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| day 5 |
There seems to be a single day during each trip that stands out for its level of challenge. And while – at the time – it’s hard and we may momentarily question our motivation to do such physically exhausting things on vacation, we’ve grown to embrace those days. Those challenges. Because we know they are difference-makers. They are the moments and stories we find ourselves reliving and retelling as time passes. They are some of our most vivid and favorite memories from our travels.
Which brings us to Day 5.
Without a doubt, Day 5 was a test. Start to finish. We’d spent the previous evening in the most beautiful campsite. Peaceful, perfect weather. Calm, smooth lake. And a wide angle view of Elizabeth Lake that seemed to go on for days.
But no sooner had we zipped up the tent than the rain and wind started to take hold. Any raindrops we’d seen until that point had moved in and out quickly and we expected the same with this storm, so we fell asleep to the sounds of falling rain and howling wind.
Unfortunately, we woke up to those same sounds. And grey skies.
We broke camp and packed quickly, nervous about how the weather would affect our biggest day of hiking. Glacier National Park is essentially a series of valleys. We had spent four days hiking around the Belly River Valley and we’d be spending our last night at Poia Lake Campground in the Many Glacier Area — and the only way from one valley to the next is up and over.
Day 5 would be a full day of hiking uphill switchbacks — very exposed as we would be getting pretty high in elevation and trees would be sparse.
The wind was so bad that morning in camp we briefly talked about alternate routes and itineraries. But we ultimately decided we were up for it and we hiked out in full rain gear. Incidentally, we’ve done most of our backpacking in the southwest where rain in the summer isn’t a big threat. Note to self: get better rain gear if planning further backpacking in the northwest.
Hiking that morning was cold, damp, and steep. The wind and rain was an unexpected distraction from the incline, we all agreed it was better than heat, and the trees protected us on some portions of the trail.
Eventually, we were out of the trees and onto a fully exposed field that we would switchback across all the way up to the pass. Here’s an image from Google Earth that should give you an idea of our route.
The red line is our path, taken from the GPS data in my Garmin. In the photo, we came from the top left, you can see our back-and-forth climbing up the pass, then a similar back-and-forth all the way down the other side to the bottom right. The pass (or the path over the very top of the ridge) is at 7500 feet in elevation and we were starting at 4900 feet. We had 2600 feet to climb. In other words, UP — for nearly 5 miles.
Hiking uphill all morning while carrying a 35-pound pack would have been tough enough, but the wind decided to keep things interesting. And we got an additional surprise about halfway up.
This video captures our 3.5 hour climb to Red Gap Pass in about 9 minutes. Turn your speakers up as the waterproof housing on the GoPro really cuts down on the sound and you wanna be able to hear that WIND. It’s truly the best way to convey what it was like on the pass.
That sound you hear? Graupel. A new vocabulary word! And a unique type of precipitation best described as frozen snowflakes. Think of it like hail-ish sleet. It stung as the wind whipped around us at 50-70mph but otherwise gave us the feeling of being inside a giant snowglobe. There are a few times in the video you can tell I stop hiking and it appears I’m just resting, looking at my feet. Those are times we had to stop and brace ourselves from the wind. I’ve never felt gusts of wind so strong and carrying a pack made it extremely difficult to keep my balance at times.
What we had dreaded as a full day of exposed hiking, warm sun beating down, more water than usual to stay hydrated and cool — had materialized as a freakish July graupel storm. But hey – no bugs!
After 3.5 hours, the wind, graupel, and the elevation climb — reaching the top of the pass felt like a mountain summit and we celebrated as a team. It felt great to be on top, knowing we’d get to hike downhill for awhile. We tried to take a group photo with the timer, but the camera kept blowing away. I managed to shield it from the wind long enough to take this one.
Eager to drop some elevation in hopes of warmer temperatures and a break from the wind, we headed down the trail. The wind and cold never really let up though it didn’t rain much once we were over the pass into Many Glacier Area. Hiking downhill in the wind isn’t nearly as noteworthy as hiking uphill in the wind, and we were covering ground pretty quickly — headed for camp at Lake Poia.
I’ve mentioned I don’t care for bridges, but I’d been relatively fine with all the water crossings all week. But our physically-challenging, grit-testing day just wouldn’t be complete without the most nerve-racking bridge crossing of the trip.
The wind, y’all. THE WIND. I was clinging to that wooden railing like you would not believe. I knew all it would take was one good gust to send me and my pack flying into the ice cold water. The wind was whipping across Lake Poia, creating waves and spray that made this 40-ft crossing feel like 4 miles.
The good news is that camp was less than a half mile from that bridge — home for the night. The bad news is that setting up a tent in 50+mph wind gusts is, well, a special kind of fun. We made camp, put on every layer of clothing we brought, shivered our way through a chili supper, and hoped that the wind would wear itself out so we could all get warm and get some sleep.
Before I went to sleep I scrolled through the numbers on my Fitbit. We’d been having fun following how many steps we took each day and how many total miles we were walking (hiking + camp), but one stat in particular blew me away that night. For perspective, on an average work day I climb the equivalent of 5-10 flights of stairs. Hiking in Glacier that week we were climbing the equivalent of between 60 and 100 flights of stairs each day. But Red Gap Pass day? FOUR HUNDRED flights of stairs. Wow.
Day 5 – 10.5 miles, 2800 feet of elevation, and one freakish July graupel storm.
| day 6 |
Overnight the wind let up a little, but the temperature stayed low. We woke up on our last morning in the woods — always bittersweet — ready to pack up and hike out toward Apikuni Falls Trailhead and our ride back to civilization.
Still wearing most of our layers and waiting for the guys to get done packing up, Jill distracted the girls from the cold with a game of Foot Tag — i.e. touching (NOT stomping) the other feet in the circle without breaking the arm/shoulder connection with your neighbors on either side. (There was a lot of giggling. Early morning, delirious giggling.)
Two quick camp photos since everyone always asks:
Our last day of hiking in Glacier was absolutely beautiful. We may have started in layers, but we dropped elevation quickly and removed layers as the morning unfolded. The sun was shining, the clouds were moving out, and we had incredible scenery with every step.
Nearing the end of our hike together, we wandered off the trail just far enough to enjoy a beautiful 360 view of the valley from just beyond Lake Sherburne.
It all felt very uneventful after the craziness of the day before, but it was the perfect ending to our trip. A nice, easy hike back to the trailhead and our waiting ride.
After a lunch of fresh meat, cheese, veggies, and cold, caffeinated pop, we loaded up and headed back to the Glacier Guides office to unload our gear. But not before Jill granted a special request for a tour through the park on the Going To The Sun Road. My photos from inside the van are pitiful when it comes to doing justice to the GTTS Road, so please CLICK HERE for some much better images and video of it.
It was mesmerizing. Winding through the center of the park, east to west, over the Continental Divide at Logan’s Pass, carved into the rock. The road itself is a National Historic Landmark and an engineering marvel. 49 miles of scenery I can’t even articulate. I could have driven back and forth for days. It’s the best way to see the park from inside a car — if you must stay on the road — and it is HEAVILY trafficked with tourists. The narrow lanes and up-close-and-personal wall of rock on the inside lane made me nervous at first, but I let myself relax and take it in as Jill — who regularly enjoys this “commute” to work — pointed out peaks and glaciers and the occasional mountain goat.
As we neared the western border of the park and the Glacier Guides office, I requested one last detour. Lake McDonald. I’d been admiring photos of Lake McDonald since the first time we’d considered a trip there. The largest lake in Glacier, Lake McDonald is 10 miles long and over a mile wide. And crazy beautiful.
We’d stalled long enough — it was time to head back. We said our goodbyes at the Glacier Guides office and went our separate ways — Brad back to New Jersey, Natalie and Barbara back to Manhattan, and Jill back to West Glacier until her next group like us arrived.
As for us, we stayed in West Glacier that night at the Glacier Highland Motel before our flights back home the next morning. We spent our evening wandering in West Glacier — first priority (after the REAL first priority of showers and fresh clothes) was the nearest diner serving burgers and ice cream, then a souvenir store where I picked up the Glacier edition of Who Pooped In The Park? for Colt’s bookshelf, and we even stumbled upon the weekly West Glacier Farmers’ Market — which included several incredible artists and a bunch of folks trying to win the “most creative use of huckleberries” prize. It didn’t take long for the week to catch up with us and we headed back to the motel for an early bedtime.
Day 6 – 6.3 miles and 762 feet of elevation.
| and then… |
We’ve been home for weeks now and I’m still as in love with Montana as the day we walked out of the airport under the Big Sky. We covered almost 50 miles hiking and we still only scratched the surface of Glacier.
The green line is the border of the park, and I marked our routes and campgrounds. Here’s a closer look. We hiked the thicker red lines.
There are 59 National Parks in the United States and this is only the 4th one we’ve visited together, but we’re working on it. Jeff and I are repeatedly asked about having a favorite hiking spot or backpacking destination, and the truth is it’s impossible to decide — and that’s exactly how we like it. We try hard to seek out different places and new experiences — if they were easy to compare I know we’d be disappointed.
This time we worried 6 days might be too long, but we couldn’t have been more wrong. A week in the wilderness was just perfect. Unplugged and unscripted — it was exactly what we were looking for.
Turn me loose, set me free.
Somewhere in the middle of Montana.
— Merle Haggard
This post is part of a series, click here for the full story.