I have an unhealthy fear of bears. The grizzly bear attack in the book/movie “The Revenant” still haunts me to this day. With that being said, why in the world did I choose Glacier National Park as a vacation destination? This is the one park where your chances of running into a grizzly bear or black bear on a trail, on the road, or in a parking lot are well above zero. Bear spray is a necessity at all times. Just great. What had I gotten myself in to?
I planned an itinerary, booked a cabin and rental car, got our park passes, purchased our vehicle registration, reserved our park road permits, booked flights to Kalispell, and my husband and I were off to great adventures. Montana, here we come. A canister of bear spray would become my newest and most valuable accessory.
Why did we choose to visit Glacier National Park in spite of the bear population? Glacier National Park is one of the most beautiful of the US national parks and is nicknamed the “Crown of the Continent.” The park encompasses over one-million acres of glacier-carved peaks and valleys, two mountain ranges, pristine turquoise lakes and streams, meadows full of wildflowers, numerous waterfalls and ancient evergreen forests. It was established as a national park in 1910 after the Blackfeet tribe ceded the area to the government. Glacier National Park is the 10th most visited park (3.1 million annual visitors) making it not only one of the most beautiful, but also one of the most popular national parks to visit in the United States.
More park visitors over the last couple of years caused restrictions to be put in place that prevent overcrowding within the park, hence purchasing vehicle passes/registrations was necessary prior to our trip. We appreciated that the crowds were very manageable throughout our visit and we never had long lines or traffic problems.
There is one main highway that cuts through the center of the park, the Going-to-the-Sun Road (GTTSR). The scenic GTTSR connects the west entrance to the park with the east entrance (50 miles/2 hours drive time). We drove it easily and without any access issues due to the pre-purchased passes that were required for each vehicle driving within the park boundaries.
I found us a great little Vrbo rental in Essex, Montana that bordered the southern edge of the park, perfectly located about halfway between the west and east entrances to the park. The cabin was clean, cozy, comfortable and well-stocked. We cooked breakfast each morning, packed up our picnic lunch, went on our daily adventure, and returned each evening to cook/grill our dinner. A large mule deer welcomed us on our very first morning and a mink and chipmunks scampered around near our firepit each day. We had found a great little “home away from home.”
Day #1 – We drove through the West Glacier entrance that morning and headed to Lake McDonald, the largest lake in the park. We explored the historic Lake McDonald Lodge (built in 1914) and grounds before taking a boat ride on the beautiful lake. After a picnic lunch, we drove the Going-to-the-Sun Road and stopped at several turn-outs to view McDonald Creek and the amazing scenery along the way. Mid-afternoon, we parked and hiked The Trail of the Cedars. This was one of our favorite hikes! The trail was a raised boardwalk or gravel trail that winds its way through a thick forest of towering cedar trees. The highlight for us was the view of Avalanche Gorge from the trail with its turquoise water tumbling down colorful moss-covered rocks. The damp weather made it feel like we were exploring a rainforest. Even though it was a drizzly afternoon, nothing could take away from the beauty of this trail. We loved it!
Walking back to our parked car after our hike, we heard our names being yelled from the parked car at the crosswalk. Really?! The people in the car were actually close friends from our hometown in Texas. One million acres of national park, 1749.5 miles away from home, and we happened to be at the exact same place at the exact same time. It was just plain weird! All you math geniuses can figure out those odds – it hurts my head just to think about it.
Day #2 – We got an early start and drove east to the park’s St. Mary’s entrance. We had a morning boat ride scheduled on beautiful St. Mary’s Lake that included a hike to a waterfall. It was a gorgeous day and we enjoyed our morning adventures. David and I found a little restaurant nearby in the park and had a great lunch (huckleberry pulled pork stuffed baked potatoes!) and continued our drive on The Going-to-the Sun Road with a few scenic stops along the way. We found ourselves at Logan Pass that afternoon, the highest point of the Going-to-the-Sun Road (6646 feet) and located along the Continental Divide. The road in this area had only opened 4 days prior to our visit due to the difficulty of snowplowing such late, heavy snows. The scenery at this high elevation was amazing! We parked and hiked the Hidden Lake Trail as far as we could but it was quite difficult with the packed, icy snow underfoot. Seeing all the snow, the jagged mountains, fields of wildflowers, waterfalls, marmots, ground squirrels, and big horn sheep made for a very memorable afternoon and gave us some great photo ops!
Day #3 – David and I ventured to Two Medicine, a less-popular part of the park that we entered not far from East Glacier that feels off-the-beaten-path. This day actually turned out to be one of our favorites. The drive in had beautiful views and the crowds were sparse. We hiked to Running Eagle Falls, a sacred Native American burial site that celebrates an infamous female warrior and tribal leader. It was easy to feel the spirituality of this place. The double falls were very unusual and we spent quite a bit of time here. We hiked for a bit on a nature trail and soon decided it was lunch time. We drove a short distance to Two Medicine Lake and found a table at the General Store overlooking the picturesque lake with Sinopah Mountain towering in the background. Good food, great views.
After our picnic lunch and a cold huckleberry soda, we were ready for our next hike. We parked at a trailhead and headed up to Apikuni Falls. This was a tough hike for me due to the incline and it was very hot and humid. There were very few people on this trail and we were on a constant lookout for bears. Luckily, we made it to the falls and back without getting eaten. By late afternoon, we headed back out of Two Medicine admiring the scenery and the colorful wildflowers that lined the road and meadows in this scenic valley that is adjacent to the Blackfeet Reservation.
We stopped for huckleberry bear claws near East Glacier when we saw our first bear! It appeared to be a younger bear and we spotted it running through a pasture near some horses. The horses seemed a little nervous at first but soon went back to grazing. The bear found a pizza box in the pasture that fully captured his/her attention for quite a while. This is exactly how I wanted to see a bear – from a distance and from the safety of my car!
Day #4 – This was the day we ventured to Many Glacier, located on the farthest side of Glacier National Park from our cabin. Many Glacier is on the northeast side of the park and was the most difficult to get to. With that being said, I felt it was the most scenic part of the park. We arrived at Many Glacier early in the morning to secure a parking place, which worked in our favor. We spent the morning exploring the historic hotel and grounds and enjoyed a coffee while waiting for our scheduled boat tour.
The Many Glacier boat tour was a “two-parter.” The tour began on the shores of beautiful Swiftcurrent Lake. We cruised across the lake, docked, disembarked and then walked 0.2 mile (over a steep hill) to the shores of Lake Josephine. We then boarded another small boat and cruised to the head of Lake Josephine. We disembarked there to do a self-guided hike to Grinnell Lake. This was a beautiful trail that led us through wooded areas, over streams, along narrow hillsides and over a swinging bridge before we arrived on the shoreline. Grinnell Lake had beautiful turquoise waters and was surrounded on three sides by towering mountains and snowy glaciers. It was breathtaking! David and I sat and ate a picnic lunch on a fallen log and took in all the beauty around us. We were even lucky enough to spot a grizzly bear loping through snowfields on the opposite side of the lake before it disappeared into a valley on the far side of the lake. Bear sighting number two….check! We also saw a huge bull moose standing waist-deep in Lake Josephine on our return boat trip. Wildlife abounds!
We returned to the Many Glacier Hotel later that afternoon after an amazing day. We located the bar and treated ourselves to a Huckleberry Margarita, a snack, and a short rest before the long ride back to our cabin. Another unforgettable day was in the books.
Day #5 – We woke to another cloudy, drizzly day but decided not to let it stop our exploring. We headed back to West Glacier and spent the day at Apgar Village on the shores of Lake McDonald. We walked the shoreline, snapped a few iconic “colored rock” photos, hiked a wooded trail, shopped in the gift stores, and enjoyed coffee/lunch/huckleberry ice cream during the hours we spent there. It was a very relaxing day. On the way back to our cabin, we stopped at the Goat Lick overlook to see a herd of mountain goats that hang out on some rocky cliffs. We saw several of them!
We then returned to the cabin, cleaned up, and drove back to West Glacier where we had dinner reservations. David and I wanted a nice meal on our final night and we enjoyed a lovely dinner at the Belton Chalet Restaurant. It was delicious and made for a great ending to a great trip. We returned our unused bear spray, packed up, and left for home the following morning.
We made memories that will last a lifetime. GNP, thanks for an unforgettable trip!
See you on the trails!