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.