Our last night in Glacier National Park: sitting by Saint Mary Lake, drinking wine, reminiscing about all our recent adventures and dreaming about more to come. All in all, it was a great trip – we packed in a lot of adventures during our three weeks away. In fact, except for the big driving days, we hiked every single day of the trip! Now we’re happy to be back home in the San Juans where thankfully it’s been raining nearly every day while we were gone, ending the drought that spurred us north to Montana three weeks ago.
For our last hike during our stay in Glacier National Park, we went up to Piegan Pass – a nice day hike from the Going to the Sun Road.
Once at the pass, we were greeted with an awesome view of the sheer walls of Mt. Gould.
After lounging around on the pass for a while, we decided to hike up to another pass that’s about 1,000 feet higher.
After extensive puzzle solving and backup planning, we finally scored backpacking permits for a 5-day trek in Glacier NP! As I mentioned before, it’s not easy getting these permits since half of the campsites are already reserved and the others fill up quickly each day. And of course, as with most national parks you have to camp in the designated campsites when backpacking. So after repeatedly getting denied, I was stoked when I showed up at the ranger station promptly at 7:00am and the ranger said that we got our desired itinerary!
Glacier had an above-average winter snowpack this year, so unfortunately most of the high treks we wanted to do were still closed – but we managed to figure out a nice route for our trek anyways. We started from the Chief Mountain TH, just yards from the Canadian border, and hiked up the Belly River valley. We spent the first night at Elizabeth Lake, in the valley to the left of the mountain in the photo above. We then backtracked and hiked up the Mokowanis River valley – the valley to the right side.
After a hike of about 10 miles, we arrived at Elizabeth Lake and enjoyed a nice afternoon and sunset. One unique characteristic about these mountains is their nearly flat valleys. The broad valleys are so flat that after our 10 mile hike into the mountains, we had only gained about 200 vertical feet!
I didn’t expect much of Elizabeth Lake, looking at the map. But I was surprised with the sheer size of the lake and the calm grandeur of the valley.
In the morning the weather was looking stormy and I took this long exposure to capture the mood. We hiked another 6 or 8 miles that day, mostly in the rain!
This is the typical hiking along the Belly and Mokowanis Rivers – the bushes are so thick and massive that much of the time you can’t even seen your feet on the trail. The hiking is also more tiring than usual because you have to always keep alert for grizzly bears ahead, and constantly shout and yell to give them warning (bear bells are not nearly loud enough to give a bear a good warning). In fact, one day Claudia was hiking in front and a bear was walking up the hill right near the trail! She had her bear spray out and ready to go before I even realized what was going on! Not sure if it was a grizzly or not… she just saw its rear end as it moved away.
We camped at upper Glenns Lake campsite for two nights. It would be an incredibly spectacular camping spot with the symmetrical Pyramid Peak towering overhead – except that the lakeshore is choked with willows which totally block any kind of lake side view. A day’s work with a hacksaw could turn this spot into one of the premier campsites in the park! Oh well.
While I normally despise the concept of mandatory designated campsites in the national parks, here in Glacier it makes a lot of sense, given the grizzly bear dangers. Each campsite has a designated cooking area and food-hanging spot – both of which are located away from the tent spots. This ensures that there’s no food residue and odors near the tents to possibly attract bears, and knowing that allows you to sleep a bit better!
Despite the willow-choked lakeshore, I was determined to get a nice shot of Pyramid Peak from the Glenns Lake campsite, which – if it weren’t for those damn willows – has a perfect vantage point of the mountain. This photo opportunity was the main reason I wanted to camp there for two nights, and in fact my main photographic goal of the 5-day trek! So, for two mornings in a row, I waded out barefoot into the water and waiting there with numb feet trying to keep still so as not to disturb the reflection. The first morning was a bust with clear skies and boring light, but on the second morning my dreams came true with a spectacular sunrise and a still lake reflection! This was the photo that made not only this trek but the entire trip up to Glacier worthwhile for me and my camera!
After our two nights at Glenns Lake, including a day hike up to the stunning Mokowanis Lake, we backtracked to Cosley Lake for our last night. Aside from various wildlife sightings, including the aforementioned bear encounter, a moose, a deer, and a black bear across the lake, our last day was uneventful and relaxing. With clear skies and windy weather on the last morning, we even finally got to sleep in before our long hike out!
Though this ended up being a wonderful trek, I hope to return to Glacier another summer to do some of the longer, higher treks. I’ll be sure to get my permit reservations well in advance next time!
Our next outing was a day hike to Iceberg Lake, one of the most popular hikes in Glacier NP. One nice benefit of the busy trail is not having to shout for bears so much!
Beargrass wildflowers are so cool. They look like fireworks, and I bet that if a patient photographer were to make a multi-day/week time-lapse video of the flowers, they probably would look just like fireworks shooting out of the earth and exploding in the sky!
The lake, true to its name, was still frozen over and unphotogenic, but I had a great time anyways shooting photos of those beargrass flowers.
Our first backpack trip in Glacier National Park was a one-nighter to Cracker Lake, in the Many Glacier area. This is easily one of the most spectacular mountain cirques I’ve ever had the pleasure of camping in, with a 3-4,000 foot sheer vertical wall encircling the milky turquoise glacial lake and green grass meadow slopes. And the mountains here have such an intriguing character, which their complex patterns in the eroded sedimentary rock.
What a killer camp spot!
There was a resident mountain goat at Cracker Lake. Oftentimes mountain goats are uninhibited to the point of annoyance, but this guy was really friendly and mellow. He’d stand on the rock and gaze out over the scene for long periods of time, seemingly just appreciating the landscape as much as us. He’d follow us around, and lay down near us. He even slept right next to our tent for most of the night, like a loyal guard dog. In the morning he followed me up to this overlook and posed for the photo.
I could have spend days here, but alas we had to leave after one night, for more adventures in these mountains!
After our time in Yellowstone, we powered up though Montana to Glacier National Park, which has been on my dream destination list for many years. This summer was a great time for us to choose this destination, since northern Montana (along with Washington) was one of the few areas is the lower 48 states not experiencing drought conditions and associated fires and smoke.
We arrived in the evening and found a nice place to camp in the truck, on a dirt road in a burned forest area with a great view of the mountains. The first things to greet us in Montana were the mosquitos, which we would become well acquainted with over the next few weeks! In the morning I hopped out of the truck to snap the sunrise shot above.
On our first day there we did a little day hike up Swiftcurrent Creek to Bullhead Lake. I could tell right away that this would be an awesome trip!
These ground squirrels are all over these mountains, always looking for a handout or spilled food.
We soon realized that it would take some serious strategy to spend our time in Glacier National Park. For one thing, we’d be camping at the campgrounds most of the time, and since they are all first-come-first-serve, this means that any night spent in a campground would require an arrival at about 10am – after the previous campers started leaving, but before the campgrounds filled up completely. Secondly, and most importantly, backpacking permits are also hard to come by, with half of the designated campsites already taken by reservations, and the remaining half available on a first-come-first-serve basis for the following day. So, this meant repeated 7am visits to the ranger station, lots of planning and backup plans, and good old fashioned luck-of-the-draw. Fortunately after much frustration we did manage to get some nice backpacking trips lined up – more on that later!