First of all, thanks to everyone who helped us plan: hikes, peachbelle, gnp4me, gabbysmom, karekey, rm-mn, jtonvaca, and wanderer (I hope I haven’t left out anyone). Your ideas helped create a wonderful adventure.
Our July trip got off to a rocky start: due to mechanical problems, we had to deboard our connecting flight out of Denver and board another plane, which took off two hours late. (The silver lining in this cloud was that the passenger next to me was an experienced Glacier hiker, who enthusiastically supplied information about the park throughout the flight.)
Due to the delay, we arrived in Spokane just in time to become enmeshed in rush-hour traffic as we headed for Whitefish, where we had motel reservations. When the traffic began to thin, we stopped at what must be the dirtiest Subway in the U.S. for to-go sandwiches (being somewhat dazed from our long trip, we didn’t notice the dirt until we’d received our order—and being in a hurry, we ate the sandwiches on the road anyway).
When we finally reached our motel in Whitefish, check-in took nearly half an hour because the clerk couldn’t find our reservation for a second room, even though his book had a confirmation identical to ours, which showed a reservation for two rooms. Then, the next morning, we woke up to a forecast of severe weather, including hailstorms, over Glacier. When we asked a ranger at Apgar Visitors’ Center whether she’d advise our exploring the western side of the park before heading to Many Glacier, she said in no uncertain terms, “If it were me, I’d go NOW!”
Once we were on our way to Logan Pass, our fortunes began to improve. Due to the forecast, we didn’t linger at any overlooks and were delayed only about fifteen minutes in the construction zone near the pass. Blue skies still lingered over us when we arrived at St. Mary Visitors’ Center at the eastern end of the GTTSR, so we took time to watch a video, picked up park literature, looked at the exhibits, and ate a picnic lunch before continuing to Many Glacier.
We arrived at Swiftcurrent Motor Inn a few minutes before check-in time; but by the time we had looked over the gift shop and the restaurant menu, our rooms were ready. Even though bags of ice were on sale, the desk clerk offered to keep our cooler stocked with ice from the restaurant. We were delighted that Swiftcurrent is not a lodge in the usual sense of the word but a series of separate buildings and cabins scattered among the forest, offering a quiet and peaceful seclusion but proximity to the main building.
We arrived in Many Glacier on Friday. The previous Monday, when I had phoned the boat concessionaire to reserve the 8:30 boat for myself and the 9:00 boat for my friends, I was told that both boats were fully booked. But since our luck seemed to be improving, we decided to drive to the Many Glacier Hotel and go to the boat office. There we discovered that both trips had had large group cancellations, and so we were able to get reservations. (However, advanced reservations can usually be secured a day or two ahead.) After buying our tickets for Saturday, we enjoyed an early dinner in the hotel dining room, where we were fortunate to be seated beside a window overlooking Swiftcurrent Lake. (The dining room has first-come, first served seating only.)
I had been confused about how the day-long ranger-led hike to Grinnell Glacier coordinated with the boat trip across the lakes and later learned that at least two other people on my boat had also been confused. So at the risk of repeating information already available on the Glacier forum, here’s an explanation; anyone reading this TR who doesn’t want or need clarification can skip the next two paragraphs.
The Grinnell Glacier ranger-led hike begins on the far side of Lake Josephine. Most hikers buy a round-trip boat ticket for the express 8:30 boat, which boards behind the hotel and crosses Swiftcurrent Lake. Here, passengers disembark, follow a paved walkway to Lake Josephine, and board a second boat, which takes them to the trailhead. As they leave the boat, they receive a ticket for a return trip, good for any of the scheduled times. The ranger travels on these boats. Because the boats accommodate 49 passengers, there are usually 49 hikers if the boat is filled, but passengers may buy tickets for the 8:30 boat whether or not they are hiking with the ranger; after crossing the lake, they may hike on their own or wait for a return boat.
It is also possible to omit the boat ride and join the hike on the far side of Lake Josephine by walking around the lakes. If these hikers wish, they can purchase a one-way ticket to return to the hotel by boat. Passengers on the 8:30 boat have first priority for return trips followed by those with round-trip tickets, but the concessionaire promises to make as many return trips as needed in order to ferry hikers back to the hotel area; no one at the dock by the time of the last-scheduled boat is forced to hike back.
The Grinnell Glacier Hike
Due to ice and snow, the final section of the trail was closed. (The ranger, Karen, said that last year a hiker with proper equipment for similar conditions, had died from a fall on the trail and that we would turn back at the closure, but she offered to add a walk to Grinnell Lake to our hike.) Although we didn’t reach the glacier, we climbed high enough for spectacular views.
A recent college graduate with a degree in geology, Karen led an outstanding hike. In spite of the size of the group, she made herself heard by pausing often and gathering everyone around her to identify and discuss rock layers, plants, and other natural features. She also talked about hiking in bear country, stressing that the size of our group would not necessarily deter a grizzly; in fact, a previous group of this size which she was leading had seen a bear.
While on the trail, Karen frequently called out loudly even along straight stretches and always when approaching a turn on a switchback. She also warned against using the word “bear” while calling out. (In the past when a hiker had called out “bear,” an approaching hiker was mistaken for a grizzly and doused with bear spray!) Park service literature cautions that silent hikers endanger not only themselves but also approaching hikers as bears have been startled by quiet hikers and have run in the opposite direction straight into other hikers.
Small groups began separating from the larger group, leaving us with fewer than ten hikers by the time we reached Grinnell Lake after walking through a lush wooded area that resembled the dinosaur-infested locales of a movie set in prehistoric times. Before returning to Lake Josephine for the 2:30 boat, we added a short side-trip to Hidden Falls, which roars out of a narrow gorge, plunges into a pool, and emerges into a stream feeding into the lake.
Other Many Glacier Activities
In the meantime, my friends had taken a guided tour that included Swiftcurrent and Josephine Lakes and a walk at Grinnell Lake; this tour, provided by the boat concessionaire (rather than rangers), included narration during travel across the lake as well as on the walk. Following this outing, my friends returned to Swiftcurrent Motor Inn to join a ranger-led walk to Redrock Lake and Falls. The waterfall cascaded into a pool, said to be the best whirlpool in the park, and at the lake, the hikers spotted a moose. After this hike, my friends return to the Many Glacier Hotel, where they saw a grizzly from the parking area. Then they joined a ranger-led tour of the hotel while I enjoyed views of Swiftcurrent Lake from the hotel lounge.
We met after the tour, ate again in the hotel dining room (where a violinist entertained diners), and then returned to Swiftcurrent in time to view the upper reaches of the mountain through scopes that rangers had set up in the parking lot. The rangers say that they always manage to spot wildlife; this time it was a group of mountain goats, including one lively baby goat.
The next day we had reservations at Rising Sun Motor Inn, located along the GTTSR, so we decided to explore sites between St. Mary and Logan Pass, leaving us free to devote our last half-day in the park to locations west of Logan en route back to Spokane.
Our first stop was Sunrift Gorge, where we followed a short spur on the north side of the road to a viewing spot looking deep into the narrow gorge, where water tumbles from high above over the rocks. We then followed the trail on the south side of the road to Baring Falls, sighting a deer as we returned to our car. Next we stopped at an overlook for Wild Goose Island, said to be one of the most photographed places in the park.
We arrived at Logan Pass in time to find a parking place, looked at the small visitors’ center, and learned that much of the Hidden Lake Nature Trail was still covered in snow and ice (the popular Highline Trail, which also begins at Logan, was closed completely). As we were eating lunch behind the visitors’ center, a ranger set up her talk right in front of us, so we enjoyed an excellent presentation on the effect of climate change on the park. After lunch we walked about half a mile on the boardwalk that begins the trail to Hidden Lake; once we reached the icy section, one of our group went a little farther but soon turned around.
Leaving Logan, we headed back east, stopping to walk to St. Mary Falls and Virginia Falls, which one TA member has called the best waterfall hike in the park. The trail was wide and clear and the spectacular falls worth the effort to reach them.
We arrived at the Rising Sun Motor Lodge at dinnertime; since the office and dining room were in the same building, we checked in and ate before finding our rooms in the building across the street. The dining room lacked the impressive décor of the Many Glacier Hotel but the food, much of it of a Tex-Mex variety, was very good.
Like Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, Rising Sun has many buildings and cabins in a peaceful wooded setting. Our building, which housed a gift shop/grocery and an employee dorm, had only a handful of motel rooms; these rooms had windows that opened onto a porch with tables and chairs. The porch faces but is set back from the GTTSR.
The next morning we headed back across Logan Pass. From the construction zone on the GTTSR, we had a perfect view of Jackson Glacier during our fifteen-minute delay. On the western side of the park, we walked the Trail of the Cedars and continued a short distance up the Avalanche Lake Trail before continuing to Lake McDonald Lodge for lunch. Then we took a quick look at the lodge and had a short stroll down to the lake before heading back to Spokane, where we had reservations at the very satisfactory Rustle Road Econo Lodge, located only minutes from the airport. Fortunately our flight went well, and our trip ended more smoothly than it had begun.
While some national park visitors prefer the ambience of the flagship hotels like Many Glacier and Lake McDonald Lodge, we enjoyed the serenity of Swiftcurrent and Rising Sun. We also were satisfied with the activities we managed to squeeze into our limited time. We never made it to Two Medicine, but everyone we asked recommended spending two days in the eastern area in Many Glacier. And we didn’t eat outside of the park (except from our own supplies), so we didn’t sample the famous pies in St. Mary. Though rangers expect the glaciers to disappear by 2020, the park will continue to be breathtakingly beautiful; it is easy to understand why visitors go there again and again. Only a poet would be able to adequately describe the spectacular scenery; I don’t even want to try.
Some useful links: