Glacier National Park
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.....
Grinnell Glacier Hike
The Grinnell Glacier hike begins in the Many Glacier region of Glacier National Park. At the trailhead, there is an adequate sized parking lot with bathrooms, and water to start off your journey with. From this parking lot, you can reach the Grinnell Glacier and Grinnell Lake trail. The first trail I took, without any research whatsoever, was the Grinnell Lake trail. We arrived late in the afternoon and just wanted to do a short hike to unwind from the 17 hours of driving over the past few days.
The hike to Grinnell Lake is around 8 miles round trip, though if you feel like cheating a bit, there are two boats that ferry people across the two lakes (Swiftcurrent & Josephine) that you initially would hike alongside. Unless you are physically unable to, why cheat?! If you cheat, the round trip hike would be down to about 3 miles to Grinnell Lake.
The hike itself is rather flat, and much of it is within meadows and thicker forest. There's a good chance of seeing wildlife on this hike.
We came across a family of deer on our first hike here. They really paid no attention to us, as I think a lot of animals in this region become used to people. I was unintentionally able to get pretty close to them.
While on this hike you will also come across Hidden Falls which could serve as a good resting point prior to hitting the lake, though you're pretty much there at this point, so make it brief!
Once you get to Grinnell Lake, you will be treated to quite the view. It's pretty open and you can see the surrounding valley. Later on when you do the hike to Grinnell Glacier, you can see this area from high above, which really adds perspective!
Grinnell Glacier Hike
The glacier hike breaks off from the lake hike. It will be clearly marked, just keep an eye out for the signs. If you are intending to do the glacier hike, prepare for a more strenuous hike than that of the hike to the lake. It actually has significant elevation gain versus the lake hike which is relatively flat. But the pain and effort is more than worth it!
This trail is generally about 11 miles round trip, minus a few miles if you decide to take the ferries located at Swiftcurrent Lake, and Lake Josephine (which cost money!).
While on this hike we came across even more wildlife. We saw around 10 or so big-horned sheep on this uphill battle. They were pretty uninterested anyone on the trail as well. Just keep an eye on them, as you never know what they may do.
They definitely were eying up my camera bag while I was trying to take photos of them. One also seemed to be debating walking right by us versus climbing on the cliffs. Fortunately, he took the cliff route. I'm not sure what his intentions were!
Aside from the wildlife, the views just continued to get better as we went along. You really get high up and get some spectacular views of Grinnell Lake which will be directly below you while on the trail!
The amazing views will likely make your hike seem much shorter. It is even more rewarding once you reach the top. It's a good spot to spend a hour or two relaxing and admiring nature's beauty. That or get a quick lunch in.
Both the Grinnell Glacier and Grinnell Lake hikes are well worth your time! They are two great trails to spend a day or two on. They also had the added benefit of somewhat avoiding smoke from the Sprague fire (or at least on our day we adventured to the glacier portion.
This about wraps up my advice for trails to hike in Glacier. We ran out of time to do more. The only other trail we spent some time on was the Highline trail, which runs along the Going to the Sun Road. It's another spectacular trail (what trail isn't here?). We only made it a few miles along here before having to call it a day due to time constraints. The below image is an example from this hike, and how close you can find up to the edge! You can find one portion of this trail beginning near the parking lot of Logan's Pass. This trail goes on for quite awhile, and connects to other parts of the park, including Granite Park Chalet, and Fifty Mountain Campground.
Needless to say, you will never run out of amazing hikes while you are visiting Glacier National Park. It would take quite awhile to hike everything this great park has to offer.
Going to the Sun Road
Probably one of the most famous drive's in the United States, and probably a good contender for around the world as well. It's probably the most famous aspect of the park. Construction on this 50 mile long road through the heart of Glacier National Park began in the 1920's and was completed in 1932. It really is impressive how something so elaborate that traverses through a rugged mountain terrain could have been constructed so long ago. It had to be an extremely labor intensive job. The road connects the east side of the park to the west. And has many side stops along the way including Logan's Pass, and it also crosses over the continental divide.
Unfortunately, half of the road was closed off to us during our week in Glacier. The Sprague fires shut the road down after Logan's pass going west. We missed out on a great portion of the road, but all the more reason to return of course. This is definitely one of the most scenic drives in the United States , so don't pass up this great opportunity if you find yourself in this park. It made things even more enjoyable by doing this whole trip and the Going to the Sun Road in my Wrangler. It was it's first true mountain experience, and it was awesome! I couldn't picture a much more perfect way to explore Glacier National Park than in a Jeep Wrangler. It's a Jeep thing...
I noticed a lot of people out there driving them, and would throw up the Jeep Wave, but did not get a SINGLE wave back. So basically they were all posers and don't actually drive Jeeps! Probably one of the most frustrating parts of the trip! First world problems, right?!
If you are looking for another unforgettable and educational experience, try exploring the road with the park's Red Bus Tours. These tours are easy to spot out because they are the vintage busses driving around big groups of people. The benefit to these are you don't have to drive, they have staff that are well educated on the area, and they have convertible tops (so does my Wrangler!). They are pretty neat looking. If I had the time, or extra money to spend on the tour, I would have given them a shot! For more information on booking one of these click here. They almost sell out daily during the prime season, so book ahead!
What else is there to do in Glacier National Park?
Well aside from hiking your heart out, there is a ton of interesting restaurants, bars, and shops to visit if that's your thing. If you visit during the proper time of year, there will be a Huckleberry craze going on. This occurs every year around mid-August to Mid September. Oddly enough, I did not try any Huckleberry foods while here. Fail on my part.
While I am on the topic of berries, one thing NOT to do in Glacier National Park is to eat random berries or vegetation that you cannot identify with 100% certainty of what it is. We passed up lady on the trail who looked quite miserable as she puked up the contents of her stomach. From what it looked like, she ate some of the bright orange and red berries that were all over the bushes. So yeah, maybe don't do that!
So alongside hiking, shopping, restaurants, and bars there is still even more to do! Given the right time of year, there is great kayaking, canoeing, rafting, fishing, photography, wildlife observing, and more! There is something for everyone. It's a great family vacation destination.
As far as getting around, my personal recommendation, which is biased, is a Jeep Wrangler. I had a blast driving around here, and even brought it off road for some adventures up a mountain on a "secret" road.
There were two places that stuck out the most for me as far as food went. Both can found on the west side of the park. Technically, it's located in Columbia Falls. We stopped at Montana Coffee Trader's one morning for breakfast, and it was a great decision. Its quite the bustling little coffee shop, but damn the food was great. I would not hesitate to go back there again. The staff were super friendly too! So if breakfast or caffeine is on your mind (necessary for a good day's adventure), make stopping here a priority. You won't regret it.
The second was the Three Forks Grille restaurant located about a block away from Montana Coffee Trader's. The design and décor of this restaurant alone were pretty outstanding, it really has an old west pioneer vibe going on. They also have some unique takes on your average foods such as burgers or steaks, along with non traditional menu items. The Three Forks Grille was a great way to wrap up another adventure, and end several days of eating camp stove cooked foods.
So we've discussed what to do while you're in Glacier, but now the question, is when should you go to Glacier?!
When to visit Glacier National Park?
This park is another one of those destinations that is subject to some pretty unpleasant and unpredictable weather conditions. It also receives a heavy amount of snowfall every year, which results in closure of some parts of the park. Typically, the full portion of Going to the Sun Road is open from June to October (weather and other circumstances can impact this though, including fires as I found out!)
To be able to access the majority of the park and get involved with most of its activities, visiting in the late spring and summer are probably the best time. By the beginning of September, places begin to start to shut down slowly. Though, the beginning of Fall can be a good thing too as the crowds start to thin out. Parts of the park are still open in the winter for winter activities, but obviously things are much more limited. For more information on times of year to visit the park, take to the park's website which will lead to the best and moste up to date information on park conditions. Click here for that link.
If visiting the park during the prime time, make sure to make reservations if possible. There are campgrounds around here that are first come-first serve, but any hotels or motels are likely to be booked well ahead of time, so prepare ahead of time!
One of the most favorite places I have ever stayed in was actually in Columbia Falls. When I booked the cabin, I didn't realize it was sized for a large family. It was a super nice cabin resort called North Forty. It was a great ending to our weeklong road trip to Glacier National Park. It was expensive, but after staying there, you can understand why. The only downside is that its a bit away from the park. Just an FYI, the resort has hot tubs, which will be euphoric after many days spent on your feet hiking rough terrain!
What to bring to Glacier National Park?
This obviously depends on what you plan on doing. I would recommend bringing clothing for all sorts of weather though. It gets colder at night, and during the day can be a bit of a mixed bag. Especially in the beginning of the tourist season and end. I brought clothes angled towards colder weather, and was often regretting that during the day in early September. At night it was beneficial though! Be prepared for everything, and check on forecasts prior to your arrival.
If you are camping, obviously bring all of the necessary camping gear. Be prepared for fire bans. Bring a camp stove or other propane fueled cooking gear in case open fires are not allowed, which seems to be frequent.
Camera gear and accessories are pretty much a requirement. There is a ton of nature,
and landscapes to take great snaps of, so why not?! Even with the smoke, I found my inspiration to do my photography thing.
Great hiking shoes, socks, and apparel is vital as well. If you are looking for tips on great hiking footwear, check out my article that I talk about my new break through I've had with my own hiking footwear. This article can be read by clicking this link here.
Sun block would be another great addition to your travel backpack (actually bring one of those too!). I found myself getting some sun burn while on the trails. Though, I burn quicker than dry kindling in a forest. Too soon?! Really lame jokes are great.
Good company always makes a trip a little bit better too. Don't bring someone who won't enjoy the great outdoors that is prevalent throughout GNP! Preferably bring someone who respects nature and won't go around littering around the park.
One thing people always mention to tourists also is to carry bear mace on you at all times. I still have not complied with this unofficial requirement, but see plenty of others who do. Maybe some day I'll regret it, but I like to live life on the edge!
There are also these little jingle bells people wear on the trails as well. I honestly think these are pointless, annoying, and are just a novelty. Any animals in the vicinity are going to hear you. You are not as quiet as you might think you are. They likely will smell you in the area as well. To each their own though. Not saying my opinion on this is right.
Glacier National Park is a wonderful experience for anyone to enter the limits of the park, or the surrounding area. This is a pristine example of the US National Park System. Very little has been done to destroy the natural beauty of the park. Yes, climate change is affecting the park daily, and yes, we have developed parts of the park and the surrounding area, but overall, the park has it's wild side still present. It's a great spot to go to witness wildlife of all kinds wandering around in their natural habitat. Why go to the zoo when you can see animals living how they are actually meant to be living?
You could spend an entire month in this park and still have plenty to see. My week here was not enough time. It was a great escape from the city though. Regardless, whenever I travel, go camping, and adventure, it always seems to make life's worries fade away for the time being. Yes, frustrations come up while on the road, but it get's you away from the day to day stress you deal with in your back home life.
If you are looking for your next big hiking and outdoors adventure destination, consider Glacier National Park. It wont be a decision you will come to regret probably ever. Unless you are horribly mauled by a bear or attacked by a moose. Then I can understand regretting the decision, but that likely wont happen!?
Try to go before 2030, as your time is fading to see the last of the glaciers of Glacier National Park. Thanks a lot Al Gore and Man Bear Pig.
Until next time!
Some more photos from this adventure can be found below....