Alpine America: Glacier National Park

Alpine lakes, mountain switchbacks, beautiful hikes. Our family spent four days here just touching the surface of this beautiful place.

Alpine America: Glacier National Park

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by callen60 on February 18, 2006

Ever wanted to go to Switzerland? Vacation high in the mountains, hiking among glaciers, mountain goats, and pristine mountain lakes? Glacier National Park may be the best place in the U.S. for such an experience. Once a remote part of northwestern Montana, the tireless efforts of naturalist George Grinnell and booster and Great Northern Railway owner James Hall made it the nation's 8th national park in 1910.

But lest you think that commercial interests resulted in a mistake, this is absolutely beautiful country. Hill popularized the park (and his own railway and hotels) by encouraging Americans to see their own country first before the alps of Europe. That's pretty reasonable advice—this region did remind me a lot of the Swiss Alps, which I spent two summers in the shadows of years ago.

In fact, the alpine nature of this park makes it a little different experience than a lot of other national parks. Many of the park's major areas—Two Medicine, Many Glacier, St. Mary's—are reached by driving up the valleys against the flow of the beautiful mountain waters. At the end of the road, you park and explore. Be sure to get to these points, and not just the clusters of people at Lake McDonald and Going-to-the-Sun Road. My favorite is Two Medicine, which was nearly empty, and where we took a beautiful boat ride down the lake for a few pleasant hours of hiking.

Popular as it is, you can't skip Going-to-the-Sun Road. We started our crossing in early afternoon, in the plains by St. Mary's Lake. This 50-mile ribbon of two-lane asphalt takes you along beautiful lakes, and in between, climbs the mountains to cross the Divide at Logan Pass before descending to its western end at Apgar. This mountainside journey was nearly too much for a few of our crew, but I wouldn't trade it for the world. I first made this trip as a 11-year-old, and still remember it 30-plus years later. The wildflowers at Logan Pass, the view of spidery 500-foot Birdwoman Falls, the bighorn sheep grazing in the meadows, the mountain goats peering down on your from craggy bluffs (or, less inspiring, licking antifreeze off the parking lot) make this the central attraction of this big and otherwise largely remote park. Chances are, like us, you'll also find unmelted snowdrifts still around in July.${QuickSuggestions} If you're used to the park road/scenic turnout layout of Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Bryce and other places, you'll find Glacier is a little different. The best way to see things here is to drive to a spot, park your car, and spend the better part of a day exploring the area. That works nearly everywhere: Two Medicine, Apgar, Lake McDonald, even Polebridge. Going-to-the-Sun Road is the real exception: most people seem to cluster along this perilous ribbon of asphalt, or near the in-park hotels and visitor centers, so it proves amazingly easy to get big pieces of this big place to yourself.

There's some beautiful rivers, and some nice whitewater in this area. A number of outfitters will take you on a variety of trips down the Middle Fork of the Flathead River or others. They're not right in the park itself, but such trips are a great addition to any trip itinerary.

Consider heading up the western side of the park. There's fewer developed roads, and consequently a lot less people. We took off from Apgar for the Rocky Point hike to the shore of Lake McDonald (only two miles away), and kept going all the way to Polebridge. 30 miles from the Canadian border, this outpost is a lot of fun. There's a great bakery, friendly people (but not many of them), and more gorgeous mountain ranges and trails.

Lodging is limited here. The in-park hotels are popular and fill up fast. But even if you don't stay there, be sure to visit Many Glacier, Glacier Park Lodge, and Lake McDonald Lodge. Many Glacier is beautifully situated right on the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake, as is Lake McDonald at, of course, Lake McDonald. Glacier Park Hotel is the grandest of them all, located just outside the park's southeast corner (on the railroad line). They're all very different, but the architecture of all three continued the definition of how we built in the parks, and are worth seeing.
${BestWay} The Livingston and Lewis Ranges--and the Continental Divide--run right down the middle of Glacier, creating a huge ridge that essentially divides the park into two separate pieces. There's only two ways across from east to west. The southern route is on US 2 through East Glacier and along the park's boundary over Marias Pass (whose discovery in 1889 allowed the Great Northern to complete their railroad to Seattle) to West Glacier. The only other option is over the magnificent Going-to-the-Sun Road through the center of the park (whose construction in the 1930s made this an automobile tolerant, if not friendly, destination). The less time you spend east/west commuting, the better. Going-to-the-Sun Road is a journey and a destination, but not a highway. Take that route when you can enjoy it; or, just come back later. If you just have to switch sides, take US 2.

If driving mountain roads causes you (or someone in your car) high anxiety, this is a great place to turn the driving over to someone else and take a tour. On day one, we crossed the park from east to west on Going-to-the-Sun Road, fully intending to come back and spend more time driving. However, once proved to be more than enough for most of the family. So on day three, my youngest daughter and I took one of the classic Red Bus tours from Lake McDonald Lodge to Logan Pass and back. It was about $50 for the two of us, and gave both of us a chance to fully enjoy the trip without the distractions (or more accurately, concentrations) of driving.

East Glacier Motel & Cabins

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by callen60 on March 22, 2006

We hadn't planned to stay here, but as early evening approached and we looked ahead to Great Falls, the penultimate stop on our Teton-to-Glacier road trip, we thought we might as well use those twilight hours to travel and give ourselves another full day at Glacier.

East Glacier Motel had a room for us, so off we went. We pulled into town close to 10 pm, right near sunset. The whole setting of the town of East Glacier is a throwback to the 1940s, and this motel is no exception. A family-owned business, there's a small unit of six motel rooms, and 10 or so small, classic "motor lodge" cabins. Parking is on the slightly-graveled area under the trees. Our family of five had a two-bed unit with kitchenette. Even with the rollaway there was a nice amount of room. We didn't use the kitchenette at all, since we were only there for a brief overnight. It was a little intimidating to see a "don't drink this water" sign prominently displayed over the sink. Several units of bottled water were provided as a substitute.

The beds were only moderately comfortable, but I liked the feel of this place. We walked around East Glacier to stretch our legs after the long ride. It reminded me a lot of what it probably used to feel like all over the mountains—a little outpost of stores, restaurants, and lodging as the last transition into the wilderness. For $90 a night for our family of five, I thought that feeling was worth it. If you're looking for a no-frills, pleasant, and affordable place to stay, this is it.

You can visit their small, functional, and appropriately utilitarian website for a little more info.
East Glacier Motel & Cabins
1107 Highway 49
Glacier National Park, Montana
(406) 226-5593

MeadowLake Resort

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by callen60 on March 22, 2006

This trip was originally supposed to be to Europe. When we changed gears in April and headed to the west, the area around Glacier was the most difficult place to find a reservation. We located MeadowLake through a travel agent (thank you Valerie at Montana Travel!), after finding ALL of the rooms inside the park booked for our stay (which was, of course, only 2 months away).

MeadowLake is a golf resort on the outskirts of Columbia Falls, a small town on the west side of Glacier. It's about 20 minutes from West Glacier, and made a nice base for the the 3 nights we spent here.

The resort itself is full of condos, many of which (like our three-day home) overlook the golf course. It's a pretty high contrast with the backcountry of Glacier, but after 10 days, we found we were ready for a little comfort. The room was spectacular, and gave our family of five lots of space, ability to separate, and cook and grill as elaborately as we wanted, do laundry in the room, take whirlpools, and even watch TV. We came back from full days of hiking, rafting, etc. to cool down and enjoy the long, light evenings before heading out again the next day.

The rate was the highest we paid all trip, $207 a night even after a AAA discount, but it was the only thing we found at that late date, and may even have been worth it in the end. If you're a timeshare member, you might be able to trade for time here (it's an RCI Gold Crown Resort). I would highly recommend this place if you like staying in this style.

The restaurant here, the North Fork Grill, was good, too. We arrived late our first night, after staying in East Glacier, visiting Two Medicine Lake and Saint Mary in the morning, and coming over Going-to-the-Sun Road. We splurged a little for an unbudgeted evening of steaks and a bottle of red wine, and enjoyed it. After 10 days in Yellowstone, the Tetons, and Glacier, it felt a little funny to be hanging out in a place full of folks who'd just finished golfing—but we got over it.

Meadow Lake's website offers info and pictures of their accommodations, rates, and yes, timeshare opportunities.
Meadow Lake Golf and Ski Resort
100 Saint Andrews Drive
Columbia Falls, Montana, 59912
(406) 892-8700

Avalanche Lake

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by callen60 on March 22, 2006

We spent one night in Helena on the way north to Glacier, and the pleasant desk clerk/manager at the Wingate Inn was thrilled to hear we were headed there next. She'd grown up in Glacier, her Dad was the Superintendant for a while, and she said this hike was her favorite thing to do in the Park.

With that recommendation, we built it into our plans. It's a popular hike, though, and there was a fair-sized crowd on the trail that day. The path to Avalanche Lake takes off from the short Trail of the Cedars, a well-marked interpretative loop that takes you on a level 3/4-mile jaunt through alpine forest. It's another 2 miles from the far end of Trail of the Cedars out to Avalanche Lake. The route carries you along a stream, by several large cedars, and then turns increasingly uphill.

The elevation gain is about 500feet. I think my nearly-teen daughters discovered just what that means. We had to do some encouragement on the steeper sections, but everyone made it. It probably would have required less coaching if the weather hadn't turned a little after the first mile, it got significantly cooler, and a light rain began to fall. The trees kept it off us most of the way, but we still got a little damp.

When we arrived at the shore of Avalanche Lake, the skies were pretty gray. It's still a beautiful scene, with four streams cascading into the lake's far shore of the bowl-like setting. The trail continues along the southern shore of the lake, and you need to keep going a little bit for the best views. That part of the path was a little marshy and muddy, but still passable.

I wish we could have stayed longer: concern about the weather getting worse made us head back earlier than we might have wished. The footing was a little slick in spots, but not too bad. As we neared the end of the trail, the sun returned, and we had a pretty view back up Avalanche Creek to the mountains beyond. Everyone was all smiles on the way down, and felt pretty good about the 4-mile round-trip.

Avalanche Lake

Glacier National Park, Montana

Rocky Point

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by callen60 on March 22, 2006

This was another place we had nearly to ourselves. It's only a short drive away from Apgar, one of the park's busiest locations at the south end of Lake McDonald. We were booked for a raft trip on the Flathead River at 2pm, and were looking for a good morning outing. A two-mile drive up to Fish Creek Campground put us at the trailhead for this mile-long hike. From start to finish, we passed no one on our path through the woods, and enjoyed a really pleasant, lightly hilly stroll under the trees to a rocky point (surprise, huh?) with a beautiful view of Lake McDonald.

We did have company there: another Dad, with his seven-year-old daughter, who we sat and chatted with for 30 or 45 minutes as we all enjoyed the sunshine, the water, and the mountains. This was a beautiful little spot, with a feeling of being miles away from anyone else. It's not quite the other end of Lake McDonald, but it feels miles away from the crowds at Apgar at the lake's southern tip. The hiking is easy, and the reward is high.

Note: Heading out this way on the Camas Road is the first step toward Polebridge, the last outpost before Canada on the western side. Despite the road sign displayed at left, it's a pretty easy drive. If you're looking for real solitude, and great baked goods, give it a shot.

Rocky Point
Camas Road
Glacier National Park, Montana, 59936
(406) 888-7800

Two Medicine Lake and Twin Falls

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by callen60 on March 22, 2006

If you're coming at Glacier from the east, apparently a less traveled route, Two Medicine is the first major park area as you leave East Glacier and head north. If you're tempted to head straight to St. Mary and Going-to-the-Sun Road, don't.

The Two Medicine area has all the things that make Glacier so wonderful: mountain lakes, sculpted peaks, waterfalls, trails, campgrounds, and boat rides, too. If you're headed to the backcountry, you can also get there from here. In fact, it was a major destination before Going-to-the-Sun Highway; tourists arrived at West Glacier by train and were brought here by car, the first stop on a horseback tour across the park, housed at a series of interior chalets that are largely gone now.

The road changed that, and not many people were here on the morning of our July visit. After the short hike to Running Eagle Falls, we bought tickets for the boat ride to the end of Two Medicine Lake, and used the waiting time to explore the gift shop. It's in a classic old lodge, which bears a plaque noting that FDR broadcast a Fireside Chat from here during a visit in 1934.

The 45-minute ride on the Sinopah across the length of Two Medicine Lake is delightful. It's an old wooden launch (low ceiling—look out), with nothing but rock, water, and sky to starboard during the whole trip. Creek after creek tumbles down the mountainside, and our family traded the binoculars back and forth, examining them up close. It's also a popular lake for kayakers, several of whom were making their way along the shore on this breezy day.

At the dock, trails leave for several places. You can head all the way into the backcountry, up to Two Medicine Pass across the Continental Divide, among other places. The trip to Twin Falls is a very pretty and modest two-mile round trip hike from the boat dock. Along the way, you get a nice view of Pumpelly Pillar from the trail, a large dark triangle of a mountain.

The 2 hours between departures gives you more than enough time to hike to the falls and back at a leisurely pace. We caught the 10:30am trip, arrived just after 11, and rode back at 1:45pm. You can see the full schedule at the Glacier Boat Co. website. The afternoon trips offer a free guided hike to the falls and back. Though we were on the self-guided tour, we thought the $10 fare ($5 for kids) was a bargain. For an extra challenge, take the boat one-way—the hike along the north side of Upper Two Medicine Lake adds 2 miles.

On our way out of Two Medicine, we stopped for the hike to Appistoki Falls. We were glad that we spent the better part of a day here. All in all, Two Medicine was quiet and beautiful from start to finish.

Two Medicine Lake
Two Medicine Road
Glacier National Park, Montana
(406) 888-7800

Two Medicine: Running Eagle Falls and Appistoki Falls

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by callen60 on March 22, 2006

Like most of Glacier's east side, Two Medicine is a valley that's reached by leaving the main road and driving upstream against the water flowing off the mountains. We discovered the trails to both Running Eagle Falls and Appistoki Falls by accident, just beyond the far edge of Lower Two Medicine Lake. They made nice bookends for our boat ride and hike at Two Medicine. The two trails are different, though: the first is a flat and easy stroll, while the second is a steeper, longer climb that finishes along the steep gorge into which Appistoki Falls empties.

We turned off Highway 49 at Two Medicine Junction (4 miles north of East Glacier Park) and headed in. Since we love waterfalls, and it didn't seem too far off the road, we turned in at the sign for Running Eagle Falls. Pretty quickly, we were at the end of the short, flat, and pleasant 1/3-mile stroll from the parking area to the falls. (If there's any elevation gain at all, it must be measured in inches.)

It wasn't too long before we heard the falls. As we approached, the sound got louder (always a neat thing about waterfalls). We emerged on to the stream bank and the final part of the trail. You can walk right up to the falls themselves. The double-drop of about 100 feet is pretty, and surrounded by rock on either side that sets it off. If you're willing to risk getting a little wetter, you can scramble along the gravel bed and boulders to get pretty close to the falls themselves.

It made a nice warmup for the two longer hikes that day. If you're traveling with younger kids, or anyone less likely to enjoy longer or steeper hikes, it's just a great destination on its own. We stopped here first thing in the morning, and met just one other family at the falls. It was the first hint that Two Medicine was likely to be one of the less populated areas, which makes it an awfully nice place to visit, since it's just as pretty as any other area in Glacier.

From Running Eagle, we headed to the Two Medicine area and the boat ride across the lake. Returning from that expedition, we decided to hike to Appistoki Falls before driving up to St. Mary and Going-to-the Sun Road. The Falls are the first stop along the Scenic Point Trail, whose trailhead is about a quarter-mile east of the Ranger Station. The section to the falls starts flat but climbs 260feet as you approach the falls. The trail has a healthy drop down to where the river flows. There's no railing, so I'd be careful with younger kids.

These falls aren't as dramatic as Running Eagle or Twin Falls, but we still enjoyed it. It's another 2.5 miles to Scenic Point, but we had to skip it. Evidently there's great views of the Two Medicine Lakes here.
Running Eagle Trail
Two Medicine Valley
Glacier National Park, Montana
(406) 888-7800

Wild River Adventures

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by callen60 on March 22, 2006

This was our big splurge in Glacier, a half-day whitewater trip with riverside dinner to follow. We booked it in April (complete with dinner selections), and met up at Wild River Adventures shortly before 2pm on a July afternoon for our trip.

It's clear that one source of river guides is young, irrepressible males. The two leading our trip sat facing us atop the backs of the seats of the old school bus as we entered Flathead National Forest, headed for the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, despite the bus bouncing 3 feet high or more on the roughly roads. As we learned later, there was more than just testosterone to these guys, who were responsible for their own rafts, plus three kayakers paddling along with us.

Our raft held eight: our guide, our family of five, and a pair of area newlyweds on their honeymoon trip. My youngest daughter was more than a little nervous about the whitewater, and our guide did a nice job from start to finish helping her feel comfortable.

The weather was gorgeous; a simply perfect day. We put in at 2:30pm, with the sun shining above, making the river sparkle everywhere. Along the way, we passed a number of breathtaking scenes, with Glacier National Park to our right and National Forest to our left. We encountered one other group on the river, a family outing of two rafts with a pair of dogs who just loved to plunge into the river, swim ahead, and wait panting on the rocks or shore for their owners to catch up.

The rapids on this trip were class II and III. It was a nice level of challenge for a bunch of neophytes. My girls had a blast (even my youngest), and really reveled in the sense that they had helped accomplish something. The first 30 minutes of the trip were given to 'training," where the guide taught us how to paddle, when to paddle, and what to do in all the circumstances we were likely to encounter.

There were about half a dozen patches of whitewater. It was exhilarating to paddle through them, but none were so threatening that my parental instincts overwhelmed my attention to paddling (I'm not sure my wife would agree). We all loved the whitewater, and my kids have asked several times since if we'll go rafting again.

Eventually, we pulled the rafts ashore and dinner began. The passengers basically relaxed and chatted with each other and the guides while they prepared dinner. We learned that our guide worked during the year as a counselor at a live-in camp for urban kids recovering from drug addiction, and we thought he'd be a great person to have in that position.

From the first phone call to the last goodbye, these folks were friendly, entertaining, and gracious. As I picked up our "action photo" of our crew in the rapids, I thanked the owner for a great time, and complimented him on his staff.
Wild River Adventures
11900 Highway 2 East
Glacier National Park, Montana, 59936
(406) 387-9453

Polebridge: the REAL Edge of Nowhere

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by callen60 on March 22, 2006

Glacier was the third stop on our tour of the northern Rockies national parks. Like a lot of folks, our itinerary included the big three of Glacier, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone. We found it surprisingly easy to get time away from crowds here, despite arriving in peak season (early July). Actually, the only places where we really found a lot of people were at Apgar (near the park's southern end), and when we popped in at the classic old in-park hotels to see what we were missing by staying elsewhere.

Nonetheless, we thought it would be fun to head up to a really remote part of Glacier—but one still reachable by car! When the newlyweds on our raft trip said that Polebridge was also home to the world's greatest bakery, we knew we had our itinerary for the next day.

We headed up the Camas Road out of Apgar, which takes you out of the park on to the Outside North Fork Road. It begins as a decent gravel road, and actually turns paved halfway there. It generally parallels the North Fork of the Flathead River, which forms the western boundary of the parks (which is why the whole area is known as "North Fork"). It's a pleasant drive through the woods and meadows of Flathead National Forest, with a couple of nice views across the river.

About halfway between Apgar and Canada, there's a short spur to Polebridge. This small town mostly consists of Polebridge Mercantile, a bakery, store, campground, lodge, with a commune-like feeling, situated in a large meadow about a mile outside the park's western edge. If you want a cheap, bare-bones base for forays into Glacier's northwest backcountry, this is it. Somehow, the whole place gave me the feeling I was back in 1970 (in a pleasant way).

The bakery is as advertised—fantastic! The family that runs this place just dreams up interesting things to make: breads stuffed with cheeses and vegetables, gigantic cinnamon rolls, as well as the usual bakery fare. We ordered a few things for a quick lunch before driving to the Polebridge Ranger Station (size: 125 square feet or so), and back into Glacier for a little meadow hiking.

There's nice views of the Kintla mountains here. We hiked along the Covey Meadow Loop Trail, a level and short jaunt of a mile or two along a mostly open two-track that starts just south of the Ranger Station. We were, of course, the only people on the trails, and as we gazed across at the peaks, felt like we were the only folks in the whole darned park. That feeling alone was worth the trip.

All in all, our expedition to this remote outpost took about half a day. We tried stopping at Huckleberry Mountain Nature Trail on the way back, to join a ranger-led trip over a forested hillside that was badly burned in the 2003 fires. However, an entire family reunion showed up as well, and although they were a friendly bunch, we discovered that we hadn't yet lost our taste for solitude. So we said our goodbyes here to Glacier and headed south to Missoula. Polebridge was a great place to take our leave.

In addition to the Polebridge Mercantile, or "The Merc" (which is home to the bakery and offers lodging in cabins and a teepee located behind the store), Polebridge is also home to the North Fork Hostel and Square Peg Ranch, which operates the Northern Lights Saloon and Cafe.

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