Back to Glacier National Park
26.08.2017 - 03.09.2017
When we are in the mountains of Montana, we forget to count the days. Nothing exists but the crunch of the trail beneath our boots, the fresh air that smells of pine and wildflowers, and the big blue sky that stretches endlessly above us. We forget about alarm clocks and schedules. We go to the mountains to fill our spirits with good things. We come home refreshed.
Going to Montana feels like going home. I can’t explain it, other than to say that I feel like I am my best self when I am there. I feel the most complete and at peace. As much as I love my island home in the Bahamas, my heart truly lives in the mountains of Montana.
In Montana, I feel wild and free.
It was time to go over the mountains and through the woods.
ARE WE THERE YET?
A series of airline mishaps got us to GNP in the dark, rather than our original noon arrival time. We did nothing more than crash in our simple cabin at the Apgar Village Lodge when we arrived. It was not the day we had planned. We went to bed grumpy and frustrated, having missed out on a half day of our plans.
We did enjoy a beautiful evening at Lake McDonald, however. We just caught the dying rays of the sun. We spent the night in a simple cabin. Accommodations in the park are pretty basic, but we can't help but love them in all their terrible simplicity.
When we woke up the next morning on the shores of Lake McDonald, all was forgiven.
This place had a magic that soothed the soul. As we gazed across the water at a spectacular sunrise, we simply felt blessed to be in this place.
We had a quick breakfast in our cabin on our circa 1951 yellow formica table, sipping coffee from our brown diner mugs, and contemplated our day.
Losing our leisurely entry day meant we had to hit the ground running. No lolling around looking at the scenery to get acclimated. We were hitting it hard with the demanding Siyeh Pass Loop hike. Not truly a loop, the hike would take us 11 miles, ending about a mile from where we began, requiring a shuttle ride back to where we started. In addition to the stunning views, we’d get to enjoy 2300 feet of elevation gain, one reason why this hike was considered one of the more strenuous hikes in the park.
We were worried that the nearby Sprague Fire, which had been sparked by lightning about 2 weeks before our arrival in the park, would create too much haze and smoke to enjoy the hike. The fire had already grown to 1500 acres. However, we were pleasantly surprised to find that there was very little smoke at all. It was a beautiful day for a hike!
And what a hike it was. Considered one of the most scenic day hikes in the park, it didn’t disappoint. Despite the fact that it was labeled “strenuous,” it really didn’t seem that bad at all. A walk in the park, really.
The trail meandered along Siyeh Creek for a short distance before turning sharply into the forest.
After a long series of moderately inclined switchbacks, we reached a flat area called “Preston Park,” a glacially carved valley filled with soft meadows and what remained of the season’s wildflowers. Each meadow became larger as we approached Siyeh Pass.
We were surrounded by giants. Matahpi Peak, Piegan Mountain, and Heavy Runner Mountain towered above us as we made our way through the sunny meadows.
After several miles of meadow, we crossed Siyeh Creek. The views were outstanding.
It was then that my least favorite part of any hike began, climbing to the pass. We had about 1.5 miles of steep climbing to reach Siyeh Pass.
As we made our way up the endless switchbacks, I really didn’t think it was all that grueling, considering the descriptions of the hike I had read: “significantly challenging,” “really difficult hike,” “bring plenty of water and strong knees,” “very steep scree slope.” I could see the summit and it wasn’t that far away.
When I reached it, I realized why it didn’t seem that bad. It was a false summit. We had only just gotten started. From there, the trail rose steeply upward for what seemed an eternity.
With every new switchback, I became more certain I should have just stayed at the motel for the day and watched daytime TV in my pajamas, eating vending machine chips.
Unfortunately, I was 5 miles from anywhere in either direction. Fueled by determination (and a strong desire for the Italian Hoagie wedged deeply in Matt's backpack), we powered up the mountain.
The views at the top were …..just…..magnificent.
Unfortunately, what goes up must come down and I generally find going steeply downhill more painful than going up. Thankfully, we were distracted from the steep trek downward by big horn sheep scattered on either side of the trail and views to forever.
When we finally got low enough to be out of the wind and were able to find a spot that wasn’t so steep we’d surely slide to our deaths if we stopped moving, we sat down for lunch.
From this point, it was a long hike through Sunrift Gorge back to the Going to the Sun Road where we would shuttle back to the car and meet our friends as they finished up their Highline Trail hike. The high point of the afternoon was finding a pool of ice cold water we could soak our aching feet in.
As we neared the bottom, we noticed the thickening haze from the wildfires. The afternoon winds had blown the smoke our way. Thankfully, we were “out of the woods” and headed to Many Glacier Hotel, where we could grab some showers, some dinner, and rest our weary feet.
Many Glacier is a beautiful historic property on the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake. One of my favorite moments on any trip to GNP is sitting on the expansive deck in an oversized Adirondack chair, a drink in my hand, reliving the best moments of the day as the sun sets behind Mount Grinnell.
Sunset gazing was followed by dinner at the best steakhouse in northwest Montana. The Cattle Baron supper club looks like a total dive from the outside, complete with a parking lot full of pick-up trucks and more than its share of neon beer signs adorning the windows. Once you walk inside, you are transported, greeted by gleaming wood, white tablecloths, and candlelight. It’s filled with everything a fancy Montana steakhouse should have: giant wagon wheels, barstools made out of whiskey barrels, antler chandeliers, and Indian headdresses. What’s not to love?
And the steaks? Prehistoric.
And so fresh you might drive past tomorrow night’s meal on the way home.
GUESS WHO CAME TO DINNER?
It’s hard to beat waking up at Many Glacier Hotel, grabbing a cup of coffee, and watching the sun come up. Sure, the coffee isn’t very good and it’s terribly overpriced, but …that view.
Sunrise over Swiftcurrent Lake is majestic.
The sun crawls slowly over the edges of the mountains, first red, then gold, and the water is still as glass, turning every beautiful image into a double vision.
Afterward, we headed a mile down the road to the Swiftcurrent Motel where we grabbed a hearty breakfast at Nell’s.
This was also where Matt and I needed to pick up our backcountry pass. Oh yes. We were doing it again. We would be hiking into the backcountry and camping overnight.
So I got 3 pancakes instead of 2.
And I stuffed a few packets of jelly into my pocket.
We did the Cracker Lake hike on our very first trip to Glacier National Park and I was awestruck by the turquoise lake hidden far back in a cirque of mountains. It has always remained my very favorite hike.
While we had returned to do the hike several more times on subsequent trips, we had never obtained a camping permit to spend the night there. This time, I had managed to secure an advanced reservation for one of the 3 coveted tent sites at Cracker Lake for the night.
This broke the 12 mile hike into 2 days. Only 6 miles of hiking in a day was practically leisurely compared to the Siyeh Pass hike, even though I would have a full pack on my back. Steve and Al would hike in with us, but would hike back out on their own while we set up camp to stay for the night. We’d rejoin them the next day back at the Many Glacier Hotel.
The hike back to Cracker Lake started with a trek high around the edge of Cracker Flats. I always look for bears here. It just seems like a place they would be. If I was a bear, I’d definitely be down there.
"No, I am not easily distracted...oooooo.....is that a bird?"
The trail then entered the forest where it climbed endless switchbacks up and up and up for what literally seems like an eternity. Even though I had hiked this trail at least 5 times before, I didn’t remember it being this difficult. Oh yes, the backpack. There’s a really big difference between walking somewhere and walking somewhere with a bag the size of a small European country on your back.
Around mile 5, the trail broke out of the forest into a canyon. We still couldn’t see the lake, and the trail wound around and around, over one hill after another, never actually getting to the lake. We were certain at each rise that we’d see the lake on the other side.
The anticipation was maddening.
Just before mile 6, we reached the top of a hill and the lake came into view in all its cerulean splendor.
The color of the lake is the result of “glacial flour," fine rock particles from the glacier grinding on the mountains above” suspended in the water, reflecting the light.
It was simply breathtaking.
We spread out on a warm rock for lunch, soaking in the sunshine like a bunch of lizards, and feeling too lazy to move.
That’s when Mister Fabulous arrived.
In all my days of hiking in the backcountry, I have never seen anything like him.
A young man in hiking attire that was far too fancy to be practical strolled up to our spot and made it clear that we were exactly where he intended to be. He was alone and carried a billowy white scarf (what the???) and a camera with a selfie stick. Despite our obviously invasive presence, he proceeded to flutter around the meadow photographing himself with his scarf in a dramatic fashion, all while shooting daggers at us with his eyes because our hiking and becoming one with nature was apparently interfering with his Instagram photo shoot.
He was starring in his own movie, and we were bad extras.
I did my personal best to ensure a Cheez-It ended up in the background of every shot.
With lunch over and Mister Fabulous hallway back to the Many Glacier Hotel with his billowy white scarf, it was time for Steve and Alison to hit the trail back while Matt and I finished the last mile to the campground and set up camp for the night.
I was giddy. I had never gone past the overlook point on the trail. For all the times I had been to Cracker Lake, I had never actually been TO Cracker Lake.
The trail took us to a hill overlooking the lake where we found 3 tent sites, each as spectacular as the other. We chose the one that seemed to offer the most privacy from the other two and set up camp.
I couldn’t believe the view from our tent.
Sure, backcountry camping requires a long walk with a heavy pack, a lot of organized planning of gear, meals that are less spectacular than crap you ate in your college dorm room, and there is that whole “setting up camp” business before you can relax, but this view was exactly why we suffered through it.
A backcountry campsite beats front country camping any day. My experience with front country camping was that the only thing “camplike” about it was the tent, but that it was mostly screaming children, the smell of burnt hot dogs and chili, and competing radios with Toby Keith trying to out sing Nascar.
Not this place.
This was pristine. This was perfect. The silence was complete and the air smelled of nothing more than fresh wildflowers.
We spent the afternoon walking the shore of the lake, laying on the warm rocks and listening to the water trickle down from the mountains above, and simply taking off our shoes to walk barefoot in the water.
Oh, and chilling our wine in the ice cold water.
Why wine? Because I don’t hike unless there is wine at the end of the trail. Backcountry camping is why wine comes in plastic pouches, people.
Dinner was cheese and crackers (i.e., pasteurized processed cheese food and Triscuits) followed by gourmet noodles (i.e., Ramen noodles with foil pouch chicken and veges), which we almost got to eat hard and raw because I forgot the matches. Thankfully, we were able to use the barter system (which is all you have when you are 6 miles from anything) to secure some matches from our tent neighbors in exchange for sunscreen, which they had forgotten, as evidenced by their bright red faces hiding inside their tent until the sun went down.
We thought that being this far out in the wilderness would prevent unwanted dinner guests (like screaming children with hot dog sticks and pockets filled with half melted chocolate), but then this guy showed up.
Within seconds, the other 4 campers (all young women) had moved to our tent and stood with me and Matt while we watched to see what the bear would do.
It was only then that I realized the benefit that having small children at a campground would offer. Sure, they seem to only have one volume – SCREAMING – and one speed – RUNNING - but they are also bite sized and typically covered in BBQ sauce and melted marshmallows. I’m no outdoor expert, but if I was a bear, that would certainly sound more delicious to me than a 47 year old pre-menopausal woman coated unapologetically in DEET.
As we watched, huddled together, the bear continued walking at a leisurely pace around the shore toward our side of the lake. I really didn’t want him to keep walking toward us only to be surprised when he discovered his path was covered with smelly humans who had just eaten dinner and probably had some leftover chicken on their pants, so I stood at our tent and yelled, “HEY BEAR!”
Seriously. That’s what they tell you to do in the backcountry camping orientation video you are required to watch when you pick up your permits. It tells you how to pee properly, how not to die of exposure, and what to do if you see a bear.
The answer to that third item, obviously, is to yell, “HEY BEAR!”
I can’t make this stuff up.
Anyway, it was my hope that by alerting him to our presence, he would run away.
Instead, the bear just stood there looking at me while I looked at him.
He walked a few more feet and stared.
We did this until it got too dark to see him anymore.
Rather than all 6 of us sitting together in our tent all night (which we seriously considered), everyone eventually made their way back to their own tent, zipped up tight, and hoped their tent didn’t simply look like an airy crepe filled with a delicious meat snack.
“Your odds of getting attacked by a bear are, like, 1 in 2 million,” Matt said as he dozed off to sleep. “Stop worrying, you’re more likely to get struck by lightning than get attacked by a bear, and do you know anyone who’s been struck by lightning? I didn’t think so. Go to sleep.”
I went to sleep, stars blazing above….imagining that every crackling twig or swish of grass was most certainly the bear on the hill above, catching a whiff of the pasteurized processed cheese product I had smeared on my sweat pants.
It doesn’t matter that the bear was probably miles away by this time, it is amazing the volume of irrational thoughts that the darkness of a backcountry campsite can generate. When you are sleeping in a tent in the wilderness of Montana, every unidentifiable night noise is clearly a bear coming to eat you in your sleep.
WHEW. WE'RE OUT OF THE WOODS.
Bears or no, waking up at Cracker Lake was a magical experience. Although, the first thing I did was use the binoculars to make sure the bear was gone.
The light was soft and the air was still and quiet. A lone mountain goat stood sentry on a rock outcropping above us.
We enjoyed hot coffee, loaded oatmeal, and crispy bacon before breaking camp and starting the long, and thankfully uneventful, hike back out.
We made it back to the Many Glacier Hotel before lunch, met up with Steve and Alison, and drove back toward Babb. Our goal was to drive all the way to East Glacier, about 2.5 hours on the curvy Montana roads.
We stopped en route at Two Sisters, a funky little place just outside of Many Glacier, near St. Mary. They make a mean burger and some amazing pie a la mode.
From there, it was a long and lazy drive to East Glacier Village to the Glacier Park Lodge for the night with a real bed and a real shower.
Matt and I chose to stay in the adorable Gardener’s Cottage which was as cozy as it was cute. Set apart from the main lodge, it gave me a chance to clean and organize our camping gear and repack our backpacks for the following day’s overnight hike.
Because one miserable night sleeping with one eye open in the woods wondering if you will die before sunrise is simply not enough.
We fortified ourselves with cocktails in the lodge bar before heading to our favorite East Glacier restaurant for dinner. Serranos is a quaint little dive that serves killer margaritas and delicious Mexican food.
The platter of nachos was big enough to feed all four of us, but that didn’t stop me from making a valiant attempt to eat them by myself.
That night, I was happy to sleep in a real bed with nothing to hear but the sound of a box fan that meant me no harm.
Want to know what else happens in Montana??? Stay tuned for Part II!