I had always wanted to go to Montana, ever since I was a little kid. My original desire to go to the Big Sky state was to search for Dinosaur bones! I was interested in Paleontology from a very young age, 3 years old according to my parents. I read numerous books on the topic as I grew older including one titled "Digging Dinosaurs" by a prominent paleontologist that discover a new species near Choteau, Montana.
I never ended up getting to that little town until about 25 years after reading about it. I drove through that area after leaving the point of interest this article is about, Glacier National Park!
There is more than one way to enter the park, and I chose the St Mary entrance on the east side. I was coming from the Badlands area over in South Dakota, traveling north through Deadwood, a quick stop at The Devils' Tower then to Billings and finally up to US-HWY 2.
If you happen to be coming from this side of the park and need a place to stay for the night, I found a great Comfort Inn east of the park in the town of Shelby. There was an Albertsons and a subway sandwich shop down the road to fill your cooler with and the hotel even had a casino attached to it. This may or may not be surprising to some. I am not from this area and didn't know how many casinos I would see while driving around Montana. There are tons.! You don't see that in a lot of other Eastern states.
TIP: If you are going to be traveling a lot and staying in hotels with some frequency, it is a very good idea to sign up to some sort of rewards club. Many hotel chains have them, and some are large groups that have numerous hotel brands in the same club. They are free and work out pretty well for me. I have gotten rooms for either completely free or for large discounts after collecting some rewards points for staying at hotels in the program. You will sometimes be given the option when checking in to receive a little welcome gift, that gift is usually a free bottle of water and some snacks, or the choice of a few hundred points. Always take the points.! Unless you are starving and have no other options for food ;)
The first thing I did when arriving at Glacier was to get a campsite. Depending on time of year, this can be a challenge. Get to the Park as early as possible to try finding a space or people leaving theirs! I chose to try the Two Medicine Campground a little south of the St Mary's Entrance. I was lucky to get a space(#48), and this area was absolutely beautiful. There were actually a good number of empty spaces in this campground, even when other campgrounds were all full. It will set you back $20 a night to stay here, which is pretty middle of the road as far as campground prices go. The Two Medicine campground is a little out of the way I guess, compared to campgrounds like the St Mary's campground that is inside of Glacier, but it was a quiet and peaceful place to sleep at night. I stayed here 4 nights, and never even had the desire to pack up and move to another campground when some of them opened up in the middle of the week. There is a beautiful lake here, named Two Medicine of course, and you can rent kayaks/canoes and go out on boat tours. There are also many hiking trails around this area.
You will have a very scenic drive up the 49 to the 89 to get into the St Mary's entrance of Glacier. There are also plenty of options at the St Mary's entrance for food and gas and firewood if you wish to purchase some for campfires back at camp. Very soon after entering the park, you will see the St Mary's visitor center on the right. Parking here can be hit or miss. One day I got a space right away, another day I couldn't even get a space and just came back later. There is an awesome 14 inch Celestron Edge HD telescope on display here that is setup from time to time. If you are lucky to be here on a night they do their astronomy program and get a chance to look through it then do.!
The visitor center also has free Wifi and clean bathrooms. Take advantage of both when you can. And as with all visitor centers, this one too offers many nice souvenirs to purchase if you are looking for something to remember the park by. At the least, I buy those little park tokens/buttons. They are sold at pretty much every national park in the country, cost $1, and can be made into a nice little display with a shadow box to hang on your wall and give you a reminder of a past trip anytime you want a flash back.
On this first day of Glacier, I drove the full length of the Going to the Sun road that traverses through much of the park. This took about 2 hours to complete. The scenery is just amazing everywhere you look here. Take advantage of the slow speed limits and enjoy this place. I stopped frequently in the pullouts and grabbed my camera more times than I could remember.
I headed back to camp after driving around the area a little and chose to take the external route. Once you get to the Apgar Village area, Head south out of the park back to US HWY 2 and head east back to the East Glacier park village area. You will most likely find yourself driving this loop frequently while in Glacier if you stay at Two Medicine.
The campsite had a nice level area to setup the tent, but it is a fairly hard, gravel box type surface and you will need some type of blanket or sleeping pad under you if you are tent camping and staying in a space like this one. I was surprised to see that the night sky didn't really get that dark till after 11pm! Being mid summer and this far north, I guess I should have expected it, but have never really been to this area before this trip.
It's day two in Glacier, and I'm heading to the trail I wanted to checkout the most, The St Mary falls hike( see more here ). The hike was about 5.3 miles round-trip, and took roughly 3.5 hours to complete. I stopped many, many times to take photographs, so you could hike this faster if you wanted to. If there was ever a trail that I would call a perfect hike, this would be the one. The St Mary falls trail has everything I enjoy and look for in a hike. It starts off in a fairly open area with shrubs and small plants, then goes through some area with tall spaced out trees, then into denser forest, with snow capped mountains in the background and water features throughout the majority of the hike. You will encounter numerous waterfalls while on this hike including the one the trail is named for, and also Virginia falls farther up the trail and another one named Baring falls nearby.
At the start of the trail, you will see the typical bear warning signs that are throughout this park. You will want to make noise especially if you are hiking alone, and maybe even carry bear mace. I still had my bear mace from being in Yellowstone earlier on this trip, so it came with me on this hike and most areas I was exploring in Glacier.
After leaving the St Mary falls hike, I decided to try finding Bowman lake and figured my car's gps unit would be sufficient to get me there. Man, I was wrong! I had a general Idea of where it was, and the gps definitely had it correctly as the destination, but it decided to direct me to take some of the worst and smallest dirt and gravel roads I have ever been on in this car. So narrow at points that trees were scraping the sides of my car and I would not have even been able to turn around anywhere if I chose to give up and go back. After 2 hours of being the only person in all directions, I finally got to what was a real road, only to see a sign just a few miles before the Lake, that the road was closed and it was barricaded.
I did find a hidden lake when I was on these rough roads that was very scenic and looked like it for sure would be a place where a grizzly bear would like to hangout, so before I hiked through the dense woods to the shore, I grabbed the bear mace with my camera gear. No bears, but did see some beautiful sights. There wasn't another person for miles and the lake was so quiet. Nothing but the sound of wind through tall grasses lining the lake.
When I got back into my car, I was lucky enough to find an alternate route to go back, and didn't have to retrace my steps back the way I came. It took so many hours to get all the way over here to the north west side of the park that by the time I got back to camp, 12.5 hours had passed since I left camp that morning.!
Day 3 in Glacier. I decided to go back to the far west side of Glacier and get up to Kintla Lake, in the far north of the Park close to the Canadian border. Once again, my Gps tried to put me back on the treacherous roads, but I knew better today! After a long time driving, I got up to a ranger check point and I told them I was going to Kintla Lake and they said it was closed to any new traffic cause it was busy. I said, well then I'm just going to drive around a little up here and not go to Kintla. I went. And there were numerous empty spaces to park in. Maybe they thought I wanted to go up there to camp at the campground and that was full. Regardless I am glad I went. The roads got fairly thin again leading up to this hidden away place, but the drive was worth the destination. Kintla is a pretty large lake, that has a nice trail hugging the shoreline the entire way called the Boulder Pass Trail. I ended up doing about a 4.85 mile hike and would have loved to have gone farther, but had to start heading back since it was roughly a 3 hour trek back to camp.
As I got back into the more main drag of Glacier, what do I see along the side of Camas Road, but a Grizzly Bear! After being in all these way far out secluded areas, hiking where there wasn't anyone but me, I see a Grizzly chowing down on red berries off the side of a fairly high traffic road area! I drove up ahead till I could get my car off the road and grabbed my camera gear. I had to jog back about 50 yards to where the bear was and luckily it was still there. Unlucky for me, the Bears don't pose for the camera, and it never looked in my direction. All I was able to get was the back of its head. When I tried to get to a better location to photograph this incredible animal, another driver, not so concerned with following the guidelines of the park just stopped right in front of the bear and scared it off into the woods. For once I decided to use better judgment and did NOT run off into the woods after it!
I was going to try renting a boat today at the Two Medicine lake area near my campground, but it was so packed, you couldn't even get a parking space, and all the boats were rented. I would really like to come back to Glacier in the "Off Season". Instead of boating, I decided to do another hike.
I headed to the Logan Pass visitors center off the Going to the Sun Road. This is probably the busiest visitors center I have ever encountered at any National Park I have been in. It took about 20 minutes of driving up and down rows of cars till I was able to finally get a space. I had previously tried to stop in here and couldn't get a space at all on other days. I got lucky this time and as I was heading towards the exit, the last spot on the end of the row opened up and I grabbed it.
I hiked the Hidden Lake trail( more info here ). It was a very cool trail to hike, however it was a bit difficult. I live year round at sea level, and this hike being at about a 6700ft elevation made it a little difficult on the breathing. Many sections of this trail, about 80% were still snow or slushy half melted snow and dirt. This was mid summer in July that I was here and there was still large amounts of snow on this trail and in other areas of the park. It was a lot of fun to hike, but you gotta be prepared for hiking terrain like that. I saw many people slipping and falling trying to hike this with regular tennis shoes and street footwear. I am extra careful when hiking on slippery trails due to all the camera gear I am usually lugging around with me.
I was able to see a number of animals on this hike, including numerous Mountain goats that are not shy at all and will be very close to you. I also saw two grizzly bears way off in the distance in a lower valley. I would have never spotted these bears had there not been people already looking at them. I don’t know who spotted them first but they win the eagle eye award for the day! I was able to get pictures of them, but they were at such a huge distance, even putting my longest telephoto I had on me with a 1.4x teleconverter and setting the Pentax K1 body to aps-c mode which gave an equivalent focal length of 630mm, they are still exceptionally small in the frame.
When I got to the observation area, the view was incredible. The name is very appropriate, this is a truly Hidden Lake. I would have loved to have hiked down to the lake’s water and grabbed some photos, but once again, bear activity signs are posted and no hiking is allowed. I looked for a good long while through my telephoto scanning the shores, but could never find a grizzly. I had heard some chatter earlier about a potential bear attack the previous day, so I obeyed these bear warning signs any and every time I saw them.
After finishing this hike and perusing the gift store at the Logan Pass Visitor Center, I gave up my coveted parking space and headed back to camp. After dinner in my campsite, I grabbed my camera gear and walked through the camp to a nice flat area that had a decent view of the sky through the trees. I did a number of long exposure, wide field imaging of the sky and got some nice ones. It was a bit ominous standing around in the pitch black night of the camp where everyone had retired into their tents and campers for the night. I started to think of all the many bear warning signs I had seen over the last couple days here and decided it was time to go back to my tent too :)
Today was my last day in Glacier. I decided to pack up and head to the next destination. I must admit, I think Glacier is my favorite national park I have ever gotten to explore. I wasn't here very long and only got to do a few hikes, but the sights this park has to offer will have me coming back for more, many years to come. Glacier has almost every kind of feature and activity you could hope for if you are an outdoors person. From towering mountains and glaciers, to rushing waterfalls, huge lakes, and streams cutting through the forests, you will not be let down by this natural wonderland. Hiking, Biking, Boating, Camping, star gazing, the list goes on and on...Thanks for Reading
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