The 28th day began like so many others had on this adventure. I woke up to the sounds of birds, pulled out the Coleman stove and my French press, and made coffee.
It was our 14th day of camping; we spent half those nights outdoors. For a flash of a moment the day before, I’d thought it would be nice to stay in the lodge, but that didn’t last long. That morning, I laughed at the idea. There was nowhere else I’d rather be.
We had neighbors on both sides, but sitting at the table in a forest that nearly surrounded our tent, looking up at the mountain in front of me, it felt like it was just Jim and me.
I broke out my computer to download photos and videos from my camera and smiled at the incongruity. I waited for the thousands of images I’d taken to transfer, knowing I’d add several hundred more from Glacier alone. We’d barely edged into the park, but from what I had seen I could tell it was going to be one heck of a day.
I forgot about the traumas in the world and reveled in the breeze. High up the mountain, one tree seemed to stand apart from the rest, and when the wind blew it waved like a queen in a parade. It was time to get out there and meet this royal landscape.
There’s a short trail through the woods to the Apgar Visitor Center and we rode our bikes over after breakfast. We discovered they offered an audio tour of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, so we connected to their wifi and downloaded the files for the drive. We then followed our standard practice and asked the ranger what we should see in our limited time. She told us about a trail on the north side of Lake McDonald. We wheeled back to our site, locked up our bikes, and off we went.
Ever since we’d entered the western states, every time we talked to my father-in-law he’d ask me if I’d had enough “wows” yet. I told him I didn’t think that was possible, and that was before Glacier National Park.
Wow. Wow wow wow.
We picked up the Going-to-the-Sun Road and drove around Lake McDonald, stopping once for a peek at the teal water. Like most of the lower-elevation lakes in this park, this one was carved by glaciers. It’s deep, it’s cold, and it’s clear; the water never gets warmer than 50 degrees Fahrenheit on the surface. That’s too cold for plankton to survive, so the microorganisms aren’t around to muddy things up.
The ranger had told us to follow North Lake McDonald Road and park just on the other side of the bridge. We squeezed Jeannie into the last space and grabbed our trekking poles. We wouldn’t really need them, but we weren’t sure how long or steep the hike would be. It was a nice, leisurely walk in the woods. At the end of the trail a transparent stream sailed over boulders and bubbled into a milky froth.
Always ask the rangers.
We got back on the road and every turn was another gasp, another wow. Occasionally we’d see evidence of previous wildfires, acres of stripped trees surrounded by fields of green. Everywhere we looked, waterfalls plunged. Sometimes they were in the distance, sometimes they plunged under the road, and the weeping wall flowed over the road. We were so in awe of everything around us that most of the time we flat out forgot about the audio tour.
Going-to-the-Sun Road is 53 miles. We wouldn’t have time to drive the length of it, turn around, and come back, so our goal was Logan Pass and the Hidden Lake Overlook trail. The sign said the lot was full, but we pulled in anyway and quickly found a spot. We were at the highest point of the road on the Continental Divide, in the ridges of the narrow backbone of the Rocky Mountains. Not far from where we stood, Triple Divide Peak diverted melting snow to the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Arctic Oceans. In keeping with our center-of-everything theme, it’s the hydrological apex of North America. Talk about being on top of the world.
Snow banks surrounded the Visitor Center. After a few feet along the slippery trails we debated going back to the car to get our trekking poles, because this time we’d opted to leave them behind. I also considered putting on the heavy-duty hiking boots I’d carted for 5,000 miles. Did I use either? Why, no, of course not. Instead, I decided to challenge myself on a trail packed with eight feet of snow in shoes with a barely existent tread. I thought slipping and sliding on a hike that started at 6,612 feet and had an elevation gain of 540 would be great fun.
We followed in the footprints of fellow hikers, learning quickly to try to place our feet in the depressions they’d left. I nearly lost my balance a few times and we climbed up, and up, and up. The trail skirted a slope; although the angle wasn’t steep, it was a long way down.
Nearing the top of the first hill, we thought, “We’re almost there!” We weren’t.
If the snow didn’t make the hike challenging, the wind would have. Brutal, capricious, it pushed from the sides and into our faces, never from the back. Closer to the overlook, the trees’ branches extended on one side only, like they were clapping hands. Hikers coming back told us this time, yes, we were almost there. A mountain goat wandered through a grove. In places, the snow had melted and we walked on the boardwalk. It was like stepping off a rocking ship onto dry land. After almost a mile and a half, there it was. Hidden Lake. It stretched out below us, covered with snow and ice, Bearhat Mountain’s black peak towering above.
It was still more than a mile to get to the lake itself and that trail was closed. We turned around, made our way back, and let oncoming trekkers know it wasn’t too much further. I slipped; I slid. But I didn’t fall. Until. We hit that slope and I went down on my derriere. I sat for a moment to get my breath. Then a lady decided to slide, standing up, down the path right next to me. I braced myself. If she fell, I was going down, down, down. She stumbled, caught herself, and ran further down the hill, gleefully laughing like a reckless crazy person. She had no idea she’d terrified the pants off of me, but her companion apologized as he went by. My temper had melted the snow enough that I was able to get a purchase on the trail while Jim helped me up.
“You got it,” he said.
By the time we got back to the parking lot, our 3-mile hike had taken two and a half hours. And every single minute of it, even the near-run-in with Miss Gleeful, was worth it. I had done something I didn’t know I could do, and I felt amazing.
We skipped the overlooks on the way back because we knew we’d be driving the road the next day. On the way, we encountered a traffic jam, Glacier-style. Bighorn sheep blocked the road and there was nothing to do but wait. They finally meandered back up the hill and we continued towards Lake McDonald Lodge. By 6:30 we were sitting outside, listening to the water lap the shore and sipping cocktails.
There was a ranger program back at the campground that we wanted to catch. We drove to the other side of the lake, picked up a couple cones of frosty treats, and settled in to learn about Glacier National Park’s geological history. The tops of the mountains are some of the oldest rock on earth and, she said, are one of the reasons the park’s been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At quarter ‘til ten we finally sat down for dinner by the fire and then crawled into our tent. I went to bed depleted and smiling.
International Peace Park
Glacier National Park shares a border with Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park. Like state borders, nature doesn’t follow international divisions, so in 1931, members of Rotary International from Alberta and Montana proposed that the parks be united.
The service-based club was fairly new, originating in Chicago in 1905, and 26 years later had spread to multiple chapters around the world. In 1932, the Rotarians’ efforts succeeded and the two national parks joined to become Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.
Well, technically they’re joined, but they’re also still individual national parks and you need a passport to go from one to the other.
We didn’t make it far enough north to meet our neighbor park. Our destination that night was Great Falls, Montana, so we drove straight through Glacier. “Straight” isn’t accurate in the slightest. Although there’s only one switchback, Going-to-the-Sun follows the curves and slopes of the Rocky Mountains as the road cuts from west to east. Like Needles, Beartooth, and Columbia River Highways, this was another phenomenal feat of engineering from the early 20th century. When we looked across the valleys and tried to pick out the narrow two-lane it practically blended into the scenery.
Construction of the road took twenty years and three million dollars, and its completion in 1933 was heralded with speeches, music, and a performance of the Star Spangled Banner by the Blackfeet Tribal Band. We marveled at the road’s excellent condition, especially considering the extreme weather it endures, as well as the number of vehicles that travel its length during a short time span each year.
The road served as a counterpoint to the riotous beauty that surrounded us. We stopped multiple times. When we crossed Logan Pass we noticed a bizarre cloud formation. It was smooth and flat: dark blue tinged with purple in the distance, a line of white like a toothpick had been dragged through it in the middle, and the colors faded to white and feathered into the blue above us. It looked ominous and freaky, especially with the sharp black mountains and the deep green forest.
And we were driving towards it.
We kept going and the sun held. We saw what remained of Jackson Glacier, the teal of St. Mary’s Lake, and the peaks of St. Mary Visitor Center before driving onto the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and under the clouds.
Those clouds might have looked like harbingers of doom, but once we were under them they made for just another gray day. It didn’t even rain.