Glacier National Park & Montana
Day 3, July 5 (cont.)
For years, Glacier National Park had been lodged in Hayley's mind as a place she had to get to, someday. Its location in the northwest corner of Montana only brightened its elusive allure: a paradise waiting patiently for a lucky traveler.
And so, our indefinite cross-country road trip presented that chance. Encouraged by friends who have lived in Montana--one of whom moved into a trailer just outside the park so he could explore it for a summer--we plotted Glacier as our first National Park stop.
We arrived around 6pm. The "Glacier National Park" sign was the first thing to welcome us, and like most visitors, we pulled over to get a picture with the photogenic sign. The ranger at the entrance station convinced us to get a year pass to all the national parks (which was totally worth it), gave us a folded map, and welcomed us to the park.
We took a second to find a campsite on our newly acquired folding map. We decided to try the Apgar Campground first--it was the closest and looked like a busy area based on the icons on our map. We pulled into what resembled a small lakeside town, with places to eat, rent boats and even an ice cream stand.
As newcomers to camping and seasoned optimists, we thought walk-up campsites might still be available in July of the centennial year of National Parks. The first ranger we caught in the parking lot of Apgar Village was both helpful and hesitant, telling us our best chance to find a spot was in Apgar, the biggest campground. A tour of the grounds confirmed the ranger's doubts. Each campsite evidenced residence: damp towels bowed clotheslines, awnings extended from RV campers over folding chairs and the crackling of campfires announced the oncoming dusk.
Then we saw Lake McDonald.
Even our growing desperation could not temper the seductive placidity of the lake at its magic hour. We sat on the beach of flat rocks to absorb the scenery.
The Logging Creek Campground appeared to be our only remaining option. Though the ranger described it as "primitive," it looked to be accessible by car. On our way we passed by Fish Creek, a reservations-only campground. We quickly stopped there to double-check our directions to Logging Creek and to see if the park ranger stationed there had any information about the availability at Logging Creek. She was kind but skeptical, but for a new reason not mentioned by the previous ranger. Logging Creek was about an hour and a half drive up a dirt road, much further and more rugged than we anticipated.
But! The ranger told us, there was one campsite available at Fish Creek--someone called five minutes earlier to cancel their two-night stay.
Shocked, we paid for two nights at Fish Creek and thanked the ranger profusely. Nestled in a breathtaking space, Fish Creek still feels special. Smaller and removed from the clamor of Apgar Village, Fish Creek offers sites under the old growth trees surrounding Lake McDonald. It is built of a series of loops, A through D. We called campsite D155, our home for the next few days. The accommodations at D155 included a picnic table, fire pit, and a (mostly) flat area to pitch our tent.
Wanting to explore, we climbed down to a smaller beach to skip stones and process our luck before the day's light disappeared.
We returned to set up camp, start a fire where we cooked some soup, in our trusty new $2 pot. With our campsite "bear safe", we ducked into our tent by the light of a small inflatable lantern, climbed into our sleeping bags and reflected on a pretty amazing day.
Day 3 wrap-up
We passed through two states, Washington, Idaho and Montana, saw 15 US license plates as well as Alberta and Ontario, and traveled on two major roads, 90E & 93N.
The major landmarks we stopped at were the Idaho cherry stand, the canola fields of Creston, MT & Fish Creek Campground on Lake McDonald.
Wildlife: a bat.
Hayley & Kevin's Song of the Day: "Don't You Want It" by The White Buffalo. Heard while traveling through the remote, serviceless parts of either Idaho or Montana.
Day 4, July 6
Day 4 started at the Fish Creek Campground at 5:15AM, and ended at the Fish Creek Campground at 8:02PM.
This was our full day in Glacier National Park, and we took that to heart: from sunrise to sunset, we spent the day exploring Glacier's wingspan along Going-to-the-Sun Road.
The evening prior, we watched the sun's light trace across swathes of trees that glowed to saturation point before fading into shadow. We guessed this same little beach would offer a spectacular view of the sunrise over the mountains.
The sun rose early. Meaning we woke up even earlier--about an hour or so before the sun. Once again we traced pigments across the sky, guessing where the sun would enter the picture. We watched in bewilderment as a blazing white orb rose between the mountains only to be sucked up into the lowest hanging clouds.
Fog for miles, miles, miles
Going-to-the-Sun Road is a winding and vertiginous road that connects East with West in Glacier. Carved into the mountains, it can offer stunning views of the park from on high. But, the thick fog that swallowed our sunrise did not melt for another 12 hours. While the wispy crystals obscured much of our view--of the valleys, mountains, cars and bicyclists sharing the road--the aerial drive was ethereal, misty and mystical, and we felt wonder-full. There's something magical about a place that can feel as beautiful as Glacier did in weather that most would describe as "crummy".
As the landscape closed in on our car, Bon Iver's soundscapes amplified the stature of the spaces we were passengers to. His words dissolved into pitches and particles, rising and falling as we turned around corners, our headlights hugging the curves and the clouds. A peak would peek out, carbonated droplets would balance on beargrass, and we felt happily insignificant to the blurry majesty beyond our reach.
We must have pulled off the road 20 times or more. Every turn offered a different view. There was just as much to see looking up the mountain as the there was looking down into the valley. Wildflowers, waterfalls and remnants of last winter's storms cascaded down the mountainside. Still the fog hung, at times giving us just a taste of the views it hid.
As quickly as we got out of the car we were right back in, making our way to the next unscheduled stop.
The burnt forest
About half way up Going-to-the-Sun Road we found ourselves in the midst of a forest of barren trees, charred black down to the trunk. When we got out to explore however, we quickly discovered the condition wasn't as bleak as we initially thought.
Hidden within the burnt forest was a trail teaming with life. The grass was greener, there were more varieties of wildflower than anywhere else we'd seen; even the orange trunks pushed through where the charcoal bark was stripped away. We sat down by a small stream that carved its way under the road and ran down the mountain.
A cloudy Logan Pass
Finally we made it to the Logan Pass Visitor Center. This is where we planned to start our hike along the Highline trail, though we weren't too optimistic. Still, the clouds were low and spitting rain. We climbed the stairs to explore the visitor center, hoping the clouds would burn off while we perused the park products. We asked a ranger if she knew the forecast for the rest of the day and she delivered unfortunate but predictable news. Clearer skies were expected tomorrow, so, we decided to postpone our hike in favor of the chance to experience its legendary views. While in the visitor center we looked through the gift shop. After rifling through the t-shirts, books, postcards and stuffed animals we came upon the trinket that would become our National Park staple, the patch. With the patch comes a plan is to sew them onto a sweatshirt or backpack, and eventually collect them all.
We continued up Going-to-the-Sun Road, still competing with the clouds for the best view of everything that surrounded us. From time to time the mist cleared just long enough for us to quickly stop and take a couple pictures, and we veered off at every opportunity.
One of our more notable stops was at the Jackson Glacier Overlook. This stop may not have been significant 100 or even 50 years ago, but today only 25 glaciers remain in the park. One ranger, whose tour we overheard, said all the park's glaciers could disappear in 20 years or less.
We felt privileged to see one with our own eyes, however foggy it may have been.
Much excitement at Many Glacier
After a quick lunch at the Rising-Sun cabins, and a stop for a couple more souvenirs, we continued to hug the shore of St. Mary Lake until Going-to-the-Sun Road ended. We left the park and took the road north where we reentered at the Many Glacier entrance. Traffic began to slow. Suddenly, the pick-up ahead of us stopped completely and its two passengers jumped out, leaving their truck in the middle of the road, its doors still ajar. They ran across the road, pointing out at the valley. No one in the waiting line of cars saw anything but a road blockage, and many grew somewhat aggravated at the bold couple. After a few minutes, they got back in their truck and continued on. Eventually we made it up to Many Glacier only to be thwarted once again by the clouds. The limited visibility and end of the road encouraged us to turn around and make our way back to our waiting campsite on Lake McDonald.
On the way back, we noticed a (now) familiar truck pulled over on the side of the road. It was the same people who stopped before. We figured they must have spotted something, so with one eye on the road and one on the hillside across the river, we approached the turnout. Then, something caught our eye. Movement in the hills. "Bear!" Kevin shouted as he pulled off the road.
Even from far away it was such an impressive animal. We felt its size and power; and the respect it commanded, even from the opposite hillside. Kevin took this photo from the driver's seat just before the grizzly disappeared behind the trees. We were now sufficiently "bear aware."
A new road
The clouds finally began to break as we approached the eastern entrance of Going-to-the-Sun Road. We parked at the St. Mary Visitor Center and walked out to a field full of wildflowers where we watched the clouds roll over the distant mountains, happy to see the sunshine peaking through. Quickly, we were joined by people who too were waiting for the weather to turn.
On our return trip, we were convinced we were traveling a completely different route. With clear skies and a new direction we found entire mountains we hadn't seen before. Beautiful features suddenly materialized through the windshield as if from nowhere.
Fast fog and changing clouds
Even with the sun breaking through, the clouds still displayed their power and completely hid entire sections of mountain within minutes. The two images below were taken within three minutes of each other.
Relationships with strangers form easily on Going-to-the-Sun road, since nearly every turnout begs to be taken. The small orange dot in the pictures above is a photographer capturing the moving water and the moving fog. When he returned to his wife, who was waiting in the car, and an expansive view of the valley, we discussed some of our favorite views and techniques for dealing with the ever-changing weather. We saw this couple two or three more times before we went our separate ways, chasing the light back to our campsite.
Taking the plunge
Lake McDonald was magnetic, and we couldn't resist its clear cold waters. As soon as we saw the lake for the the first time, we discussed jumping in. But it wasn't until we returned to Fish Creek after a full day searching for the sun, that we committed to a dip.
Hayley shivered in anticipation of wading in, and Kevin, who has a history with cold water swims, thought it would be refreshing. We gathered our warmest clothes from the car, and made the short walk to the shore. We counted to three and dashed in, the round rocks hard against our bare feet and the glacial water competed for shock value. We dove under. Our lungs crinkled and our brains collapsed. Any hesitation we felt earlier melted in the frigid waters. It's hard to pinpoint exactly why, but the cold water left us feeling rejuvenated.
Day 4 wrap-up
We stayed in Montana, saw 5 license plates, and traveled on one major road, The Going-to-the-Sun Road.
The major landmarks we stopped at were the many roadside turnouts, the burnt forest, Logan Pass Visitor Center, Rising-Sun cabins, Jackson Glacier Overlook, St. Mary Lake, Many Glacier, and of course Lake McDonald at the Fish Creek Campground.
We saw a grizzly bear! Along with horses, cows and elk or deer (we're not sure which).
Hayley's Song of the Day: Bon Iver all day. Heard as we traveled up Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Kevin's Song of the Day: Anything by Bon Iver. Heard as we traveled up Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Day 5, July 7
Day 5 started in Fish Creek Campground at 6:45AM, and ended in Missoula, MT at 7:30PM.
The day started in a familiar way. After packing up camp for the last time we headed up Going-to-the-Sun Road, passing familiar scenery andtaking the time to stop only occasionally. Vigilant, we watched the sky and movement of the clouds, hoping for some clearer weather.
Though we covered miles and miles of Glacier the day before, we spent most of those miles in the car. On a friend's recommendation, we parked at Logan Pass that afternoon to try to hike the Highline Trail, but the fog was still too thick. As the ranger predicted, today's views offered deep panoramas plunging down the mountainside.
Hiking the Highline
The Highline Trail opened for the summer just a few days before, so even at 10AM, it was a popular place to be. Though not particularly strenuous, the out-and-back hike is perhaps more psychologically challenging. Within the first quarter mile of the trail, a rope railing nailed to the rock offers support to anyone who might need to steady themselves at the sight of the sheer drop-off to their left. (The morning fog veiled the view below, so the extent of the drop-off was unclear.) The other challenge was navigating a very narrow trail with so many other hikers moving in both directions. Needless to say, there was no room for a tripod, and only slivers of time to sneak in a picture before being pressured to continue moving.
Hayley, who is not ordinarily affected by heights, felt a sense of vertigo when she turned to the valley far below from the steep peaks above. Luckily, there was plenty of small scenery to focus on. Alpine wildflowers of so many different kinds grew along the trail, most delicate in shape and vibrant in color, their petals holding what the sky could not.
After a few miles our desire to hike tempered, so we backtracked towards Logan Pass, seeing some familiar faces we had previously passed. The clouds returned one last time as we wandered back towards our car. Before we made it all the way back, the clouds broke briefly, and when we looked down on the small cars climbing Going-to-the-Sun Road, we realized exactly where we had been.
We ambled back into the Logan Pass parking lot, bustling with the lunchtime crowd looking either for a place to park or their next destination. We took the time to avoid the crowd, dug the PB & J out of the car, and made sandwiches at the Logan Pass Overlook. We took our time eating, knowing that we would have to soon leave this place we had so quickly fallen in love with.
We drove back to the West entrance to exit the park. When we got back on Going-to-the-Sun Road, we made the not-so-dramatic scenic soundtrack switch to Iron & Wine. Naturally, we drove upward around mountains as Sam Beam sang "Upward Over the Mountain," the soft acoustics giving patter to the dappled light sliding over the car as we meandered back the way we came. Soon Lake McDonald was sparkling on our right, and, already nostalgic for the breathtaking place we had not yet left, we stopped to say goodbye to the home that had treated us so well these last couple of days.
On the road again
Though we were really sad to leave Glacier, scenic highway 93S offered a decent cure: big sky, big mountains, big plains, big colors. Glacier denied us the stresses and responsibilities of cellphone service and Wi-Fi for two days, but once we were back within the matrix of modern-day communication, we took the opportunity to plan the next few nights. We stopped alongside a lake to make some reservations. Recognizing how lucky we had been to secure two nights at Fish Creek, we called ahead to see what our options were for Yellowstone. We were relieved when Hayley was able to give her credit card number to a ranger, but just before she could repeat the last four digits, the ranger sounded surprised. "Oh! she said, I'm sorry, but it looks like this site is no longer available." Someone with the same idea had beaten us to the campsite. Luckily (once again), the ranger found us a different site at a different campgrounds, asked for the credit card number, which Hayley repeated--quickly this time--and secured us two nights in Yellowstone. Yellowstone was far too far to reach that night (in fact, it would take us another full day of driving to get there), so we got back on Airbnb. Friends recommended Missoula as a convenient (and really cool) city to stop in. So although just a few hours away, we booked a very charming room in a MIssoula guesthouse (complete with a Japanese bath!).
Once in Missoula, we parted ways for the first time since meeting at PDX; Kevin met a former teacher for dinner, and Hayley located a laundromat about an hour before it closed. Wood paneling around the room, a TV lounge in the corner, pinball in the back, and red, yellow and blue bar stools at the coffee counter dated the laundromat to sometime in the 1960s; washboards on the wall celebrated an earlier and perhaps less convenient history.
The Airbnb we had booked was even lovelier than the pictures, and the host even had a connection to Kevin's hometown, where she had gone to boarding school. We occupied the upper floor of the guest house/dance studio. Surrounded by hardwood floors, iron-wrought twin beds and sea foam walls, we felt like we were staying in a dollhouse. The host's black lab, Maggie, made the stay extra special. Whenever we entered the yard, she would toss us a pine cone to toss back.
Day 5 wrap-up
We stayed in Montana, saw 29 different US license plates, as well as license plates from Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario. We traveled four major roads, Going-to-the-Sun Road, 2E, 35E & 93S.
The major landmarks we stopped at were the many roadside turnouts, Going-to-the-Sun Road, the Highline Trail, Lake McDonald, and Missoula, MT.
Hayley's Song of the Day: "Upward Over the Mountain" by Iron & Wine. Heard as we drove along Lake McDonald for the last time.
Kevin's Song of the Day: "Doctor My Eyes" by Jackson Browne. Heard after leaving Glacier as we traveled south across Montana.