Montana’s Glacier National Park sat high on our Project 100 wish list because, with climate change models predicting the disappearance of the glaciers there by as early as 2030, we wanted to see some of these thickened masses of ice before they’re gone. The park used to have 150 glaciers, but now only 25 remain. Nevertheless, it was named not for the glaciers that still exist but rather for the glacial advances and retreats that have sculpted the mountains and valleys here over hundreds of thousands of years. Declared a national park in 1910, its major booster and Audubon Society co-founder, George Grinnell, dubbed the area the “Crown of the Continent.”
We arrived at the Apgar Visitor Center on the southwest side of the park in time for a picnic at the southern end of Lake McDonald. We had spectacular but brief views across the lake to the snow-capped peaks on the other side just before a week’s worth of storms rolled in. Our original plan had been to camp during our five-day visit, but seeing snow and rain in the forecast, we opted to stay at a hotel in Kalispell and make the 45-minute drive to the park each day.
We ended up doing a lot of driving. Glacier’s no-miss experience is motoring along the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road that cuts through the park and provides access to many of the 700+ miles of hiking trails. Despite the poor weather, we thought we’d give the road a try on our second day in the park. Beyond the dense rainforest of cedar and hemlock surrounding Lake McDonald and McDonald Creek, the fog thickened, leaving us with very little to see as the road climbed to 6,646-foot Logan Pass. In some ways that was better. With no views of the precipitous drop-offs into the deep valley on my side of the road, I could drive without being a tightly wound bundle of nerves.
The parking lot at the Logan Pass Visitor Center at the top of the road was completely full, with many cars circling in hopes of nabbing the next open spot. We gave up on hiking from there and instead drove down the east side of the pass. Luckily, just a short distance below at Lunch Creek, the fog lifted and we got our first glimpse of a glacial valley and several bighorn sheep on the meadow above it. We continued to Siyeh Bend for a short hike uphill to Piegan Pass, our first real opportunity to stretch our legs. Grizzlies stretch their legs throughout the park, too, so we hiked with bear spray as a precaution.
We still had plenty of time left in the day and drove on to the eastern exit of the park at Saint Mary and back in at the Many Glacier entrance to the north of that. Following Sherburne Lake and Creek, the road led to the Many Glacier Hotel, a wonderful historic inn built in 1914-15 by the Great Northern Railway to resemble a lodge in the Swiss Alps. Situated on the eastern shore of scenic Swiftcurrent Lake, the hotel also has incredible views of the alpine peaks Mt. Grinnell, Mt. Wilbur and Mt. Henkel.
After a revitalizing lunch of hot soup on such a cold day, we hiked the Grinnell Trail that follows the sunnier north side of the lake. Despite the chilly weather at the beginning of low season, the trail was full of other hikers. In fact, Glacier overall was far more crowded than Yellowstone over Labor Day Weekend. Narrated Red Bus tours take tourists around in style, and at Many Glacier, narrated boat tours cross Swiftcurrent Lake and drop off folks who wish to hike back or take a second boat across adjacent Josephine Lake. We circled around to the southern shore of Lake Josephine and returned on this nearly empty trail, probably because the boat guide advised people that this side would be a cold, muddy slog in the shade.
Thimbleberries grew chest high along both sides of the trail, so we made extra noise to scare away any bears in the area. I couldn’t resist stopping every few minutes to pick and eat berries until it dawned on me that any bear in the area would probably see me before I saw him and resent the competition in his prized berry patch. One swift swipe of his massive paw could put an end to a thimbleberry thief like me.
Back in the car at the end of our hike, we returned through the park along Going-to-the-Sun Road. By then the fog had lifted so we could see the spectacular views west of Logan Pass. This time on the inside lane, the sheer cliff walls to my right were comforting. Hector had the pleasure of looking at the view while I kept my eyes on the road.
The next day we decided to go green — and avoid a full parking lot at Logan Pass — by taking the free park shuttle. We’re not sure that was the wisest move. We had a 45-minute wait for the shuttle, followed by a transfer to a second, smaller bus that could maneuver the narrow, twisting turns on the upper part of Going-to-the-Sun Road. Then we were stuck in traffic behind cyclists pedaling uphill and finally one-lane traffic in a construction zone. The journey ate up three hours of our morning!
In any event, we disembarked at Logan Pass and trudged off on the Highline Trail. The trail began with unbelievably gorgeous views of the valley below and passed through an alpine meadow punctuated by patches of Englemann spruce and sub-alpine fir.
It soon came to the Garden Wall, a vertical rock face with a cable drilled in place as a handrail for nervous hikers. We had read that this was a treacherous hike due to the long drop down the steep valley to the road below, yet we found the trail quite wide and didn’t need the cable. A few people simply turned around at the sight of it, however, and they missed one of the most stunning walks in the national park system (and one of our all-time favorite hikes).
Along the way, we passed more thimbleberries, numerous small waterfalls and lush alpine vegetation carpeting the hillside. Snow clung to the crevices in the rocky wall above us, and we spotted a family of mountain goats perched on grassy precipices. Thank goodness we had our binoculars, because without them the goats looked like tiny white rocks. The views of the surrounding peaks simply took our breath away.
We hiked in about three and a half miles to Haystack Pass and reluctantly turned around there because we didn’t want to miss the last return shuttle departing Logan Pass that afternoon. We made good time on the way back, stopping only to admire a bighorn sheep ram in a spruce-filled glade near the trail, a few pikas cavort in a section of scree, and a Columbian ground-squirrel snuffling about in search of a meal. Even without the wildlife, this hike was one of the major highlights of our Glacier National Park adventures that continue here.