A trip to Glacier National Park was on my wish list for 2015, but I had given up on the idea, as my calendar filled up and budget was depleted by some other great trips: Utah to see friends and travel to Arches and Canyonlands in Utah, and then Grand Tetons, and later to New York, Washington DC and Chincoteague Island in Virgina where I also got to see family and friends.
Yet in late summer, two other trips presented themselves, and despite worries about my expenses, something was pushing me to say Yes, and so I did. First in planning an October trip to Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon this October to meet up and travel with my dear longtime college friend and her family, and then an unexpected and last-minute trip to Glacier National Park with a photographer friend I had never met in person, Jemmy Archer, but whose work I love. Her photography can be seen here: http://jemmyarcher.com/.
I am so thankful I followed my gut! I am also incredibly grateful that Jemmy asked me along as it was a wonderful experience to see Glacier National Park and to hike and photograph with another photographer.
Smoky from Fires
On arrival the air was thick with smoke and I was wondering if I had made a mistake. The woman at the car rental place said it was smoke from Oregon, Idaho and Washington, and I thought that was weird to blame it those states as there were three fires right in or near the park. However it had been raining (finally) when I left Oregon, and there was no rain in Montana at that point, and the next morning, the skies were much clearer, so the smoke had blown in from neighboring states.
Glacier National Park is famed for its beauty. When I had gone to Yellowstone with friends a few years before, a park ranger had said that Glacier and Yellowstone were his two favorite national parks. I do think Glacier is visually the most beautiful. There are these high steep cliffs and passes that the Going-To-The-Sun-Road runs through and everywhere you look the vistas are otherworldly beautiful. I don’t have the same feeling of expansiveness or freedom as I do in Yellowstone or Grand Tetons, and I think for me, that has to do with all the surfaces seeming to be uphill, downhill or valleys.
The first full day, we hiked Highline. I like to walk more than hike, but there are over 700 miles of trails in Glacier National Park, and reading about them made me want to do even the trails that were listed as difficult. Jemmy is a much better hiker than I, and I worried about slowing her down, but as we are both photographers who pause to stop and take pictures, it wasn’t too much of a problem.
I’m not too afraid of heights, or narrow paths, so I did okay on Highline, where there is a hand cable to hold on to on a fairly narrow ledge, but going uphill is no friend of mine! And the whole week was chock full of uphill trails. Luckily, on every trail, I can say the effort was worth it.
Rain was in the forecast, so even though we were hoping to make it to Haystack, we did stop and turn back just before that point as the skies were threatening. Sure enough, they did open up just before we got back to the car but not enough to soak us.
Many Glacier and Swiftcurrent Pass Trail
We headed over to the Many Glacier area the next day, leaving while it was still dark in order to get an early start. It takes about 3 hours to drive over there from where we were staying in Columbia Falls, and driving the Going-to-the-Sun-Road was no easy task. I didn’t have to drive as I had only gotten an hour’s sleep the night before – tell me I have to get up early and watch me not be able to fall asleep.
The sunrise on the way over was beautiful, but the winds were crazy. I nearly got swept away when I stepped out to fill the car with gas. The woman at the Many Glacier Hotel information kiosk was not very friendly and very gloom and doom about that day’s and the week’s forecast. If we had listened to her, we would have driven back to the timeshare and crawled back to our respective beds for the duration of the stay – Single digit forecasts, storm, etc.
Luckily the guy at gift shop was much more helpful. He suggested that Swiftcurrent (No. 1 on my list of hikes I wanted to do) would be a good hike as the first part of the trail is sheltered by trees. The winds died down very quickly, the drizzle stopped and it turned out to be a beautiful day full of beauty and wildlife.
Fischercap Lake has frequent sightings for moose, but we didn’t find any that morning, but a a mile or so past the lake, we nearly walked by a mother and her calf who were grain in the foliage.
Redrock Falls was also a highlight as was watching for mountain goats high on the mountain sides. Then we heard that there were many Big Horn Sheep up at the head of Bullhead Lake, and that proved to be the case. The first herd was nearly camouflaged against the rock face of Swiftcurrent Mountain, but the second herd was very close as they were coming right down the trail.
The only misgiving about this hike was there was not enough time to make it up high on the pass. I wanted to catch some of the view of Swiftcurrent Valley, so despite needing to head back, we did go up 2 or 3 of the switchbacks. On the way back we were happy to see the mother moose and her calf again.
We did have a long drive ahead of us, but another moment of excitement came when we stopped as cars were stopped and a grizzly passed right in front of the car! It an amazing day that started at 4am and we didn’t get back to the timeshare until after 9pm, so very tiring as well.
Hidden Lake Trail
The next day was equally superb. We though Hidden Lake Trail would be a much easier and shorter hike, as it was less than 6 miles RT. The trail starts behind the Logan Pass Visitor Center, and perhaps it was due to the previous long day, or the third day of hiking, but we seemed awfully slow getting up to the Overlook. I noticed that with the wind and the altitude, I was having a harder time catching my breath on the way up. The views at the Overlook are amazing. The whole area is surrounded by mountains, but at the overlook you see Hidden Lake and Bearhat Mountain.
Despite the beauty of the surroundings, the pristine waters of the lake, the highlight of the trip was encountering first one goat with a tracking collar, whom we hung out with for nearly an hour and a half along with some other hikers. Then as that goat decided to head uphill and we followed, we were soon met by 7 other goats, including two very young ones, and one that was quite old. The marmots were much less shy and there were three or four sunning themselves on rocks as they looked out towards the lake.
Two of the hikers were a couple from France who had been over here two years ago and been so amazed they came back to spend a month and a half, living out of their car, in order to see our national parks. I felt so proud as an American that others in years past had the foresight to work to have these lands set aside and protected so that they could be appreciated worldwide. While sitting and watching that first goat, there was a shared period of awe felt by the six hikers that were there that was palpable. I felt and still feel so grateful for that day and being able to observe the goats in such close quarters surrounded by so much beauty.
McDonald Lake and Avalanche Lake – A Light Day
Rain was forecast for later in this day so we planned a fairly light day to give ourselves a chance to recover between hikes and before we headed back to the Many Glacier are the next day.
We did rise early to catch the sunrise at Lake McDonald, and where we saw a couple of beavers (I first thought they were nutria or coypu until one slapped its tail) getting in their last bites before heading off to bed.
We then headed over to hike Avalanche Lake trail. I had read that Avalanche Lake is regarded to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the park, and it did not disappoint. One passes through a beautiful fir forest, which felt just like home to me (Oregon), except that Avalanche Creek as deep carved channels and an array of red, blue and gray rocks.
Once we got to the lake, I found it very cool to think that on the other side of Bearhat Mountain, was Hidden Lake, where we had been the day before.
Before we headed back, we were also entranced by mountain goats, a mother and kid, high on the mountainside above us, scampering up and down the rocks.
The next morning we headed back to Grinnell Glacier. It was lightly raining, and we stopped at the Many Glacier Hotel to see if more information could be found about the forecast.
This time the rain seemed to get worse rather than better, and I was apprehensive about going on the Grinnell Glacier Hike when the day was so soggy. Thanks to Jemmy for talking me into it and loaning me a rain poncho.
While I loved the views, this was my hardest hike. Our plan was to try and catch a boat on the way back as the articles had said the first part of the trail was fairly easy. It might have been my tiredness, but it didn’t feel that flat or easy to me, unlike Swiftcurrent’s first four miles. And once we hit the switchbacks, they seemed endless. I felt like Sisyphus, who for eternity was damned by Zeus to roll a huge stone up a mountain only to watch it roll back down once he reached the top. My camera bag substituted for the stone and my pauses to catch my breath were not even as long as the time it must have taken the Greek King to walk back down the mountain. At one point I felt like crying – when hikers returning from the glacier told us we still had another hour. I resented the young and old who seemed so easily to sprint by me. It’s true, I will admit it, I was feeling in a bit of a sulk, but trying not to whine too much. So again, thanks to Jemmy for urging me on. In hindsight, the pain of the effort is forgotten while the beautiful views and feeling of grace to be able to experience that sight is not.
Grinnell and Salamander glaciers are truly awesome. Sadly Grinnell Glacier is shrinking at an alarming rate. At a worse case scenario of carbon emissions, the park will have no glaciers by 2030.
We did miss the boat though, literally, on the way back, but going downhill, for me is easier, although it still seemed d%(& long!
I can tell you that last week, I went to see Everest, and that yearning to climb a peak is a yearning that I lack. I can understand it a bit in the abstract, but being cold, carrying heavy stuff and going uphill – no way.
Many Glacier and Two Medicine
We had made arrangements to spend the night at Many Glacier Hotel, which was an expense well worth it to save us the drive back again. The Hotel was opened in 1915 and has a charming sense of the past about it. The location is just ethereal, and I also enjoyed the food at the restaurant.
The next day was also rainy, so we just concentrated on seeing more wildlife. We returned to Swiftcurrent and did catch the moose this time at Fischercap Lake. There also were some guys who set up scopes and were letting people look at a grizzly on the side of the mountain. Through the scope, I could see the bear very clearly, while with my bare eyes, the grizzly was just a speck. After breakfast at Swiftcurrent Lodge, where we had another great meal earlier in the week, we headed back along the road. We had seen a black bear a couple of times high up on the mountain before, and this time, there was not only a cinnamon black bear, but apparently the grizzly that we had seen in the scope was making his way eastward at an astonishing fast clip (although he was just walking).
After a while, he disappeared, but we expected him to make his way to the other side of the mountain, so like others, we drove to the other side and waited. Sure enough, after a half an hour, he appeared on top of the ridge in and a matter of 15 minutes, had made his way from top to bottom. I was amazed at his nimbleness on the steep rock face of the cliff.
Getting a photograph of a grizzly had been on my bucket list, and while I still would love to get closer photographs, this was a thrill to see one in action. The ranger was concerned that animals are losing a natural fear of humans. The bear did seem very blasé about the roughly eight photographers nearest it, pausing to look at us while still on the lower part of the mountain then veering to the right away from us before it crossed the road to make its way to the creek.
We took a south route back so we could see the Two Medicine area and did take a short hike in that area as well. Using the app on my phone, we did an average of about 10 miles a day (my phone said 9.44 but I had forgotten to take it one hike, so the average was above 10 miles), and it was great to be able to hike in this natural setting.
We were always alert on these trails for a possible encounter with bears, and we were relieved not to have had that experience (especially after seeing how fast they can move). We had been lent a can of bear spray from the car rental place and we would shout out, “Hey Bear” when we rounded bends or when visibility was poor. The fact that there were fewer berries than usual was probably the reason we did not encounter any bears on the trails, especially on Grinnell Glacier or Swiftcurrent trails, as around this time they are trying to eat as much as they can before hibernation. We did meet a couple of hikers who had seen a couple of grizzlies on their hike to Cracker Lake, also in Many Glacier.
I just read something that was very upsetting as I was trying to remember the word hyperphagia to write about how much bears eat at this time (during September they eat 4x normal summer amounts). This year in Yosemite, 33 bears were hit by cars. In one year. I guess this is one advantage of Glacier Going-to-the-Sun-Road, that drivers cannot drive too fast. I saw many people speeding in Yellowstone and it makes me sick that people would want to go to an area to see wildlife and then not respect it. SLOW DOWN MORONS! It’s bad enough seeing roadkill near where I live. It breaks my heart knowing that most of those wild lives could have been saved if people were even just going the speed limit. In a national park it’s that much more painful to think about.
Okay. Breathe Belinda. But to me, being in our national parks is akin to being in a spiritual setting. And it makes my heart hurt that in these places, set aside so that we can preserve wildlife, there are such careless people who enter it with such an absence of conscience.
This has been one long post. But Glacier National Park is a treasure to experience. I still have more photographs to process and I already want to go back, even to hike some more, not for the sake of hiking uphill (believe you me) but to have the experience and privilege of being able to see and photograph the amazing life and beauty that is here.
Thanks to Jemmy for inviting me, her kindness and the great experience of getting to know a wonderful person and photographer in person. Please visit see her photography website: http://jemmyarcher.com/ and for more of my Glacier NP photographs, visit here: Belinda Greb National Parks Gallery. Peace.