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Glacier National Park, West
Glacier National Park is filled with dramatic craggy peaks and turquoise lakes. In the summer, there is still snow, as well as glacier remnants, tucked into high crevices.
During the last 150 years, the number of glaciers in the park has dwindled significantly, from 150 glaciers in 1850 to only 26 in 2010. Given the existing warming trend, many scientists predict that the remaining glaciers will be gone by the year 2020.
The park sits in the northern Rocky Mountains in Montana. There are two sides, East and West, linked together by a narrow, 50-mile stretch of asphalt called the “Going to the Sun Road.” During the first part of our visit, we explored the West side—camping among the tall trees next to Lake MacDonald, hiking to glacier-fed Avalanche Lake, and riding a shuttle along Going to the Sun Road to reach Logan Pass.
Entering the park:
We were now in Bear Country!
Glacier National Park has the largest population of grizzly bears anywhere in the U.S., except Alaska, and we were excited about the possibility of spotting a bear or two during our visit.
Fish Creek Campground
We stayed two nights at Fish Creek Campground, located on the shore of Lake McDonald, a few miles from the park entrance. We chose this campground because it is the only one that accepts reservations within the West side of the park. Since we were traveling in peak season (August), with an RV towing a trailer, we didn’t want to risk not finding a campsite that was long enough for us.
The road to our campground:
We passed through a stretch of burned trees, evidence of the huge fire in 2003 that had roared over the mountain ridge and swept down to the nearby lake. New pines with bright green needles were sprouting up in front of, and among, the charred trunks.
Look, look! Above the treetops, we caught glimpses of grey mountain peaks with patches of white.
We didn’t know whether those were glaciers or lingering snowfields, but the beauty still thrilled us.
Our campground was “full”, and we were relieved that we hadn’t just depended upon Lady Luck to get a spot.
Our rig fit perfectly between the trees in our campsite, with inches to spare. Ben raised the front end significantly to make the RV level.
Sebastian loved being surrounded by all the trees.
A short walk led us to the shore of Lake McDonald.
At 10 miles long and 1 ½ football fields deep, Lake McDonald is the largest lake within Glacier National Park. The lake basin was formed by a massive glacier that once filled this U-shaped valley.
The rocks along the shore had a fascinating mix of colors, with soft purples, reds, grays, greens, and even butterscotch.
Near a boathouse, Sebastian tested out his luck on a slippery log that was stretched between two rails:
We all froze in a stunned moment of silence when Sebastian lost his balance and plunged one foot, and then the other, into the shallow but icy water. Sebastian’s face registered shock and an instant look of “Uh oh, am I in trouble?”, as he searched our faces for a reaction. A second later, his hoots of laughter joined ours. Here is Sebastian with his wet feet:
Some hiking trails led off into the woods, and we decided to embark on the 1.7 mile Rocky Point Nature Trail Loop.
We could see Rocky Point from the water’s edge—it is the tip of land in the lower right corner of this photo:
Genevieve and Ben on the trail:
A squirrel scampered across our path, stopping on a small rock to nibble its nut.
Sebastian’s squishy shoes weren’t the best for hiking, so he and Ben returned to the campsite after about ½ a mile.
Genevieve and I continued on to Rocky Point. Through the trees, we could see the boathouse from where we had started:
Genevieve, on Rocky Point:
The view on the other side of the point:
The path then curved around a hill, through an area that was thick with green plants, growing around the burned trees.
It was here that my mind drifted to bears, and I started getting an uneasy feeling. The spot below my neck, right between my shoulder blades started prickling. Genevieve and I were separated from the campground by a hill. If we needed help, I doubted anyone would be able to hear our calls from almost a mile away. While I had a deep yearning to see a bear on this trip, I realized that I did not want to see a bear RIGHT NOW.
I had read that most bears will choose to move away from humans if they hear them, and that bear attacks usually occur when the bears are startled by hikers who suddenly appear. Key advice from park rangers was to make noise as you walk so that the bears will be able to retreat before visual contact occurs. So Genevieve and I talked loudly, and even sang silly songs, as we hiked. Most of our songs had the same theme, which was generally “We sure hope that there are no bears around here!”
Here is Genevieve sliding through some fallen trees:
My eyes constantly scanned the trees for any signs of movement. I couldn’t shake the eerie sense that we were being watched.
Any bears in there?
We quickened our pace, but we still took the time to stop and admire these tiny white flowers that were blooming by the trailside:
I cannot over-exaggerate the sense of relief I felt as we arrived safely back at the campground.
Sebastian was toasting his wet feet by the fire that he and Ben had just built.
Like many other national park campgrounds, Fish Creek offered a nightly ranger program in the summer. The topic on our first night was the geology of Glacier National Park. Genevieve and Sebastian led the way to the amphitheater, with their Jr. Ranger booklets in hand:
Ranger Mati, from New York, provided an entertaining and informative presentation.
Here are a few tidbits of info that we learned:
--Glacier National Park has a Triple Divide, where the water not only flows to the east and to the west, but also to the north into Canada.
--The white birch pine is dying out because of a plant disease called blister rust. Various treatments have been unsuccessful. Last year in the park, 5000 new saplings were planted; 70% died, but 30% are doing well.
--Lake McDonald only contains 5% native species. The park stocked the lake with non-native Lake Trout until 1971. Now the native Bull Trout is endangered from the Lake Trout.
--The pine trees are being eaten and destroyed by pine bark beetles. In the past, cold temperatures during the winter would freeze and kill off the pine bark beetles, but now the winters have not been cold enough to affect the beetle’s life cycle.
--The glaciers here have been melting slowly over the past 10,000 years. However, in the last 100 years, the melting process has escalated to such a rapid extreme that the animals and plants have not had enough time to adjust.
Avalanche Lake Trail, via the Trail of Cedars
Glacier National Park is known for its miles and miles of fantastic hiking trails. We chose to hike to Avalanche Lake on a 4.8 mile loop that would take us through some groves of red cedars.
The trailhead was about 6 miles down the Going to the Sun Road. We opted to take the free shuttle, which does not stop at our campground. We first had to drive to the transit center, near the park entrance. Here is the parking lot:
The shuttles are small, accommodating about 12 passengers each:
The crowd that was already waiting for the next available shuttle was large. We had to put our names on a waiting list and were told that “maybe” we could get on the shuttle one hour from now.
This shuttle schedule, however, was completely different from the one printed in the park newspaper. And even though we had been advised repeatedly by park rangers to use the shuttle, instead of drive, the number of shuttles was simply inadequate to handle the hoards of people who were listening to that advice.
I went to the transit office and voiced my concerns over the shuttle situation in a very respectful, calm, and reasonable manner--thinking that the only way to get change is to let the people in charge know that a change is needed. I ended up speaking with an administrative staff member (Sharon) who listened, said that she agreed with everything I said, and then immediately found room for us on a shuttle that was leaving the transit center without passengers (it was scheduled to pick up a load of passengers from the trailhead where we were being dropped off, to carry them further along the Going to the Sun Road). We were so grateful!
We started our trek at the entrance to the Trail of the Cedars, a ¾ mile loop that connected with the Avalanche Lake Trail.
Avalanche Creek ran by the path.
Starting off, we wound our way through a small moist canyon, filled with ferns, red cedars, and many other types of plants.
The black cottonwood trees had chunky, serrated bark:
The offshoots on these roots resembled arms and legs, like a web of overlapping lizards:
This tree’s shallow roots weren’t strong enough to keep it from toppling over into the creek, perhaps pulled down by raging currents during a storm:
We soon reached the entrance to Avalanche Lake Trail, where a large map showed us the two mile route to the lake.
Up we went!
A distant roar gradually became louder until it was thundering all around us. The cause was Avalanche Creek, cascading over a series of large boulders:
Sebastian and Ben:
Another view of the rushing water, further upstream:
Scenes from the trail:
Sebastian, looking through one end of a hollow log:
Genevieve, in front of a humongous moss-covered boulder:
Melting snow, as well as run-off from Sperry glacier high above, created long waterfalls:
We hiked down the side of the lake to reach a small beach, away from the majority of hikers who elected to stop at the beginning of the lake. From this angle, the lake water was a brilliant turquoise:
The startling color is caused by the presence of “glacial flour”, which consists of bits of rock and sediment that are ground up by the movement of glaciers. When glacier ice melts and flows into a lake, the glacial flour is suspended in the water. Light hits the fine particles and is reflected back as vivid turquoise or blue-green color.
Looking back to the other end of the lake:
Sebastian was drawn to the water’s edge:
Genevieve and I found a cozy log (which also provided a nice place to sit and enjoy our picnic lunch):
Behind us was a tree draped in pale-green moss:
Nearby were some bright orange flowers:
Genevieve and Sebastian had a rock-throwing contest:
Sebastian found a small friend:
After lunch, we walked along the water to reach the return trail. We had used our umbrellas during portions of the morning hike, but now the delicious sun was warming our faces.
At this end of the lake, logs criss-crossed the shallow bottom.
They had been swept here by the current that surges into Avalanche Creek, and were now slowly deteriorating.
A robin was perched on the end of one log:
To Sebastian’s delight, another chipmunk friend popped out of the rocks:
Back on the trail, the two-mile return hike seemed to fly by, with Genevieve and Ben engaged in animated conversations, punctuated with laughter:
Here is Genevieve leaning against the shallow root system of another fallen tree:
She had found some garbage along the trail and was carrying it out in a plastic bag.
Returning to the Trail of the Cedars, we took a right turn and crossed over a wooden bridge:
Looking down from the bridge, we could see the aqua glacial waters:
The water had just finished a turbulent ride down a narrow channel:
Water was abundant in this small canyon, not only from the creek but from hillside springs that dripped down mossy rocks:
Ferns thrived in the moist environment:
The view above us:
At the trailhead, Sebastian climbed onto the bridge above Avalanche Creek:
Down below, we could see how the water transformed the rocks from their dusty greys to richer colors:
Waiting for the shuttle, Sebastian compared his foot with the print of a black bear:
A craggy peak reminded us that we are indeed in the “Rocky Mountains.”
During the shuttle ride back, we looked across Lake McDonald and could see the shimmering roof of the boathouse at our campground, as well as the promontory called Rocky Point (on the far right), where we had hiked yesterday.
We opted to be dropped off at Apgar Village, near the transit center, which contains Apgar Visitor’s Center:
We have visited many national parks across the United States, and this was one had the most meager set of exhibits we have seen—very surprising given the rich history of this park and the thousands of people that visit each year.
An exhibit out on the street had some photos of the old Apgar Village, which was named after Milo Apgar, one of the early European-American settlers who teamed up with other settlers and began offering rental cabins and lake excursions to visitors in 1896.
The Apgar Schoolhouse was used from 1915 to 1958, and is now a gift shop:
For the kids, the most fascinating thing about Apgar Village was a large beetle-bug that they found inside the general store. They were wowed by the beetle’s long antennae and speckled body:
Although difficult to locate due to lack of signs, there was a wide bicycle/pedestrian path from the village to the transit center—about a 10 minute walk. Ben and Genevieve, on the path:
Shuttle to Logan Pass, on the Going to the Sun Road
The Going to the Sun Road lived up to its heavenly name. We rose early so that we could be on the 7:30 a.m. shuttle to Logan Pass, which is the highest point along the road. We would have loved to have driven ourselves, but our RV (plus towed trailer) was way beyond the 21-foot vehicle limit.
The early rays of light cast a rosy glow on the tree trunks near our campground.
We made the shuttle on time! Here is Sebastian on board—you can see the time of “7:31 AM” behind him:
The road was completed in 1933 and was considered an engineering marvel. The builders blasted through tons of rock to carve out a winding path, often along sheer cliffs.
During our 1 hour and 20 minute ride to Logan Pass, we were treated to some amazing views.
One long stretch of rock next to the road is called “Weeping Wall” because of the constant flow of water down the face.
Recently, construction crews began a multi-year rehabilitation project to improve the road and fix deteriorated sections. The construction caused some traffic delays, as portions of the road were reduced to a single lane.
Logan’s Pass is 6650 feet in elevation and sits on the Continental Divide—where all waterways on the west side generally flow into the Pacific Ocean, and those on the east side flow into the Atlantic Ocean (including the Gulf of Mexico).
The brisk wind had a chill that blasted through our clothing. You can see evidence of the wind from the flags below, in front of the Visitor's Center:
We waited about 15 minutes for the Visitor’s Center to open:
Our view from the steps:
We were surprised at the small number of exhibits. One photo showed the disappearance of Boulder Glacier in just 36 years:
Another photo showed the Visitor’s Center buried in snow in mid-June 2010, less than two months before our visit:
We also got an up-close look at one of the animals commonly found around Logan’s Pass--a marmot:
While at the Visitor’s Center, Genevieve and Sebastian showed their completed Jr. Ranger booklets to a volunteer worker, who checked over their answers and then swore them in as Jr. Rangers for Glacier National Park.
Sebastian, with his new Jr. Ranger badge:
Back outside, we found the path that led to Hidden Lake, a 6-mile round trip hike.
The paved trail soon turned into an elevated wooden walkway:
Before too long, Genevieve was shivering in her lightweight jacket, and the wind was beginning to wear on the rest of us. We decided to turn around. On our return walk, we were rewarded with a visit from this beautiful deer:
We also saw a little marmot darting across the field with a mouthful of dried grass. We caught a photo just as it was diving into its tunnel home (yes, it’s that brown thing in the middle):
Waiting for the return shuttle, we soaked in the splendor around us:
The West side of Glacier National Park had certainly captivated us with its beauty. After returning to our campground, we packed up and headed out—ready to experience the pleasures of the East side. To get there in our RV, we needed to exit the park and make a big “U” shape by driving about 2 hours around the southern edge of the park, from west to east.
One last view of Lake McDonald:
Additional Information About Glacier National Park:
Link to National Park Service website on Glacier National Park.
Link to directions.
Link to map of Glacier National Park.
Link to trail map for Lake McDonald area.
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