Top of the World – Glacier National Park

Posted by Pat on September 4, 2011 in Travel |

Once site of Glacial Lake Missoula

30th Aug – Not only did I loose an hour for Mountain Time, I lost a day. Then I discovered I rushed the month, too. I know precisely where I am, just not what day it is. To be on a road trip and unaware of the day is ideal.

I drove north to Glacier National Park. Drove a different route to visit the Bison National Refuge. It is a 19-mile gravel road out of MoIese on the northwestern side of the refuge. Twisting, climbing to over 4700′ with awesome vistas of what used to be the huge Glacial Lake Missoula and what is now a vast valley basin, I find driving around the park peaceful and solitary. Wildlife consists of bison, elk, deer, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, and black bear.

As with most animals, they do not work for scale nor care for photography. Their habits are more mundane like rolling in the dirt, hiding behind bushes, or scurrying across the road. I did see chipmunks (not on the list so must be a rare sighting), couple deer, quite a few pronghorn, a few wallowing bison, a couple golden eagles. A shy six-pronged whitetail deer hid behind a bush as I pointed my camera. One bison lay close to the road but was totally bored with me. I hiked a short trail and up to High Point of 4885′ for 360 degree panorama that was worth the climb.

I understand better “death by GPS” as TomTom tells me to turn right. There actually is an old road that may have been used by farmers or forestry. I continue on what I know is the correct path and TomTom adjusts but I can see how someone might follow these directions and get into trouble. How does she know about that insignificant road? She says I am “still on the fastest route,” but then what other route is there?

Sadly, unless one has part of a day with no plans, I wouldn’t recommend the refuge. The entire area consists of fenced, managed grazing units. Kids will love the Visitor Center with its stuffed bison but otherwise be bored for most of the 2-hour drive. Save your bison viewing for Yellowstone where you will drive among them; barring one with a nasty disposition, you can experience them up close and personal.

West Glacier Gate

Glacier National Park

Continued north past gigantic Flathead Lake and into West Gate of Glacier N.P. Had planned to drive Highway 2 to East Gate but wrong turn put me onto Going to the Sun Road. Awesome mountains, lakes, forests, wild flowers, rocky peaks and cones carved by retreating glaciers, narrow roads, some glaciers (sadly only about 25% of the original surface of the glaciers remain and it is estimated all will disappear in less than 20 years), and lots of waterfalls. Also lots of traffic. My little cabin at Rising Sun Lodge is just perfect. As I sit on the front stoop my view is of St. Mary Lake and Triple Divide Peak to the south. Sadly, the pine bark beetle has denuded the mountainside of green. Currently, weather is perfect. Unfortunately, weather is about to change!

Clouds over Glacier

31st Aug – Winter arrived at 7:16 last night with plummeting temperatures, winds, lowering clouds over glaciated cones and peaks, and rain in the night. I rode the free shuttle to Logan Pass in dense cloud and heavy mist. Not much in Visitor Center so I left for Hidden Lake Overlook (path down to lake closed). A wonderfully quiet climb of at least 150 wooden steps through meadows of

Unable to see bears in the clouds

wild flowers, mini glaciers of snow, and rushing rivulets of water. The cloud cover restricted any view but it also meant I had the trail all to myself. Met others as I came down and as happens so often, everyone shares bear sightings. Rangers were coming up to warn walkers; this impressed me. As for me, I would expect hikers to read the signs before I would climb those stairs again.

St. Mary Falls

Rode shuttle to St. Mary Falls. Big signs warning of bears but path signs are little inconspicuous black plaques so I went wrong way. Walked to Baring Falls, nary a sole around so had to do a lot of talking to the bears and myself. Retraced my steps to St. Mary Falls then up summit to Virginia Falls. Huge cascades of water tumble hundreds of feet while the water at their base is turquoise blue, sometimes jade green, getting their color from the glacial sediment. The rocks are shades of yellow and reds. All is quite spectacular. More people here and I have talked with several along the torturous paths. But no bears.

Virginia Falls

Trail etiquette is of interest. You may, in fact you are encouraged to talk to yourself. Everyone you see must tell you his or her bear story. They seem more excited than scared so I cannot resist telling about the partially eaten man found this week in Yellowstone. This from the person walking the trails alone. But firstly, I don’t like being without a bear story and secondly, I have no desire to see one even if it is the ass end. Everyone is friendly. I think this is because Rangers tell you to make noise so hikers feel safer talking to strangers. I only heard a few hikers with bells. I am told the way to tell a Grizzly from a black bear is from the bells in his scat.

The weather is in the low 40s, no clouds nor rain so a great day. I have hiked about 10 miles and am exhausted. Heading for a drink and shower, in that order.

I must ask at checkout, “Do I pay extra for the mice?” I hardly blame them for wanting to come in from the cold. I zipped up everything to prevent hitchhikers across state lines. When I saw one scrambling around on my daypack looking for a way in, I sealed the door with towels. No mouse holes in the food this morning.

No cell or 3G service, no surprise. However, the creepy part is my iPad knows exactly where I am, even on my hikes. How does it do that? The GPS is in communication all the time and places me within a few feet of my location. I feel like I am being stalked. If I didn’t like it so much, I would ask for a divorce.

1st Sept – nearly sunset as I sit on the beach at Lake McDonald (largest lake in the park) water gently lapping, dense green forests across the lake, and the glaciated peaks in the far distance. My camp is just a few feet away and the scene is idyllic.

Drive to Many Glacier Gate

Started my morning at Triple Divide Peak where the melting snows run to the Pacific, Hudson Bay, and Gulf of Mexico. Bear spirit talked to Sun and Winter and made treaty for more days of Summer so Bear can fatten. My day has turned out perfectly with rain ending early morning. I first drove to the St. Mary Visitor Center, which is worth the stop. Excellent exhibit of the Kootenai and Blackfeet perspective of the spirit of Glacier Park, the Top of the World. “We only gave you the rocks.” And of course the White Man took so much more. Everything about this park is awe-inspiring. I would not have willingly given any of its rocks away.

From the East Gate I turned north to Many Glacier and its historic lodge. This drive offers incredible views and quiet roads. The lodge is beautiful, my favorite for interior and view. On the road the breathtaking views never end.

North Glacier

Sacred Chief Mountain

I continue north to cross the International Border into Alberta Canada. At first I thought the Canadians were crazy with speed limits of 80 then realized it was kmh, just 55 mph. There are too few adjectives to describe the jagged peaks and towering snow covered mountains. I can see a dusting of snow on the top peaks with glaciers interspersed in the nooks and crannies. Chief Mountain reminds me of Devil’s Tower – a 9000′ majestic pillar of rock towering over the surrounding mountains and plains – a most sacred site of the Kootenai and Blackfeet. The sun breaks through the clouds with a mystical feel.

At Prince of Wales Lodge I walk around to enjoy it’s interior and wonderful view over Waterton Lake and mountains. Retracing my drive to the border, I spot deer, a moose and baby, but mostly range cattle standing in the road. But always beautiful panoramas.

My last stop is the historic East Glacier Lodge. Massive tree trunks work as crossbeams and pillars while fireplaces create a toasty atmosphere, piano and harp play in the background. The view is good. Directly across the street is the Amtrak Station, open in winter but the lodge will close soon.

Time to head to West Gate and reenter the park. Along the way are dense forests and rushing glacial rivers. I am camping at Fish Camp tonight and the weather is perfect. The sky is blue, clouds white and nonthreatening, temps in the 60s. A beer, fire in the grate, and water lapping at the shore of the lake. For entertainment, the ranger is talking about “Sex and the Glacier Park Animal.” Fine close to a fantastic day.

Waterfalls of Avalanche Creek

2nd Sept – Warm and toasty night. Awoke to Wind in the Trees welcoming Sun showing his pink feminine side over the peaks across the lake. If I had a hot cup of coffee all would be perfect.

Colors come from glacial silt in water.

I drove east along Lake McDonald to Avalanche Creek and Trail of the Cedars. Trail under a mile of boardwalk so extended my hike to include 2-mile trail to Avalanche Creek. Not many hikers but I managed to stay within sight of a couple fellows hoping they were more attractive as bear breakfast. A moderate climb of about 400 feet within old growth forest that has not burned since before 1500. The trail follows a deep gorge where the water is smashing through narrow rims, scouring the rock like glass as it tumbles down the gorge. The color of glaciated water stunning, their headwaters are my destination.

Scouring stones smooth

Avalanche Creek becomes a serene lake with rocky beach, surrounded on three sides by high mountains. Down one cliff face, three waterfalls are tumbling what must be 1500′ or more. I have the magnificent view practically to myself, give or take what wildlife I fail to see. “Hey Bear!”

I stop at Lake McDonald Lodge. Best about its interior is the chandelier made of tanned hides colorfully painted with indian symbols. Huge fireplace is inviting even on this sunny day. The view over the lake is peaceful. If I had a criticism of the lodges in general, it would be they are built in a Swiss Chalet style when I feel it should be traditional log cabin, western style. Interiors are in this style, why not exteriors?

Just 40 miles from West Gate is Kalispell. I toured the Conrad Mansion. Conrad brothers were early millionaires via riverboat shipping, cattle, mining, and banking. Charles Conrad bargained with the Northern Pacific RR that if they built the RR, he would build the town. They did, and he founded Kalispell. Conrad built his shingle-style 26-room mansion in 1895 using the same architect who built the lodge at Lake McDonald. Beautiful use of wood, bottle windows and arches throughout this 3-story home. He had all the amenities, including electricity with gas as backup, full bathrooms, electric dishwasher and refrigerator, heated room for drying laundry, a specially made stove with indoor grill (made in France, shipped and installed for $133), elevator, all modern conveniences like perhaps the first Cuisinart.

Conrad also bred a pure line of buffalo, some of which established the herd at the National Bison Refuge. Maybe that is one reason Teddy Roosevelt slept here. Before the presidency, he was a guest and enjoyed the hunting and fishing in the area.

Conrad’s daughter and son thought money grew on trees so they saw the dwindling of their father’s fortune, the ruin of the bank through unsecured loans to friends (sounds familiar), and the eventual need to close the house. Conrad’s granddaughter donated it to the city of Kalispell and because she and her mother were hoarders and never threw anything away, there are excellent records of the house and 90% of its contents are original.

Stayed the evening with PJ and Bud and their two darling Westies, Sophia and Duncan. Great BBQ and interesting conversation. They have a lovely home with a view of the snowy peaks of Glacier.

I have driven about 2060 miles in my northward journey. Tomorrow I begin my return trip southward.

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