Maybe the single most fascinating thing to me about Glacier National Park was coming out of our cabin every morning. The panorama of mountains massed behind Lake MacDonald was breathtaking. Our cabin was enclosed by them - these towering peaks that thrust through the clouds at 10, nearly 11 thousand feet. Having never seen mountains before, I never got over the awe of such a sight.
At Glacier, mountains dominant everything and everyone. Some of the most spectacular wilderness of the Rocky Mountains is held within the park’s 2,000 square miles. It is a land of precipitous peaks, pointed spires, and lowland wrapped in green valleys. It is a part of the Old Frontier with history of Indian, trapper, trader, explorer, pioneer, lumberjack and railroad builder. Its color of the Old West becomes tinted with the present, more so every year, but for the young in spirit who seek high adventure, there is still unspoiled nature here to be discovered.
Our first full day in the park was July 4th. We set out in morning light to Avalanche Lake. It is a popular hike, but it was still early and we were able to avoid the “crush.” It begins at a trailhead near Avalanche Campground and climbs through a deep, quiet forest of western red cedars and hemlocks. The ground is carpeted with moss in many places, and there are some superb views of Avalanche Creek along the first part of the hike.
As usual with our expeditions, I let Richard take the lead. I prefer to linger behind, stopping now and then to examine this or look at that. On this hike I enjoyed wading through the deep pine needles found in places and also observing the rocks in the streambed that have been worn into interesting shapes. Bracken ferns and queencup beardlilies grow along the trail. Wildflowers are scarce, however, because the high canopy of red cedar blocks out the sun. There is a strange but fascinating shrub called devil’s club. It has large leaves with numerous spines on the stem.
Another interesting plant is called the Pathfinder. The undersides of its leaves are a silverish-color, while the tops of the leaves are a contrasting, darker color. If stepped on, they often lie with the undersides exposed. Not only do these stand out among the darker leaves, but the tips of the arrowhead-shaped leaves usually point in the direction the hiker is headed - hence the name “pathfinder.”
Not very far along the trail, Richard has stopped. He has spotted something sitting in the forest foliage. It is a lovely Colombian ground squirrel. She sits up and looks at us as curiously as we look at her.
After a while, our trail leaves the dense forest and heads downhill. Just under 3.0 km the trail moves to the right of Avalanche Lake. There’s a short drop down to the water and then we see immediately the fabulous highlight of the hike. In the foreground is a huge log jam that blocks the entire side of the lake. And though it calls for further investigation, it’s the other side of the lake that captures our complete attention. Across the water, the Rocky Mountains stand like a guardhouse, while waterfalls, seven of them in all, cascade down their craggy face.
“Richard,” I say, “ I don’t think we're in Minnesota any more.” Then I sit down on one of the hundreds of logs and just stare.
The next day found us hiking in the west end of the park along the North Fork Road. The North Fork is a narrow unimproved road that winds up the Flathead River. Entrepreneurs, spurred by dreams of mineral wealth, built it in 1901 as the first road to penetrate deeply into the park region. Hearing that it was only lightly traveled, we decided to look for wildflowers in the valley.
The North Fork Valley is a broad trough over 30 miles long and up to four miles wide. Ponderosa Pine groves and sagebrush flats are the most notable. But here and there we encountered some of the most beautiful wildflowers found anywhere. An orange-red poppy stands out among the dark green floor, and as we continue our way along, a pair of love-struck butterflies find a pine bough to host their mating.
It has been said that in early spring the bogs in the valley are buried under the bloom of mountain laurel, and even this day the fields flaunt solid colors of creamy glacier lilies.
The valley is excellent range for deer and elk, but we see nothing all day except one young buck. Indeed, we see no human life either - practically unheard of at Glacier Park. The quiet is incredible, but for some reason it is not a welcome silence, but one that gradually makes the hair stand on the back of my neck. We are not far from Camas Creek - prime grizzly habitat. And I remember vividly the signs posted at the visitor’s center, warning of grizzlies in the area. We left the valley shortly thereafter and never caught a glimpse of a grizzly there. Yet all these years later, I still remember the eeriness that over came me in the North Fork Valley.
The next day was the sixth of July and the highlight of our Glacier adventure. We took the Highline Trail, and as one hiker’s guide book tells it, “Views from this trail are impossible to do justice on paper.” This is only too true.
As we began the hike near the Logan Pass Visitor Center, we noticed immediately that the trail was bordered by grassy meadows and wildflowers. Glacier lilies bloomed in profusion, their yellow petals nodding in all directions. It was warm and cloudless. A glorious beginning to a glorious hike.
We start on Logan Pass crossing the great Continental Divide, where most of the trail is above timberline. As we stand facing North, Clement Mountain and Mount Oberlin are to the left, Pollock Mountain is ahead, and Reynolds Mountain is to the rear. The jagged profiles of peak after peak stretch along the Continental Divide and offer a breathtaking view that I will never forget. This is why we came to Glacier - for this unparalleled spectacle that leaves us speechless.
A little farther beyond is a long cable anchored to the rock wall. There are sheer cliffs here, and the cable provides a helpful hand-hold, especially if it is windy. Below us is Going-to-the-Sun Road, and there are many fine views of its serpentine climb to Logan Pass. This road, which I unabashedly claim is the most spectacular in the country, was first opened in 1933. It was heralded as a major achievement of its day. For sheer beauty, I think it still rivals any highway built since.
As we continue on, we pass through a variety of habitats - steep, grassy slopes, a number of talus slides and rock piles, and occasional patches of subalpine fir. And wildflowers! Indian Paintbrush, Yellow Columbine and St. John’s Wort. Here and there little trickles of icy water cross the trail, making it slippery where algae is growing.
The trail gradually climbs, passing Pollack Mountain and Bishop’s Cap. Mountains along the Divide form a more or less continuous ridge here that is known as “The Garden Wall” - a very appropriate name, what with all the wonderful wildflowers, especially the Bear Grass, which is always a delight to see.
We were told there were some excellent opportunities to see wildlife along here, but I never expected it would come so quickly or abundantly. Later, I would tease Richard about how the animals seemed to “pose” for him, and indeed, thinking about it now, it appeared to happen just that way.
As we were rounding a bend, suddenly, right ahead of us, was a herd of Big Horn Sheep. There were at least half a dozen ewes, a couple lambs, and a large, magnificent ram. The ram was all show-biz, strutting his stuff, then posing at the edge of the rocks so we could observe him more completely. He seemed to enjoy being in front of the camera, as hard as this was to believe, so Richard gratefully obliged and took a number of photos.
When we resumed walking, it wasn’t too much longer before we spied a mountain goat far off on the cliffs. Pulling out the binoculars, we saw it was a large female with a kid. We watched for a long time, amazed by the agility of the tiny goat that trotted precariously up and down the 12,000 foot high mountain. Richard hadn’t packed his tripod, so my back was commissioned to do the job, and I felt like I was in the doctor’s office, breathing in and out, as Richard got his pictures.
Pikas live in the rockslides along this trail, especially in those where there are large boulders. We learned to listen for their distinctive squeaks, and if we didn’t hear them, all we had to do was sit patiently by a rockslide for a few moments until the pika population came to life. Pikas are as adorable as ewoks....all sweet-faced and fuzzy. The trail also passes through prime grizzly country, but thank God, we didn’t see any.
One of our favorite critters was the hoary marmot. They have a unique “whistle” and are similar-looking to a woodchuck or groundhog. They run about the boulders as agile as goats, and it is not hard at all to spy one sitting in the rocks, watching you, watching him. While we were far out into the wilderness without another person in sight, it was always nice to see these “little watchmen” and hear them whistle our approach. They kept us company in what was otherwise a very deep quiet.
The trail crosses a snowbank at 4.9 km. It was fun to make snowballs in July, but beyond the bank, the trail starts to climb via a long switchback just east of Haystack Butte, and it gets cold fast. We had started our hike at ground level with temperatures in the high 70’s. An hour into the hike, we were digging out jackets, caps and gloves from our backpacks.
The switchback ends at a broad, rocky saddle. From the saddle the trail continues to climb along the slopes of The Garden Wall. There are fabulous views of the peaks and snowfields of the Livingstone Range to the north. The trail continues its climb along steep slopes to the point that is the highest elevation reached on this hike. Bird Woman Falls is now visible across the valley.
Right after the high point, the trail drops steadily down through an area of cliffs and grassy slopes where entire hillsides may be covered with beargrass. These members of the lily family are considered to be the Park Flower. In a good year, the beargrass is one of Glacier’s most memorable sights.
Not far from here, there is an area where there are a number of spire-shaped subalpine firs. Granite Park Chalet comes into view a short distance away. As the trail continues, there are many places where grizzlies have excavated the meadows in search of bulbs, roots and small mammals. At 10.4 km the old Alder Trail enters from the left. This trail used to join the Highline Trail with Sun Road, but it has been abandoned to allow grizzly bears - which have been encountered along this trail - a larger area of undisturbed habitat.
Gradually the Garden Wall Trail moves uphill to the right to Glacier Overlook, from which there are views of Grinnell and Salamander glaciers. The Highline Trail continues ahead from here to another junction at 12.0 km. There are several trails in the area which can be somewhat confusing, but the Chalet is an obvious landmark from which to get one’s bearings.
Our trail, the Highline Trail, continues North of the Chalet and heads toward Fifty Mountains. At this point, we left the Highline Trail and headed downhill along the Granite Park Trail which passes below and to the left of the Chalet. This is the last junction, and the trail passes through many small, grassy meadows dotted with thickets of subalpine fir. There are several side trails going off to the right along the trail below the Chalet, but the main trail is obvious. As it continues its descent, the vegetation changes. Shrubs grow in abundance. And we were told that where growth is dense, be careful not to surprise a feeding bear.
One of the most important articles of gear when hiking in the mountains is bells and/or whistles. Richard and I had bells dangling from our backpacks, and whenever we entered an area that looked remotely like bear habitat, we began ringing in earnest. But it was a good day for hikers, and all we saw in this area were light-colored, spotted butterflies.
The trail descends steadily. Subalpine fir gives way to Douglas fir and spruce. Other trees along the path include birch, cottonwood, and lodgepole pine. At one point along the trail, I looked ahead and saw a round, golden something. It turned out to be a porcupine, a quite large one, and it lumbered along the trail as happy as any tourist. It was fascinating for me to observe. While I have seen a number of porkies wedged in trees, I’ve never seen one taking such a long, leisurely walk.
At approximately 17.7 km the Granite Park Trail follows the left fork from the junction and continues with some uphill stretches. Here a bridge spans a pretty creek which drains the Granite Park Area. Our hike ended at “The Loop” a section of Sun Road, but not without a little excitement. Wading in the creek was a moose. While Richard and I stood stock-still, the huge animal dipped its head and pulled up vegetation, sometimes wearing it like some ridiculous hat. It had no qualms about Richard digging for his camera, nor did it care when he shot several pictures.
All in all, it had been a fantastic day, and a spectacular hike. I have been to a number of places since then and hiked many trails, but nothing has rivaled the magnificence of this place. On July 7th, we traveled to our next destination...Many Glacier Hotel. This was like a dream - something straight out of the movies. The hotel is old and incredible and sits at the edge of Swiftcurrent Lake with a backdrop of towering mountains. We had a small balcony on our room, and to step out and view the water and the peaks was so astounding it seemed unreal. I wanted to stand there forever, but Richard, ever the practical, promised sunset would be even better and hustled me out the door toward Grinnell Glacier.
Grinnell Glacier is the largest glacier in the park and the exciting destination makes this one of the most popular dayhikes in the park. The trail starts at the picnic area parking lot, just off Many Glacier Road between Many Glacier Hotel on the east and Many Glacier Campground on the west.
The trail soon enters a lodgepole forest, which we read had come in since the 1936 crown fire that swept from the Swiftcurrent Pass to this location in only 45 minutes. Lodgepole pine is a species which tends to come into burned-over areas. There is a spruce-fir forest across the lake which was not involved in the fire at all.
A bridge spans Swiftcurrent Creek and the route soon follows the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake. We notice that some of the trees along this first stretch have been gnawed by beavers. The higher marks were made when there was snow on the ground.
At the south end of Swiftcurrent Lake there is a trail junction. The left-hand trail continues around the lake to the Many Glacier Hotel. The route to Grinnell Glacier heads uphill via the right-hand fork. It climbs over a glacial moraine consisting of rocks and gravel camouflaged by a forest of spruce and fir. This moraine - a result of glacial activity - creates a natural dam, and Lake Josephine is backed up behind it.
After climbing the moraine, the trail drops down toward Lake Josephine, where a short side trail goes left to a boat dock.
This is an especially lovely place. Even though thousands of people have probably been here, you still get the feeling of “discovery” when viewing the lake for the first time. As we sat there for a while, I couldn’t help but wish that only we knew of this magnificent place, and that we could build a tiny cabin on the shore and live in the shadow of the mountains for the rest of our lives.
Of course this was a moment of selfishness. Anything man-made would mar this view -which must be preserved for all generations exactly as it is now.
The main trail continues above the Northwest shore of the lake, passing through many semi-open areas where various wildflowers bloom. We have been told that even in “poor” years, the park is richly endowed with flowers. As the trail moves above the lake, there are some ups and downs but no major elevation changes. There are some great views of Lake Josephine along this stretch.
As we come to a junction, the trail to Grinnell Glacier climbs more steadily. There are a number of yellow-green lichens on the rocks in this vicinity, and as I look back at Lake Josephine, it is easy to distinguish the light-colored shallow water from the darker deep water.
The forest in the valley to the South is a mature spruce-fir forest. And avalanche chutes can be seen now on some of the far slopes. I read that these are characterized by open, shrubby areas between the trees. It was also interesting to learn that avalanches create a greater variety of habitats that produce a greater diversity of animals and plants than would be found in an area of pure forest.
The trail continues to climb steadily. There are views of valleys below, and Morning Eagle Falls can be seen in the distance. The sedimentary rocks along here are warped in places - evidence of the tremendous forces involved in mountain building. I pull out my guide and read that the greenish-colored rock is Appikuni mudstone, and the reddish-colored rock a bit higher up is Grinnell mudstone.
Farther along, the trail passes to the north of Grinnell Lake. It is our first real look at the unusual turquoise color of the water in these parts. We pause a while to regard it. I ask Richard what he thinks makes it look so? He shrugs and says, “Look it up.” So while he fiddles with his camera, I flip pages around in my guide until I find what I’m looking for. The unusual color is caused by particles of glacier flour suspended in the water. This “flour” is actually rock which has been pulverized to a fine powder by the action of Grinnell Glacier.
As we continue on, some of the other features visible from the trail include Grinnell Falls, Allen Mountain, Pyramid Peak, Piegan Mountain, Angel Wing and Mount Gould. At 4.8 km are the first of several switchbacks. Three glaciers - Gem, Grinnell, and The Salamander - all come into view. The terrain becomes more open. With the help of binoculars we can pick out mountain goats on the surrounding cliffs. Rivulets of icy water trickle across the trail, and there are banks of snow even though it is July. We can see Lake Sherburne down in the valley below Lake Josephine. In the distance beyond Sherburne is the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and Duck Lake.
The trail stops its steady climb just before the 7 km point and is a little more gradual from here to the picnic area straight ahead. The picnic area sits at the base of a moraine inhabited by a clan of lunch-stealing marmots and Colombian ground squirrels. The latter can become downright demanding of one’s sandwich. They sit almost on our shoes and make loud squawking sounds. For their sake - and ours - we do not feed them.
From the picnic area, the trail goes left for a short distance, then climbs quite steeply up the moraine. There are rocks of various sizes here which are typical in moraines. Glaciers often build piles of rocks along their leading edges which are known as “terminal” moraines. Even after a glacier has receded or completely disappeared, geologists can often determine the extent of its forward movement by studying the moraines.
At 7.8 km we reach the glacier. Grinnell Glacier covers 300 acres which makes it the largest glacier in the park. Above and to the right of Grinnell is The Salamander. These were once a single glacier, but due to global warming, they became smaller and eventually separated. There are still some fifty glaciers in the park.
It is extremely tempting to go wading out into the snow...or to break into a run across this huge, open expanse. But we have been warned that a fall into a hidden crevasse could be fatal. The thought of this keeps my feet firmly planted at the edge of the snow.
This is our last day in Glacier National Park. In the evening we return to the lovely Many Glacier Hotel and spend time on the balcony, breathing in the view. The sunset behind Grinnell Mountain is indeed wondrous, and I am glad that Richard is capturing it on film as I sit quietly and desperately try to imprint the scene on my mind.
Our honeymoon here is everything I had ever hoped for. Glacier is a true wilderness - a glorious terrain of symmetrical peaks that tower over jewel-like lakes. This, and the myriad waterfalls, provided us with scenes of remarkable beauty and an aura of peace and tranquility. May it outlive us all.
Copyright ©1998 Judi Schiller, Richard Schiller
June 2, 1998