August 23–27, 2018
For years, I had dreamt of exploring Glacier National Park. I had only first heard of the park at some point during my graduate studies in Florida, when a friend visited the park and talked about how glaciologists expected glaciers would be gone from the park by about 2030. To be honest, however, I never really knew much about Montana, and my interest was only piqued in recent years. I had always thought of Montana as a part of the country with lots of cowboys, horseback riding, and rolling rangeland. While those elements are very much in existence today, Montana also offers incredible alpine landscapes, lush forests, and well… Glaciers!
Glacier National Park is called the Crown of the Continent, and was inhabited for centuries by indigenous people (mainly the Blackfoot in the east and the Salish and Kootenai Tribes in the west). White settlers (mainly Spanish, French, and English) first discovered the area in the 1800s and set up homesteads from which they could set out on hunting and trapping expeditions. By the end of the century, the completion of the Great Northern railroad allowed tourists to begin visiting the area. In 1900, Congress passed a bill protecting the region as a national forest preserve. Only 10 years later, after George Bird Grinnell wrote many publications bringing Glacier’s beauty and mystique to the public eye, Congress established Glacier National Park (before the National Park Service was even created in 1916). Now, Glacier National Park receives over 3 million visitors per year, despite much of the park being only open for several months each summer.
During my visit to Glacier, there were large fires burning across much of the North American mountain west, but a large fire near Lake MacDonald (in the West side of the park) was particularly troublesome. Parts of the famous Going-to-the-Sun road had been closed, and the west side of the park seemed like it was not going to be worth visiting. Instead, we drove up along the eastern prairies toward East Glacier Village. We started our journey north after a great night’s sleep at Cave Mountain Campground in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, and followed the rolling plains up to the Two Medicines entry to the east side of Glacier National Park. The campground at Two Medicines has to be one of the best car camping campgrounds in which I’ve stayed, with views of mountains and alpine lakes from most of the sites. Unfortunately, the smoke from the Howe Ridge Fire was particularly strong at Two Medicines on this day, as the west winds channeled the smoke eastward across the mountain passes. We settled in, put up the hammocks, and played some tunes on the guitar for a nice chill evening.
The next day we woke up to much clearer skies, and decided to seize the moment and get hiking. We aimed for Rockwell Falls for a relatively easy day of hiking (after encouraging my friend Stephen to do some 13–15 mile hikes over the previous weeks).
The hike to the Falls was pretty easy and we were left with the possibility to hike another 2.5 miles from Rockwell Falls up to Cobalt Lake — a glacial melt lake just below the Continental Divide. I convinced Stephen (yet again) that the hike would be worth it, especially since the day was remarkably clear of smoke and haze. And good lord — was it worth it!
At Cobalt Lake, I had a quick dip in the super clear, but frigid water, and then had a walk along the rocky shore of the lake. As we looked across to the opposite side of the lake, we saw four big horn sheep climbing the face of the mountain up toward the ridge. After taking in the silence of the mountains for about 30 minutes, we eventually decided it was time to make the trek back down the mountain to have a shower and eat some well deserved dinner after our 13 mile trek.
Our first full day in Glacier provided us with wonderful clear skies. However, through the night the west winds picked up and brought more smoke eastward from the Howe Ridge Fire. We woke up to a clear smell of the smoke in the air, air quality indexes at much higher particulate concentrations, and we knew we weren’t going to be so fortunate to hike as the day before. Instead, we took Stephen’s truck and headed north to the St. Mary’s visitor center, which had some great exhibits about the history of the park, geology, and indigenous populations. They also have free Wifi :).
After an hour of looking at the exhibits in the visitor center, Stephen and I had a quick lunch of the last night’s leftover pasta with tuna sauce, then started the drive up to Logan Pass. The smoke was very thick, masking many of the distant mountain peaks in a shroud of haze.
Despite the reduced visibility, the scale and dynamism of the mountains here exert a remarkably powerful force. Standing there looking up at the mountains, I felt so small among the massive craggy peaks and understood why the Blackfeet felt that the spirits of their ancestors lived in those mountains.
We reached Logan Pass, where the road was closed to westbound traffic due to the fires near Lake MacDonald. So, we turned around and enjoyed the road back down the mountain pass. The Going-to-the-Sun road in itself is an impressive feat of engineering. It winds along the edge of the mountains as it winds it’s way from St. Mary up 600m (2000 ft) to Logan Pass. Some of the narrower parts of the road are supported with rock walls and some of them offer very little (if any) protection in the form of guard rails. It makes the entire experience that much more powerful. We eventually found our way back to camp at Two Medicines, where we planned to make it up to Many Glacier Campground the next morning.
Our last full day at Glacier NP, we woke up to slightly cooler weather and some clouds seemingly threatening a bit of rain (good news for the fires). We packed up camp early and head up to Many Glacier. At the Many Glacier entry to the park, there is an option to stay in one of the park’s two Swiss Chalet — style lodges complete with bell hops wearing lederhosen (the other chalet is on the West side of the park). There is also a campground and the possibility to rent a cabin. We had heard that the campground there fills up very quickly during peak visitation, and some people wait for a spot starting at 6am! Luckily, we had no problems when we arrived about 9:30 am, as the ongoing fires had dissuaded a lot of people from visiting the park. We chose a nice level spot in the campground and headed out for a couple of hikes.
We had wanted to hike to Iceberg Lake (a glacial lake that actually has icebergs floating in it), but significant bear activity along the trail forced the NPS to close the trail to hikers.
Instead, we chose an easy hike up the Swiftcurrent trail to Redrock Falls. The hike was pretty easy hike that went through the forest, and opened up along Fishercap Lake. At the lake viewpoint, two grouse were hanging out in the grasses near the trail, and we could make out a couple of mountain goats way up on the mountain on the opposite side of the lake. While they only looked like white upside-down U shapes from our spot, some hikers with large camera lenses confirmed our guess.
Just a little bit farther along the trail, you reach Redrock Falls, which were clearly given this name because of the color of the rocks. We did a bit of scrambling on the rocks, took some pictures, then headed back toward the trailhead.
On our way back to the trailhead, Stephen and I decided to go off the trail a little bit to relieve ourselves in the woods. We were close to the Lake, and when I walked down onto the shoreline, I could see some other hikers about a quarter of a mile to my right. They all seemed to be quite excited about something behind me, and were pointing and looking through their binoculars. I turned 180 degrees to see a bear and her cub trotting down along the shore towards me. They were probably only 200 feet away at this point, but luckily didn’t see me. I called out to Stephen that two bears were approaching, and we quickly started heading back up toward the trail, talking with loud voices to discourage the bears from getting too close.
Back at the trailhead, we opted for a quick lunch, then one more afternoon hike. We chose to hike Apikuni Falls — a short, but steep hike up to a pretty impressive waterfall. We also decided to take a short side trail off the main path, and were rewarded with some stellar views of the glacial valley looking back toward the lodge and Swiftcurrent Lake.
While the hike up to the falls seemed to be straight up the mountain, the way back down was much easier with gravity on our side. On our way back to our campsite, we stopped to take some pictures of the lake and the Chalet. It is a pretty impressive view from the hill above the lodge.
The inside of the lodge has a massive open fireplace and ample seating, all with great view of the lake. We stepped outside on the large balcony to see a moose walking in the water on the opposite side of the lake. Unfortunately, it was just too far away to capture on my phone camera. Stephen and I got back to our campsite, and thought we’d step inside Neil’s at Swiftcurrent Motor Inn to warm up and have a nice draught beer. We got to talking to a Scottish fashion photographer, who was traveling through North America to see out what Americans were like in person (instead of just listening to the news), and hoped to restore his faith in our country. Hint: he was having a great time meeting so many wonderful people. He bought us a couple more beers, a whisky, then we all decided we needed to eat some food. Despite being one of the only places for a hot meal in this part of the park, the food at Neil’s was affordable and quite tasty. I had a Reuben with a side of Macaroni and Cheese and vegetables. It was really nice having a meal prepared for me after cooking out of the camper for the majority of the past month!
We fell asleep the previous night after our escapade with Dave the Scottish guy, and woke up to the sound of rain and a clear chill in the air. The rain down at the campsite had meant the first snow dusting of the season at higher elevations, and hopefully some relief for the fires out west. We each decided to go for a warm shower at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn (only $3.50 for 8 glorious minutes of hot water in a heated bathroom), had some coffee and breakfast, then head north toward the Canadian Border.
While my trip to Glacier National Park was not quite how I envisioned, it was still a fantastic trip. I was able to experience some wild and rugged beauty; hike through the backcountry; swim in an alpine lake; see bears, moose, grouse, sheep, and rams; and experience this magical place. If anything, my visit just gave me more motivation to come back again to see some of the sights I may not have been as fortunate to see this time around.