[This is the first of three posts describing a brief road trip during July of 2016.]
First is the ‘reunion trip’ to Glacier NP; the second post will describe a few days in Yellowstone NP, and lastly a few days exploring the Big Horn Canyon National Recreation Area near Lovell, Wyoming, Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark just east of the Big Horn Canyon, and some hiking and camping nearby in the Big Horn Mountains.
The Backdrop -In 2002 my wife and I traveled to Glacier with about fifteen others from the Twin Cities via Amtrak. The group was traveling in a Southwest Community Education program (via Southwest High School, Minneapolis, MN). When we arrived, everyone went their own way with their own plan for the next ten days. Then we all met at East Glacier Lodge and returned home via Amtrak.
On that trip, Judy and I spent time at Lake McDonald Cabins and hiked the West Lakes Trail to fish Trout Lake (aka ‘the hike from hell.’) We hiked the Highline Trail from Logan Pass to Granite Park Chalet, then went over Swiftcurrent Pass and on down to Swiftcurrent Motor Lodge and Many Glacier on the east side of the Park. We finished up camping a few days at Two Medicine, where we hiked up to Dawson Pass and along the Continental Divide to Pitamakan Pass, then dropped down at Old Man Lake to hike around Rising Wolf Mountain and back to our campsite on Two Medicine Lake. We’d hit bad weather up along the Divide, and got back just as it was getting dark. Next morning we awoke to about two inches of fresh snow- in August! What a trip!
While we met many new friends on that trip, a couple of those new friendships have remained lasting over the past fourteen years. We’ve hiked and traveled with Courtney and Sally, and enjoyed many social outings together. Thus, it was only natural that we’d explore a reunion trip to Glacier.
Fast forward –In late summer of 2015 we began making plans for our return trip to Glacier during the summer of 2016. We wanted to include a stay at Sperry Chalet and visit Sperry Glacier; get up to Granite Park Chalet again, and spend time in Swiftcurrent Valley. Sounded easy enough, but if you’ve ever planned a vacation in Glacier that included lodging reservations, you know nothing is easy! Suffice it to say, we got no Chalet reservations, but ultimately did get pretty good cabin reservations. We decided to pass on Amtrak this time.
The 2016 Glacier Trip– We planned for one week in the Park, with stays at Apgar, Lake McDonald Cabins and Swiftcurrent Cabins, with day-hikes only, meaning no tents or trail-cooking… more of that ‘lush-living.’ 😉
Sally and Courtney flew both ways and rented a vehicle. Judy and I drove out, visiting Teddy Roosevelt NP briefly, and Judy flew home with Sally and Courtney. After we finished up at Glacier, I met an old friend in Missoula and we continued the trip. I’ll document those travels in future posts.
On day one we all drove to Apgar. Driving up Hwy 93 from Missoula we approached Flathead Lake and viewed the Mission Mountains off to the east, and behind them the Swan Range.
Going north on Hwy 93 from Missoula to Apgar with the Mission Mountains and the higher Swan Range largely hidden by the clouds.
The Swan Range pretty much represents the western side of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Beyond them, further east is the Chinese Wall, running along a stretch of the Continental Divide in the Bob Marshall. To the north is Great Bear Wilderness and to the south is Scapegoat Wilderness. Much of it also falls within the Lewis and Clark National Forest. Bob Marshall Wilderness is named after a Montana politician that championed preserving all this wilderness back in the ’30’s- about five million acres. I’ve heard/read that ‘The Bob’ has the highest density of grizzly bears in the lower 48!
Apgar was a very busy place, located just inside the west entrance to the Park (West Glacier), and on the south-west end of ‘Going to the Sun Road’ , the only east-west road (open seasonally) through Glacier NP (it crosses the Continental Divide). Apgar is also on the southwest end of Lake McDonald. The Lake is ten miles long, over a mile wide and 470′ deep.
We had dinner in Apgar, and shared a large cabin for the night. I was tired and was trying to get some sleep, but the ‘girls’ kept yacking, as ‘girls’ are known to do. Over the next hour or two, the ‘girls’ garnered their new nick-name, the ‘Slumber-Party Girls,’ as they -the group, shall forever be known!
Next morning we took ‘Going to the Sun Road’ along the south-eastern shore of Lake McDonald up to our Cabins at McDonald Lodge. The Lodge was built in 1913, in the style of a hunting lodge.
We had a casual lunch and reviewed our maps to decide which hike we would do the next morning- we had a couple of options we’d talked about, one pretty strenuous (climbing to the Mount Brown Lookout), the other more moderate (hiking the Snyder Creek Trail to Snyder Lake). Both shared a common Trailhead only a mile from our cabins. We’d decided to make our decision when we knew what the weather would be, and now it looked like rain was pretty likely!
After a great breakfast in McDonald Lodge, we grabbed our day-packs and headed for the Trailhead. For a number of reasons, including the weather forecast, we decided to make the less strenuous hike up Snyder Creek to Snyder Lake.
One major consideration in our decision was elevation. Lake McDonald was at 3,150’. The Twin Cities is about 350’. The Mt. Brown lookout was 5.2 mi. one way, with an elevation gain of 4,325’, total elevation of about 7,500’. The Snyder Lake hike was 4.3 mi. one way, with an elevation gain of 2,147’, total elevation of about 5,300’. While Judy and I had been traveling/sleeping at 3,000’-5,000’ for four days, Courtney and Sally had flown out and slept two nights at 3,000’. Coupled with the rainy forecast and the morning’s heavy overcast, we figured the prudent choice was to avoid the steep, wet trails of Mt. Brown (and possible altitude issues), and hike the Snyder Lake Trail.
We hit a stretch of trail through waist-high ferns that pretty much covered the trail. Since it had been raining, these ferns assured us we would soon be soaked. I dawned my rain pants in an effort to stay dry, and kept talking to the bears every time we rounded turns in the trail -anywhere my vision ahead was limited. “Yo bear, beer here!” It was early for berries, but this was still bear country.
While most of Sperry Glacier is on the other side of the ridge, I think this is part of the glacier as well -as shown on the Nat. Geo. topo map (about 7,500′ elevation), just northwest of Edwards Mtn.
After an hour on the trail we had been getting light rain off and on. By the time we reached the Lake, it was pouring rain relentlessly. Everyone got under the trees and put on ponchos and rain jackets in an effort to stay dry. However, as everyone knows -hiking in rain gear doesn’t really keep you dry; it just makes you think you’ll stay dry. Its a fiction, you might as well just walk in the rain –unless it’s cold and windy, then the rain gear will help you stay warm.
It took us about an hour and a half to get back to the Trailhead. We had a better pace going down than we did climbing up. Everyone was having a great time. No complaints about the weather, or wet feet! This was a hiking crew with a great attitude, and a large appetite. And we all knew there would be no dehydrated food when we returned for dinner. We returned to our cabins, got cleaned up and met in the Lodge dining room for dinner.
The main topic over dinner was the day’s hike. It was a great dinner; thank you Sally! Then we started planning the next days activities. It was decided we’d go on a Jammer tour of the west side of the Park– from McDonald Lodge east to Logan Pass and back again. These vintage touring coaches were refurbished over a decade ago, and are very popular with the tourists. They also help reduce road congestion in the Park. They operate in both the western and eastern sides of the Park. Check the Glacier website regarding ticket sales, etc.
Well, you’ve got to admit, everyone looks happy, happy, happy! And it was nice not having to drive in all the traffic on ‘Going to the Sun Road.’ The driver was very knowledgeable about points of interest, both along the road, and off in the distance.
We stopped for a break at Logan Pass and got out to look around and take pictures. Fourteen years ago we all had hiked the Highline Trail from Logan Pass to Granite Park Chalet -following the Garden Wall up and over Haystack Butte. We took a spur trail up to look over and down on Grinnell Glacier from the west, passing a herd of Big Horn Sheep on the way up. I spotted my first grizzly bear off the Granite Park Chalet balcony.
A famous landmark at Logan Pass is Reynolds Mtn. It was very overcast with clouds blowing in and out while we were there, so a clear shot was difficult.
We took a boat tour of Lake McDonald, and listened to an old Park Ranger narrate the history of the Lake and basically the western side of Glacier Park. No notes, he just talked. He was a character; he loved to talk, knew his stuff and I really enjoyed what he had to say. I thanked him and told him how much I enjoyed it; which he liked hearing. At about the same time, a fellow blogger -Jennifer, at The Trailhead, posted a story about her run-in with an old Park Ranger up by Kintla Lake, north of McDonald and Bowman Lakes, in the northwest corner of the Park. I found her story interesting and wondered if we could possibly have been talking with the same Ranger -just might be him!
We had a short time to do one last hike on the West Side. A short loop around John’s Lake then we crossed ‘Going to the Sun Road’ to follow McDonald Creek back toward the Lodge a couple of miles. Then it would be time for East Glacier.
It was time to leave West Glacier and drive to Swiftcurrent. We took Hwy 2 around the south end of the Park, with a stop at East Glacier Lodge, before taking Hwy 89 north to Many Glacier and the Swiftcurrent Motor Lodge and Cabins. After a couple hours on the road, we enjoyed a tasty lunch at East Glacier, and reminisced of our arrival there fourteen years earlier.
Departing East Glacier, we drove up Hwy 89 to Bub, MT and turned left following the sign to the Many Glacier Hotel on Swiftcurrent Lake, and the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn and Cabins, not far from the Lake. We were soon driving west along Lake Sherburne, a long narrow body of water, that is fed by Swiftcurrent Lake, a few more miles ahead.
Swiftcurrent Motor Inn and Cabins are a couple more miles down the road and across the Lake from Many Glacier Hotel. We had a couple of cabins reserved at the Inn, checked in and got our gear unloaded. The plan was to meet for dinner in a couple of hours at the Inn’s restaurant.
The Inn includes a restaurant, office, and a convenience store -with a covered deck and plenty of chairs to relax in, running the full length of the complex. There is also a large parking lot out front capable of holding a couple hundred vehicles- for both Cabin guests and visitors from the nearby campground. The restaurant did quite the business!
On the far-side of the parking lot there is a campground in the forest. The forest sits at the base of Grinnell Point -which runs down from Mt. Grinnell further up the valley near Grinnel Glacier and the Continental Divide. The Garden Wall follows the Divide in this area, but on the other (west) side. In ’02 we took a spur trail up the Garden Wall (from the Highline Trail) to an overlook of Grinnell Glacier – from the west. Now we would be approaching the Glacier from the east.
Behind the Inn and Cabins was Mt. Henkel‘s steep slopes. Here, sightings of mountain goats, Big Horn Sheep and Grizzly bears were common. They could often be spotted from the big parking lot in front of the Inn. It is not uncommon to see spotting scopes and large-lens cameras on tripods, set up in the parking lot with lines of people seeking to see the wildlife on the hillside.
Mount Wilbur as seen from the Inn’s parking lot early one morning. Native Americans (members of the Blackfoot Confederacy) call the Mountain –Heavy Shield, after a Chief of the Blood Nation, a member of the Confederacy. The Bloods were allied with the Kainai, the Peigan and Siksika Nations -all members of the Blackfoot Confederacy.
Chief Heavy Shield was a very powerful leader, and the Blackfoot people were one of the last First Nations to enter into treaties with the Americans in 1855, with the Lamebull Treaty. The Lewis and Clark Expedition avoided Blackfoot territory on more than one occasion, because of their war-like reputation. They acquired horses and firearms in the first half of the 18th century and expanded their territory at the expense of neighboring tribes. They were nomadic buffalo hunters in the American and Canadian plains, and fierce warriors.
After dinner I talked with some folks out on the deck and found the Grinnell Glacier Trail was still closed because of snow and ice blockages. We had planned to do that hike, and began hearing stories about hikers climbing around the trail closures and getting through. We’d have to investigate further. In the meantime, we’d hike to Iceberg Lake in the morning.
The Iceberg Lake Trail was 4.8 mi. each way, with an elevation gain of only 1,200′. No problems there, it should be a piece of cake. There was also a junction with the Ptarmigan Lake and Tunnel Trail a couple miles from the Trailhead. If we hiked that also, it would add 3-6 miles depending how far we took it, so we’d think about it as an add-on, as we returned from Iceberg Lake.
The Iceberg Lake Trail shared a common Trailhead with the Ptarmigan Trail near the Swiftcurrent Cabins. We joined a group of about ten people being led by a Ranger; Monica added a lot to the hike in terms of being able to explain what we were seeing, and not seeing -mountains, plants and animals. She was knowledgeable in Glacier’s geology over time and she definitely added-value to our time on the trail. She also emphasized ‘talking to the bears,’ just to let them know you were coming. I liked that, I think it’s a good idea. I also carry bear spray, as did the Ranger.
The trail began with a steep climb for about a mile, then leveled and worked it’s way around Mt. Henkel, which runs behind the Swiftcurrent Inn and Cabins. As we climbed, the surrounding landscape opened up to us. We passed Mt. Wilbur on our left, and could look back to see Grinnell Point, and Mt. Grinnell as we got higher. We were hiking in a forest of lodgepole pine and poplar. Monica stopped to point out some sign of Grizzly bears -claw scratch marks on a nearby lodgepole pine. I’ve seen them before, but it always seems to raise the excitement level for hikers.
Soon we came to Ptarmigan Falls, and found other hikers already there. This is a very popular hike, so no surprise seeing others. We took a brief break, with an energy bar and water… the old standbys!
After we passed the Falls, we soon took a left at a fork in the trail, and continued on the Iceberg Lake Trail. The other was the Ptarmigan Trail which we’d consider on our return trip. We start climbing the slopes along Wilbur Creek and begin getting a view of our surroundings -Grinnell Point, and Mt. Grinnell, and the Ptarmigan Wall ahead. Slowly the trail turns west and the Iceberg Lake cerque comes into full view.
Lots of bear grass and bright flowers dot the steep meadow lands as we continue climbing. Then the trail starts dropping into the cirque as we approach Icebeg Lake.
Above Iceberg Creek, Iceberg Peak can be seen. Time to retrace our steps and head back down to assess the Ptarmigan Trail as an add-on hike.
We reached the junction with Ptarmigan Trail and decided to hike it up to the Lake, but probably no further. The Tunnel was another mile or so beyond the Lake, and Elizabeth Lake a few more miles beyond the tunnel. It was a steep hike up to the Lake, so we took a break and enjoyed the view before starting back down.
We no sooner pulled out our energy bars and water, when we were joined by a big, fat marmot. I bet he weighed five pounds! And look at the claws on this guy!
And he was after a handout; imagine that! Any hiker that stops to look at the Lake has probably met this fat fellow! Leave your pack unattended, and they will chew right through it to get at food or whatever smells good. Hikers beware!
Finishing our break, we hit the trail again and headed back down. We ran into deer along the trail which tended to slow us down. Finally we reached the junction with Iceberg Trail, and continued on down. We still had about 2.5 miles to go and were getting anxious to get back to the cabins, clean up and have dinner.
It wasn’t long and we spotted a big moose laying under a shade tree near Wilbur Creek.
We stopped for some pictures then continued back down to the cabins. It was a very good day on the trail. We’d hiked about twelve miles and enjoyed beautiful scenery from start to finish.
We decided to hike over to Many Glacier and purchase tickets for a boat ride in the morning. The boats would take us to a Grinnell Glacier Trailhead. We weren’t quite sure of the status of the Grinnell Trail near the top, in terms of snow and ice, but we figured we’d hike as far as possible and maybe make it all the way.
The above view from Many Glacier shows Heavy Shield (Wilbur) in the center, with the Iceberg Lake Cirque to the right in the background. We couldn’t see the two locations together like this from Swiftcurrent Inn, so it was a nice surprise. Notice Iceberg peak.
We purchased our tickets. The ‘Chief Two Guns’ would take us from Many Glacier up to the far end of Swiftcurrent Lake where we would dis-embark, hike a quarter mile, and get on another boat. The ‘Morning Eagle’ would then take us across Lake Josephine, where we would start the hike up to Grinnell Glacier.
We returned to Swiftcurrent Inn, boat tickets in hand, ready for a new adventure in the morning. I enjoyed a cold Big Sky, Scape Goat beer on the deck outside the restaurant, then met the ladies for dinner. What a day!
We met a Ranger along the trail and were very happy to hear that the trail was deemed ‘open’ all the way to Grinnell Glacier earlier that day. He said they had a crew up there clearing it the day before, because people were going around the ‘closed’ signs and damaging the vegetation, to say nothing of endangering themselves in the process. We were happy hikers!
Grinnell Glacier visible above the Lake.
The day was hot, the trail long, the water from this waterfall -COLD! Guaranteed to wake you up, and restore your energy in the half-minute or less that it will take to get through it. And you’d be dry again in twenty minutes!
That’s Grinnell on the left, with a portion of Salamander on the right, above.
Hiking back down, we see where we’ve come from. Swiftcurrent Inn and Cabins is just over the hill on the distant horizon. It’s always easier going down, for me anyway. One hell of a good hike today!
Life is fragile; it can be tough in this environment; only the strong survive, and all that stuff! In the morning we depart Swiftcurrent and drive west on ‘Going to the Sun Road.’ We leave early in an effort to avoid traffic; it’s a two-three hour drive. Alas, we’re faced with heavy fog and can’t see much of the beauty around us. We drive by Saint Mary Lake, stop for a picture of Wild Goose Island, and are on the road to Missoula in no time.
We drive south past Flathead Lake, stopping for lunch in Polson, where the annual cherry festival was being celebrated. It was like a county fair right in the middle of town, and parking was scarce. It was almost as busy as some of the popular trails in Glacier.
We had two rooms reserved in Missoula. We thought we were going to tour a whiskey distillery, but ended up in a tasting room -oh well! We visited a vineyard, and did more tasting. Then we explored the town a bit. I’ve always liked Missoula, and now the ‘ladies like it too!
The ladies would fly out early next morning and my buddy, Jack would fly in about noon. We’d be heading south through Butte and Bozeman, following the Yellowstone River south to the northeast entrance of Yellowstone NP at Gardiner. And the story continues…
Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West Paperback – September 1, 2009
Blackfeet Tales of Glacier National Park, James Willard Schultz, Paperback – July 31, 2016
Blackfeet Indian Stories, by George Bird Grinnell, Paperback – October 9, 2010