Just a couple of days before we planned to arrive in Glacier National Park, we read the news (a fairly rare occurrence these days) that a wildfire had just started in the eastern side of the park near the town of St. Mary. Initially small, the wildfire grew exponentially over the next 36-ish hours as we continued to monitor the news updates from beautiful Lolo National Forest well south of the park. Fortunately, we loved Lolo and were happy to stay an extra day or two until the fire stabilized (we hoped).
In the meantime, we developed alternative plans. We figured that, at best, our initial plan of spending two-ish weeks in the Glacier area simply wouldn’t be realistic due to the fire resulting in the closure of a significant portion of the infamous and scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road (GTTSR), which bisects the park and connects the West Glacier area with the eastern side of the park where much of the best hiking and best glacier views are found in the Many Glacier and Two Medicine areas of the park. We decided to spend our “leftover” time in North Cascades National Park in Washington. We read in one of our guidebooks that North Cascades NP is home to approximately 300 glaciers (Glacier NP has about 25), so it seemed like a good and suitable alternative. (Coincidentally, a fire would start in North Cascades prior to our arrival and continue to grow, but more on that in a separate post.)
As predicted, the fire in Glacier slowed down after a few days. It became apparent that at least the western side of the park would be perfectly safe. We were situated to enter the park from the west anyway, so we decided to head into the area determined to do whatever we could and to make the most of it. Of course, though, we were disappointed, as Glacier was one of our top priorities from the beginning of this trip and a place where, as aforementioned, we’d planned to spend a significant (for us) amount of time.
Initially, we were worried about smoke, but it turned out to be a nonfactor everywhere we went in and around the park except for the St. Mary area itself, which we traveled through on our way to and from Many Glacier. Despite the smoke, we stopped for a meal at Park Café in St. Mary, recommended to us as a worthy spot for a belated anniversary celebration dinner. The food and service didn’t disappoint, and we essentially had the normally line-out-the-door popular place to ourselves, which made us sad for the business owner and staff who rely heavily on summer park visitors for business.
Our other worry was how we’d be impacted by the GTTSR closure. Do you want the good news or the bad news first? Let’s start with the good.
With a little creativity, we figured out how to access the hikes we wanted to do from the road even though the “best” trailheads weren’t always accessible. We drove up the open section of road twice and thoroughly enjoyed its scenic rewards both times (we took a second drive when the weather was nicer and the road was opened a little further to allow access to its highest point along the Continental Divide at Logan Pass). We don’t know what the road looks like east of Logan Pass, but I can’t imagine that it’s as beautiful as the area west of the pass.
Now, the bad news: Glacier is a big park with relatively few roads. Without the benefit of the GTTSR bisecting the park, the only way to travel between the western and eastern sides is to drive around the park’s southern boundary on roads outside the park itself. From West Glacier, that meant a roundtrip of 3-5 hours to Two Medicine or Many Glacier on the eastern side and of at least 8 hours to Waterton Lakes, the Canadian national park that borders Glacier, as there isn’t a good western route between the parks.
We’d initially planned to celebrate our anniversary with a daytrip to Waterton (we had no desire to deal with the logistics of taking the RV into Canada for a night), and we quickly scratched those plans. Though we really wanted to spend more time in Many Glacier and Two Medicine, we ended up making just one daytrip to each area. The trips were totally worth it in terms of great hiking and breathtakingly beautiful scenery, but we simply didn’t want to spend a bulk of our time in the park driving. All week, we debated moving to a campground on the eastern side of the park, but it was too far to reasonably drive the RV without having a guaranteed campsite (Two Medicine and Many Glacier are first-come, first-served and have very few sites large enough to accommodate us, and St. Mary was closed during most of our visit and then was booked solid with prior reservations. Additionally, the eastern side of the park is bordered by a Native American reservation, so there aren’t good nearby camping options outside the park.).
Although we had a great week in Glacier, we definitely left feeling like it was “undone”, as we wanted to spend more time in the eastern part of the park. We certainly have a longer than usual “next time” list, mostly full of hikes we’d like to do in Many Glacier.
So, what did we do and enjoy during our week in Glacier?
We spent our first few days in a national forest near the park where camping was slightly less expensive, which allowed us to restock on groceries, get a cheap haircut at a cosmetology school in a nearby town, and enjoy a “down-day” of laundry, cleaning, and rest during one of several cool, rainy days. We also visited Hammer Nutrition’s headquarters in nearby Whitefish, MT where we showed up unannounced and ended up getting a personal 40-minute tour of the facilities by the company’s president, who filled up a bag with all kinds of goodies as we walked through the warehouse. Hammer Nutrition makes our favorite sports nutrition (drink mixes, bars, gels, supplements, etc.) and cycling gear. They also make delicious fair-trade organic coffee, which isn’t cheap, but which was included in our “goody bag” nonetheless, along with a pour-over coffee brewer, a simple but genius invention that means no more instant coffee for me! It was a true highlight of our trip.
Like Grand Teton National Park, parts of Glacier feel like a resort. There are lakes with overpriced boat rides, gorgeous historic lodges and inns with restaurants, bars, and expansive back porches/decks, at least one reading room with a gas-log fireplace (I know because I enjoyed warming myself there on a chilly day), and guided tours in antique red cars called “jammers”.
In an extended belated celebration of our anniversary, we treated ourselves to a ranger-guided historic boat ride on Lake McDonald after enjoying a tasty microbrew with a lakeside picnic (nothing says class like PB&J and beer). While we thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon of “luxury” (for us), it’s hard to believe, and quite sad, that some 50% of visitors to Glacier National Park never take a hike in the park.
True to our MO, we went on some great hikes. Our favorites were Granite Park Chalet (we started at the Loop trailhead because Logan Pass was still closed at this point), Grinnell Glacier, and Scenic Point.
The 360-degree vista from Scenic Point was a true highlight of this trip for me. Situated on the eastern edge of the Rockies, the point provides a high-altitude view of expansive prairieland to the east (which would have been enough for me to fall in love with on its own), and in a quarter turn, a view of prairie-meeting-mountains, and in another quarter turn, breathtaking views of glaciated mountains and lakes. It was simply spectacular.
I also fell in love with Avalanche Gorge on the way to Avalanche Lake. The whole scene left me spellbound – something about the clarity and color of the water, the forest scenery, the slot-like canyon formation and shape of the gorge, and the moss- and lichen-covered rocks was simply captivating. This was the silver lining of the fire and subsequent road closure: it forced us to spend more time in the western part of the park where we went on some shorter hikes that we otherwise may have passed by, which led us to fantastic and unexpected places like Avalanche Gorge.
Finally, the real highlight of our week was spending time with my sister’s best friend and her boyfriend/partner, who happened to arrive in the park toward the end of our stay (completely unplanned on both our parts). In addition to enjoying hugs sent from home, we loved having travel buddies, which hasn’t happened since Zion NP in Utah. They joined us for a hike and for a magical evening drive up the GTTSR after the road was opened to Logan Pass; we took way too many pictures in the beautiful fading light, marveled at the spectacular beauty of it all, and stood awe-struck at the pass as a nearly full moon rose above the mountains.
The next night, we enjoyed classic camping fun: a big campfire with roasted hotdogs and marshmallows, good beer, and wonderful company with lots of laughter. It was the perfect ending to a not-so-perfect but still very good week.