Glacier National Park 2011

Below is the journal for our backpacking trip to Glacier National Park in Montana, taken September 9-20, 2011. The journal is divided up by day. If you'd rather slog through the entire set of pictures we took while on our trip, you can check out the Gallery page.

Day 1 - Friday, September 9 / Saturday, September 10

We arrived at the Minneapolis Amtrak station about 10:15pm, an hour before our train was scheduled to depart (checked bag cut-off is 30 minutes before departure). We had no trouble checking our bags, and then we just had to wait for the train to arrive. Amtrak doesn't pre-assign seats, and our attendant on the train seemed really stressed out about where she was going to seat people, but it worked out. We settled in for the night. Ken and Julie were scrunched together in one seat, but luckily some people got off in Fargo at 4am so Julie could take another seat and lie flat for a while. The seats really do have quite a bit of room — not as big as a bed, but huge compared to an airline seat.

For breakfast, we ate zucchini bread and other food that we packed from home. We spent most of the train ride looking out the window or reading (and Mark watched videos on his iPad). We were fascinated by the evidence of flooding near Minot, North Dakota, which had shut down the Amtrak for a month this summer. We ate lunch (hot sandwiches or burgers) from the snack car, along with some of our own food. We thought we would use the dining car for dinner, but then we found out we could buy a cold chicken dinner in Havre for $10, which worked out pretty well.

We arrived at East Glacier at 7:45pm, an hour late. There wasn't enough space to fit everyone in the Mountain Pine Motel shuttle (and the driver was more than a little clueless), so Ken and Julie walked 10 minutes to the hotel while Mark rode with the bags. Next door, at the Sears Motel, we were able to rent bear spray for $20 instead of buying it at $50 each (they weighed each canister before and after).

We had read in our guidebook that the drinking water in East Glacier was unsafe (boil order in effect), so we used our backpacking SteriPen to purify some water. Afterwards, we discovered the 5 gallon water container outside the office. It would have been nice if the hotel had mentioned this when we checked in, because we bet lots of the guests didn't know about the boil order.

Day 2 - Sunday, September 11

Today was intended to be a "rest" day between the train ride and our backpacking trip. We rented a Ford Explorer in East Glacier, then set out for a scenic drive. First, we visited the Two Medicine area with Running Eagle Falls and Two Medicine Lake. We decided to head east to the town of Browning, on the Blackfeet Indian reservation. Glacier Park was originally inside the Blackfeet reservation, until they sold it to the US government 1896 for $1.5 million. Browning is a sad little town.

We ate lunch at Taco Johns (the only restaurant in town that didn't look a little iffy), and then went to the went to the Museum of the Plains Indian. This is a small but worthwhile museum on the history of the Plains Indian, with many examples of Native American dress. The most surprising part of the museum was how much the Native American culture was enriched by the arrival of the white man ... until the white man completely destroyed them. The Plains Indian culture that we think of, with tipis transported by horse and clothing with intricate beadwork, didn't exist until the white man. Horses arrived with the Spanish conquistadores, and the glass beads were trade items.

We finished the day by traveling to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, our destination for the evening. The inn was constructed in the 1930s. It's a collection of little cabins that have running water (a sink), but no other facilities. There's a common bathroom and shower house, kind of like in a campground. We loved it!

We spent the evening getting ready for the backpacking trip — filling water, repacking our bags, etc. We turned on the weather radio only to find only static. No point in bringing it over another mountain pass!

Day 3 - Monday, September 12

It's backpacking time! We got up, had breakfast at the lodge, and were on the trail by 9am. We were expecting this to be a long day, with 10 miles of distance and 5000 ft of elevation change to cover — 2500 feet up and 2500 feet down. (Ken and Julie think their previous backpacking distance record was 8-9 miles.)

We followed the Ptarmigan Tunnel trail past Ptarmigan Falls and Ptarmigan Lake. The trail climbed steadily, but most of it wasn't too bad. The first section had steep stairs, and the last section was all switchbacks. Ken was pretty beat by the top of the final switchbacks due to both the difficulty and the altitude. Mark got to demonstrate how much better shape he's in than Ken and Julie (although 3 years living at altitude in Bogota didn't hurt).

We enjoyed walking through the different types of climate — deciduous forest, pine forest, alpine meadows, and rock scree. The weather was nice and sunny, and we stopped at Ptarmigan Lake for lunch, before the switchbacks. The tunnel was originally created for mining in the area, but nothing significant was ever found. We were fascinated by the changes between the two sides of the tunnel. The near side was sunny with green rocks above a meadow, and the far side was cloudy with red rocks in a scree field.

After passing through the tunnel, we did a long traverse across the scree field, then descended through the forest to Elizabeth Lake. We arrived at 4:45pm, 8 hours after leaving Swiftcurrent. That made it a pretty long day.

At Glacier, there are a limited number of backgrountry "campgrounds". Each campground has several campsites that are big enough for 2 tents or 4 people, and you have to reserve a site ahead of time before entering the backcountry. Each campground also has a latrine (with walls and a roof, luxurious!), plus a separate cooking area with some sort of food storage device. You're not allowed to store food or cook outside of the cooking area. The Elizabeth Lake campground had 6 campsites. The cooking area had two big, heavy bear proof cabinets in which to store food (very convenient), and two big areas with log benches to sit on and stumps to use for tables. It was all pretty nice.

Because we arrived so late, we got the honor of claiming the last campsite, way out in what Mark called the "suburbs". It probably took 5 minutes to walk from the campsite to the food and toilet area. Ken helped get the tents set up and then headed to Elizabeth Lake to treat water (about 13 liters) while Mark and Julie set up the rest of camp. Afterwards, we ate dinner and went to bed pretty early. The night was cold (mid-40s F, we think), but we were all reasonably comfortable. We were glad that we just skipped our planned pre-bedtime snack (we drank the hot cocoa with dinner).

Day 4 - Tuesday, September 13

Today was one of our two "lighter" days, so we didn't worry about leaving too quickly from camp. We chatted for a while with a through-hiker who was finishing the Continental Divide trail, from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. Today was her last day, and then she was going home to Seattle. She had been on the trail since May 4 and averaged 25 miles a day. No wonder she blew by us so fast the previous day! Her setup was definitely what you would call "ultralight": she carried a base weight of 12-13 pounds, plus food and a limited amount of water (usually no more than 1 liter at a time). This meant sacrificing things like extra clothes. :) She had also done the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, the Triple Crown of backpacking. Exciting, but difficult to do if you have a job (she didn't have one when she started her trek).

The weather was overcast and cool all day, but it never rained. The whole day felt kind of odd — the lighting basically never changed between dawn and dusk. We went to Bridal Mist Falls, where we met a group of horsemen & women from Tennessee who had ridden their horses over the pass we had taken yesterday. The horses must have been pretty well-trained not to spook on that narrow trail, and we're sure glad we didn't meet them while we were hiking (there wouldn't have been anywhere for us to go in some cases). We also met a group doing trail maintenance. During big rains, the trail turns into a drainage ditch, so they cut channels for runoff.

We continued onto the Belly Ranger Ranger Station, where we ate lunch on the grass in front of the office. We think we used the ranger's personal outhouse, since it wasn't obvious what else to use. We continued on, over several bridges, past Cosley Lake and to Glenns Lake. On the way, we passed the river ford that would have been our alternate route, cutting off several miles. We were glad we planned our route ahead of time rather than following the signs, because a ford through 2 feet of water didn't sound like much fun by the time we got there.

At Glenns Lake, there were 5 campsites, but only one other group of campers, two guys from St. Louis. We were too tired to chat much with them. The Glenns Lake cooking area was smaller and had a rail on which to hang food, so it was a good thing we brought along 40' of lightweight rope.

Like on Monday, Ken helped set up the tents and then worked on treating water while Mark and Julie finished up. Treating the water was a bit more difficult than the previous day. Glenns Lake is silty in a way that Elizabeth Lake is not, and Ken had to wade in to get enough depth to use the pre-filter. By this time, the air temperature was in the 50s F, so Ken was fairly cold by the time he was done. It didn't help that the SteriPen had started acting up and things were taking longer than they should have. As a result, we decided not to fill up all of our water, because we figured we didn't need quite as much for our return trip to Elizabeth Lake.

After everything was set up, we ate dinner almost immediately. Like on Monday, we drank our hot cocoa with dinner, skipped our evening snack, and went to bed kind of early. It was quite a bit colder overnight, with temperatures that were probably in the mid-30s F. Mark was a little cold, and Ken and Julie got a lot of condensation on the inside of their tent. We are all still trying to debug our gear and figure out the right way to use it.

Day 5 - Wednesday, September 14

Today, we re-traced our steps back to Elizabeth Lake. When planning the route, Julie couldn't find any good 4-day trips in a loop. With the in-park shuttles not running, an out-and-back seemed like the best option. Many of the people we met were doing a one-way hike from Goat Haunt (entered from Canada) to Swiftcurrent, and it turns out that there's one shuttle per day from Swiftcurrent Inn to Waterton, which we could have used. (The shuttle is run by Glacier Park, Inc. and costs around $50 per person.) That's OK, though... we're just as happy with an out-and-back route.

We aimed to stop at the Belly River Ranger Station for lunch again, but this time we peeled off a little early and stopped at the Gable Creek Campground instead. Everyone was feeling better today — especially Ken — and we weren't worried about timing, so we took an extra long and relaxing break. We had the place to ourselves until a couple of Japanese hikers popped in toward the end of our time there. Mark took advantage of a fast, clear stream to refill all of the water while Julie and Ken cooked and cleaned up — the SteriPen is much easier to use in deep water.

This time, we got into camp at Elizabeth Lake early enough to claim a site that was closer to the cooking area, and we changed tactics. Instead of setting up camp immediately, we spent an hour soaking our feet in Elizabeth Lake ahead of time (while treating water). This felt great! It's too bad that we couldn't have done this on the other days, but we just didn't have time, and the weather was cool enough that it wouldn't have been as enjoyable.

After setting up camp, we chatted with the guys from St. Louis, who were also at Glenns Lake the night before. They were doing a one-way trip from Canada, and it was their first real backpacking trip. Their first day in was harder than ours (12 miles, 6000 feet of elevation changes), and they were pretty exhausted. It didn't help that they were probably carrying too much weight. They took a different route than us from Glenns Lake to Elizabeth Lake. Instead of going past the ranger station, they took the ford. After hearing that it really was 2 feet deep, we were glad we avoided it.

For the first time, we felt good enough and had enough time to do something after dinner. We took a walk along the lake and looked for mountain goats on the cliffs. As it got dark, we went back to the cooking area and made ourselves hot cocoa and a bedtime snack. While we were there, we chatted with some guys who had been packed in by horse. They were bragging about the steaks they had cooked the night before, and we half-listened in as they told each other tall tales about their various Glacier trips over the last 20-odd years.

Overnight, Mark was comfortable, but Ken ended up being cold. This didn't make a lot of sense, since the air temperature was at least 10 degrees warmer than on Tuesday night. Ken and Julie also had condensation problems again. We definitely have to figure out some other way to store the packs in the tent to avoid blocking the rear window.

Day 6 - Thursday, September 15

Considering it took us 8 hours on the first day, we decided we needed to hit the trail a bit earlier for our return to Swiftcurrent. We set the alarm for 6am. Again, we changed things up and decided to eat breakfast before breaking camp. It didn't take any longer, but we felt better, and Ken avoided his usual a coffee-induced bathroom break an hour into the hike. We were on the trail by 8am.

It was comforting to know what laid ahead! We stopped for a snack in the forest right before the scree field, by a little waterfall we knew about from the hike in. Julie wore a bandanna all day instead of her hat, since it doesn't have a strap. We made good time (although still slow) and arrived at Ptarmigan Tunnel for lunch. It was sunny when we arrived, but then it started getting cloudy and more windy. Hmm, looks like a change in the weather. We split up after lunch because Mark wanted to attempt to see Iceberg Lake on the way back, a 4-mile side trip. Ken and Julie did not have the legs for it. :)

As Ken and Julie descended, the weather started looking nastier and nastier. The clouds became very low, and it looked like rain, so we stopped to put on our rain gear. We eventually got light rain and high winds. The gusts were probably 40mph, and we were so glad to be off that scree field! It was alternately exhilarating and a little scary.

We couldn't believe how many ill-prepared day-hikers were still on the trails as we got down to the bottom section of the trail (no rain gear, no water, sandals, etc.). A little before 2pm, we even met a group of backpackers on the way to Elizabeth Lake. They didn't look that much faster than us, so we figured that they might not even arrive before dark. Yikes!

On our final descent (the last hour or so starting from Ptarmigan Falls), Ken and Julie connected with a group of day hikers that were fascinated with our packs. ("What are you carrying in there?") We ended up staying with them the entire way down, and that pushed our pace a bit higher than we probably should have. It felt slightly out-of-control at times, especially during the periods of extremely gusty winds.

We arrived at Swiftcurrent at 3:30pm, about 30 minutes faster than the outbound trip. Mark arrived about an hour later, after visiting Iceberg Lake. He got some great pictures of the icebergs and also moose. Considering that he hiked 4 miles further than us, he made great time. In total, Ken and Julie hiked about 35 miles in the backcountry, and Mark hiked about 39 miles.

After getting settled into our cabin, we all took nice long showers, then got dinner and did a little shopping in the gift shop. We were glad to sleep in a real building that night as the wind HOWLED. We felt a little sorry for our friends from St. Louis who were camping in the car campground that night ...

Day 7 - Friday, September 16

After 4 days of hiking with everything on our backs, we were interested in a low-stress day. We discussed visiting Waterton Park on the Canadian side (Julie had heard from some colleagues that it was more spectacular than the U.S. side), but it seemed like more work than we wanted for a one-day trip. Instead, we drove to the Many Glacier Inn, another historic lodge at Glacier Park that is undergoing renovation, then drove to St. Mary for lunch. We stopped at the Park Cafe, which had some great food. At the little gift shop, Ken convinced Julie to buy a tinwhistle as a souvenier, and Julie promised to learn how to play it.

After our lunch break, we continued onto the Going-to-the-Sun Road. This is a scenic road that runs through the middle of Glacier Park, over Logan Pass. It's a great feat of engineering and took about 20 years to build. We stopped at Wild Goose Island Overlook, Sun Point and walked to Baring Falls, Sunrift Gorge, and Jackson Overlook. We continued onto Apgar Village, where we stayed at Apgar Village Lodge in a pretty nice two-room cabin.

For dinner, we went into the town of West Glacier proper and ate at the West Glacier Restaurant. The food was really good, and we were also able to buy some take-away lunches for our hiking the next day. Julie suggested a driving tour of West Glacier only to learn that it was 2 blocks long! Oops. In the evening, Ken and Julie did a marathon postcard-writing session since our trip was nearing an end. We hadn't yet found stamps, but we figured that worst case, we could buy them at the East Glacier post office on our way out.

Day 8 - Saturday, September 17

We decided to start at the top of the Going-to-the-Sun Road today at Logan Pass and work our way down the west side, since we hadn't stopped there much the previous day. It took us approximately an hour to get there, partially due to construction traffic, and there weren't too many parking spaces left by the time we arrived at 10:00am. The road was down to one lane in several places due to a large reconstruction project.

Logan Pass was pretty but very cold and windy. The temperature was probably in the 40s F with sustained 20-25 mph wind and 30 mph gusts. From Logan Pass, we hiked to Hidden Lake Overlook. At least we had hats and gloves, unlike some people on the trail. The worst we saw was a guy with shorts, sandals, and no gloves. We saw him later that day and his feet were bloody. Yuck.

We saw a marmot on the alpine meadow above the visitor center, and then Julie spotted a family of mountain goats along one of the ledges. We continued to the overlook, silently thankful that we weren't hiking through the scree field to Elizabeth Lake in this windy weather. We got so lucky with the weather on our backpacking trip! We arrived at the overlook, and went maybe 1/4 mile further to see if there were any different views. From there, we could see Lake McDonald in the valley below (our Apgar cabin is on Lake McDonald). We decided not to continue further, especially because we couldn't see a good place to sit down and eat lunch. On the trail back, the mountain goats were right next to the trail! Mark got some great pictures of them.

We got back to the car and ate lunch with the heater on. We weren't the only ones to do it! From there, we hiked a small part of Highline trail so Mark could see it. Then, we went back to the car and started driving back down the Going-to-the-Sun Road. We stopped at The Loop and looked at the remnants of the 2003 Trapper Fire. We descended into the valley and walked through the Trail of the Cedars and Avalanche Gorge.

When we got back to the cabin in the late afternoon, there was a note on the door saying "Call your mom ASAP". Thought #1: Uh oh. Thought #2: Which mom? Best guess was Ken and Mark's mom, which was correct. Since nobody's cell phone worked reliably, we called from the pay phone near the hotel office. Mark called Marilyn, and learned that Grandma Mohn had died earlier that morning, very peacefully, while sitting in a chair. The funeral was likely to be Wednesday in Chicago, and we were planning to arrive in Minneapolis on Tuesday morning. We attempted to change our train tickets, but the price was so expensive that it wasn't worth it for one extra day back home. So, we decided to stick with our original plan.

We spent the evening getting all of our gear packed up, burning off the unused stove fuel, etc. Mark also got some great shots of the moon over the lake. It turned out to be a beautiful, if chilly, fall evening.

Day 9 - Sunday, September 18

We decided that we had had enough hiking, so we did a day trip to Whitefish and Kalispell, two of the larger cities in the nearby Flathead Valley region. We attempted to visit the Whitefish historical museum at the train depot, but it was closed Sundays. Instead, we looked around the train depot (which was open), then visited Whitefish Mountain Resort just outside of town. A group of our SkiVenturers buddies went here last March, so we decided to check it out. We could have taken a scenic ride on the chairlift (eh, seen enough of that), or ridden the alpine slide (for $8, nah), or taken a zipline tour (sounds cool, but not for Ken and we weren't dressed for it in the cold & wind).

We continued onto Kalispell, where we toured the Conrad Mansion, a 13,000 square foot mansion built for Charles C. Conrad, a merchant and industrialist in Montana who helped found Kalispell. The house was unique especially because most of its contents were original! Charles Conrad died only 7 years after the house was built, and then his son somehow managed to squander the family fortune with 5 years. The youngest daughter kept the house and saved ("hoarded") everything until she donated it to the city as a museum in the 1970s. Our tour guide was from Minnesota and was extremely knowledgeable about the house and the family. We really enjoyed the tour.

After touring the mansion, we headed back to East Glacier, stopping at the Izaak Walton Inn for dinner. It was originally built for the workers who maintained the track during the winter to keep them snow-free. The ambiance of the hotel was neat, with its train paraphernalia, but the price was high and the portions small.

We went back to the Mountain Pine Motel in East Glacier for our final night. Fortunately, we didn't have much to do, so we basically sat around and watched football on the TV. (Mysteriously, the TV had only 3 channels, but different ones than we got for our first night on the way in.)

Day 10 - Monday, September 19 / Tuesday, September 20

We got up around 7:30am, early enough to ensure we could return the rental car, buy stamps, mail our postcards, and get to the train station on time. We didn't have any trouble getting that done, and the train arrived on time. While we were waiting for the train, Mark caught some pictures of a rainbow.

We had an uneventful trip back to Minneapolis. We spent more than 4 hours playing canasta in the observation car (Mark won both times), and we had dinner with a rather eccentric retired wildlife biologist from Washington state. The only annoyance was a woman who got on the train at Devils Lake, ND at 1:30am and kept talking loudly on the cell phone while everyone was trying to sleep.

We arrived in Minneapolis about 1.5 hours late, around 8:30am. We collected our luggage and headed home. We did laundry, squeezed all of our stuff into Ken's Accord (including everything for Mark's trip to Turkey), and left about 6 hours later for Grandma Mohn's funeral in Chicago.