ST. MARY, Mont. —
There are many ways to explore a national park.
Most people do it by car. They see the sights they can scope out from the windows of their Chevy Tahoe, pausing if they're lucky enough to spot an elk or a grizzly beside the road. They stay and eat in rustically luxurious park lodges or in drive-through campgrounds with bear-proof trash bins and coin-operated showers.
But if you really want to get close to the land and its denizens, to explore a wilderness as closely as possible to its natural state, you need to get off the road and away from traffic.
Photographer Barb Gonzalez and I spent several early-August days in Glacier National Park, on the border of Canada in the Rocky Mountains of Montana. We used the few roads in this massive national park, 60 miles north-south and 30 miles wide, to get from Point A to Points B and C. We took our time driving the stunning, 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road across the Continental Divide, but otherwise parked the car and set off in our hiking shoes. The only time we saw our campground was leaving in the morning and returning at dusk.
Established in 1910, Glacier Park has been called the crest of the continent. The mountains may not be the highest (few exceed 10,000 feet) but the grandeur of the landscape has no parallel. Chiseled during the ice ages by glaciers, only a few vestiges of which remain at high altitude today, the park's razor-edged, steep-sided peaks caress broad valleys where impossibly blue lakes provide a pristine home for every large predator in North America.
Because this is a meeting place — where climates collide and from which rivers flow to the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and Hudson's Bay — it has drawn species from all four directions of the compass. Moose, grizzly bears and Rocky Mountain goats from the north encounter species from the southern mountains (black bears) as well as from the prairies to the east (bison) and from the Pacific Northwest (mountain lions). And the diversity of bird and plant life is equally diverse.
Rangers share literature that recommends 68 day hikes in Glacier National Park. With only a few days at Glacier, we decided to focus on three trails in different parts of the park.
The Avalanche Lake Trail begins off Going-to-the-Sun Road 14 miles northeast of the Apgar Visitor Center at the foot of Lake McDonald. Starting from the Trail of the Cedars nature trail, it climbs gradually uphill to a glacial lake cupped by a grand mountain cirque.
The round trip of 4.8 miles might have been less daunting had we not been warned, by other hikers descending as we headed up the trail, that a park ranger was doing his best to protect visitors from a grizzly bear grazing on berries just uphill from oblivious cutthroat-trout anglers.
The Hidden Lake Overlook Trail heads directly uphill from the Logan Pass Visitor Center, the high point on the Going-to-the-Sun Road at 6,646 feet. Steep steps and August snowfields made this hike, though only 3 miles round trip, somewhat challenging until we crossed a ridge to an observation deck built into the bluff.
Dozens of almost-domestic Rocky Mountain goats milled about, some with bleating kids trailing behind. But a secondary trail descending to beautiful Hidden Lake had been closed to hikers: Grizzly bears were fishing at the stream outlet. We could even see one of them slapping the water far below through a telephoto lens.
The 7.1-mile (round-trip) Grinnell Lake Trail begins at the historic Many Glacier Hotel and gently rises through lush vegetation that lines a stream linking three lakes. Each of them — Swiftcurrent, Josephine and Grinnell — is seemingly more beautiful than the next.
The trail in places is almost overgrown with plants such as nettles, cow parsley, thimbleberries and huckleberries. At one point, we were misled into following a secondary trail that soon disappeared and were forced to backtrack. Normally, we would not have been concerned, but this was — you guessed it! — grizzly country.
Clearly, it was essential that we consider the danger presented by grizzly bears, which on rare occasion have killed or maimed hikers and campers in this park. And we weren't anxious to spend $50 for a can of peppery “bear spray” that was not likely to be needed.
“Bears will usually move out of the way if they hear people approaching, so make noise,” our park literature recommended. “Most bells are not enough. Calling out and clapping hands loudly at regular intervals are better ways to make your presence known. Hiking quietly endangers you, the bear and other hikers.”
When we heard other hikers shouting “Hey, bear!” at regular intervals, we began to do the same.
After finding a roadside parking niche far from the Big Red Buses (a Glacier Park tourist tradition since 1936) that congregate just down the road at the Lake McDonald Lodge, we set out from a picnic area into a forest of old-growth cedars.
The first portion of the trail was a piece of cake. Lifted above the spongy forest floor, a solidly constructed boardwalk — accented by plaques inscribed with haiku about the surrounding woods — wound past Western red cedars, Engelmann spruce and oversized cottonwoods. Flanked in several areas by springs weeping from granite boulders, it crossed a wooden footbridge at its halfway point before circling back to the picnic area.
The water beneath the Avalanche Gorge Bridge, only four-tenths of a mile from the start of this walk, surged a milky, glacial blue through a narrow, tortured red-rock canyon. And here a well-trodden dirt trail turned off the boardwalk, climbing 500 feet in the next two miles to Avalanche Lake at an elevation of 3,865 feet.
The ascent was steady but not arduous, and we had plenty of company along the way. Where the trail stayed closer to the creek, we could see the white water tumbling through its bed of red rocks. Large boulders in an area of limited undergrowth beckoned some energetic younger people to add an extra scramble to their excursion.
Farther up the trail, ferns and berries clustered beneath pines and firs. In the last couple of hundred yards before the track reached the lake, waist-high shrubbery was in full blossom. But its brilliance was nothing compared to that of Avalanche Lake itself.
The lake wasn't large, perhaps a mile across, but its setting could not have been prettier. We stood on a rocky beach and counted multiple ribbonlike waterfalls plummeting down stark cliffs that created a natural amphitheater southeast of us. We could see neither the summit of Gunsight Mountain nor the shifting ice of Sperry Glacier, which fed these falls, but the drama of this scene was one that I will not soon forget.
And then there was that grizzly that was supposedly nosing about the bushes. Apparently he got tired of the comings and goings of hikers, for neither he nor his ranger guardian was anywhere to be seen.
And one woman sat quietly beside the lake puzzling through a sudoku tablet as she waited for her husband to return from his catch-and-release cutthroat fishing.
I can't describe the hike from Logan Pass without first introducing Going-to-the-Sun Road. Built between 1924 and 1933, the two-lane paved road from West Glacier to St. Mary continues to astound travelers decades after its completion.
In particular, several narrow, winding miles along the precipitous Garden Wall leave some drivers vertigo-stricken, especially with ongoing roadwork further restricting passable space.
Even if you don't stop, it will take two hours to travel the road's 50 miles. And it's not even open year-round: This year, you won't be able to reach Logan Pass from West Glacier after mid-September, nor from the park's east entrance at St. Mary after mid-October.
Access was no issue during our visit early this month. There was so much tourist traffic on the road, in fact, that the spacious parking lot outside the Logan Pass Visitor Center was nearly full at 9:30 a.m. Still, that was soon enough to get a start up the Hidden Lake Overlook Trail ahead of many others.
There's no forest cover on this short but rapidly ascending trail, and no toilet facilities, so it's essential that hikers take care of personal needs at the visitor center before starting out. Also, because of the constant exposure to sun, it's important to wear a hat, sunglasses and sunblock from the start of the hike.
In just a mile and a half, this trail climbs 460 feet to an elevation of 7,106 feet. It makes extensive use of a boardwalk to protect the delicate vegetation of open subalpine meadows. Where there are steps, they are tall and steep, requiring more hoist than most hikers might anticipate. Sections cross sheer glacial rock, and during my visit, much of the middle third of the trail was a slog through snowfields. Where snow melted from their edges, there were small streams to cross.
We knew we were nearing the crest of the ridge when we began to see Rocky Mountain goats beside the trail. These wild animals showed no fear of human intruders. Male goats with thick white fur browsed stunted shrubs, unmindful of clicking cameras. Females still shedding winter coats led their bleating offspring, no more than a few months old, through the meadows.
The observation deck atop the bluff wasn't a large one, but it was sufficient for hikers of all ages to get a striking view of blue, forest-shrouded Hidden Lake, nearly 800 feet below the lookout, and at Reynolds Mountain, more than 2,000 feet above. The panorama stretched into the distance across one mountainous ridge and another.
Some of the most famous photos of Glacier National Park have been captured from the vicinity of Many Glacier Hotel, in the park's northeastern quadrant.
Nestled on the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake — which, despite its name, is calm enough to attract moose to its foliage-rich shores — this hotel was built in 1915, when some 150 glaciers festooned the park's peaks.
But glaciers have been in a recession even deeper than the American economy. Today, there may be no more than two dozen glaciers remaining, and they, too, are going fast.
We set out on the Grinnell Lake Trail — 7.1 miles round-trip — for a good look at its overhanging Grinnell Glacier, beneath the summit of 9,553-foot Mount Gould on the northeast face of the Garden Wall.
There's almost no elevation gain on this trail: It climbs only 60 feet in following a slow-moving stream from Swiftcurrent Lake into Lake Josephine, then Grinnell Lake. Because rentals are available at the small hotel marina, kayakers and canoeists were out in numbers on the first lake. But only a couple made the portage to Josephine, and none to Grinnell.
The proximity of water kept this trail heavily vegetated and always beautiful with dozens of wildflower blooms. Spotted butterflies jumped from flower to flower, and a pair of Clark's nutcrackers kept us entertained through one section.
At times the path almost disappeared in the growth, so that beside Lake Josephine we temporarily lost it until we heard hikers coming from the other direction. Then we crossed a set of planks laid upon a marshy area, crossed a one-person-at-a-time suspension bridge, and we knew we were on the right trail.
Grinnell Glacier clung to what seemed sheer cliff encircling the back side of Grinnell Lake. But it was substantially smaller than photos I had seen even a few years ago. Global warming may or may not be a factor, but the last remnants of the ice ages are definitely disappearing.
We were surprised to see two to three dozen people, many of them with small children, picnicking at Grinnell Lake and dipping their feet into the icy water. We learned that their hike to the lake had been less than a mile — from the dock where a park excursion boat ($11 each way) had dropped them. Although we enjoyed our walk, this certainly would have been an easier way to get there.
In fact, excursion boats operate on several of Glacier Park's lakes, including Lake McDonald, St. Mary Lake, Two Medicine Lake and Upper Waterton Lake. There is also a wide-ranging shuttle service that will drop and pick up hikers at trail heads. Visitors may fly into Glacier Park International Airport near Columbia Falls in the Flathead Valley, shuttle to any of the seven hotels operated by Glacier Park Inc., and enjoy an automobile-free vacation.