Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park

My firstborn son was born last summer on Flag Day. A few weeks later one of my brothers and a few other guys took a backpacking trip to Glacier. Originally I was slated to join these fine fellows, but leaving my wife and newborn son while I went off traipsing in the mountains would not have been one of my better ideas. Skipping this trip in favor of spending time with my son and helping my wife adjust to our newest family member, was.

So this summer, I recruited my younger brother and two other friends to go into the backcountry with me. We left for the 18 hour car drive from Minnesota early on a Saturday morning and arrived very early Sunday morning.. This was certainly a long car ride, but with four drivers and the anticipation of hiking through the grandeur of Glacier, it felt like it went by quickly (the 17.5 car ride back, however, felt anything but short). We made two stops of note on our way out: 1) I won $5 at a tiny casino attached to a gas station in Lewiston, MT. I never, ever, play slots, but I thought, “when in Montana….” and slid my one dollar bill into the machine. With much coaching and instruction from the manager of the casino, I saw my fortune increase five fold. 2) Parched from our long voyage and with a desire to sample a little bit of Montana’s finest, we stopped in Great Falls at the Steinhaus. If you’re ever passing through Great Falls (or if it’s your final destination) I highly recommend this spot.

We booked a room from the road at the Red Eagle Motel in St. Mary’s since we wouldn’t be arriving till close to 2 A.M. Sunday morning. The thought of setting a tent up at 2 in the morning in the dark was none to appealing, and, we’d have plenty of opportunities to rough it in the coming days. Although it was small, only had a double bed, and the entire room felt like it was sloping downhill, it served our purposes perfectly and was pretty cheap.

Day 1

After checking into the St. Marty’s visitor center in the morning, we got our gear together and stopped for breakfast at the Pie Shop since it would be our last “real” meal until we exited the park. I’m a sucker for a really good breakfast and really good pie, so this was a no-brainer. The pie was decent, but although the service was genial and polite, it was agonizingly slow which got us to the visitor center and shuttles much later than we had hoped. To compound our frustrations further, we had to hop aboard the second shuttle to take us up to the Gunsight Pass trailhead. Note: if you’re planning on taking a shuttle, they can only take so many passengers and you may end up waiting an extra 30 minutes for the next shuttle to come….like we did. So plan ahead…unlike us.

Waiting (and waiting) for the shuttle

After finally being dropped off at the Gunsight Pass trailhead, we were on our way. Rumors and warnings of Grizzlies out flanking us and dragging us off into the wild was a constantly on our minds for the first day. Afterall, they did make us watch a video at the visitor center about potential attacks, and we had talked to people in St. Marys about recent grizzly sightings. Armed with a meager bear bell and a newly purchased can of bear spray, we hiked along, intentional about having loud conversations.

Trailhead to Gunsight Lake Campsite

Spoiler alert: We never saw a bear. The entire time.  We had a “nuisance” deer (park rangers “official” term) at our campsite who continually tried to guilt us into giving him food, but that’s about the only wildlife we saw, save for the obligatory squirrels and birds.

The hike to our camp for the evening changed from hiking through the woods

Our first campsite of the trip was Gunsight Lake. For me, this was easily the most beautiful and glorious campsite of the entire trip. The camp is rimmed with glacial peaks and I lost track of how many waterfalls flowed into Gunsight Lake. After dropping our packs at the food hanging site, I nabbed a campsite close enough to the water as I could. There was a surprising number of campers at Gunsight Lake – about 10, not including us – but surprisingly it didn’t detract from the experience. Normally, too much traffic at a campsite takes away from that experience of isolation and being leaving everything else behind, but for whatever reason in this instance, the camp felt more communal. Like I would be selfish if I didn’t share the grandeur of the mountains encircling this majestic site with others.  After our dehydrated dinners, we sat atop an immense glacial boulder and took in the sights around us.  We could see where the trail continued along a ridge to Gunsight Lake Pass, a trail we wouldn’t end up taking due to our rearranged itinerary.  This was possibly the most peaceful time of the entire trip.  I could’ve stayed on top of that boulder talking with good friends and family enjoying my cigar for days.

Gunsight Lake Campsite
From the top of the boulder
From the bottom of the boulder

Day 2

Early morning dishes

Since we had to double back the way we came and we were scheduled to have a shorter hike to our second campsite, we had more time to explore the area around us.  After breakfast, we got our gear and decided to hike the Jackson Glacier trail.  We started out and got about 100 yards from camp only to find that the suspension bridge crossing where Gunisght Lake drains out of wasn’t up.  This provided our first unexpected adventure of the day.  Fording any kind of glacial waters is typically not a warm affair, and this was no exception.  The saving grace was that it was a short ford, and it was still pretty fun.

Colder than it looks (photo courtesy of Big Head)
Gunsight Lake to Jackson Glacier
 The elevation gain up to the Jackson Glacier happens from the get-go.  Though this wasn’t our longest hike of the trip it was certainly the most grueling in terms of our climbing steep terrain.  Not having to carry out bags helped, but was still noticeable.  After our considerable hike up the mountain, it leveled out a bit until the obvious trail started to wither and we had to guide ourselves by way of spotting the occasional cairn on a boulder.  The more the trail dwindled, the better the experience was.  It felt like we were blazing our own trails and had limitless possibilities of where we could roam.  In truth, we could only go so far.  Clouds overhead were threatening to either rain or snow on us, and the wind was picking up.  We eventually hiked up crossed a large snowfield and hiked up a ridge.  For some odd reason, I decided to hike to the top of a the ridge at a much lower point than everybody else, and when I got to the top of the ridge almost tumbled over the other side of it because I didn’t take into account how narrow it was.  At the point at which we decided to stop, we were in view of at least 8 or 9 peaks with glaciers right in front of us.  The immense valleys and broad walls of mountain made me feel so diminutive.  We climbed about as high was we could, took plenty of pictures (thankfully Pete brought his tripod), and headed back, choosing our route among the melting snow very carefully.
Trail to Jackson Glacier
Hike to the ridge
Jackson Glacier
You've got a glacier in your lens
High altitude tripod

Once we were back at camp we packed up and headed out for Reynolds Creek camp.  Crossing the avalanche area was a pain – again – and unfortunately, Tec bent his trekking pole.  Before reaching Reynold’s Creek however, we took another detour and stopped at Florence Falls.

These falls were massive and worth the extra mileage.  They may not be Niagara, but they were biggest falls we’d see on the trip and put anything in Minnesota to shame.

Florence Falls (photo courtesy of Big Head)
Gunsight Lake to Florence Falls

Reynolds Creek campsite was a lot smaller than Gunsight Lake and therefore less populated.  It was also a heavier wooded area.  This was the only camp that allowed us to have a fire, so that was a welcome change and kept the mosquitoes at bay.  The only rain of the entire trip came while we were at Reynolds Creek and it was a non-issue.  Actually, the sound of light rain falling on a tent rain fly is one of my favorite sounds ever, so it was rather pleasing.

Florence Falls to Reynolds Creek Camp

Day 3

Scenery for the day: beautiful.  Hiking for the day: abysmal.

Day 3 was our longest hike of the day.  Fourteen miles away from Reynolds Creek was our final campsite, Red Eagle Foot.  The trail had a tremendous variety of scenery: sweeping vistas, narrow ridges bordering St. Mary’s Lake, powerful waterfalls at St. Mary’s Falls, and wooded overgrown areas.

St. Mary's Falls (photo courtesy of Tec)

The most difficult section of the trail was when we entered a burnt area.  There was quite a large section (not sure how many acres) of Glacier that at some point had been ravaged by a forest fire.  All of the trees around us were burnt and charred and it will be years before new trees take their place.  The forest floor on the other hand was lush since the sun was able to get through the trees and nurture smaller plants.  This provided a beautiful and striking contrast between the dead trees and the new life.  The only downside was the unexpected climb we had that seemed to go on forever.

A constant theme with this day was that Red Eagle Foot seemed “just over that ridge” or “right around the bend “.  Our campsite mocked us the entire time and if a park ranger had told us that the entire campsite sprouted legs and kept moving on us, I wouldn’t have been surprised.  I’ve had tough, long, and arduous hikes before, and I fully realize that in the great scheme of things there are a lot worse hikes than this, but for whatever reason this day was both physically and mentally exhausting.

The campsite itself was beautiful.  It displayed the same kind of death-rebirth dichotomy we had seen earlier in the day.  A quick (very, quick) dip in Red Eagle Lake was reinvigorating, as well a hearty meal and a card game of 500.  We set a goal for ourselves to wake up early so that we could get an early start on the road and get out of the park earlier.  Although we had had a phenomenal time backpacking, I think we were all ready to get hike out, shower up, and have pizza.

Reynolds Creek Camp to Red Eagle FT Camp

Day 4

Getting on the trail an hour earlier makes a huge difference.  We only had about 6-7 miles to hike this day and with the added motivation to get out and move on, we moved pretty quickly.  It was bittersweet hiking out.  I would love to go back and experience different parts of the Glacier, and as we drove out of the park after we took showers, it was clear that we had experienced maybe 1/10th of what the park had to offer.

Red Eagle FT to St. Mary’s Visitor Center

I’ve been on a few other backpacking trips that had the feeling of being in rarefied air because we had to hike higher (Tetons), and I’ve had other trips of being in solitude (Isle Royale), but Glacier is a special place unto itself.  The enormity of the park, the glaciers, and the stillness of the mountains are an enticing package that’s tough to beat.