Early on in our big trip three years ago, we learned how both Greta and I relate to landscapes: she gets bored with stopping intermittently while driving to look at the scenery or big views. She has to be moving – hiking, biking or rowing – and then she can appreciate the surroundings. On the other hand, I look for constantly shifting views and a variety of spatial experiences: both unrelieved short views (like hiking in the woods), or unrelieved long views (like hiking the rim of the Grand Canyon), bore me. So satisfying these two criteria became our modus operandi for the rest of the trip, and the character of the hikes often determined how much we liked a place. Then on this trip, we added one more variable, with Linda’s preferences: she will often focus on the small scale – plants and flowers – that Greta and I barely register. Luckily for us, there were hikes in Glacier that were spectacular in all these different ways simultaneously, and we all agreed that these were some of the most beautiful places we’d ever seen.
The first was along St. Mary Lake, starting from Sun Point, where there had been a chalet, which fell into disrepair and was eventually demolished. The view from this spot looked west towards Logan Pass, and I can imagine sitting on a porch at that chalet, looking at the light change on this view (while sipping a Huckleberry Smash).
We hiked along the north side of the Lake, which had been swept by the Reynolds Burn in 2015. As the climate changes and droughts intensify, Glacier has been hit by a series of big fires in recent years; we had in fact planned our trip for early July, knowing that much of the area has been engulfed in forest fire smoke in mid-to late summer in recent years.
But our reaction to the burn areas was not what we expected – they didn’t seem devastated, and we didn’t spend the day bemoaning the loss of habitat and natural beauty. It was astounding to see how much new growth had appeared in just three years. The scorched trees were surrounded by undergrowth, and new trees were already springing up.
It had a strange beauty, in the contrast between the scorched trees and the abundant, bright green growth. (As we always said to Greta when she was confronted with death or destruction as a small child – it’s the Circle of Life). The landscape resonated with meaning, and I wondered if this was the same appeal that we architects find in what’s been called Ruin Porn – those stunning photos of major buildings from the not-so-distant past, falling into decay.
We came across information from the Park Service which emphasized to visitors how different familiar trails would now be after forest fires. Just three years ago, this hike would have been almost completely in the shade, only emerging at a few points to access longer views. Now the sun shone everywhere, and the mountains were always visible in the background.
There are series of waterfalls feeding into St. Mary Lake, most of which are accessible on shorter hikes off the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Here Greta has been applying her newly-learned rock-climbing skills to scramble up the Baring Falls (and to make her mother nervous).
St. Mary Falls was pretty crowded, and we began to understand the demographic of summer visitors to Glacier. On our trip three years ago, we learned that when you’re camping in the South in the winter, you’re surrounded by retired Northerners. This time we found that when you’re camping in the North in the summer, you’re surrounded by extended families of Southerners (and some Midwesterners). In the Fish Creek campground, there were many multiple-RV encampments of connected households, who had travelled in convoys from their hot, humid homes. They all seemed to have at least four kids, and the womenfolk tended to domestic tasks, while the guys messed with their RVs and giant pickups, and the kids rode their bikes in circles and ran amuck with sticks. Then they would all organize themselves, and head off on a short group hike to a noted destination.
The crowds thinned out dramatically at Virginia Falls – the Southerners wearing flip-flops and dragging little kids along looked at the rocky climb and turned back to their vehicles. But for those less-encumbered, it was well-worth the climb.
On the return hike, we noticed a change in the view. Hiking west, all of the trees we saw were scorched black. Now as we headed back east, they were all silver. We realized that the fire has swept up the valley from east to west, so the east-facing sides of the trees had been scorched, and the west sides had been protected. The fire must have burned off all available fuel quickly enough that most trees were not consumed, but left standing in this strange, two-toned manner.
When I briefly visited Glacier 22 years ago, during a one-week cross-country drive with my brother, I had stood at this point behind the Many Glacier Hotel, thinking it was the most perfect alpine view I’d ever seen (I described it to Greta as reminiscent of a Palladian villa, with its symmetry and hierarchy of flanking elements), and wanting to hike up one of those valleys which flanked the ridge of Mt. Grinnell in the center. I finally got my chance, as we hiked around the south side of Swiftcurrent Lake, and then up the valley on the left, past Josephine Lake and arriving at Grinnell Lake.
But before starting this hike, we stopped along Lake Sherburne, to see the huge meadows of wildflowers. Even I, who has what we have come to term FPD (floral perception disorder) noticed these, and Linda was in heaven.
Swiftcurrent Lake is circled by an easy trail, on which we kept our eyes open, as we had seen two moose there a few days before, and passing hikers told us of spotting bears.
At the head of the lake there is short stream which connects it to the higher Josephine Lake.
Both lakes have excursion boats – if you don’t want to do the longer hike, you can take the boat to the head of Swiftcurrent, hike half a mile to Josephine, where you can catch this boat, which takes you to the head of Josephine, and closer to Grinnell.
The water was much warmer in the lake than in the streams which drained the glacier fields directly. We did some wading, and wished we’d brought bathing suits.
The hike from Josephine to Grinnell is through the woods and longer, and has some interesting aspects, such as this bridge, and a nice side climb to another waterfall.
The path opens up, and Grinnell Lake comes in to view.
It’s an amazing spot, with rugged peaks on every side, and a very cold stream to ford.
The waterfalls across the lake drain the Grinnell Glacier above. It was hard to believe this place was real – it looked more like a CGI landscape from a movie about Shangri-La.
Overall, it was about an 8 mile hike, with 800 feet of elevation gain. Minimal effort, for a series of spots and views that are extraordinary.
Our final alpine lake hike was from the Logan Pass visitors’ center to Hidden Lake. We took a shuttle bus to the top, which is much easier to do from the east side than the west. The hike starts at 6646 feet, and climbs another 600 feet, before dropping 900 feet to the lake. It is incredibly busy – lots of visitors get to the pass and decide they can do the first section to an overlook, so the wetter areas have boardwalks to accommodate the crowds.
We’d been heating stories all week about bear sightings (including someone who said that a grizzly cub snuck up behind him and nuzzled his side), but we hadn’t seen any at all. Finally, we spotted a grizzly sitting on the snow a few miles away (circled below). Linda thought that was the right distance from which to view a grizzly.
The path then climbed through a snowfield (which was definitely a slushfield by the time we returned), and where we were able to once again marvel at how tourists will just take off on a hike that seems reasonable, no matter how unprepared they are for it. We saw many people in tee shirts, gym shorts and flip-flops (and no other gear) heading across the snow, dragging tiny children, some wearing tutus and carrying stuffed animals. I actually had some initial problems with the altitude, having just taken a bus up the 3000 foot elevation change on the road, but I acclimated after about half an hour. But we saw many people much older and in worse shape than us, who seemed undaunted.
This recalled an observation Greta and I had made while climbing through a cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde – you can probably complete a somewhat demanding excursion if you are old, or out of shape, or ill-prepared, but if two of those three conditions apply to you, you might be in trouble. But we’ve found that with little oversight from rangers or officials, people seem to make reasonable decisions about their capabilities. The one exception we came across was a young family that was about to head onto the pretty demanding hike to Avalanche Lake with three kids under seven, and no lunch (the shuttle from the west side was really busy, and they’d arrived at the trailhead later than expected). We gave them our energy bars, and when we ran into them at the end of the day, they said they never would have made it otherwise.
We arrived at this saddle 600 feet above the pass,
and hiked past the overlook to this view of Hidden Lake below. If you look at the bottom of that notch to the right, you can also see the end of Lake McDonald, 4000 feet below.
The big panorama is breathtaking, but there were other attractions. We took a break and watched a marmot (between Linda and Greta) licking a big rock. There were many other marmots around, a few different species of chipmunks,
and lots of mountain goats, who seemed quite used to the crowds, and who were willing to pose photogenically in the foreground.
We left the crowds behind for more slush-climbing and scree fields,
and arrived at this spot by the lake for lunch. We cooled our waterbottles in the snow, and watched the reflections in the lake while chatting with some other hikers.
They pointed out that at the mouth of the lake, there was an osprey catching fish, while two rainbow trout were somewhere in the middle of their extended spawning activity. The female (on the left), was swimming in place in the current, and every few minutes would writhe around, digging a trench in the gravel for her eggs. The male was waiting to fertilize them, but would shoot off every minute or so, to chase off other males who were trying to horn in on the action. I’m pretty much a city guy, and I couldn’t believe we were seeing this – it struck me as entirely too much like a staged nature video for it to be real.
The reflections on the still lake were dazzling.
We climbed back up to the saddle, and crossed over to the east side again, where the mishaps of the late-day crowds were intensifying as the melting snow got slipperier and slipperier.
As I’ve mentioned, most of the day hikes in Glacier were either too easy, or a bit beyond our capabilities (that might change if we were there for more than a week). But these three hikes had everything we were looking for – awesome views of the mountains, beautiful blue lakes, constantly shifting perspectives, a level of exertion that was enough to guarantee we’d sleep well, and the small-scale attractions of plants and wildlife. At some point on each of these hikes I’d pause, and remark that this was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. `