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Trip Report Glacier NP Trip Report---Mountains, Lakes, Waterfalls, Sheep, Goats. . . and a Bear

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I just returned from a week in Glacier National Park, staying at a friend’s cabin near West Glacier with one night at Manyglacier Hotel. What in incredibly beautiful place. My traveling companion and I are already scheming to go back next year, this time dragging our husbands along (both had work conflicts and opted out of this year’s trip). We went mainly for the hiking, and promised our husbands we would be very careful about the bears. Fortunately, just before departure I learned of the ranger-led hikes, and how to sign up for or reserve a spot on those hikes. More on that later.

The drive from Seattle was long (10 hours including stops) but beautiful once you cross the Washington/Idaho border. The round trip was 1450 miles, including a few trips in and around the park. We only encountered one jerk driver (tailgating and trying to pass on blind curves) the whole time. Fuel cost was a bit under $200—not bad, considering that we had the Thule box on top loaded with camping gear, with a bicycle on the rack next to it. As it turned out, we didn’t have a chance to use either the bike (too cold and windy) or the camping gear.

I got the schedule for the ranger-led hikes from the park website, and made our plans for the week. One of the top-rated hikes, the Highline Trail from Logan Pass to Granite Park Chalet, goes 4 X a week and requires advance signup at one of the visitor centers. We decided to do this one first, on Monday if possible, with signup as soon as we got to the park. Check. Two other top hikes, Iceberg Lake and the Grinnell Glacier trail, depart from Manyglacier at the other end of the park, so we decided to group these two on successive days at the end of the week, and spend the night over there. I called several times a day for reservations at Manyglacier or the nearby Swiftcurrent Motor Lodge, to no avail. Hence the camping gear. I also booked our boat tickets in advance for the ride across Swiftcurrent lake to the start of the Grinnell Glacier trek. For the ranger-led hike, you must be on the 8:30 am boat, and it often sells out in advance. (When I went to the boat dock to pick up my reserved tickets that morning, there were 8 or so people in line ahead of me, all disappointed to learn the boat was sold out.)

Our first full day in the park was Sunday, and (after a quick trip to the visitor center to sign up for the next day’s Highline Trail hike) we hiked with the cabin group to Avalanche Lake. This is a short (5 miles RT) and easy hike, and so crowded on the trail that meeting a bear is very unlikely. So we were comfortable hiking in our own group, no ranger needed. We followed “the rules”—stay together and keep talking so you don’t surprise a bear—and all was fine.

The following day dawned bright and sunny, a perfect day to hike the Highline Trail. We drove up toward Logan Pass on the Going to the Sun Road, but parked at the Loop, where our hike would end, and planned to ride the hiker’s shuttle up to the pass to meet our hiking group. The first shuttle to come along was full. Apparently this happens quite a lot—waits of an hour or more for space on a shuttle are not uncommon. The other people at the stop decided to drive on up, and offered us a ride in their pickup. My two friends climbed in the back, which was covered with a canopy, and I gratefully accepted the offer to sit up front (I am more than a little claustrophobic). But this put me on the far right of the truck, looking straight down into the abyss that lies below that road. If you have ever been over the GTTS road, you’ll know what I mean. I discovered later, when driving my own car over the road, that it is much easier for the driver than the one in the passenger seat. I was really really glad when we got to the pass and some ground appeared on the right side of the road, instead of air.

The Highline Trail is a wonderful hike, traversing a steep hillside far above the road, with glorious views all around, and lots of sheep and goats to see (and thankfully, no bears). The trail undulates a bit, but there is really not much of an ascent all the way to Granite Park Chalet, around 6.8 miles. From there, you descend 2,200 feet to meet the road at the Loop, where we had left our car. That part is not much fun, and next time we’ll just walk to the chalet and back on the same trail. FYI: There is a short stretch at the beginning that is infamous for being narrow and scary, with a cable to hang on to.

This hike convinced me that I could happily hike in Glacier, as long as I went with the ranger-led group. I have to confess that I am paranoid when it comes to grizzlies, since I was charged by one many years ago in Denali. I have a very healthy respect for the size, speed, and unpredictability of these magnificent beasts, and I never want to see one that close again!!!!

The next two days were cold, rainy, and very, very windy, with 50 mph winds up at Logan Pass, gusting to 80 mph (according to the weather band radio in my car). We scrapped our hiking and boating plans, and stayed down near the cabin area, visiting the Lake McDonald Lodge and hiking along the creek and waterfalls east of there. On Wednesday, we learned that Logan Pass was closed due to the wind and sleet, so we changed our plans for Thursday a bit to drive around the south end of the park on the Roosevelt Highway instead of over the pass. I was still calling several times a day to try to get rooms at Manyglacier (the camping option was looking less and less attractive in that weather). Nothing.

We picked a new hike for Thursday, given our revised plans—one at Two Medicine that didn’t start until noon. This gave us ample time for the drive and a stop to admire East Glacier Lodge, the finest of the historic national park lodges at Glacier. While there, I thought to try one last time for rooms at Manyglacier, and asked at the desk. Bingo! Some people had checked out early, due to the rotten weather, and we got the 2 rooms we needed. So we headed out on our hike, confident that we would have a warm and dry place to stay, with hot showers and all.

The scenery on the east side of the park is very different from the west—drier, with different vegetation, and sloping off into rolling hills and plains with no forest. I highly recommend seeing it all to appreciate the beauty of this place. After the hike, we headed north past St. Mary and to Babb, where we turned toward Manyglacier. The guidebook warnings about cows all over the road in this area are serious—do heed them.

We pulled into the parking lot at the Manyglacier Hotel and were nearly blown off our feet as we emerged from the car. Now we were very glad we lucked into those rooms! I loved the Swiss motif, with little Swiss flags decorating each room’s door. After quick showers, to the cheerful sound of wind whistling through the cracks around the old double-hung windows, we regrouped by the lobby windows, facing the lake. The mountaintops were obscured by clouds, but it was still a great place to sit and enjoy a glass of wine (purchased by the box downstairs at the little store called Heidi’s) before dinner. We perused the menus and decided to eat in the bar (called, I think the Interlaken). I only eat French fries about once every five years, but these were worth the wait—perfectly cooked, and not the least bit oily. My friends gave passing marks to the chicken Caesar salad and the buffalo burger (cooked medium-well, according to Montana law, as the waitress informed us).

We slept hardly at all, serenaded constantly by the roar of wind through the cracks around the door out to the balcony. I was beginning to wish we hadn’t gotten rooms facing the lake and all that wind. . . And then it was time for the sunrise. O..M..G. The sun hit that pyramidal mountain that stands alone, directly across the lake from the lodge, and set it afire. First pink, then gold, hovering above the still-dark lake. The stuff of famous photographs. Yes, I took lots—but I don’t know how to post them here. You’ll just have to believe me.

We had brought granola and fruit for breakfast, which we ate in front of another window by the lake. Heidi’s supplied our coffee and tea. At 8:30 we boarded the boat for the trip across Swiftcurrent Lake, followed by a short walk to the next lake (Josephine) and another boat ride to the Grinnell Glacier trailhead. (If you are not hiking with the ranger and don’t want to pay for the boat rides ($18), you can hike 2 miles to reach this spot).

We loved this hike. Our ranger, Diane, had been working in the park for about 25 years, and passed on lots of information about the geology, the glaciers, and other subjects. She also pointed out where the last serious bear attack occurred, in August 2005. A father and daughter hiking together apparently failed to keep up their conversation, and surprised a mother bear and cub on a blind corner of the trail. I won’t go into details, but they did survive. She also described an incident that took place the previous day (Thursday) on the Iceberg Lake trail, where a young bear was seen playing with binoculars. No, I am not joking. Apparently someone took a video of the action and showed it to the rangers. That trail was closed on Friday. The Iceberg Lake hike had been in our original, pre-storm plans for Thursday, I was very glad we changed. I would not have been amused by the bear playing with binoculars.

The Grinnell glacier itself drops into an iceberg-clogged lake, with interesting geological features all around. We spent about an hour up there, and then headed back down to meet the boat. On the way, the ranger heard on her radio reports of bears near the Lake Josephine trail, so we were diligent about the noise (even a bit of singing) there.

It was on the boat trip back across Josephine Lake that we saw our first and only bear of the whole trip, high up on the hillside in the berry bushes. The sun had come out and you could almost see the coat glow in the late day sunlight. It was the perfect way to see a bear, and a perfect end to our wonderful week in Glacier.

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