If you ever find yourself traveling the barren plains of Montana, odds are you likely live in Montana or are heading to visit Glacier National Park. Okay, maybe there's other things that go on in Montana, but seriously the eastern half was so plain! Probably because it's filled with lots of plains? See what I did there?!
Aside from the not so noteworthy section of eastern Montana, the further west you head, those flat farmlands quickly transition into rolling hills and eventually dramatic towering mountains. Those mountains I'm referring to are the northern Rocky Mountains of the United States. This northern section of the Rocky Mountains is home to Glacier National Park, which is a pristine spectacle of the U.S. National Parks system (and Canada!).
It is one of the truest representations of what a National Park should be. Overall, it has not seen much development or destruction by human development, though it remains a perfect example of the ever changing climates, which may or may not have some human influence. A park that was once known for its many glaciers, has had it's glacier size and population significantly reduced in the last 50 years. Reports about glaciers in the Glacier National Park area in the middle of the 1800's speak of about 150 active glaciers. As of 2017, there are only 25-37ish glaciers remaining, depending on how a glacier is defined.
Did you know that by definition, a glacier is composed of about 25 acres of ice minimum to be considered a glacier? Any less than that and the ice is stagnant and thus not technically a glacier. Cracking and fractures that appear in a glacier are testimony to that glacier's movement.
It is sad to see that a National Park that was named after it's many glaciers soon will contain no glaciers, just the remains of them. Scientists predict that all of the glaciers will permanently vanish by early 2030's. To say climate change isn't happening is a blatant lie, there is clear evidence of this all around the world. I have seen examples of it in Glacier National Park, Iceland's Jökulsárlón (an glacial iceberg lake), the glaciers of Torre's del Paine National Park in Chile, and even in my own backyard of Minnesota/Wisconsin. What I cannot say is how much impact we are having on the environment, or whether or not this a cycle which is inevitable, and has occurred throughout our planet's lengthy history with climate change.
Despite the saddening and inevitable loss of glaciers in Glacier National Park, the history of glaciers and what they do will be present in the park for a very, very long time. How is this possible? Well the writing is on the mountains, so to say. Glaciers have carved a beautiful landscape here over a very drawn out period of time. You can look at the various valleys, moraines, horns, cirques, paternoster lakes, and more. All of which are directly related to glacier movement, deposits, and erosion.
One fascinating thing that I discovered while researching Glacier National Park to compose this article, is what paternoster lakes are. I have never heard of the term before. Paternoster lakes are a series of small lakes that form in a specific direction, which are gradually lowering in that specific direction. They occur when glaciers dig away pocket's in the earth while they are retreating or melting. I have noticed this pattern in many of my hiking adventures, but have never put the clues together. It really was a "Aha" moment for me! You learn something new every day! The next time you are hiking in a glacier carved mountainous region, keep an eye out for this! Below is actually a picture example that I unintentionally took. I did not realize what it was at the time. This was taken from top of the Grinnell Glacier trail.
Aside from the geological history of the Glacier National Park, it wasn't a national park of the United States until 1910. It was the 10th national park established in the country. It was nicknamed the Crown of the Continent, and its immediately apparent why this region was given that nickname. The park overall is very immense. It is approximately 1,012,837 acres, or just under 1,600 square miles! That is huge!
I'm not going to spend too much time blabbing about the history details and park development as there are great sources of information that are far more extensive than I could ever describe or explain in this article. I would recommend anyone who is interested in traveling to this park, or learning about it to watch a free educational video on it that can be located on the Montana PBS website by clicking this link here.
It is really a great comprehensive video about the park, and its history, with some really great videos from the park itself. A perfect resource for those looking to travel here and get more detailed information. You can also visit the park's website by clicking the link provided here. This will also have lots of great information on the park details.
My Journey to Glacier National Park
The idea to visit this beautiful national park was born in the middle of 2017. I have always wanted to visit this hiking mecca and finally made plans to visit it for my first time, but surely not last time! I decided to make this trip into a road trip. It seemed to be the easiest option since I live only two states away, though the distance between Minneapolis, MN and Glacier National Park is over 1,000 miles, and 17 hours of driving!
The goal was to visit GNP right after Labor Day weekend as this would likely cut down on some of the tourist population in the area. I always like to try to visit destinations when they are not in the peak of the tourism season. Prices, accommodation availability, and lack of a crowd occur when you go in the "off" season.
I was not to go on this adventure alone, as seems to be the usual for a lot of my adventures. I was joined by a friend that I knew from a law enforcement academy in South Dakota. We may or may not have made a tradition of a yearly adventure, as this was our second road trip to a national park in as many years. Our first adventure being a trip to Grand Teton National Park, which is another one of my favorite parks in the United States!
We met up in the middle of North Dakota, and drove through the barren oil fields of the western portions of the state until entering the continuous plains of Montana. The long hours of driving through the plains was well worth it once we reached GNP though.
Despite this being an awesome trip, there was a damper that was put on this adventure. This was due to the Sprague Fire of 2017. This was a fire that reportedly began on August 10th (my birthday coincidentally), and had not been considered fully contained until November 1st. That's a long time for a fire to burn, and a lot of acreage that will be scarred by the fire for a long time to come. It is estimated that nearly 17,000 acres of GNP had been affected by this fire. Along with some very historic structures built in the early 1900s that burned down. Unfortunately, this is not a uncommon event to occur in GNP or the mountains in general. Between natural causes and human initiated, fires like these occur in alpine regions due to the dry climate with ample fire fuel (brush, dead trees, etc).
I have to admit, this had crushed my spirit at the beginning of the trip, and I had lost a lot of desire for hiking and photography. It was tough to find inspiration for photos or hiking when smoke blanketed all of the mountains, valleys, and lakes. Visibility was poor most days, and the air quality was just the same. Even through the visibility was poor due to smoke, there was still much beauty to be seen. It just took getting out on the first trail to restore my faith in adventuring and continue to take photographs of amazing landscapes. Mother Nature and it's constant changing weather pattern seemed to work to our advantage though, as we were given a few smoke free days. At last, my camera could see some action! I've never been more happier for wind than I was on this trip!
Just as a reminder, whenever you are in a fire risk area, always be cautious of your fires, cigarettes, cigars, cooking stoves, or anything else you have that could start a fire. As Smokey the Bear says, "Only you can prevent forest fires". Which isn't exactly true, but still you get the point, right?
Hiking at Glacier National Park
Hiking these beautiful mountain paths was my biggest inspiration for traveling to Glacier National Park. It's got some of the best hiking trails in the United States, and overall has around 700+ miles of trail. Who wouldn't want to hike here? The possibilities are endless! I estimate I hiked around 35-45 miles during my stay here, so essentially, I barely scratched even a miniscule surface of the hiking trails scattered throughout the park.
The different types of hikes vary throughout the park, and are scattered throughout the differing points of the park. The park is divided up into two portions. East and West Glacier. You can obtain more information in regards to the park layout by viewing the map provided below.
Just by examining the map above, you can really begin to size up just how large this park really is, and why I added so many miles onto my vehicle during this Montana road trip. We wound up on both sides of the park, though the east side was my preferred side. There is more locations to visit and see, versus the west, though it may seem this way to me due to the fact that the west side of the park was densely covered in smoke.
Most of the hiking we did involved hiking around the Grinnell Glacier area, which is actually named after George Grinnell, one of the park's biggest supporters in its beginning.
There are some cool sights to see along this trail, which has several different points where it breaks off into other trails. You can find the Grinnell Glacier trailhead in the Many Glacier Region of the park. The map below this will begin to break down the different regions of the park. Each region has its own unique trait or defining geological features. Most have their own campground establishments as well.
You could spend months at this massive park and still not have seen it all. If only my own personal schedule would allow for such long term adventures! I'm sure many people find themselves pondering the same problem and attempting a viable solution. Never the less, this map is a great break down of the park.
Despite all of these great trails, there was one particular spot in Glacier National Park that was calling to me....
This particular horn in Glacier National Park peaked my interest due to my new desire to get into rock climbing. This seemed like a perfect opportunity and relatively moderate climb to the top. A great opportunity to test myself in lieu of a upcoming trip to the Dolomites of Italy to attempt the via ferrata system in the Italian Alps. Unfortunately, this trip to Italy would be postponed to the fall of 2018. (Stay tuned for that :) )
When we first arrived in the park, I clearly remember driving the Going to the Sun Road (which I will discuss later) and arriving at the Logan Pass parking lot. Off in the smoky distance we could see the outline of Mount Reynolds looming before us. It was a challenge that I was determined to conquer. My first "official" summiting of a mountain. I have been to the summit of mountains before, but not quite in a fashion such as this. I was eager to tackle this new challenge, but the smoke presented interesting issues on determining the right day to make the climb.
I believe it was our third day in GNP that was predicted to be clear, so we took the opportunity and made way to Mount Reynolds. It began in the morning at the Logan Pass Parking lot. Initially, you must hike down the path towards Hidden Lake. About 1.5 miles in you will notice a trail that breaks off in the direction of Mount Reynolds. It is unmarked. I was questionable if whether or not I was on the right path, or on a wild goose chase for a mile or so onto the trail. The beginning of the trail can be seen in this photo below, right where it breaks off from the Hidden Lake trail on your left (if your heading towards Hidden Lake. You can see Mount Reynolds off in the distance.
After continuing on this trail, it became clear that we were on the right path to the summit of Mount Reynolds. Nothing could stop us now! Or could something?
The way to the top got confusing thanks to my great planning and knowledge of the area.(This is sarcasm, I had no planning or knowledge of the area) I had forgotten to analyze a map prior to our departure, so I really had no idea where the hell we were going. To the best of my ability we would follow the trail cairns Things quickly went to shit after I was unable to locate any more of these stone stacked trail markers. We were nearly to the top, but I had lost my way, had a slightly bloody hand, the wind was picking up, and it was approaching 3pm. We didn't really want to wind up making dinner in the dark that night, so with all of the circumstances and the fact that I didn't know the safest path to the top (there are technically 4 different paths), we felt that it would be safest to stop the climb to the summit and try to navigate our way down the sharp and sheer cliff edges covered with lose rock and scree. There were several points once the climb turned into scrambling up the cliffs of Mount Reynolds, that one wrong footstep could end up with a very long plummet to a rocky death.
If you are afraid of heights, and have not much more than your own balance, feet, and hands keeping you from plummeting hundreds of feet, I would suggest not doing this, or just don't look down. One or the other should work fine!
It was disappointing we had to turn back, but its better to be safe than sorry. We were so close to the peak, yet so far as the typical saying goes. On the positive note, I need to go back to GNP to conquer the challenge I have failed at completing so far. So until then, Mount Reynolds.....