Trip Report: Glacier National Park

Location: Highline Trail-GNP

State: Montana

Miles: 52

Days: 6

Type: Shuttle

The whole trip to Glacier was planned by Bison and I didn’t even really get beyond glancing at my guide book – I wanted to be completely surprised when I got there – I knew that the route he’d planned had come from a guide book of some sort, and well – it IS Glacier National Park, so I knew the trip would be incredible. Now that I’ve been home and back at work reflecting on the trip every night and daydreaming about the mountains during the day, I’ve come to appreciate the experience more and more. This trip, for me at least, will stand to define what a backpacking trip should be.

We left my apartment about 8:30 and drove all the way to Conrad, Montana that day, about 14 hours. The next morning was sunny with a little haze to the west, but the closer we got to the Park, the more mountain range we could see. Since none of us had been to the Park before, we had planned on being tourists that day and driving around seeing all that we could see from a car and shopping in the visitor centers, along with collecting our backcountry permit.

Being backpackers, we rather laughed at ourselves playing the role of tourists, but since none of us had been to Glacier before we rather wanted to see the whole park, at least from the roads. First we drove to Many Glacier and up the road past Sherburne Lake to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn that sits under Grinnell Peak. From there we drove back south to St. Mary and took the obligatory group photo at the entrance to the Park. At St. Mary visitor center we found out about the bear and cub that has moved into Hole in the Wall campsite causing us to alter our plans (dang bears). Probably for the best though due to PhantomSoul’s flight plans on the way home. After finding out about the campsite closure, Bison immediately begins to study the large scale relief map at the visitor center and announces that he has planned another trip for 2007 that will traverse the Northern Section of the Park from East to West and utilize Hole in the Wall campsite on THAT trip! Apparantly, Hole in the Wall is one of the most spectacular campsites in the entire Park – no wonder the bear moved in I guess.

It’s worth noting that even though we had only seen glimpses of the park and the glaciers, we had gained enough appreciation of the beauty and grandeur that it holds to understand that it is indeed a unique place and worth revisiting.

Before the Park Service will issue the permit, they require you to watch the little 15 minute video that talks about how not to get eaten by the grizzly bears, how to handle food and cooking and such – nothing really new in the video, but it was good to see a little about what to expect in the campsite setup and such. After (finally) getting the “OFFICIAL PERMIT” we drove on up the Going to the Sun Road stopping at all the pullouts and views along the way just like proper tourons!

Arriving at Logan Pass we got our first look at the area we’d be hiking the next day and the view was totally incredible – Huge walls and unbelievably deep valleys lay to the west and north as far as we could see – WOW.

From there we drove on down towards West Glacier amongst ever impressive views on the West side of the Park. Finally arriving in West Glacier around 5 or 6 PM, we realized that we had been traveling for two entire days and still had not really started the trip. After dinner at the only restaurant in town, we drove up the road headed for Polebridge, Montana, at the NW corner of the Park. The road changed to gravel/dirt and we eventually arrived in Polebridge greeted by a sign that warns the drive to slow down because people are breathing and view the “Mercantile” and the Saloon, both situated amongst half a dozen cabins that apparently make up the whole town. Note to dog owners: if you take your pooch to Polebridge, be warned that they do not allow ‘non-local’ dogs on the porch of the store! I immediately fell in love with the place and this is the town I’ll move to if I ever decide to just check out of conventional society. After browsing the Mercantile, we continue on up the gravel road the last six miles bound for the final destination of the day – Bowman Lake Campground.

After making camp in the car campground, we make our way to the lakeshore and are dumbstruck by the view east across the lake where mountains tower above the still surface. We spend an hour or so, just sitting, skipping rocks and taking pictures as the sun sets behind us and lights up the mountains to the east.

Day 1 – Sunday, August 7

After traveling for the better part of two days, we were ready to begin the actual trip – the reason we came in the first place. We laughed at the fact that we were finally ready to “start” the trip now that we had been gone from home for as long as most trips actually last in total! We woke up and quickly broke camp for the long shuttle back to Logan Pass. Leaving my car parked at Bowman Lake we drove back into West Glacier for breakfast and then started up to Logan Pass. Going to the Sun Road is an incredible drive, but not a quick one. By the time we got to Logan Pass it was 11:00 and almost noon before we were able to get parked and start up the trail. But, we only had 8 miles to cover this day and the scenery was just incredible. So, a group picture with assistance from touron guy and we cross the road and take the first steps on the trail that we’ll follow for the next six days.

Right off, we encounter a mountain goat walking the trail that borders cliffs going up on the right and down to the left. We back off to let the goat move on, but quickly realize that a youngster goat is on the rocks as well. This should have given us a clue as to the quantity of wildlife in this park; we just counted ourselves fortunate to have seen a goat up close. Finally we are able to proceed and we can’t quick taking pictures of the Garden Wall which rises abruptly to our right and the valley to the left. Heavens Peak lies across the valley and once we pass Haystack Butte, we have incredible views of the Glacier Wall. Further up the valley to the North West are Longfellow Peak, Anaconda Peak, Mt. Geduhn, and Trapper Peak – all prominent peaks in the Livingston Range. We didn’t know it yet, but Heavens Peak would dominate the western skyline for two solid days.

Stopping at Haystack – dayhike destination for several people (with good reason) we soak up the view and the sun and get to photo another mountain goat before making our way along the Garden Wall to eventually come in view of the Granite Park Chalet. We laugh a little at the name of the place as there doesn’t seem to be much granite around anywhere. Most of the mountains in Glacier are sedimentary, at least on their higher portions and we are in the neighborhood of 7,000 feet. Apparently this is due to the “Lewis Overthrust” that pushed the older seabed of sedimentary stuff up and over the top of the younger granite. This action is also directly responsible for the dramatic steepness of the mountainsides.

Reaching the campsite, just below the chalet, we meet our neighbors, a group of flight nurses on their last night out – and obviously having a GREAT time. Soon, we are joined by a group of doctors from Minneapolis (so at least we’re good if anyone gets hurt tonight) and then later some guys also come into camp. We cook the food, hang out, discuss the bear situation and watch the sunset before eventually settling into camp as the wind picks up and the temperature starts to fall with the darkness.

We found out that the docs had all done their residency together and that this was their first backpacking trip – EVER. When I heard this, my first thought was that its too bad – because after experiencing the majesty and grandeur of Glacier, everything else will seem just ‘ok’.

I recall that I found myself feeling rather naked without the bear spray in my pocket – even just walking around camp and remember noticing that all my senses seemed so much more aware than normal. Being in grizzly country was exhilarating.

Day 2 – Monday, August 8,

Woke up in Granite Park and was thankful that a bear didn’t drag me out of the tent. Wandered down to the privy and was really hoping that no-one would be sitting there (there are no walls and most of the campground was female that night). Anyway after waiting around for a minute for the rest of my gang to wake up and getting most of my gear packed we made our breakfasts and loaded packs for the biggest day of our trip – 12 miles and a big climb (moderately big at least) up and over the Divide into 50 Mountain campsite. Today was also the day we began hiking along the route of the Continental Divide Trail.

Along the way we passed by Ahern Pass with continuous views to the West of the Livingston Range. Heaven’s Peak and Longfellow continue to dominate the view, but now views of Nahsukin are also showing up as we moved further north. Beyond Ahern Pass we stopped at Cattle Queen creek and rested our feet in the creek, at a snack and replenished our water as well. The doctor ladies caught up with us here and took a break also as they were headed to 50 Mountain as well. Coming out of the draw that holds Cattle Queen we began the long four mile climb up to the Divide. Three miles later we could finally see the pass that would take us from West to East and the steep push up to it. Panting and sweating we finally made the pass and took a group shot and collected the view in our personal memory banks.

This section of the hike traversed the western flank of the Garden Wall for the majority of its distance on the Highline Trail. The Highline Trail is one of those classic mountain trails that anyone who calls themselves a backpacker really MUST do at least once in their life. The views are simply gigantic. The scale of everything in Glacier is simply just BIGGER than anywhere else I’ve been.

A side trail up to Sue Lake Overlook goes up another 300 feet or so to the ridge, but none of us opted to go take a peek. Looking back now I rather regret that I didn’t suck it up and make the climb – one of the doctor gals did and we were all duly impressed. We finished the last brutal mile or so into our campsite – a foot beating, knee jarring descent that really just finished off the legs. The campsite sits in a grove of fir trees that suffered fire damage in 19___ and left little or no shade. The cooking area here is serviced by a food box – by far the superior method of safe storage, but the only facility like that we encountered – probably due to the fire destroying the trees. The creek just below camp is dry, but we’d been told that we should just follow the creek upstream to find pools of good water. I surmised that the creek flow was dropping into the ground and below the rocks by the time it reached the camp area.

We were joined in camp by two solo hikers, from Maryland and Indiana, a couple from Los Angeles, the doctors, and two guys from Florida. We were tired this night and the storms on the other side of Cathedral Peak and the rest of that range kept swirling around the ridges, winds picked up and howled thru camp pelting us all with dust and chilling us pretty well too. We spent a lot of time chatting and just watching the clouds. It was rather strange, the clouds up high were moving one direction, the wind in camp was moving the other. This one big cloud was falling over the ridge of Cathedral, but never seemed to make any progress towards our valley – it kept just coming over the ridge but getting caught in the swirl and rolling back around the side of the ridge. We hit the tents a tad earlier than we might have in better weather, but it did not rain.

Day 3 – Tuesday, August 9

We woke up to a clear morning with a large cloud settled in the valley just below camp. The night before we had watched the cloud flow over the ridge of Cathedral Peak and overnight it apparently finally made it over the ridge and settled below camp giving the impression of a lake in the valley below us. Since we only had about 7 miles to hike this day we lounged lazily around camp and took our time cooking and packing up. Since I had not used my rope to store the food, I absent mindedly failed to pack it thus donating the cord to the Glacier gods of gear. We also had visits of mule deer in the camp this morning – looking for an easy salt lick. At one point in the morning, I had gone back up to my tent and caught the deer inspecting the pack of one of our campsite mates, which after I photographed the deer, I ran her out of camp.

Hiking out of the campsite across the meadow of wildflowers was really nice as we climbed out of the camp towards the pass between Kootenai Peak and Cathedral. Now we had changed trails and left the Highline Trail to continue on the Waterton Valley Trail (which doubles as the Continental Divide Trail). At the crest of the ridge we encountered a collapsed rock cabin style shelter and then a backcountry ranger. After chatting with the ranger we began the big descent down to Waterton Valley. This is where we left the high meadows and profusion of wildflowers behind in exchange for thick valley vegetation.

The trail here crosses the side of the mountain and thus also crosses over several avalanche chutes. As a result we were crossing areas of thick, shoulder high at times overgrowth intermixed with area of fir forest and shaded rather open trail. You could feel how the weather and conditions sculpt the landscape.

This descent would cover about 4 miles and drop over 2,000 feet. Once we finally reached the valley floor we were walking thru thick brush and shade – quite a change from the open meadows up on the ridges. We stopped at a patrol cabin and met another ranger pulling a pack string of supplies. We ate our lunch there and again met the doctor ladies who were headed up to Stoney Indian Pass. After filling our water bottles we moved on up the trail and set a good pace to the campsite at Kootenai Lake.

When we emerged from the woods at the lake we quickly claimed a sheltered site right on the water and watched a guy fishing pull two or three trout from the lake. Unfortunately, clouds formed overhead and a sprinkling rain started to fall – but not before I took a long awaited swim in the lake! Man, that swim did wonders for my mindset and completely refreshed me. The rain stopped though and we got our dinner cooked and camp set up and spent a long time skipping rocks and taking pictures of the clouds as they swirled around Kootenai Peak and Porcupine Ridge. We also saw the moose with her two calves eating vegetation from the lake bottom that night.

Kootenai Lake is within dayhike range of Goat Haunt Ranger Station which is served by a water shuttle from Waterton, Canada. There were a few dayhikers at the lake, namely the fisherman and a family group that came looking for the moose. The family group was disappointed that the moose seemed to be keeping a different schedule than their boat shuttle home was on.

Rain started and stopped a couple of times before we called it a night. This campsite was also full, people from Ohio, Alberta and Washington DC shared the lakeshore with us.

Day 4 – Wednesday, August 10

Woke up to a damp morning on the shores of Kootenai Lake. Other campers were milling around the cooking area and the family of swan was on the lake. This was my first experience with swan and they stayed away from all the people down the lake. But we could clearly see the parents and the six or seven smaller white figures floating on the water in between them – just incredible.

Our campsite was well protected and there was still a nice floor of dust on the ground despite the persistent rain overnight. After trying best we could to dry the tents we broke camp and headed up the Waterton Valley towards the Goat Haunt ranger station and Waterton Lake. Luckily, the sun came out and dried up the forest by lunch time. We had spent the morning hiking in rain gear to keep from getting ‘painted’ by the undergrowth which was rather thick in places on the valley floor.

As we neared the ranger station the trail widened – indicating that we were approaching touron zone. Rangers greeted us at the lake and checked our permit. This lake is HUGE and spans the border between the US and Canada. Mt Cleavland rises to the east and just north of that is Goat Haunt Ridge – both are massive rises of over 2,000 feet from the valley floor – par for scenery of Glacier.

While we were relaxing and snacking, the boat from Canada arrived depositing the international travelers for their dayhikes where the rangers checked passports and such. We took the opportunity afforded by the sunshine and lounged in the grass while a Bald Eagle flew overhead and attempted to pluck a fish from the cold water of the lake. After a short nap we woke up, stretched and loaded up for the three miles or so up to Lake Francis. Now that I’m home and looking back, that nap may have been the best moment of the whole trip. We simply just laid down in the grass and fell asleep in the midday sun. The epitome of carefree, slow-paced life. No schedule to keep, to messages to return – just living life in its simplest form.

After crossing the suspension bridge over the Waterton River, we began to climb towards Brown’s Pass going past Lake Janet and beginning to view the north side of the distinctive Porcupine Ridge. As we approached Lake Francis we could see the Sentinal standing guard over the lake and the tremendous cascade on its side falling over 1,600 feet to the water below and draining the Dixon Glacier. This waterfall and grand wall would be our spectacular backdrop for the next several hours.

Our campsite sat about 20 feet above the turquoise water of Lake Francis and was small in comparison to the camps we had been in before. A man and his son were leaving the lake as we arrived and pointed out the osprey that had been fishing in the lake. Clouds were forming so we quickly set up camp and cooked dinner finishing our chores just as the downpour started forcing us under the siltarp I had wisely brought with me. The rain was doing nothing but getting heavier so we dove into tents earlier than normal tonight to write our journal entries and fall asleep to the combined music of rain and waterfall.

Day 5, August 11
We awoke today to breaking clouds and sun burning off the storm from the night before. As the sun came out we all warmed and took our gear to the lake shore to dry out. We also took this opportunity to rinse off in the cold water of Lake Francis and of course continue the odyssey of rock skipping that had by now become a theme of the trip. There is something innately satisfying about bathing in a wilderness lake. Standing there on the lakeshore, deep inside the Park with no-one around a feeling just overtakes you that you are at that moment truly free. It’s a shame that more people don’t get the chance to experience it, or maybe they do in their own ways. But I now realize that I need that wilderness experience on a regular basis to maintain my connection to myself and who I am on the inside.

After loading up the packs we headed out for Thunderbird Pond and then onto Browns Pass.

At Browns Pass we found the sign telling us that Hole in the Wall was closed, as was the spur trail due to the bear that had moved in. Just beyond this sign is the campground where we stopped for a break and I made yet another gear donation to the park – my sunglasses. Somehow, I didn’t even realize that I walked off into the bright sun without my sunglasses. My apologies to the park and to whomever picked them up, I hope you enjoy them.

At the lip of the gorge we could finally see our destination – Bowman Lake where we’d been 5 nights prior and the colossal cliff that we would descend to the valley below.

Making our way down the cliff we could eventually see the Hole in the Wall sight and the waterfalls that make it so spectacular – the hype is well deserved – it would be spectacular to spend the night there.

On down the valley as we tired we could finally see the lake and the site of our last night in the park. We were all glad to be arriving in camp, but none of us really were ready for the trip to end. We shared the site that night with a large group of extended family that had been in the park for several days on the Northern Traverse and two couples – one from Indiana and another that we shared the campfire with from Seattle. The couple from Seattle was very pleasant and we really enjoyed sharing their company that night.

As the fire died down (this was the first night we’d had a fire) we reflected on the trip and looked forward to the meal that we planned to feast on in Great Falls.

Day 6 – August 12,

Just before morning the rain again fell on us thoroughly wetting the tents, but as this was the last day and we only had a seven mile hike over flat terrain we didn’t really care. In fact, looking up to the ridges east of the lake, it had snowed at higher elevations. How amazing it would have been to wake up in mid August to a blanket of snow in your campsite! Setting a blistering pace we covered the 7 miles in just over two hours and caught up with the Seattle people about a mile from the parking lot at the foot of Bowman Lake. Yes, we wanted to get a beer!

Once we reached the beach at the campground the wind was howling – at least 50 mph gusts. After taking the obligatory group photos we made our way to the car and the end of our journey. We were all smiles as we could taste coca cola and real food, the Seattle people walked up and asked for a ride to Kintla Lake, which of course we obliged with, thus earning some hitch-hiking trailhead karma for a future trip.

On the way out to Kintla Lake we stopped in Polebridge and sampled the baked goods at the mercantile – Huckleberry Bearclaw – one of the finest things on earth based on the collective opinion of the group. After dropping Meghan off at Kintla Lake, we again stopped for a second bearclaw and headed for Logan Pass and Bison’s car, and then onto St. Mary and our exit from the park.

Postscripts

Best steak in Montana – Eddie’s Supper Club in Great Falls. The 40 oz. Campfire T-Bone.
Best beer after a big hike: Moose Drool – from the Big Sky Brewing Company in Belt, Mt.

On the way home we stopped at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. That was an interesting visit. We all learned about Custer as kids, but seeing the cemetery and the mass grave and actually being in the place where that all happened was a rather moving experience. I’m still not real sure how I feel about the whole thing.

Overall, this trip was spectacular. The scenery was better than I could have imagined and my hiking partners were terrific. We all noticed that we fell into the camp routine really quickly and that our bodies held up remarkably well. We were tired at the end of each day, but well recovered each morning. As the trip wore on, we had become accustomed to the slow pace of trail life, and I believe that I actually prefer it to ‘real’ life. The minor inconveniences of no running water and dehydrated food, are greatly overcome by the simplicity and basic quality of sitting on a lakeshore watching the sun light up the opposite ridge and seeing a Bald Eagle soar to a tree top perch.

I am a backpacker.

This is what I do.

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