From my perspective as someone who spent nearly 30 years in the park exploring its trails, geeking out over flowers, and looking for wildlife, their impact is obvious, even if most people don’t realize how much they do. From improving visitor services to supporting the Citizen Scientist program, their presence is critical in keeping the park vibrant, particularly in this era of millions of visitors.
Because I love what they do and frequently pester their executive director, Doug Mitchell, for article interviews, so I was delighted when he asked if I’d be a table host at the Glacier Conversations benefit in October. This is a chance to join Glacier enthusiasts and experts about their particular passion while raising money for their valuable projects. I’ve known many of the other table hosts for years, if not decades, and am tickled to be in company of a lot of truly impressive individuals.
If you’re in the area, join us for an evening of delicious food and terrific company benefiting a cause that is near and dear to so many of us. This is going to be a fun night!
Autumn is one of the best times to hike, but as the days shorten and the school season intensifies, it seems there is less time to be on the trail. That’s why I was determined to head to Glacier this past weekend for a longer hike before the snow flies.
Knowing what to expect in the fall
Weather is a key consideration at this time of the year, and while it didn’t appear that rain or snow would be an issue, with forecasted gusts closing in on 40 mph, we knew wind was a factor. Our initial plan was to hike to Scenic Point, a roughly 8 mile round trip with 2300 ft in elevation gain, offering spectacular views of Rising Wolf and into the Two Medicine Valley since the parking lot is usually filled very early in the day in July and August.
Exploring the side roads
During the summer, the goal is to leave Great Falls as early as possible in order to secure a parking spot, regardless of where we want to hike. In the fall, it’s not quite as pressing so we pulled out of town around 6:30, and made a stop near Heart Butte to pick up my friend, Rachael. I’ve driven past the Heart Butte sign off of Hwy 89 thousands of times, but never ventured that direction, partly because it was out of the way on my focused mission heading to the park, but partly because Heart Butte is the type of town where a high school sporting event is called because there is a grizzly eating a horse carcass at the end of the field. Heart Butte is on its own level.
We picked up Rachael who took us up the road that ends up just outside of Browning pointing out families and events along the way. It’s about 10 miles longer, but it’s like being introduced to the neighborhood, plus I’m a big fan of local history and knowing the back roads. Expanding the journey is part of the adventure.
Starting Scenic Point
After stopping to watch a little black bear cross the road on our drive into Two Medicine, we arrived at Scenic Point shortly after 9. I was relieved that there was only 1 other car in the parking lot. We made our way up the trail, yet as we gained elevation, the wind was more brutal, sometimes knocking us off balance. We walked past my favorite tree, a limber or whitebark pine that died years ago, mostly likely from blister rust. It is huge, over a foot in diameter, for this particular area, and I can only imagine what it’s witnessed over the years (probably centuries). With gnarled, whitened branches, to me it is the symbol of wisdom and experience.
After being blown and battered for over a mile along the route, we decided to turn around and try Rockwell Falls, which primarily winds its way through the trees. By the time we returned to the Scenic Point parking area, there were many more vehicles, but what really surprised me is the main parking area at Two Medicine was full just before noon. We had to park in the overflow parking area. The camp store is already boarded up and winterized. Plus, the dock from the boat is out of the water, and the Sinopah is already tucked away in its boat house. Even though there were still a lot of people, these are signs that the season is truly winding down.
Opting for Rockwell Falls
The walk to Rockwell Falls was pleasant and easy. Squirrels chattered at us on occasion, and I was amazed at the numbers of fall mushrooms. I could identify the boletes, but there were many more I need to research. The meadows once filled with flowers were warm golds and browns, although a few hardy asters still offered nectar to the remaining bees and insects.
The large suspension bridge on the way to the falls is always a highlight with a goal of not making it shake like crazy while crossing it.
The falls were particularly lovely flowing with more water than expected at the end of the season, and many flowers, such as mallows and arnica, still bloomed along its edges. We grabbed a bite, took a few pictures, then had to continue back in order to be on the road early enough to drive in the daylight. (I’m not a fan of driving after dark around here, particularly since the deer are more active lately.)
On the hike back, there was a cow moose feeding in one of the far beaver ponds. It took some maneuvering in one area to see over the willows, but we finally found a good opening to watch her and take photos.
We made it back to the car by 4-ish so made it home long before the witching hour happy to enjoy a pleasant outing in the park once again. While I like to go to an area with a plan, this day demonstrates that having the flexibility to switch gears often works out better. There’s no doubt Scenic Point is beautiful, but by visiting Rockwell Falls instead, we noticed the fall fungi, was able to have more conversations (because the wind would’ve drowned it out otherwise), and see the moose on the way back. That’s what I call a good day.
Although grizzly bears earn a lot of the hype in Glacier National Park, it’s truly special to watch the few harlequin ducks that migrate to this area on the western edge of their territory. When you think about it, with roughly 1000 grizzlies in the ecosystem surrounding the park, versus the maybe 200 harlequins that visit for just a few months out of the year, finding harlequins is the greater challenge.
After a couple of hours of classroom work discussing their lifecycle and research on the birds, we piled into the Glacier Institute’s van, and headed to the Avalanche Campground to park. Even though this was the middle of May, it was Mother’s Day weekend, and the area was packed. Watching the evolution of visitation into the park for nearly 30 years, these early crowds always amaze me.
Searching for harlequins
From there we walked and talked looking for the smallish, sleek, gray, brown, and white male ducks, which are easier to spot than the drabber female counterparts. Walking along Going-to-the-Sun Road at this time of the year is a treat. It is typically gated at Avalanche allowing bicyclists and hikers, including a growing number of people keen on finding these colorful ducks. It’s quiet, everything is that beautiful spring green, and is truly one of the best times to enjoy the park.
After strolling a short ways up the road, we spotted several solo bachelor males. Harlequins are unique as the female pairs up with a male while they’re on the West Coast, which is where they spend the bulk of the year, and return to the area where she was born to nest and raise the brood. They are always side by side swimming together, feeding together, and flying back up stream together. Even though they don’t have a mate, the bachelor males typically arrive in the Glacier area in April and early May, and while they try to woo females, it never works.
With a little more walking, as luck and sharp-eyes would have it, we saw a couple of pairs. Some were traveling down McDonald Creek, while another pair was feeding in a pool. At one point a bachelor male put the moves on the female, but she was having nothing of it, nor did Mr. Harlequin tolerate the situation, continually shooing away the upstart. Eventually, the bachelor gave up, continuing on his lonely way up the stream leaving the pair to feed in the deep pool.
The importance of research
Harlequins are fascinating not only because they’re beautiful and relatively rare for this area, but because there is still so much to know. John’s research, as well as additional studies over the years, provide a better perspective into the life of a harlequin. After tagging birds with a locator, scientists finally found some of the exceptionally well-hidden nests, and have a fuller understanding of their migration patterns. This allows researchers to know what type of habitat and protection these birds need to continue to thrive in this region. John, and many other scientists, continue to work with these small duck to ultimately preserve it for future generations.
Another early season hike on the west side of Glacier National Park is easy walk to John’s Lake, a lovely loop or simple in and out stroll.
The NPS recently opened Going-to-the-Sun Rd. from Lake McDonald Lodge to Avalanche so we could access the parking area and trailhead to John’s Lake without a problem. It’s only probably a mile from the end of the lake to the parking area, but it’s still easier when you can drive. During the summer, the small parking area at the official trailhead is usually filled, so if you’re going to do this hike, start early or park at the Sacred Dancing Cascades to begin the loop from that end.
For our evening outing, we wanted to see what was happening at the lake, so we opted for the half-mile stroll from the trailhead. Even though there is a very slight uphill on the first few hundred yards, overall this is a very easy hike suitable for practically any age and most ability levels. The trail is wide and smooth with no scary drop offs, which makes it nice with young children, although as always, keep them close to you hiking on even such a short and “civilized” trail. There are mountain lions and grizzlies in the area, and even though the chances are slim you would ever have a problem, you don’t want to take the chance.
Along the trail we enjoyed checking out what mushrooms were growing on the trees, as well as the plants that are finally greening up after such a cold winter. At the lake, the water lilies were just starting to emerge from the bottom, and we found a frog resting on a half-submerged branch, plus there was a bonus find of a couple of leeches in the water. We really hoped to spot a loon on the lake, even though this is not prime habitat, but were still happy to see 5 buffleheads and a single, drake Barrow’s goldeneye.
There’s a lot to see after this 15-20 minute leisurely walk, and John’s Lake is one of those terrific little side trips to step away from the crowds and feel like you’re in the backcountry.
Since I finally remembered to bring the video camera (along with a working battery and SD card…. it’s a miracle!), check out this brief video on Glacier Girl to have a better idea of what the walk and the lake.
Weather is variable, to say the least, at time of the year, so we took advantage of a few decent days to explore the west side. Fortunately, we were graced with one of those perfect blue bird days to take an easy stroll to Rocky Point Nature Trail out of the Fish Creek campground. Although there are several ways to pick up the trail, we used the directions on one of my favorite sites, HikingGlacier.com.
Despite living in the Flathead for almost 20 years, I never hiked to Rocky Point, and after enjoying the beautiful walk and stunning views at the end, I’m glad we remedied this situation. I can see it being a regular hike in the early season. This little walk is a mere 1.9 miles round trip with just over 300 ft. elevation gain so it’s a perfect outing for kids, or those who are stretching their legs at the beginning of the season.
The trailhead is located through the Fish Creek Campground, near the gate to the inside North Fork Rd. It begins as a beautiful stroll through the forest and across the bridge at Fern Creek, before walking above Fish Creek campground along the area burned by the 2003 Robert Fire. There’s a fair amount of standing dead, which offers excellent habitat for the cavity nesting birds, along with tremendous new growth, and the views throughout are beautiful.
It was also a butterfly paradise the entire time. Everywhere we turned commas, mourning cloaks, and a few azures flitting around seemingly celebrating the warm weather with the rest of us. Red squirrels chattered at us from the trees, and we saw a couple of nuthatches and a dark-eyed junco.
Rocky Point did not disappoint. With plenty of fascinating rocks (particularly for us geology geeks), gnarled trees, the insanely beautiful hues of blues in Lake McDonald, and knockout scenery, this is one of those little gems that is a quick walk to a peaceful setting, particularly early in the season when the high country trails are still blanketed in snow.
One of the beautiful aspects of Glacier National Park is we have a number of relatively easy day hikes where you can stretch your legs without extensive climbing. Cracker Lake in Many Glacier fits the bill perfectly in this category covering 12.6 miles there and back, but only gaining 1200 ft. in elevation over the course of the trail. There are a few uphill pulls along the way, but nothing that is overly strenuous.
Be sure to start early
The greatest challenge of hiking in Glacier, particularly Many Glacier, in August is finding a parking space, but thankfully, these ladies are on top of it. We left Great Falls around 5 a.m. to make it to Many Glacier shortly after 8 a.m. , and had no problem finding a spot. After running into the Many Glacier Hotel for potty breaks, we were on the trail before 9 a.m. and enjoyed the cool, damp morning on the trail around Sherburne Reservoir.
Imagining the town of Altyn
Looking at this wild area as we skirted along the water in the forest, it’s difficult to imagine a small, but bustling, town once stood where the lake now exists. The optimistic town of Altyn was the hub of activity for the early, and brief, mining operations within this area. Sanford and Claire Stone at the Park Cabin Company in Babb wrote an interesting piece on the early history and business shenanigans of the area called “The Drowned Town of Altyn,” which is definitely worth a read.
Keep an eye open for bears
For much of the hike, the trail to Cracker Lake winds through the forest with the major obstacle being the horse piles for the first couple of miles since the trail shares the area with the horse concessioner. But the dense vegetation, including thimble berries, is also why this is a hot spot for grizzlies and is a trail best hiked with a group to minimize the potential of a surprise encounter. Years ago there was a female grizzly who put the run on one of the horse people. From what I remember, the wrangler held on and ran!G
Gradual elevation gain means big rewards
The trail continues through the forest, but eventually climbs to an area where a number of switchbacks help you gain elevation before using the bridge to cross Canyon Creek, then head up the hill. At nearly 5 miles in, you begin to open up where you can appreciate the stunning views of Siyeh Mountain, and the view of Cracker Lake can nearly take your breath away with its surreal turquoise blue color. When we arrived, it was somewhat milky, possibly from the recent rain that obviously caused sediment to wash into the inlet at the head of the lake, but it was still beyond gorgeous.
Technically, the lake is 6.3 miles in to the lake, but we continued to the large red rocky outcropping to stop for lunch, then another lady and I walked to the end of the lake in search of the old mine. While we couldn’t locate the mine shaft, which was tunneled 1300 ft. into the base of the mountain, the enormous amount of mining equipment, including the 8 ton steam powered ore concentrator, still sat where it was last used over a century ago. How they hauled back everything, particularly the concentrator, is beyond my comprehension.
This is definitely a hike we’ll do more often. It’s a pleasant walk through an array of terrain, including plenty of wildflowers around the lake, and views that are out of this world.
Last January, 4 of us were on the computer vying for a night at Granite Park Chalet as soon as the reservation system opened. With the burning of Sperry Chalet in August 2017, we thought the competition for a night at Granite Park would be greater, so we were thrilled when a couple of us managed to send in a reservation request. We were ultimately granted the time for July 14, a date we figured was late enough to be mostly free of snow, while still early for fires.
As soon as our date was set, the planning and excitement began, but as the time drew closer, my level of concern also exponentially increased. Granite Park Chalet is a little bit of heaven being able to stay in a historic – and incredibly well-built stone structure (I kind of geek out over these things)- in one of the prettiest places on earth, but when food can kill you, you look at things differently, particularly when there is no easy way to receive help.
In our case, I don’t have a food allergy, but my son, Sam, does. And nuts, including all of those delicious, high-protein additives to trail foods, are the most dangerous. We avoid foods from facilities that process tree nuts or peanuts even in our ingredients (because everything from a frozen turkey to regular milk can be cross-contaminated) so staying at a place where people are constantly snacking on these foods – and touching the tables, chairs, doorhandles, or sleeping with their peanut butter smeared faces on the pillows – sent me into high alert. For weeks ahead of time, I woke up in the middle of the night going over every possible scenario. How can I keep him from accidental contact? What happens if he does have a reaction?
Granite Park Chalet is a 7.2 mile hike in from Logan Pass in Glacier National Park, or a 4 mile (and 2400 ft. elevation gain) hoof up from what’s called The Loop, a sharp curve on the west side of Going-to-the-Sun Rd. There is cell service from the chalet, and there is often a ranger on duty who can call in in case of an emergency, but that doesn’t mean anybody can reach you in time. Weather or logistics can ground a helicopter, and hiking either of the trails at night is sketchy because of grizzlies, as well as just being a long way out in an emergency situation. Even bringing 6 epi-pens, I envisioned backpacking my 75 lbs. child down the trail to The Loop, wondering how fast I could feasibly do it if he had a reaction and a helicopter wasn’t an option. These are the things that tap you on the shoulder at 3 a.m. so I intended to do everything possible not to have to deal with any of the worst case scenarios that ran through my mind.
As I mentioned, I had 6 epi-pens, plus Benadryl, but the trick was to keep the epinephrin within the acceptable storage range of 66-77 degrees F., which is a challenging when it can go from nearly freezing to 80 degrees in the course of a day. And that’s exactly what the weather did. On our hike into the chalet, the clouds hung low and it occasionally spit snow. Most of us had on winter jackets, hats, and gloves. I had the epis in pockets, as well as insulated as best as I could inside of my and Sam’s packs. (I always had a pair in his pack in case he had a reaction so I could just grab them without taking off mine.) At night, I slept with them like a clunky teddy bear to keep them relatively warm. The next day, I had to keep them next to the cooler water bladders and inside the Frio insulating pack because the temperature rose well into the upper 70s – and we opted for shorts – on our hike out.
As any food allergy mom knows, baby wipes are our best friends. Hand sanitizer does not eliminate food proteins so wiping off tables or anything else with it doesn’t help. Baby wipes do. My friend, Julie, was proactive and brought them, as well, and wiped down everything in our cabin at the St. Mary KOA the night before we hit the trail. From the door handles to the rungs of the ladders on the bunks, that girl had the cabin clean. When we were at Granite Park, I was careful to wipe off the table and anywhere Sam might touch. Of course, I got “the look” since an 11 year old, especially when he’s with two 11 year old friends, doesn’t necessarily want Mom fussing like a loon. But a loon I will be. I even brought a separate set of sheets to put over the ones they provided to be sure that there was extra protection between him and what a previous guest might have eaten.
Surprisingly, the food wasn’t as big of an issue as some might think. Of course, this is what we live every day. We do need to try Mountain House freeze dried meals, as I’ve heard from a number in the food allergy circles that they are good about labeling and there’s no risk of cross-contamination, but I wanted to stick with known quantities for this trip. The crew at the chalet is always phenomenal, but they were particularly accommodating when I mentioned that Sam had food allergies so I hoped to keep everything separate. They did whatever I needed, which wasn’t much, but just having them be so willing was a huge relief. I packed our own cookware, including the pans to heat up the water, even though there is a fantastic kitchen with pretty much anything you might need, at the chalet, and planned to make everything with minimal outside contact.
For Sam’s dinner I packed up frozen chicken in an insulated lunch cooler with ice packs (since I’m equally anal about food safety and there was no way I would pack chicken without it being cold). No wonder my pack was 28 pounds. I also had dehydrated pasta and rice as a side. I ate my typical quinoa with lentils and veggies. For dessert, the apple crisp made with dried apples and a yummy, toasted oatmeal mixture was a hit. And, for a hot drink in the evening, which is common during coffee hour at the chalet, I made our own hot cocoa mix using 1 cup Carnation instant non-fat dried milk, 1 cup powdered sugar, and 1/2 cup Hershey’s cocoa. A few tablespoons in a mug with hot water and you have a terrific drink on any cold evening. In the morning, he had the GF Harvest apple cinnamon instant oatmeal for breakfast before we hit the trail heading down to The Loop.
Once we got to Granite Park Chalet, I was still on alert, but not as worried as in the weeks beforehand. Sam washed his hands and was careful, even if I did get the eye rolls, which made it easier. I can’t say I’ll be less apprehensive on future trips because the reality is I will probably consider every possible scenario before venturing on any backcountry adventure, but hopefully with preparation and caution, we’ll simply be able to enjoy making good memories, not scary ones.
It’s cliche to ask where time went, yet here I am at the end of November recapping the summer since it was much more enjoyable to be on the trail rather than at the computer. But now is the time to recap a few of our favorite adventures.
For our mother/son excursion this year, John wanted to stay at the Many Glacier Hotel, and thankfully, I managed to reserve a room in January for their opening day on June 8. After the long, cold, snowy, horrible winter, I wasn’t sure what might be free of patches, or drifts, even in early June, but it was beginning to green with a few flowers blooming in the new warmth of the season.
It’s been years, long before the extensive renovations of the hotel, since I stayed there, and their fine work was obvious. Many Glacier isn’t fancy when you compare it to the modern hotels packed with technological amenities, but it’s very comfortable, clean, and is a perfect place to call home base anytime during the summer. The staff was exceptionally sweet and accommodating, despite the long lines so early in the season, and we settled into our room with 2 twins at the end of the hallway on the second floor.
There were no epic hikes during this adventure. It was John’s trip so he chose what we did for the most part, and hoofing it for miles isn’t his idea of a good time. Eating the dining room was a big hit, and we ordered a huckleberry cobbler to enjoy on the dock of Swiftcurrent Lake later in the evening after a short stroll that was thwarted by the report of a young grizzly feeding in the willows a short ways down the Swiftcurrent Lake trail.
The next day we really hoped to take advantage of being there to play the tourist and go on a short horseback ride. Unfortunately, due to early season restrictions, the easy, 2 hour rides weren’t available, and I didn’t think John would be up for a half-day ride. (Especially since the horses are huge. Most, if not all of them, appear to be a draft-cross.)
Instead, we hopped on the boat with the Glacier Park Boat Company during their first day of the season, and enjoyed the interpretive talk while basking in the gorgeous scenery. Even when a trip to Many Glacier doesn’t involve long hikes, there’s not a better place to be.
A lifetime ago, in a galaxy far, far away I built gardens, a business, and a home. On 14 acres in Coram (purchased from friends for $18K!), the first thing I did was try to build a garden. Using my tried and true methods of turning the soil, I put a shovel in the ground, jumped on it, and teetered back and forth. With all of the glacier till (read: rock) I was going no where in the duff. Not to be dissuaded, I decided to dig up the rocks ultimately building 220 raised beds out of stone and filling them with the gorgeous topsoil from the Creston area of the Flathead Valley.
Whenever we weren’t away filming, which was cyclical, as the nature of the filming industry is fickle, I created gardens and made dried arrangements (something I’d been doing since high school) since I wasn’t about to stay home and twiddle my thumbs. And as I built more beds, I wanted to show more people. Ever since I was young, I dragged visitors to the garden to show them what was growing, so now I intended it on a grand scale. Every year, typically when my mother visited (she called it her annual work camp), we threw a big “Garden Celebration” where people toured the garden, visited the gift shop filled with dried flowers, books, soaps, etc., and enjoyed garden-inspired refreshments. Friends helped throughout the day, and though exhausting, it was a good time running up and down the hill talking with people and answering questions.
Then, I walked away. The gardens allowed me to rein in my rage over my soul-sucking marriage that was making me physically ill, but even tons of rock and dirt wasn’t enough. My ex bought me out of my portion of the property and I moved on to a new chapter of my life.
Over the years, my ex sold off chunks of the land for others to build homes or cabins, then finally sold the house and roughly 9 acres. The house eventually burned, and the 9 acres was split and sold again. Fortunately, the lower 3 acres, the ones with the shop and a couple of the small buildings find its way to a wonderful couple, Linda and Chuck. A few years back, Linda contacted me asking where the well and septic were located. The best description I could give her was under the heart garden and the moon garden. They no longer existed, so I wasn’t much help at all, but it was certainly enjoyable to talk with Linda, another avid plant person, about the property. And when she showed me their listing on Airbnb for their cabin (formerly my gift shop) called Mad Betty’s, I was super excited.
She said previous owners turned the small barn into a livable space putting in a kitchen where the wreaths once hung, and creating an incredibly spacious and welcoming bedroom from the attic where rows and rows of dried flowers were stored. Even the side structure, originally used for storing odds and ends, evolved into a family room with a futon where a couple of people could sleep. In my wildest dreams, I could not envision such a transformation. I was thrilled.
Last week I had meetings in the park for work, so we had the opportunity to stay at the cabin and finally meet Chuck and Linda. It was an absolute delight all the way around. They are the nicest, most-welcoming people, and I felt like I’ve known them for ages. And while they might not have turned the shop into a cabin, they certainly gave it life and personality. When we walked in, there were scones on the counter, fruit in the bowl, fixings for s’mores, and a bottle of wine on the table. In the freezer, Chuck had ice cream bars for us, and there was basic food in the refrigerator and cupboards. Even though we came well-stocked, it truly is like coming home where everything is ready for you.
I loved the kitchen area, which was the main part of the gift shop, as well as how a gas fireplace now warmed the house near the front window. Upstairs, instead of ducking your head to avoid being smacked by statice, it was roomy and open. There is now a balcony off of the bedroom, which is the perfect place to sit and drink coffee in the morning or enjoy dinner at night.
Sam and John thought the futon was an engineering marvel, and were beyond thrilled with the flat screen television (yes, we are behind the times at home). There are books and games, and plenty of ways to relax indoors.
Outside, on the lovely stone patio (big kudos to whomever put that together), there is a terrific fire pit with plenty of wood and tools to sit back and enjoy a calm evening under the stars. (Backyard fires can be tricky here in gusty Great Falls.) We had a wonderful time building a small fire during our second evening there totally overloading on sugar and relaxing after a busy couple of days.
I was equally thrilled to see how much still lived in the gardens. It’s early in the season, but obviously the lavender, oregano, lamb’s ear, and artemisia still thrive; some beds even have their metal plant markers. The witch hazel I planted next to one of the cascading ponds is taller than I am. And the little lodgepole I allowed to grow next to it is well over 20 ft. high. Actually, there are a lot of tall lodgepole pines growing within the garden on the hillside. That is the greatest difference in the overall landscape with the trees obscuring the gorgeous view of Desert Mountain (although I heard that is about to be remedied). Even the foundation and initial construction of the stone greenhouse I was building remain almost as I left it nearly 20 years ago.
The best part of everything was to experience the life brought back into the place. Yes, the house, with all of its unique touches from basically being scrounged together (and having most of the framing lumber cut from the property), is gone, but the once gift shop has a brand new purpose of bringing joy to a lot of people. The guest book is filled with comments on how much the guests love spending time there. It is pure joy to see it and a privilege to watch the improvements Chuck and Linda continue to make as they offer a home away from home for so many people who love this area. Progress is a beautiful thing!
With over a million acres of Montana up in smoke during one of the hottest and driest summers in memory, it was a challenging season for hiking or doing much outdoors. Even after a healthy dose of precipitation this spring, the faucet turned off by mid-June and when the heat turned up, all of that beautiful greenery turned to tinder. The terribly hot (even for me!) weather combined with smokey conditions, kept us grounded.
The greatest heartbreak of this record fire season was losing the dormitory at Sperry Chalet on August 31, 2017. The Sprague Fire, which had been of little concern for weeks, blew up on this fateful night and the firefighters couldn’t keep it at bay. We knew it was a special time when friends and I stayed there in 2016, but we had no idea those new mattresses we enjoyed would only last a year. Thankfully, crews have stabilized the stone walls of the chalet to brace the structure to endure the winter, with progress to hopefully restore the hotel continuing in the spring thanks to the dedicated efforts of the Glacier National Park Conservancy.
The second challenge this year was the record number of visitors to Glacier. When we went on a hike to Red Rock Falls in July, the amount of traffic shocked me. Cars were parked probably close to a mile up the road from Swiftcurrent when we arrived back to the parking lot in the early afternoon, which was something I’ve never seen before. By the end of July to the first part of August, I began hearing reports of visitors being turned away at the gate at Many Glacier, as well as parts of the North Fork. At first I thought they were erroneous, but after folks I knew were turned away, I realized Glacier had reached its tipping point.
Even with the challenges of too many people and too much smoke, we still managed to enjoy a few good hikes. During the first part of July, friends and their kids joined the boys and I to hike to Aster Park Overlook in Two Medicine. It was a super hot day, but we still spotted a moose and the kids cooled playing in Two Medicine Lake after our short hike.
In mid-July, 4 friends and I climbed up to Scalplock Lookout from the Walton Ranger Station near Essex with a group of friends. I’d been up there years ago on Kelo, but riding the nearly 5 miles with an 3175 ft. elevation gain is a far different experience than hiking it.
We got a late start on a forecasted hot day, yet a breeze kept us comfortable most of the hike. Huckleberries also helped keep our interest and the bear grass was beyond gorgeous once we reached higher elevations. Even though it was a heck of a pull, it was absolutely worth it for the remarkable views at the top.
At the end of July, a group of us – with all of the kids in tow – went to Red Rock Falls. Beautiful weather, lots of huckleberries, and a cow and calf moose right alongside the trail were the highlights of the day.
In September, my best friend, Stefani, came out for a couple of days of hiking. The smoke was a significant concern, but we lucked out with a beautiful first morning. Driving into the Many Glacier Valley we saw an enormous grizzly – it was so large at first glance I thought it was a moose – in Sherburne Reservoir along the shoreline followed by a cow and calf moose farther up the road. After grabbing a delicious breakfast sandwich at Heidi’s in the Many Glacier Hotel, we hit the Ptarmigan Tunnel trail by 10-ish. The Iceberg/Ptarmigan trail is always impressive, although it wasn’t close to the stunning beauty we enjoyed during our June hike to Iceberg with all of the bear grass in bloom.
Yet, you truly can’t go wrong in Glacier. From the cut-off to the Ptarmigan Tunnel it’s a fairly steady climb through the trees before opening in a cirque. Ptarmigan Lake would be a nice stopping point, although being so close to the tunnel, you simply have to keep going. The switchbacks are a bit of a pull, but I stopped to chat with other hikers, as well as look for bighorn sheep and other animals.
The 240 ft. long tunnel, which I’ve wanted to see for years, is definitely worth the exertion. It’s impressive, particularly since it was cut through the mountain in the 1930s, and you know there wasn’t the modern equipment used today. And even though we were hot from walking along the open, rocky slope walking through the tunnel quickly cooled us, and we were nearly chilled having a snack on the other side out of the sun. The views on the north end of the tunnel are amazing looking at Elizabeth Lake and the valley heading to Canada. I wanted to keep walking.
We spent the evening at my favorite east side home base at the St. Mary KOA in one of their cabins. My friend, Jennifer, joined us that evening, and after a delicious dinner at Johnson’s Cafe (and to answer the question… yes their “good soup” is excellent), Stef and I hit the hot tub to soak our weary muscles before hitting the sack. With a sow and cub seen at the entrance of the KOA before we turned in, none of us made the dash to the restrooms in the middle of the night!
Day two was the long way to Grinnell Glacier because, even though it was September (normally not a busy time), we could not buy tickets on the boat. I even tried reserving tickets days before we went over there. It demonstrates the level of activity anymore.
It was a beautiful, although hazy, morning and we enjoyed our walk along Swiftcurrent and Josephine. At one point along Josephine, we noticed the boat stopped, as well as a group in front of us, and once we got up the trail a ways, we saw the two black bears feeding up the slope. It’s always good to see.
Grinnell is a classic, wonderful hike in Many Glacier. It’s easy to stop and take photos along the way, plus wildlife is typically abundant. We didn’t see any grizzlies, yet we spotted moose, ptarmigan, and a group of bighorn sheep rams nibbling on the mountain ash. Grinnell Glacier, or rather the lake surrounding it, is magical. We hung out on the shore, and I was so warm that I dunked my head in the icy water before we headed back down the trail.
One of our final, bigger trips for the season was a trek up to Banff. One of my all-time favorite programs I worked on for National Geographic was ‘Urban Elk’ where we filmed the bulls charging people and generally wreaking havoc on the community. While the elk are still in town, and they remain problematic, it doesn’t sound like the situation is quite as harrowing.
Banff is as beautiful as ever, although the amount of humanity shocked me. (This seems to be the theme this year whether it’s Yellowstone, Glacier, or Banff.) It was mid-summer levels in mid-September. Of course, we had to tour the Fairmont Banff Springs, take my mother on a few short walks, and peruse the unique shops in downtown Banff. We also explored the Cascade Gardens near the admin building. Even though a frost already nipped the blossoms, the incredible stone work indicated how gorgeous it is in the summer. I really need to go back to see them at their finest.
The summer didn’t turn out as I originally planned, by any means, and I decided in a huff that I wasn’t going to make plans for 2018 just to cancel them. But after my little hissy fit, I can’t resist. In Glacier, friends and I have our eyes on a couple of overnight (or two) hikes, including a remote lookout. We’ll have to make a point to spend time there early in the season, or book somewhere to spend the night instead of trying to rush to a trailhead to find a parking space. I also want to go farther north out of the touristy areas. Being in Banff reminded me of how much I love northern Alberta, so I’m already looking into options for the entire family to explore the area.
In the meantime, you’ll find me in the gym improving my cardio and strength, in the kitchen preparing dehydrated meals to take on our adventures, and undboutedly pouring over maps dreaming of a summer without smoke.