Glacier National Park (Summer 2019)

[It’s been so long since the trip that we agreed to forego our day-by-day posts and just combine everything into one supersized post here.]

While alone in Darby, I mostly stayed in my little cabin to rest my legs, emerging at regular intervals to eat town food. One night at the restaurant-attached-to-the-bar, I was waiting for my burger when a large family came in. The restaurant side was full, but the manager suggested they could eat in the bar (just as our hiker group had a few nights ago). One of the adults immediately worried, “But we have a little kid with us, she’s only eight — is it legal for her to go in the bar?” The manager looked at him calmly. “Sir, this is Montana. We really don’t care.”

By the time Cyn arrived, I’d been in Darby by myself for too long. I was overjoyed to see her. I’d already bought our resupply in town, so we just threw my pack in the rental car and drove north toward Glacier, through Flathead National Forest and along the Flathead River to our first experience “glamping,” at a little place just outside of West Glacier. Glamping is bizarre, a soft fancy mattress and bedside tables under a big canvas tent. An interesting experience — not exactly our style but a fun excursion into some other way to be (sort of) outdoors. We were both dismayed to find that the tents were relatively close to one another, so this was not the quiet space under the trees that we prefer on our outdoor adventures. (But I did sleep very well in that nice bed.)

Morning found us lined up outside the ranger station with a few other hopefuls. While we waited for the station to open, I studied the park map and wrote out potential itineraries, periodically checking website updates on my phone to see which campsites had been snagged by others and revising our options accordingly. Obtaining backcountry permits is a stressful process. But we got a lovely east-to-west permit for four nights, watched the required park safety/how to behave in grizzly country video (my second viewing in about a month) [It was my first time watching and I DID NOT LIKE the part where it said “If the bear begins to *eat* you. . . ” — Cyn], and headed deeper into the park for a day hike.

So many cars! So many people! We finally squeezed our car into a roadside space and made our way along the trail to Avalanche Lake, where we ate snacks on the lake’s edge and enjoyed spectacular waterfall views. I was thrilled to be back in those mountains, and excited to explore a new section of the park with Cyn. On our walk back along the Trail of the Cedars, we lingered over informational signs proclaiming this one of the first accessible trails installed by the National Park Service, and outlining recent and future steps to further expand accessibility for this trail and neighboring Avalanche Campground. I look forward to further researching this project.

Tiny Cyn at Avalanche Lake

Back at the glamping tent, I discovered that the cleaning staff threw away the Gatorade bottle that I wear on my shoulder strap for easily accessible water. Of course it would look like garbage to anyone but me. I felt a huge sense of disappointment and loss, which part of me knew was ridiculously disproportionate to the actual loss of a single plastic bottle. But it made some sense, too: after several weeks of relying on a slim few belongings to keep me safe and relatively comfortable, I’d grown to feel intimately connected to every item in my pack, each with its own particular role and place. After all the town rest and glamping luxury, I was very ready to return to trail life.

Day 1: Red Eagle trailhead to the foot of Red Eagle Lake (7.6 miles)

Early the next morning we drove back up to the park and made our way to the east side along Going-to-the-Sun Road. Past the long east side of Lake McDonald and the slow uphill through beautiful landscapes until we reached Logan Pass and began to descend again. We slowed to look at the baby mountain goat near the road. We passed the Lake Mary visitor’s center/ranger station, where Sultry Bear and I had stopped briefly on our way off the trail weeks ago, and then parked at the nearby trailhead. Finally, we were off! [Less than five minutes in, we had to push through some thick overgrowth that I could not see the other side of and I was totally frozen by the fear that I would run straight into a grizzly bear. It took some serious pep talks with myself to do it, but after that I didn’t worry much. –Cyn] We walked along the edge of Lake Mary, admiring the landscape, and then promptly realized we were no longer on trail. We figured the trail was above us somewhere in the forest, and attempted to bushwhack up. We spent longer than we should have on this effort, eventually giving up and retracing our steps along the beach until we saw just where the trail forked. Oops. Now we were off!

Cyn on the eastern shore of Lake Mary, definitely off-trail.

It was a steady uphill through meadows and a long burn area, very dry and exposed and very hot for most of the first five miles. Ultimately we had to stop for lunch right in the trail, huddled in a single buggy spot of shade and feeling a bit miserable. We crossed a suspension bridge, hiked a very dry uphill section toward a second bridge, and turned onto the CDT. I’d be on familiar trail from now through most of tomorrow. Somewhere around here, Cyn tripped and caused some pain in her knee and achilles. We were both struggling through the final mile or so, and I felt relieved to see the Red Eagle Lake campsite come into view. Everything felt better to me at camp. The lake was just as beautiful as I remembered — a perfect setting for dinner and relaxation.

Hot, dry, and exposed. But still beautiful.
Toby on the suspension bridge
Lake views from camp.

Day 2: to Reynolds camp (14.3 miles)

I felt restored in the morning after a great night of sleep. We headed out around 8am for our longest day, the sun just peeking over the mountains as we left camp. We made good time in the morning, and I couldn’t help but compare how my body felt this time, walking the same trail I’d hiked a few weeks before. A set of long switchbacks up through a wide open area felt remarkably easier this time around, my legs just leaning in to the ascent. Down we went to today’s first glimpse of Lake Mary — the trail follows above its edge from here to the western shore. Much of this hike is nicely shaded with open-ish lake views to the north and dense forest to the south. I became a (possibly annoying) tour guide in this section [Not even remotely annoying! It was cool to be able to hear about Toby’s hike while we were on the actual trail he took. -Cyn], pointing out all the things I remembered from my previous steps here: I saw so much bear scat along here! Here is the bridge where I stopped and ate my cold ramen at dusk! Here’s Virginia Falls, where we all realized we couldn’t make it to our next campsite! Here’s the privy, back here in the woods, and over there in that tangle of trees is where I had to find a makeshift spot for my tent!

Big open space in the morning, before dropping down to the forest along the lake.

We felt thoroughly refreshed by the cold rushing water at Virginia Falls and by the knowledge that our campsite was only 2.4 miles away. We found a big crowd of day hikers near the water features at Piegan Pass junction, a sudden overwhelming rush of people and noise, but one turn to follow the CDT returned us to solitude and the quiet forest. [Solitude, quiet, and a stinging nettle that somehow hit me in the ear and burned for the rest of the hike to camp. But at least it took my mind off my feet, which started to ache in the last mile. –Cyn] Then it was just a short uphill, a log crossing over the St Mary River, and we’d arrived at camp to find it all to ourselves. Except for the mosquitos. I pitched the tent quickly and we made dinner. A small group of hikers passed by and asked how far to their campsite at Red Eagle Lake, where we’d slept last night, eek. As we returned from setting up our bedding, we saw a day hiker peeing near the designated food prep area! Gross! Also extremely unnecessary, since every campsite has an actual privy (and the one at Reynolds was pretty nice, as privies go). Along the river we found some wide flat rocks that were perfect for foot-soaking time and provided respite from the mosquitos before bed.

Waterfall by Piegan Pass junction (crowds of people cropped out of this photo).
Early evening foot soak at the creek by our camp.

Day 3: to Gunsight Lake camp (4.9 miles)

We had a nice short-mileage day ahead of us, but almost entirely uphill. In the morning as we made our way through the woods, we spied a moose lazily strolling through a marshy area just off trail. We ran into two other hikers here (visiting from Europe) and the four of us watched the moose in awe for quite some time. After that our climbing began. First through some dense forest, and then just as I began to feel entirely too sweaty and enclosed in the woods, along the open side of the mountain with sweeping views all around. Spectacular.

Moose! So cute! So deadly!
The views just went on forever.

This carried us happily to the campsite, nestled on the eastern edge of Gunsight Lake. The tent sites were all spread out through a tangle of tiny trails, and it took us a long time to find one that felt private and quiet, all tucked back in the trees. We put up the tent and got in for a quick nap, away from the bugs. After several minutes of rest, I heard a vague noise and looked out the mesh door on Cyn’s side to find a whole-ass mountain goat standing right there, peering in like “Whatcha doin’?” We both sat up in surprise, but it sauntered off before Cyn could get a good look.

With the heat and bugs subsiding, we walked over to the lake’s edge, where we found two parents and two young kids. We had a nice conversation with them, and enjoyed the beautiful views, and then all reconvened in the food prep area for dinner. It seemed to be the dinner hour for everyone in this campsite. We shared our stove and fuel can with the family from the lake, who were having trouble with their set-up, and then re-hung our food on the bear line and tucked ourselves into our tent before dusk.

Cyn at Gunsight Lake.

Day 4: to Sperry camp (7.1 miles)

In the middle of the night, mountain goats romped through our campsite. We heard neighboring hikers yelling at them, too. I felt glad that we are scrupulous about keeping a clean camp, always. We were up and out relatively early, mindful of the big climbs ahead of us. The trail took us briefly around the foot of Gunsight Lake through some wildflowers, and then up the long ascent to Gunsight Pass. We were fortunate to climb most of it in early morning shade, before the sun peeked over the mountains to find us. This area was magnificent: beautiful trail along the cliffside, views out over the lake with waterfalls streaming down into it, and occasional small waterfalls on the rock wall just to our left. Cyn got dizzy a few times as we climbed, but we slowed down and took some mini-breaks and carried on.

Gunsight Lake in the morning, clear as a mirror and gorgeous.
Shaded morning climbing.
Looking back over Gunsight Lake. We’d camped at the far edge.

Higher up we passed a few snowfields, and then arrived at a steep snow chute that we needed to cross. I gingerly tested the snow covering the trail, but it felt too slippery to align with my personal “safety first” approach. We could see footprints showing that hikers had previously crossed here, but still we stood at the edge, trying to decide. Below, the snow melted out, and we could cross safely down there…provided we could safely get down there, along a steep path of crumbling rock. I took an exploratory trip, leaving Cyn at the top until I was sure this was a viable plan. The scree was very slippery in some areas, and I judiciously employed the butt-sliding technique along the way. Cyn followed me, but halfway down began to struggle with the terrain, and we agreed she should drop her pack to ease the descent. Both of us now at the bottom, I climbed back up to retrieve her pack. We picked our way across a stream of snowmelt, clambered back up the other side, and were at last on trail again — if fairly exhausted from the effort. The trail wound around a rocky area with some wildflowers and finally deposited us atop Gunsight Pass, which felt amazing. We ate snacks, shooed the marmots away, and enjoyed our well-earned views from the top.

Probably the absolute coolest photo ever taken of me.
Gunsight Pass, feeling good.

Then it was down the other side toward Lake Ellen Wilson. We wound around the mountainside for a long while, admiring the colors in the lake until we noticed a giant waterfall ahead. It spilled out over the trail on its way down the mountain. The closer we got, the bigger it looked, until we arrived and found it to be a full-on ford through rushing water and unstable rocks, with a steep drop-off below. Three hikers coming up the trail toward us studied the situation from the opposite side, and finally came through slowly. Cyn and I carefully picked our way across, relieved to be on dry trail again.

The magnificent colors of Lake Ellen Wilson.
Mountain goats staying cool on the snow.

We began our second climb along exposed trail in the heat of the afternoon. Both of us were wilting, but Cyn had a rougher go of it. A few times, I consulted the map and tried to encourage her by suggesting we were getting close, not far from the top, things should be leveling out soon. But this backfired and I was instructed not to give these updates anymore (definitely my fault, apparently I either still can’t read a map properly or I don’t have a good sense of what “soon” means). Near the top (I was pretty sure), a few sparse trees finally showed up with their patches of shade, and a sit-down break was clearly mandatory. Body temps slightly lowered, we carried on, soon able to see below to our campsite.

Near the top of the second climb. Worth the heat.

We were the first ones there, and wandered all the sites before choosing our favorite. What a view from our front porch (read: giant rock slab)! I gathered water from a nearby pond, and then we lounged for the rest of the afternoon. A group of older (than us) hikers arrived, and we all wound up having dinner together. We heard another set of hikers on the long descent into camp, yelling “hey bear!” every minute or so. We joked about their commitment to bear calls. Later, we learned that as they hiked down they could see a giant grizzly bear near camp, just behind our dinner spot, by the pond I’d taken water from! And that was why they were yelling so frequently. Eeep! We walked to the privy in pairs that evening.

View from our “porch.”

Day 5: exit at Sperry trailhead (6.4 miles)

Cyn got sick in the night, all at once, a raging head cold. She slept terribly and woke up feeling very bad. Fortunately, it was our last day, with just a straight shot downhill to the trailhead. In the morning a family of mountain goats came right up over the edge of the mountain to peer into our tent and wander around our site. We shooed them away, even though it was kind of delightful to see them.

Good morning!

Partly because Cyn was miserably sick, and partly because the trail was just a long slog of downhill, this was not the best day of hiking [It turns out it really sucks to have a head full of snot and no tissues to blow your nose in. Some leaves were used in emergency situations. -Cyn]. We just tried to settle into a nice pace and keep going, down along the mountain into the forest, judging our distance from the trailhead by the increasing number of day hikers on trail. And then we emerged from the forest and crossed the road to Lake McDonald Lodge, where we promptly bought cold drinks and sandwiches from the little general store and located our shuttle stop. We’d take this along Going-to-the-Sun Road all the way back east to pick up our car, then drive the same road all the way west to exit the park. The shuttle was very crowded, and I felt very sorry for the people who had to be squished in next to my hiker stink. Many people exited at Logan Pass, and Cyn and I were able to sit down, but then a massive youth group boarded, packed into the aisle, and we spent the rest of the ride with kids yelling across us, elbowing us, and generally being pretty gross. Finally, back at St. Mary’s, then a long, gloriously quiet drive back to the western edge and away from Glacier, saying our last goodbyes to these mountains for now.

One of the last creeks we passed on the way down.

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