5 DAYS AND 52 MILES IN GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, MT
Some might call this a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but I 100% expect to be back to Glacier National Park in the future, global pandemic notwithstanding. So let’s call this adventure what it is: Part 1 of at least 3, plus a Waterton Lakes Canadian side add-on.
Flying to BZE being fairly out of the question right now, Glacier popped on my ‘currently logistically doable bucket list’ radar as a 9-hr hop & skip of a drive from our new home in Salt Lake City, UT. Therefore, with proper & respectful quarantine practices* under my belt, a kickass, quarantine-friendly road trip. I am fortunate to have my great gal-pal Raina as my adventure buddy once again.
This ‘perfect spring in July’ trip was so epic that words and pictures alone will not do it justice. But, if you’re keen to see the wonders of the park for yourself someday, I’ve broken down our 5-day itinerary, tips & learnings, and ridiculous stories here for the #AWAKNTribe to enjoy.
Welcome to Glacier National Park! A quick pop in to the Apgar Visitors Center allowed us a few outdoor, socially distanced getting started Q&A’s with super friendly & knowledgeable park rangers, a filtered water top-off, and GNP sticker purchase. On to the Backcountry Permit Office in Apgar Village!
Or so we thought. A few minutes in line led to an announcement that the rangers were taking a late lunch, and a reminder that at this time backcountry permits can only be administered 24 hours in advance. You can check site availability online (if you brought your dialup? No phone signal…), but no online reservations were being taken as of the last ~month due to limited availability and pandemic visitor controls.
Well that sure put a damper on our plans for a dawn-to-dusk hike the next day. Luckily we caught a glimpse of the few available campsites so we could do some research in our guidebook before we returned. Priorities! So, off we then went to catch some late afternoon vistas before we headed to set up our polyester dome-home at Fish Camp for the night.
Pro tip: Grab ice, firewood, and jugs of water at Eddie’s Cafe in Apgar Village before heading to camp.
To get to Logan Pass on the Continental Divide (@ 6,646 ft), you must drive the historically renowned Going-to-the-Sun Road, an ~50 mile engineering marvel with construction that started in 1921 and took over 20 years to implement.
At this stop-off you’ll find a [closed for now] visitors center, plenty of parking if a trotting ram doesn’t take your spot first!, and the Hidden Lake Overlook trail (~3-5 miles). Have you ever walked into a picture-perfect postcard before? This trail will certainly give you that experience, with snow-capped mountain vistas, a crystal blue lake in the valley, and lush greenscapes dotted with mountain goats enjoying a snack and life.
[Hidden Lake goat vista- photo cred @awakn.tiff]
Be beary aware! Half the trail is closed due to bear activity. Don’t feed the animals!
Sunrise & permits
Early to bed, early to rise! Our camping motto, we go hard before we go home. Knowing we had a long stint in the permit line ahead of us that morning, we took a brief, sunrise jaunt on the Rocky Point/Lake McDonald trail for coffee & granola with a view (we drank AWAKN, of course!). Delightful, but time to boogie, the backcountry is calling!
[McDonald lake - photo cred @awakn.tiff]
We got to the permit office around 7:15am, and it was shockingly akin to an old-school (but socially distanced) concert ticket line. How early did these people get there?! We scooted in at ~12th in line… just as the ranger announced a small fire in the North Fork that removed several of our top-choice spots from availability. Good thing we had plenty of time and the guide book to do our backup backup backup research. Through ‘neighborly’ chit-chat (ok, eavesdropping), we learned the two people behind us were locals and park aficionado's, and we earned their trust enough to get some insider feedback on spots and hikes. Thanks, Craig & Amy!
~5 hrs later we scored a spot at Round Prairie, stay tuned for more on that below! Permit acquisition tips:
- Arrive before the crack of dawn, have a plan A, B, C, D, & E, and be prepared to pivot
- Wear your mask, be mindful of spacing as the line creeps forward
- Be prepared: some people brought camp chairs, books... we had covert rosé & a deck of cards
- Due to the lack of online advanced reservations, get more than one night at your spot if you’re not 100% certain but think even slightly that you might need it
- When the ranger asks you what the #1 thing the safety video tells you to do when you get to your camp, it is not “Secure the perimeter!”- the answer is ‘Hang your food & toiletries out of reach from bears.’ You’re welcome.
Grinnell Glacier Overlook
We initially planned to hit the full Highline Trail, but due to snow impassibility a good bit of it (well, all of it) was closed. Where there’s a will, there’s a way! One of the culminations of that trail is Grinnell Glacier, so we tackled it from another direction: 12 miles RT with a snack break at Granite Chalet.
I hesitated to start such a long, uphill trek after ~1pm, but since it didn’t get dark until almost 10pm we ended up having plenty of daylight, and in fact, the perfect late afternoon glow for the hike out.
[Grinnell Glacier pic- photo cred @awakn.tiff]
Grinnell Glacier, 152 icy acres in 2005, was absolutely spectacular. I can only imagine it’s glory 50 years ago when it had 40% more acreage. Sad PSA- if CO2 levels continue to climb with that consistency, all the glaciers in GNP could disappear by 2030. THAT’S SO CLOSE! Global warming is real, folks.
Tips for this route:
- Shade is intermittent, have plenty of water and sun-protection/a big hat
- There are some mosquito’y woods, spray yourself up at the car
- Bring hiking poles, basically all non-lakeshore trails at GNP have steep uphills
- Keep your peepers peeled for curious wildlife and an abundance of wildflowers
We worked up an appetite, and with an over 30 minute drive back down The Sun Road ahead of us, we pulled over and decided to set up our dinner snacks at the McDonald Creek cascades. We perched, boiled water, soaked our feet, and feasted. Homemade grass-fed ground beef jerky was the perfect protein add-in for my dehydrated delectibles, as was some dehydrated spinach courtesy of Raina. The sunset at the westerly end of the creek was brilliant.
[Sunset on the river - photo cred @awakn.tiff]
On the reco of our new park geologist friend, Jeff, we got up at 5am, packed up camp, and headed to the Piegan Pass trailhead at Siyeh Bend. Could these native Floridians handle a 2000 ft elevation gain? Masks up, poles out-- We sho’ nuff conquered it!
While I myself am not a wildflower specialist, the gentleman we parked next to is, and if he was heading to this Pass, we knew we were in for a floral eye-feast. This trail meandered through several breathtaking environments, including rushing creek beds, alpine forests, wildflower meadows, glacial lakes, rocky summits, and lush glacial valleys.
[Piegans Pass- photo cred @awakn.tiff]
Serendipitously, our curiosity begged us beyond the ‘stone pyramid’ where successful summiters left their mark at Going-to-the-Sun Mountain, and off we went down a spur (maybe to Canada?). The slope was rocky and sheer, but to go down into the ice field at the base of Sexton Glacier meant that we’d have to climb back out. We decided 2k ft up was enough for that day. We sat, snacked, made friends with chipmunks and marmots, snapped some time-lapses and glacier selfies, and then made our way back out for a total hike of almost 14 miles.
[photo cred @rainaterror]
Lessons learned at this juncture:
- Friendly parking lot chit-chat can lead to game-changing insight. We met Jeff the Geologist the previous day coming out of Granite Chalet; this hike was not on our radar before that but we asked for epic options and his reco’s did not disappoint
- Cross-ref Alltrails status with locals, this trail is marked ‘closed’ online but is definitely open at the moment
- A majority of visitors were mindful of recreating safely during the pandemic; masks (Buff’s) up for passing, some even turned their backs. The respect was very much appreciated and reciprocated
- Not all glaciers at GNP are icy and blue, if you find yourself staring at a snowfield wondering ‘Where is this glacier they speak of?’ you could very well be at it :)
- The official trail does continue down the valley a couple more miles out to The Sun Road, but from there you either need to climb 500 ft back up (no thank you), walk the narrow, winding road a couple miles back over to the parking area (no thank you), or hitchhike (no thank you, you can keep your ‘rona and kidnapping).
- If a man runs past you with a dog, he is not a trail runner, he is a fugitive of national park law! Thank you, rangers, for your diligent pursuit of offenders as you work hard to keep the backcountry safe and pristine.
The east side of the park was closed due to COVID concerns & respect for the Blackfeet nation. But, you can drive The Sun Road right up to the St. Mary gates, which takes you along the impressive St. Mary Lake shoreline, 2015 Reynolds Creek wildfire-ravaged landscapes, and probably Canada (again).
Chasing the sunset and our growing hanger, we popped into a few rec areas to find a picnic table with a view, but that didn’t happen (if you don’t mind ‘views’ of parking lots, you’d be more content with the available options than we were). An epiphany from a backup hike option took us back towards Logan Pass, where we pulled over to have dinner at Lunch Creek. We didn’t quite make it to the waterfall area, but we did enjoy dining along the creek bank near some thirsty rams.
While we did have our backcountry spot that night, it would be a 2+ hours drive + the hike in, and no campfires. We wanted that fire. We had a ‘backup’ spot at a different area of Fish Creek so we decided to cash in on that--- get toasty & have a marshmallow roasty.
We threw camp up quickly, as we had a less than desirable spot (turnaround intersection), and wanted to catch the last rays of the day down on the lake McDonald shore (walkable from camp). As we popped our tent, some campers and a ‘lifer’ volunteer ranger came by to let us know “We have a bear” nearby. Bear spray FTW!
North Fork adventures
Our first quasi-leisurely morning. We lit another fire, brewed some AWAKN, and packed up to head to the North Fork for our backcountry spot. If you hadn’t guessed it by now, we are a little ambitious and time-delusional on the agenda side of things, so of course we ‘pit stopped’ for a morning hike up to Avalanche Lake.
[Avalanche lake - photo cred @rainaterror]
It was our most crowded hike yet, being that the end-point is an incredible glacial lake bordered by cascading waterfalls, and only 3 miles from the (main) parking lot. We parked ~1 mile down the road and hiked along McDonald Creek to the Trail of the Cedars, which was an easy boardwalk that led to the Avalanche lake trail (all uphill, but very moderate).
Pro tip: Bring a little lunch, you’ll definitely want to take in this natural eye candy for a few minutes.
Back out and off we really went to North Fork. The road was a ‘maintenanced’ dirt & gravel road journey towards and through Polebridge, Big Prairie, and past the scene of the crime that kept us from our original campsite goals (arson on an historic cabin that included grizzly claw marks in the rafters, sad).
Once we ‘ID’d’ our turnoff, we decided to keep going to the top of the area and have dinner at Kintla Lake. And, our first swim/shower of the trip. It was delightful. And a bald eagle flew by. Thank you, mother nature.
Comparatively, the campsite at Round Prairie was... OK. The site was only half a mile from the parking area alongside the Flathead river bank which borders the Flathead National Forest. What they don’t tell you in the site description at the permit office is that the moment you open your car door you will be swarmed by jurassic-sized mosquitoes. Forget food, forget bear bags, grab the tent and sleeping bags and hustle to camp! But also, look out for bears, this is deep in grizzly territory.
[bear sign- photo cred @rainaterror]
Camp was set up just as it was finally getting dark (10pm or so?). Luckily we had the wherewithal to grab our camp chairs and we headed out to the river bank to watch the stars come out. We really wanted to see a Moose on the bank, and the comet Neowise in the northwest horizon (trees were in the way :/). We settled for shooting stars, a zooming space station, and a slightly pinkish green glow from aurora borealis. Again, sincere gratitude to mother nature.
We fancy ourselves smarter than your average insect, so we got up before the mosquitos did, packed out, then hit up Bowman Lake for breakfast and one last hike before we had to leave GNP.
We were the first visitors in the lot of this popular destination due to our proximity from our campsite, so that was a score. We were greeted by Dave, a volunteer ranger who was enjoying a nice cuppa joe and watching the sunrise with his friend. While we watched a frolicky fawn sip water from the foggy shore, we listened to Dave and his friend talk about the encounter a trail runner had with a baby grizzly there last week, as well as wonder where their friend Barry, who has a Fu Manchu moustache, was- he went for a hike 3 days prior and they hadn’t heard from him since. [Update: as of 7/25/2020 Barry is officially a missing person-- hoping for a safe return back to camp for Barry!].
Our own coffee’s (AWAKN, duh) finished, off we went to the Lower Quartz Lake, just ‘a little hill’ through the 3 miles to get there, so said Dave. What we actually tackled was a giant climb through bear woods on a trail lined with ripe huckleberries (aka a bear breakfast buffet, hmmm), and a mosquito-ridden lakeshore bog. But, we got to the lake and snacked on a log bridge at the head. Lovely. And time to go!
[Bowman lake - photo cred @awakn.tiff]
One last dip in a GNP mountain lake. The shore at the parking lot was a bit more populated than when we left, so we socially distanced ourselves, cheers’d to the success of our adventures, and plunged into the clear as ice water. Now it was really time to go.
10 minutes into ‘leaving’ the park, we pulled over into the post-cardy old western town of Polebridge, MT and had a brewsky and bison burger at the Northern Lights Saloon. It was a very good burger, notwithstanding its relation to eating dehydrated bag food for almost a week.
[Northern lights Saloon pic-- photo cred @awakn.tiff]
We really left after that. Headed towards Bozeman, MT and back to reality with a lifetime of memories ingrained in our brains and miles logged in our boots.
Our Glacier stats:
- 5 days, 4 nights
- ~51.6 miles hiked
- 4 glaciers, 5 lakes, endless waterfalls and rivers
- 3 bears, 2 foxes, 2 bald eagles, several rams, deer and marmots, and mountain goats
- Wildflowers out the wazoo
- 1000’s of true laughs and heartfelt moments with my friend Raina
- Sturdy boots
- Hiking poles (I <3 my cork-handled Black Diamonds, similar here)
- Bear spray
- AWAKN collagen coffee w/ MCT oil
- Trail snacks (jerky, roasted nuts, almond butter…)
- Dehydrated spinach (nutritious & lightweight)
- Bug net jacket (game-changing nerd-alert)
- Wide brim hat
- A guide book & map (no phone signal in most of the park)
- Your adventurous spirit
*Note: Out of respect for the Blackfeet tribe and their susceptibility to COVID-19, the East side of the park was closed to visitors. Please continue to show respect for your fellow humans by wearing a mask in public, washing your hands regularly, and avoiding highly populated or vulnerable areas.