Backpacking and Hiking Glacier National Park, MT, 16-23 September 2016

Summary

50+ miles walking in Glacier National Park, MT, with an early departure due to lousy weather to see the Park.  Massive views otherwise, a lot of critters and critter signs, amazing lakes.

The photos for the trek are on Google+ here.

Want to go back already!

Getting There

I’ve been putting in for backcountry permits at Glacier for the past couple years, and this year we finally hit one in the lottery, with an itinerary Clark had submitted.  I quickly found out that United or Delta were my only choices for flying into Kalispell, MT, which was the closest airport to the Park.  $550 later, I was ready to go.

The team had decided to get to the Park a couple days early and dayhike, so we all came in for Friday.  Chuck and I headed out from OKC way early, and in Denver we had a delay due to an airplane problem after we launched for Kalispell.  The flight between DEN-FCA was stunning, we flew over East Yellowstone.  I will put up a separate blog post for that.  We got in about 1115, picked up Clark and Jason in Kalispell and had lunch, then headed to the Park.

Jason had found a very nice house that would sleep us all at Glacier Guides.  We dropped out stuff there on the way to the Park.

Dayhiking

We had a total of 17.58 miles dayhiking over three days.

First, we headed up to Avalanche Lake.  We were amazed that in late September, the trailhead parking was full, and then some.  There was construction going on the boardwalk part of the trail.  The trail up to the Lake was pretty easy, and there were a TON of people going up there.  We were on the trail from 1415 to 1700.  The trail starts on the Trail Of The Cedars, which is a loop boardwalk trail.  At several points you are treated to small cascades on Avalanche Creek.  Once at the Lake, you immediately transition from woods to a majestic wall around the south end of the Lake that had three ribbon waterfalls coming down a couple thousand feet. Photos were taken in quantity.  We hiked along the lakeshore, alternating between river rock and bigger rock hopping.  We got about halfway along the shore when we decided that it was getting dark, so we headed back.  We found a trail to the main trail; if we had realized that trail was there we would have made better time and more progress to the head of the Lake.

This hike was 5.86 miles roundtrip, and about 650 ft of altitude gain.  Highly recommended.

avalanche_lake

Saturday, we started the day by hiking a loop trail that ran by Sacred Dancing Cascade and McDonald Falls.  This was a pretty flat trail for the most part, except the part that goes by John’s Lake, where you get a little up.  The woods on the north side of McDonald Creek were deep and dark.  The Falls were very pretty, I climbed down about 30 ft to get near the surface of the creek.

This hike was 3.03 miles, and had a total of 500 ft of altitude gain, mostly on the south side of Going To The Sun Road to climb up to the Lake.

waterfalls_and_johns_lake

After the loop hike, we headed back into town to pick up Dave, then get lunch, then back into the Park for some more hiking.

This was not so much happy.  We had decided to drive up Going To The Sun Road for the views, and to hike to Hidden Lake.  On the way up, it started to rain, and the wind started to blow, and as we went up, the clouds came down, and in short order we were in a low-visibility situation.  We ended up at the Visitor Center at Logan Pass, looked around a couple minutes, then hitched up our rain gear and headed out.  It was raining, sleeting, and blowing hard enough that a couple times you had to push pretty hard.  The first part of the hike was over tundra, and was on a long boardwalk with occasional trail.  There are some pretty waterfalls to the north.  We got out to the overlook, and looked over a bunch of clouds below us.  We decided that the Lake would not be seen today, and headed back down.

The hike to the Hidden Lake overlook was 2.98 miles, with about 550 ft of up, and then 550 ft of down.

hidden_lake_overlook

We headed back to the house and met up with Lance and Luke, then headed into Columbia Falls for dinner and a grocery run.

The third day, we drove into Whitefish to do a bit of shopping for gear, then headed back into the Park for lunch and another hike.  For this one, we decided to hike up to Fish Lake.  I really wanted to see a moose, and figured that an alpine lake would increase the odds.  This hike was a very straightforward out and back off of GTTS Road, and it had a bit of a climb.  We crossed several streams along the way and back, and had some nice views of Lake McDonald from the trail.

This days hike was 5.65 miles round trip, with a gain and loss of about 1,200 ft.

fish_lake

After our hike, we returned to the house for some home-cooked spaghetti and meat sauce with garlic bread, and final packing for departure the next morning.

We had been checking the weather.  The next two days were nice, with rain predicted for Wednesday afternoon, and snow Thursday and Friday.  Snow was predicted for the southeast side of the park, which is very high.  We went into the Backcountry Office and talked with them about routing, and made a change to reflect a route I had tried for the previous two years, modified to a different camp site for Thursday evening.

Backpacking

Day 1

We had a really good breakfast before leaving, and got out of the house around 0900.  It was steadily raining (the forecast notwithstanding), and the drive on GTTS Road had not really improved view-wise.  On the other side, we broke out in sunshine (mostly), and turned north at Babb for the trailhead, near Chief Mountain very near the Canadian border.

We managed to hit the trail around 1030 after the drive in.  It was a perfect day to hike, with temps in the 60s, with the only downer a very stiff wind blowing into our faces.  We hiked along until around 1300, when we found a place that was both in the sun and in the lee of the wind behind some trees.  Lunch was very good!

The trail was well worn along here, although a bit narrow, and after a good descent from the trailhead, mostly flat.  We passed a Ranger station with about seven horses that watched us pass.  At this point, we started back into trees, and bounced up and down quite a bit.  We crossed the Belly River on a suspension bridge, ran into and talked to a Ranger, and hike along in pretty good shape.  We had the threat of rain but never really got any.

An unexpected surprise was a beautiful waterfall along the way.  Dawn Mist Falls is about 100ft high and was thundering and stunning.  If you miss the turnoff for the foot of the Falls, you get a good view from an overlook.

We motored into camp at the bottom of Elizabeth Lake around 1645.

We had secured food storage boxes at Elizabeth Lake, and an outhouse.  After storing our food bags in the boxes, we set up camp, and came back for dinner.

Glacier is sorta different in the food area.  There is a food area, and you are required to do all cooking and eating there.  The food area is very nice, with logs to sit on, and upended logs to use for tables.

I had Backpackers Pantry Santa Fe Chicken and Rice for dinner, with a couple cups of chicken noodle soup, and it was great.

It was around 50F when we got into camp, and in the mid-40s at bed time.

Our day was 10.3 miles.  Once you lose about 770 ft from the trailhead, you have a net gain of around 300 ft of climb by the time you get to camp, but the actual gain is probably 1000 ft by the time you factor in a number of intermediate bump ups (and downs).

Day 2

It was 38F when we got up.  Rather, it was 38F when *I* got up :).  The rest of the crew was up around 0700, I struggled out at 0830.  Oh well, I didn’t hold the group up, I got my tent down and stuff packed up when everyone else was ready, and I used a bit of existing hot water to make some hot chocolate.  I ate my breakfast (a bag of Frosted Flakes and a package of blueberry Pop Tarts) as we hiked along.

We headed down the trail towards Helen Lake.  The trail follows the north side of Elizabeth Lake, and contours up and down quite a bit below a cliff that feeds a number of small waterfalls.  There were a lot of sheep and goats up there.

We got to the head of Elizabeth Lake and took a break at the camp there.  The trail continued on towards Helen Lake, climbing steadily but gently.  We found a very pretty waterfall and decided to stop there and have lunch under a beautiful blue sky, with all that mountain around us.  After lunch, we continued up the trail, going another 150 grueling yards until we found the Helen Lake campsite :).  This site had a tall bar installed for hanging food bags.  We did so, set up tents, and relaxed.  We had this site to ourselves.  It was 5 miles and a net gain of just over 200 ft altitude at this point.

One of the highlights of the hike to Helen as seeing the dramatic Old Sun Glacier and a large Yosemite-class waterfall off to the north.

After a bit of resting, we went off on a dayhike.  There were trails heading south of the camp that looked promising, right up to the point that we were in an impenetrable network of brush.  There were lots of berries in there, and we wondered if bears were also.  We retreated and tried the shoreline, but no luck there.  So we headed to the north side.  We tried low first, then went a little higher and found a way through.  We contoured steadily up, and as Sun was starting to get close to Ahern Mountain to the west, we stopped and admired the lake below us, the snowfields to the west, the waterfalls across the lake, and Ahern Glacier above.  We headed back after a bit.  This hike was 2 miles total, and got us about 1/3 of the way along the lake shore.  We also had another 200 ft of altitude gain to get us above the lake.  If I get back there, I will make it a point to get up the lake farther.

Dinner for me was Mountain House Chili Mac, and it was very good.

Our total for the day was 7 miles, and about 400 ft of altitude gain.

Day 3

We awoke to a very overcast sky.  I had oatmeal and hot tea for breakfast.  The temp was 43F.  We couldn’t see any of the mountains around us, the clouds were only a couple hundred feet over our heads.  We headed out at 0830, back towards the tail end of Lake Elizabeth.  Again, it was a nice walk to get there.  It rained on us several times on the way.  We got into camp just afternoon, unpacked the food, set up the tents, and had lunch.  It continued to rain on and off, and the last temperature I checked, it was 45F.

We knew the trail we were taking Thursday started right out of camp on a suspension bridge over the Belly River, and we had been told by the Backcountry Office the bridge would be removed at some point this week.  A couple of us walked over there after lunch, and sure enough, the bridge was gone.  The suspension cables were there, but the deck was stacked up nearby.  A trail crew was busy building a new bridge approach.  They pointed us a bit upstream at a horse ford that was about three feet deep as a place to cross the next morning.  I note that I measured the water temp a bit later at 53F.

We also got a weather update from the trail crew.  The weather was deteriorating, with heavy rain expected were we were, starting later that afternoon, and several inches of sleet and snow higher.  Well…  The next day, we were headed 2000ft higher.  Most importantly, the clouds were going to stay right where they were, and the highs the next couple days were in the mid 30s where we were, and so quite colder 2000ft higher.

We kicked it around as a team.  One option was wading the stream, and taking an intermediate trail that went through Ptarmigan Tunnel, then into Many Glacier.  It was only a 1200 ft climb, but we would end up five miles from our shuttle car.  We could also just escape out the way we came.  We settled on that option.  Then it was noted that it was 1415, and we really couldn’t hike anywhere else, and it was a long time until sunset. So we modified the option, packed up, and headed out about 1515.

There isn’t a lot to say about this day.  The trail was a muddy, disgusting slog due to all the rain.  We had just eaten a good lunch and had a good rest after the five mile walk into camp, and it was mostly down, so we burned along.  We saw a lot of tracks, and a live moose, which was very cool.  Near dusk, we got to the last hill that climbed up to the parking lot.  We all slowed down some on that climb, and we got into the parking lot at 1930, just after full dark.  We had some tired legs.  In all, we walked 10 miles in 5 hr 30 min, which is 1.8 mph sustained, with backpacks.  Not bad.

In all, we hiked 14.8 miles that last day, with 600 ft of altitude loss over the first 13 miles, with an 800 ft gain over the last 1.8 miles.

As you might expect, the decision to abort the second backpacking trip due to weather while on the trail really bugged me.  It was the right decision, given that we had a likelihood of having trouble finding the trail on a high ridge, socked in, with a couple inches of snow.  The overriding thing was not being able to see mountains, which was the entire point of being up there.

The trail:  it was a muddy, disgusting mess.  All of our boots, and our rain pants, and some of our jackets, were covered in mud.  It really made the hike a lot harder, due to slipping around.

Regardless, we got to the parking lot, loaded up in the Suburban, and drove to East Glacier, where some good staff support work by Gayle found the team some very nice (overheated!) rooms at a local place, where we could spread out our wet tents and stuff to dry overnight.

We were so sweaty and wet, that not only did every window in the car fog up, the plastic covering the dash instruments fogged up also.

Critters

We saw quite a lot of wildlife, and signs of others.  We saw deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, fox, moose, a number of ducks and waterbirds, and elk while out on the trail.  We saw paw and hoof prints from elk and moose, bear, lynx, and cougar.  There was quite a lot of bear scat seen.  I would like to see a brown bear in the wild, maybe next time.

Water

We had no issues with water.  Even when we were not walking by lakes or camping by lakes, there were plenty of streams crossing the trail, and most of them could be pumped from.

Altitude

Glacier is a lot lower than Rocky Mountain NP, or some of the stuff we have hiked in New Mexico.  This is a plot of the altitudes of the various walks we did.  Note that when I moved the GPS track data over to LibreOffice, I swapped the order of the John’s Lake and Hidden Lake plots.

glacier-hikes-altitude

Getting Home

While we were at breakfast Thursday morning, we all checked on flights, and decided that a departure that afternoon would work.  We drove around the south end of the Park, looking at the clouds covering up the mountains. We drove into Whitefish and walked around downtown for a while after lunch, then headed to FCA.  We had some issues with incoming flights at FCA, which caused all five of us to miss our connections, which were the last ones of the evening, so we were all put up in hotels overnight.  Friday morning (after seeing one of the longest security lines I’ve ever seen), we all got out and home.

Gear Notes

My fully loaded pack, for five days, was 29 lbs.  My Helium 55 held all my gear internally (but it was tight!), and the pack rode well.

Food was good.  I almost forgot to get soup, but found some at our last stop before the trailhead.  Raegan had helped me by taking my two-person dinners and cutting them by half for the trail.

I needed to have replaced my water pump filter before heading out on this trip.  A new one is on the way right now.

My clothing was a good mix.  I would get into camp, put up the tent, and immediately put on my base layer and other long sleeved stuff, and I was warm enough.  I took a fleece jacket that I wore under my Frog Togg rain jacket.

Looking Ahead

I still have not walked on a glacier.  After hiking and backpacking on this trip, I think that I will aim at the trail in the Gunsight Pass area to try to get to Jackson or Sperry Glacier, or focus on dayhiking out of Many Glacier.

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