Todd Rightsell braves bears and bad weather to bring us the best of Glacier National Park in pictures, hikes, drives, campgrounds, and boondocking. Take us to the notch!
For this installment of Top Shots, Todd presents some of the best photographs we’ve ever seen, and gives us the goods on the best hikes, drives, campgrounds, and more in Glacier National Park.
|Click here to see Todd’s Travel Tips for Glacier National Park|
Glacier National Park is awe inspiring. Parts of it look like scenes from, “The Sound of Music”. This was taken at Hidden Lake, a mere one and a half miles from the Logan Pass visitor center. I spent hours up here just enjoying the scenery and looking at the mountain goats.
The water in the lakes in Glacier National Park is the deepest and most intense shade of blue I have ever seen. I sat on the edge of this small cliff for several hours just taking it all in. If you have been here on a sunny and clear day, you understand. If you haven’t, well…
The mountain goats at Hidden Lake are good sports. I guess they are in a good mood or something, because they sure don’t seem to mind the tourists gawking at them and the kids chasing them and trying to pet them. It’s amazing how some folks act around wild animals. I guess I’d be in a good mood too, if I lived here!
This was about a half mile past the official Hidden Lake overlook. If you ever get here, I definitely suggest going past the official overlook, which is a tourist trap, and find a good spot further out around the lake to enjoy the solitude. There are less people and more goats!
Two days later this area was closed due to bear activity. A mother Grizzly and her two cubs had decided to hang out for a couple of days so the park rangers closed the trail. In the parks, the animals take precedent. It makes me wonder what was running around behind me in the hills while I was hypnotized by the scenery in front of me!
This was taken while walking back from Hidden Lake. It is a great example of a hanging valley. Notice how the valley just disappears over a cliff. Hanging valleys are unique to mountain landscapes and are caused by glacial activity. A glacier carves a U shaped valley as opposed to a V like a river.
At one time, this area was covered in thick glacial ice which flattened or scoured the floor of the valley as it moved downhill. Then it ran into an even larger glacier coming in from a ninety degree angle and the larger glacier sheered off the smaller one. When the ice melted, these hanging valleys were left behind. The power of nature is hard to comprehend sometimes.
The Highline Trail in Glacier Park is one of the best hikes in North America. This was taken the second time I hiked the trail, the first time being back in 2009. I got up sort of early and made sure I was on the first bus out of the campground to the top.
From Logan Pass, you walk out eight miles to the Granite Park Chalet. It is mostly flat and not too bad of a walk and, as you can see, the views are stunning. Once at the chalet (which you can still stay in) it’s a four mile downhill walk to the loop on Going to the Sun Road. From there, the shuttle bus will pick you up, usually within fifteen minutes, and it is a short ride back to where you started.
The rock formation is part of the continental divide and called the Garden Wall. It runs for several miles along the trail. The whole idea is to get to the notch, which is that low point in the distance, and peer over the other side at Grinnell Glacier.
Another shot of the notch. If you are paying attention, you can see that I have passed it. This was the second time I had to bail out on the attempt to peer over it. The first time was in 2009 and I was simply too beat and out of shape to try. It is about six-tenths of a mile from the main trail up to the notch, and about 700 feet in elevation gain. All that after already walking eight miles plus, the four miles left to get out. I told myself that day that I would be back and try again.
Well, this day was the second attempt and as you can see the weather was a bit dicey. So I bailed out again. As I walked the four miles back down from Granite Park Chalet to the loop in the pouring rain, and sometimes sleet and snow, I was okay with the decision that I had made. But I knew that I had time to make another attempt and I swore to myself that I wouldn’t leave Glacier until I had done it.
After the failed attempt at the notch, I relocated from Rising Sun Campground to the Two Medicine complex. I rolled in about 11:30am and somehow managed to score the best campsite in all of Glacier National Park. This was the view from my campsite for five glorious days.
The sunset over Sinopah Mountain each evening was the highlight of the day. While here, I attended two ranger programs where an elder from the Blackfeet Tribe spoke. Those two nights were probably the best ranger programs I have ever been to. The speaker’s last name was, “HeavyRunner” and his family were fairly high ranking members of the Blackfeet Tribe, which lives just outside the park today.
Glacier National Park was the homeland of the Blackfeet until they were basically tricked into giving it up. The stories he told, and perspective he had on nature; the land, the animals, and the local culture, was fascinating.
After leaving the Two Medicine area, I decided to head to the west side of the park and checked in at Apgar Campground for several nights. It was from here that I would launch my third attempt at the notch on the Highline Trail. I was determined to see Grinnell Glacier on the other side! So I got up sort of early again and rode my bike to the newly constructed transportation center and hopped the first bus to the top of Logan Pass once more.
The shuttle bus system in Glacier National Park is fantastic. It allows you to focus on the jaw dropping views while somebody else does all the driving. I hopped off the bus and hit the trail confident that I was going to make it this time.
I had gone about 300 yards when the couple out in front of me stopped and circled something on the trail with their hiking poles. I knew instantly it had to be bear tracks or scat and sure enough it was tracks; a big one and a little one headed the same way I was going! I caught up to them and asked if they minded if I hiked with them as I was alone and a bit nervous. I had run across a grizzly by myself on the trail about two weeks earlier in Yellowstone National Park, but that’s another story.
So the three of us took off and I managed to keep up with them for about four miles or so and then told them to go on after we rested for a minute. We hadn’t seen any tracks for a while and I figured I was okay. As soon as they left me behind, I walked about a quarter of a mile and right in the middle of the trail was a big pile of very, very fresh bear scat. Great. I kept going. I had no choice. I was yelling the whole time and could hear others yelling too. I never saw the bear though, thank goodness.
Finally, after three years, two failed attempts, and dodging bears all day, I made it to the notch. After the most brutal six-tenths of a mile I have ever hiked in my life, this was the view I was treated to.
This may be the most stunning view I have ever seen, because it is so different from anything else you will probably ever see, not to mention the fact that it took me three tries and three years to get here. It holds a special place in my memories. That is Grinnell Glacier down below. One of the next big challenges for me in life will be to actually hike down to it and then down the drainage below into Many Glacier, which is about seventeen to eighteen miles in total. Perhaps this summer.
|Glacier National Park – Todd’s Travel Tips|
|Top Glacier National Park Hikes:Glacier is another favorite for hikers and backpackers. The trails and scenery here are second to none. Be careful though, as this is prime Grizzly habitat and the place is literally crawling with them. Do not hike here unless you are comfortable and familiar with the rules for hiking in bear country. Bear spray is an absolute necessity. But if you have the courage, you won’t be disappointed. And don’t forget your camera!
1. Highline Trail – The highline trail is the crown jewel of Glacier National Park. It’s literally like walking through Switzerland. Although the entire trail is much longer, the don’t miss section is the twelve miles between Logan Pass and The Loop. I suggest starting at Logan Pass, as the last four miles to the Loop will be all downhill instead of up. The views along this trail are unrivaled in the lower forty-eight. Along the way, you are sure to see mountain goats and, very likely, grizzly bears.
2. Hidden Lake – The trail to Hidden Lake begins at the Logan Pass Visitor Center and gently climbs about 1.5 miles to a viewpoint overlooking Hidden Lake. Hidden Lake is stunning. The water is a deep blue and the snow capped peaks surrounding it make the whole scene surreal. Add in the mountain goats and bighorn sheep (you will see them here) and you’d swear you were in the Alps. The official viewpoint is good, but if you go on about another quarter mile, the crowds will thin and you can find a bit of solitude on the rock outcroppings looking over the lake. It is one of the best spots in the world for lunch. Again, bear spray is a must.
3. Grinell Glacier – Grinell Glacier is one of the few remaining glaciers in Glacier National Park. You can get a peek at it from above via the Highline Trail, or walk up to it from below via the trail from Many Glacier. The Highline route is about thirteen miles while the Many Glacier round trip route is about seven to eight miles. Both reward you with eye-popping views of Grinell Glacier, but from very different perspectives.
Glacier National Park and the surrounding area has some spectacular drives. If you have time tIme to venture out, try one of the half to full day trips below. Your tired legs will thank you for the break. So gas up the truck and hit the road!
1. Going to the Sun Road – This is a must see in Glacier. If you do nothing else, go to the top and see Logan Pass. If you are disappointed, there may be something wrong with you. On a sunny summer day, there is nothing like the views on the Going to the Sun Road anywhere in the United States.
The Going to the Sun Road is the short route between Glacier Park’s east and west sides. No vehicles over twenty feet long are allowed; however, so you’ll have to drop your camper before heading up. Even better, hop on one of the free park shuttles and leave the driving to the experts.
2. Montana Highway 2 – If you plan on camping in both the east and west sides of the park, then you’re going to have to drive Highway 2. Highway 2 takes you from West Glacier, around the southern part of Glacier National Park, and then turns north toward East Glacier. Highway 2 then runs along the Flathead River and affords access to several of the more remote trail heads within the park. Along the way, be sure stop at the Goat Lick Overlook. As the name implies, it is a pretty safe bet you’ll see a few mountain goats.
3. Montana Highway 89 – For those of you arriving from the east, this is the way to come. Highway 89 from Great Falls to Glacier National Park is gorgeous. It parallels the front range of the Rockies for several hundred miles before entering the Blackfeet Indian Reservation which borders Glacier National Park. As you drive, you can imagine what life was like for the native American Indians when they roamed the great plains.
Top Glacier National Park Campgrounds and Boondocking Spots:
Glacier National Park has several campgrounds suitable for truck campers. Although I have not stayed in all of them (yet), my favorites so far are:
1. Apgar – This is the largest campground in the park and offers the most services and amenities. It is situated near the main western gate of the park on the southern end of Lake McDonald. Reservations are accepted, but rarely needed. Just a short walk or bike ride away is Apgar Village, which offers shopping, dining, boat rentals, and more.
2. Two Medicine – This campground is located on the east side of the park a few miles Northwest of the East Glacier Park gate. It is adjacent to beautiful Two Medicine Lake, which was a sacred spot for the Blackfeet before Glacier National Park was created.
This campground often fills up, so get there early. A dump station and general store are nearby. You can also rent a small boat or hike one of the many trails which originate here. Sunsets here are not to be missed.
3. Many Glacier – For me, this is the best campground on the east side of the park. While the scenery may not be quite as good from the actual campground as Two Medicine, the area in general is jaw dropping.
The campground is situated on the edge of Swiftcurrent Creek and is frequented by the local wildlife including Grizzly bears and moose, both of which I have seen close up here.
Just a short walk away is the Swiftcurrent Motor Lodge, where a weary camper can get a shower and a decent meal. Also in the area is the Many Glacier Lodge, one of the grand lodges of the Rockies built by the railroads around the turn of the century. And to top it all off, this is the jumping off point for many of Glacier National Park’s best hikes. It’s a great place to hang out for a while.
Other Glacier National Park Recommendations:
1. Learn the story of the Blackfeet Indians, who called the park their home before we decided to make it a park. It’s a fascinating story chock full of history. There have been dozens of excellent books written about the subject and you can pick up some really good ones at one of the park Visitor Centers. To know and understand the history of the Blackfeet will surely enhance your appreciation for the park itself.
2. The bus is a plus. Like several other parks, Glacier National Park offers a free park shuttle to help alleviate traffic on Going to the Sun Road, which can be terrifying to drive. It’s one of the best things about the park and stops at every major trail head along the road as well as Apgar, St. Mary, and Rising Sun campgrounds.
No more trying to catch a ride back to your truck camper after a long day of hiking. This is by far the best way to see the Going to the Sun Road. With no driving to worry about you can really enjoy the scenery. The best part is the other people on the bus who always have good stories and tips, plus there is usually some kid with eagle eyes that will spot something interesting along the way!
3. The best time to visit Glacier National Park is in mid to late August. By this time the rainy season is pretty much over. I have been several other times in June or July and it was always a washout, not to mention cold. Mid to late August is much better. You’ll thank me for this tip later.