A16 National Park Road Team September 29, 2016Posted by Adventure 16 | 09.29.2016
Glacier national park in northern Montana is a massive landscape hiding everything from high alpine lakes to bears feeding for the winter months ahead. While there is a road that cuts through the park, it is not a very easy one to get around. There are three visitors centers, one at each entrance to the park, and also another one at the very top of the "Going To The Sun Road." We opted to stay on the western entrance since we had picked someone up form the airport in Billings, MT and wanted to minimize our drive time. It was Jordan's sister Brooke who joined the team for Glacier. While we hoped for a quick drive in we soon learned that its a long drive to just about anywhere in the park.
There are lots of camping options throughout Glacier national park but its very desolate and quite remote once you arrive at them. There are a lot of streams and lakes in the area which provide beautiful scenery throughout the summer and also lots of places to fill up your water bottle while hiking in the backcountry. It is important to note that the park closes much of its activities during the winter, and the "Going To The Sun Road" closes in mid September so plan accordingly. During our time in Glacier we explored both sides of the park and drove not only through it but also around it. The park was rather busy to since it was the national park systems actual birthday week which gave families free entrance for the entire week.
Now I should take time to mention some of the extremes of the road that bisects the park. I am driving a Chevrolet Silverado 1500 full size pick up and I will say that I had to turn my mirrors in and still found many areas of the road tight for me and another car to pass through. There is a wonderful driving service that will take you through the park and all around to see everything you'd like. It makes regular stops and allows travelers to hop on and off throughout the day. It will allow you to enjoy the drive and actually be able to take photos without being white knuckled.
For our 1st day in the park we drove the "Going To The Sun Road" to see what the park had to offer. It is a beautiful scenic drive that rides along the edge of the mountain face as it climbs. Near the end of it were two beautiful waterfalls and one swimming hole. The trailhead is at the beginning of Saint Mary Lake and will take you to St. Mary Waterfall and also Virginia Falls just a little further. The hikes are quite easy on a path that is maintained by the park. Much of the growth surrounding the falls has been damaged in a recent fire but is returning to its natural state.
Two major things I learned that day while hiking was pay attention to the weather before you leave, not just during your hike, and to also always have a swimming suit with you. At the base of St. Mary Falls is a wonderful swimming hole that I recommend anyone check out if they visit Glacier on a hot day. Before the weather could really turn, we walked quickly to our car and returned to camp bisecting the park once again via the Going To The Sun Road
On our second day visiting the park we opted to drive around the outside of the park instead of through it to arrive at our hike for the day, Grinnell Lake. As you approach the park from the eastern side, there are multiple entrances to enter the park all providing for a much quieter hiking experience. Finding the "Many Glacier" entrance put us right where we needed to be so that we could hike in to see Grinnell Glacier up close. We wanted to hike up to the base of the face of the mountains to see first hand how the glaciers have eroded the rock and created what are called "cirques" where the subalpine lakes nestle. The hike itself has minimal elevation change and is about 7 miles long round trip. You will cross streams and be near water the entire time providing lots of things to look at. We were also about to learn that it is a highly traveled area for bears.
Hiking along the creek that fed all the lakes, we got to see plenty of wildlife near Grinnell Lake but nothing compared to actually seeing a wild bear eating some berries next to the trail. I could not identify the bear, nor did I have my camera out and want to find out. Unfortunately it was one of the situations were by the time we had come across the bear, it was more important to keep moving and not disturb its eating than to try and stick around, pull my camera out, and switch lenses to grab a photo. I do regret this and will say that it was learning experience for me to always hike with my camera ready, and to also maybe carry a knife/bear spray on me at all times while hiking (Not to sure if my trekking poles would have been a good choice to defend myself had the time come). Simply came down to carelessness and that I didn't pay much attention to the signs that were posted everywhere in the park.
At the end of the hike you are rewarded with beautiful views of a subalpine lake and the glacier that feeds it from above. However, we did learn half way through our hike that there are two parts to Grinnell lake and that we had actually hiked to the lower lake, not the upper lake. The waterfalls you see feeding the water below actually come from another higher lake that can provide even better views. The primary difference between the two hikes is that the majority of the hike to the upper lake exposes you to lots of sun, so be sure to bring sunscreen and plenty of water or a purifying system if you opt for a longer hike. We ate lunch at the base of the water, watching people fish for their own lunch but weren't having any luck, before we headed down the mountain and drove our 2 1/2 hours home around the park.
On our last day visiting Glacier, we opted to stay as close to the west entrance as we could to see what can be done with a shorter drive into the park. The first thing you encounter entering the park from the west is Lake McDonald. Lake McDonald is one of the two largest bodies of water in the park and even allows boat tours for those wanting to explore the shores. After grabbing a hot coffee to start the day we rented a 10hp boat to drive along the edges of the water. Driving along the inside of the lake gave a great view of the fire that occurred in the park last year and how it burned and changed the landscape. The eastern side of the lake was still full of lush pine trees and heavily tree covered, however the western side was basically bare except for the underbrush that had returned. While this typically provides little coverage for the animals, we wern't lucky enough to see much except for a few birds.
Glacier national park is huge and just like every park we have visited before, there is never enough time to see it all. There is the entire hiking region near the border we didn't explore and plenty of glaciers left to see…that is if they are still there the next time I come back.