They say that the remaining glaciers may disappear as soon as 2020 and almost certainly by 2030. Climate change is accelerating the loss of these iconic natural formations that gave Glacier National Park its name. Back in 1850, the park had 150 glaciers, but today there are only 25.
With that in mind, I didn’t want to wait any longer before visiting the “Crown of the Continent” in northwest Montana. I had many hikes in mind for our trip. The only problem was that the starting point for some of them was off of the main road through the park, Going-to-the-Sun Road, and it didn’t look like the road would be fully open when we were set to arrive in mid-June. With some backups in mind and the knowledge we could rent bicycles and ride Going-to-the-Sun Road we headed west.
Tip: Get bear spray! If you are flying in you cannot take it on the plane, but there are places you can rent from.
Be prepared to encounter a lot of people. Avalanche Lake is a very popular hike leaving from the western side of Going-to-the-Sun Road, a few miles east of Lake McDonald Lodge. The trail begins at the Trail of the Cedars which is a wheelchair accessible trail. Once it branches off you will have a short, but steep, uphill section. After that, the uphill is more gradual. To get to the lake it’s only a 2.2-mile hike with a bit over 700 feet of elevation gain. On hot summer days, the lake is a popular spot to cool off, but we were there on a cooler, drizzly day so no one was in the water. The past few days saw a lot of rain and the trail was very muddy. I felt bad for everyone walking around in regular sneakers that were getting stuck in the mud. Waterproof trail runners or hiking boots were the best choices that day.
Tip: Don’t stop at the base of the lake. Keep going along the trail. You will get closer to the distant waterfalls and see some more beautiful views. We even ventured out on the snowfields you can see directly across the lake in the above picture.
Animals I saw: Mule deer and marmots
It’s almost impossible to put into words how beautiful the hike to Grinnell Glacier is. The sights, the sounds, the feelings: I’ve never experienced natural beauty quite like it before.
Getting there was a bit more complicated than we anticipated. First, we got in line for the shuttle boat before it opened only to find out the tickets had sold out the day before. Plan B, head to the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead a half mile past Many Glacier Hotel. We couldn’t believe there were no cars there at 9AM. That is until we walked up to the trailhead and saw it was roped off with a sign of grizzly bear activity. Third times a charm right? We went back to Many Glacier Hotel and took the trail on the east side of Swiftcurrent Lake, continuing on past Lake Josephine. The trail here is very easy but very wooded. Knowing there was enough grizzly activity nearby to close a trail we did plenty of singing and clapping to let the bears know we were coming.
The real highlight of this hike is from Grinnell Creek on up. Right after the creek, you will head up quickly. If you aren’t used to the altitude yet be prepared for a bit of a lung buster. It will all be worth it when the switchback gets you up and you start to have amazing views in all directions. Feel free to step out of other hikers way and take pictures as often as you want. Soon you will be up enough to see the blue waters of Grinnell Lake and the uphill won’t be as drastic. No one will judge you if you stare with your jaw open, but really, you will want to keep hiking. We didn’t get to go all the way to Grinnell Glacier due to unstable snowfields closing off the last mile. While I would have enjoyed touching Grinnell Glacier, it was great to still be able to see it along with The Salamander Glacier right above it.
Tip: Do yourself a favor and make sure you do at least one hike in the Many Glacier (Swiftcurrent) area. Other popular hikes in the area include Cracker Lake and Iceberg Lake.
Animals I saw: Moose, mule deer, Columbian ground squirrels. We also saw a nice black bear pawprint
Don’t forget your socks when heading out on a hike. And if you do, hope that someone at the trailhead happens to have an extra pair. We happened to be the ones with the extra pair of (dirty) Darn Tough socks in the back of our rental car. The hiker without socks was our new friend Heidi who lives in nearby Columbia Falls, MT. Heidi did not care that Jayne had worn the socks earlier in the week, she was just happy to not have to hike up Scenic Point in her Chacos. Still being afraid of encountering a grizzly bear, we asked the three locals if we could join them. They agreed and we headed out together on the Mt. Henry Trail for the hike. The funny thing was that the Mt. Henry Trail spent less than a mile in the woods before opening up. Once you are above treeline there are no fears of accidentally sneaking up on a bear.
The majority of this hike is completely exposed, so if it’s a windy day, you will feel it. That being said the exposure means you have constant views. Part of the reason the trail is so exposed is that the whitebark pine forest that used to be there was destroyed over time by a fungal disease. When you are hiking along you will pass through a ghost forest of dead whitebark pines.
The route up to Scenic Point includes 16 switchbacks. The switchbacks make the hike a bit easier on the body and give you a constantly changing view. We didn’t make it all the way to the Scenic Point overlook. Just pass the saddle there was a snowfield with a steep drop off that not everyone wanted to cross. Instead, we decided to take a break next to the snowfield, out of the wind and enjoyed the view while we ate lunch. As we headed back down we encountered many more people than on our way up. The threat of rain was ending and the trails were filling up with hikers looking for the best views.
Later in the day we did a short hike to a waterfall and were excited to turn around and see a beautiful view back up to where we had hiked in the morning (above picture).
Tip: If it’s going to be a warm day start early because you are exposed almost the entire time.
Animals I saw: Butterflies!
Last fall the season ended early on the west side of Glacier National Park due to the Sprague Fire. The fire covered 16,982 acres and burned the historic Sperry Chalet. Wildfires like the Sprague Fire, started by lightning, are important to the park and its ecosystem. It’s hard to wrap your head around something so destructive being so good for the environment, but sure enough, we could see new life growing in the burn area.
The hike up to the Mt. Brown Lookout is one of the hardest in the park. It gains a lot of elevation quickly and your calves will burn almost the entire time. Apparently, there is a beautiful view at the lookout, but we were really hiking the trail in search of mountain goats. I had never seen mountain goats in the wild and the day before someone had posted a picture of goats on Mt. Brown so we headed out in search of them. Part of me wanted to go all of the way to the lookout, but then we found out it was sleeting up there and very little view so it was decided that once we found a goat we would turn back around. Sure enough, we found a mountain goat! We kept our distance, took some pictures, and then turned back around. You don’t always have to go to the top of a mountain to get a great view of nature.
Tip: This is a tough hike and a serious calf workout. Make sure you are really prepared
Animals I saw: Mountain goat and mule deer