Saturday, August 3, 2013

Glacier’s Backcountry – Touched by Nature’s Magic

My fascination towards the mighty National Parks of the west continues to grow.  I finally fulfilled my dream of visiting Glacier National Park at Montana. A dream that I cherished since I road tripped across Yellowstone in 2006. This truly is one of the best-kept secrets of the west. My two weeks at the Grizzly country included six days of backpacking, two days of overnight rafting and five more days of popular day hikes. My excitement started to build as the tiny aircraft descended towards Kalispell Airport, about 24 miles from the West Entrance of the park. Stayed at the Glacier Guides Lodge and spent the afternoon wandering around the park entrance while awaiting the six-day wilderness adventure due to commence the following day. Following morning met the rest of backpacking group. The gang included our awesome guide JD, myself, Markus from Germany, Shawn & Kristine from Michigan & Jerry a retired war veteran from Delaware.

Belly River Trail 

We quickly packed our backpacks and were driven off to the northeast region of the park. On the way we passed Blackfeet Indian reservation & were dropped at Chief Mountain Customs Trailhead just before the US / Canadian immigration checkpoint.  Ate a good packed lunch and started our descent towards Belly river ranger station campground that was about 6.1 miles away and elevation drop of about 492 ft. It had been over a year since I indulged in backpacking and the pain of carrying the backpack came rushing back to my shoulders and upper back. But the Foggy views of Gable Mountain, Belly River and stunning meadows kept us alive and we made it to the campsite.  Guide JD did give us the lesson on leave no trace ethics of the backcountry. Just the thought of wandering bears ensured we don’t carry any snacks into our tents.

Bear Mountain & Lake Cosley

We were planning on staying at this site only for one night. But Jerry 70-year-old retired war veteran was hurting in his hips. He was not in a position to continue so we had to extend our stay for second night so he could safely get out of the park by joining another group who were finishing up. So second day we base camped at Belly river campsite and did a day hike to climb up the Bear Mountain. We crossed a stunning bridge and saw a black bear sitting on the trail and munching carelessly about 50 ft. from us. We made lot of noise but he was unperturbed. It took him over 10 minutes for him to get bored and disappear into the forest. We moved on to hike the Bear Mountain. Views of Lake Cosley were absolutely breath taking. Just when we were about to reach the top of the mountain it started raining. I was amazed at how weather turned from bright/sunny to cloudy/thunderstorms in matter of minutes. Glad we carried rain jackets in our daypack.

Lake Glenn’s
After waving good-bye to our veteran friend we packed our backpack and started hiking towards Lake Glen. Hiking through several miles of thick bushy forest was a bit nerve wracking. We ate lunch at the first campsite along the lake and then hiked 3-4 miles further southwest into second campsite. Lake Glen campsite was the best campsite we stayed during this six-day journey. Campsite was right in front of stunning blue lake and distant views of snow filled Gable Mountain and Red gap pass made it special. This site had it all. Clean and new pit toilet, fire pit to start campfire and awesome water to dip/swim. We had couple of deers who were relentless to chew our sweaty clothes that we put on our tents. Woke up early to take some nice reflection shots of Gable Mountain on Lake Glenn's.

Lake Elizabeth
Plan for the day 4 was to get to the Lake Elizabeth campsite. This meant hiking back in the northeast direction on the same thick bushy trail to Lake Cosley and then crossing water to descend south towards Elizabeth Lake. Hike was full of breath taking views of Lake Glenn’s, Cosley and Gable Mountain. Elizabeth lake was beautiful but personally I felt Lake Glenn’s campsite was spectacular.

Red gap pass, Poia Lake
This was the hardest hike of the whole trip. We were to first climb over 2200 ft. to the Red Gap pass and then hike further east to get to lake Poia campsite. It was raining for over an hour at Lake Elizabeth campsite so we had to wait out before starting this hike. Hiking up Red gap pass was quite a challenge while carrying the backpack. But the views just nailed us. Ate lunch upon reaching Red gap pass. It was so windy we had hard time holding onto our food. As we were approaching Lake Poia (about 1/2 mile from campsite), we saw a huge Grizzly who apparently was watching us hike from about 100 ft. He looked straight at us for a minute or so and then quickly vanished.

Apikuni falls trailhead, Many Glacier road
Our spirits were high on the final day of the backpacking trip and we had a short 6 mile hike to get to Apikuni falls trail head on Many Glacier Road just across Lake Sherburne. On the way we hiked up some nearby peaks to catch the spectacular views of Lake Sherburne and many glacier area. Caught up with distant views of Swift current lake as well. We quickly made it to Many Glacier road by noon and a fabulous Glacier guides lunch was awaiting us at the van.

Logan Pass Continental divide
After lunch, we were driven off Many glacier road and then entered Going to the sun road from St. Mary entrance all the way to West Glacier. I was tired and sleepy but when the vehicle crossed the Logan pass, Garden wall area my jaws dropped at the views and I was wide-awake for the rest of the ride. I bet anyone who sees Logan pass area for the first time is going to experience this feeling. Pizza from Glacier Grill followed by good byes with the backpacking group.

Rafting Flathead river
These two days were spent rafting on the middle fork of Flathead river. Glacier guides did a fantastic job with providing the guide who took food preparation to whole new level. The whole rafting trip was more like a bbq/pool party. Loved all those stunning rocks at the bottom of serene Flat head river. Second day we did raft through quite a few terrific rapids. Yay!! I survived my first rafting experience without getting dumped in the ice-cold water. At the end of rafting trip I returned to Kalispell airport. I picked up my rental car and drove to Lake McDonald’s lodge inside the park where I had hostel room reservation for 2 nights It was very clean and well kept.

Avalanche hike, Hidden lake overlook
Avalanche was a short hike probably 4-5 miles. But I felt the views were just about ok and not that spectacular compared to Logan pass/ Many glacier areas. Had I known, I would have skipped this hike for sure. Didn’t waste much time after the hike. Returned to the lodge, ate my lunch and took the hiker shuttle to Logan pass. I did the hike to Hidden Lake overlook. It was stunning hike with lots of mountain goats along with walking on snow. It was all worth it as the hidden lake was spectacular. Would have loved to go all the way to the lake but it was closed due to bear activity.

Highline hike to Haystack  (Garden Wall)
I checked out of Lake McDonald’s lodge and drove to Glacier Guides office. Met up with other hikers and our guide JD drove us to Logan pass for the Highline trail hike. I’m glad I didn’t drive to Logan pass as parking lot was full by 8:30 am. We were a big group of 18 people hiking highline trail to haystack. Loved the Garden wall all along. Being a runner, I was envious when I saw another runner holding bear spray and running on the highline trail. I would love to do this hike all the way to Granite park chalet one day. Views are just out of this world.

Going to the Sun Road (GTTSR)
For the first time I drove all the way from West Glacier to East on Going to the Sun Road and it was a mind blowing experience. If there is only one thing you want to do at the park, then my suggestion is to drive on this spectacular man made wonder. Stopped at will and took pictures.
St. Mary Lodge & Park Cafe
Checked into St. Mary lodge. Probably the worst lodge in the whole park. I was given a dumpster room in the basement. I didn’t want to spend anytime in the room. I drove to Park Cafe to eat dinner and came back only to sleep. Hot Chocolate, Falafel Wrap & Huckleberry pie at Park Café made a great dinner.
Piegan pass from Siyeh Bend
I wanted to hike Piegan pass or Siyeh pass. I did not want to venture out myself so waited at the trailhead to see if I can find company. A family from Connecticut were in the same predicament and we hiked together. This was one of strenuous hikes. Walking on steep snow was very scary towards the top of piegan pass. But the hike was totally worth it. Returned back to St. Mary lodge. Rested for a bit and drove to Many Glacier hotel to confirm the boat/hike ticket for Grinnell Glacier planned for next day. Had a great time dining at Many Glacier lodge restaurant.

Grinnell Glacier
I was thrilled to hear Grinnell glacier trail was open all the way and I was going to hike the trail on the first day of season. I drove early to Many Glacier hotel and waited for the boat ride before starting the Grinnell Glacier hike. Paying $24 for that boat ride is one of the things I will regret. Its waste of money and had I known earlier, I would have hiked all the way. Found few more solo hikers looking for company. Ranger's group was awfully slow for our pace. We hiked ourselves. Thoroughly enjoyed the Grinnell glacier hike. I felt this was the best hike of the whole trip. At a certain point, you get to see all the three lakes(Swift current, Josephine and Grinnell).What a view... Hike had it all. Marvelous views, hiking on snow , getting drenched by water fall and the real treat is the Grinnell Glacier. What a place to hangout. Sat there for several hours marveling the beauty of the place. Took lot of jumping pictures and thankfully didn’t end up at bottom of lake. I did not bother to take the boat during return trip. Just hiked all the way with the rest of solo hikers.

Iceberg lake
My final hike of the trip was the Iceberg lake. Checked out of dreadful St. Mary lodges and ate breakfast at Many Glacier lodge. Drove to Swift current motor inn and was joined by other hikers from Glacier Guides to hike the Iceberg lake. Hike was not as scenic as Grinnell Glacier but the Iceberg lake was spectacular. Saw some brave souls swimming in the lake. I tried to take a dip but couldn't last long.. LOL. Fully satisfied with the trip I returned back to Swift current motor inn. Ate Huckleberry ice cream and drove out of the park. Just when I was about to leave the Many Glacier road, I saw a huge black bear sitting very close to the road. For one last time I drove all the way on GTTSR from east to west glacier. I finally made it to Kalispell where I was spending the night at a motel near airport.

My glorious trip had come to an end and I survived 90 miles of hiking and still feeling terrific. 

It felt weird experiencing hot water and toilet seat covers at Denver airport restrooms. For a moment I was like “what’s with all that ?” LOL. I’m going to miss the disgusting pit toilets and going all naturale. :) . I wish I knew more adjectives. This paradise deserves it.

I uploaded a bunch of photos from this trip. Feel free to explore them.
Photo Album