Sunday, March 11, 2007

Glacier Park

In September of 2006 I took what was intended as a six-night backpacking trip in Montana's Glacier National Park. I'd been there before in the summer of 2004; this trip was about half new territory, the balance revisiting some of my favorite places from the earlier trip.

The full photo gallery is here, or can be seen as a popup slideshow here

Looking north along the Garden Wall, from Logan Pass
I came into the park at the West Glacier entrance, after a visit to my friend Gayle and her adorable daugher Riley in Bigfork. From the west, I crossed the park on Going-to-the-Sun Road, a spectacular artifact of the days before Environmental Impact Statements. It's a spectacular ride, even though its being there is probably an affront to nature. There's a lot of work going on along the road, part of a complete rebuilding, so traffic can be stopped for up to a half hour at a time.

St. Mary Lake and Wild Goose Island You cross the Continental Divide at Logan Pass, home to a very crowded Visitor Center and some good dayhikes; it's also a starting point for the Highline Trail. The Highline is one of the trails I'll be taking on this trip, but due to the fact that the Hiker's Shuttle service ended the week before my visit, I can't start here if I want to get back to my car. It's unfortunate, given that starting at Swiftcurrent adds 2000' of vertical gain at the start of the hike.

From Logan Pass, the road curves down to the east side of the park, past St. Mary Lake and its Mt. Wilber, from Many Glacer Hotelnearby townsite, which had been evacuated during fires over the summer. To get to Many Glacier/Swiftcurrent you turn north, then reenter the park after a few miles. The winding Glacier Route 3 goes past historic Many Glacier Lodge, a campground, and the ranger station. Glacier requires that you pick up your backcountry permit the day before or first day of your hike, after you sit through a video on the park, and bear country concerns.

I spent the night at Swiftcurrent Motor Lodge, which features rather Spartan accomodations. The have small cabins, with or without a private bath (it's actually in the "living room" of the tiny cabin) or motel rooms with bathrooms. For me, the cabin with bath is the better deal.

I started out early Saturday morning, heading up the Swiftcurrent Trail, over Swiftcurrent Pass, to Granite Park.
Heading into the Backcountry Swiftcurrent Valley The trail begins at the end of the motor lodge's parking lot and meanders up the valley, gaining little altitude for quite a ways. The trail, past several lakes and Redrock Falls, is a popular dayhike route, particularly when other area trails are closed due to bear activity. You only gain about 300' over the first four miles, then the climb begins.

Over the next three miles, the trail gains 2000' on the way up to Swiftcurrent Pass. The trail is sometimes very steep, and snowbanks off to the sides of the trail show how little impact summer has at this altitude.

Finally, at about 7200', you cross the pass. Just below the pass there's a side trail climbing higher, to a little lookout shack 1300' higher on Swiftcurrent Mountain. I'm sure the view is great, but I couldn't face any more altitude that day.

The Garden Wall and Highline Trail After going over the pass, you have about 1-1/2 miles to go to Granite Park, dropping 800' along the way. Here, the view south along the Highline trail is spectacular. Logan Pass is about 8 miles south, about the same distance as the hike from Swiftcurrent, but more of a rolling trail with much less stressful altitude gain.

Arriving at Granite Park Chalet Eventually, you reach the Chalet. Rooms are available here for hikers, along with meals. There are few amenities, though, not even water- you have to bring or filter your own.

My night was spent at the Granite Park campground, a little below the chalet. It's a great spot, with 4 or 5 sheltered sites and a Glacier-standard pit toilet- just a little wooden box with a hole cut in the seat over a pit. Only at the more open campsites is there even an outhouse around it; it actually isn't that bad, the open air keeps the odors down.

Water isn't that close to Granite Park- there's a stream a bit away from the campground, just below a ranger shack. This was the scene of my first disaster of the trip- as I cleaned my new water filter after pumping enough for the night and the next day, the ceramic filter element shattered. Just trashed. I'd be spending the rest of the trip begging filters, boiling, and taking my chances. Luckily, I didn't pick anything up.

From Ahern Pass, looking into the Belly River Country Day 2, the longest day of the trip (at least according to the original itinerary)- 12 miles from Granit Park to Fifty Mountain Campground. The Highline Trail rolls through here, not looking that bad on the map. After about 5 miles you pass a spur trail leading to Ahern Pass, about 800' above the main trail. It's a steep climb, but a great view down the Belly River Valley. At this point in the trip I have no idea that I'll be on the other side of this view in a couple of days. At Ahern Pass, I'm a little higher than Ptarmigan Tunnel, part of my 2004 trip, less than a half mile away. But, again, I'm not planning to go that way this trip. Yet.

Goats at Cattle Queen From Ahern Pass, I returned to the trail, continuing toward the Cattle Queen Creek area. This is the only part of the trail that looked iffy on the map- it's about 1200' of elevation loss and then an equal gain, which isn't much unless it's in the middle of a 12 mile day. It's also home to dense vegetation along the trail, bringing out some of my bear paranoia. As a solo hiker, I'm very afraid of running into a bear. I'd love to see one, maybe a quarter-mile away on the other side of a lake, but I really don't want to turn a corner in the trail and find myself facing a grizzly. I spend much of the trip shouting out and slapping my hiking poles together, giving the bears a little notice that I'm coming. I never did see a bear, just lots of deer and a few groups of goats. (Or are they Longhorns? I can't tell.)
Cattle Queen Creek drainage
Cattle Queen is a very pretty spot, with a large spring cascading out of the north wall and across the trail. That's also the best water anywhere near Fifty Mile, which I wish I'd known on the way in.

One of my favorites, looking back up trail past the Sue Lake Overlook turnoff Leaving Cattle Queen is a steep climb that seems neverending. I know it's shorter than the climb up to Swiftcurrent, but by this time in the day it didn't feel like it. Around here I was passed by two guys who could only be called elderly; they blew past me like I was standing still. Actually, I think I was standing still, trying to catch my breath. I'd run into them again that evening at the campsite, where it turned out to be their last night on the Continental Divide Trail- they'd been hiking for four months and would finish the next day.
Approaching Fifty Mountain Campground
Fifty Mountain was, to say the least, a disappointment. The view was fantastic, but the campground was truly ugly, surrounded by burned trees from a fire in the late 90's. It actualy violates much of what I know about camping to set up a tent surrounded by that much dead forest. This was also where I discovered my second (minor) disaster of the trip- I left my rope & caribiner for hanging food back at Granite Park. From here on, I'd be using ground level lockups where they existed, or tieing together the strings from my tent flaps where they didn't.

A word about Glacier campsites- the standard model is 2-6 sites, sometimes a little close together, but with brush between them. Usually there's a separation of about a hundred feet to the food preparation area, and further separation from the food hanging/storage areas. You're not allowed to cook or have any food near the tents, to help prevent attracting bears. A fine plan. It also promotes a community atmosphere, meeting up with other campers at the food prep area for dinner.

Looking north toward Kootenai, Stoney Indian to the right, and my shadow visible just below center Day 3 was a long day, 9 miles, losing then regaining 2000' on the way to Stoney Indian Lake. Even with the altitude change, it didn't feel nearly as bad as the day before.

It's another great hike down from the Highline into the Waterton Valley, but again it's a little scary with dense, bear-hiding brush encroaching on the entire length of the trail. At the bottom is the Waterton River, heading north toward Kootenai and beyond to Canada. (Glacier Park shares a border with Waterton Lakes Park, and is dedicated as an International Peace Park.)
Stoney Indian Lake, the pass beyond Before Kootenai, I turn off to the east and begin climbing again, toward Stoney Indian Lake.

In a park full of superlatives, Stoney Indian is in a class by itself. The lake is just beautiful, nestled 800' below the pass. It's a little cold for swimming, but the cold water felt great on my feet after the long climb.

The campground spans one end of the lake, with tent sites above the lake to the south, the food area on the northwest side. Sheer cliffs stand on either side; for quite awhile I watched a group scrambling down from the north. They'd been making an attempt on Mt. Cleveland, but had to turn back before the summit, leaving them pretty well bummed out.

The other mild entertainment was the goats, which seemed to be having a family spat on a cliff edge on the south side, hundreds of feet up. It was a little disconcerting to watch one chasing another along the edge, and more disconcerting to hear them kicking rocks loose all night long.

Day 4: One of the "shorter" days, 7.5 miles, up 800' to Stoney Indian Pass, then down about 2000' past Glenn's Lake to the turn-off to Mokowanis Lake.

First thing in the morning, the climb to Stoney Indian was quick, painless, and spectacular. Maybe I was finally getting acclimated to the altitude? After all, my apartment may be close to the highest point in Brooklyn, but it's still only about 100' above sea level.

Looking down over Atsina Lake, Glenn's & Cosley Lakes beyond. Over the pass, the Mokowanis & Belly River valleys are laid out in front of you, the glacier-carved valleys just amazing to see.
Paiota Falls
The trip down into the valley is almost a continuous series of waterfalls. The Mokowanis Cascade, Paiota Falls and Atsina Falls splash near the trail; Raven Quiver Falls stands above it all, the feeder for the river.

The floor levels near Mokowanis Junction, a bug-infested campground in the middle of nowhere. Of all that I saw in the park, MJ had the least to offer. I'm very glad I wasn't staying there.

Glenn's Lake Eventually the trail crosses the river at the head of Glenn's Lake, near White Quiver Falls. Tomorrow I'll be heading back this way, staying at a campground near the head of the lake.

At this point, I've started retracing my hike from 2004- my friends Keely & Steve & I had come this way then, and I really wanted to get back here.

Mokowanis Lake, Pyramid Falls in the distance Mokowanis Lake may be the most beautiful place I've ever camped. It's a small campground, only two sites, on the edge of a fantastic mountain lake. A mile away Pyramid Falls crashes down from Margaret Lake, feeding Mokowanis.

Fishing in Mokowanis Lake The only complication was finding both of the sites taken. A little permit comparison showed that one of the groups was in the wrong place- they were supposed to be at Mokowanis Junction. I felt sorry making them strike their tents, but not that sorry- I'd been looking forward to coming back here ever since I'd left two years ago; I had the right to the spot, and I wasn't giving it up. A little delay, but nothing to keep me out of the lake for too long. Finally, a chance to relax and swim a little, relax a little.

It also made for a great night at dinner, comparing notes with the other group at the campground. The were from Wisconsin (I always seem to meet people from Wisconsin backpacking), and I discovered that one of them was the chef at a Madison restaurant I'd eaten at a couple of months back. Small, small world.
Pyramid Creek cascading toward Mokowanis Lake
Day 5 dawned cloudy, but not terrible. I only had to go 1.5 miles to Glenn's Lake today, so I had time for exploration. In 2004 we'd had two nights at Mokowanis, and made the hike to the falls, but the weather was threatening so we didn't go farther. Today, I'd follow the creek up to the falls, then see about climbing up.

Margaret Lake I knew from maps & trip reports that at the top of the falls lay Margaret Lake. It looked like there was a clear route up to the left of the falls, a pile of rocks at about a 45 degree angle heading in the right direction. Sure enough, the sketchy herd path lead that way, and it turned out to be a pretty easy climb.

Up on top, Margaret Lake was everything promised- each lake I got to seemed to top the last, and Margaret was a beauty. (Sue, Helen, Margaret, and Elizabeth are all lake-names in this part of the park. Supposedly, Mr. Cosley, a noted prospector and explorer of the park, named them for his favorite "fallen women" in a nearby house of ill-repute.)

The clouds weren't breaking much; it was cooling down and getting windy. I decided to head back, and make for my next camp. It was an easy, quick, level hike, and honestly I was hoping for more swim time. But by the time camp was set, things started looking even worse.

Along the way I'd heard a loud explosion, a strong, quick blast followed by a few echos. I had no idea what it was.

I set up camp and was eating lunch when a ranger and his friend wandered by. They were heading up to the pass, and gave me the first weather report I'd had since coming into the backcountry days ago. Snow was moving in that evening, he said, likely continuing for days. My next day was supposed to be another short one, only about 4 miles to Cosley Lake. He suggested that I go farther, to the Gable Creek campground, so that I'd have less distance to hike out Friday, which was supposed to be even worse. He told me that it'd be no problem, given the weather, to go off my itinerary- there'd probably be an open site. If not, I could camp near a ranger station. I considered it.

While we talked, several other rangers came by from up the trail, on horses & mules. The leader called to the ranger "Remember that hazard-tree on the trail? It's gone." The ranger I was speaking with responded "Most of the park heard that. Think you used enough?" They all laughed and continued on.

That night was pretty miserable. My nice tree-lined site ended up very, very wet, with snow falling on the trees and melting just enough to be big, loud drops on the tent. Then the tent leaked. Badly.

The next morning found the weather going back & forth from rain to snow. It was ugly. I packed up and ate, then headed out, unsure of where I was really going. Cosley Lake had been a highlight of 2004, with a pretty lake for swimming, and a great place to spend the afternoon. There'd also been Craig & Yumi, a terrific couple (from Wisconsin) that we'd spent dinner time with. I planned this trip as an attempt to relive that, but this weather wasn't leading me that way.

Along the trail I made fantastic time- I was going at a 3-4 mile/hour pace, unlike my usual 2. As I neared Cosley I knew it wasn't going to be a good place to stop. I thought about following the ranger's advice, but given the condition of my tent (and wet sleeping bag), I started thinking about hiking out of the park that day, a day early. I decided to go for it.

At this point, I had two choices- 8 miles with only a little elevation gain to Chief Mountain trailhead, or 12 miles with 2500' gain & loss back to Swiftcurrent. Neither choice was great- Chief Mountain was my designated destination, but for the next day. I had a reservation for the shuttle to Swiftcurrent, again for the next day. I wasn't even sure that I could make it to the trailhead in time for the the shuttle; if I missed it, or if it was full, I'd be hitchhiking. That's supposed to be pretty easy up there, but given the weather I wasn't convinced. If I got there and couldn't get a ride, I'd be really screwed, about 30 miles from my car at Swiftcurrent.

So I decided to take the direct route.

This wasn't the smartest idea. I knew it was a bad idea, but I did it anyway. I was going off itinerary, so if I went missing, no one would know where to look. Worse, no one would be looking for me for another day, at least. And it was very unlikely that anyone would be coming into the backcountry from that direction.
On the trail, looking toward Helen Lake hidden below clouds
But, I did it anyway.

Most of the way wasn't that bad. It was cold & snowing, but even with wet feet (my "waterproof" top-recommended by Backpacker hiking boots leaked) it wasn't that unpleasant. The snow-covered scenery was spectacular. And I was following footprints, so I knew someone had come this way before. Eventually I was at almost the height of Ahern Pass again, above Helen Lake, though this time I couldn't see it in the clouds.
Approaching the tunnel, and the clouds The hike through Ptarmigan Tunnel had been a rough point in 2004. We did that trip in July, but still had snow, and Keely was on the edge of hypothermia by the time we got there. This trip was no better. I was alone, out of breath, and unable to stop because when I did, I started to get cold. That wouldn't do at all.

I skipped lunch, and I didn't even drink much (bad decision making? You bet!). I did have one set of hand warmers with me, ready to go in my boots if I stopped feeling my toes, but that never happened. I got lucky.

Through the tunnel, above Ptarmigan Lake In early afternoon, I passed through Ptarmigan Tunnel (I did at least have a granola bar and change my socks there, in the bitter cold) and back into the Many Glacier area. From here, it was still another few miles, but I made it back to Swiftcurrent without notable problems. My car was in the lot- I was disgustingly wet, mostly sweat, so I changed in the car, shivering absolutly uncontrollably, probably hypothermic myself, before driving the 100 yards to the motel.

I even managed to get a room without a reservation, though I had to take the expensive motel room- they didn't have a cabin with bath, and after the day I'd had I wasn't going to deal with a community bath.

At dinner, where I inhaled food like I hadn't eaten in weeks, I ran into trail aquaintences who couldn't quite believe the distance I'd done in that weather. They told me it was over 18 miles. In retrospective, I think it was about 16- the mile measurements they looked at were probably to the ranger station, which is farther than the motel- but it was still likely the longest I'd done in a day, certainly the longest with a full backpack. And it was a really bad idea.

Wild Goose Island in the mist The next day was a trip back across the park, and a night in a Kalispell motel with everything from my pack hung up to dry. After another night at Gayle's, home to NY with some good stories about bad decisions.

1 comment:

Craig Doerfler said...

Hi Rob. I hadn't read this trip report before though I did look at your pics on Smug Mug. Sounds like you had a fun time in the snow.