Glacier National Park, MT

Glacier National Park, the crown jewel of the state of Montana, is impossible to fully appreciate in just three short days’ time.  I was fortunate to have my brother-in-law, Andy, along for the trip to share in the reverie of this section of the Rocky Mountains.  Entering on the southwest side of the park via Route 2, a roughly three hour drive from Great Falls, MT, where we’d spent the previous night, we set up camp at Apgar Campground, one of the larger developed campgrounds in the park.  While we had originally considered backpacking, car camping was opted-for due to three significant deciding factors:  1.  Grizzlies (all the planning and precaution in the world doesn’t prepare you for a face-to-face encounter with a grizzly, or so I will continue to choose to believe); 2.  Permits (backcountry camping permits are reservable beginning in the spring, and a limited number of day-of, first-come first-served permits are available); 3.  Diversity (backpacking, while often an incredibly rewarding experience in terms of both exercising and communing with nature, only affords the adventurer one section of the immensity of Glacier National Park).  On each of the three days, Andy and I immersed ourselves in beautiful and sundry environments.

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Day 1:  John’s Lake Trail

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Our original intention was to embark on a long hike to Gunsight Pass, across from the Lake McDonald Lodge along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, but the entire trail network was closed for maintenance.  Undeterred, we drove a few minutes further up the road to the next available trailhead and took off into the forest.  The John’s Lake Trail was largely bereft of other travelers, the reason for which we would not fully comprehend until we discovered trails with far more scenic views later in our visit (more on this below).  Roughly four miles out (and the same distance back) whet our hiking appetites and primed us for longer, more strenuous days of hiking ahead.

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Real estate is a precious commodity on the thick forest floor, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover this little guy poking out of a root of a long-established tree in the old growth forest across from Lake McDonald.

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John’s Lake Trail gave us a small taste of the staggeringly magnificent mountainscapes that awaited us on the proceeding day.  The brief glimpses of the jagged peaks were like an appetizer sampling of carpaccio before the main course of filet mignon…

Day 2:  The Loop to Logan’s Pass Trail

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The eastern portion of the Going-to-the-Sun Road along Lake McDonald is not particularly scenic, at least by comparison to the stretch between Red Rock Point and Siyeh Bend, further up the mountain corridor to the north and east.  After a great deal of research to maximize our remaining two days in the Park, it was decided that we should test our mettle along The Loop to Logan’s Pass trail.  This trail is quite popular, and typically taken in the reverse direction, beginning at Logan’s Pass and ending at The Loop.  A straight-line trail, it ascends from The Loop, meaning the easier of the two directions is clearly a start at the Logan’s Pass end.  Glacier offers a robust shuttle system with multiple and frequent stops along the Going-to-the-Sun Road between West Glacier and St. Mary, on the west and east ends of the Park, respectively.  Utilizing this system, we were able to park at The Loop trailhead early in the morning, hike the 11.8 mile trail one-way, and hop on a shuttle bus back to our car in no time upon completing the ascent.

Only a few other intrepid hikers, some with more grandiose plans than ours to do additional backcountry hiking on an off-the-grid goat trail, took it upon themselves to try the more taxing direction.  We were glad to have done so, both for the challenge it afforded us, and for the unexpected accolades we received from passing hikers heading downhill, with whom we began to cross paths halfway through.  To the great delight of Andy (and myself, to a somewhat lesser degree), a middle-aged gentleman with his two college-aged daughters told us, and I quote, that we were, “Strong like bull!” in a feigned Russian accent in making the climb.

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Just over halfway up the trail, I began noticing creatures I had hoped to encounter from the moment I arrived at Glacier:  Marmots.  Fatter than squirrels and chipmunks but more spry than groundhogs or gophers, marmots scurry about grass-like tunnel systems in the mountains, seemingly without any immediately-apparent predators, and make for amusing trail companions.  It wasn’t until the last mile or so of the hike, as we stopped to munch on some trail provisions (peppered jerky in Andy’s case and teriyaki jerky in mine), that these chubby rodents began to show a different side of their personalities.  Two rambunctious marmots suddenly snarled at one another just a few feet behind Andy, who shot up like a rocket at the unexpected sound, much to the amusement of some onlookers…

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The Loop to Logan’s Pass trail is widely considered one of the two or three most scenic hikes in the Park, though I can’t imagine any stretch of the park offering more breathtaking and awe-inspiring views than these:

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The Garden Wall, seen in the above photo featuring the author (the bearded goon), is arguably the most famous sight on the trek, but the snow-capped peaks in the background are, in the unsolicited opinion of this hiker, much more aesthetic.  No visit to Glacier National Park should be considered complete without undertaking this hike first, preferably in the uphill direction from The Loop to Logan’s Pass.  While Glacier was only my 12th National Park, it is difficult to imagine that many others, outside of Alaska, offer such jaw-dropping mountain vistas.

In the last couple of miles of the hike, we passed a group of nine or so ‘frat bros’ who, given the general appearance of those individuals who frequent National Park trails, could not have looked more out of place if they had been wearing high-heels and sported tentacles for arms.  Outdoorsy folk, on the whole, tend to be kind-spirited, laid-back, friendly, courteous, and non-intrusive.  Some may be with their loud children, and others may wish to regale fellow hikers with a tale or two, but for the most part, they are a ‘live-and-let-live’ group.  I have tried valiantly, since the start of my trip some weeks ago, to emulate this lifestyle.  My readers who know anything about frat bros know all too well how unlikely and unfortunate a pairing the two groups would tend to be.  These individuals, whom I can only assume were given appellations such as ‘Blake’, ‘Charles’, ‘Jeremy’, ‘Brandon’, and ‘Hunter’, were blasting contemporary pop music from a portable speaker and generally making asses of themselves on the trail.  About 50 yards after we passed the on a set of switchbacks, three of these insipid miscreants decided to cut the switchback by hiking straight up the side of the mountain.  Before Andy and I could retrace our steps to give them what-for, two female hikers informed them that it was particularly ‘shitty’ of them, that they were damaging the vegetation, and that they needed to turn off their music.  The quickly executed the latter command, but proceeded up their newly forged path regardless.  Had I not been there to restrain my justice-seeking brother-in-law, he likely would have returned and taught them a hard lesson in wilderness etiquette through the rapid employment of fisticuffs.  Needless to say, I left this hike with my opinion of frat bros decidedly cemented in a negative light.  Blake, you have brought shame upon the Kappa House…

I’ll wrap up the recap of Day 2 with this mountain goat who, just two or three feet off the trail, paid no mind to the dozen or so hikers and onlookers as it munched heartily on the surrounding greenery.

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Day 3:  Quartz Lake Loop Trail

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This is the day (hike) that will live in infamy for years to come.  What should have amounted to a simple 13-mile loop trail resulted in multiple (minor) injuries, two near-bear encounters, a mouthful of bear spray, a broken camera, forest fires, and likely being drugged at a restaurant (half kidding on the last part).

To start, we embarked on the trail a little later in the morning than we should have for the length of the loop.  I estimated five hours for the 13 miles, but in reality, it took us closer to six and a half.  Along the trail, upwards of 15 large trees had fallen across the established path, and scrambling over them with any degree of dexterity took time and caused the aforementioned minor injuries.  While Andy remained unscathed, I slipped on one tree and punctured my palm on the stub of a broken branch, not long after I had scraped up my leg and thigh on a different fallen log.  The vast majority of the trail was thick-brushed forest, and the trail had not been maintained in some time.

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On the entire 6.5 hour journey, we only encountered half a dozen other hikers, including a young couple intent on swimming in the lake.  My spirited brother-in-law was also so inclined (I was too worried about getting my socks wet to attempt this), and engaged in a quick dip himself.

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I caption the above photo ‘Two Loons’ (an actual loon can be seen in the background of the lake along the imaginary sight line of the proverbial loon in the foreground).

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The emotional peak of this hike was our near encounters with a bear and, presumably, her cub.  Early in the hike, we heard a deafening roar emanate from about 60 yards deep into the woods.  A group of small woodland creatures, including birds and rodents, fled from the direction of the noise, and Andy bade me wield my canister of bear spray.  As I had never tested it before, he firmly suggested that I do so.  I took the safety off, pointed it downwind, and a strong stream of dark orange liquid shot out like a firehose.  We stood for a moment to listen for further signs of the bear.  Just then, the wind changed, and as I began to speak, a waft of the potent capsaicin mixture entered my agape mouth, causing an immediate convulsive shock to my respiratory system.  Gagging and coughing like a smoke asphyxiation victim, no amount of water could seem to expel the taste from my throat, and I quickly learned just how effective pepper spray can be in repelling bears and would-be human assailants.  About twenty minutes later, we had circled around the same area of thick woods where the large bear had been heard, and the sound of a smaller creature climbing a tree could be discerned at about the same distance, if not closer.  After a quick deduction, both Andy and I determined that the sound could have been made by none other than a bear cub clawing its way up a tall pine tree, and that the best course of action was to vacate the premises as expediently as plausible (the trail surrounded by thick brush and riddled with rocks and roots, so running wasn’t exactly a safe option either).  A careful ten-minute jog later, we felt enough distance had been covered and the normal, albeit much more wary and vigilant, pace resumed.

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We finally reached the trailhead again about an hour after both of us were thoroughly fed up with this particular hike.  The view out over the water revealed a thick layer of smoke emanating from the mountains in the distance (I first believed this to be fog until we caught a strong smoky smell in the air).  Two other hikers informed us that the fire began at Lake McDonald where, you may recall, we spent much of our first day in the park just 40-some hours prior.  In our haste to return to our campsite to see if it was still standing (or engulfed in flame), we returned to the car and threw our packs in the backseat.  I, however, in my haste, placed my Nikon L830 digital camera, a treasured possession of mine for over three years that I have taken to every National Park I have visited, on the roof of my car.  Hopping into the driver’s seat and peeling out of the parking lot, we rumbled down the extremely rocky 6-mile stretch of road to the nearest town, Polebridge, en route to our campground at Apgar.  At the five-and-three-quarters mile mark of this drive, Andy was lamenting letting his phone die on the previous day’s hike, while I reassured him that I had taken a great many pictures on my fine camera and could send them along to him.  I then remarked, “Wait, where is my camera?”  At that moment, we heard a ‘thud’ as something fell off the roof.  A large white SUV had been following behind us, and they stopped to pick something up off the rocky gravel road.  The more discerning of my readers may have already guessed that yes, it was indeed my precious Nikon, with a severely cracked screen and a completely busted video capture button.  The primary function of the camera, however, remained in-tact, though I was, for a time completely and utterly inconsolable.  In all my time of owning expensive consumer electronics, I have never once cracked the screen of a cell phone, broken a Game Boy, or even damaged a remote control.  Leaving such a valuable piece of equipment such as my camera, especially with days of pictures loaded exclusively on its memory card, was unthinkable.  The miraculous fact was, indeed, that it had stayed on the roof of my car for nearly six miles of up and downhill bumpy rock road before taking an inevitable spill.  Here is photo of the section of road to which I refer:

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Andy decided that the situation could only be remedied with quantities of alcohol, so we stopped at the first watering hole available – the Northern Lights Saloon, a few hundred yards down the road past the site of my great shame…  After relaying my tragic story to the bartender, I was comped nearly a double shot of Jameson, and the two of us enjoyed a delectable meal of a buffalo burger for myself and huckleberry glazed elk meatloaf for Andy.  We stayed at the saloon for a few hours, and, after a few drinks apiece (but not enough to prevent our legally getting behind the wheel to return to camp), the two of us felt amazingly refreshed, and joked on the return drive that we must have been drugged to climb to such an emotional peak after languishing in a valley of my own self-pity following the camera incident and the events on the trail earlier that day.

I reiterate that Glacier cannot be fully experienced and appreciated in three short days (a week would seem to suffice to scratch the surface of multiple areas of the Park, but more than one visit is likely required to grasp the surreal beauty of this mountain paradise).  The great success of the trip, however, was my successful inspiration of Andy to venture out into other National Parks, and undoubtedly return to Glacier, with my young niece one day.  While she is now just about to turn three, I am confident that if her youth is comprised of natural experiences such as family vacations to pristine National Parks instead of, say, theme parks or tourist traps, she will grow up to exhibit the characteristics of the select group of outdoorsy humans to whom communing with Mother Nature means everything and repel the likes of ‘Blake’, ‘Charles’, and ‘Hunter’.  If that is the only good to come from my entire journey, it will be enough.

I leave the reader with this photo of a ptarmigan, a game bird whose intelligence greatly exceeds that of frat bros, but still pales in comparison to most other vertebrates.

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