Glacier National Park: Fire and Rain

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Kathy and I made our first trip to Glacier National Park just as the region was beginning to sink into the grips of a long drought. Late summer also happens to be the peak fire season for the park in northwestern Montana.

About midway through our vacation a couple of fires began to pop-up in and around the park, including one less than 10 miles outside of East Glacier, the town where we were staying. At one point the fire got so big that they parked a train - loaded with foam - just outside of town. This was to be our protection in case the wind changed direction.

Six years later, in 2004, we decided to return and explore more of the park. By this time the region was now in a severe, multi-year drought. So as we made plans for another late summer trip, forest fires were an obvious concern.

Part of our plans for this vacation was to spend a night at the historic Sperry Chalet. Similar to the LeConte Lodge in the Smokies, the only way to reach the backcountry chalet is by hiking-in via the Sperry Trail. The trail, located near Lake McDonald on the west side of the park, is a 6.7 mile hike that climbs 3300 feet before reaching the chalet.

As fate or irony would have it, Glacier was getting a soaking rain the day we arrived. The next day it was still raining as we hiked up to Sperry. It proceeded to rain all night, and then it rained all the way back down to the trailhead the following day. We were fortunate enough to have – literally – a five minute window that evening where the clouds parted long enough for us to see Lake McDonald and the valley below us.

When we arrived a few of the guests were already huddled around the wood-burning stove in the dining hall area. As time passed, more overnight guests, campers and day hikers came in to warm themselves and to dry-off soaked bodies, clothes and boots. With limited space around the stove, people had to jockey for position to get close enough to feel the warmth from the fire.

At some point in the late afternoon, guests were asked to leave the dining hall so that chalet cooks could prepare for the evening meal. When we returned a couple hours later we were served a tasty feast of turkey, which included all the trimmings, as well as dessert. Maybe it was partially due to spending an entire day in nasty weather, but the food was quite delicious.

Although Sperry Chalet has a beautiful native-stone exterior, the interior is just as rustic as the cabins on LeConte. With paper-thin interior walls, you can literally hear people turning over in their beds two doors down! The extreme sag in our bed left us to conclude that it was probably as old as the building, which was built in 1913.

All in all though, it was still a great experience. We met a lot of great people as well as a few interesting characters.

During our two visits to the park we had an opportunity to hike on some of the most scenic trails in America. Some of those trails that I highly recommend include:

Highline Trail: If you’re afraid of steep drop-offs, this trail probably isn’t something you want to attempt. In fact, Kathy swears she’ll never do it again. However, if you crave spectacular alpine scenery, don’t pass this gem up. The trail is famous for the section, maybe a half-mile long, where hikers walk along a ledge on what’s known as the “Garden Wall”. The path is roughly 5 feet wide, with a cliff face on one side and a sharp drop-off on the other. Although the trail continues all the way to Swift Current Pass and the Granite Park Chalet, we only hiked out about 3 miles. It was far enough to take-in some of the stunning scenery beyond the ledge.

Grinnell Glacier: Besides the opportunity to walk on a huge glacier, one of the unique things about this trail is that you can take a series of boat taxis to reach your destination. Hikers have the option of walking the entire 6-mile trail or taking two boat shuttles that cut-off more than two miles of walking. From Many Glacier, our ranger led hiking group took the shuttle across Swift Current Lake, made a short hike over to Lake Josephine, and then took another boat taxi before making the climb up to the glacier (Note: you may no longer be able to walk on the glacier as a result of shrinkage since we last hiked it in 1998). Trail data: 7.6 miles roundtrip; climbs 1600 feet.

Scenic Point: This is a relatively short, but steep hike leading to spectacular views of Two Medicine Lake. As we ascended the canyon, the ranger leading our hike relayed the story of how a friend of his, a park concessions employee, was killed in this area by a grizzly sow and her cubs in 1998. It’s precisely due to the large number grizzlies in this park that most of our hikes were ranger led so as to avoid being out on the trail by ourselves. There are many ranger led hikes throughout the summer. And yes, we saw several grizzly and black bears on both of our trips. Trail data: 6.2 miles roundtrip; climbs 2350 feet.

Iceberg Lake: A very popular hike to a beautiful alpine lake hemmed-in by sheer cliff walls. Even in late August we saw icebergs floating in the lake. As we were soaking-in the magnificent scenery, one fairly large iceberg calved and rolled over, triggering a nice sized wave to ripple across the lake. Trail data: 9.4 miles roundtrip; climbs 1200 feet.

Dawson Pass: This was another hike that offered an opportunity to take a shuttle boat to cut-out about two miles to our destination. After crossing Two Medicine Lake, the trail leads to the Continental Divide at Dawson Pass and offers stunning views of the Lewis Range, including Lupfer Glacier directly across the valley. The hike also includes Twin Falls. On our return trip back to the trailhead we found a large patch of huckleberries that we gorged on for some time. Trail data: 10.4 miles roundtrip; climbs 2450 feet.

Cobalt Lake: This is a moderate day hike to a deep blue-green lake sitting at the base of Two Medicine Pass. Before reaching Cobalt Lake, roughly 3.4 from the trailhead, the trail passes Rockwell Falls, a series of cascades that extend for almost a half mile up the valley. The falls are also a popular final destination for many hikers. Trail data: 11.4 miles roundtrip; climbs 1400 feet.

With over 700 miles of trails, Glacier National Park is without a doubt a hiker’s park. Besides numerous hiking opportunities, one of the other things we really liked about Glacier is the fact that it’s not commercialized. In the handful of towns that surround the park, there are no national restaurants or hotel chains. Most of the businesses are small mom & pop establishments, which probably explains why the food was so good in most of the places we visited. Serrano’s in East Glacier is a must stop. They have the absolute best Mexican food we’ve ever tasted, and that’s compared to foodie meccas such as Austin, Texas and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

If you do stop at Serrano’s, make sure you get a slice (or two) of their huckleberry pie. It’s out of this world good!

While you’re in the Glacier area don’t forget to try a huckleberry shake, huckleberry ice cream, huckleberry beer, huckleberry chocolate, syrup, jams, etc., etc. There are plenty of opportunities to find wild huckleberries along many of the trails as well.

Jeff Detailed information on trails in the Smoky Mountains; includes trail descriptions, key features, pictures, video, maps, elevation profiles, news, hiking gear store, and more.

1 comment

My Life Outdoors said...

I have never been to Glacier. I hope I get to see it someday.