptarmigan Wall for hikers. The tunnel connects the Many Glacier area with the Belly River area. Don’t think that it makes the walk easy, though. There is plenty of elevation gain to get to the tunnel. Because of the Ptarmigan Tunnel and the other trails in the area, Many Glacier was my main destination in the park, and I would spend two days hiking there. Naturally, my first hike was to Ptarmigan Tunnel. Splitting off the trail at the 2.8 mile point is the trail to Iceberg Lake. I combined these two destinations into a 14.8 mile round trip, my personal record for most miles on a single hike. I don’t remember much about the trail because I was so intent on getting to the tunnel, but I remember the last part well. It was one of those trails where you can see your destination across a valley but know that you are really not that close to it. It was a big thrill to finally reach the tunnel. It is only 183 feet long, so it took only seconds to pop out the other side. There was a fantastic view of Elizabeth Lake and the Belly River Valley. It was one of the best places to eat lunch that I have ever seen, so that is what I did. The profile picture on this blog is me standing in front of Ptarmigan Tunnel.

After poking around a bit, I headed back and took the turn towards Iceberg Lake.  This is the trail that I thought was most likely to have bears because there were many low shrubs along the trail. The bear sign at the beginning of the trail was also a hint. As I expected, though, I did not see any. I am not qualified to give bear advice, but I can say that I did not see any while I was at Glacier. The trail to Iceberg Lake is nice with many good views. The lake itself is pretty, but there were no icebergs at this time of year.

The next day I took the 11 mile round trip hike to Grinnell Glacier, which is also in the Many Glacier area. Little did I know that this would be one of the best hikes I have ever taken. The scenery is beautiful. Much of the trail is high up the mountainside, which gives fantastic views.  Above all, the destination is a glacier. The early part of the hike is near Lake Josephine, and the scenery is beautiful as you would expect for a mountain valley.
The first glimpse of anything with “Grinnell” in the name is Grinnell Falls, which cascades over the cliff above Grinnell Lake. Above the falls, you can see where the glacier is, but it is not yet visible, though The Salamander is. Many years ago, Grinnell Glacier filled the cirque, but now The Salamander and the Gem are separate from the main glacier. As I continued on the trail, Grinnell Lake came next, and by the time I could see the lake, I was high above it. At one point in this area, I passed through a huge field of wildflowers on the mountainside. The noise of bees scurrying around was quite loud. After this, I ran into a family of four mountain goats on the trail. Every time I approached, they moved up the trail about 20 feet. Unfortunately, they did not seem to want to leave the trail. After several rounds of this, we finally reached an impasse. A loud shout of “Hey goat, hey goat, outta my way goat!” accompanied by hand clapping did the trick, and I was free to proceed unimpeded.
I continued approaching the glacier, and I finally arrived at Upper Grinnell Lake and Grinnell Glacier. Upper Grinnell Lake is the melt from the glacier and had little icebergs floating around in it. Of course, I had to stick my foot in to see how tough I was. I did pretty well. I did not approach Grinnell Glacier because it is too dangerous. I sat down next to the lake and had my lunch while admiring the beautiful scenery and the clear blue sky.  The cliff opposite where I was sitting is the Garden Wall. As I mentioned earlier, there is a trail on the other side. From that trail, there is a spur trail that ends overlooking the glacier. That is the main reason I want to take the Highline Trail on my next trip. After completing the Grinnell Glacier hike, I drove down to the Two Medicine area to see Two Medicine Lake and Running Eagle Falls. After dinner, I took a 3.6 mile hike to see St. Mary and Virginia Falls, which are off of Going-to-the-Sun Road.

The next day I considered hiking the Dawson/Pitamakan loop in the Two Medicine area, but I had a blister on my heel so I decided to do something less painful – visit Waterton Lakes National Park, the other half of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. It is right across the border in Alberta. There is a rather unusually shaped mountain, Chief Mountain, on the way to Waterton, but I could not see it because of fog. When I got to the park, I drove to the end of the Akimana Parkway and hiked 2.2 miles round trip alongside Cameron Lake. The lake is quite pretty. The highlight of the day was the boat ride down the length of Upper Waterton Lake to Goat Haunt on the M.V. International. Boat rides are intrinsically fun, but a ride down a lake in the mountains is even better. Goat Haunt is in Glacier National Park, so I crossed the border in the boat. The border was interesting in that there was a straight line chopped down through the forest. There was no way to miss it. At Goat Haunt, we got to walk around for a while and then got back on the boat for the return trip. You can actually hike many miles to Going-to-the-Sun Road if you want to. If you want to hike past the ranger station, which doubles as a border crossing, you have to check in. After the boat ride, I drove to the end of the Red Rock Parkway and back. It was not memorable.

Before leaving the park, I stopped for gas at the Waterton Townsite. Suddenly a very strong wind came up. It was clear that some weather was coming in. As I left the park, I saw something quite unusual. There was a three layer effect: ground, air, and a perfectly straight cloud layer. The return trip to St. Mary was cloudy and rainy, so I still didn’t get to see Chief Mountain.

On my final day, I drove back over Going-to-the-Sun Road to head back to Spokane. The scenery was beautiful, and I found that I actually had tears in my eyes as I was taking my final look at Glacier. Certainly I have been to National Parks before and wished that I didn’t have to leave, but tears were a bit excessive. Nevertheless, that is what happened. Before leaving the park, I made one last stop at Lake McDonald, and was treated to a beautiful cloudy gray-toned view.

In Spokane, I took some time to walk around the grounds of Expo '74 and then went to PF Chang’s to have one of my favorite meals, Kung Pao Chicken. This dish tastes nothing like Kung Pao Chicken, but it is the world’s second best chicken dish after Frankenmuth Chicken. The next morning I started my flight back home with great views of the Cascade volcanoes, and I got back home after enjoying a brilliant orange sunset from the plane. Soon after I got home, I started thinking about going back.

Be sure to check out the companion set of photographs on Flickr.

My visit: September 2007


  1. Very well done Steve!

    Tony Bynum

  2. Thanks a lot, Tony. I appreciate the feedback, and I'm relieved that is is positive.

  3. Early last July we visited Glacier Nat'l Park. Three of the main hikes we wanted to do were Garden Wall, Grinnell Glacier and Ptarmigan Tunnel. But since it was still early in the season the tunnel and trails were still closed due to snow. So we've decided that we need to go back to complete our first trip. The Going to the Sun Road opened maybe 4 days before we got there. It is indeed a beautiful park. Reading your article in the News Gazette brings back a lot of memories.

    Dianne--Champaign, IL

  4. Dianne - There is always a reason to return to Glacier! It'll be the Garden Wall and Dawson/Pitamakan for me. Thanks for the kind words.

  5. Great post,
    Waterton Nation park is one of my favorite place, thanks for sharing this interesting and more informative post.