Last week Matt, his family, and I flew into Calgary, Alberta (Canada), drove down to Glacier National Park in Montana, and then drove back to Calgary via Banff National Park (also Canada) on one big tour of some of the west’s most picturesque snowy peaks. We only had a week to see these two beautiful places, so I tried to select some of the best hikes, climbs, and overlooks.
First major thing to note- this is still early season for Glacier National Park. The only road that runs through the whole park, Going to the Sun Road (an amazing name as well as one of the world’s most amazing drives, apparently), was not even completely open yet. We drove as far as we could on the park’s east side, to the Jackson Glacier overlook, which was still quite snowy.
Thankfully the hike I had chosen beforehand, the Sun Point Nature Trail, was still accessible. We parked along the narrow Going to the Sun Road, grabbed the bear spray, and began the relatively flat, easy hike, which approached three waterfalls and hugs the edge of St. Mary Lake.
The trail gets a little rocky at times, though it’s also very well-maintained. Each fork is marked with easy-to-read signs. Many of the charred pine trunks surrounding the first part of the trail are what remains of last year’s huge forest fire.
Though much of Glacier had yet to be opened, June is prime time for waterfall-chasing because of the increased levels of snow- and ice-melt. Montana’s rivers and lakes are all about as high as they get year-round, which made the waterfalls audible from even significant distances.
Most of the wildflowers were just beginning to bloom- beargrass, Indian paintbrush, columbine. Everything beneath the trees was superbly green.
Our trip on the Sun Point Nature Trail culminated in that trail’s highest waterfall, Virginia Falls. Standing near the nadir supplied us with a continuous spray and breeze.
Though our hike had thus far been interrupted by occasional rainfall, after turning back towards the rental car, the weather escalated to thunder and lightning. Since the Sun Point Nature Trail is located between St. Mary Lake and Going to the Sun Road, there are multiple places where hikers can start on the trail. Matt’s family took one of these sooner exits back to the road while Matt and I jogged back through the more exposed parts of the hike to get to the car.
That afternoon we drove around the park (since we couldn’t drive through it) to get to West Glacier and Apgar Village, where we were staying that night, at the edge of Lake McDonald. It rained during most of the drive. We ate at a typical little national park restaurant in West Glacier, then checked into the hotel and sat slackjawed at the edge of the lake.
The Apgar Village area of Lake McDonald is enveloped in tall cedars. The lake is perfectly clear, then turns to a deep blue the further out one goes on its surface.
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast at the nearby diner, Eddie’s (whose confidence-instilling motto was, “Almost Everyone Eats at Eddie’s”), Matt’s parents rented a 2-person kayak, Matt’s younger brother John a single kayak, and Matt and I a canoe. The morning began sunny and promising. We circled the west side of the lake, hoping to see some bald eagles. The boat company told us a small part of the lake was closed off by three white buoys on that side due to the eagles’ nests.
Most of the trees along the lake were aspen or pine.
We didn’t see any eagles, but we could make out their nests in the treetops. Matt’s parents decided to turn back, and we remaining three made our way out toward the center of Lake McDonald. The further toward the center we went (why is this reminding me of Heart of Darkness?) the less forgiving the previously glassy surface of the water became. The wind picked up, and gray clouds rolled over the southern mountaintops. We tried to pick up our paddling pace, but the canoe wasn’t having it. John’s kayak, on the other hand, crested smoothly over each wave. I shouted over the sound of the wind from the back of the canoe in a threatening tone, “Matt! Morale is low!”
Once we reached the east side of the lake and found a relatively sandy spot, I requested some shore leave. As Matt stood up out of the canoe to tug it to shore, the rocking of the canoe combined with some unlucky wave soaked his already damp pants. I, in search of a cheap morale boost, laughed. We took some photos. John stayed in his wave-worthy kayak and paddled in front of us, back and forth, easily.
We eventually made it back to the dock, reuniting with Matt’s parents. Shortly after we stood back on dry land, it began to rain those moody, fat raindrops the mountains sometimes like to sputter.
I spent the cloudy but dry afternoon sitting in front of the hotel room at the edge of Lake McDonald, still flabbergasted by the view, drinking a beer and reading. Yay vacation!
For dinner we drove 45 minutes to the small but charming town of Whitefish, Montana, which is located outside the park. Two of our Laramie friends, Ruthanne and Ryan, who are also originally from North Carolina, recently moved to Whitefish, so we met up for beers at The Great Northern Brewing Company, their local brewery, and Cuban fare at Mama Blanca’s. The carne asada fries were a highlight.
That night, Matt and I adventurously had drinks at the West Glacier Bar, where we tried mostly unsuccessfully to chat up all the seasonal employees- raft guides, park rangers- folks our age but slightly grubbier and more tan. The atmosphere was tinged with awkwardness; it’s so early in the season there that all the workers are still getting to know one another too. We got some hiking recommendations, commiserated about the pouring rain, and eventually turned in for the night.
The next morning we slept in while Matt’s parents rented bikes and rode some of the nearby gravel bike trails. We again had breakfast at Eddie’s, I purchased some pinecone earrings, and we hopped back in the rental car for the long drive up through the Canadian border to Banff National Park.
On our next trip to Glacier (because there will be another), I’d like to go sometime later in the season, maybe August, and backpack through the park. One friendly park employee at the bar told us the best camping was in the center of the park, away from roads and RV’s and noise. One thing is for sure- wherever I go in Glacier National Park, I’ll be sure to bring bear spray!
Stay tuned for my next post to learn what we did in Banff.
Love to all!