Introduction to Glacier National Park, Part 2

This is the second article in a series of three articles about Glacier National Park. The first article ended with a description of the trail of the Cedars and the Avalanche Creek Gorge. In this article I continue moving East, along “Going to the Sun Highway,” describing some of my favorite parts of the park.

Since this article was written when I was a landscape photographer, it includes information about finding and taking the best photographs in Glacier National Park.

After leaving the Avalanche Creek Gorge area, resume traveling east on the Going to the Sun Highway. After a few miles the road leaves McDonald creek and heads up a steep, narrow highway toward Logan Pass. Oversize vehicles and trailers are not allowed on this part of the road. If you have one of these vehicles, you can reach the east side of the park by taking US 2 on the south edge of the park.

Many people have praised the Going to the Sun highway as one of the most beautiful and scenic mountain roads anywhere. In my opinion they are not wrong. The towering mountain wall that the road switch-backs up is called the Garden Wall, so named for the hanging ferns and wildflowers that line its crevices and ledges for thousands of vertical feet. Many of the pull offs on this road are worth stopping at for a picture. 

Goose Island in St. Mary’s Lake on a hazy summer day.

When you finally reach Logan Pass at the high point of the road, be sure to stop at the Visitor Center. The Visitor Center itself isn’t all that wonderful but the meadows and mountain peaks that surround it definitely are. If you are unlucky, the wind may be howling at 70 miles per hour and it may be sleeting or snowing with sub zero temperatures as very often happens at this spot. If this is the case, take a three second look around, get back in your car and come back another day.

However, if it is midsummer and the skies are blue and the sun is warm, you are now at one of the most perfect places in the world. Perfect, that is except for all the hordes of people from all over the world who also realize that this is one of the most beautiful places in the world. However, it is possible to escape most of these people by getting out and walking. The further you walk, the less people, and amazingly soon almost all of them are gone.

High meadow and pines at Logan pass

One hike that you have to take, no matter how many other people do it with you, is the Hidden Lake Nature Trail. This is an approximately three mile round trip hike to Hidden Lake through the famous Hanging Gardens, one of the premier wildflower locations anywhere. You have to be there at the right time of year of course to see it in all of its glory but when it’s right it’s really great. Sometime in July is usually the best time, depending on the year. This is a great place to get wildflower shots with tremendous mountain scenery in the background. 

This trail is also a good place to see mountain goats, marmots or possibly golden eagles. Be sure to stay on the trail though. This is one of those places that way too many people visit and it is very easy to love a place like this to death. The Alpine tundra is very easily damaged by only a few footsteps into it.

Windflowers on the Grinnell Glacier Trail. Grinnell lake is below. Grinnell Glacier is to the upper right.

The other great hike you can take from the Visitor Center at the top of Logan Pass is the Garden Wall Trial that goes along the edge and top of the Garden Wall to the Granite Chalet which is a back-country chalet about seven miles away. You don’t have to go all the way of course; the first part of the trail is the best part anyway. The views on this trail are truly spectacular. This is also a very easy trail to do as the ups and downs are relatively minor. 

If you want to make this hike a little more strenuous, you can go all the way to Granite Chalet and then take connecting trails back down to what is called The Loop on the Going To The Sun Road. From here you can take a shuttle bus back to the Visitor Center at the top of Logan Pass. Be sure to check the shuttle bus schedule before you do this though. The schedule varies according to the season. In mid summer they seem to come by every half hour or so. 

Mountain Goat in the Hanging Gardens at Logan pass

You certainly don’t have to stop with these two hikes. There are over 600 lakes in Glacier National Park and hundreds and hundreds of beautiful peaks and streams and meadows all connected by well maintained trails. Most of Glacier’s trails are open by mid June and with a little luck can be hiked well into October. I have been in Glacier in October however, when the road over Logan Pass has been closed for the season because of early snow.

Showy Dasies in the eastern part of the park.

I highly recommend the Falcon Guide, “Hiking Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks” by Erik Molvar. You can get this book for a few dollars from Any hiker, no matter how experienced, can get a lot more out of any hike in Glacier by consulting this guide book or one similar to it. There are all kinds of hiking books available at all the Visitor Centers in the park also. 

Almost all of us who have hiked for a while tend to think we don’t need a guide, but it never hurts to read about a hike by someone who has already done it. Here is a quick story to illustrate the point. I am writing this article in Green Valley, Arizona. Yesterday my brother Tom and I set off to hike up to and climb a huge granite pinnacle in the Santa Rita mountains just outside Green Valley called The Elephant Head. We didn’t bother doing any research before leaving as we thought we knew where we were going, more or less. Tom had heard that you turned off the main trail somewhere or other and followed this secondary trail down into a valley and then up the other side to a ridge where the pinnacle was located. His casual informant then told him it was an easy scramble up the East Ridge to the summit.

Ripple patterns on underwater mudstone in Lake Mc Donald

So, off we went at a brisk clip on the approach hike, talking busily as we walked since we hadn’t seen each other for awhile. After three miles or so we came to an old, abandoned mine that we were not supposed to see since we should have turned off before getting there. So we looked around and found a faint side trail and figured this must be the trail that we wanted. Off we went. Almost immediately the trail petered out and we figured we would drop down into the valley and climb up the other side and we should find the right trail someplace up there. Wrong. We ended up dropping down 800 feet into the wrong valley, bushwhacking 800 feet up the other side and then bushwhacking along the side of a huge ridge for another mile. Finally we found the right trail after walking an extra two miles and an extra 1600 feet of vertical climbing. It turns out we were so busy talking that we had walked a mile beyond the correct turn-off. After climbing back down into the wrong valley and out again to regain the original trail we were so tired that we said the heck with it and went home.

After we got home we looked up the correct trail turnoff and approach to Elephant head and commented on how much better it all would have gone if we had read the guide first. Oh well, it was a nice hike anyway, kind of. And we got another good lesson that desert bushwhacking isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. After all of that walking in shorts through mesquite and 16,000 different kinds of cactus and yucca and other nasty prickers and stickers, my bare legs resembled chopped liver more than anything else. This is a rather extreme example of a hike gone astray after not reading the guide, but you get the point.

Sunset at Lake McDonald, Goose Island in the middle of St Mary Lake.
Highway along the Rocky Mountain Front, just east of Glacier

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