An August 2006 trip
to Glacier National Park by creekland
Quote: Montana - aka Big Sky Country - and WOW, is it ever! High, sharp-peaked mountains, flat valleys, uncrowded roads, and in the northwest, a National Park. Is it worth the long trip to see it? In a word, YES (if you're at all inspired by nature that is).
Our highlights? Hidden Lake Trail has vaulted to at or near the top in our mental list of favorite hikes found anywhere in a National Park. Here one can see mountain goats, bighorn sheep, various small "critters" and incredible alpine beauty of wildflowers, small waterfalls, mountaintops, and yes, a hidden lake. Just go early, or you'll also be inundated with crowds!
The "Going to the Sun" road has to be one of the prettiest drives found anywhere. You truly do start at the bottom, and head up to the sun - twisting and turning your way through beautiful mountain passes to do it. The road is narrow and the drop offs both steep and spectacular. If you're not up to driving it, it's worth it to go on a tour.
Camping here was a treat - as close to nature as you can get, but if you're not a camping person, some of the lodges have scenery that's unequaled. The beauty of this park can be enjoyed by anyone from avid hikers to those that like to just sit by a window in the lodge - all you have to do is appreciate the beauty of nature.
Avalanche Creek is one of those "few amenity" campgrounds loved by those of us who prefer nature, but not for those that want showers and stores. The only thing you get here are flush toilets (plus drinking water, a fire circle, and picnic tables). NOTE: These bath houses are NOT lit. Flashlights - even for early evening - are mandatory. Having those flashlights as headlights (lights worn on your head) is extremely helpful.
Of course, the other amenity you get here is a beautiful mountain view, tall trees, nature sounds, and a central location from which to explore Glacier National Park. There's a popular hike right next to this campground, though we didn't get to hike it (sorry). (We didn't allow enough time to sufficiently see Glacier, so will need to return...)
We read that one needs to come early if one wishes to find a spot in Avalanche. It's first come, first served for all 87 sites. However, our visit was midweek in later August, so arriving in mid-afternoon worked OK. I don't believe it ever filled the nights we were there (2), but it wasn't empty either - probably 9/10ths full. I'd arrive much earlier if visiting in peak season.
Bears are a possibility here, so food must be stored inside your vehicle - no bear boxes. We assumed the bears here were car-friendly instead of the "eat in your car" variety found at other parks. We saw one bear in the park - along the road not too far from the campground, but never saw any in the campground itself. We did see deer walking around - and plenty of smaller critters. Signs warn to beware of mountain lions. We never saw any.
We were wondering if the temperature would be cold at night since we'd just left Yellowstone - farther SOUTH - with its frigid night temps. However, we were pleasantly surprised with the lows in the upper 40's to low 50's (15 - 20 degrees warmer than Yellowstone). Avalanche is at a lower elevation (about 3500' vs 7500'). I'd still be prepared for cold, you are in the far north. Snow is not unheard of in late August, but generally it's nice till mid Sept.
For its great location and peacefulness - as well as decent sites (privacy, etc.), Avalanche Creek comes highly recommended by us - if you're the type that doesn't need amenities. If you prefer those, look to St Marys or Rising Sun for your camping experience.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on October 21, 2006
Avalanche Creek Campground
Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park, Montana 59936
Attraction | "Hidden Lake Trail"
The trailhead for Hidden Lake Trail leaves from Logan Pass Visitor Center on the Going to the Sun Rd. You must get here early if you want to find a parking space easily and if you want to hike with a smaller crowd! Even in late summer, by 11am the hike was pretty much wall to wall people and drivers were circling for parking spaces... Fortunately we were heading down then, not up.
The visitor center opens at 9am, but you can start hiking earlier. The trailhead is marked (1.5 miles one way for the overlook and 3.0 miles to the lake itself - same trail). It's practically all paved or boardwalked to the overlook - but with about 500' rise in elevation in the form of steps. My mom made it - just take your time and enjoy the view on the way up.
At the start and around the Visitor's Center you'll see an abundance of ground squirrels and chipmunks (chipmunks have stripes on their faces). Look closely and you might even spy a weasel. He was far more reclusive, but in the early morning with few visitors, we saw him. Along the trail look for marmots, ptarmigans, picas - and keep your eyes open - the Bighorn Sheep blend in well. Early is better for seeing them - they were gone on our way down.
Mountains peaks are visible everywhere, and in the valleys, literally all around us, were wildflowers in bloom using almost every color in Crayola's box. There's even a picturesque alpine waterfall to add more ambiance.
The mountain goats like the top. They can be spotted anywhere in the valleys or even standing on the glacier up on your right (as you head up). Near and slightly past the overlook they are generally very close to the trail. In the morning they were more active and eating. By the time we headed down (11am "ish") they were settling in for napping.
This whole hike was one huge buffet for the eyes - such pretty colors - such impressive animals - and yes, there's even a gorgeous lake. It's a great way to see nature. The only "bad" thing is the crowds - and unruly kids/uncaring parents that sometimes come with them - not to mention the young "20-something" who started an attempt to carve his initials into a rock - my Mom stopped him (yes, there are idiots of all ages out there - sigh). If you come early, you avoid those - making this nigh onto as perfect a trail as one can get for its alpine wonders.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on October 23, 2006
Trailhead at Logan's Pass Ranger Station
Glacier National Park, Montana 59936
Attraction | "A Visit to the Many Glacier Area"
We went to Many Glacier on recommendation of a fellow teacher who had been there. In his opinion, it's the prettiest area of the park. Unfortunately, our visit was marred by the smoky haze of the current wildfire, but we could still see - and imagine - just how beautiful the area could be on a clear day - and he could very well be correct...
To get to Many Glacier you have to exit the west side of the park, head north, then turn east at Babb. Twelve miles (from Babb) later, boom, you're smack dab in the middle of many mountains - and 6 glaciers (after which it's named). Comparatively few people make the effort to go so far off the main road, so, while this area is not empty, it is far less crowded.
Many people looking for an escape opt to just come and stay here. There is one of the main, old lodges built by the railroad company, a smaller motel, and a campground (which was totally full when we were there). There's also plenty to do - in a nature sort of way. There are canoes and kayaks that can be rented on the lake. There are miles of hiking trails (some closed due to bear activity when we were there). There are guided boat tours. There are picnic tables outside - we even saw one businessman and his laptop - on a picnic table with a great lakeside atmosphere. I'm not sure I'd want to do "business" there, but if something HAD to be done, it's hard to find a better setting.
For us... it was a quick visit to see the area since we only had a day to see this park. We did find a "cheap eat." At the bottom of the Many Glacier Lodge is Heidi's Snack Shop - there you can get a sausage (many flavors - great taste), chips (of your choice), and drink for $5. Then take it and eat it in the next room with a view of the lake and kayakers... for me, while wishing we could come back the next day to do the boat/hike to Grinnell Glacier. If you wanted different eats, there's a fancier restaurant upstairs as well as another in the "village" area of Many Glacier. We preferred inexpensive with a priceless view topped with Huckleberry Ice Cream before we figured it was time to head back to our campsite.
This is a place we'll come back to on our next visit - there's plenty of hiking miles I want to explore.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on October 26, 2006
Glacier National Park, Montana
Attraction | "Driving the Going to the Sun Road"
Built back in 1932, the Going to the Sun Road is a 52 mile visual gem you won't soon forget. You start down "low" on either end traveling past gorgeous lakes and forest (on the western side you get to meander through the 2006 wildfire area - still burning in places while we were there). It isn't long before you start climbing (3000') - and realize how the road got its name. The road gets narrow - the scenery gets spectacular - the sun gets closer. There are several pull outs you should use for photo ops. These often have signs explaining what you are seeing from a geology perspective.
At the top you reach Logan Pass - and the Continental Divide. Take advantage of the visitor center here (great view, nice displays, a small store, and the all important restrooms - no food) - as well as one of our top 10 hikes - Hidden Lake Trail (see journal entry). Reach this spot early as the parking lot fills quickly and the visitor center isn't open late.
There are a couple of "notes" with this road. First, you can't take anything larger than 21' long and 8' wide on it... Once you've been over it you'll completely understand why... and marvel that it truly is built for two car widths as your eyes will tell you, "no way" in spots! Second, some folks aren't comfortable driving it... If you fall into either of those categories, by all means, check into car rentals or the red bus tours and let them do the driving for you (narrated tour). This road is too beautiful to skip.
There sometimes are areas they need to fix... we had to stop for a couple that were being repaired from a winter avalanche... so don't be in a hurry. Relax and enjoy the view. We spent our time wondering about the frequency of rock falls, avalanches, etc., while we waited, but that's us and our sense of humor. Don't do that if it would scare you (or your kids)!
For weather reasons, this road is only open mid-June to mid-Oct. I'm told if you come in June you'll still see snow in places. Come in August (as we did) and the wildflowers are incredible. Wildlife can be seen at any time. We saw bighorn sheep, mountain goats, deer, and a black bear all from the road - not to mention the countless little critters scurrying across in places. Enjoy!
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on October 26, 2006
Glacier National Park, Montana 59936
We underestimated Glacier and only planned on spending two nights there on our whirlwind trip to the Pacific before my nephew had to return home (see 2006 Trip Part 1, the beginning, for more of an explanation). We almost skipped it entirely due to reports of the 2006 fire and wondering how that would affect the view. Am I ever glad we didn't though the view was affected by smoke. One can envision on clear days, the view has to be "other worldly." The smokey view was a disappointment, but it was interesting to see the park actively on fire - and see the devastation where the fire had been. Along the road you can also see nature's regrowth in areas that had fires previous years. Nature is resilient - what is taken away by her will soon return.
Now, we consider our trip to have been like a "movie trailer" - a small glimpse into what's there - leaving us the desire to go back and see it all - or at least - more of it.
That said, you CAN see Glacier in 2 days - as long as you don't want to hike (much). We did the fantastic Hidden Lake Overlook hike (see journal), we drove up to Many Glacier (see journal), and we drove the length of the Going to the Sun Road (the most scenic parts, three times as we went to/from areas we visited). So we saw the spectacular mountains, lakes, wildflowers, animals, fire/regrowth areas, and yes, the receding, but still there, glaciers.
What we missed (and needed more time for) were hikes... There are countless miles of hikes in Glacier (well, I'm sure someone HAS counted the miles if you check on the Park Service site, but...). If we had been able to stay, our next few days would have been spent in our hiking boots - crossing lakes (by tour boat) and hiking to glaciers, waterfalls, and in general, seeing more of the awe-inspiring views that are ever present - and ever changing (due to the light, etc). It seems around every corner there's more to be seen. No one peak is just like the others, esp up close, and, of course, the critter watching alone can provide wonderful entertainment - hours for us - esp with the closeness and variety of critters. If one is interested, there are also lodges that can be explored - and history tours. St Mary's Visitor's Center has a movie of the park that we unfortunately missed. We hadn't noticed that the Visitor Center hours were cut in the later season...
To be fair to us, on this trip my mom was with us so we knew our hiking needed to be carefully chosen... and my mom had been to this park before - and took some of the guided tours we'd like to go back and listen to... but nonetheless - we consider this park to be only "partially" done and definitely a spot we'll return to given the opportunity.
For a few tips... The east side outside of Glacier is quite undeveloped, so don't look for much in "extras" there. It is, however, a quick way to reach the park by car with little other traffic while keeping awesome views (we went that way from Yellowstone). The west side has more "outside the park" lodging and various entertainment options typical of a tourist area. Kalispell on the west side is a pretty big town having everything one could possibly need - BUT you'll also have almost an hour drive to get to the park.
If you can afford them, the lodges inside the park have gorgeous views and great locations. Make reservations early though. If you like camping, this is an IDEAL park to camp in - saves money and has great, natural ambiance. There are both reservation and first come, first served campgrounds. Bring in your own food. True grocery stores are far away and stores in the park only carry expensive basics. There are restaurants, but we didn't have time to stop at any of them.
As a last note, we don't recommend coming to this park with seeing glaciers in mind - those are better seen elsewhere in our opinion - but don't let THAT turn you off from this park! Warming (whether natural or man-made) is occurring and the glaciers are small. In many places they simply look like small snow packs by the end of summer. Perhaps closer to spring they look more impressive? You'd miss the wildflowers then though. On Hidden Lake Trail you can often see mountain goats ON one of the glaciers - that's neat to see - but otherwise, this park needs to be renamed. Those we overheard were rather disappointed as they were looking for GLACIERS (think of pictures of Rainier or Alaska). Many times I felt like telling them to open their eyes and see the OTHER beauty all around them. I do think they saw it - cameras were all about - and comments on mountain beauty - but if this park could be renamed "Alpine National Park" (or something like that) it would sure fit it better.
Young and old, we all loved Glacier and would gladly return. I think the only ones who would not would be those that simply aren't nature (or mountain) people to even a little extent.
East Berlin, Pennsylvania