Might as Well Be  Going to the Sun

Itinerary: 

  • Thursday: Fly to Kalispell, Montana
  • Friday: Hiking to Iceberg Lake
  • Saturday: Highline Trail
  • Sunday: Relaxing day at the Lake MacDonald Lodge
  • Monday: Fly back to ATL

Dates: August 11-15, 2016

Our Odyssey: 

Tim and I had wanted to visit
Glacier National Park for several years. This summer, we decided to make it one
of our weekend adventures! We flew in to Kalispell, Montana (the closest
airport to the park) late one Thursday night after work, checked into the
Airbnb we rented (a trailer home parked on the yard of a farming family), and
were up bright and early to head into the park Friday morning.

Lake McDonald

We were off to an adventurous start
right away. On our drive into the park, we saw a young man with a large
backpack hitchhiking along the road. As we passed we debated for just a second
whether we should stop and pick him up. And so we did. An Irishman living in
San Francisco, our hitchhiker was on his way into the park to do a week of back
country hiking. Giving him a ride to the Apgar Visitor Center just inside
Glacier saved him about 5 miles off his trek.

The park’s name –
“Glacier” – can be a bit misleading. It’s not a park full of
glaciers, though there are a few you can hike to. Rather, the topography of
this land – the valleys and mountains and shapes of their peaks – were carved
long ago (Ice Age) by the slow movement of glaciers through this area.
Everything you see in the park today exists because of the power of ice and
time. Oh, and because of the nearly impossible work completed by the men who
constructed the park’s famous “Going to the Sun Road” in the 1920s.

View from Going to the Sun Road

Going to the Sun Road is an
approximately 50 mile road that cuts through the heart of the park, hugging
cliffs and mountains. Tim and I drove along this road our first day in the park
and as we did, we were stunned by the sheer drop offs beneath us and couldn’t
fathom how this road was built. Using dynamite and jackhammers, men worked
overtime to complete tunnels; hiked up 3,000 feet daily to get to survey sites
(during which time the team experienced a 300% turnover rate in just 3 months);
and suffered in below freezing (and below zero) temperatures.

But somehow they got it done, and
during the short summer season that this road is open to park visitors, it is
enjoyed by nearly 2 million visitors annually.

Our itinerary for the day was to
drive the length of Going to the Sun Road all the way from the west to the
east, and then reenter the park at St. Mary Visitor center, where we would hike
approximately 10 miles out and back to Iceberg Lake. During our drive, we were
delighted by not only the ridiculous views as we climbed through the mountains,
but also by our luck in happening to drive by when the fog was just perfectly
shrouding the valley below, forming pockets of clouds levitating, held in place
by the peaks around them.

Fog in the mountains

As we neared Logan’s Pass (the
Continental Divide and the highest drivable point in the park), we also saw
several mountain goats – including a baby – on a rocky hill to the right of the
road. I had never seen a mountain goat before and was so excited that these
agile animals were the first to greet us to Glacier!

Mountain goat! 

Our drive went on for another
hour or so before we reached the parking area where we would leave the rental
car behind for a few hours and set out on what we had heard is one of the best
hikes in the park – Iceberg Lake Trail.

Tim and me at Iceberg Lake

Iceberg 

During this hike, which was a mild
climb but mostly flat, we were treated to the most gorgeous wildflowers I’d
ever seen, countless butterflies, wild ptarmigan hiding in bushes, ground
squirrels and waterfalls.

Wildflowers and butterfly

Ptarmigan

The trail ends when you arrive at Iceberg Lake, so
called because of the icebergs that float in the small circular lake all summer
long. Surrounding the lake is a semi-circular wall of rock, carved by
(surprise) ancient glaciers. The view was strikingly similar to that of the
“towers” of Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia where
we also saw a glacial lake surrounded by a wall of rock. What set the Iceberg
Lake hike, and really the park as a whole, apart for me, however, was the
abundance of wildlife. For instance, on our way back to the trail head from the
lake we saw three grizzly bears up on the hill to our left – a mom and two
cubs. They were far enough away to not be a threat, but close enough to see and
identify as true grizzly bears – the first we’d ever seen!

Along the hike to Iceberg Lake

Tim and I both agreed that this
was one of the greatest hikes we had ever been on – we left this trail on a
high, exhilarated by the amazing views, great exercise, and bear spotting!

Grizzlies on the hill! 

Wildflowers! 

We then hopped back into the car
to head back down the Going to the Sun Road to head back to the rental. But the
park wasn’t nearly done with us! Along our drive we spotted a big horn sheep
just sitting, perched on the stone ledge beside the road. Along the slope
behind him, we saw a whole herd of them trotting about. We were able to stand
on the side of the road and observe them for more than 10 minutes before the
herd disappeared beyond the trees. And even after that we spotted two more
standing on a cliff above the road. We couldn’t believe our luck!

Bighorn Sheep

Bighorn Sheep

We made one last stop on our way
out of the park to hike the short Trail of the Cedars, where we strolled along
an alpine creek and waterfall tucked back amid some cliffs. Back on the road,
Glacier treated us with one last surprise – a black bear crossing the road and
heading into the woods!

Waterfall on Trail of the Cedars

So there we were, wrapping up our
first day in Glacier, in absolute awe of the wonders we’d seen that day – from
the amazing hikes and superb wildlife viewings. And we still had two whole days
left!

That evening we made a delicious
burger dinner in the small kitchen of the mobile home, accompanied by
watermelon, broccoli and delicious Montana beers! We attempted to stay up to
watch the Perseid meteor shower, but it was hazy out and we were exhausted –
sleep was more appealing.

The next morning we were up early
again to head back into the park – sans hitchhiker this time. We drove back
along the Going to the Sun Road until we got to Logan’s Pass and the
continental divide. Even with an early start, parking was challenging. When we
finally found one to pull into, a man walked over and stood in as we were
attempting to pull in. He refused to move, saying the people leaving had
“promised” him that spot. About 30 minutes, 2 park rangers, and 1
threat to press charges (from him to Tim) later, we were finally able to park.
From there, we went into the visitor center to get our Junior Ranger badges
(along with at least one other adult couple in line for the same – keep in mind
this is a program designed towards children) before setting out on the Highline
Trail hike.

Logan’s Pass and the Continental Divide

This hike, from Logan’s Pass to
The Loop (another spot on the Going to the Sun Road), took us along the
mountains on a train cut into the landscape. This meant the trail was narrow
and the drop to our left was steep – and it also meant that the views were
stunning!

The Highline Trail

About half way through the hike, we came to an offshoot that led up
to the Grinnell Glacier (and I do mean “up”). It’s a half mile uphill
hike to get to the overlook, but it’s more than worth it. The views of this
glacier, plus two others on either side of it, were stunning.

Tim and me at Grinnell Glacier

Grinnell Glacier

The other highlight of this hike
was the wildlife – we saw a pretty large marmot frolicking among some rocks, as
well as a ton of adorable ground squirrels!

Marmot! 

Ground squirrel snack time! 

The second half of the hike was
more tedious, though we did spot a deer. The last 4 miles were all downhill, facing the sun, on a side
of a mountain that had lost any shady trees from a wildfire. And it was hot. By
the end of the trail, we had hiked 20 miles that day and were exhausted. This
hike was gorgeous, but challenging!

The deer we spotted. 

We spent that night relaxing and
cooking again. The next morning, without any firm plans or ambitions, we took
advantage of the opportunity to sleep in. Once we leisurely got up, we decided
to explore the town, which we had noticed on our drives had many kitschy
antique and souvenir shops.

We first got breakfast at one of
the many huckleberry-centric restaurants. This region of Montana is famous for
its huckleberries, and so it was obvious that we needed to try huckleberry pie
and creamy huckleberry honey! After eating and putzing around the shops for a
bit, we decided to indulge our inner kids and go go-karting!

Go-karting! 

We topped off the day by taking
some of our leftover beers into the park to the Lake McDonald Lodge. The lodge
is one of the original historic hotels in the park, and it sits right on Lake
McDonald. And that’s exactly where we sat too. Another couple was sitting
beside us – Rick and Debbie – and we ended up spending hours over beers and phenomenal
conversation. It’s very rare to meet people with whom you can talk for hours
without realizing how much time is passing, and this was one of those special
times. Before we knew it, it was time for Tim and me to head back to our camper
to catch some sleep before our early flight the next morning. It was a
fantastic note to end our adventure on!

Ground squirrel at Lake McDonald Lodge. 

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