Glacier National Park

September 01, 2016


After a beautiful morning drive through central Montana, filled with storms and rainbows, I saw the mountains of Glacier National Park on the horizon.

I approached East Glacier by 7:30am, the early morning light slowly fading as dark clouds began to fill the sky.  The weather was damp and cold in East Glacier, no warmer than 50 degrees.  After spending over a month in the warmth of Colorado and Wyoming, I was freezing cold.  Thankfully I was meeting some old friends for breakfast in town before heading into the mountains.  In 2013, my friend Joe and I spent two weeks backpacking through Glacier.  Now, he was just finishing another two week backpacking trip here with his girlfriend.  It was nice to see some familiar faces for the first time in over a month!  

After a great breakfast it was time to head up into the mountains and begin my next photography adventure.  I was excited to see the peaks shrouded in clouds, I find it much more interesting than boring blue skies.

My first stop was Two Medicine, one of three major lakes on the East side of the park.  There is a spectacular waterfall, Running Eagle Falls, located just off the road to Two Medicine.  I've never seen a waterfall like it!  

My next stop was St Mary's, one of my favorite regions of Glacier National Park.  The Going-to-the-Sun road begins here and travels 50 miles across the Continental Divide to West Glacier.  It is one of the most amazing roads in the world, built over 80 years ago.  As I approached the St Mary valley I had to pull over and snap a photo!

In 2015 a massive forest fire engulfed much of the St Mary's area, mostly near the western end of St Mary's Lake.  I decided to go for a hike through the burn area and check out St Mary's Falls and Virginia Falls.

The blackened husks dominated the forest, while small flashes of color sprung up from the forest floor.  Asters and Fireweed seemed to love the new environment.  I was surprised how much I enjoyed hiking through the burned forest, it was oddly beautiful.  

Since it was going to rain that night, I decided to sleep in my car.  I awoke early the next morning and began my drive up Going-to-the-Sun Road, hoping to capture some dramatic images.  It turned out to be an amazing day.



Grinnell Glacier

During my 2013 backpacking trip, we never made it up to the Many Glacier area of the park.  I was excited to finally check out this area of the park!  The weather forecast called for afternoon storms so I decided to hike to Grinnell Lake first, in case the weather took a turn for the worse.  In the image below, you can see the waterfalls leading up to Grinnell Glacier.  The uppermost waterfall marked my final destination.  

Lake JosephineLake JosephineLake Josephine reflects the blue sky on a summer day

After an hour of hiking along a very crowded trail I arrived at Grinnell Lake.  The water glowed turquoise in the noon sun.  I ate some granola and re-hydrated along the lake shore.  A friendly little critter joined me on my break.

With lunch finished, I began the trek up to Grinnell Glacier.  It is a 1600 ft elevation gain and 13 mile round trip.  This would be my first long hike since Aspen.  The views of Grinnell Lake from above were absolutely amazing!

On the way up to the glacier, every single person I passed (probably 100) told me "watch out! There's a momma grizzly with her cub up ahead!" I figured I wouldn't see them though.  About half-way up to the Glacier, the clouds fell over the mountains and it began to rain.  I threw on my rain-jacket and continued onward.  I soon realized my rain-jacket was no longer of any use, the material had broken down and left me damp and cold.  At least the uphill hike would keep me warm.

As I was nearing the glacier, two people were stopped on the trail looking up at the mountains above.  I soon realized what they were looking at.  It was the grizzly bears everyone had mentioned!  They were probably 300 feet above us. As we watched them, momma bear kicked a massive boulder down at us! It came flying down the hillside, right at us! We ran down the trail and the rock missed us by about 15 feet!  That would be a bad way to go, getting taken out by a rock and flying down the side of a mountain.

Apparently the bear had been doing that for a while, some guy almost got killed earlier, but thankfully he heard the rock falling and got out of the way. 

We stood for a while longer, watching the bears disappear over a cliff.  I still had a few miles left, so I trudged on in the downpour.  

Soaking wet, tired, and hungry I finally arrived at the glacier!  I was blown away, it was like being dropped into Antarctica! 

Grinnell GlacierGrinnell GlacierUpper Grinnell lake and the remains of the Grinnell Glacier Mist slowly rose off the glacial waters as the rain continued to fall.

After exploring the glacier for 30 minutes the sun came out and the clouds melted away.  It turned out to be a wonderful and sunny afternoon!

While I was walking around the glacier I thought I overhead someone say "raft".  As I got down to the shore I couldn't believe my eyes again.

A group of guys had apparently brought an inflatable raft and wetsuits to explore the glacial waters!

While we sat and watched the rafters someone started yelling about a bear.  We looked to where she was pointing and for the fourth time that day I couldn't believe my eyes.  Way up on the cliff were the two bears that had kicked the rocks down at us earlier.  They were headed for the Grinnell Glacier Overlook and ultimately the West side of the park.  If anyone was unlucky enough to be standing at the Overlook they must have been terrified to see two grizzlies coming up from underneath them.

Now that the sun had been out for a while, most of my gear had finally dried out.  As the rafters left the Glacier I realized I was the last man out.  I was excited to finally have some solitude on this hike.  (I had passed hundreds of hikers over the course of the day)

The views down from Grinnell Glacier were breathtaking, easily some of my favorite from the entire roadtrip so far.
Grinnell LakeGrinnell LakeGrinnell Lake in Glacier National Park

After a peaceful hike down from the Glacier I ran into another bear.  Thankfully he and I were in the same mood, relaxed and indifferent.  We both continued on with our hikes, at peace with one another.

By 7:30pm I was nearing the end of the hike.  I was utterly exhausted and my feet were starting to hurt pretty bad.  At least the views were still spectacular.  

By 9pm I was back at the Many Glacier Hotel, barely able to walk and starving.  I dropped my pack off in the car and headed inside the lodge.  I could smell all the food in the dining hall and hurried to get a meal before they closed.  I had a wonderful Huckleberry beer, chicken and mashed potatoes.  Unfortunately, I wanted to catch the sunrise in front of the lodge.  That meant I had to spend another night sleeping in the car.  

It was a pristine summer morning along the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake.  Mist slowly rose off the water while the orange light slid down the mountains.  A great way to end my time in Many Glacier.


The Return

From the day I left Glacier National Park in 2013 I've dreamt of returning one day.  My first trip to Glacier was a straight backpacking / hiking trip.  Our first hike was over 40 miles, taking us from the St. Mary's visitor center all the way over to the Lake McDonald Lodge.  Along the way we saw so many incredible places: Sperry Chalet, Gunsight Pass, Lake Ellen Wilson, and Gunsight Lake.  

From Gunsight Lake we continued up to Gunsight Pass, which was one of the hardest stretches of trail I had hiked, complete with waterfalls over the trail, snowfield crossings and mountain goats in the middle of the trail.  The view from Gunsight Pass was amazing though, and we watched the sunset while eating dinner with mountain goats.  Those memories are still fresh in my mind.

I was eager to return to Gunsight Lake again on this trip, especially considering I could turn it into a dayhike.  The trip was much easier than I remembered, then again, I wasn't carrying a fully loaded backpack this time.

With Gunsight Lake done, I knew I had to visit Bowman Lake next.  Bowman Lake lies in the North Fork area of the park; remote, rugged and far away from the hordes of tourists.  It would be a welcome vacation from the overcrowded "downtown" areas of the park.  The drive up to the North Fork is pretty rough, lots of dusty gravel roads.  They even have signs reading "Dust is a four letter word."

I had to stop at Polebridge before continuing on to Bowman Lake.  Polebridge is known for its fantastic desserts, I loaded up on Huckleberry Bear Claws, Huckleberry Macaroons, Huckleberry Soda, and a variety of other desserts.

It was wonderful to finally be back here.  I had dreamed of swimming in this lake for months, now I finally could!  The water was not as cold as I thought it would be either, very refreshing on a warm summer day.

Since some campsites were still open, I grabbed a site and set up camp for the night.  I went back out to the lake and watched as the clouds grew taller and taller, turning into angry storm clouds.  Soon it started to rain and I headed back to camp.  It poured most of the night, but I didn't mind.


The next morning I felt like I was in a completely different place.  Thick fog had enveloped the forest and the lake view was completely obscured.

I wanted to go for a hike in the forest that morning.  I had a premonition that I would see a bear, so I brought along my telephoto lens.  After an hour or so, I heard something moving nearby.  Sure enough it was a black bear!  I called out to him, so he knew I was hiking nearby.  We ended up hiking parallel to each other for a while.  Eventually he started walking up towards me and we got to say hello.

Black BearBlack BearA black bear emerges from the forest and onto the trail near Bowman Lake, in Glacier National Park He was very friendly, he seemed like a young bear that wanted to play.  Unfortunately I had to scare him off before he got too close.

Two other hikers happened by at the same time, and they were terrified to see the bear.  I told them there was nothing to worry about, but they didn't believe me.  They slowly started tip-toeing backwards, while I fired off one last burst of photos.  I stood up tall, waved my arms and yelled.  The bear took off like a shot!    


Lake McDonald

With my trip to the North Fork wrapped up, I started the drive to Lake McDonald.  The morning clouds hung low in the air.  The road was engulfed in fog for most of the drive.  This region was burnt in 1988 by a massive forest fire, the twisted husks rose solemnly in the grey mist.  

As I descended to Lake McDonald the clouds melted away and the bright morning sun rose over the eastern mountains.  The lake was nice and warm that morning.  I could not believe how clear the water was, with the beautiful red rocks beneath the surface.

Lake McDonald SwimLake McDonald SwimSwimming in Lake McDonald on a warm summer day

After the refreshing swim, I drove up to the Avalanche Creek area.  The forests here are primeval.  Towering Cedars, old man's beard clings to every branch, and moss carpets the forest floor.

Avalanche Creek runs through this forest, its cyan waters flowing through an ancient canyon. 


The Shining

In case you didn't know, the intro scene of The Shining was actually filmed in Glacier, along the Going-to-the-Sun road.  Of course I had to re-watch the movie while I was in the area.  I pulled over onto a gravel overlook, the entire St Mary's valley spread out in front of me, right where the initial scenes were shot.  It was surreal to look out my car window and see the landmarks in real time.  The next morning I drove along the road while listening to the creepy music, it was really trippy.


Check out the photos below and watch the trailer!


North Fork

While I was editing photos at the library in Whitefish, I got a notification on Instagram.  Someone had seen that I was in Glacier National Park and highly recommended I check out Home Ranch Bottoms, in the North Fork area of the park.  I had been wanting to go back up there one more time, now I had the perfect excuse.

First, I had to stop back at Polebridge and get more desserts and a breakfast sandwich.  Since I still had not been up to Kintla Lake, I began to drive up there.  It's a 15 mile drive up a narrow, winding, gravel road.  It took me about an hour to reach Kintla.  Kintla Lake is said to be the most remote front-country area in the whole park, however I didn't find that exactly.  The campground was nearly full and I managed to snag the last remaining day-use parking area.  It seems I just couldn't escape from people on this trip.

After going for a quick swim, I hiked the trail around the lake.  It was a beautiful summer day, with hints of fall in the air.  The foliage up here was already starting to change color.  Hoping to see another bear, I lugged my 150-600mm lens along for the trip.  Unfortunately I didn't see much besides some squirrels and a loon.

With a solid hike behind me, I was ready for dinner!  It was a nice drive back to Polebridge, the meadows were starting to show signs of Autumn as well.

Home Ranch Bottoms is a wonderful little spot outside Polebridge.  They have fantastic BBQ, Huckleberry drinks, and desserts.  I got two pulled pork sandwiches and a hard huckleberry lemonade, which was fantastic.  I've heard the huckleberry pie is to die for.  I almost wanted to stick around have a second dinner!



On August 25th the National Parks celebrated their 100th Anniversary.  The parks were actually initially formed because of the efforts of painters and photographers who were able to share the beauty of these areas to politicians back in Washington D.C.  Today, social media allows visitors to continue this idea of using photographs to save wild areas.  This has led to the creation of "Instameets", social outings in the National Parks where photographers from all over the world can come and meet one another.  This particular Instameet was planned to coincide with the 100th anniversary celebration.  It turned out to be a wonderful event, with over 300 people attending!

The first person I met was a local Montana Public Radio Reporter, Nicky Ouellet.  She had been in the park all day following the story of how our National Parks came to be, and how they would transition into the future.  Click here to listen to her story.

After talking with Nicky for a while I soon met Glacier National Park's first Bark Ranger.

Gracie's job is to scare away the Bighorn Sheep and Mountain Goats from the Logan Pass visitor center, among other duties.  

I also met a ton of fellow photographers from all over the area.  Chris Burkard, a famous photographer, was even in attendance.  He had a swarm of people around him for the entire event.  

After having some cake and listening to some speeches we all gathered on the shore of Lake McDonald for a group photo.

With the formal party wrapped up, some of the photographers headed down the shore to get some photos of Lake McDonald.  To everyone's surprise, the thick grey clouds soon parted and a rainbow appeared!

A wonderful way to end the 100th Anniversary of our National Parks.  

While I was packing up my gear I made some new friends.  Three of them were just out to enjoy the park for the weekend and another was traveling across the country to her new home in Oregon.  None of us had a plan for the night, which worked perfectly.  I knew a wonderful free campsite outside the park and led our new group out.  We had a great night sitting around the fire.

At 6:30am we woke up and planned to do an epic hike, the Highline Trail.


One Final Effort

The Highline Trail had been completely closed off for the past few days due to a carcass and bear activity.  We heard it had just reopened and decided to go for it.  Thankfully we had 3 vehicles, which allowed us to drive up to Logan Pass and hike back down the 13 miles to our cars.

The hike was spectacular, we got all the best views of the Going-to-the-Sun road without having to worry about crashing a vehicle!  The trail was surprisingly easy to hike and we put away the first couple miles quickly.  

About 7 miles into the trip we opted to take the side-trail to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook.  If you remember, that is where I had seen the two grizzly bears hiking up to, a week prior.  I hoped we wouldn't be in for a similar surprise.  The hike up was intense!  I had to stop every couple hundred feet to catch my breath.  While I was stopped to catch my breath, I noticed a gang of Bighorn Sheep chilling on the cliff above us.

Hiker's enjoying the view from the Grinnell Glacier Overlook:

After what seemed like an hour, I arrived at the Overlook.  I couldn't believe the view!  When I had been at Grinnell Glacier a week earlier, I had no idea people could actually make it up here.

The view of the glacier was wonderful from here, especially considering I lugged my 600mm lens up here.  I was able to get a great view of everything around.

As I looked around, I realized this was the exact same spot I had seen the two grizzly bears climbing up a week earlier!

Thankfully the descent was much quicker and easier, I think I made it all the way down in only 15 minutes.  That left us with our last segment of the journey, a 4 mile hike down from Granite Peak Chalet to our cars.

The last 4 miles sucked.  Everyone we met along the way was hating every minute of it.  We were all so thankful to finally be back at the Going-to-the-Sun road a few hours later.

After an intense 13 mile hike above 8,000 feet, we were all starving.  We drove outside of the park to find a good spot to eat.  Our first stop was the local whiskey distillery for a shot.  Joe and I had first visited this distillery in 2013, before a white water rafting trip. 

While at the distillery, we learned of a great local restaurant with big portions.  We had a fantastic dinner there!  I got pulled pork tacos, mashed potatoes, and baked beans with a huckleberry lemonade.  After dinner we headed for another free campsite, this time along a river.  We all passed out within 20 minutes.

The next morning we parted ways and continued on our separate journeys.  I was thankful to have met such wonderful people and to share a great hike and dinner with them.  This was the perfect way to end my adventure in Glacier National Park.

Now that Glacier National Park is behind me, I'm off to the West Coast!  I'll be photographing waterfalls along the Oregon / Washington border then heading up the Pacific Coast to Olympic and beyond!

Click here to see all the photos from Glacier National Park.

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