10-04-2022 Visiting Glacier National Park

The Jackson Glacier is one of the few remaining glaciers in Glacier National Park that are visible from a highway

Visiting Glacier NP can be challenging at any time of year.  The park straddles the spine of the Rocky Mountains and accessibility to all there is to see can be difficult.  Most importantly, it is good to do some serious research before going to the park.  Road closures can hamper travel any time of year.  The magnificent “Going to the Sun Highway” that crosses the Rockies over Logan Pass requires a timed entry pass during the summer and is currently closed for construction on the west side.  Be sure to check the website for the latest news and reservation requirements if you plan to visit. Snow comes early and stays late and the date of that famous road opening changes every year. Always check road conditions before you even consider traveling in the park.

If you plan to hike in Glacier, a very popular reason for visiting, be well prepared, read everything you can read, and remember your bear whistle and pepper spray.  Many people see Glacier from a single perspective.  Traveling to the West Entrance, they will drive to glacial Lake Macdonald viewpoint and ooh and ahh before driving the challenging narrow road to the top of Logan Pass on the Going to the Sun Highway, returning the same day to the West Entrance and say they have been to Glacier.  I have been known to do that myself in days past.  I have also camped in Glacier and done a bit of hiking there, including a dip into Hidden Lake where I think I broke the ice on the surface of the water.

The thing to know is that there are two sides to Glacier, both figuratively and literally.  There is the wild side and the tourist side, and there is the east side and the west side, and there is no easy way to see all of it in one day.  Mo and I perused the maps that Carol gave us, trying to decide if we wanted to do the entire circle route to the west side and then over the top of the pass to the east side.  That would have been a lot of driving, and our plans were nixed almost immediately when we read that Logan Pass would be closed on the west side. We could travel to Logan Pass only from the east side of the park.  Lucky for us, Cutbank, where we were camping, is on the east side of Glacier NP. Logan Pass is a highlight of the park and I wanted to be sure that Mo could at least see that famous summit.

With Carol’s information, we also knew the most scenic route to take was from the East Glacier entrance to Two Medicine Lake and then north toward St Mary Lodge and the beginning of Logan Pass.  Her recommendations were invaluable and made our one-day visit to the park absolutely spectacular.

We began our day early, just before daylight, with a plan to travel first to Two Medicine Lake where I camped long ago in the 90s.  The road crossed the flat plains toward Browning with the high ridge of the Rockies looming as we approached.  We were blessed with a magnificently clear day, blue skies, and no clouds.  The slight bit of smoke from fires to the west of the mountains drifted in a bit but didn’t mar the views too much.

We were lucky that the rising sun was behind us. By the time we reached the East Glacier Entrance and began our ascent up scenic highway 49 (with vehicle length restrictions at 21 feet) the mountain peaks to our west were illuminated beautifully by the morning light.

We continued past Lower Two Medicine Lake toward Two Medicine Lake, surprised at how very low the water was in the lower lake. 

Before reaching the main lake, however, we came to the turnout for Two Medicine Falls.  At this early hour, we arrived at a parking lot with only one other car.  The owner of that car came walking toward us saying it was a magnificent hike.  He left and we had the entire Two Medicine Falls trail entirely to ourselves.  I should mention that since we were visiting a National Park where dogs are only allowed on pavement, we chose to leave Mattie at home in the MoHo for the day.  We are so lucky that she is such a great traveler in addition to being quiet and patient when we are gone until our return.

In retrospect, our quiet, lovely hike to Two Medicine Falls was a highlight of our visit to Glacier.  The trail wasn’t long and relatively flat.  We had the falls completely to ourselves.  I can imagine this might be a rarity any other time of year when the park is renowned for its crowds.

When the river is flowing at a higher level during the summer season the waterfall flows both over the rock at the top of the falls and through the hole in the rock where you see it flowing in this photo.  It was a lovely fall and a lovely moment for both of us.

I enjoyed a delightful moment when I suddenly saw beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax) along the trail.  I remember this plant so well from my days mapping in the high mountain ranges of Idaho, just across the divide from where we were hiking in Glacier.  I loved seeing so many familiar plants in the forest understory and recognizing all the tree and shrub species from so many years working in mountains like these.

It was a short hike, and even though we took our time, we returned to the car within an hour or so.  Continuing on toward Two Medicine Lake we reached a park entrance kiosk which, like all others we passed on this October day, was closed.  We placed our geezer park pass in the hanging folder on the car mirror and continued toward the lake.

There was a ranger at the campground, and we took our time cruising around the sites, deciding which ones we might like to try if we ever came back. Most of them are first come first served and I would be reluctant to drive all that way to fight crowds in the summer for a spot. 

This time of year the campground was still open, but the lake was closed to all personal watercraft, so kayaking wasn’t an option.  I would have loved to drop the kayaks on that lake, but with our long day ahead of us, even if it had been allowed we may have decided to skip unloading the boats.  I should mention that Montana was fairly rigorous in their boat check stations located at both ends of the state.  We had to stop three times for boat checks for invasive species along Highway 2.  One time an official carefully sponged out the water in our boats left from the hard rains we had passed through.  For some reason our kayak covers don’t keep out the rain very well.  I saw the guy carefully inspect our sponges for bad critters and then he gave us a couple of new bright sponges along with our certificate of inspection.

Traveling the return route along Two Medicine Lake road we continued north on scenic Highway 49 toward the Going to the Sun Highway. As you can see from the map above, the road is winding.  What you can’t see on the map is how narrow and steep it was as well.  We were both glad we were driving the Tracker and not the motorhome. 

The views of the mountains to our west and the changing fall colors were spectacular.

After an hour or so, including stops for photos, we reached the intersection of Highway 89 and the Going to the Sun road at the St Mary Visitor Center.  Sadly, the visitor center was closed for the season, as was the beautiful St Mary Hotel at this eastern edge of St Mary Lake.  I had hoped to see the visitor centers because the displays are always wonderful and add so much to a visit to our national parks.

Entering the park we stopped for the obligatory photo at the entrance and only had one other car waiting behind us to take the same photo. 

The Going to the Sun Highway is a truly spectacular drive, with rock walls created by the CCC many years ago and magnificent views.  Having driven the western portion of this road, I would say that the eastern part is an easier drive, not quite as narrow and not as scary as the west side.

We reached the Logan Pass parking lot before noon with only about 1/3 of the parking lot filled.  With the visitor center closed the main activity to enjoy at Logan Pass is the hike to Hidden Lake.  I knew that I would make it all the way to the lake but hoped that I could at least get to the upper part of the trail where I could at least see it from a distance.

Logan Pass is well known for sightings of Rocky Mountain sheep along the trail, but we weren’t lucky enough to see any on this day, although I did see them back in the late 90s when I hiked all the way to the lake.  The trail wasn’t terribly crowded, but all those steps are sometimes worse for me than simply hiking up a slope.

I went as far as I could before realizing that my shaky and very weak thigh muscles weren’t going to carry me to the top and I did want to have enough left to get back down.  I had to call it quits and Mo and I sat on the broad red metamorphic rocks enjoying the view before we headed back down the “trail”.  I put trail in quotation marks because much of it is paved and the rest is a complex maze of wooden stairs and boardwalks as far as the upper viewpoint.  Beyond the viewpoint, the trail descends rapidly to the lake through forests and looks more like a “real” trail.

Going to the Sun Mountain towers above the boardwalk trail to Hidden Lake

We lingered for quite some time simply enjoying the views before we meandered back down the trail to the car and backtracked down the highway toward St Mary Lake.  There were a few viewpoints along the road that allowed us to see St Mary Falls down in the canyon, but there was no way I was going to even think bout hiking down there!

One thing noticeably absent on our hike and our drive on the highway was a glacier.  Even high on the pass, we saw no evidence of glaciers within our views.  The statistics about the retreating and disappearing glaciers in Glacier National Park are sobering.  It may have to change its name to “once upon a time glacier national park”.  A sad story repeating throughout the world, especially in the west of the United States.

We had packed a picnic lunch.  I have a silly story I want to add, although it might not be as great a story without the facial expressions to go with it.  On our way up Highway 89, we came upon some road construction.  We were the first car in line and a tiny woman came up to the car and smiled at us.  She asked us about the kayaks and smiled some more.  Asked where we were going and smiled some more.  Then she asked if we had packed a picnic lunch.  We said, “Sure we did”.  She smiled some more and then asked, “Did you make it yourself?  What did you make?”  I told her, and then she just kept smiling at me with a very certain look, much like Mattie gets when she is watching us eat bacon.  I said “Would you like a cookie?”  She smiled extra big and said, “Yes!!”  So we gave her cookies.  I will never forget that sweet lady and her smile that said more than any words could have said.

We drove a bit down the road thinking we might come upon a picnic area with a roadside table for our lunch (minus a few cookies.).  Nothing appeared that fit the bill perfectly until we saw this broad rock on the side of a wide place in the road.  Lunch on that rock in view of all those magnificent mountains was delicious.

Continuing down the road, we finally did see a glacier.  Through the trees, with no place to pull over for a decent photo, we saw Jackson Glacier nestled into the mountain in the distance.  The sunlight was so bright and was facing directly at me but I did manage to prove that there is at least one visible glacier in Glacier National Park.

The highway levels out a bit as it approaches St Mary Lake, and there is a very large fire scar from recent forest fires that mar the views somewhat. Fires are the story of the west, and in National Parks they try to let them burn naturally, hoping to eliminate the truly epic fires that happen when the landscape isn’t allowed to burn as it would without suppression. 

We had one more destination on our list for the one-day quickie look at Glacier National Park.  The road to Many Glacier is to the north on Highway 89, with a 20-mile or so route to the famous hotel and lake.  There is a campground there in addition to a trailhead that leads to views of another famous glacier in the park, the Grinnell Glacier.

Once we were on the road west toward Many Glacier, we were stunned to discover a long stretch of rough gravel road.  We were both a bit tired by this time of the day and had no clue if 20 miles of traveling on a rough gravel road at 5mph would be worth it.  We went back and forth a bit with the decision and finally decided to keep going, just a little bit further.  It was only 2 miles of gravel before we hit the pavement once again and we were glad we hadn’t turned around.  There were no signs or warnings of any kind about this construction or any indication of how long it would last and for how far it continued.

When we arrived at the location of the historic Many Glacier Hotel it was late afternoon.  We weren’t surprised to discover that like almost everything else during this October day in Glacier NP, the hotel was closed up tight. 

We parked in the upper parking lot where there was a short walkway to this view of the hotel with the beautiful lake and mountain backdrop.  The hotel is in the familiar style of national park lodges that are familiar throughout the country, including our own Crater Lake Lodge, the lodge at Yellowstone National Park, and many others. 

There is a great history of this old lodge, and people return year after year to hike and enjoy the lake.  Once again, the lake was posted with a sign prohibiting private watercraft.  I am not sure if this is the case during the summer season as well and the only boats allowed on this lake would be park-owned excursion boats.

We drove the short distance from the lodge toward the Many Glacier campgrounds, but most of the cabins were closed as were all the stores and restaurants that are in that area.  The other thing that was noticeable was the lack of sunlight in the deep canyon protected on all sides by the towering peaks that surrounded the lake.  It was dark in there, especially late in the day and late in the season. 

Something Mo and I were especially intrigued by during the day was the dramatic view of Singleshot Mountain above St Mary Lake with its colorful sedimentary layers of the Appekuny Formation.

One obscure piece of information that was documented on a roadside sign was fantastic.  We stopped at a point overlooking Lake Mary where this sign explained with maps and diagrams that we were looking across the lake at Triple Divide Peak, one of the few places in the world where streams feeding three major watersheds originate.  From this point waters from Glacier National Park flow into three different places:  The Pacific Ocean, Hudson Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico.  I thought that was really cool. 

As the sign above said;  It’s All Downhill from Here.

The trip from Many Glacier back to Cutbank and our patient little dog took about an hour and a half.  We crossed the wide open landscapes of the Blackfeet Reservation to the town of Browning and returned home from Browning on Highway 2.  It was a good day, albeit a long one, but we were happy with our choices and decided that we did exceptionally well for a single one-day visit to an incredible national park.

10-01-2022 to 10-04-2022 North Dakota to Cutbank, Montana

Traveling west on the High Line Highway 2 in North Dakota

When I left you last, Mo and I were happily settled in for two peaceful days at Grahams Island State Park.  Currently, as I write this morning, the fall foggy mornings have settled into our beautiful Southern Oregon Rogue Valley.  Grants Pass has fog.  It isn’t the beach, but just 2 short hours from the ocean and a straight line to the ridge of mountains that likes to make sure that fog settles in. 

Sometimes it rolls around and we watch it rise from the valley, shrouding our outdoor views with soft gray.  Sometimes we watch it lift.  Unlike the cold not snowy winter days of January, it stays all day.  I am happy that at this time of year it usually lifts.  But what I find interesting is that when the rains stop and the weather apps say “sunny”, I can be fairly certain that our mornings, at least, will be foggy.

What better time to return with photos and pictures and notes in my journal and calendar to write about our travels as we continued westward.

We left Grahams Island State Park early on the morning of the first of October.  Mo was born in North Dakota and knows the state better than I do, but I was surprised by the views of rolling hills and meandering canyons as we drove west from Devils Lake.

Before long, however, the landscape flattened into what most people imagine for the state of North Dakota.  In addition to the flat landscape, we noticed more and more oil wells as we approached Williston on the far western border of the state. North Dakota experienced a major oil boom in the early 2000s.  Here is the introductory paragraph from Wiki. Skip over it if you like, but with the current state of oil production and oil and fuel prices in the US, it might be interesting:

“The North Dakota oil boom refers to the period of rapidly expanding oil extraction from the Bakken Formation in the state of North Dakota that lasted from the discovery of Parshall Oil Field in 2006, and peaked in 2012,[1][2] but with substantially less growth noted since 2015 due to a global decline in oil prices.[3] Despite the Great Recession, the oil boom resulted in enough jobs to provide North Dakota with the lowest unemployment rate in the United States from 2008 to at least 2014.[4][5] The boom gave North Dakota, a state with a 2013 population of about 725,000, a billion-dollar budget surplus. North Dakota, which ranked 38th in per capita gross domestic product (GDP) in 2001, rose steadily with the Bakken boom, and had a per capita GDP 29% above the national average by 2013.[6]

By October 2020, total oil rig count in the state had fallen dramatically. According to the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, the total oil rig count in the state had fallen from 58 active rigs on October 3, 2019, to only 11 active rigs on October 3, 2020, a reduction of over 80 percent.

The oil boom was largely due to the successful use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, which made tight oil deposits recoverable.[7] Contributing to the boom was a push to commence drilling and production on oil and gas leases before the expiration of their primary term, commonly three to five years, at which time the leases would terminate unless a producing well was drilled on the lease. But once production was established, the leases continued as long as oil and gas were continually produced.”

As we continued west and the day extended toward evening, we had to make a choice.  In our original planning I thought that we could camp at Fort Peck in the COE campgrounds near the dam.  I knew that the campgrounds closed on September 30, but thought we could still dry camp there.  However, when I contacted the campground by phone I was told that the gates were all closed and locked but that we could still find a spot along the road leading toward the lake for dispersed camping.

It was time to make a decision.  Our travel plans were slowing considerably by adding a few extra days out to arrive in Lincoln Washington on October 7.  Why rush to a closed campground?  We chose instead to boondock in the parking lot of the Flying J or the Love’s Truck stop in Williston on the border between North Dakota and Montana.

The Flying J was on the edge of town, along Highway 2, but when we stopped it was small and seemed a bit isolated and sketchy.  Continuing a few miles toward the town of Williston, we checked out the Love’s Truck Stop and decided it would be a fine place for an overnight.  We have camped a few times in the past at Loves or Flying J or other big truck stops without incident.  I never thought to take photos, for reasons that might become more clear with the continuation of this story.  It wasn’t a good night.

The truck stop was fairly new, built in the last couple of years, and there seemed to be plenty of room in the parking area surrounding the store.  We first settled into a spot along the right side of that island you see on the right because all of the overnight slots for truck parking were back-in sites.  We really didn’t want to have to unhook for just an overnight at a truck stop. 

We settled in and managed to open the slide into a safe area with big rigs passing us on the right.  Just a short time later, a guy with a fifth wheel pulled out of one of the back in slots, leaving his chair and ice chest in place, and shortly after that, a trucker pulled up next to the leftover stuff.  Suddenly he was screaming and yelling and throwing everything in that space into the air and out to the grass.  He was angry and loud and very scary.  Funny thing was that there were at least 20 open slots all around that one space.  No matter, the guy was really mad.  I looked at Mo and said, “Let’s just pull straight into that spot far from everything on the boundary of the parking lot and we can unhook in the morning”.  So we did.  It was an easy place to settle in, with grass on two sides of us and some garbage cans, and no one nearby.

Within minutes, however, some very strange-looking people pulled up in a couple of trucks, yelling and trying to find out if someone had left a small portable refrigerator by a telephone pole by us and these people were trying to figure out if it was useable. There was a plug-in on the phone pole and they were trying to use it. We locked our doors.  As we settled in for supper, more and more trucks pulled into the lot, however instead of semis, most of them were working trucks with a lot of big dirty equipment.  Maybe we were getting a bit paranoid by this time but the drivers all seemed angry and fast and scary as well. 

We pulled the shades tight against the outdoor lights surrounding us and went to bed with our Kindles to read.  The noise never stopped.  There were trucks and a lot of strange people running around and yelling at each other.  I was afraid to open anything to look out the windows to try to see what was going on.  Then as the night progressed, the noise got louder.  Coyotes started howling close by and there was a lot of dog barking.  Then there was a lot of crashing and banging.  I finally peeked out the window to see another angry guy throwing the full garbage cans into a giant trailer.  He was yelling at the dogs and the coyotes I guess, or maybe the garbage cans. Things settled down for a bit before he returned for more yelling and throwing the now-empty garbage cans back into their locations on both sides of our rig.

I think it was around 1am when things finally settled down and I slept, although fitfully and very apprehensive about what might happen next.  We left early the next morning.  I think we might avoid staying at another Love’s truck stop in the future, at least not in working man oil country.

Eastern Montana on Highway 2 was a bit less flat than Western North Dakota

When our plans shifted with an early stopover at Williston, we needed to re-evaluate our nightly destinations.  I already had a reservation for an RV park in Cutbank, Montana for Monday the 3rd, and we didn’t want to drive all the way to Cutbank in one day.  I searched around a bit and found a little treasure in the tiny town of Zurich, Montana.  (unlike Switzerland, it is pronounced like “rich”).

Once more, as we continued west, we were accompanied by the muted fall colors of a plains state with few trees

As I was searching for places to stay, I came upon this video for the tiny town of Zurich, about 30 miles east of Havre.  I then read a few reviews, and we decided that a night in this old park in an old town would be a delightful way to spend an extra night on the road.

We arrived early afternoon and the park was empty.  We had our choice of sites and discovered that the new posts were 30/50 amp, not only 50amp as was noted in one of the reviews.  We had a converter either way but it was nice not to have to use it.  The water spigot adjacent to our site was also operational, although all the other spigots were turned off for the winter.

Next to the park building was a mailbox with envelopes and registration forms.  Inside the box were two other filled-out forms with money inside the envelopes.  Only in rural Montana, I would guess.  No one seemed to bother the money-filled envelopes in the mailbox.  We added our envelope and our ten-dollar bill to the pile.

I took Mattie for a walk and we enjoyed the silence and the ambiance of the park.  It was easy to imagine summertime picnics and ballgames and happy laughing people having barbeques and family gatherings.  Mattie loved this park because she could run and play off-leash to her heart’s content. For us, it was a perfectly quiet and very dark overnight stay.

We discovered to our consternation the next morning that someone had parked a vehicle right in front of the MoHo.  We never heard anything, but there was a dry spot where the overnight rain hadn’t reached below the footprint of the vehicle.  Sadly, there was no additional envelope in the mailbox.  Before we left that morning an older gentleman drove in and picked up the envelopes and drove up to what appeared to be a caretaker’s home just across the creek.  He was taciturn but did say hello to us.

Loved seeing these two schools across the street from each other in Zurich

On our way out of town, we took advantage of the moody, foggy morning to stop and take some photos of the old bank and school.  Such a sweet little place and great fun for a change of pace for us.

As we crossed the rest of the state of Montana toward Cutbank, the perfectly flat landscape opened up with a slight hint of the great mountain range to our west.  It is always exciting to approach the Rocky Mountains after traveling across so many hundreds of miles of flat country.  Although I developed a new respect for the Appalachian Mountains after this trip.  Still, the magnificent front of the Rockies viewed from a long distance is thrilling.

We were a bit less thrilled when we drove into Cutbank and found our 4-star rated campground.  Glacier Mist RV Park is definitely a strange place.

Here is a review that encouraged me to take a chance with a park that was “a work in progress”  In fairness, there wasn’t much available on the east side of the Rockies this late in the season.  Most of the RV parks that cater to Glacier NP visitors were closed, and after many calls, I got a reservation at Glacier Mist.  When I called this morning to request an additional night Carol called me right back.  Carol is nothing if not friendly and very talkative.

Convenient to Glacier NP, 30/50 A, wide spaces for all size RV, we camped 3 days with 40. Ft Fifth wheel, plenty of room For truck also. Carol, the owner runs the place by herself and is very nice, campground is a work in progress so it looks a little rough but Don’t let that keep you from coming in Price was great….

As you can see from the photos, work in progress is definitely a good description.  Carol told us to take our choice of campsites, and we hooked up water and power and surprisingly, the site was completely level.  Our plan was to spend two days at this park to stall another night before traveling to Idaho and on to Washington, to catch up on laundry, and to catch up on rest. 

When I went to the office to ask Carol for the bathroom and laundry room code she asked if we planned to visit Glacier, and then proceeded to give me maps and charts and a ton of information about visiting the park this late in the season.

I did laundry in the spotless laundry room, took a great shower in the spotless bathroom, and meandered back to the rig to talk with Mo about the possibility of seeing Glacier NP.  What I didn’t know is that Mo had never been to Glacier.  I had to search my memory banks and photos to remember the several times that I visited the park during the time I lived in Northern Idaho.

The sunset from Glacier Mist RV Park toward the Rocky Mountains was stunning.

After supper, we reviewed the maps and decided that a day trip to Glacier would be a great idea.  What better way to kill an extra day on the road?!

Our day in Glacier was spectacular and has earned the right to a post of its own, coming next.