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A Mostly Glacier Trip Report


Patty

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We've really been enjoying our road trips through the Western US so after returning from Yellowstone in May, we started tossing around the idea of heading to Glacier National Park in Montana in the fall. We had initially planned to go earlier in September but other commitments got in the way that pushed our trip into late September and October. The Going to the Sun Road was scheduled to close on October 16th this year but had already closed for a few days in mid-September due to snow. We debated whether we should go at all or wait until next year but decided to give it shot. After finally making up our minds, I threw together a rather last minute itinerary which changed again when we decided to leave a few days early as some wintry weather was forecast to hit Montana.

 

We took a similar route out as we did in May driving through northern Nevada and southern Idaho. We again made a brief stop at Lamoille Canyon outside of Elko, Nevada. The fall colors were very pretty at this time of year. In May we were only able to drive about half way up the road before being stopped by snow but this time we were able to make it to the end at 8,800 feet in elevation. One of these days we should actually make time to hike up here!

 

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In southern Idaho we stayed at Redfish Lake Lodge in the Sawtooth National Forest. We had stopped at Redfish Lake in May and found it to be a beautiful location but the lodge hadn't opened for the season yet. On our drive up from Ketchum, we again saw many pronghorn and sandhill cranes and two foxes played by our cabin in the evening and early morning.

 

Redfish Lake

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Stanley Idaho

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This part of Idaho is really gorgeous and with the Indian summer weather we were tempted to stay longer but needed to get up to Montana before winter quickly arrived! On our way north from Redfish Lake, we saw several groups of bighorn sheep including these rams.

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In park accommodations (and many outside of the park) close for the season by mid to late September. We split our one week stay between two towns outside of the park, one on the east side and one on the west. We hedged our bets by heading to the higher elevation east side first when the weather was still forecast to be good. After spending a night in Missoula Montana to break up the drive, we arrived at the West Glacier entrance by mid-morning on September 30th after a nice drive through the Flathead National Forest.

 

Yay, we're here! And the sun is shining and the road is still open!

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We made few stops on the lower elevation west side of the park which was lushly forested and reminded us of the Pacific Northwest as we knew we'd be spending more time there later. As the road climbs it becomes narrow in areas with steep drop offs and enters more alpine scenery. There are lakes, waterfalls and scenic views from roadside turnouts but to really see the park requires getting out and hiking. Our goal today was to hike from Logan Pass which at 6,646 feet is the highest point on the Going to the Sun road. We weren't expecting to encounter nearly as much visible wildlife as in Yellowstone but were hoping to spot a mountain goat here.

 

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I had read about parking issues at Logan Pass in summer but today the parking lot was only one third full when we arrived around noon. It was in the mid-60's when we set off on the Hidden Lake trail.

 

Camera, check, binos, check, bear spray, check, I need more gear!

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Along the way we stopped many times to take in the views.

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View from the Hidden Lake Overlook

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Just past the overlook we spotted a mountain goat up on the scree.

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We continued down the trail to see if we could get a better look and to our surprise, the goat came down the hill and started walking up the trail toward us (or perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised as the goats here are known to be very habituated). No one else was on the trail at this point as many people don't go past the overlook.

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As it got closer we stepped off the trail but the goat decided to turn and head for the ridge instead, stopping here and there to politely pose for us :)

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By the time we left a small crowd had gathered but everyone kept their distance. We've never seen a mountain goat up close and were ecstatic to encounter one the first day. After the hike we made our way to the Red Eagle Motel in St Mary, a tiny town just outside of the east entrance. It's slim pickings for lodging (or anything really) on the east side at this time of year as the area shuts down tight in winter. Most of the hikes we wanted to do were from the Going to the Sun road or in the Many Glacier area which made St Mary or Babb the most convenient towns to stay in. There was one motel in each which was still open and had availability. A couple of the better places still open like Glacier Trailhead and Paul Ranch were already booked. The Red Eagle Motel wasn't much to look at inside or out. OK one could classify it as a dump but it did have the 3 essentials of a microwave, refrigerator and wifi (very handy given the spotty cell service in the area) and this sundowner spot with a view.

 

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View from the Red Eagle Motel

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Unable to ascertain in advance exactly what was and wasn't open at this time of year, we packed enough frozen burritos and canned soup to survive for 3 days. Turns out there was one bar open in St Mary and one restaurant in Babb plus one small grocery store in each town so we wouldn't have starved :D We thought of staying in East Glacier which looked like it had a bit more going on but it would've required driving more than an hour each way to the areas we wanted to hike. For dinner we decided to head to the Cattle Barron Supper Club in Babb (it was an easy choice ;) ) which looks as funky on the inside as it does on the outside. Portions were big enough for two so the reheated leftovers became our dinner the following night.

 

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SafariChick

@@Patty loving the photos already - how cool you got so close to the goat! We haven't been to Glacier but it's on our list so I will be enjoying this report!

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Treepol

@@Patty fabulous photos of some really 'big' scenery and a few more infrequently seen species. The big horn sheep, the fox with a very bushy tail and the mountain goat.

 

When I saw the photo on the scree slope I thought - now that really is a mountain goat.

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Seniortraveller

This brings back some wonderful memories of our recent trip, how fortunate you were with the weather. I agree with you about the friendly and decidedly 'funky' Cattle Baron Supper Club . There was much hilarity when we visited the ladies and found the toilets separated by frilly curtains!

Looking forward to reading the rest of your trip report.

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offshorebirder

Thanks for this trip report @@Patty - great photos of the Mountain Goat. I especially like the profile portrait.

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Our plan for Saturday was to spend the day hiking in the Many Glacier area. It's lightly raining and as we drive in, we see a couple of cars parked on the shoulder. I look up on the hillside and there was a grizzly sow and cub.

 

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We parked and watched for a while. The cub would stop and play while momma grazed. A couple nearby told us they had been here yesterday as well.

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As she headed up the hillside, we decided to continue on to the trail head. The nice thing about October is that there's hardly anyone here. There were only half a dozen cars by the time we left. We parked by the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn just as the rain was starting to become steady so we waited in the car to see if it would let up and waited and waited. Other hikers are setting out but we're fair weather hikers and not committed enough to hike in this much rain so after sitting in the car for an hour we head back to Babb for lunch at the Bunkhouse Cafe, the downstairs part of the Cattle Barron which is open for lunch. We had high hopes for their burgers after having the steaks upstairs but these were gray frozen patties although it was still preferable to eating a cold picnic in the car. The good thing was it had stopped raining so we head back into the park. The grizzly sow and cub were still there but higher up on the hillside now.

 

We start out on the Swiftcurrent Pass trail with a stop at Fishercap Lake first and found a cow moose in the lake.

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Red Rock Falls where we were told we'd missed a grizzly by about 45 minutes.

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On our way back we stop at Fishercap Lake again to see if the moose is still there. Indeed she was plus 4 other moose.

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We were the only ones at the lake when we arrived. To my surprise a small crowd had gathered behind us by the time we left. Other than a few camera noises, it had been very quiet. I must have had a startled look on my face when we turned around to head back which gave everyone a good chuckle.

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michael-ibk

Wonderful scenery, and then bears and Moose, very cool! But the Mountain Goat really steals the show, what a great sighting.

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Wow Patty, what a great first couple of days...a Mountain Goat, Grizzlies, 5 moose...holy moly! Great scenery pics too. Can't wait to see what's next.

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Thanks for the nice comments everyone!

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Sunday turned out to be another warm, sunny day like Friday. We started with the St Mary & Virginia Falls hike off of the Going to the Sun road this morning. Other than the named falls, there are several other waterfalls and cascades along the trail. It seemed like there was one around every corner. We could also see the results of the Reynolds Creek fire from last year.

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St Mary Falls

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Virginia Falls

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Black-backed woodpecker

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Sunrift Gorge

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Chipmunk (red-tailed?)

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Baring Falls

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We stopped at several other points along the road to enjoy the views.

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St Mary Lake

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In the afternoon we went back to Many Glacier and walked around Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. Some people are hanging out near the grizzly sighting area but I don't think anyone saw her today.

 

Many Glacier Hotel overlooking Swiftcurrent Lake

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Spruce grouse

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Lake Josephine

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Bighorn sheep

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Patty, wow, another beautiful day. We couldn't see any peaks when we were there due to the smoke. Now I know what we were missing. And yes, that is a Red-tailed Squirrel. Nice spot.

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Thanks for confirming the species, Alan! We were a little concerned about the Copper King fire as smoke had reached the Flathead Valley early on but it was pretty well contained by the time we went.

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On Monday we moved west where we based in Kalispell. The west side is more developed and there were accommodations closer to the park that were still open for the season starting in the town of West Glacier just outside of the park's west entrance. This place in Hungry Horse caught my eye http://www.historictamaracklodge.com/ However we had plans to see areas outside of the park so stayed in Kalispell instead. As the weather appeared to be taking a turn and there was snow forecast for the higher elevations of the park, we decided to take Highway 2 which runs through a valley along the southern border of the park reaching a maximum elevation of 5220 feet. Highway 2 is maintained year round and can be used to travel back and forth when snow and ice close the Going to the Sun road.

 

We headed first to the Two Medicine area.

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This area seemed more shut down and we noticed bridges were already taken out for the season in spots. We stopped to see Running Eagle Falls but couldn't get closer without having to ford across a stream. In spring water also runs over the top creating a double waterfall.

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We started on the South Shore trail toward Aster Falls but found the same situation about a mile in. Oh well, the lake is still very pretty.

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After Two Medicine we decide to try our luck at the Goat Lick Overlook. The gate to the parking lot was closed for the season but there was enough room for a few cars to park off of the highway. As we were walking down we ran into a couple heading back up who told us not to bother as there were no goats at the lick. Not believing anyone else we continue down. And indeed there was a nanny and kid.

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I don't know how they manage to hang on.

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elefromoz

@@Patty, fantastic, really makes me want to plan another US trip. Great luck with the wildlife. The Moose in the lake are great. The Grizz have a beautiful colour to their coats, although I would not like to bump into her out hiking. The Fox is gorgeous, what luck having them right by the cabin. I see a little bit of yellow Fall colour here and there too.

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Thanks @@elefromoz! I don't think I'd want to bump into a grizzly on the trail either.

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On Tuesday we head back into the west side of the park to hike to Avalanche Lake in the morning. It's green, mossy and damp and feels like a completely different park.

 

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Avalanche Creek

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A mountain goat on the distant hillside

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It was very peaceful at the lake as we were early enough to be the only ones there.

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On the way back we ran into quite a few people headed up the trail. This and the Hidden Lake trail were the two busiest we experienced in the park. As we neared the trail head two school buses full of children were starting out to the lake (there's a strict 21 feet vehicle length limit on parts of the Going to the Sun road so this is as far as buses can go). No need to worry about making noise for the bears anymore ;) With the threat of rain we headed to Whitefish for a look around where we had some delicious roast pork at Mama Blancas Cocina Latina. Whitefish is a more upscale resort town with a lake and ski area. Had the weather been better, we would've hiked at Whitefish Mountain.

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On Wednesday we headed south to the National Bison Range. Logistically it would've made more sense to visit the bison range on our way north from Missoula. However that day coincided with their annual round up which meant the loop road was closed. We were told the drive along the east side of Flathead Lake was the more scenic route as opposed to the west side which is along an interstate so that's what we took. It was indeed a very pretty drive even if it did rain the entire way down and back. Luckily for us it stopped raining just as we reached the bison range.

 

A partially one way gravel loop road goes through the range and is normally fully open through early October. The road climbs to an elevation of 4700 feet (a 2000 feet gain from the entrance) but is doable in any passenger car. You're required to stay inside your vehicle (here's where my sunroof came in handy again :) ) except at two designated points on the loop drive where there were short trails but each time we attempted these trails, we were thwarted by pesky bison :P

 

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The landscape is rolling grasslands and we saw pronghorn, elk, white-tailed and mule deer and bighorn sheep. From what I gathered, black bears are also frequently seen though we didn't see one today.

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We ate our lunch with no one else in sight in their picnic area which looked like it could accommodate 200 picnickers. Perhaps this is another popular school field trip destination. There's another trail near the picnic area where you can walk along Mission Creek but it started to rain again. When we got back to Kalispell, we found out enough snow had fallen to temporarily close the GTTS road around Logan Pass.

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Our plans for taking a day trip up to the North Fork area of the park on our last day were scrapped in favor of shorter, closer trails after checking the weather forecast which looked very similar to the last two days. Another storm front was arriving over the weekend which actually ended up closing the GTTS road for the season so we were happy with our decision to move up our trip.

 

Regrowth from the 2003 Roberts Fire along the Howe Lake trail.

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Lake McDonald from the Rocky Point trail

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Over the course of a week, we barely scratched the surface of the hikes available at Glacier. Overall we preferred the scenery on the east side of the park and the wildlife viewing was better. I think we would've really enjoyed the more remote North Fork as well.

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Here are a few highlights of our journey home. We drove across the Cascades in Washington, spent some time in the San Juan Islands and took an inland route through Oregon.

 

Washington Pass on the east side of the Cascades

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Diablo Lake, North Cascades National Park

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The drive across the Cascades was beautiful. Had we had more time we could've stayed in one of the boat-in lodges which are the only accommodations located inside the park.

 

Elk along Hwy 20 west of Rockport

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From Anacortes, WA we took the ferry to San Juan Island.

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Friday Harbor on San Juan Island

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A harbor seal at British Camp on SJI

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Another ferry ride to Orcas Island this time

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Orcas Island is quieter and more laid back (not that San Juan Island was busy at this time of year) and we enjoyed the hillier landscape.

 

Turtleback Mountain hike

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View of Mt Baker from Mt Constitution on Orcas Island

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A piebald black-tailed deer at Moran State Park - we have all white (not albino) black-tailed deer locally but have never seen one with this coloration. Apparently there's a small population of them on the island and in various other parts of coastal Washington. At first glance I thought it was a goat.

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Our cabin at North Beach Inn from which we were evacuated.

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A big storm from the remnants of Typhoon Songda had been predicted to hit the Pacific Northwest the third weekend of October and on Thursday when we returned to our cabin we found this note on our door. After ascertaining that it was OK for us to stay another night (it was late afternoon by this point and we didn't want to take a ferry back to the mainland only to be caught in the first storm front) we left early the following morning.

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We spent the weekend in Seattle where the dire predictions didn't end up materializing but it did dump a lot of snow along the rest of our route. October precipitation records were broken in parts of Montana, Washington and Oregon.

 

On Monday we drove up to the Paradise area of Mount Rainier National Park which was the only portion of the road that remained open.

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Our obligatory mountainless selfie

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Here's where we were standing.

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The same storm had closed the rim road and north entrance of Crater Lake National Park for the season earlier than usual. We had to detour from the south where the road was open only to the lodge which sits above 7000 feet in elevation.

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On arrival we were told that the lake hadn't been visible for two days and we were too early for snowshoeing so there was nothing else to do but walk around the rim in knee deep snow :)

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As we walked around the rim, the fog lifted enough for us to get glimpses of the lake. It would only last for a few minutes each time with everyone, even some of the employees, rushing out of the lodge to take photos.

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The next morning we awoke to totally clear skies and stood along the rim at 6:30 to wait for the sunrise.

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As soon as the sun rose, it completely clouded over again but it was a glorious moment worth coming up for!

 

That's it for our trip highlights. Thanks everyone for following along!

Edited by Patty
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