During Week 4 of our West Coast/Rocky Mountain RV trip, we crossed Idaho and entered Montana, delighting in the mountains and trees of I-90. Our night in Missoula gave us a chance to find a good barbecue place, and the Notorious P.I.G. fit the bill (though no ribs were available right now ☹).
Glacier National Park was our destination this week and we enjoyed staying on both the west and east sides of the park, as we hiked over 30 miles, biked 14 miles, and drove hundreds of scenic miles to explore America’s 8th national park and one we had not visited in 25 years!
The weather in West Glacier was scorching, so activities were mostly limited to evening and morning. After we got our RV settled the first day, we drove up the Camas Road on the west side of Glacier NP and enjoyed (though it was HOT!) the Huckleberry Mountain Forest and Fire Trail. This short loop is nothing super special, but we had a sighting of three dusky grouse, our first big nature sighting in Glacier.
In the (still very hot) evening, we hopped on our bikes, fortified ourselves with ice cream, and wended our way through West Glacier, across the old Belton Bridge, around Apgar Village, and down to Fish Creek Campground on Lake McDonald. Some of this route was an actual bike path, some was on the road, and some was so steep that I had to walk my bike up the hill. We were exhausted after our 14-mile up-and-down ride, but it was a good intro to the area.
We had read that the parking lot at Logan Pass Visitor Center at the top of Going-to-the-Sun Road (GTTSR) usually fills up by 8 a.m., so we left our campground at 6:25 a.m., arriving at 7:35 a.m. to an already-filled parking lot. Now that the National Park Service has instituted a reservation system just to drive the GTTSR, savvy travelers have figured out that if they arrive after 5 pm or before 6 am and just spend the night in their car close to a bathroom, they can circumvent the camping and driving reservation systems. We had our reservation, but of course that does not guarantee a parking place, nor does arriving at 7:35 a.m.
Fortunately, a turnout just below Logan Pass had one space left for a car, and we took it. Boy, are we glad we did! The Hidden Lake Overlook hike (about 3 miles round trip) was on our agenda for the morning, and in addition to the striking view of the lake and surrounding area, we had two fantastic wildlife sightings. Several hoary marmots came out to eat and enjoy the sun.
Even better was the sight of a mother mountain goat and her kid. They were right next to the trail as we walked by, and we have never been that close to mountain goats before. Usually a guide points them out as we look through binoculars to see teeny-tiny dots as they climb on a cliff thousands of feet above us. This was magical to have the mountain goats so close, and I feel like I can finally cross this animal off my want-to-see list (though seeing more would be just fine).
As we drove back down the GTTSR, we could see haze from all the fires in the Western U.S. The mountains are still dramatic, but certainly not as clear as they otherwise would be.
We felt strong enough to tackle the Trail of the Cedars/Avalanche Lake hike (about 5 miles round trip) the same day, enjoying a mostly-shaded hike along Avalanche Creek through a forest of western red cedar, black cottonwood, and western hemlock trees. Avalanche Gorge had a great variety of colors, while Avalanche Lake (our endpoint before returning) is a glacial-fed lake with that greenish color, set in a lovely amphitheater location. We rewarded ourselves with more ice cream (after 8 miles of hiking, we figured we had more than burned off that many calories).
For our last full day on the West Glacier side, we again got up early and entered the Logan Pass parking lot at 7:00 a.m., and again, it was already full. People who had slept in their cars in the parking lot were making breakfast on their tailgates and walking around in flipflops. So again, we parked a little down the hill, and this time hiked the Highline Trail for about 6 miles round trip. This trail parallels the GTTSR for quite some time, but is quite a bit higher, with a pretty skinny path that could give you the willies if you’re afraid of heights.
Dramatic views of the surrounding peaks and lots of wildflowers (though this was August 1) made this a very enjoyable hike. And we were treated to a young male deer eating his late breakfast right next to the trail. We closed the day with a visit to Lake McDonald Lodge which overlooks the lake, and ate some more ice cream as we enjoyed a nature talk in Apgar Village.
You can’t drive a 31-foot motorhome across Going-to-the-Sun Road, so we took U.S. Highway 2 around the southern boundary of Glacier to cross over to the east side via Marias Pass, then up to the town of St. Mary, where we camped for the next three days. The east side of Glacier is billed as the “rugged side,” and we are inclined to agree.
For our first afternoon on the east side of Glacier, we drove a few miles up the GTTSR from St. Mary to do a waterfall hike. We can feel a bit ho-hum about waterfalls, having seen so many over the years, but these were outstanding. St. Mary Falls had beautiful color from the water to the surrounding rocks.
Virginia Falls was a classic mid-size waterfall, with smaller cascades all around.
In between the falls, we hiked among mostly dead trees, due to the Reynolds Creek Fire in 2015 in this St. Mary Lake area. It was nice to see flowers and shrubs growing in between the burned and dead trees.
Baring Falls was a nice little treat at the end of this 7-½ mile hike. Plus, we saw a bird we hadn’t seen before. Identification, anyone? We think it’s a cedar waxwing. We ended with a peek at Sunrift Gorge and began to head back to the campground.
But wait, there’s more…We’ve learned from trips to Yellowstone that when you see cars pulled off the road and people with long-range cameras looking in one direction, it’s time to pull off as well. And what did we see? Three grizzly bears having their evening meal in Two Dog Flats (not to be confused with Three Dog Night), a grassy area near the St. Mary entrance to Glacier NP. We thoroughly enjoyed watching these enormous bears meander through the meadow. And another bear-watcher, Bud, donated his spare monopod to us in order to help me have a stable way of taking long-range pictures—what a great guy! When we got back to the campground, we celebrated our grizzly bear sighting with…ice cream!
Next morning, we headed out to Many Glacier, a spur road back into the national park, which is currently undergoing construction. This meant a 40-minute delay and 12 miles of gravel road each way, but Many Glacier is known for its scenic beauty and wildlife, so we had to go. After passing an overflowing amount of cars in the Grinnell Glacier trailhead lot (this is considered the premier hike for many, but was just too challenging for us), we set out on our hike from the Swiftcurrent Inn parking lot for a more sedate hike. The first part of our 8-mile hike took us to Redrock Lake and Redrock Falls, small but colorful.
We next headed along a mostly-shaded trail to Bullhead Lake, which is set in a stunning amphitheater location much more beautiful than its name. We were hoping to spot some moose, as this area is known as prime moose habitat. No such luck today, but the hike was relatively level and still took us along a very pretty route. The mountains were still quite hazy from all the wildfire smoke, so we did not get great photos of the peaks, but that just means we have to come back to Glacier for another visit. Though we didn’t see moose, we did hike 8 miles and celebrated our hike with…ice cream!
For our last full day in Glacier, we headed up the remainder of the Going-to-the-Sun Road that we had not yet driven. Jackson Glacier Overlook was worth stopping for.
As we looked for a turnaround spot just pass Logan Pass, we spotted several mountain goats on the Highline Trail, where we had previously hiked just a few days ago.
Heading to the southeast corner of the national park, we drove to Two Medicine and enjoyed a lakeside lunch in this less-crowded portion of the park.
Apparently, we weren’t the only ones who liked this picnic area. Three young bighorn sheep also decided to have a picnic here, digging in the firepit for leftovers. (Did they forget they were vegans?)
Learning from other campers that the grizzly bears showed up in Two Dog Flats just after we left the night before, we were determined to stay longer for our last evening. And we were rewarded—a mother grizzly and her two cubs gave us a great show down by the lake. (And we also learned from other bear-watchers that the day after we hiked to Bullhead Lake, two moose showed up just where we had been hiking—oh well…). We celebrated our grizzly bear sighting with…more ice cream!
Not quite satisfied with our view of the mama and cubs from the night before, we got up early and drove back to Two Dog Flats for one last visit before leaving Glacier, and the same mother grizzly and her two cubs entertained us for an hour. These were our best pictures/videos of grizzly bears ever (though still not great), and it was delightful to watch the female chow down on ripe berries while her cubs play-fought with each other and ran around in the grass. It was a fantastic way to end our time in Glacier. Here’s a link to a 1-minute video of Mama Grizzly and her two cubs–too cute!
We know we have to come back to Glacier another time, hopefully when the skies are clear and wildfires are not threatening. But this was a terrific time of seeing wildlife, and since we’re all about the critters (see our About Us section), we couldn’t have asked for a better experience here. Mountain goats, bighorn sheep, grizzly bears, black bears, birds, and bugs gave us wonderful sightings and memories.
And if you’re not tired of the pictures from Glacier yet, here are a few specimens from Hank’s bug collection of macro photos:
Saying goodbye to Glacier (though hopefully not forever). Now on to Yellowstone…and wolves.