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.