A September 2006 trip
to Glacier National Park by btwood2
Quote: Vast and wild, Glacier’s rough beauty enthralled me and has me hankering to return.
Highlights were a conglomeration of the expected and the surprising. Flashback to the ‘60’s: Polebridge was completely unexpected. Melanie of Sundance Campground told us that though a bit off-the-beaten-path, the bakery goods at the Merc are to die for. She was right. There’s much more to Polebridge than its out-of-this-world baked breads and cookies, though. It’s like a time-warp back to 1969. Slower-paced, very casual, and quirky.
Driving Going-to-the-Sun Road is on most visitors’ must-do list. Its 52 miles takes you alongside big glaciated lakes on both west and east sides, up and down through distinct life-zones, past geological wonders born of glacial origins, over engineering wonders born of man’s determination and ingenuity, through burnt and regenerating forests, and you will undoubtedly see wildlife, often from afar, but sometimes up-close. The western portion of the drive is covered in this journal.
Slot canyons are more often associated with the Southwest, but we visited a particularly lovely one sculpted by Avalanche Creek an easy walk through an enchanting old-growth cedar forest.
West Glacier region’s fascinating human history begins at least 10,000 years ago with the ancestors of the Kootenai (Ktunaxa) Indians, whose traditional lands encompassed vast areas of the Northwest and into Canada. The Blackfeet, their traditional enemies, drove them off the plains and into the mountains, where they became very adept at hunting mountain sheep.
The 1800s brought mountain men, missionaries, explorers, and settlers. The Great Northern Railroad further opened up the area to outsiders in 1891. Writer, publicist and hunter George Bird Grinnell, enchanted by the rugged beauty of this high country, tirelessly advocated national park status for Glacier. In 1910, Glacier became the United States’ tenth national park.
Today, Glacier supports 70 species of mammals. Besides bears, wolves have made a comeback from near-extinction, and den and prowl throughout the park, albeit elusively.
Where are the glaciers?Manmade global warming and natural climactic changes combine to shrink glaciers worldwide. The glaciers of Glacier National Park are no exception. Though there are still many glaciers here, they don’t exactly jump out at you and knock you over the head, like they do in Alaska. They are best accessed by hiking into the back country. I believe we may have glimpsed Lupfer Glacier from Highway 49, east of Two Medicine. Jackson Glacier is clearly visible, from afar, from the Jackson Glacier Overlook below Going-to-the-Sun Mountain on Going-to-the-Sun Road. Bring your binoculars!
Glacier National Park is actually part of a larger entity. Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, established in 1932. We didn’t cross the border to Waterton, much smaller than Glacier Park, but home to impressive lakes, mountains, peaks, and valleys of glacial origin. Regretfully, we also didn’t visit Many Glacier area, or Two Medicine, both on the eastern side. More reasons why we must return.
Don’t surprise bears. Grizzlies and black bears don’t like being surprised, so be loud and boisterous when you hike. (The gentle tinkling of bear-bells don’t do the trick.) With Glacier’s healthy population of both grizzlies and black bears, I didn’t want to be surprised by one of them either. So I only took one hike "alone", only after seeing that the trail was well-peopled. Our one bear sighting was of a mama black bear and her two cubs, waaaaaay up on a hillside feasting on berries.
Glacier’s high elevations, unpredictable weather, and open country above treeline require protection from sun, wind, and other rough weather, if you’re going to be out in it. Wear hiking boots, sunglasses, sunscreen, water-repellent wind jacket, layers including fleece and/or wool.
From the Great Lake states or the Pacific Northwest, Amtrak’s Empire Builder stops daily at both West Glacier and East Glacier.
Greyhound bus stops at nearby Kalispell and Whitefish.
Getting around while there: Most people drive their own car or rent one. If you’re in an RV, it’s important to realize that Going-to-the-Sun Road is restricted to vehicles no longer than 21 feet, 10 feet high, and 8 feet wide. Rehabilitation of Going-to-the-Sun Road began in 2006 and will continue through 2007.
"Short traffic delays" are expected during peak summer months, with accelerated work (and longer delays or closures) during shoulder seasons. The alternative route from one side of the park to the other is much longer but also quite scenic Highway 2, skirting the southern boundaries between Glacier Park and Lewis and Clark National Forests.
A brand new transit center is planned to open in Apgar summer 2007. During summer, concessionaire Glacier Park Inc. runs the famous convertible red buses, as well as an extensive system of shuttles, for hikers, Expresses, and in the Two Medicine area.
Though this RV park/campground is mostly shaded by trees, there are several sites (spaces 10 and 21) open enough to receive rooftop satellite, and we had no trouble getting a signal in space 10. Our Verizon cell phones worked as well, 2 bars digital. We’d decided not to camp at Apgar Campground, even though that is in the park adjacent to Apgar Village, precisely because we’d been told satellites and phones don’t work there, due to copious tree-cover. And of course electricity at hookup parks like Sundance is a nice perk. Our nightly fee was $12 plus tax, using our AOR/ACN membership. Without membership discounts, the cost is $20 per night. Tent sites cost $15, and a cabin rents for $35.
Sundance is a friendly, quiet park, with mostly short-term and a few longer-term residents. Melanie and Bill have been making improvements ever since they bought the park several years ago. They are particularly proud of their new shower and laundry facility, consisting of two sparkling clean private bathrooms and a laundry room. We made use of the showers, and one was great, but the other one only ran lukewarm water, due to over-regulated temperature controls. Hey, lukewarm is better than cold, but if you could have hot, well…? By now, this may not even be an issue, because Bill was going to work on it.
Besides the campground, Melanie and Bill run a small camp supplies and arts/crafts and gifts store out of the office. Free wi-fi is also available. Sundance is on the left, just before Great Bear Adventure if you’re coming from the west.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on January 28, 2007
Sundance RV Park and Campground
10545 US Highway 2 East
The mere presence of Northern Lights Saloon in Polebridge surprised us, as we’d only heard about the bakery. Rustic and low-key, there was a sign on the door indicating they’d open at 4pm. As we still wanted to go to Bowman Lake and had enough daylight left, we decided we’d grab an early dinner and then head out to the lake.
After wandering around Polebridge a while, as 4pm approached we returned to the rough-hewn log structure, decorated with era ‘30s-‘40s rusted metal Coca Cola and 7-Up signs, picnic tables in front, inviting as afternoon shadows began to lengthen. Several others, some visitors, some regulars, came to wait as well. I struck up a conversation with a construction worker from Chicago, who’d just arrived on the train last night and was staying at North Fork Hostel.
A little after 4pm the door to the saloon opened and we eagerly tromped inside, taking seats on barstools and around the tables. Equally rustic inside, the wooden walls are hung with photos and local art. The bartender/server was adding the final choices in white chalk on the antique wood-framed blackboard in the corner. Beer and wines were listed in a similar manner on the wall behind the bar. We began by ordering a pitcher of Kokanee Gold "glacier" beer, one of the two beers on tap. We’d enjoyed this popular brew last year in British Columbia. Tonight, it tasted perfect icy cold, sipped from mason jars.
Menu choices were tantalizing and consisted of two appetizers/lighter meals, six dinners, and portabella burgers. Bob selected the buffalo tri-tip with mushroom white wine cream sauce, and I chose grilled wild salmon. Dinners to be accompanied with a tossed green salad, roll, garlic mashed potatoes, and veggies. However, perhaps Northern Lights was out of potatoes that evening. More likely, the chef decided Bob’s bison would be better complemented with saucy chili beans (made of a delicious pinto-kidney blend, and my salmon came with rice pilaf instead. We weren’t complaining. The rolls were bakery-fresh, the salad topped with alfalfa sprouts, and the veggies consisted of buttery au-dente summer squashes, green beans, and mushrooms.
I could rhapsodize about our meals at Northern Lights endlessly. It was easily the best dinner of our entire summer. The friendly, natural atmosphere felt like home, everyone talking with each other. Although when the meals came, chatter abated as we lost ourselves in the incredible tastes and flavors of what was on our plates. Although portions were generous, it was simply impossible to stop eating until every delicious morsel had been consumed.
Open Memorial Day to Labor Day daily; off-season hours vary.
The famous Glacier Reds were part of a fleet of open-topped touring sedans introduced in the 1930s. The drivers were called "jammers", and the buses seated about 20 passengers. The canvas tops could be rolled back for stunning open-air views. Thirty-three remaining buses in Glacier were retired in 1999 due to old age. But partly because of public outcry and with the help of the National Park Foundation and Ford Motor Company, the red buses were restored! Now shiny-red with black highlights, much to everyone’s delight, the sleek classic buses began running again in 2002. They’re bi-fuel, running 93% cleaner than before, on propane or gasoline.
We next passed Jammer Joe’s Grill and Pizzeria (now you know what jammers are), but it was already closed for the season. Lake McDonald Lodge’s main building and cabins remain open through the end of September. Built in 1913 in the Swiss chalet style, it faces the lake, since guests always arrived by boat before the road was built.
It was first called Lewis Glacier Hotel, after owner John Lewis. Famous Western artist Charlie Russell used to hang out here and entertain the guests with his stories. The main restaurant is Russell’s Fireside Dining Room, in his honor. The Great Northern Railroad bought the hotel in 1930, and its name was changed to Lake McDonald Lodge.
Entering the lobby, many eyes are watching from the countless horned and antlered heads lining the walls at all levels. I’ve always thought hanging heads of game as trophies rather macabre, but one finds this in so many Western establishments it’s almost de rigueur. The lobby ceiling is open-beamed all the way to the top, and unusual painted hanging lanterns provide subdued light. The stairway steps are cut from logs, and there’s a big stone fireplace at the other end of the lobby.
Outside in back (which is really the front), steps lead down to Lake McDonald and the historic DeSmet. Built in 1930, the DeSmet has spent her entire life on Lake McDonald transporting visitors. In summer, there are five tours a day, lasting one hour. The 57-feet long wooden boat carries 80 passengers. A pretty white boat trimmed in turquoise, the DeSmet lies moored at the dock between tours, alongside smaller boats.
That evening we return to McDonald Lodge to enjoy bison burgers and beer at the Stockade Lounge. We’d considered eating in Russell’s Fireside Dining Room, but higher prices, longer waits, and the fact that the lake view from the lounge is every bit as good if not better, decides us in favor of the lounge.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on January 28, 2007
Lake McDonald Lodge
10 miles from West Entrance on Going-to-the Sun Rd
Glacier National Park, Montana
Attraction | "Trail of the Cedars and Avalanche Creek "
The cedar-hemlock ecosystem encountered on this trail is an unusual one for Glacier Park. Only along the McDonald drainage between 3,100-4,000 feet elevation is it moist enough for the profusion of ferns and lush plants that thrive on the forest floor, shaded by cottonwoods, cedars, hemlock, and birch. Again, knowledgeable Melanie of Sundance RV Park alerted us that Avalanche Creek Gorge was something special, even for Glacier. She called it a slot canyon, and it looked like one to us, though slot canyons are more often associated with the Southwest, not Northern Montana.
The definition of a slot canyon requires that it be cut into sedimentary rock by water, and that it be very narrow, much deeper than it is wide, with sculpted, convoluted canyon walls. Lower Avalanche Gorge is sculpted and narrow, the work of glacial meltwater, though maybe not quite large enough to qualify as a "canyon". This gorge, Avalanche Creek, and Avalanche Lake were so named by Lyman Sperry, an early visitor to Glacier, upon noting multiple avalanche tracks down the basin walls around the lake.
Trail of the Cedars and Avalanche Lake Trail are very popular, which can make finding a parking place at the trailhead next to Avalanche Campground challenging. Between July 1st and Labor Day, consider taking the hiker shuttle from West or East Glacier, making stops at lodges and visitor centers. Both westbound and eastbound shuttles stop 5 times a day at Avalanche.
Much of the Cedars trail is on boardwalk, pleasant, peaceful and subdued, in filtered shade. Keep your eyes open for wildlife. Squirrels, martens, deer and bears roam about the forest floor. In the treetops, you might spot a pileated woodpecker, or an owl. Our sitings were limited to squirrels, birds, and fellow humans.
Even if you don’t hike the additional 2 miles to Avalanche Lake, go a ways up the trail, which forks off the Cedars trail. You’ll be rewarded by more fine views and watery sounds of Avalanche Gorge and Creek.
For an e-hike that will give you even more of a feel of this moist, ferny and lovely place to want to go there next summer, click on Trail of the Cedars and Avalanche Lake eHike.
Trail of the Cedars
Glacier National Park, Montana
Attraction | "Apgar Village"
Landscape and geology: White puffy clouds reflected in the calm waters of this elongated glacial lake. A slight haze in the air blurred far mountain peaks and softened their jagged edges. What struck me when I was right at the water’s edge, was the lake’s clean, pebbled, and very colorful bottom. Good-sized pebbles, of bright blue-green, dark red, and rusty-orange, their colors intensified by the wetness. The green rocks are Appekuny mudstone, the red Grinnell mudstone (both also called argillite), the yellowish-orange Shepard limestone. The workings of glaciers have rounded, striated, and polished these rocks as they became entangled in the great rivers of ice. The lake is currently 10 miles long and 450 feet deep, fed by numerous mountain streams.
Early Apgar: I wandered along the lakeshore, but soon was forced back onto the road by private property. The Apgar family was one of the early homesteading families for whom the village was named. Dimon Apgar built the road from Belton (now West Glacier) to Apgar in 1895. Jesse Apgar became postmistress when the post office opened in 1913. Other families settled along the lakeshore. Their descendants still maintain cabins.
I soon found myself at Apgar Campground, and spoke with one of the camp hosts. He was worried about the predicted thunderstorms for later that day. A very dry summer followed by lightning can easily ignite the forest. He recalled frequent evacuations amidst thick smoke during the fire summer of 2003.
Apgar Schoolhouse was a classic one-room schoolhouse from 1915 to 1958. It now is chockfull of gifts and curios, in its reincarnation as Schoolhouse Gifts. A gleaming potbellied stove vintage 1898 stands proudly where the now departed schoolhouse stove stood, to warm children and teacher on cold north country days. Other overnight accommodations available in Apgar are the Village Inn Motel, and Apgar Village Lodge. The Village Inn is right on the lake, with the pebbly beach as its backyard.
Eddie’s Restaurant, Gift and Campstore surely seems to be the hub of this community. The Brewster family arrived in Apgar in 1910. Horace Brewster was newly established Glacier National Park’s first ranger. His son Eddie grew up in the park, and worked as a ranger and road builder before opening his shop along with his wife Dorothy in 1946. It started as a grocery store but expanded into restaurant and gift store, and remains family-owned today.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on January 29, 2007
Apgar Visitor Center
Glacier National Park, Montana
Save don't pave: I was to learn in Polebridge that most North Fork folks do not want the unpaved parts of their access road paved, and for good reasons. The North Fork Preservation Association (www.gravel.org) is a local activist group whose mission is to protect the natural resources that make the North Fork an unparalleled environment for wildlife and people. They believe full paving would hasten development, threaten wildlife and water quality, and encourage faster driving speeds.
Though it was our experience that some drivers in dusty trucks and 4-wheel-drive vehicles went rip-roaring down the road leaving us in their wake quickly rolling up our windows to avoid dust suffocation, others and timid tourists like us were taking it at a more sane speed, namely, snail’s pace. We accessed Outside North Fork Road from (paved) Camas Road inside Glacier Park. Both roads pass through large swatches of burned trees on either side of the Flathead.
Eventually we reach an open meadow scattered with a few cabins, most old, some falling apart. The Polebridge sign announces the general store, North Fork Hostel, Square Peg Ranch, cabins and camping. Slow Down people breathing is broad-tip felt penned on rough cracking boards nailed to a wooden pole on the side of the tree-lined washboardy gravel road.
Anticipation builds as we spy the large, red "Merc" building, localese for Polebridge Mercantile at the end of the road. Dogs, bicycles, and a car or two are parked in front of the old well preserved building. A somewhat tattered American flag is fluttering high on a thin pole to its right.
Polebridge is named for the bridge connecting this community to the Glacier Park side a bit further upriver. Bill Adair and his wife Jessie settled here in 1904. The unhewn log homestead cabin they built in 1912 now serves as Northern Lights Saloon and Café, open most evenings for dinner roughly at 4pm. They built the false-fronted Mercantile store in 1914, and it quickly became a social center and gathering place for other North Fork homesteading families. Though that population has dwindled, it’s still a social hub for the folks who make the North Fork their home, full-time or part-time.
Melanie (co-owner of Sundance RV Park) was right when she told us the baked creations at the Merc were to die for. Though I am blessed (or cursed) depending on point of view, with anosmia (no sense of smell), my husband Bob attests that the odors wafting around indoors were extremely hunger-inducing. Never mind smell, just looking at all the breads, buns, and trays of cookies was a visual delight.
A profusion of cinnamon buns and breakfast rolls, loaves laced with potato strings, onion, cheddar and parsley; guacamole-garlic-mozzarella bread, focaccia loaded with black olives, sundried tomatoes, mushrooms, cheddar, jack and Parmesan, plump cookies of all sorts, a couple of generous prepared sandwiches ready for a late lunch… Need I say more? Everything looked like it just had come out of the oven; in fact, the long-haired sandled guy working the Merc was taking trays out of the oven as we watched. It was only with tremendous will power that we had him put our sack of goodies under the counter for us to pick up later, after our meal at Northern Lights.
In the last 12 years since Dan and Deb Kaufman from Idaho took over the Merc, it’s become famous statewide and beyond for bakery goods. But you can find a little bit of everything on its shelves, from grocery items to clothing to fishing licenses and souvenirs. It’s even a post office. And it’s one of the few places in Polebridge with a phone.
Polebridge has such a ‘60’s feel it’s uncanny. The "back to the earth" part of the ‘60s. Though it’s not a commune and the growing season is way too short for serious vegetable gardening, a bowl of small local apples on a sunny windowside table at the Merc has an index card stuck in it that says, "Free apples eat me!" A cabin down the road is named "Sweet Loretta’s". More cabins around the Merc can be rented, and the North Fork Hostel attracts all sorts of people, many international, in search of solitude and backcountry adventures. No electric poles mar the landscape; Polebridge is not on the power grid. Propane and kerosene are used for light, woodburning stoves for heat.
North Fork Valley lies between the Whitefish Range in Flathead National Forest to the west, and the Livingston Range in Glacier Park to the east. Bowman Lake and Kintla Lake are two popular destinations for camping, non-motorized boating, and hiking, both day hikes and backcountry. Polebridge is only 22 miles from the Canadian border (customs closed for crossing). The Flathead is a Wild and Scenic River for 42 miles from the border, and offers great fishing. Wildlife including grizzlies and black bears roam and thrive in the North Fork area.
Separate entry under Dining for Northern Lights Saloon and Café.
For more info, call (406) 888-5105 (the Merc), which stays open all year.
The road that traverses the Crown of the Continent is officially designated as a National Historic Landmark, National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, and is registered as a National Historic Place. Since we were lucky to have a full week at Glacier Park, we drove portions of the road several times on the western segment, and once from east to the Loop.
When you turn off Highway 2 at West Glacier just before the railroad station, you will find yourself on a 2 mile stretch of road that passes through park headquarters and the west entrance. Some publications include it as part of Going-to-the-Sun Road. At the fork, Camas Road heads west to Apgar and North Fork country, and Going to the Sun Road veers right, soon hugging glacial Lake McDonald, Glacier’s biggest lake.
It’s impossible not to notice that the entire area across the lake, Howe Ridge, is covered with skeletal remains of trees. Tones of black and gray still predominate this re-birthing lodgepole-larch forest. The Roberts Fire, which devastated Howe Ridge, was one of many raging in and around Glacier Park in summer of 2003. Roberts Fire burned 52,700 acres both inside and outside the park, and did not stop smoldering until substantial winter rains.
Lake McDonald Lodge on the north end of the lake, is a destination resort with lots of activity around and inside it. It was built in Swiss-Chalet style, as were all the lodges and chalets in Glacier Park. In front of the lodge, (for it faces the lake), you can take a boat tour on the historic DeSmet, rent a smaller boat, take a Red Bus Tour, horseback ride, or hike from the lodge.
McDonald Creek and Falls may be viewed from a pullout and wooden decks a short drive up the road from the lodge, or from the trail off North McDonald Road, on the north side of the creek.
Trail of the Cedars takes you for a pleasant stroll, much of it boardwalked, in a small, moist ecosystem along the McDonald drainage up Avalanche Creek. Even if you don’t hike all the way to Avalanche Lake, just proceeding a short distance up the offshoot trail gives you misty views of sculpted Avalanche Gorge, a semi-slot canyon of the North.
The Sun Road continues to ascend alongside McDonald Creek and before you know it you’re climbing the Loop, the single switchback, and turning on your headlights in the West Side Tunnel. There’s a fair-sized pullout at the turn of the Loop. From here, you can again see evidence of another 2003 fire, the Trapper Fire. This high elevation fire almost made it across the Continental Divide before winter rains squelched its progress. Panoramic views from the Loop pullout include Heavens Peak and Mt. Oberlin.
Between the almost 180-degree Loop turn and Weeping Wall, we spot a ptarmigan nonchalantly walking alongside the road. Related to the grouse, these very adaptable birds camouflage themselves depending on the season. White in winter and brown and gray in summer, this one-pound puffy little bird simply fluffs up its feathers to stay warm, creating an air pocket around itself like a small down-jacket.
Weeping Wall isn’t weeping much this late in the season before rain or snow, but just beyond, Triple Arches is in plain view. These were built as an aesthetic alternative to unattractive retaining walls, thanks to the creativity of Williams and Douglas construction firm of Tacoma, Washington (1927).
On the last stretch before the summit, the the Garden Wall looms above the north side of the road. This massive arête, is a long narrow ridge that formed when glaciers ate away both sides of mountains between Lake McDonald Valley and Many Glacier Valley. The very popular alpine Highline Trail follows just under the crest of the Garden Wall west of the Continental Divide, 7.6 miles from Logan Pass to the backcountry Granite Park Chalet.
The summit at Logan Pass and eastern portion of Going to the Sun Road will be covered in the Glacier East journal. Click here for FAQ’s about Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Rodeo, New Mexico