National Park Number: 17 of 59
In Alaska we ran into several couples who had been to every or nearly every National Park (those Alaska parks can be beasts, so they were usually the last to be checked off.) When we asked about favorite parks, the most common answer was Glacier. This made us a) stoked to go there, and b) excited that a park so accessible is on the top of so many lists. I feel like it’s easy to praise a place few people visit and equally easy to get down on somewhere many people have experienced; travel has always been at least a little about exclusivity and bragging to your friends, and that aspect drives me nuts. My thought: who the heck cares where you’re traveling as long as you’re having a good time?
Don’t get me wrong—Glacier is still a long drive away for most people, but Montana is no Alaska, plus once you’re there the park is full of amenities, an extensive trail system, and one of the most incredibly scenic drives in the world, Going-to-the-Sun Road. There are hikes for every skill set, loads of pristine lakes, and wildlife galore. It’s heaven.
Glacier actually forms one International Peace Park with Waterton National Park in Canada, just to the north. Because we were coming down from Banff and Jasper, we stopped in Waterton first. Unfortunately, it was pretty smoky from nearby forest fires and we decided to try our luck farther south. We’ve heard great things about Waterton’s hikes and paddling, though, and we definitely want to come back!
But on this day, we headed across the border to the Many Glacier area of Glacier NP to stretch our legs on a hike to Grinnell Lake. We hiked eight miles and Graham wasn’t super impressed with this, so we took lots of breaks to admire the scenery and especially to ogle Glacier’s many-hued rocks. Besides being gorgeously colorful, many of the rocks here were palm-sized and flat, perfect for skipping. We saw two moose close to the trail (with a ranger nearby to keep people from trying to pet them—for real), another moose with two calves at the lake, and on the way back, a little fawn hanging out by the outhouses.
On the way back we played approximately two thousand rounds of 20 Questions to get Graham through, and for the millionth time on this trip, I thanked our lucky stars that we have the sporting-est 4-year-old in all the land, who is not always stoked about everything we do, but is patient and willing to try hard things. He is the best hiking buddy.
The next day, we hopped on the shuttle bus at the Saint Mary Visitor Center for a ride up to Logan Pass. Our bus is a few feet too long for us to take on the Going-to-the-Sun road (the limit is 21 feet; we’re about 23-24), which was fine with us because we didn’t want to worry about parking. Having just come from Denali, we were pleased as punch with Glacier’s shuttle: it’s extremely well-run and well-thought-out, FREE (woohoo!) and best of all, it allowed us all to focus on the scenery instead of the (sort of terrifying) road.
We rode all the way across the park to Apgar Village, grabbed lunch, and took the shuttle back to the trailhead to St. Mary’s Falls. The trail winds through burned-out forest to the sapphire-blue waters of the falls. Throughout our trip, a small forest fire was burning near the east end of Lake McDonald and on this day, the sun shining through the smoke made all the light golden. We climbed up above the falls and watched the light play on the water—I couldn’t get enough of this scene.
On the drive back to our bus, we watched the sun set over the mountains and Saint Mary Lake. That night we drove to the western side of the park (via a road that goes around, rather than through, Glacier) and set up camp on the shore of Lake McDonald. David stayed up late to take some star pictures, but ended up mostly photographing the fire burning on the other shore. Another photographer told him the Northern Lights were burning, too—only visible with a long exposure on the camera, so he didn't wake me up, but I loved seeing the pictures he took.
The next morning, we took the shuttle again, this time disembarking at Logan Pass for a hike up to the Hidden Lake Overlook. This trail is one of the most popular ones in the park and it was crowded—just in case you think we’re always experiencing nature in a state of solo bliss: NOT SO. Glacier was hopping most of the days we were there and we were never alone. But we don’t mind this—we like the solidarity of hiking with other people, striking up conversations with strangers, and people-watching for entertainment. If you’re hiking for the solitude, this is not your trail (actually, most of Glacier’s trail are not your trail, at least not in summer), but the view at the top was pretty unbeatable.
We also got to see a herd of bighorn sheep grazing. Two of them were getting on each others' nerves and gave us a show by rearing up on their back legs, then running at each other and ramming horns. The sound of the ramming echoed around the rocks and made the whole thing unbelievably cool. We were entranced for a solid 30 minutes.
The next day was Sunday and on Sundays we church. Then after Church-at-the-Church, we rode the shuttle back to Logan Pass for Church-in-the-Mountains and a hike on the Highline Trail. We’d been told this was a must and we were super excited to get up on it—the trail is carved into the mountain above Going-to-the-Sun road and has killer views of the valley. We wanted to take a full day to hike all 11.8 miles of it, but Graham had had a stomach bug two days before (which involved much throwing up in the shuttle bus garbage can) and we didn’t want to push him. Instead we hiked a few miles out and back and I carried Graham most of the way. He hadn’t gotten to ride in the Ergo pack for a few years and he was SO HAPPY to be a baby again. And I, as always, kept telling myself that carrying kids while hiking is just training in case I ever decide to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail or something. It’s no surprise that two six-foot-and-over people like David and I would have super solid kids, but it never ceases to amaze me when I pick up any other child and it feels essentially like lifting a bag of feathers. Next time we’re springing for the carbon fiber skeleton kids.
Before we left the park, we took one more stop to walk the loop trail to Avalanche Creek. David and I wanted to hike up to Avalanche Lake, but the kids (and David’s knee) were not having it. Instead we took the trail at the kids’ pace, stopping to make leaf boats and throw rocks in the river. Graham made a “candy store” inside this hollowed-out tree and sold us a bunch of pretend sugar at eye-popping prices ($100 for a cupcake!) and Margi kept trying to plunge herself into the river. It was perfect, and I felt like I am finally starting to slow down on the inside.
Before we arrived there, we had much more ambitious plans for hiking Glacier. But then David’s knee was acting up, and Graham got sick, and we slept in a few times, and in the end, we substituted or cut short almost every hike we went on. Even so, or maybe for that very reason, Glacier ended up being one of our favorite parks, not just for what it had to offer (which was everything, amazing, all the time), but because we were all happy there, calm, grateful and glad.