Going to the Sun

“Lake McDonald, full of brisk trout, is in the heart of this forest, and Avalanche Lake is ten miles above McDonald, at the feet of a group of glacier-laden mountains. Give a month at least to this precious reserve. The time will not be taken from the sum of your life. Instead of shortening it, it will indefinitely lengthen it and make you truly immortal. Nevermore will time seem short or long, and cares will never again fall heavily on you, but gently and kindly as gifts from heaven.”

~John Muir

I can’t agree more with John Muir’s advice to spend at least a month in Glacier National Park. The wilderness is so vast and beautiful that I’m not sure even a lifetime would be enough time spent wandering its banded peaks and winding rivers, but Vince and I only had three days to scratch the surface of one of the very best parks in the United States. We had a rough plan of how we would spend those three days, but a wrench was thrown in it almost immediately.

We arrived at the park early on our first morning and took the Going to the Sun Road straight to Logan Pass where the parking lot was already full even though the park hadn’t officially opened for the day. Luckily we were able to find parking at a nearby pull-off. Unluckily, once we hiked up the road to our trailhead we came face to face with a barricade that declared Hidden Lake Trail to be closed indefinitely due to a young grizzly bear charging hikers in the area.

I had counted on the hike to Hidden Lake taking up most of the day, so now we were in the position of having to improvise. Rather than take a bunch of time to discuss ideas, we crossed the road and started walking along the nearby Highline Trail instead. We had no intention of hiking the entirety of this nearly fifteen mile hike because even if we had prepared for a trek of that length, my bum leg would not have been up for it. We did however make it to the trail’s first major landmark, a ledge along the Garden Wall, as we discussed how to spend the rest of the day.

By the time we made it through the ledge, we had half a plan so we turned around and walked the quarter mile back up to Logan Pass, and started down the road towards our car. Between keeping an eye on traffic, and another eye on a steep drop-off to my right, I happened to glance up at a cliff the towered next to the road and to my surprise, caught sight of my first ever mountain goat.

I quickly switched out to a longer lens, and Vince and I watched, delighted, as the goat scaled the cliff as though it were just a casual stroll.

Once it was out of sight we returned to our car and resumed our journey on Going to the Sun Road. We figured our newly freed up schedule was the perfect opportunity to drive this famous scenic highway and stop at pull-offs along the way.

The first of these stops was at the Jackson Glacier overlook, which would end up being the only actual glacier we would see on our trip due to the “Many Glacier” section of the park being closed (how many times can I say “glacier” in one sentence?).

Although Jackson Glacier was far in the distance, it was an inspiring sight, and far different from our glacier visits in Iceland and New Zealand. I was particularly intrigued by the obvious path the receding ice had carved into the mountain. Striated layers of rock perfectly matched the curvature of the ice itself, evidence of an ever changing landscape.

There was a trailhead right at the overlook, and we decided to take the short hike down to Deadwood Falls. The path was sunny and lined with bountiful thimbleberry bushes that and we gladly sampled the berries as we walked, although I kept a weary eye out, knowing that thimbleberries would be as attractive to bears as they were to us.

After a rather unremarkable downhill slog, we finally heard water running nearby and soon we saw the unreal, turquoise water of Reynolds Creek.

The water looked inviting, but it was bone-chillingly cold, so any fantasies I had of jumping in to cool off from the hike quickly evaporated. We did soak our feet in the creek and watched Deadwood Falls for a bit before returning to the car to continue our drive.

You can’t talk about Glacier without talking about going to the sun road. Every winding turn on this highway offers a different incredible view, and there are even waterfalls cascading down cliffs right on the roadside. The scenery began to change as we got further east. What had been valley views gave way to a view of St Mary Lake. We even saw a black bear chewing on branches right along the roadside. We made stops at various scenic overlooks, and walked down to the edge of the lake. After spending the previous seven days traversing through plains, scrublands, desert, and volcanoes, the verdant landscape of Glacier was a welcome sight.

Soon we were at Rising Sun, which meant we had to turn around. The land on the east side of the park is part of the Blackfeet Reservation, and the tribe has understandably kept their land closed to tourism this year because of Covid.

Our timing on turning around ended up being perfect. Just a little ways west of St Mary Lake, we saw some rangers and other tourists gathering at a trailhead pull-off. That typically means one thing when driving through a national park: wildlife.

Vince somehow managed to squeeze the Dodge into the pull-off, and we slapped on our face masks before jumping out of the car. Sure enough, it was a bear sighting. But it wasn’t just your average, every-day bear sighting; it was three cubs all lounging in a distant tree. This looked like a job for the 600mm lens. Even with that much zoom power, the bears were still too far away to get any groundbreaking photos, but it did make it much easier to watch them as they climbed around in the tree. I was totally enamored with the triplet fluff-balls, and we stayed and watched them for as long as possible until they eventually climbed down the trunk, presumably to join up with momma bear.

On our way back down Going to the Sun Road, we continued our mission to stop at scenic pull-offs, my favorite of which was a spot along McDonald Creek where colorful stones lined the bed of the crystal clear river.

We ended the day by soaking our feet in Lake McDonald, as other visitors paddle-boarded and canoed in its placid waters.

Later on, we discussed plans for the next day as we cooked make-shift fajitas for dinner. We both agreed that we should have more concrete goals, so I took to AllTrails to come up with options.

The next morning we woke up even earlier to try to combat the parking issue we’d run into on our first day. It was still dark as we once again drove along Going to the Sun Road and Vince asked, “Do you think we’ll see another bear today?” Seconds later, a black bear emerged from the forest and casually walked right in front of the car as Vince skidded to a stop. The bear looked back at us before once again melting into the woods. I said, “Yeah I think we’ll see another bear today.”

Shortly after the surprise bear encounter, we managed to snag one of the last parking spots at the very popular Cedars Trail. Despite all of the cars at the trailhead, traffic on the trail itself was sparse, so we enjoyed a peaceful walk through the towering forest.

The Cedars Trail is very short, but we continued along when we came to the junction of Avalanche Lake Trail. A relatively easy uphill hike led us past a red river bed full of potholes.

A ways later the forest became less dense, and we caught a glimpse of the sun’s first light on distant peaks. They looked as though they were glowing.

It wasn’t long before we arrived at Avalanche Lake, which offered a quick explanation as to where all of the people who’d parked at the trailhead were. We masked up before heading to the lake’s shore to watch the sun creep up over the mountains, casting an ever widening beam of light over the landscape. Thankfully we were still able to keep ourselves distant from the other hikers, and everyone there was in a subdued mood so the atmosphere was still peaceful.

Once the sun was up, we took a less trafficked trail that went around to the other side of the lake. In the sunlight, the water was a deep emerald color that reminded me of Kitch-iti-kipi, a big spring back home in Michigan. The back of the lake was just as gorgeous as the front, and the motionless water made a flawless reflective surface.

Later, on our way back down to the parking lot, we ran into a ranger we had talked to the previous day at Logan Pass. We were considering hiking a peak in the same area the next morning, so I asked him if the the grizzly would be a problem if we climbed Mount Oberlin. He hesitated before saying, “Mount Oberlin is open, but it isn’t a trail, it’s a climbing route.” I had somewhat expected his trepidatious response because Mount Oberlin, although perfectly legal to hike, is not an official trail and is not maintained by the park service. I assured the ranger that we have climbing experience and asked if he thought we should bring any gear. He looked relieved as he told us it would be easy scrambling and gear wouldn’t be necessary. My mind was already racing ahead to the future adventure as we traipsed back through the cedars toward the parking lot.

By the time we reached the Dodge we’d hiked about six miles already, but I still felt like my leg had more to give me that day, so we decided to go for another six mile hike. This time I picked a much less popular trail, and we had a bit of trouble finding it because it wasn’t marked on the map in our park brochure. We ended up just picking a road that looked like it would probably intersect with the trail, and lo and behold, we were at the beginning of the McDonald Creek Trail.

This hike started out strong with a stop at McDonald Falls.

Then it meandered through deep, mossy forest that occasionally gave way to stunning vistas along the river. I could not get over how beautiful the river was. The water was the same transparent turquoise that was becoming familiar, but no less spectacular.

Wildlife was never too far away when we were in the forest. Red squirrels were constantly scurrying up trunks alongside the trail, and a few whitetail deer crossed in front of us at one point. I never thought I would be shocked to see a whitetail deer since they are commonplace in Michigan, but after a week out west I was accustomed to mule deer, and suddenly whitetails seemed very surprising. The woods were dark, and intriguing. The forest floor was blanketed in thick moss, and it altogether felt a little more like the Pacific Northwest than the Rocky Mountains. Later I learned that this was because the Continental Divide causes Glacier to have two climate zones. The west side of the divide where we were is affected by Pacific fronts that give it moderate temperatures and heavy precipitation.

After three miles, the trail dead ended at a downright beautiful section of river. There was a lookout deck full of people across the river from us, but we had our bank to ourselves, and we took a much needed rest and dipped our feet in the frigid water.

I was finally losing steam on our way back to the car, but I perked up quickly when we crossed paths with a couple of other hikers who asked if we’d seen the moose yet. We had not, but obviously we are always eager to see a moose so we asked them where it was. They pointed in the direction we were headed and explained that there was a cow and calf up in the river up ahead.

I haven’t been able to run since my leg break, but in this instance I managed to walk so fast that it nearly qualified as running. We came up on the river in no time, and slowed down so we could walk quietly. Sure enough, there was a moose in the water, but at first we couldn’t see her calf.

The cow was thoroughly preoccupied with eating vegetation from the bottom of the river, and would stick her head under water for so long that I would start to wonder if she’d passed out, only to emerge minutes later with tendrils of water streaming from her face.

Her antics were thoroughly exciting for me because I always feel that its special when you get to witness unique wildlife behaviors. Momma moose just kept dunking her head underwater, and Vince and I quietly enjoyed the show until eventually the calf emerged from the forest and waded out into the river to join her.

This was my first time seeing a baby moose, and I was absolutely giddy with excitement, to the point that it was difficult to keep myself from bubbling over and making too much noise.

The gangly-legged calf met up with its mother and they slowly waded around a bend in the river and out of view, mom stopping to snack every so often. Once they were officially gone, I let myself squeal, because I revert to my nine-year-old brain whenever there are cute animals around, and sometimes I just need to let it happen.

Happiness from the moose sighting carried me all the way back to the car where I realized I had hiked twelve miles that day. That was a new distance record for me since my injury, which made me feel proud and also sore. Back at camp, I iced my knee for a while as we planned out how we would spend our next and final day in Glacier National Park.

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