Montana: Tips, Tricks, and Our Favorite Bits of Glacier National Park
After leaving the Tetons and heading up into Montana, we traveled the route through Big Sky and Bozeman. We stayed for a few days to hike, attend the Big Sky Farmer's Market for some Flathead Cherries, and catch up on errands.
After passing through Missoula, we landed in Columbia Falls and made a home for the night at the Super 1 Foods, just outside of Glacier National Park. Shout out to Super 1 Foods; this place is awesome, guys. Besides allowing free overnight parking just outside the park, they also have 25 cent soft serve...who has ever heard of such a thing?? We definitely got our money's worth.
In order to enjoy the park, we once again had to board the dogs. We took them over to Three Dog Ranch (http://www.threedogranchmontana.com) in Whitefish and were able to board them for four nights for a super reasonable fee and felt totally comfortable leaving them there, which is a nice change from how I normally feel leaving my babies. How could I not worry about these faces?!
Navigating Going to the Sun Road
Glacier National Park has one main road that crosses the park west to east called Going to the Sun Road. The road is about 50 miles long and was first opened in 1933 after over three decades of planning and construction. Due to the nature of where and when it was built, the road is narrow and winding with a number to rock walls that overhang the road. Therefore, vehicles longer than 21 feet and taller than 10 feet are not allowed to drive the majority of the road. Our rig is 23 feet long and 12 feet tall. Ruh roh! Good thing there is a free shuttle that will drive the road for you! Bad news is: we didn't know about this shuttle service until after we rented a car for the day. (The shuttle stops at all major areas, just don't miss the last shuttle of the day that leaves Logan Pass by 7pm!)
Hidden Lake Hike
The first hike we did was to the Hidden Lake Overlook out of Logan Pass. Although it's slightly less than 1.5 miles to the overlook, expect a fair bit of climbing. A good chunk of the trail was somewhat consistent with the stair stepper at the gym, just with much better views. The biggest difference, though, is the amount of furry friends you can make along the way. There is an abundant amount of ground squirrels (larger brown version of the typical grey tree squirrel) that are quite used to humans and will come right up to you, as well as mountain goats. The goats varied from big boys to mamas and babies, but all seemed completely indifferent to human presence; going so far as to walk along the trail with us. (Always remember to give wildlife a safe space because it's WILD! You never know how animals will react).
Once you reach the overlook, you get a nice view of Hidden Lake below. At this point, you can choose to hike another mile and a half down to the lake, which I hear has nice clear water and the opportunity to spot a bear or two. We skipped this part due to time constrictions, but we did wander down the path a quarter mile of so for a different perspective of the lake and more mountain goats.
At the end of the hike, we decided to pop across the street to hike a tiny sample of the Highline Trail. This is a 28 mile loop that starts with a narrow shelf trail out of Logan Pass. I've heard great things about it, even if you only do the first 7.5 miles out and back.
Camping in Glacier
Camping in Glacier can be a bit tricky. There are some reservable areas, but if you don't have exact trip dates by the time booking opens, those spots will be long gone and you will be forced to vie for first come, first serve spots like we did. The campgrounds in Glacier are all a good distance apart. There are some on the west side of the park, but our preference was to camp on the east side, since that's where we wanted to hike. After dropping our rental car off in Whitefish, we got up at the crack of dawn to drive the rig under the park and over to the east side (since we can't drive through). We chose to aim for Two Medicine campground, since it seems to fill up later in the day than St. Mary's and Many Glacier. (You can find updates on Glacier campground status' here:https://home.nps.gov/applications/glac/cgstatus/cgstatus.cfm). We arrived just before 8am and were able to nab a great spot in Two Medicine. It's a nice campground that sits just on a lake with a number of hikes leaving directly from that area.
St. Mary and Virginia Falls Hike
For Tuesday's outdoor adventure, we decided to take the shuttle up to St. Mary & Virginia Falls. The Hike to Virginia Falls is about 3.5 miles roundtrip, with St. Mary Falls and other cascades as stops along the way. The first quarter mile of the hike took us through some old wildfire burn and then continued into more dense forest filled with thimbleberry bushes (yes, these are edible!).
It's an easy hike down to St Mary Falls, which is a three-tier waterfall that drops down 35 feet into an beautiful aqua colored pool below. Theres a footbridge that spans the third tier of the falls, where many hikers choose to take a plunge into the icy water to cool off.
As you continue down the path, the crowds lean out and you come across a number of other cascades on your way to Virginia Falls. Make sure to stop and explore those, as well, because they're all noteworthy.
At the top of the path, you reach Virginia Falls, which is a more accessible 50 foot waterfall. You can get quite close and feel the cool mist spray—feels great after hiking up there in the summer!
As we made our way back down to St. Mary Falls, a number of people had started jumping into the pool. After watching other people make the leap, we were convinced there weren't any hidden rocks, and decided to jump ourselves. I call this the Penguin Method, since penguins will push a “test” penguin into the water to ensure there aren't any predators lurking before the rest of them jump in :). It was a fun and icy way to end the visit before hiking back out. Although, we did have to stand the entire shuttle ride back to avoid soaking their seats.
Hiking Grinnell Glacier
On our third day in the park, we got up early to drive the almost 2 hours up to the Many Glacier part of the park and hike Grinnell Glacier. BE WARNED, my people, the road from Two Medicine to St. Mary's is WHACK (are you all able to guess my age now?). This is a narrow, old, shelf road without a barrier that I hope has seen better days. There is a ton of heaving and it's a bit like being on a road rollercoaster. For those of us truck campers who are top heavy, this is less than ideal. Travel slowly.
We arrived at Grinnell Glacier Trailhead a bit before 8am and were already amongst a fair number of other hikers. When it comes to hiking in Glacier, if you want to avoid the crowds, get up with the sun. If you don't get there early, you and your 300 other friends will be hiking together. Also, Pro Tip: Always carry bear spray. You are in bear country. If you come face to face with a grizzly, statistics show bear spray is infinitely more effective at deterring an attack than anything else, including a firearm. Even with bear spray in tow, common sense and avoidance is always your best bet for animal encounters.
Funny Side Story: When we were in the grocery store in Columbia Falls we overheard a woman telling her friend how she had been asked by a tourist if you were supposed to spray the bear spray at the bear, or if you sprayed it on yourself like a bug spray. Please, don't mace yourselves, guys.
Grinnell Glacier is definitely our most recommended hike from our park experience. It's 11.4 miles roundtrip with 2,450 feet of elevation gain, but it's well worth it. You have beautiful views the entire way, including the chance for wildlife. There is also a way to cut down the length of the hike by taking the boat across the lakes, although I'm not sure how much mileage it eliminates. The path up is a steady grind and passes through dense forest, thick bushes, and rock ledges. Once you crest the treeline, you'll be hiking through more of a rocky area (although the trail itself isn't too rocky) to the glacier. Be forewarned, a waterfall drops onto a piece of bench cut trail at one point, so be prepared to get a little wet.
Grinnell Glacier sits above the top of the trail and the run off creates the glacial lake in front of you. Small icebergs float in the waters and give off nice cool breeze, so make sure you bring extra layers. A few brave souls took a polar bear plunge of sorts while we were there. We took our time at the top, eating lunch and laying in the sun on the rocks.
Overall, the hike took us about 5.5 hours, including about an hour at the top. On the way down, we were inundated with people hiking up, but we also had a fun run in with some big horned sheep who put on a show for us, too.
A bike forum friend of Tim's happened to be camping in Many Glacier at the same time we were there, and was generous enough to lend us his water toys. So after we were done hiking, we went over to Swift Current Lake and took out the kayak and stand up paddle board for a trip around the lake. It was nice to add a little water portion to our trip. We also blew up the donut tube Katy gave us for our trip and had a little float after :) A relaxing way to end our trip!
Useful Tips for Navigating the Area
- The Super 1 Foods in Columbia Falls allows guests to park overnight in their lot. We parked in the gravel part nearest the street for several nights and had no issues. It was the closest boon docking we could find close to the park and there were several other RVs there sharing the lot with us.
- Mike's Conoco South (1645 Hwy. 2 West Columbia Falls, Montana, USA, 59912) has a dump station with non-potable rinse water and a potable water fill-up. They typically charge $5.00 unless you fuel up there, in which case it's free. It's one of the few free dump sites in the area, so it can get busy.
- We found showers at the Imperial Dry Cleaning location in Evergreen (2138 U.S. Hwy 2 E, Evergreen, MT 59901) . It was reasonably priced at $4, but you only got 6 minutes of hot water per token, so use that time wisely.
- The dog park in Whitefish is top notch; seriously, it's the best one we've ever been to and we've been to a lot. Treat your 4 legged friend to some recreation time and let them enjoy their stay in the Whitefish area too.