Early Sunday afternoon, after an uneventful stopover in Missoula, MT, we arrived at Whitefish RV Park - a small, cozy park filled with full-timin’ Canadians and their giant fifth-wheels, permanent patios, and storage sheds. We unhitched, exchanged some ehs and drove 1.5 miles north to downtown. We grabbed a burger. We marveled at Big Mountain. We drove through gorgeous acres upon acres of open range. We watched the sunset from Whitefish Lake. What usually is a lazy arrival Sunday turned out to be a pretty adventurous afternoon - a fortunate change in routine as Monday was the beginning of 20+ days of hazy skies. Nothing we could really do, so the plans stayed the same. We were here to hike, and hike we did!
The evening before Cracker Lake, we learned two very important things:
Cracker Lake is located near the east entrance of Glacier National Park, roughly 2 hours away. So, yes, early morning required.
When I drink two Manhattans, I steal Pete’s food and I don’t feel too well the next morning.
I feel like I’ve learned the latter before, but it’d been awhile and the cubano was worth the reminder.
At 6:15am the next morning, we made our way towards Cracker Lake’s trailhead just past Many Glacier Hotel. Taking the “short” way, we drove the incomparable Going-to-the-Sun Road, and even with a din of smoke, it lived up to its reputation - so says Pete. Pete had nothing but great words, while I took some Advil and napped my way to coherence. Roughly 157 minutes after we set off, we found ourselves parked and ready for our 13-mile hike.
The hike was standard, in a good way. Gradual elevation. Pretty views. Nary another group. And a glacial lake at the top, our favorite. And then, three quarters of the way back down, BAM, a BEAR! We were heading down a few switchbacks in heavy brush when we turned the corner and I noticed a brown fluff about 20 yards in front of us on the trail. I stop, Pete keeps walking. I stress mutter for him to stop and he walks back to me confused. I’m shocked, as I frequently laud Pete’s acute and observant eye, which apparently is nonexistent when life hangs in the balance. My husband can tell me what color eyes our barista at the roadside coffee stand had in Kauai three years ago, but he fails to recognize an alpha predator mere feet away. It’s fine. Anyway, Pete takes out the bear spray and I’m ringing bells like it’s Christmas and I want your spare change. Mr. Bear does not care. He continues to scratch his back on the bridge crossing a muddy patch of the trail, looking up at us periodically with a tilt of his head that reminds us exactly of Dog. It was cute, adorable even - but that’s how they get you! So we stand there mumbling too ourselves, wondering how we backtrack on this switchback and whether or not we should keep him in our line of sight. Lucky for us, moments later he bolts down the trail, across the river, and up the adjacent mountain/hill.
Once the adrenaline subsided, we found our words and agreed that while it was “cool” to see a bear that close, it is decidedly much cooler to never see a bear that close again. The rest of the descent was equal parts pretty and uneventful. After driving the length of Glacier back to Whitefish, we lucked into some surprisingly delicious pizza, laughed at the bear/dog comparisons, and went to bed early.
Highline Trail & Lake McDonald
Early Sunday morning we made our way back into Glacier National Park to take on the Highline Trail. Since neither of us were up for the full 15 miles out and back, we figured maybe head in 3.5 miles in to Haystack Pass and then head back for a mellow afternoon. We parked at Logan Pass and made our way to the trail. The first couple miles it was smoke. Smoke in the sky. Smoke in the valley. Smoke smoke smoke. After that second mile though, a steady breeze moved in and we were treated to majestic views, gorgeous wildflowers, and even a big horn sheep. It was a terrain and flora neither one of us had ever experienced hiking. It was beautiful. Next time, we’ll go for the full 15.
Heading back from Logan Pass, we stopped at Lake McDonald near the west entrance of Glacier National Park. It’s a “must see,” so we took our salami sandies (a staple on our hiking days) and headed to the Lodge on the east side of the lake. There we sat, watched a few boats scoot by, and watched a Super Scooper pull water from the lake to fight one of the few fires in the Park. Little did we know, the orange speck on the northwest side of the lake was the beginning of the Howe Ridge Fire. It was a surreal experience, observing the lack of concern or immediacy for the fire across from us. The rangers stated that the goal was to let it burn - as it’s a vital ecological component to the natural forest cycle - and just try and save as many structures as possible. Howe Ridge Fire ended up burning for a little over a month, growing to about 13,000 acres, closing down the western portion of Going-to-the-Sun Road, and destroying 13 residences.
Before any long hike, I like to prepare myself for what’s to come. My mental preparation absolutely determines how successful I am physically. How long will it take? When do I get to eat? How many people do we expect on the trail and will grandma pass me? Is the hike a loop or an out and back? I need these questions answered.
On the following Saturday we headed a half-mile past Many Glacier Hotel to the trailhead of Grinnell Glacier and I was not prepared. This hike kicked my ass.
The Internets said the hike was a little over 7 miles, cool. 2,000ft elevation gain, that’s fine. Take a boat across the lake(s) to trim off 3.4 miles, no need. We headed out from the parking lot and we were immediately welcomed with a sign saying “Bear activity. Trail closed. Use south trail.” Okay, add another 2 miles round trip. 3 miles later, we’ve passed two lakes, a marsh, and are at the beginning of the ascent. Sweet, 1.5 miles and we’re done? This can’t be too bad. We start our ascent up the switchbacks. One switchback done. And then another. And another. And this is when I realized that the Internets did me wrong. The 7 mile estimate assumed that you had taken the boats past the lakes to Grinnell Glacier Trail junction. Shit. And from here on out, it was all downhill - figuratively.
As we continued to climb, my mental game crumbled.
“I didn’t bring enough snacks!”
“Oh crap, here comes grandma!”
“I can’t breathe, do I have adult-onset sports induced asthma?”
“This view sucks. Nature sucks. You suck.”
It was a bad scene, so much so that humor beat out any semblance of embarrassment. We had some good laughs along the way and I’m thankful that Pete was so supportive and able to have a chuckle at my demise. Finally, one million steps later, we reached Grinnell Glacier. The glacier was inspiring. The view was smoked out. The salami sandie was impeccable. And the hike down was long.
We’ll do this hike again, in the spring(ish), with the proper mental preparation.
Maybe it was another day of smoke. Maybe it was the beatdown of Grinnell the day before. But this hike did not happen. Next time.
While Glacier National Park was the priority during our three weeks in Montana, we really enjoyed getting to know Whitefish. We walked into town almost every evening and became regulars at the local Italian joint. We frequented the farmer’s market for squash blossoms and huckleberry shortbread cookies (the best!). We went house hunting. We contemplated becoming hay farmers. We went to Target. We bought a rug and new shiny salmon colored bed sheets. We cooked. We introduced Dog to Montana grass. While not enough to pull us off the road, we really enjoyed the routine we’d built in just a mere three weeks. Small town living continues to not be so bad…
Things we miss:
Sam misses clear skies.
Pete misses Hailey airport.
Dog misses Wood River Trail.
Things we love:
Sam loves huckleberry jam shortbread cookies.
Pete loves ricotta stuffed squash blossoms.
Dog loves rich, succulent Montana grass.