Travel Stage: After Yellowstone, before heading to Washington
Date Range: August 22 – 28, 2016
Summary: Exploring Glacier National Park: Going-to-the-Sun Road, Logan Pass, Hidden Lake, Highline Trail, St. Mary’s Falls, Grinnell Glacier, and lots of amazing mountains!
Our Summer 2016 route was largely dictated by 4 National Park visits: Theodore Roosevelt, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Glacier National Parks. We were on to the 4th of the four, and based on our fabulous experiences at the other three coupled with our western Montana travels so far, we were very excited to visit Glacier National Park!
Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park is located on the USA-Canada border in the very northwest corner of Montana. Waterton National Park of Canada sits adjacent to it on the Canadian side, and in 1932 the two parks collectively formed the very first International Peace Park, symbolizing the collaboration and conservancy efforts of both countries as well as the Native American tribes that call the area home.
It was dubbed “The Crown of the Continent” for its majestic peaks and stunning beauty. Here, several very different ecosystems come together to showcase a wide variety of wildlife, plants, terrain, and water features all in one place. Dry, sunny, and warm hillsides and cool, moist, shady slopes; deep valley soils and barren mountain ridges. Here, maritime, prairie, northern, and southern Rockies species converge. It is also one of the few places where all the native carnivores survive: grizzlies, black bears, wolves, and cougars all roam the park.
Lay of the Land
Glacier National Park has four main entrance areas: West Glacier/Apgar, St. Mary, Two Medicine, and Many Glacier. West Glacier (west entrance) and St. Mary’s (east entrance) are connected by Going-to-the-Sun road, one of the world’s most spectacular highways that winds between the mountains.
It is 50 miles to cross the park along this road. It ascends to 6646ft where it goes through Logan Pass to get to the other side of the park.
A shuttle system makes traveling and hiking point-to-point in the park very easy. It services from Apgar Visitor Center on the West side of the park all the way across to St. Mary’s on the east side. It does NOT service the Many Glacier or Two Medicine areas, however, which are accessed by road from the East side of the park. We were grateful not to have to drive the windy road with our big dually truck and try to find parking in the little lots and pull-offs. Plus, with someone else driving BOTH of us could enjoy the views!
An express shuttle leaves early in the morning from Apgar to Logan Pass without stops. This is great for crossing to East Glacier or hiking from Logan Pass on the Hidden Lake or Highline Trail. The other shuttles start operating around 9AM and continue throughout the day. Last shuttle stops are prominently posted at each stop so you know when to get back by to catch your ride.
Since we were approaching from the West and the shuttle didn’t service Many Glacier or Two Medicine, we made the tough decision to skip those areas this time. We picked several hikes from various locations that we felt would give us a good introduction to Glacier. The map below highlights the areas we explored in Red:
Hiking Glacier National Park
There is so much hiking to do in Glacier! It can be vastly overwhelming, but I’m going to let you in on a little secret – it doesn’t matter what you hike, it is ALL so gorgeous! Here are the hikes we did:
We had our family friend from Butte recommend this one, and we would recommend it in turn…if you don’t mind all up one way, all down the way back! But trust me, the view is worth it! This trail takes you up the backside of the Apgar Mountains with views of West Glacier and the Flathead National Forest and Mountain Range to the south.
You’ll get pretty warm hiking the 3.6 miles one-way up 1,800 ft, but when you get to the top it should be a few degrees cooler for you. Not to mention a gorgeous view over Lake McDonald and the mountains beyond!
Bonus! We saw a deer and two fawns on the trail in front of us as we started our descent!
Tip: If you want the view without the hike, check out the online Apgar Lookout Webcam stationed at the top! Recognize those two? That’s us! I took this screenshot on my phone after looking up the webcam from the summit!
Hidden Lake Overlook
This hike was magical! It is relatively easy and much of it was boardwalk from the Logan Pass Visitor Center. We took the early shuttle and got there when the sun was rising and the clouds were still moving among the peaks. It literally looked like the edge of the earth.
A family of mountain goats crossed the trail in front of us and scaled the rocky slope.
Hidden Lake itself was beautiful beyond words.
St. Mary & Virginia Falls Hike
In summer 2015 a major wildfire called the Reynolds Creek Fire burned along St. Mary’s Lake and through Sunrift Gorge. We hiked these areas and the burn damage was widespread.
However, new growth had already begun. Fire weed was everywhere!
We continued on to Virginia Falls, which was a bit more of a climb and had many smaller waterfall viewing points along the trail. We stopped to rest on the warm rocks and listen to the water sounds.
We sought out an epic spot to have our packed lunch – which we found. We had our humble PB&J sandwiches with our feet dangling over St. Mary Lake.
Again, we were amazed by the color of the water, and the sweeping mountains looked almost fake in their perfection.
We almost didn’t get to hike this famous trail; the presence of an animal carcass near it made it closed for hiking the first few days we were in the park. When it opened, we changed our plans to see what all the fuss was about. For this hike we were VERY thankful for the shuttle. From Logan Pass to Granite Park Chalet is 7.6 miles. From there you either turn around and do your 7.6 miles back, or you continue down 4.2 miles to another shuttle pickup at The Loop Trailhead.
There is also a little spur of a trail before reaching Granite Park that takes you up to overlook Grinnell Glacier. We heard that it was really steep, and we weren’t sure if that’d be a good idea given we were already planning to do nearly 12 miles of hiking.
If you’re bad with heights, this might not be the best hike for you. There is a long section of path along a sheer cliff. Hand holds are provided for some of the way, but not all.
This hike was incredible. You felt like you were on top of the world! At first I thought it might be a boring hike since you’re just looking down the valley the whole time, but really, who gets tired of this view?
When we hike, we move at about 2 miles per hour. While that sounds slow, consider stopping every 20 feet in awe, maybe a picture, or maybe inspect some crazy beautiful alpine flower or a stream tumbling down the mountain.
We ran into some other hikers who told us we HAD to go to Grinnell Glacier. They said the spur was only .6 miles, and it was so worth it. We reached the spur trail about 3 hours into our hike and stopped to think.
We knew we wanted to come back to Glacier National Park already, since we were skipping the Many Glacier and Two Medicine areas, and not making it all the way to St. Mary. But we didn’t know when we would be back. We had since one glacier – the Jackson Glacier – which can be seen from the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
The glaciers are disappearing. I probably don’t have to tell you about global warming or global climate change, whatever you want to call it. The fact is today we see only 25% of the ice that existed in 1850, and projections are that this park’s glaciers – its namesake – will be all gone by 2030, if not sooner. Of the estimated 150 glaciers present in 1850, approximately 25 remain.
So Grinnell Glacier might not be here when we come back. I didn’t take any pictures of the grueling 1000-ft climb to the top of the Continental Divide. It was so cold at that elevation that our camera batteries were getting cold and draining fast and we were conserving them for the prize that lay at the top. The spur up to Grinnell Glacier was one of the most strenuous hours of our lives, but you know what? It was TOTALLY worth it.
It was freezing and so windy we had to take great care not to get blown off the edge of our mountain. The view gave us a glimpse of a chain of mountain lakes heading into Many Glacier. The pictures don’t give you the depth perception, but we could barely see the specks of people down at the edge of the glacial lake below. We wondered if they could see us!
Here we are, about 3 hours later, 3200+ ft lower, and 20 degrees warmer than we were looking down on Grinnell Glacier, waiting for our shuttle. We calculated that we put on 13 miles that day, and the coming down hurt just as much if not worse than the going up! But this was the most amazing hike we’ve even done. We were sooo thankful for the cooling, medicinal waters at the Hungry Horse Reservoir where we were camped to ease our well-earned aches and pains!
National Park Service Centennial
While we were at Glacier National Park when the National Park Service turned 100! #NPS100
We were so happy to be able to celebrate the park’s birthday by being here. It was truly special that we hit so many National Park this year. Happy Birthday, NPS!
Watch the video here!:
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