Voyage to Glacier National Park – Camping Via Plane
The trip to Montana’s Glacier National Park had been in our plans for a few years. A friend recommended the park at least 3 years ago, but somehow life kept getting in the way, as all excuses go. Eventually we ran out of excuses, and 2017 was the year to make this trip happen.
We decided to camp at the park to keep cost low. There weren’t too many campsites within GNP that were available for online reservations, and those sites were filled within days of coming online 6 months before actual camp day. The remaining campsites were on a first come first serve basis. Since we were not willing to risk not having a site, we settled on a site at Hungry Horse reservoir, about an hour drive to the West Glacier entrance of GNP. A little far.
This was also the first time we had to travel by air with camping gear. To avoid hefty baggage fees, we flew Southwest Airline for their free checked bags. The only downside was the closest town SWA flew to was Spokane, a solid 5-hour drive to the GNP area. Undeterred, we soldiered on with our plans. This trip was to happen regardless of what it took!
We wrangled 2 full size suitcases, 1 cooler, 1 duffel bag, 2 backpacks and 2 carry ons into our car, then onto the plane, and then into the rental car. With that, we started our journey from Spokane to Montana.
We drove through Spokane and out of it, heading towards Idaho. Cutting through the panhandle of Idaho, we passed huge swaths of national forest, before crossing into Montana and driving through more national forest. It was a bucolic drive of rolling hills lush with evergreens and shimmering rivers encircling the hills like moats. The rural-ness imparted a peaceful yet surreal atmosphere.
Campground: Hungry Horse Reservoir
Hungry Horse Reservoir deserves a write up of its own. We joked that if just the reservoir and mountains immediately surrounding the water was somehow transplanted to the Midwest, this area would immediately be hailed as an absolute gem in the national park starved Midwest. Instead, Hungry Horse Reservoir was severely eclipsed by the beautiful GNP, testament to the quality of Montana’s landscapes.
The dam itself was huge and worth visiting, and the reservoir was the classic Montana lake – clear and glistening with little islands of closely grown evergreens seemingly suspended in the water. Round hills surrounded the reservoir, while taller sharper mountains framed the horizon.
The road from the dam to Lid Creek campground was winding and narrow. It was a good half hour drive from the main road before we finally found our campground tucked away in the forest, at the edge of the reservoir. The campground was small and rustic. There was a camp host and a little board with instructions to pay and some notes on bear safety, but no electric, showers or flushing toilets. A mule deer wandered into our campsite to say hi, did a quick check of our camping gear, and wandered back into the bushes to continue foraging. Right across the reservoir from our campsite was the Great Bear Wilderness, part of a large swath of untamed landscape for the adventurous.
It was 930pm when we first arrived to our site, but with daylight being extra long in this far north place, we were able to pitch our tents and make food in the twilight. As we went to bed at 11pm, a low glow was still coming through our tent.
Amazing Auto Tour Glacier NPS – Going to the Sun Road
Going to the Sun road is easily the most scenic drive in the country. Starting from the West Glacier entrance, the road follows Lake McDonald’s length, affording views of the biggest lake in GNP and the mountains surrounding it. After Lake McDonald, the road follows a river upstream, where the water is so clean and pure that it sparkles a cool turquoise hue. Trees and mountains surround us on both sides, while far ahead snow capped mountains peek out from between and above the trees.
Soon, the road leaves the river behind and climbs steeply uphill. The views open up to the deep forested valley below with snowy or bare gray mountains surrounding us. The winding river we left behind is now a thin shiny necklace through the valley. A few more twists and turns, and an especially tight hairpin turn, and the views get more magnificent as our little car chugs along.
In July, the stockpile of snow melting in the heat feeds the majestic waterfalls all across the mountains. Our favorite waterfall is the Weeping Wall, so named for a curtain of water that covers a cliff front. The waterfall comes right down onto the road, splashing cold alpine water into cars if windows are down. If Weeping Wall does not impress you, no problem, there are still plenty of other waterfalls. All around the mountains, tall waterfalls can be seen from afar, tumbling into the valley below.
As we continue driving upwards, we arrive at Logan Pass, the highest point of the road, which sits right along the continental divide. Around Logan Pass, many tourists are milling around taking photos, line of cars are growing due to limited parking space at the visitor center, while mountain goats and big horn rams are idling around oblivious to all the human activity.
Leaving behind the hustle and bustle of Logan Pass, the road starts descending, but the views are no less impressive. The mountains transition from snowy, to bare rocks, to thick evergreen forest and some charred forest, before climaxing at Saint Mary Lake at the end. The lake is peaceful and beautifully surrounded by picturesque mountains and deep blue skies. If you visit the lake early in the day before the wind barrels through the valley, the lake is mirror smooth, reflecting the mountains in the water. We find ourselves coming back to this lake often, sitting on the cliff at Sun Point, silently basking in the sunlight, taking in the mountains, air, lake, sky and everything that makes this place magical.
Hidden Lake Trail – Glacier National Park Hike #1 – Tom and Priscilla
Our first hike at GNP started at Logan Pass. We snagged the last parking spot and headed straight to the visitor center to check trail conditions. It appeared that snow still covered the mountains at Logan Pass in July, despite the scorching sun. Priscilla wanted to go on the highline trail, and was sorely disappointed to learn that the trail was closed due to snow danger. Unfortunately, we visited 2 weeks too early. Feeling dejected, we went on the Hidden Lake trail instead, which was rated easy. We truly thought we were deprived of an adventure.
We soon learned there was never a boring trail in GNP. If the snow was completely melted and the boardwalk was accessible, then yes, it probably was an easy and relaxing walk. In early July however, the boardwalk was covered in deep snow. It was a make-your-own-trail type of hike, whichever path through the snowy mountain you could get a grip on. Trekking through snow was tough, and parts of the hike seemed to be on a 45-degree angle off the mountain side, where we were doing all we could to not slip and tumble into the valley below. Along the way, mountain goats came by to flaunt their mountain climbing skills, nimbly hopping and trotting on even steeper surfaces. At the end of the boardwalk section, there was a lookout to view the Hidden Lake – a beautiful, still, blue gem with parts of it frozen solid and covered in snow.
This trail actually had a surprise. Where the boardwalk ended was where the easy rating ended. After the boardwalk, there was an option to hike right up to the Hidden Lake. We continued on bravely, hiking steeply downhill, until we got to the final leg on the hill. There were no clear paths to descend this final steep and snow covered section. We watched as a few people stumbled and rolled downhill (they survived, albeit shaken). A fellow hiker described this best, “choose your own adventure.” Choose we did. Our adventure was sitting on our behinds and sliding down the hill. That turned out to be a surprisingly efficient and fun way to get to the bottom. Thank goodness for quick drying hiking pants!
And then, we arrived at Hidden Lake. We dipped our toes in the freezing water, and sat on the edge enjoying the magnificent view.
This was also a great spot for lunch and rest before mustering up enough energy to tackle the return journey. The steep descent was now a painful leg and lung busting upward climb, before finally stumbling back to the start, sunburned and worn out. This “easy” hike turned out to be anything but easy or boring. It was rather physically challenging, and views were phenomenal. We highly recommend this trail to anyone who plans to visit!
Hike #2: Siyeh Pass Trail Glacier National Park Montana
Siyeh Pass trail is a stretch goal for us. This could be a one way trail, starting at Siyeh Bend and ending at Sunrift Gorge, but we made it a round trip hike, turning back somewhere near the highest point. Trail started off easily enough with a gentle hike through the evergreen forest. It was a little unnerving to hike where grizzlies roamed, so we tried to make as much noise as we could. This trail also appeared to attract a more professional crowd, with people who looked fit and hiked at a rapid clip, in contrast to us who were breathing hard even at a lesser elevation gain. Overall this trail had a 2000ft elevation gain.
We started out hiking by a river, took a sharp right away from the river, and plunged deep into the forest. The forest went on for a while, before opening up to a fork in the trail where the river met us again. Picking the trail that led to Siyeh Pass, we continued on, coming into an open meadow with little lakes and clusters of trees. The views in the meadows were stunning, mountains curving down on both sides and far into the distance. At one point, we could see Piegan Glacier, a white snow-looking solid mass sitting in a bowl shaped mountain. It was amazing to see a glacier without binoculars, and with glaciers disappearing at a rapid pace, who knows if it would still be there when we visit in the future.
As we continued through the meadow, hiking along the bottom of Mahtapi Peak, we met up with the river once again. This time, we would have to cross the river to continue. We stood perplexed, trying to figure out a way to cross without getting wet. Some people came along and simply jumped and hopped their way across rocks scattered in the river. Somehow we just could not see how it would work out. After much agonizing, we forged ahead, precariously balancing on rocks and made it dry to the other side. Phew!
With that, a different landscape began. The meadow was behind us, and the path ahead was dry, rocky and barren, with a few brave tiny flowers peeking out beneath rocks. The grueling part of the trail was upon us. This short section of slightly less than a mile had a 700ft climb, with countless switchbacks, heading up a lower section close to the Mahtapi Peak. The wind was howling and the air was frigid. It was as though we went from spring to winter. At some points, we were almost knocked off our feet and had to crouch. Despite the conditions, we did not forget to check the panoramic views as we gained elevation. Somewhere along the climb, we could see a turquoise lake hidden at the bottom of the mountain, fed by the melting snow. The lake looked like a 10 minute walk away, but distance judgments were extremely off kilter here. Mountains and lakes that appeared within arms length were actually hours or even days of hike away.
We climbed what we thought was a short hike to the top, but it actually took a lot longer for us to get there. With great relief, we finally came to the end of the trail, marked by a large snow field off the side of Siyeh Pass. We sat down next to the snow field to catch our breaths, the only spot that was surprisingly spared the whipping wind and ate our lunch. We watched as a couple squirrels chased each other and almost bumped into us, and enjoyed the view down into the valley where Boulder Creek ran.
Siyah Pass trail was a tough hike for us, where most of the challenge laid in the final section hiking up the switchbacks. The trail is a relatively short hike, but it is packed with amazing views of glaciers, mountains, rivers and meadows, and the rare treat of drastic landscape changes from a thick forest to meadow to bald windswept mountain. Hard to imagine a trail that boast giving hikers the experience of all 4 seasons in a few hours, but Siyeh Pass trail certainly proved such trails exist even for us amateur hikers!
Hike #3: Iceberg Lake Trail – Montana Hiking in Glacier National Park
Our last hike at Glacier National Park (GNP) was the Iceberg Lake trail, located in the Many Glacier area, separate from the main Going to the Sun road. Many Glacier road was off the little town of Babb, where a few homes were hiding, and the road was filled with massive potholes. This section of the GNP felt different from the popular section of the park with Logan Pass and Lake McDonald – it almost seemed much sunnier and brighter, even hotter, and the mountains perhaps loomed larger and more rugged.
The hike that we had planned to go on was the Ptarmigan Tunnel trail, but yet again, it was too early in the year and snow was in the way. Instead, we went on the Iceberg Lake Trail. It was July 4, and the trail was extremely busy. We started off behind the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, followed by a steep hike up a hill, and then began a slow ascent on a trail carved into the side of mountains through a valley of flowers. Much of the trail was in the meadows, completely exposed to the sun, which meant it was scorching and stiflingly hot, but we got a good view of the mountains, valley and meadow.
Finally, a forest of evergreen began, and Ptarmigan Falls soon appeared. Many hikers took a break at Ptarmigan Falls to get a quick bite or simply as a respite from the sun and hiking. From the falls, half the hikers turned back, but of course, we continued onwards. After a little bit of forest, we were back in the open sun again. The trail continued to tread on ledges, curving around the valley, where we could still see the Swiftcurrent Motor inn far, far below. At one point, there was a traffic pileup of hikers – a moose was spotted! The moose disappeared so fast up the mountains that we barely caught a glimpse of it.
As we continued on, the trail started heading straight towards a half bowl shaped mountain. A few streams and small lakes were on the path, and some pine trees peppered in between the meadow and snow. Soon enough, we got a peek of a turquoise blue lake, with dense looking ice and snow seemingly sliding down the mountain into the edge of the lake. Carefully picking our way on a path across newly sprouting grass and little flowers, we found a spot to rest away from the crowd. Somehow there was enough room at the edge of the lake for the crowd to disperse themselves, and everyone seemed to have found a moment of peace and quiet to enjoy the view. We sat on the rocky edge, watching pieces of ice floating in the lake, which probably inspired the name Iceberg Lake. At one point, one “iceberg” floated close enough to be picked up. The water was shockingly cold, icy and cut right to the bone. It was quite refreshing after a long and hot hike.
The Iceberg Lake trail might have been crowded on July 4th, but it was still an amazingly beautiful hike of meadows and a scenic lake tucked into the mountains. And you could still find some solitude resting at the lake.
Babb, Montana – A Motel, Diner and a General Store
We spent most of our time inside Glacier National Park (GNP), and barely explored anywhere outside the park. Indeed, it was with regret that we ran out of time to visit the town of Whitefish. No doubt, Whitefish was the place to get souvenirs and a nice meal at the very least. With some time to spare before we had to leave, we decided we needed a diner experience. We found ourselves in Babb, right outside Many Glacier, a tiny town with barely a handful of stores. We picked out Glacier’s Edge Café, a basic diner serving pretty delicious food. We just had to try the Huck pies, as those huckleberry pies were affectionately called around here. Huck was good, and pretty similar to rhubarb, at least in the dessert form. It was the first time since coming to GNP that we felt we had a chance to observe the people who lived here, not just tourists and hikers from out of town visiting GNP.