A Travellerspoint blog

Take a Hike

Our 10th Trip to the Last Best Place

When the mountains call, you listen.

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It had been 3 years since our last trip to Montana. The last trip was in the fall of 2020. The entire east half of the park was closed due to COVID. The entire west half of the park was blanketed in heavy smoke from neighboring wildfires. It wasn’t ideal, but it was MONTANA and we loved it.

It had been too long and we were itching to get back.

Day 1: Getting There Is NOT Half the Fun

Even though it seems to take 27 ½ hours to get from TN to Montana, it’s early when you arrive, thanks to the ungodly hour that the American Airlines flight leaves Knoxville and the repeated time changes.

I love the Kalispell airport almost as much as I love our tiny, easy Knoxville airport. It’s small, it’s uncrowded, and you are in and out in minutes. It also has the added bonus of bears, mountain goats, and all sorts of wilderness goodies to welcome you to the wild country.

We picked up our rented bear spray (a GREAT addition to the airport!) and checked out our TURO car rental. This was our 3rd time using TURO. The first, in the Keys, was AMAZING. The second time, in Maine, we had an adorable Mini that obviously hadn’t had the a/c serviced in years and we hit it right during the worst heat wave in Maine in 40 years. We nearly died.

This time, we had a reasonably decent vehicle with one ABSOLUTELY BALD TIRE. I was starting to learn the downside to TURO, the AirBNB of cars….unlike Budget, there is no guarantee that your vehicle will be properly maintained. Looking at those exposed bands on that tire and thinking about a 1 hour drive down the bumpy dirt road that leads to Polebridge, a cold sweat broke out on my brow.

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We crossed our fingers and our toes and hoped for the best.

We literally used every available space in the back with our luggage and still had suitcases under our feet. Maybe I should have gone with a cargo van.

Undaunted, we set out in search of our first adventure. We found it at Glacier Distilling, en route to Glacier National Park.

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Not only do they sell some amazing bottled spirits, you can have a few cocktails before you hit the road.

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We sampled, we sipped, we purchased some cherry bourbon for the road, and we headed to our first night’s accommodations at the historic Belton Chalet.

If you have read my blog before, you know my M.O. in Glacier National Park is to start on the west side and move lodging across the park to the east side and then move back west. We rarely stay in the same place 2 nights and we love it.

Belton Chalet is a lovely historic property that sits at the west entrance to the park. We had reserved one of the Lewis and Clark cabins. These rustic cabins are free standing and offer 3 bedrooms, a cozy den with a fireplace, and a kitchenette. It was just what we needed.

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We cleaned up and headed to the Belton Chalet dining room for dinner.

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Belton Chalet is one of the few places in the park where you can get a proper meal. Most of the park lodges have “park lodge food,” which is fine when you’ve been hiking all day and are hungry enough to eat a cardboard and mayonnaise sandwich , but on that first night, it’s lovely to sit down in Belton’s beautiful dining room and sample some craft cocktails and fine food.

We had missed lunch (unless pretzels and whiskey count), so we clearly overordered.

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That did not stop us from eating all of it.

And regretting it.

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Day 2: Getting Our Hike On

The only hike I truly LOVE on the west side of Glacier National Park is Avalanche Lake.

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Everyone else loves it too, so if you don’t hit the trail by 8:00 a.m., you’ll be hiking in a steady line with about 200 other people. It's more like being in a queue to ride Space Mountain at Disney than hiking in the woods.

That’s why I woke everyone up in the dark, made a quick breakfast in the cabin "kitchen" (which was a microwave and a coffee pot....not even a sink....), packed trail lunches, and shooed them out the door before the sun had even peeked over the mountains.

We weren’t here to sleep. We were here to HIKE.

But first….we had to try to shove all of that luggage back in the vehicle. There was a shouting match, some choice words, a little bit of crying…and finally…success!

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We reached the trailhead just at sunrise and didn’t see another soul. We only saw a handful of people on our entire hike up to the lake and it was absolutely blissful.

The Avalanche Lake hike gives so much in such a short hike. The hike back to the lake is only 2.5 miles, but wow, so much is packed into that 2.5 miles, and you get the added bonus of seeing it all again on the hike out.

You first walk through the Trail of Cedars, a soft, quiet, dark walk through incredibly beautiful huge cedar trees.

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Once you start to climb, you reach Avalanche Gorge. The most amazing turquoise water rushes with incredible force through a red rock gorge. Framed by green cedars, it’s breathtaking.

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After the gorge, it’s a trek through a quiet forest with occasional views of the river.

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And then….you reach beautiful Avalanche Lake. Because very few people had made the hike at this early hour, we had our choice of seats where we could simply sit and enjoy the mirror-like lake and the stillness of the morning.

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I noticed a few people walking the trail beside the lake, something we had never done. I have NO IDEA why we had never done it….but it felt like it was time.

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Imagine how stupid I felt when we reached the other end of the lake and realized it was the most gorgeous part of the whole hike. How had we missed this all these years????

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We spent about an hour wandering around the head of the lake, watching a busy little beaver swim back and forth, building his dam. Wow. Just ….wow.

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Sorry for the photo overload, but asking me to choose a favorite photo is like asking a mother to choose her favorite child, and, unless you are MY mother, that's not an easy task.

We then did the whole hike in reverse, and it was just as amazing.

Go on the Avalanche Lake Hike with us:

We had originally planned to have lunch at the lake, but since we arrived by 10:00 a.m., we had aborted that plan. It wasn’t lunchtime until we finished the hike, so we found a picnic area on Lake McDonald and found a front row seat to the views for a picnic.

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We still had half a day to enjoy, so we headed on to Apgar and checked in to the Agpar Village Inn, the most amazing terrible room you’ll ever stay in.

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I love Apgar Village Inn. It’s identical to every motel your parents ever took you to in 1974, complete with bad carpeting, ugly furniture, and polyester bedspreads. The bathrooms are laughable, there is no air conditioning, no phone, and no T.V. You get this amazingly ghastly room for the bargain price of $300.

“Why?” you ask.

THIS is why.

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It’s simply magical.

We cleaned up, grabbed an ice cream cone, and started the long, arduous drive along the bumpy, pitted, and extremely long dirt road to Polebridge. I looked at that bald tire and said a quick prayer.

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If you break down on the Northfork Rd…..you are probably there for a while.

Miraculously…the tire held and we made it Polebridge. I never tire of this quaint spot, despite the hour long drive that jars my teeth and fills my lungs with dust.

The Polebridge Merc still had their beautiful display of fresh baked goods, dogs still greeted us happily living their best lives (except these two who looked like someone had just peed in their dog biscuits), and the Northern Lights Saloon still served up a great dinner.

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I also found my soul mate in Polebridge.

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We headed back to Apgar in time to sit on our $300 deck and watch the sunset.

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You can't put a price on this.

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Day 3: Time To Hit the High Notes

When it gets dark at 8:00 p.m. and you don’t have a T.V., you go to bed early.

You also wake up early.

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Today was the Highline Trail and we wanted to get to Logan Pass early, as the parking lot is typically full by 9:00 a.m. The added bonus was getting to see the first light of day over Lake McDonald and then watching a golden sunrise as we drove.

I totally understand why they call this the Going to the Sun road now.

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We reached Logan Pass early and secured a great parking spot. I jumped out of the car…and then jumped back in.

It was COLD.

We all had to scramble in our wedged stack of luggage in the back to pull out jackets, hats, and gloves that we weren’t really expecting to use. We were hiking the Highline Trail, with the emphasis on “high.” A chilly, windy day is magnified about 10 times up there.

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I love the views from the Highline Trail, but the star of today’s show was the grizzly that decided to lunch for an hour on the trail between the boulder field and Haystack Butte. He had a group of us trapped below him at the boulder field trying to go up and another group trapped at the top trying to come down.

As we say in TN, "Weren't nobody going nowhere."

We simply claimed a boulder, pulled out snacks, and watched the show.

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We finally gave up and turned around. Since Granite Park Chalet was already closed for the season, we had only planned to go to the top of the hill anyway, and getting to watch the bear was way better than climbing the switchbacks to the top, so we were satisfied.

We turned around and headed back to Logan Pass.

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Go on the Highline Trail with us:

Because our hike had been cut short, we had some extra time and decided to hike back to Hidden Lake.

It was gray, cold, and unbelievable windy, and I didn’t see a single goat, so I’m not sure how happy I was about climbing the 3,576 steps to get to the overlook, but when in Glacier….right?

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Go on the Hidden Lake Trail with us:

Our accommodations that night were at the St. Mary Lodge. It’s a nice change of pace after Apgar. I love the historic park lodges, but I have to admit that it was nice to spend a night in a room that didn't smell like my grandmother's basement complete with a 1964 wall heater and a shower so small you have to be a practiced contortionist to get your entire body wet.

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Dinner that night was at one of our favorites…the Cattle Baron Supper Club.

The Cattle Baron is very unassuming from the outside. Some might even say questionable.

However…look closely…do you see all those dusty trucks in the parking lot? They let you know there is something amazing inside.

Strong drinks, cowboy chic décor, authentic Indian art, candlelight and tablecloths, and delicious steaks wait for you inside this rustic building covered with neon beer signs.

It’s just a little more of that Montana magic.

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I was happy to see they still had the very awkward ladies room.

Never let the world change you, Cattle Baron.

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Day 4: Up, Up, and Away We Go

Because we had decided to split our time between Glacier National Park and Bigfork, an adorable town we had discovered on our 2020 trip, this was going to be our last hike in the park, so I wanted to make it a good one.

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In 10 trips to Glacier National Park, we had never done the hike that actually inspired us to go to GNP in the first place.

Waaaaaay back, on a skiing trip to Big Mountain, MT, Matt bought a book about Montana. On the cover was a beautiful photo of a turquoise glacial lake surrounded by mountains. He took one look at that photos and said, “I want to go there.” The photo was taken on the Grinnell Glacier hike.

We made our inaugural trip to GNP in 2004.

We had never done the hike for several reasons: 1) It was crowded, 2) It was almost always closed when we were there due to bear activity, 3) It was crowded, 4) It was next to the Cracker Lake hike which is our favorite and hard to skip, 5) It was crowded, and 6) It gets steep as hell. Grinnell Glacier Hike is considered to be the second most challenging hike in the park, second only to the 19 mile Dawson-Pitamakin Loop, which Matt and I absurdly did in one day. Granted, we were 16 years younger....

Note to self: When deciding to do the “hard as hell” hike that you’ve dreamed of, remember that it probably would have been better to do it in 2004 when you were 34 instead of 2023 when you are 53. Just a thought.

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A million stone steps straight up and narrow rock ledges be damned, I was doing this hike.

Because the boat across the lakes was closed for the season, the hike was also extra long.

The first few miles were very easy, though. We meandered beside the lakes through a very pretty forest.

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Then the trail started to climb. The climb wasn’t too terrible, though, more gradual than not and the views were outstanding.

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When Grinnell Lake popped into view, I thought I’d seen the most beautiful view ever, but that’s because I hadn’t reached the glacier yet.

We ooooo’d and aaaaah’d before pushing on.

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As we neared the glacier, the trail just became a miserable climb up steep rock steps, some so tall that people with short little legs have to HOIST themselves up on all fours. Even though my legs were burning, I pressed on.

I was ecstatic when I reached “the top” only to realize “the top” was not, in fact, the top and one had to climb another 7,498 stone steps to actually see the glacier. We climbed.

And oh how glad I was that I did.

It was a “wow” moment.

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We enjoyed a chilly lunch on a rock in the sunshine soaking in the beauty of the view. And then....it was time to go down.

If you have ever done any significant hiking, you know going down is worse than going up.

My knees sounded like an old goat chewing on a tin can full of popcorn.

We were rewarded, however, with beautiful views, some mountain goats, and one darn majestic ram that I swear was posing for his fans.

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Go on the Grinnell Glacier Hike with us:

When we reached the trailhead and I wasn’t dead or without the use of one or more of my appendages, I was happy. Exhausted, but happy.

With everything from the waist down hurting like the devil, we needed DRANKS.

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We headed back across the park to the west side for our final night at Lake McDonald Lodge.

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First up….DRANKS. Lake McDonald Lodge was shutting down for the season the very next day, so our choices at the Lounge? Wine or whiskey.

After a couple of stiff Manhattans….I didn’t even remember I had hiked that day.

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The dining room is lovely at the Lodge, but we actually prefer the Lounge, so we cozied in and enjoyed a relaxed dinner at a table with a lovely view of the lake.

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Day 5: Moving Day

It was time to leave the park and head to Bigfork for the rest of our trip. We lingered at the lodge before hopping in our sweet ride.

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Because we couldn’t check in until afternoon, we headed down the river to a spot Matt and I remembered from 2020 so he could do some fishing and I could look for rocks.

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Literally the best rock shop in the world.

I knew it was time to head to lunch when the rocks started to look like steak to me.

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No fish and a bag of rocks later, we headed back to Glacier Distilling to grab another bottle or two and have one of their amazing bloody Marys.

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After that, we stopped at Packers Roost for mile high nachos and terrible drinks.

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Then it was on to Bigfork to check into our house on the Swan River. Oh….how I loved that house.

I couldn’t imagine a more perfect place to spend the next few days.

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Matt tried some more (unsuccessful) fishing while the rest of us watched. With wine.

We had done a lot of driving, so we literally went a mile down the street to A Bar. It was simple, warm, and had some darn good chili.

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Only in Montana are the men/women restrooms designated with taxidermy.

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Day 6: Big Fun in Bigfork

Matt had a fishing trip, so the rest of us dropped him off and decided to wander around Bigfork and do some shopping.

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Bigfork is adorable.

We hit every shop with about an hour to kill before Matt was finished so we popped into the Garden Bar, for mimosas.

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At last, the mighty fisherman returned with news that he had caught the “big one.” This was no fish tale. Matt had caught the largest trout the guide said he’d caught all season – a good 24 inches from tip to tail.

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Of course he released it. He’s not a monster.

We headed to lunch at Sitting Duck on Flathead Lake. I had heard about their legendary bloody Mary and knew that I needed it in my life.

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Hello, beautiful. Where have you been all my life?

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We headed back to the house for afternoon chillin’. With such a beautiful spot on the river, it was tempting to never leave the house.

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It’s time for another “On our first trip to Montana” story….

On our first trip to Montana, we saw a beautiful handmade wooden canoe hanging in the top of a gallery in Apgar. It was love at first sight. On every trip after that, we made it a point to go see that canoe.

It had been hand crafted by a local canoe maker and had belonged to one owner, who owned one of the few private cabins inside the park on the shore of Lake McDonald. The canoe had only been in the water on Lake McDonald. The owner passed and the family decided to sell the canoe. It had been hanging inside the gallery since.

On our 9th trip in 2020, like every other trip before it, we went to look at the canoe. As Matt stared wistfully at it, I looked at Matt and said, “Why don’t you finally buy the thing?”

So he did.

It now hangs proudly at our home in TN.

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Imagine my delight when I discovered that Moreley Canoe, the original builders, had their workshop only miles from the house we were in.

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What a treat! Getting to tour the workshop and talk to the son of the father & son duo that make up Moreley Canoes was a high point. He remembered our specific canoe, as I’m sure they remember every canoe their hands build.

From there, we continued down the lake to have dinner at the Laughing Horse Lodge. This place stole my heart. Fresh farm-to-table food, two dogs IN THE DINING ROOM, a beautiful garden patio, and an African Grey in the bar….what wasn’t to love?

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There is no better meal than the one you get to eat with a golden’s head in your lap.

Cutter and Lake were relentless beggars, but we followed the written directive on our table to not feed them.

Mostly.

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After dessert and snuggles, it was back to the house to finish the day with a warm fire and a good bottle of wine.

I had bought a cheesy packet of “magical rainbow flame” powder in Bigfork….

Worth every penny of that 99 cents.

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Day 7: No Hike For You

We had planned to do a final hike on our last full day in the Jewel Basin area, but we woke up to thick fog. There is not point in hiking in fog unless you just want to walk. You may as well be hiking with your eyes closed.

We decided to cozy in, enjoy the house, and wait for the fog to lift.

It became obvious it was not going to lift over the mountains. We could literally see the trail area from our back window and the fog kept creeping lower and lower. We decided on Plan B.

Plan B being mimosas, of course.

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We headed to Echo Lake Café for brunch. This place is just YUM.

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After stuffing ourselves, we felt a short walk might burn off at least 7 of those calories, so we took a stroll that managed to be lackluster and unchallenging all at the same time. I kept looking for a bear, as I had read they frequented this area, but I was only rewarded with this deer, not unlike the ones I see every day in my own back yard. Still…it was good to get some air and stretch our legs, which were still pretty bound up from that climb up to Grinnell Glacier.

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With nothing else to do, it was a perfect excuse to head back to the river house and pop open some wine and eat snacks.

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It was our final evening, so we headed to the Raven on Flathead Lake for some cocktails before dinner.

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It was just a short walk across the street to Bonfire for dinner.

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Day 8: All Good Things Must Come to an End

As quickly as it began, it was over. It was time to head home. We waved “goodbye” to the river house and said a quick prayer that our tire would make it just a little longer.

We can’t leave Montana without at least one breakfast at Montana Coffee Traders. It makes a perfect beginning or end to a trip. We tried the location in Kalispell first, because it was more convenient, but to our dismay ….they didn’t serve breakfast!

Cringing at the extra 32 miles we were about to put on that tire….we headed to Columbia Falls. There was no way I was leaving Montana without a plate full of fried potatoes, eggs, and crispy bacon.

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And just like that….I found myself at the Dallas airport, eating dinner…and wishing I was back in Montana.

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No worries.....we're already planning our return. See you next time, chipmunk!

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As a reward for making it through this ENTIRE blog post...here are some cute animals. Until the next adventure!!

Posted by vicki_h 19:20 Archived in USA Tagged mountains hiking national_parks mt camping hike montana glacier_national_park kalispell big_sky columbia_falls bigfork

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