In 1980, my wife Pat and I watched the opening scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining awestruck as Jack Torrence drove his VW Bug on the most scenic highway we had ever seen. We knew we had to travel that road some day. As we researched a trip to Glacier National Park, we discovered Mr. Torrence had traveled Glacier’s Going to the Sun Road. Our long forgotten promise to ourselves would be fulfilled minus the horror — well, as long as we avoided the Grizzly Bears.
Day 1: Lake McDonald and Avalanche Lake
We arrive in Glacier National Park, check in at the Lake McDonald Lodge and then head off for a 4.5 mile hike on the Trail of the Cedars and then on to Avalanche Lake. We wonder why this gorgeous lake did not garner a moon or a half a moon from the Moon Travel Guide. Guess it’s because there are just too many spectacular hikes in this expansive park. After dinner we take a boat ride on Lake McDonald. We don’t realize that the view up the valley to the Garden Wall and the Continental Divide is the same view we will have in reverse a few days later as we hike along the Highline Trail with its dramatic views back down to Lake McDonald.
Day 2: Going to the Sun Road, Hidden Lake and Many Glacier
Up early, we head east on the Going to the Sun Road, considered one of the world’s most scenic drives. At Logan Pass, we stop for a 6.0 mile hike to Hidden Lake. We cross the Continental Divide twice: once in the car and then again on the trail. Along the way to Hidden Lake, we see a Golden Eagle, Columbian Ground Squirrels, many Hoary Marmots, Mountain Goats (including a mother and kid just yards off the trail), Big Horn Sheep and a Ptarmigan. Sean can’t resist and goes for a refreshing swim in this pristine alpine lake.
We continue down the Going to the Sun Road to St. Mary’s and then to the Many Glacier Hotel and a late afternoon 2.5 miler around the Swiftcurrent Lake. For the first time, Sean is packing Counter Assault Bear Deterrent Spray, nervously wondering all along whether or not he’ll deploy it in time if we run into a Grizzly on the trail. From our balcony at the Many Glacier Hotel, we look out over Swiftcurrent Lake to watch the sunset (from left to right) over the Garden Wall, Mount Gould, and the Gem and Grinnell Glaciers, Mount Grinnell, the Swiftcurrent Mountain, the North Swiftcurrent Glacier, Mount Wilbur, the Iceberg-Ptarmigan Wall, and Altyn Mountain.
Day 3: Grinnell Glacier
We leave early for an 11 miler to Grinnell Glacier and back. An early departure means we have the trail mostly to ourselves although a beautiful Ptarmigan does escort us along the Swiftcurrent Lake trail right at our feet. After passing Lake Josephine, the trail ascends 1600 feet over 3.8 miles to the much diminished glacier. Along the way we have beautiful views of Lakes Josephine and Grinnell and up the valley to the waterfall below the glacier. Abundant wild flowers of many varieties adorn the cascading brooks. We see Bighorn Sheep up close and many Mountain Goats from a distance. We lunch at the Grinnel Glacier which is now more glacieted lake than glacier. On the way down, the trail gets very busy.
We meet Ranger Bob who tells us that a Grizzly has been spotted coming across a meadow, down and along the trail. The ranger, a 71 year old picture of health who is in charge of bear management in the park, tells us there have been the fewest grizzly bears on trails in his 38 years in the park due to the poor berry crop. Although we could listen to Ranger Bob all day long, we continue our descent. We do see two moose, one with an enormous rack deep in the brush just off the trail and another grazing in a meadow above Lake Josephine, just 15 yards off the trail. Sean can’t resist and cools off with a swim in Lake Josephine. At night, we enjoy the same gorgeous view off our balcony only this time it is set in stunning relief by the twilight.
As a side note: you see all kinds of people on a busy, “must-do,” signature hike like the Grinnell Glacier Trail. For example, we see one couple sporting umbrellas but carrying no water. Just as Ranger Bob is telling us that dehydration is the biggest cause of back country evacuations, he looks up to see a man about 4 miles in to an 11 mike hike dressed in pressed woolen trowsers and golf jacket and carrying no water. Matter of factly, the ranger looks at the man and gently says to him and all within ear shot, “For example, there’s a dehydration risk.” But my favorite is Miss Popaskwat. While we were having lunch at the Glacier, a woman appears dressed as if she has just stepped out of a photo shoot. Snow-white pressed Northface jacket. Coordinating pressed hiking pants. Her blond highlights neatly flowing out of the back of her stylish safari hat. Pat says, “Every woman on this Glacier is pissed off right now. We need to follow her down to the mountain. I bet she hasn’t peed yet. There’s no way she steps off the trail to pop a squat.” And so, in the tradition of an English farce, she is dubbed, Miss Popaskwat. We laugh uproariously.
Day 4: the Swiftcurrent Valley, Red Rock Lake and Falls and Bullhead Lake
We check out of Many Glacier Hotel, see a Black Bear grazing in a meadow off the Swiftcurrent Road and then on to a 8.0 hike up the Swiftcurrent Valley and past Fishcap Lake, Red Rock Falls, Red Rock Lake and Bullhead Lake. After about half a mile, we cut off the trail to walk along the shore of Fishcap Lake where we have the pleasure of watching a Bull Moose grazing in a few feet of water about 30 yards away. We hike past Mount Henkle on our right and Mount Grinnell on our left toward gorgeous views of the North Swiftcurrent Glacier and Swiftcurrent Mountain. Three waterfalls cascade down into the valley. On the return trip, Sean can’t resist and goes for a swim in Red Rock Lake.
Day 5: the Highline Trail to Granite Park Chalet
Some hikes are transcendent. The Grand Canyon’s South Kaibob Trail descending through billions of years of geology looks so primordial during an electrical storm at sunrise that you expect a pterydactyl to fly by. Zion’s majestic West Rim Trail to Cabin Spring rises though steep switchbacks and meanders among deserted red rock canyons before rising again along narrow rock shelfs on breathtaking thousand foot cliff faces to a climactic view of the Grand Staircase. Bryce’s Fairyland Canyon and its whimsical, fantastical hoodoos is simply magical. Now, for us, there is the grandeur of Glacier’s Highline Trail following the Continental Divide below glacially formed aretes, cirques, horns and deep valleys with unobstructed views of magnificent mountains peaks, not to mention Rocky Mountain Goats, Big Horn Sheep, Grizzly Bear and plentiful Bald and Golden Eagles.
We start our 7.6 mile hike to the 100 year old Granite Park Chalet, travelling just beneath The Garden Wall, a jagged arete so named because it is as thin as a wall and it is adorned with wild flowers throughout the summer months. We pass over The Saddle at the Haystack Butte on the lookout for Grizzlies. We are in prime bear country. Along the way, we see a dozen Mountain Goat and a Big Horn Sheep. Later we see two Bald Eagles pass just below us. After 6.5 miles or so, we spot our destination for two nights. The Chalet is just across a cirque; we relax and let down our guard. We later discover that was a big mistake as we are walking directly through the best Grizzly Bear habitat in the lower 48. In fact, we are walking through Bear Valley in an area known as Bear Alley. As we approach the Chalet, a Golden Eagle circles in a figure eight just above us.
After orientation to the Chalet, we unpack our food in the communal kitchen and move in to our “room” in the annex, a log structure built on a floor made of billion year old stone. We have enough room for a tiny dresser and a bunk bed and we immediately discover that the Chalet’s reputation for conducting and amplifying sound is sound, indeed. We walk a quarter mile to fill up our water bottles, have a Triple Hop Pale Ale while wondering at the magnificent views and then make dinner. Later we attend a presentation by a guest speaker, a park geologist and former park ranger, Jeff Kuhn, and then watch what’s left of the sunset over the Divide. Three young men from Portland announce that they are going to “headlamp it up” to the Swiftcurrent Overlook at 5 AM to watch the sunrise and two young women decide to join them. In the middle of the night on her way to the outhouse, Pat sees the Milky Way extend gloriously from horizon to horizon. What a day. What a Chalet. With ear plugs firmly in, we sleep nine and a half hours.
Day 6: Ahern Pass and Grizzlies
Pat makes a delicious breakfast of fruit and nut topped oatmeal. We plan to hike to the Swiftcurrent Fire Lookout or to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook. But a strong weather system from the north out of Canada is just barely winning the struggle with a system from the west out of the Columbia River Valley, spilling clouds over the Continental Divide and engulfing the peaks in billowing, white clouds. So, instead, we head off on a 10 mile day hike continuing on the Highline Trail to Ahern Pass while looking down at Mineral and Lake McDonald Creeks and across at Flattop Mountain. We happen upon a family of Spruce Grouse on our way to what the Chalet folks call Sound of Music Point.
Back when we met Ranger Bob, I asked him for the Grizzly Bear safety tutorial. After all, one person is killed by a Grizzly in the park on average every four years. He told us bells and talking are not enough. When approaching blind curves, he said to shout HOP or HUT loudly and frequently. He then said that if you encounter a bear on the trail step off the trail on the down hill side if possible and let the bear pass. “Don’t deploy your bear spray unless necessary.” I later wish I had asked what do do if you encounter the Grizzly on a narrow rock shelf or ledge where there is no where to go.
As we approach Sound of Music Point, we spot an eagle and then walk along just such a long section of narrow rock shelf. Uncomfortably, we encounter four or five large piles of huckleberry laden Grizzly scat over about a quarter mile. This bear had walked the trail where there was no egress for hikers! Relieved to emerge from the narrow ledge and on to a wide open arete, we meet Jeff the geologist and another Chalet guest having lunch. Jeff had seen the bear scat, too. “That was a very big bear,” he said. Jeff had been a Glacier Park Ranger for years, so I asked him, “What do you do when you confront a bear walking the trail on a narrow ridge or shelf?” “The bear will not give ground,” he said. “You need to deploy your bear spray and then hope.”
We continue on toward Ahern Pass but turn back because of fog, cutting our trip short by four miles. We occasionally catch up with Jeff who is giving his hiking partner a geology tutorial. He points out evidence of fossilized blue green algae from the ancient Belt Sea and a large lava flow. He brings up Grizzlies again and tells us of an horrific 1986 mauling of a couple from — where else — upstate New York. Jeff’s brother, at the time the park ranger assigned to the Granite Park Campground, was a first responder to the attack that occurred less than a quarter mile from where we sat. Jeff encourages us to be extremely cautious departing the Chalet and travelling back through Bear Valley. “Crossing that bench above Bear Valley always makes me nervous.”
Back at the Chalet, we are treated to a dramatic electrical storm and tales of a Grizzly sighting by hikers just arriving. One group had seen the Grizzly above them on a scree and had a picture to prove it. Another couple says they passed just 40 yards below it in an open meadow. Sean gets the binocs out in time to find the Grizzly and watch it descend across the Highline Trail and disappear into a stand of trees. After a beautiful sunset, we watch backpackers in the distance “headlamping it in” from the Going to the Sun Road. We turn in and sleep another nine or ten hours. This night Sean’s sleep is interrupted by nervous thoughts of our trip back through Bear Valley. He is quite relieved that this year’s berry crop was poor.
Day 7: Return hike to Logan Pass and on to Glacier Park Lodge
We depart Glacier Park Chalet for the 7.8 mile hike back out the Highline to Logan Pass. Following Jeff’s advice, we make lots of noise and remain hyper vigilant as we travel across Bear Valley. Sean sees either a Moose or a Grizzly down in a stream but by the time he gets the binocs on, whatever it was has disappeared into a stand of trees. We continue on from cirque to cirque, nervously traversing the narrow ledges and shelfs and then relaxing again when we enter the broad, open valleys that allow us to step down off the trail in the event of a Grizzly encounter. We see a Big Horn Sheep and a Hoary Marmot and lunch beneath the Haystack Butte with a wonderful view of Heaven’s Gate Mountain across the valley.
We run into Jeff the geologist heading back up the Highline Trail leading a Glacier Park Institute group out to the Haystack Butte. We mention the previous day’s late afternoon Grizzly sighting and that — based on his advice — we had hooted and hollered our way across Bear Valley this morning. Jeff laughs and says he must have just missed that bear, having hiked out late the afternoon before. He gives us a high five and says, “You know, that mile and a half of trail across Bear Valley is the only place in the Glacier Park that freaks me out!”
We continue on to the 100 year old Glacier Park Lodge and its fabulous lobby. The 60 immense, 40 foot long Cedar and Douglas Fir timbers that support the Lodge were around 500 to 800 years old when they were cut. All retain their bark to this day. We enjoy a mountain view room with a claw foot bathtub. Much needed after two days on trail without a shower.
After dinner, we meet a couple on a rail/bus tour. The gentleman tells us: “We had a tour of Chicago yesterday and we’re here in Glacier till tomorrow. Then on to Yellowstone where we’re going to see the IMAX movie about the park!” He then asks asks how long we’re in Glacier Park. When I tell him 10 days, he says, “Well I guess you’ll have seen pretty much everything then.”
Day 8: Two Medicine Lake and 13 miles
We are up early for a hike around Two Medicine Lake with side hikes to Astor Park, Rockwell Falls and Twin Falls. We see moose tracks in four or five places but don’t see any moose. We also see bear claw marks on numerous trees but thankfully no bears. Our only wildlife encounter is when a Northern Harrier swoops down about ten feet above Sean’s head and then perches in a tree just above Pat. We end up miscalculating and doing 13 miles. Yikes.
Day 9: Baring, St. Mary’s and Virginia Falls and Sun Point
After breakfast at the Park Cafe — where their motto is ‘Pie for Strength’ — we travel west on The Going to the Sun Road. We stop for a picturesque final 6.0 mile hike to Barings Falls, along the shore of St. Mary Lake and then to St. Mary and Virginia Falls. On the way back, we spot a moose grazing in the lake. We finish off the hike at Sun Point with dramatic views of Going to the Sun Mountain, Fusillade Mountain and Heaven’s Peak among others.
We continue down Going to The Sun Road over Logan’s Pass, stopping at many overlooks for views of the Highline Trail and now familiar landmarks: Haystack Butte, the Garden Wall, Mineral Creek, Flattop Mountain, and Lake McDonald Creek. We dine at St. Mary’s Lodge and get to the Village Inn at Apgar in time for a beautiful view across the lake of the sunset illuminated Rockies, including The Garden Wall. After dark, the skies completely clear and we head down to the Picnic Area beach for inspiring views of the Milky Way extending to the horizon. We look for Cassiopeia, a constellation prominent at Longford Lake, and have a hard time finding it engulfed in the Milky Way stars rather than backdropped by a dark sky.
Day 10: Contemplative
After packing up, Pat and I sit quietly for about an hour watching the fog evaporate and the Continental Divide emerge over Lake McDonald. We are emotional and leave the park feeling incredibly privileged to have experienced its grandeur so intimately for ten days. We are thinking not about Stanley Kubrick but about Katharine Lee Bates. We head to the airport with a much deeper appreciation for the “purple mountain majesties.”