A few months ago my friend Katrina and I decided to create a Nature Club as part of our homeschool group. Our initial inspiration was the field sketch work of John Muir Laws, and while we do like to bring along the sketch books to be able to sit for a moment and draw what we see, not every outdoor adventure is conducive to it. Tower Rock was one of them. We’ve been itching to get back out on the trail this winter, yet after several cancelled trips due to extreme weather (we’re tough, but I below zero with single digit wind chill is a bit much) it was good to finally have a semi-decent day. Tower Rock is an ideal winter hike since the trail is short (less than 1/2 mile one way) and would be easy enough to scramble back to the car.
And besides being outdoors, hiking this distinct landscape with the black rocks jutting out of the rolling landscape as the prairie rolls up to the Missouri River in this region are where the Lewis and Clark expedition members gained their first glimpse of this completely unknown territory. From what I understand, they at least had some concept of the territory traversing the plains since it was similar to that in the Dakotas, but once they reached this area, they were witnessing a landscape like they’d never seen. They followed a native trail to the top of Tower Rock to gain a better perspective, and Lewis wrote:
a large rock of 400 feet high wich stands immediately in the gap which the missouri makes on it’s passage from the mountains by a handsome little plain which surrounds it base on 3 sides and the Missouri washes it’s base on the other, leaving it on the Lard. as it descends. this rock I called the tower. it may be ascended with some difficulty nearly to its summit, and from there is a most pleasing view of the country we are now about to leave. from it I saw this evening immense herds of buffaloe in the plains below. (Moulton 1987, 4: 387)
For us, Tower Rock is part of the Montana State Park system, and is easy to find from Great Falls being located 10 miles past Cascade at exit 247. Although a county dumpsite is located right next to the parking area, the trailhead is pleasant and easy to find. Eleven kids with moms started the easy trail through the prairie landscape gradually climbing up the volcanic remnants. Every time we drive past this area, I look to see possible routes to the top, and at one point, I suggested we try a side trail. After a mad scramble on steeper-than-it-looked grass and rocks, we decided that was a bad choice and turned around. We followed the established trail to the sign where it said it ended, then continued farther to the base of Tower Rock. The last part was a steep haul, and a couple of additional students with their mom joined us by the time we reached the top.
Once we were as high as we were going to go, since climbing the actual rock is best accomplished with ropes and a helmet, our main objective was keeping the kids from falling over the cliffs. I understand it’s a fabulous view from up there, but it gave every mother a heart attack as the kids all seemingly wanted to be way to close to the edge.
Snow, actually more of a grauple, started while we were close to the top, and stung our faces on the walk down. But the kids were troopers and I don’t think there was much for complaining. They liked seeing the mule deer bedded down in the brush on either side of the trail, and simply had a good time being outdoors.
It’s nice to have the flexibility to take our education outdoors where the kids can not only burn off energy, they can examine the nuances of the natural world, and even walk in the footsteps of history. Tower Rock was a good kick off to this season’s hikes with many more adventures in the near future.
In the first week of August we decided to brave the Glacier National Park traffic to hike to Preston Park for the glorious wildflower display. An earlier attempt, pre-insanity traffic level, was thwarted due to avalanche danger at the end of June. It all worked out since the botanical display truly couldn’t have been better.
As I mentioned, the greatest challenge for this hike at this particular time of the year is finding a parking space at Siyeh Bend. The 11 of us left Great Falls around 5:40 a.m. heading to Valier, where we discovered the gas station (and subsequently the much-needed restroom) was closed until 7 a.m. Since there’s no way many of us could have made it to Browning, we found the campground along Lake Frances. It’s good to know there is a back-up.
My friend Rosanna met us along the way, and then we condensed bodies and backpacks in vehicles at the St. Mary Lodge before continuing to the trailhead. We made it to the trailhead shortly after 9 a.m. and it was already pretty tight. It’s a good thing we didn’t dawdle, or we would’ve had to go with a new plan.
It was a chilly start, but a lovely walk along the creek. Not long after making our way along the vegetation, we gradually climbed in elevation through the forest. Huckleberries lined the trail, although ripe ones were sparse since the peak was at least a couple of weeks away. We did find thimbleberries to snack upon along the way, though, so Sam was happy to finally be able to try them.
It was just over a mile before we reached the first junction where we could either head towards Siyeh and Piegan passes, or mosey back to Going-to-the-Sun Rd. We went left to continue through the forest and meadows brilliant with a crazy riot of wildflowers. Along the way, we also had a good view of Piegan Glacier.
After just shy of another mile and a half, we reached the junction where we could go left for Piegan Pass (and ultimately Many Glacier), or veer right to Preston Park and Siyeh Pass. The kids were getting hungry by this time, but thankfully it wasn’t long before we reached a pond and stopped for lunch. It was a beautiful spot only sullied by the voracious horseflies that also thought it was a dandy place to be. They were vicious. John said he thought they would all look like they had chicken pox by the time we returned. After a brief lunch a few of the kids waded in the shallow, warm water trying (unsuccessfully) to avoid the biting menaces.
The allure of Siyeh Pass was too much for part of our group who decided to hike the .9 mile (one way) to the top. Once they headed off, our group finished playing around the pond, then decided to try to reach a snowfield. I called off our first attempt as it led us through thick brush since it was an ideal place for bears to be snoozing. So we continued down the trail a bit longer in search of an area where we could access a snowfield without risking life and limb from waking a grizzly.
After crossing the creek by stepping from rock to rock and making a leap at the end, we walked to a nearby snowfield. It was a hot afternoon, and the boys were in heaven. Another couple joined us and asked me to take their photo at the edge of the snow before settling down for lunch. This was their mistake. Of course, if there is snow, there are snowball fights. John went to pelt Sam with one, and the unfortunate lady was positioned between John and his target. She caught the snowball upside her head. To say she was startled is an understatement, but thankfully she was gracious about the entire incident. John apologized profusely, and Sam even said he was sorry for his brother’s bad behavior. She said, “Who else can say they were hit in the head with a snowball in August in Glacier National Park?”
Before long we saw the rest of our party returning from the saddle, so we reconvened at the creek before heading back down the trail. I think we finally reached our vehicles by 3:30 or so. We made good time even with spending longer to explore the saddle and snowfields.
I have to say that the area around the stream and snowfield is some of the most scenic areas in the park. Our friends who went to Siyeh Pass said the views didn’t get much better, although I’m sure if you continued up and over to the other side there would be a brand new gorgeous view. I absolutely adored the abundant wildflowers and beautiful landscape. Without a doubt, we’ll be back to Preston Park.
Forget a spa day or a trip to Vegas. My friends are tough mothers. And I do mean this literally. Instead of kicking back in posh accommodations, every year we strap on heavy backpacks to test our mettle hiking into the ruggedly inspiring heart of Glacier National Park. Our first Moms’ hike was the long way into Grinnell Glacier; last year was the epic (and a bit smokey) journey to Granite Park Chalet, then over the harrowing heights of Swiftcurrent Pass; this year we miraculously secured reservations at the historic Sperry Chalet.
Built in 1913 as part of the chalet system created by the Great Northern Railway to encourage upper end tourist travel in the early days of the park, it is one of only 2 remaining. The others have since burned or were torn down by the park service over the years. The Sperry complex includes the large dormitory, dining hall, and very nice toilets which include a sink with running water where you can brush your teeth and wash your face at night.
After being closed from 1993 to 1999 due to sanitation issues (they were dumping the waste over the side of the cliff), once Granite Park and Sperry Chalets reopened after the hard work of the folks who formed a group called “Save the Chalets”, people understood the importance of these backcountry treasures. As a result, when the reservations open, it takes a considerable amount of computer savvy and patience to snag a spot. Three of us were on the computer as soon as reservation day opened in January, and it took at least 10 minutes continually attempting to submit the from before one of us was able to send in her request. Even so, she was still number 400+ in line, and was basically told, “We’ll let you know.”
After our confirmation, and paying the $171 a piece, we had 6 months of eager anticipation when we planned to work out, eat well, and be completely prepared for our July 10 trek. But being over- scheduled mothers and queens of procrastination, those plans melted into the realm of fantasy (except for one intrepid soul who managed to run pretty much every day). By the time July rolled around, we pulled our sorry selves together at the last moment, prayed the forecasted snow wouldn’t materialize, and headed to the west side of the hills.
We stayed with my longtime friend and former neighbor, Brenda, who has A Wild Rose in Coram. I was grateful she held rooms for us during this busy time of the year when an empty bed is hard to find anywhere near the park. During the evening we had a wonderful time visiting with her and planning our hike. We also walked down to my old place, formerly Shady Side Herb Farm, where I built 220 raised bed gardens out of stone in what seems like a former life. The house has since burned, but the shop where I sold my handmade dried arrangements, soaps, lotions, and other garden related goodies is now a cute guest cabin called “Mad Betty’s”. I love what Linda, the new owner of part of the property, has done to the place. We checked out the old gardens on the hill, and I’m shocked to see the lavender growing everywhere, as well as the oregano thriving at epic levels. Only the tough survive in these parts!
It rained Saturday night, but Sunday could not have been more gorgeous. Cool and damp conditions led us through the forest where everything was clean and crisp. We truly could not have asked for a more perfect day to hike. Brenda and I hung in the back for some time catching up over the years we haven’t seen each other in person while stopping occasionally to take in the incredible beauty of the area.
The first part of the trail is a pretty good pull that gets your heart pumping, but we took it fairly slow, partly because it was such a great opportunity to take photos. For a short while the trail is rather easy, then the switchbacks begin. I seriously lost count of how many there were. I remember one, then a really long one, then another and another. At one point you can see the chalet, but it dawns on you how far it really is, so it’s best to just keep your eyes ahead of you, which is really not hard to do between the abundant wildflowers and wildlife.
We saw a marmot and had a friendly mountain goat right along the trail where we were ultimately sandwiched between her and a trio of mule deer bucks. No one seemed bothered by the others’ use of the trail and for some time the goat followed us.
At one point we did need to step to the side to allow the mule teams to pass us on their way back down the mountain. The wranglers and their mules are the lifeline of Sperry to be able to secure supplies to keep the chalet running throughout the season. They had large plastic trash cans mantied, as well as odd-shaped items such as the propane tanks, to those sure-footed and rugged animals. A good wrangler can pack just about anything.
The last third of the hike up was slow and steady, and we were thrilled to see the stone buildings up close. Our greeting was warm and friendly with a big pitcher of lemonade to quench our thirst, and since we were famished several of us enjoyed an excellent bowl of chicken soup with homemade bread. Brenda was smart and grabbed a piece of the pie, which sold out in short order that day.
After finding our room, we scattered to read or relax for a few hours before hiking to Lincoln Pass in the late afternoon. This is the way we would’ve arrived if we would have hiked in from Gunsight on the east side, and after seeing the utter beauty of the area, I decided I have to make that trek some day, preferably sooner than later. We saw more goats along the way who were obviously not intimidated one bit by our presence.
By the time we returned to the chalets, we were all famished, and I think we were the first ones waiting outside the door of the dining hall for them to call us for dinner. It did not disappoint. We started with a Mediterranean salad and pumpkin curry soup (which I seriously need to reconstruct), followed by Thanksgiving dinner of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, broccoli, cranberries, homemade bread, and ended with apricot cake. Coffee or hot cocoa were the hot drinks, along with water or lemonade. I haven’t eaten that much in ages, but every bite tasted so good, I wasn’t going to worry about the calories I consumed. Everything was amazing, and I am beyond impressed at their cooking and baking skills.
Coffee hour started at 8:30 so we dashed back to the dining hall through the rain to sit by the fire, visit, and read. They had beverages for everyone, and made popcorn for one last snack of the evening. I skipped the cocoa and such since I really didn’t want to have to make a middle of the night trip to the toilets, but the popcorn tasted really good. One surprise we had was a couple of young men in their 20s who arrived right around 8:30. It had started to rain rather hard, and they were terribly ill-equipped wearing only shorts and t-shirts. I didn’t notice any backpacks, bear spray, or even water. The chalet always keeps a room open for wayward hikers in the case of an emergency, but they didn’t want to stay. With a 3 hour hike back down, in which it would be dark and most likely very wet the entire way, the cook at the chalet pulled trash bags over their heads (cutting a head opening at the end, of course), gave them coffee to warm them up, cookies for the trail, and flashlights for each of them. Being a group of mothers, we were concerned, but relieved that we didn’t find any bodies or hear of a bear incident after it was all said and done. This was the opening day of the chalet, and I have to wonder how many unprepared people the staff sees throughout the summer. I’m sure these guys were the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
One of the greatest treats of the chalet was to be able to sleep on the new mattresses. We were told these were the first new ones in 50-60 years, which is understandable since it’s no small feat to move out the old ones or bring in replacements. It would be tough to do, even on the best of mules, so they had to employ helicopters for the job. Knowing the park service, I can only imagine the heaps of paperwork and environmental impact statements required to accomplish such a task, but I am grateful for whomever took on the project. Although the temperature dropped considerably when the weather moved in, and there is no heat in the dormitory building, we were all completely toasty under the ample blankets of the beds. I think every one of us slept very well.
As is common in the park, the next morning was completely different than the day before. The clouds were so low we could barely see the dining hall from the dorm, and the mountains were completely obscured. Our plans to hike to Comeau Pass were thwarted for this trip, but we have full intention to do it the next time.
Breakfast was as wonderful as dinner with eggs, bacon, and pancakes all made to order. Lunches with sandwiches and extra goodies were prepacked for us and ready to go whenever we decided to hit the trail. Our hike back was much easier, and it was very comfortable despite the dampness. Once again, everything seemed clean and fresh with the much welcomed moisture.
After a pit stop at Lake McDonald Lodge, these happy hikers checked in with family and pointed the car east to head back to Great Falls. Of the 3 summers of “Moms’ Hikes” I have to say that this has been my favorite. It was a terrific group of friends, made extra special with Brenda joining us on our hike up (she took a nap and hiked back down – that’s nearly 14 miles – the same afternoon), along with excellent food, historic accommodations, and the incredible beauty of the area to create cherished memories. And now I’m ready to do it again!
For years I’ve wanted to take the boys camping on a one to one basis since it’s a time when we can unplug (no cell service certainly helps that little addiction) and enjoy time without the daily distractions. This year we kicked off the tradition with Sam and I going on a camping trip to Two Medicine in Glacier National Park while John stayed home with Daddy. I was excited to get away and spend time with Sam where he actually had a chance to talk without being interrupted. He was excited to spend time away from his brother who is relentless when it comes to tormenting him. Plus, Grant got to spend time with John when the dynamics are completely different and they can do something special. It was a win-win on all fronts.
For this first outing we decided to camp in the campground, yet by the way I packed it appeared we were going to be out for a journey roughly the length of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. I packed everything, but the kitchen sink, which I do regret. (I should have included a little wash basin… but I digress.) Part of the reason I wanted to camp earlier in the season was to ensure we could find a camping spot. Anytime after July 1 in Glacier can be a little dicey. The second reason I chose this particular time was because of the naturalist led hikes that were available. We thought doing either, or both, the bird watching hike or the hike to Rockwell Falls would be a good plan.
When we left Great Falls the weather was hot and sunny, but it quickly changed as we continued north. The wind hit hurricane status 10 miles up the road, and before we reached Valier we drove through a hellacious thunderstorm. It was the two hands, white knuckled kind of driving. And with the clouds that hung over the Rockies in the distance, I thought we were doomed for sure.
We quickly found a camping spot at Two Medicine, and took advantage of light sprinkles, instead of the deluge we experienced earlier, to set up the tent. I was very grateful the trees reduced the wind velocity, and the tent was up in no time with very little water reaching the interior.
Next we visited the Camp Store, which I’ve wanted to see for years. As many times as I’ve been to Two Medicine, I’ve never taken the time to go inside. And since this is the last remaining building of the chalet system in Two Medicine (the others were floated onto the lake and burned), I was very curious. It’s a nice little store, and I was happy to see a coffee stand in the back.
Since the pay phone was non-operational at the rangers’ station, we drove back to East Glacier where there is cell service at the Glacier Park Lodge. On the front porch they have large checker boards on a few of the tables, which is an inviting place to sit and play. We couldn’t resist.
On our way back to the campground we stopped at Running Eagle Falls during our drive back to the campground. What a neat place! It’s only .6 miles roundtrip on a wide, easy trail and there were plenty of flowers to gawk at along the way. The real feature is the dual waterfalls with the main one flowing out of the cave. This will undoubtedly be a “must-see” every time we visit Two Medicine.
Back at camp, dinner was hotdogs on the propane stove since it was still far too windy to start a fire (at least in my opinion, I tend to be a bit cautious about such matters). Sam worked on his Centennial Junior Ranger program activity book until it was time to go to the evening program at the amphitheater. Ranger Kelly Lynch did a fantastic job talking about grizzly bears and how to live with them. Afterwards she answered questions, and signed Sam’s Junior Ranger book telling him it was the first one she signed this year.
We both slept well despite the wind and rain, and woke early to meet a group for a bird walk led by Ranger Lynch. Although we didn’t feel like eating breakfast quite so early, I made homemade hot cocoa, which hit the spot on a chilly morning. The bird walk was enlightening. Lynch identified most of the birds through their vocalizations, a talent I’ve admired in a few other people I know. This is something we’re definitely going to work on in our studies because it’s so much easier to hear the birds rather than spot them. We found 31 birds, and as we were tallying them in the parking lot, Sam pointed out a mature bald eagle soaring with Sinopah in the background. Let’s hear it for a memorable number 32!
In the afternoon we took the boat tour with the Glacier Park Boat Company across the lake and hiked to Twin Falls with the group. We swung into the falls on our return hike from Upper Two Medicine Lake last summer, but it was still a pleasant hike. And, of course, we had to go see Running Eagle Falls before we left since Sam likes the water flowing through the cave so much.
The only activity we weren’t able to do that we’d hoped is taking the kayaks out on the lake. It was far too windy to be safe, or fun. My hope is the next time we head that way I can figure out how to strap our own kayaks to the top of the car to at least paddle around Pray Lake, which is far shallower and usually calmer than the tumultuous main lake.
This initial adventure was a definite success. We did not want to pack up camp and leave, but it felt better knowing that we will make this an annual tradition. As a matter of fact, Sam and I are already looking at the map to decide where our next trip will be.
I’ve long loved the Sun Canyon area roughy an hour and a half southwest of us. Years ago we looked for grizzlies and mountain lions in this region while working on films for National Geographic, and it was always a pleasant change of scenery for me versus fighting crowds in Glacier or the Canadian parks. Even when I lived in Kalispell in post-filming days, I always wanted to find a way back. One year, friends and I hauled our horses over and stayed at Sun Canyon Lodge for a few days riding and enjoying the gentle breezes of the region. (Translation: gale force winds that literally took your breath away and made you hang onto your hat.) It’s a wild and fun place to be, and as part of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act passed at the end of 2014, it’s going to stay that way.
This year we’re focusing on spending more time in this area, particularly since Glacier is undoubtedly going to be loved to death this summer. Last season over 2.4 million visitors came to relish in its beauty, and while I can’t blame them one iota, it’s just too much at times. The Sun Canyon is the perfect place to go to hike without the crowds.
Since I’m still learning a lot of the trails in in the Sun Canyon area, I was delighted when the Montana Wilderness Association offered a kids’ hike to the area this spring led by Len and Deva. We’d already visited the impressive pictograph wall, but I had never hiked the easy, but beautiful, Wagner Basin. It was one of those situations where I knew were Wagner Basin was, but I wasn’t sure how to get over to it. Without question, I was very grateful to be able to follow experienced folks to lead the way.
Shortly into the hike, Len pointed out a few pictographs along the cliffs. You wouldn’t know they were there unless someone told you, or you simply were keen enough to specifically look for them. From there we hiked to the renowned skull tree, which is a short 1/2 mile from the trailhead, where local artists paint natural history scenes on animal skulls and leave them on the tree. The talent represented in this simple art exhibit is magnificent. Since I completely lack these skills it never ceases to amaze me when an artist can bring out the details of feathers or fur, or the gleam in the eye, of our native wildlife. Beyond the skull tree, we took a look at the old beaver dams and discussed their impact on the ecosystem, then traversed up the hill. This is when it really got fun.
We didn’t go as high as we could, by any means, but it was enough of a climb to gain a terrific perspective on the area. The arrowleaf balsamroot was starting to bloom, and I suspect in another week the area will be absolutely bathed in happy yellow flowers. From there we decided to bushwhack over to the opposite slope for a different route. Tromping through the thick aspens and trying to find a game trail to follow was a blast for the kids. They were in their glory. The proverbial cherry on top was when our youngest, John, found a dandy deer antler. He was ahead of me winding our way through the small trees and shrubs, when he spotted it sticking up out of the mud. Oh man, was he excited! That totally made his day.
Besides the gorgeous scenery, what was so neat about this region is what the kids found. They picked up snail shells (big ones!), bones from animals lost this year or in previous ones, ants trapped in sap, flowers, rocks, and caterpillars. Whether you looked up or down you were going to see something interesting. The hike back to the rigs through the open slope dotted with flowers was simply spectacular, and it was pleasant to be able to chat with fellow hikers on the way down while the kids bounded along yelling out new finds.
The second leg of our adventure started at the big pictograph display, and traveled along the river to the bridge we crossed to go to Wagner Basin. It’s beyond beautiful at this time of the year with the bright green leaves and high, running water. Everybody, including the boys, talked as we walked along this easy trail remembering the day’s finds, as well as reminiscing on past experiences. The bonus find of the day was the small garter snake in the middle of the trail. And while the boys wanted to take him home, we made sure he made it safely back to the rocks.
Once we arrived at the bridge, the kids and I waited as the drivers took Len’s vehicle to shuttle back to the other cars at the parking area near the pictographs. In the meantime, we walked over to a group of aspens that Len pointed out to find the bear claw marks on one of the trees, and I did my best to keep the younger kids (including ours) away from the river for fear that my friend Julie would never speak to me again if she returned to find wet children!
Overall, it was a phenomenal day. The kids were happy and this will undoubtedly be the topic of many conversations in the future. They loved the adventure of bushwhacking through the aspens, and relished in all of the interesting plants and animals (even if it was just parts) they found.
On the way home, we spotted a fox den along Rt. 21. Sam spotted one of them on our way to Augusta, then Grant saw two sitting outside the den. (Unfortunately, it appeared that their sibling was squished on the road.) We turned around to have a better look and was able to take a couple of photos. They are so unspeakably adorable. It was a nice way to wrap up the adventure.