GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
Done with the city life for a bit (it doesn't take long) we started heading north from Missoula towards another long awaited destination, Glacier National Park.
I was expecting a few things from this place. Pebble shores, crystal clear water, crazy mountain peaks, and tough hiking terrain. Glacier met these expectations and offered so much more than either of us even dreamed for this area.
So far, Montana had been mostly rolling hills with patches of grassland and large stretches of evergreen forest. Not quite dry, not quite wet, a good in between for Wyoming and what I assume to be Oregon. It was beautiful, but hadn't been anything wholly new, as pompous as that sounds.
The drive from Missoula to the outskirts of Glacier was stunning. Another huge reminder that is is good to be rich, what ever state you're in. The Fishhead Lake was particularly gorgeous. Lined with vacation homes and small cherry farms, this stretch was reminiscent of the second homes in Northern California. A hobby vineyard, a lake house for the summer, a nice quite place to pretend to homestead for a few months out of the year. Boy, what a life. The lake was surrounded by mountains, and the small 'downtown' was filled with young grandparents taking their grand kids to the overpriced “we are down home” rich man's fish fry. It was an interesting dynamic, but alluring none the less. If there was an actual city close by, both Eric and I were in! I will keep this place in mind for future vacations if I need to try on another man's shoes kind of thing. What a life. And we hadn't even arrived at Glacier National Park yet!
Since we are still in the height of summer, we had to strategically sleep right outside the park so we could arrive at camp at an ungodly hour and snake our way in to a first come first serve campsite. This lead us to, once again, sleeping among the homeless at the Pilot truck stop in Whitefish. Cooking dinner outside on the tailgate and wondering “hmmm, is that vanlife on purpose or not?” at this point in our travels, there is not much difference. The sunset was stunning though.
Waking up at 5am we headed into the park boundaries. The first campground was a bust, as West Glacier camp is now reservation only. Not looking good. On to Apgar campground and let the circling begin. I swear, parking at UCF prepared me most of all for summer national park camping. Move slow, but deliberate, and don't be afraid to stalk people.....kindly, of course.
Once again, this strategy worked and we secured a site for the next few days. Once we were in we walked over to Lake McDonald and gazed upon the famous view for the first time. With fires burning in the vicinity, the haze bounced the pastel light of sunrise softly between the mountains and the water. The lake was still, perfectly clear, and no one was on the shore at 7am. Eric and I walked peacefully, but tired, along the rocky shore and I couldn't hold back the tears of joy. And exhaustion, but mostly joy.
This was one of those moments where it hits you. That mental image of 'Glacier National Park' becomes real. In front of your very eyes. The shore is actually made of multi colored pebbles, and they seamlessly disappear into impossibly clear waters, and those waters go right to massive distant mountains. It was a sight I wasn't sure I would ever see. Wasn't sure I would deserve to see.
We took two hours back at the trailer to have coffee and breakfast, and slowly wake up. During this time, we also discovered the campground had two free showers that had not be advertised, which we excitedly took advantage of. Unexpectedly clean, we started to make a game plan for the day. This plan quickly fell apart, mostly because I was too antsy to see more of the park. Around lunch, we popped up to the small Apgar visitor center with intentions of asking a few questions and heading back to camp to hang out by the lake. After our questions were answered, I thought “oh let's just do a little drive along Going to the Sun road just to see what it has.” No big deal right?
Well, no. With very few turn-arounds and a lot of people on the road, the drive was more stressful than I was anticipating. Because of the fires off in the distance and no wind, the smoke obscured most of the views and Eric and I inevitably got into a fight. Just what we needed, a no-sleep fueled fight about travel plans while in a busy public parking area. At this point in our travels, this is not the first time we have had a heated exchange in public.
When you travel with someone long term, these things happen. whether it be a boyfriend, husband, friend or family member, your going to have different expectations for the day/event, and your going to get frustrated with each other. The only difference with travel fights and regular fights is you can't walk away. Or go to a quiet room to collect your thoughts. Or drive down the street to get away for a bit. Or go for a walk without highly inconveniencing the other person. You also can't really raise your voice. I mean, you can, but yelling “FUCK YOU!” in the middle of a crowd usually doesn't help anything. Also, you have to work through the frustration with each other and figure out a solution together to move on with the day. Sometimes this means still working together to accomplish tasks while your fuming. I talk more about this in another blog, here. Needless to say, by this point Eric and I have figured out how to work through these travel frustrations, know they come with the territory, and continue to love traveling, and each other despite them.
But this day was still tough. I was still struggling with being ok with down time it seemed. I was excited to see the park, even though I knew the smoke made this first day not optimal for a drive. We ended up going back to camp and following through with the original plan, just a bit later than expected.
After we talked it out, and took time to calm down, we enjoyed an afternoon hanging in hammocks by Lake McDonald. I tried to take a swim, but it was just a bit too cold. Eric, however, was a polar bear and enjoyed the crisp water. The smoke made for a beautiful pastel sunset that turned the distant mountains into wisps of pink peaks. We tried to photograph it, but no matter what, it is never as gorgeous as real life.
The next day Eric and I were back on the same page, and were ready to start exploring. We only had one main hike planned for this side of Going to the Sun road before we headed over the pass, and that was to the popular Avalanche lake.
Regardless of the bickering the prior day, I had been in a pretty bad funk for about four days. I don't know if it was hormonal, exhaustion, or what, but I was in a particularly bad head space. For some reason, I felt very low, and was having difficulty getting jazzed about...really anything. It was depressing that I arrived in one of the most anticipated parks for the summer, and I felt indifferent. I had a few breakdowns for no reason I could pinpoint, and just hoped the feeling would pass soon. Luckily, this hike seemed to be exactly what I needed.
The hike out to Avalanche lake was gorgeous, but once again crowded. We were both pretty over the constant people, but the woods surrounding us were too captivating to be annoyed. Avalanche creek roared along side rock caverns and rooted banks that alternated in the dense, wet mossy forest all around. As we got closer to the lake, the trees allowed peek-a-boo views of the terraced sedimentary and igneous rock walls of the mountains surrounding us. I kept thinking of Tomb Raider the video game, honestly. It was almost jungle like. Each ledge up the mountainside seemed to have its own world growing on it. And when we emerged at the lake, I could have sworn we were in the Pacific North West.
In fact, we learned that Glacier had a prime example of a Pacific rain forest due to the moister the mountains trapped as winds headed east of the Rockies. We both had expectations of beautiful and giant mountain peaks, but we really had no idea it would be an inland rain forest. At this point, we were starting to talk about how nice it is to not really have a solid idea of what a park looked like. We were not able to do our normal amount of research for this park, and what we had planned for our time here didn't really need it so we came in partially blind. It was neat to have minimal expectations and have our image of what Glacier looked like built while we were experiencing it.
Anyway, arriving at the lake, we decided to continue hiking to the other side and take our time fishing on the way back. The water was crystal clear, and you could see down trees on the bottom of the lake like they fell yesterday. The sky was overcast with slight sprinkles all day, but the air quality was much better than the previous day, and we could see the surrounding mountains. Once we got away from the first view of the lake, there were less people and it was finally relaxing.
Walking the shoreline, we skipped over logs and hopped on rocks along the steep, grassy banks while we occasionally threw out a line. Eric finally had success and caught a west slope cutthroat trout. Then...it happened. I FINALLY CAUGHT A FISH! I had this idea about being able to catch, clean, and cook my own fish in Wyoming and Montana, but I didn't expect to be so unsuccessful with the first part. Once we finally caught a fish big enough, I realized I didn't have the heart to kill it. I actually struggled with the idea of fishing in general. Although I didn't want to kill a fish, I also didn't like catch and release either because I caused pain and damage to the fish for no reason. I know this is dumb, but it had been so long since I had gone fishing that I hadn't really thought about it until now. Eric and I both caught two more and each time I couldn't help but say “aw he's so cute!” which made me automatically attached to it. I did enjoy observing the fish and their different colors and patters which were easy to see in the clear water. It was also very exciting to actually catch one.
Until my last one.
I had just convinced myself it was now or never. Next fish we caught that was big enough was going to be the one. Threw the line in, got a bite and started to reel it in. A nice size too! Then all of a sudden we hear shouts from the bank at the back of the lake. At first it was just non specific shouts of “hey!” and we didn't know what was going on. Then I was able to make out “bear!” and right as I understood what they were warning us about, a big, black furry mass ambled around the corner about 15 yards down the beach. Unfortunately, there was not an easy path to quickly get back up on the actual trail so we had to continue down the shore line until there was a break in the brush along the hillside. Both of our brains went to mush for the first few seconds of “oh shit, that is actually a bear.” Then we finally started moving. We immediately went into our well practiced “HEY BEAR”'S and grabbed out the bear spray just in case. The bear did not give a shit about us at all. He was just walking along the shore looking for lunch in the water, we just happened to be in his path. Once we grabbed our bag, Eric had the hemostats ready to unhook the fish, but the bear was approaching fast and we had to go. So, this is how I took my fish for a walk.
Fish on the line, we calmly walked as fast as we could, without running, up shore until we could cut into the woods. I held onto the fishing pole and dragged the fish attached in the water with me while Eric had the bag in one hand and bear spray in the other. Luckily, the bear stopped to investigate something smelly and we had a chance to gain some ground. I swapped the pole for the spray with Eric so he could unhook the fish, and then we quickly scrambled uphill back to the trail. The bear was still in sight, but thankfully had stopped ambling full speed ahead. Wasting little time, we caught up with other hikers on the trail and then finally took a breath. It was odd because we wern't scared. Both of us definitely had a bit of an adrenaline rush, sure, but we were more glad we didn't get in the way of the bear's day. Or worse, cause the bear any distress that would lead to injury or death. For it, not us. These parks are set aside for the enjoyment of the people, sure, but we see this as land for the wildlife first.
As we walked back to the main beach, we warned other hikers of the bear's location along the trail. Once we arrived at the beach, we notice everyone had their binoculars and cameras out, looking for the bear along the shore. A few people even told us the story of how two fisherman were chased down the beach by the bear everyone was looking for (haha, that was us!)
As we hiked back to the trail head, we laughed as we recounted the events of the day and discussed our new appreciation for the bear spray regulations. It is amazing that in such a populated area, these encounters can still happen. Even though I already knew this, having it happen to me gave me a whole new perspective. I also think that jolt of adrenaline was exactly what I needed to pull me out of my funk. We took our time on the way back, and I was once again bowled over by the beauty of nature.
Honestly, the crowds in the parks during the summer months start to take away from my connection with the outdoors. This was the third major National Park in a row, during August, so it was expected, and planned for, but I still think it played a role in my dissociation. It is tough to look past the annoyance of humans when you are looking for is peace and quiet. I realize that we are going to National Parks, and the front country at that, so looking for quiet there is pretty pointless. But still, the pull between seeing the highlights in the country vs. experiencing the middle of no where national forest or BLM land is always a question of time, and we have chosen the highlights over the quiet for a reason. Sometimes, is it not too much to want both?
However, I did get some moments all to my self during the backpack we did over my birthday. You can read about that portion of Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Park here.
When we finished our back country trek, we came back to the trail head to find no one had broken into our car or trailer, and no ticket was issued for other long term vehicle parking, so we camped in the trailer right there for the night. The only unfortunate part of that evening's experience was the bat trapped in the pit toilet, so using the rest room was a bit strenuous. More for the bat than us.
The next morning we woke up, once again, before dawn. At 4:00am actually. And then drove 45 minutes to then get in line until 6:30am. At 6:30am the campground at Many Glacier opened, and the four park employees tasked to managing the campground slowly assigned each car in line a spot as they opened up. Half of the campground is first come first serve, and the other half is in the reservations-that-fill-6-months-to-the-second in advance so good luck ever getting a site category. We arrived, waited patiently, got assigned a site, and then had to wait around some more for the previous occupant of said site to leave. But if we left and did anything before we set up camp, we might loose the site. The system is so fucked up its ridiculous. Oh, and every campground within the park, once again, operates completely different so good luck with anything. ::throws arms up in frustration::
While we waited, we put a chair down as a place holder and drove over to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn across the way to check out their facilities. Luckily, they had showers and laundry available, and we were in desperate need of both after our backpack. Although the showers were expensive at $2 for 8 minutes, it was good enough, and we both felt a million times better afterwards. We took the rest of that first day to enjoy being clean, unpack our gear, wash our clothes, have a fire, drink a beer, hang in our hammock, and cook campfire nachos! Knowing we had a campsite for the next few days always takes a load off too.
Over our last few days based out of Many Glacier, we finally drove the rest of the Going To The Sun Road up to the Logan Pass Visitor Center. Here, we intended to hike the famous Hidden Lake trail, but saw it was ass to tail with people, and passed. Seriously it looked like a single file line across the hill. Instead we putzed around the many pull offs and overlooks along the road, and caught the can't miss park video at the St. Mary's Visitor Center. The drive was unbelievable. This is absolutely, without a doubt, one of the most scenic areas in the whole united states. I kept thinking it looked like a video game because it was so unrealistically pretty. Everywhere you look there were huge mountains jutting out in between emerald alpine lakes, and running in between the two was a vast, lush, wet, rain forest. Parts of the view were expected, like the snow spotted peaks in summer and the large granite mountains, but I did not expect the pacific north west style forests and the intensity of the waters.
We did end up hiking one overcrowded trail, as we had to see a glacier in Glacier. The hike to Grenald Glacier is one of the top three hikes in the park, along with Hidden Lake, so we knew it was going to be crowded regardless of start time. We hit the trail by 7:30am and had a decent amount of quiet along the first two miles that traversed the lower lakes. We don't hike particularly fast, and we like to stop and enjoy the sights, take a photo, look at birds, eat snacks along the way, so an early start only pays off for a little while. By 9:30am people were flowing past us pretty regularly. We passed many groups stopped at wider sections of the trail for instagram photo ops, where a lot of them we noticed did not hike the rest of the way. We once again talked about the way people portray natural spaces on social media, and how different these “i hike miles in the middle of no where'” shots are 99% of the time a giant sack of bullshit. I am still trying to figure out if it actually bothers me or if it is just another way to interact with nature and is therefore good to bring people connection to the outdoors.
Anyway, I will give the influencers this. It was so hard not to take pictures every five seconds. This trail, although overpopulated, was stunning. Some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever walked in. I stopped taking pictures along the way because the camera just did not do it justice. Reflecting back, this trail would have been so nice to hike with some solitude I actually would do it again starting in the dark.
But I didn't do that this time. As we continued about 3 miles in, the elevation grade starts to increase significantly, and this created a traffic jam. This is the first time I have ever hiked a pretty hard hike in single file line form. It was worse than our time going to Sykes out in California and even worse than our Kaibab hike in the Grand Canyon, where the trail was narrow and had very little pull offs for pee breaks or passing. Therefore, if some ass hat is taking his or her sweet ass time and holding the mentality of “you can just wait” then you're SOL. This happened a fair bit from the hiking tours and large groups thus causing major back ups on the trail. The last half a mile or so was pretty much a staircase, so that was horrible. Half way through that section there was a plateau that broke off for the one out house along the trail, which allowed us to pass most of the groups before the last push. This area also had a bunch of big horn sheep hanging out along the cliff side, so that derailed some people as well, myself included.
Once we emerged at the end of the trail, we fled past the masses of people and secured a lunch spot along the rocky shore of Upper Grinnell Lake. As soon as we were able to take in the massive glacier (to us, small for an actual glacier) the hellishness of the trail faded away and it was all worth it. Like most hikes, you might have some less than perfect conditions, but I rarely regret it, especially if you actually get to see what you came for. While we enjoyed some tuna, crackers and cheese, and gazed out on the milky teal blue melt waters from Grinnell Glacier.
This glacier is one of the few you can get up close and personal with in the park. That is why it is the most photographed glacier in the United States, and a great place for people to make a connection to glaciers on a personal level. It is estimated that under current and predicted increases in carbon dioxide levels, all glaciers could be gone from Glacier National Park as early as 2030. This will change the landscape here dramatically. This fact really hit home while we gazed upon the massive block of ice and rock, and it was difficult to not feel the hopelessness of climate change, especially under these political times. It was hard not to grieve for these beautiful landscapes while we ate, but we tried to appreciate our time we had rather than allow the grief turn to anger.
After lunch, we walked even further out towards the glacier itself. At one point there is a sign that states “Warning: Hazardous conditions, glacier travel not recommended.” which we interpreted as an equivalent to Hawaii's “Caution! People die here....but its not illegal” signage. Forging on, we crossed some rock and water features that I was not to keen on, but was proud when I made it across safely, and arrived at the edge of the moving glacier. I didn't really know what to expect here. We know that walking on the ice itself is dumb because fissure and crevasses are deep, unexpected, and can be hidden under thin sheet of ice, so we stuck to the outskirts. Walking along we observed the movement of water carving waterfalls and caverns throughout the thick layers of ice. Rocks tarnished the appearance of crystal clear water, condensed pockets of blue, and clear sheets of purity as we sauntered along the frozen moonscape. Here and there we would here a deep crack and shifting sounds that would further remind us this is a force of nature not to be reckoned with. With no one else around, to actually hear the glacier was n incredible moment for both of us. The grinding of ice on rock carves mountains, shapes valleys, and creates lakes and rivers of impossible color as the minerals churned from ice flow down with the melt waters. We walked along in silence listening to these eerie soundscapes, and eventually said goodbye to this special place.
On the way down the trail, we re-entered the masses but it was much less dense. Still gaping at all the surroundings, we made good time as the afternoon light created shadows in the valley. Until we were stopped abruptly. Coming around a corner, we saw a few people stopped dead in their tracks. A few seconds later, a family of mountain goats came cautiously out from the brush. First, mamma goat came up from the switch backs below. Then, two little baby goats jumped up that were so freakin' cute I just about died. Following them, however, was daddy goat who looked like he was ready to fuck someone up. We stayed still and quiet at a distance while they eventually passed and disappeared into the woods. On the down slope side, there was a father and daughter who were not so respectful, which made the daddy goat obviously on edge. The dad human was encouraging his 8 year old daughter to get closer to the babies because he said “you only have to be 6 feet way!” WRONG DUMB ASS! The rule is stay 75 feet away from these animals, along with moose, sheep and elk, for your protection and theirs. Obviously, situations arise where you do not have that distance, in which case you are suppose to be still and not agitate the animal. These goats are extremely dangerous. Just looking at the horns alone should make that obvious. So, Eric and I both threw up our hands at the dad human and signed to stop and be quiet, which he did. After the goats passed and all the hikers started moving again, the dad human gave us a few passive aggressive words in front of his daughter. Good job idiot, bad example for her for wildlife and human interactions.
At least most people around were respectful, but it still made us mad. Not so mad that we weren't over the moon about seeing baby mountain goats though!!
We arrived back at camp with a few hours left before dinner. We decided to treat ourselves for our last night and take a shower after the long day's hike. On the way back from the showers, we noticed a ranger setting up a spotting scope and had to inquire. Apparently, there was a grizzly bear and a moose on the hillside behind the Inn and he quickly found each of them in his scope and allowed us to view. We grabbed our spotting scope from camp and quickly returned to find a huge group of people gathered around the ranger now. With our own scope set up, we found the moose, and later the bear, and watched him munch on some grass at our leisure. Every now and then we would let people look through our scope since the ranger's was swamped, but it was great once again to be able to watch the wildlife unencumbered. What a day! Hiking to glaciers, encounters with goats, bear and moose sightings and a shower! That's tough to beat.
As we packed up and left the next morning, we felt complete with our time in Glacier National Park. There is so much I would like to explore out here, but it would have been impossible in the time we had. Maybe over a full summer (or two) would I feel fully satiated, but I know I will return to this place. Another backpack for sure, perhaps a luxury stay in one of the hotels, or even a kayak trip on one of the many lakes. Either way this park will have my heart forever.
Onward we go to Canada! (in a car this time).
10/10 would fight crowds for beautiful mountain scenery again....maybe.