June 28-July 5
After two months on the road we arrived at one of the planned highlights of our trip. Glacier National Park has always appealed to us for its origins and remoteness. We wanted to find a campground to match the natural setting of this area and we were not disappointed. But back to how unique this place is. Geologists theorize that a four thousand foot deep glacier sliced through this region like a hot knife through butter over millions of years ago to create the deep valleys, steep mountains and beautiful lakes that the park has to offer today. There were over 150 glaciers when the park opened and they have been receding at a very rapid pace with only 26 left. The glacier water gives the lakes and rivers a beautiful deep turquoise color that is mesmerizing. Scientists think that all the glaciers will disappear within the next 20 years. So if you have ever considered visiting this park, I would not procrastinate.
We pulled into Mountain Meadows RV Park in Hungry Horse, Montana which is about 11 miles from Glacier’s west entrance and found a beautifully wooded campground. The spaces are very staggered between sites and the campground provides a feeling of being alone (somewhat) in the woods. We were delighted and much more so after maneuvering our big rig up some narrow steep roads to find our campsite, leveled and big enough to pull through with no problems. I have to confess, I was worried when I saw the narrow campground roads but Leo is a champ RV driver and he felt very confident driving in the woods. I’ll just add one negative to this place, no cell, wifi service or satellite reception (due to the remoteness and dense woods) but hey, we’re here to see nature right?
We planned to do a lot of hiking during the week in Glacier so we headed to the visitor center to get an idea of how to plan our week. This park is vast and you must break it down into several day visits if you really want to explore and experience all it has to offer. The park ranger suggested that we do a drive exploration along the Go To The Sun Road, which is a narrow two lane road that traverses the entire park for 40 miles from Apgar in West Glacier to Saint Mary’s in East Glacier. This is the most beautiful drive I have ever seen as you start on the valley floor driving parallel to deep turquoise blue glacier lakes and rivers and then the road starts to climb up and up and up “into the sky” for breathtaking views of the same valleys and glaciers from above. It’s truly a spectacular must experience drive and we timed our visit here to coincide with the road opening. Go to the Sun Road usually opens during the third week of June until the first week of October (approximately, based on weather conditions). We learned via the local news that the road had opened the day we got here, talk about perfect timing! There are scenic stopping points along the drive and it took us an entire day to drive the road from the West side to the East side and back. Along the way we had to stop and take in many of the views and vista points built along the road. We also packed a picnic lunch and enjoyed it half way at the highest point on the road, Logan’s Pass. More about Logan’s pass later.
The next day we decided to break the day into a morning boat ride on Lake McDonald and an afternoon hike. Lake McDonald is the largest lake in the park with beautiful deep blue waters and a depth of 500 feet, it’s shaped like a giant bathtub so the 500 foot depth starts just feet from the shoreline. The turquoise waters tempts you to jump in, but no sane person does since the water is a balmy 45 degrees even in the summer. There are plenty of activities on the lake, fishing, kayaking (just don’t fall in!), boating, and more. We took a tour of the lake in a vintage wooden boat that’s been operating in the park since the 1930s. This boat starts from the McDonald Lodge docks and takes you on an hour tour of the lake. This is well worth it as the views from the middle of the lake are like no other and you learn a lot about the ecology of the area from the onboard narrator. The Lodge itself is worth seeing. The front of the lodge faces the lake because when the park opened there were no roads and you would arrive to the lodge by boat. I say that’s a pretty way to arrive. A key point about all of the lodges in Glacier, when the park was opened the government wanted Americans to visit its national parks vs going abroad to Europe, specifically the Alps, so all of the lodges were designed to look like Swiss ski chalets, the result is stunning and better yet all of the lodges have recently gone through a significant renovation to bring them back to their original glory…just beautiful.
After our boat ride we were right back on the Go To The Sun Road and headed to Logan’s Pass. We stopped by a glacier fed stream to have a light lunch before our hike. Now this hike is called Hidden Lake overview and it’s one of the most unique hikes I’ve ever done because you are walking on a glacier (think lots of snow and ice in the middle of summer) for 1 ½ mile up beyond the top of Logan’s Pass to a beautiful lake that is literally “hidden” in a very deep valley. Along the way you come across herds of mountain goats, sheep, and all sorts of other alpine wildlife. You also come in contact with ill prepared tourists some dressed for the “beach” (I guess because it’s summer) including sandals for footwear and who quickly discover the problems of finicky mountain weather and cold and the potential for frostbite. We were prepared but I still slipped and slid all the way down. It was fun but a bit tricky.
There are some out of the beaten path hikes and some that are popular and crowded because they take you to unique views. One such popular hike is the Avalanche Lake trail hike, which is supposed to be an “easy” 4.5 miles but in reality is very challenging because the first 2 miles are straight up hill. There are bear warnings when you enter the trailhead and that gave me a bit of a scare but Leo assured me he could wrestle the bear if it came across our path (in his dreams) and he was also carrying bear spray. But this hike is so heavily trafficked that I felt relatively safe. When we were ¾ of the way up a couple coming back the other way told us there had been a grizzly bear sighting at the lake (getting Leo all excited). The lake was our destination. That was not good news (for me) but we soon ran into a ranger led tour and tagged along with them up to the lake, safety in numbers, but don’t go by me, I’m a bit of a wimp anyways. The hike proved to be every bit as spectacular as advertised and you are rewarded with views of a beautiful turquoise colored lake, completely surrounded by snow covered glacier mountains, and four distinct waterfalls cascading into the lake. The waterfalls being created by the melting glacier runoff. I would do it again, bears and all.
The park has two main entrances as well as a couple of more remote entry points which are well worth exploring. We picked two of these for our last couple of days in the park. The first one of these was The Many Glaciers entrance. This particular entrance is advertised as the furthest you can travel by car into the Glacier back county and it’s also very close to the Canadian border. It took us two hours to get there traveling on the US 2 outer loop road around the park. But the drive was well worth it, Many Glaciers is a beautiful place with beautiful alpine vegetation and lakes. There’s a hotel there that resembles a Swiss chalet with spectacular views of the lake. We stopped at the hotel for a wonderful lunch and tasted huckleberry cobbler. Everything huckleberry is a local favorite around here and as one of the rangers told us it’s a favorite of the bears as well.
For our last full day in the park we traveled east again to the Two Medicine park entrance. This part of the park is a bit remote and not as crowded and very close to East Glacier which was the original train depot stop into Glacier before the Going To The Sun road was built. Two Medicine (which is the English translation for Blackfeet Nation’s name for this part of Glacier) is anchored by a beautiful lake where you pick up a small 1930’s vintage boat that takes you across Two Medicine Lake where many hiking trails to waterfalls and to Upper Two Medicine Lake start. We took a ranger lead tour who guided us across a gorgeous 4.5 mile round trip hike where we saw hidden waterfalls and ended in Upper Medicine Lake, a well hidden lake which to reach had us hiking through beautiful alpine meadows covered with wildflowers. The ranger was very knowledgeable about the flowers and medicinal herbs that abound this area. It’s named Two Medicine because two native healers deemed this area to have special healing powers. To the natives, medicine is more a state of mind and wellbeing and every plant has a purpose and use. We also saw in abundance fields of bear grass which grow to about 4 feet tall with a delicate white pom pom type flower that has a sweet honey smell. They were everywhere as we walked, and when shaken it leaves a residue in your hand similar to baby powder. The natives actually used this for baby’s bottoms. The ranger explained that bear grass takes about 50 years to mature and the flower does not bloom every year, however he stated that in 31 years at Glacier this was by far the best bloom year he had ever seen. We ended our hike at Upper Two Medicine lake where we saw a Moose and baby swimming in the lake, they are great swimmers and can hold their breadth for a long time. This was by far the most enjoyable hike for me, it had a boat ride component which I love and a running narrative from our guide (I love docents) and finally beauty beyond compare (plus no bear encounters!) I highly recommend these remote parts of the park they are unique.
Our last day in the area was devoted to visiting the local gift shops in Hungry Horse to buy anything huckleberry we could get our hands on (jellies, BBQ sauce, soap, etc). We also visited a local whiskey distillery and a tasted a couple of favorites that also found our way home with us. We used the huckleberry BBQ sauce for our dinner and relaxed with the fireworks display the campground provided as a treat for everyone. We loved loved, loved this park and definitely it is our favorite national park so far. I don’t know if we’ll ever make it out this way again but if we’re near this area at all we will certainly plan a stop. Goodbye Glacier you beautiful thing you!