Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…
― John Muir
One good look around the airport in Kalispell was all it took. Montana was love at first sight. We weren’t even out under the “big sky” yet, but the unmistakeable laid-back vibe — made me wanna go buy some Chacos. And a Subaru.
We easily grabbed our single checked bag from the carousel and headed out into the cool breeze. Securing a ride from the airport had been as formal as a quick phone exchange a few days earlier. “What time? 5:00? Two of you? We’ll find ya!” No email confirmation, no credit card on file. As I hung up I had pictured the friendly voice on the other end reaching for a stubby pencil and the back of an envelope – 5:00. Party of 2. Kalispell to West Glacier.
Sure enough, there he was. And a scenic, 30-minute ride later he was unloading us on the doorstep of the West Glacier Motel.
Glacier National Park is (informally) split into an east side and a west side — with the Continental Divide running through the middle. The west side, anchored by the town of West Glacier, is closest to the airport and is probably the easiest, most popular entry point to the 1+ million acre park. It’s also where the office of Glacier Guides is located, the exclusive guiding concession for the park and our partners for the week.
With snow often falling into June, the “summer” season in West Glacier is pretty short. Vacancies in the handful of area lodges and motels are hard to come by, and we definitely didn’t benefit from any “off season” price breaks — but we had a pillow for the night, a place to sort our gear, and the West Glacier Restaurant across the street fed us like it was our last meal.
| day 1 |
Bright and early, our ride showed up at the motel and we met the first few members of our hiking group. A quick stop at the Glacier Guides office to get group gear and food into our packs and meet the rest of our group, and we were off — loaded into a van for a trip to the east side of the park.
The road trip from the west side to the east side cuts through some of the most beautiful scenery you can imagine — winding through the mountains, following the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, skirting the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, and flirting with the railroad line. We’d originally hoped to hike into Canada on this trip, knowing we’d be so close and looking to cross the Canadian border using a fourth mode of transportation. At this point we’ve driven across, taken a float plan across, and canoed across — why not add hiking across the border?
One of our favorite things about taking guided trips like this is the people — we have met some real characters over the years, and it’s always an adventure in itself meeting other couples and people who also choose to spend their vacation days this way. Here’s the whole gang: Barbara and Natalie – from New York, Jill (in green shorts) – our guide originally from Atlanta, Sarah and Jeff, and Brad – from New Jersey.
After providing the group fair warning that I intended to take hundreds of pictures then put them on the internet, we were off! (That’s right. Hi, nice to meet you. What are your thoughts on internet anonymity? I’m a friend-making maniac!)
We started at the Chief Mountain Trailhead and mostly followed the Belly River Trail that first day, covering over six miles with views like this:
Late July was proving to be the absolute sweet spot for Glacier weather. Sunny, minimal rain, a cool breeze, and lush, green meadows of wildflowers. The glaciers that formed the park and give it its name are unfortunately all but gone. When Glacier National Park was founded in 1910, there were over 150 glaciers. Today — depending on the researcher — there are around 25. And they are expected to be gone by 2020. The glaciers and snowmelt in the area create amazing waterfalls and virtually countless streams and water crossings in the park. Some, as you’ll see, are large enough to warrant bridges while others were so small we stepped across them or hopped from one rock to the next.
After a beautiful afternoon of hiking, we made it to Gable Creek Campground for the night — near the Belly River Ranger Station, one of several ranger stations in the park. We made camp, Jill made dinner, and we met some of the other folks in our campsite for the night. The park grants a limited number of backcountry permits and they are specific to campsites — meaning, if you want to stay at Gable Monday night you have to have a permit for Monday night. Each campsite has a handful of areas for campers, and 2 tents (or 4 campers) are allowed in each area. It allows the park to limit the impact we destructive humans have on the wilderness.
Day 1 – 6 miles and 250 feet of elevation.
| day 2 |
Believe it or not, I actually love waking up in a tent. A little stiff, a little cramped, maybe a little cold. But waking up in the mountains without hearing an alarm or feeling the urge to roll over and check my overnight messages, knowing I can close my eyes to the sunlight filling the tent and snooze another 5 or 15 or 45 minutes with nowhere else in the world to be — I savor it.
We got up and around, had REAL EGGS and sausage for breakfast, broke camp, and headed out. And within minutes, we came to a clearing. And this.
Y’all. I don’t do bridges.
Swinging, wooden, slatted bridges.
Over the years I’ve had to make the best of it, but if I can look down and see air between my feet and solid ground – I start looking for an alternate route.
No such luck that day.
One hiker at a time.
I practiced my brave face while I watched Jeff, Barbara, Natalie, and Brad.
That’s ONE way to start the day! And it was about to get even better.
In Yosemite we schlepped bear canisters around — and no bears.
In the Boundary Waters we hung everything in a tree every night — and no bears.
For the record, I wasn’t truly disappointed we’d never crossed paths with a bear, but I think Jeff’s always felt a little slighted.
Just after the bridge crossing, we were back on the trail and Jeff was out front. Jill was just behind him with the bear spray, just in case, but Jeff was making noise around any blind corners and just generally keeping an eye out. Suddenly, he stopped and all of us stopped with him, desperately listening for any signs of wildlife. Obviously, I got my camera ready. This could be it!
What? You don’t see a bear?
So… I snapped that photo instead of recording video. Dang it, bear! Got me all flustered!
In the center of that photo, there’s a tree just off the trail. Just to the right of the tree, is a yearling black bear. About two seconds after I took this photo OF NOTHING, it walked right across the trail! About 20 feet from us! I couldn’t believe it when we all settled back down and I looked at the camera. We finally saw a bear and I didn’t get a picture of him!
Shortly after the bear “encounter”, we started seeing more and more signs of bears in the area — overturned rocks (they flip them over to find grubs and moths) and this marked tree.
Bear signs, yes. But no more bears. The weather was still sunny with a cool breeze — easily some of our best hiking weather ever. And seeing the bear put a little pep in our step.
A few miles later we took a slight detour off Stoney Indian Pass Trail to visit Gros Ventre Falls.
It was starting to feel like Glacier had treasures like this tucked around every corner. A meadow of wildflowers here, a roaring waterfall there. Incredible.
Soon after our side-hike to the falls, Jill let us know we had another side-hike option for the day. We could either head straight for camp, and an afternoon nap. Or we could hike a few extra miles and earn a bonus, breathtaking view. Everybody felt good and we opted in for the extra miles.
The highest point in Glacier is only 10,466 feet and we were headed up to 6000. Bear Mountain Overlook – a Glacier “must see”. The trail to get there climbs 1400 feet in less than two miles so it’s a pretty good hike, and we still had our full packs. A little over halfway up, there’s a rocky landing. We dropped our packs and took in the view — knowing the ultimate prize at the overlook was still to come.
In these photos, the lake closest to us is Cosley Lake and the further one is Glenns Lake. We camped along Glenns Lake that night.
Jill and Barbara stayed with the packs for a breather while Natalie, Jeff, Brad, and I headed for the top. Without packs we were able to navigate the switchbacks across the scree field a lot faster. Up, up, up.
Bear Mountain itself is over 8800 feet, and I’m sure the view from there is even better — but this? Not too shabby.
As we’ve learned, the top is only halfway. So after a few photos and enough “breeze” to make me want another layer, it was time to head back down to the rocky landing and join Jill and Barbara for lunch.
And then alllll the way back down and a few more miles to camp at Glenns Lake.
Pretty beat by the time we got to camp, we were ready for dinner and an early bedtime, but the deer in the area were hell bent on keeping things interesting. Attracted by sweaty, salty clothes, socks, and backpack straps deer and other wildlife are known to get pretty bold when it comes to campsites — all they see is a big, potential salt lick. One deer in particular was keeping our neighbors on their toes — it stole their socks, a trekking pole, and went after some clothes drip-drying in a tree. Witnessing this, we pulled our packs into the tent for the night — crowded, but safe from curious critters.
Day 2 – 9 miles and 2100 feet of elevation.
This post is part of a series, click here for the full story.