September 4. We got an early start as we had to drop the dog at the kennel in Kalispell by 10:30am. The dog is a fine camper, and he has the back seat of the pickup to himself, both while driving and to sleep at night. However he cannot come hiking with us and has to stay in the kennel for a few days.
The day starts cool and soggy with patches of thick fog. We travel through (yet another) scenic Swan Valley with occasional road houses, cabins, and campgrounds. In better weather, we would see huge mountain ranges on either side of the road.
The kennel is quite satisfactory, country-style with extensive grassy grounds for the dogs to run around. From there we have to make a stop at the supermarket in Columbia Falls to resupply our fresh food. The market has very good prices and some very nice fruit from Washington state.
We finally arrive at the West Glacier entrance to Glacier National Park around noon. I got to show my senior card in lieu of the $25 entrance fee. It is a short drive to the park visitor center where I waited in line to consult with the ranger about our plans. She did recommend that we carry bear spray while hiking. This is a type of pepper spray which has proven to be the best defense against an aggressive grizzly bear. Most visitors never see a bear but it can happen, especially out on the trail. So we headed over to nearby Apgar Village where a concessionaire was renting canisters for $5 per day. (If you end up actually using the spray, then you’ve bought it – for $50+.)
From there we head east on Going to the Sun Road to find a spot at Avalanche Campground. This is fairly close to Logan Pass which is the trailhead for the Highline Trail, where we’ll start the hike on the following day. Avalanche is heavily wooded, soggy, and rather cold but campsites are plentiful so early in the day. We took a quick hike on the popular Edge of the Cedars trail and then tried out the park’s popular (and free) shuttle bus service, getting a ride over to Lake McDonald Lodge. The historic lodge and its setting are extremely photogenic, and the day is becoming sunny and mild.
We stopped for a beer and appetizer at the lively hotel bar. They offer a slate of local Montana brews and some other creative drinks. The bartender, a local from nearby Columbia Falls, is apparently going for an online college degree in “data mining” and wants to live in Boston (where I grew up). As a one-time IT professional, I pointed out that there are sinister, or less than ethical aspects to data mining. She quickly promises that she’ll only do good things with it. (Wait until she goes to work for some big corporation.)
Soon we walked out back to the boat dock on beautiful Lake McDonald. A ranger-guided tour boat is docking. Ranger Don, who is clearly in his mid-80s, soon emerges from the boat and is regaling us folks sitting along the shore with tall ranger tales, mostly (and facetiously?) about vicious attacking grizzly bears. I asked Don how long he’s been rangering, and he says 53 years. Any plans to retire? No! However he does spend his winters in Florence, Arizona (near Phoenix) which is not too shabby.
(My own personal – and unrealistic – grizzly nightmare is encountering a bear rearing on its hind legs – where it would be ten or more feet tall – forearms fully extended and roaring in anger. In reality, the bears can get up on two legs only momentarily, and they do it for the purpose of seeing what’s going on.)
From there, we return to the campground to get our packs ready for tomorrow. We haven’t gone overnight into the wilderness in years and are debating what to carry – how much water, clothes, etc. The chalet provides bedding and shelter, plus sells freeze-dried food which of course lightens our load. However it’s still a problem. Where once we thought nothing of carrying 50-pound packs, now we’re uncomfortable with half that amount. In the end we took less water (which was okay because they had plentiful water at the chalet) and too much clothes (I didn’t quite trust the forecast of warm, sunny weather with zero chance of rain).
Interestingly, most of the campers showed up at the campground very late in the day. They are largely courteous tent campers as there are few sites large enough to accommodate a RV. (A pickup truck with a cap – small shell – such as ours fits well in all campsites.) So the evening is pretty quiet even though the campground is full.
September 5. Our big day gets off to a pretty cold (36°F/2.22°C) start. Before getting going, we chatted with the campground host, an older woman who got into the volunteering business after her husband passed on. Her winter residence is in Florida, and she has been host at Avalanche for the past five seasons, staying all summer in a very small RV. Her hopes for the future are for a new volunteering assignment – nothing against the campground; just wants to do something different.
The drive up Going to the Sun Road to Logan Pass is one of the most scenic in America. The day’s very clear weather offered excellent views at the turnouts. At one stop, a classic Red Tour Bus had stopped for its tourists to enjoy the view. These buses have been plying the Going to the Sun Road for most of the park’s hundred years and are perhaps the most unique touring mode in all the national parks. The driver, a young, perky college girl (most of the summer help at parks are young, perky college kids) was dressed perfectly for the part: a brown, tweed vest, matching pants, tie, and classic Paddy (flat) cap. When asked, she proudly stated how much she loved her job (and who could disagree). Nearing Logan Pass, one could see hikers on the Highline Trail hundreds of feet above the road.
Logan Pass is without doubt the heart of Glacier National Park with its spectacular 360-degree snow-capped views, Alpine environment, and classic visitor center. The pass is typically open only about ten weeks a year due to huge snow packs. The weakness in the park’s shuttle bus system is apparent here: the small parking lot doesn’t come close to accommodating all the cars. It is something of a free-for-all as many cars are circling the lot waiting for a vehicle to pull out at the right moment. It takes us only about ten minutes to get a space but it is not a pleasant experience. Clearly, many overnight hikers leave their cars here (as we are doing) and greatly contribute to the mess. The NPS can probably greatly improve the situation by simply banning overnight parking. We could have easily left the vehicle where parking was more ample and taken the shuttle bus up.
The day is warming up (like up to 50ish°F/10°C), and the Logan Pass ranger assures us of good weather for the next couple days but we can’t quite bring ourselves to shed clothes from our packs and hike with too much weight. Oh, well.
This hike and our experience at Granite Park Chalet will be covered in detail in a separate article. And yes, it was one of our all-time great hikes. The Highline Trail may indeed be the most scenic trail in America.
September 6. We take plenty of time getting up and leaving Granite Park. Checkout time is 9am, and given what the one night cost, we’ll hang around as long as possible. Our improvised breakfast was quite a success though a bit salty (Hormel scrambled bacon and eggs, corn-beef hash from a pouch, potato pancakes made from instant potato flakes, instant coffee, and toast).
Soon we take our leave and head out on the Loop Trail. This trail is only 3.6 miles (5.8km) (compared to the Highline Trail’s 7.6 miles/12.3km) with a 2,300-foot (701m) drop in elevation. It reaches the Loop on Going to the Sun Road where it is one stop by shuttle bus back to Logan Pass.
At Logan Pass, we stop to enjoy the views, buy some souvenirs, and check the weather forecast. Snow and extremely cold weather (below 20°F/-6.7°C at night) are due in a couple of days so we basically have one more day to do something at the park.
Our plan for the rest of this day was to set up at the Rising Sun Campground, twelve miles (19km) east of Logan Pass. There is a service complex with a grocery store, showers, and restaurant. So we’ll shower up and recuperate here for the rest of the day. We got behind a ridiculously slow driver, and the twelve miles seemed like forever. We then super lucked out at the campground, getting the very last open site. Normally Rising Sun doesn’t fill up but it was an exceptionally warm Saturday, and campers were out in force.
The shower felt great, as did the two Montana beers we got at the grocery store. It was a given that we’d have dinner at the restaurant. Besides the stop at Tootsie’s for breakfast, we’d eaten mainly camp food on the trip – mostly canned and packaged stuff, though we managed a pretty steady supply of fresh fruit (healthy but not quite cutting it). Well, dinner at Rising Sun was indeed heavenly. Pretty amazing how great a hamburger, fries, and salad can make you feel.
The meal’s waitress was another college student. She aspires to be a writer so we had some things to talk about. I told her to be bold in her writing and if no one publishes her, she ought to create her own website and self-publish. Hey, it doesn’t pay much but at least people can see your work.