Getting there and Going-to-the-Sun
I think we set a record departure time for this one. Even though Luke had a last minute meeting at work we still managed to leave at 1pm on Thursday afternoon on the 27th of June. We've been planning on this trip for months and it was finally here. Leaving this early, we avoided the grunt of the Bay Area traffic. Though for some reason it didn't feel like we were starting a 1500 mile drive until we merged onto I-5 North and we turned up the Dirty Heads on the stereo.
|Mount Shasta from the Butte Valley National Grasslands|
I must have blocked the rather boring part of the drive over the long stretch of I-5 out of my mind because before I knew it, Lassen Peak and Mount Shasta were in view and we were turning off the highway into Weed, CA, making a beer stop, and continuing into Oregon. Driving through Butte Valley, we pit stopped to eat in the Butte Valley National Grasslands. Oddly, there was not much grass to be seen. Much less than in the areas surrounding the preserve.
|What were they serving before?|
As we hunkered down for the night just off the road in Deschutes National Forest, Luke realized that 22oz of Jalapeno infused beer may have been too much. The beer wasn't bad, but the overwhelming taste of the peppers stopped agreeing with him half way through the bottle. At our chosen site we also made a rather creepy discovery. A series of photographs of a girl, likely HS graduation pictures, lay ripped up nearby. We made up background stories, most of which were the result of watching too much CSI in our lives, and went to bed.
Oregon makes for incredibly pleasant driving. The roads are in incredibly good shape compared to what we're used to in CA. The rather low speed limits and lack of elevation change made for great gas mileage. 18.8mpg in my wrangler is quite the feat. The cherry and whipped cream on top are the always-present forests and and magnificent views of the snow capped peaks of the Cascades.
|Crooked River Gorge|
We enjoyed our bagel, almond butter, and instant coffee breakfast along the Crooked River Gorge, a quite unexpected geological feature. So unexpected, based on the "supervise your children and pets" signs, that people don't know how to react to it.
Soon enough the inevitable fact that we would have to fill up on gas in the state of Oregon became clear. Easier said than done. Most of the gas stations in the small towns along the way were not operational. Almost out, we came upon I-84 and a gas station in the nick of time. While I must admit that having the attendant fill your gas for you may be convenient, the convenience this time was trumped by the fact he left my gas cap dangling from the side of the car and didn't tightly seal the jerry can causing gas to seep out and melt the paint.
The pleasantness of the drive ends soon after making a turn due East into the Columbia River Gorge. At first the canyon carved by the river is rather magnificent, but this soon vanishes and the scenery becomes rather bland. The flat to rolling terrain continued essentially until we arrived in Spokane, Washington, just in time for some rush hour traffic and an interstate accident.
The Selkrik Mountains just East of the city give a sudden jolt to the aesthetics of the drive. The beauty, combined with the 70mph speed limit along the winding road through the Idaho panhandle, can give quite an adrenaline boost as well.
|What a beast|
We entered Montana a bit later than expected, but it is impossible to not stop and take in the views on a drive such as this one and we couldn't help but to make a side-trip to the National Bison Range. With the gates closing at 9:30pm we didn't have any time to waste and we set out in search of these massive ungulates. The herd was near the road and even started to cross it, posing for pictures along the way. Such magnificent animals! It is such a shame that the herds numbered 30 million when the white man arrived. Now a mere 15 thousand are considered free-range.
The nice thing about being closer to the North Pole during the summer was the length of daylight. The sun was just setting as we drove along Flathead Lake and across the Mission Mountains towards our final destination. It was now getting dark and we were both getting tired, and the little white roadside crosses indicating death were a morbid reminder that the road is to be respected. We knew our drowsiness meant we need to stop soon.
And stop we did just outside the town of Hungry Horse, MT in Flathead National Forest. As we sat in the dark, sipping on our Montana brews, a loud noise startled us. Something had knocked down a sizable hunk of wood nearby. This left us paranoid about bears for the remainder of the night.
|Lake McDonald from Apgar Village|
Our first stop of the day was the Apgar backcountry permit office. Presenting the rangers with our well formulated and planned route, we were a bit disheartened when they strongly advised us against the trip. Every pass along our route, they informed us, would be sketchy at best and hundreds, maybe even thousands of downed trees would await us in the Nyack/Coal Creek area. As we traveled through the park, we would later find out that their warnings may have been a bit conservative and our planned itinerary may very well have worked, but we ended up settling for a few overnighters.
|This guy was posing|
|Paid no attention to the encircling tourists|
With permits for camping by Cobalt Lake in the Two Medicine area, we were ready to head for the sky along the Going-to-the-Sun road. We drove the road stopping at all the places any pair of tourists would stop. A short hike to McDonald Falls and down the Trail of the Cedars, we spotted mountain goats and took close up pictures of one at the Loop, watched as the Weeping Wall wept, stopped at the Logan Pass Visitor center to muse at the crowd of toursits surrounding and closing in on a bighron in the parking lot, wondering what would happen should the animal spook and decide to use its big horns as a battering ram, observed the Jackson Glacier from the aptly named overlook, took in the waterfall at the Sunrift Gorge and got our feet wet in Saint Mary Lake at the Rising Sun boat launch.
|Characteristic U-shaped, glacier-carved valley|
|"Big Sky Country" indeed|
All in all we were not overly impressed with the road. Yes, it was indeed an engineering marvel, but we were here to experience the backcountry and couldn't wait to get away from the car and the crowds of visitors. For the night we first found a road heading up an embankment to the railroad tracks just as we entered Lewis and Clark National Forest. The trains passed frequently so after observing the impressive cloud cover, lit by the setting sun, we moved on into Flathead National Forest, and took a dirt road just past the Summit Campground. We found a decent camping spot in a grove of trees and lighting a campfire to keep the mosquioes away, enjoyed dinner and more fine Montana brews.
|Enjoying a dip in Two Medicine Lake|
|Wouldn't want to get in a fight with this guy|
Our first of three backpacking trips was in the Two Medicine area and on our way in we saw a tan-colored black bear munching on foliage by the roadside. We got a bit of a late start but it was only a 3-hour hike to Cobalt Lake, our campsite. When we arrived at camp, we saw a couple standing perfectly still, perfectly silent. They told us that we just missed a pack of 5 wolves running across the snow. We didn't, however, miss the bear scrambling up the scree slopes just a quarter mile from camp. It was too far to tell but, given the coloration, this very well could have been a grizzly. We also saw two marmots engaging in something resembling a wrestling match; this could very well have been their version of foreplay.
|Snowfield on Chief Lodgepole Peak|
Devastated at by missing the wolves, we hung our bear canister in the food area, pitched our tent and headed toward Two Medicine Pass. We had been told that the pass was completely snowed in so we figured we would just hike as far a possible. What we quickly discovered was that the two-week-old trail conditions report was inaccurate and little snow remained at the pass.
|Carpets of flowers|
The hike from Cobalt Lake to the pass was very exposed, sometimes hot, sometimes windy. The snowmelt left a small river with cute waterfalls crossing the trail several times. The wildflowers were flourishing in the wake of the fresh snowmelt and the wildlife was enjoying the new season. We saw a mama mountain goat walking her kid along steep snowy slopes.
|Looking West from the pass|
We made it all the way to the pass and looked down the glacial valley towards camp. Turning around we saw a very different, much more jagged landscape on the other side of the saddle. The view from the ridge was exhilarating.
|Just too cold for swimming|
Fearing the intensifying clouds, which are always coming and going in Glacier, we headed back to Cobalt Lake. While Luke wanted to swim in all the lakes that we came upon, Cobalt was unattainably cold due to the ice and snow still floating in it.
|These weren't there on the way in|
We woke the next morning to find the sublimation at our snow-covered tent site had caused large quantities of condensation on all our gear. After a slow, cold start, we began our short trek back to the trailhead. There was plenty of bear activity in the area; scat, prints, smashed foliage. However, we did not see the bear, maybe because we were being too loud and obnoxious. We ran into some very quiet hikers; probably not the best way to hike when a bear was so obviously wondering the neighborhood.
Since the hike out was so short, we decided to add two small side trips. We went to Aster Falls, which were small and unimpressive but only .2 miles off the main trail. We also went to Paradise Point, which was a nice lunch stop on the shore of Two Medicine Lake.
|Can you see the trick?|
When we made it back to the trailhead, I washed up a little in the bathroom while Luke checked out the general store (their espresso comes from a machine, what a bummer). Then we headed to our next mini-adventure, one night in the Belly River District, stopping at Running Eagle Falls. Also known as Trick falls, there was too much water to see the trick; water coming out from a cave half way down the fall.
Lee Ridge and the Belly
On the way to Many Glacier Backcountry Office, we stopped at Two Sisters Café near Babb. They had good French fries but not much else in the way of vegan food despite the outward appearance of "a vegan joint plucked straight out of San Francisco" as our guidebook put it. They did, however, have a decent selection of Montana beer. I had my first Huckleberry Lager and it was delicious. Luke had a Going-To-The-Sun IPA, also wonderful. Gotta love the Montana brewmasters! We shouldn't have expected any less from a state with the largest per-capita density of breweries in the country.
We then settled in for the night at the busy campground of St. Mary, where we drank and I showered before heading to the Lee Ridge Trailhead. On the way we thought we were vindicated with a wolf sighting, but a closer look revealed no more than a coyote ducking behind a tree.
|Staring into Canada|
The trailhead was a small, easy to miss sign hidden in the bushes. It is a quarter mile from the Canadian border and parking is in a pullout. The first several miles are through a dense, mosquito-filled forest. After leaving the canopy, Lee Ridge was very rewarding. The ridge provides massive views of the surrounding mountains but absolutely no shade, which was unfortunate for us given the heat wave scorching the hillsides.
A trail crew passed us on the way up the ridge, heading to Gable Pass to clear the trail down to Slide Lake. We were impressed by one of the workers passing us carrying a chainsaw. Those things are not light. Given that we were headed in the same direction, we decided to poke around in the other direction for a while and let them do their thing. We dumped our gear at the Gable Pass Junction and walked down the ridge toward the Belly Ranger Station. The views weren't exactly what we were expecting but we still enjoyed the rugged scenery.
|Sharon CAREFULLY descending the snow slope along Luke's butt trail|
The hike from the trailhead to ridge was steep but nothing compared to the grade heading down to Slide Lake. Luke glissaded the snow field right past the trail junction, but failing to apply any breaking, was only slowed by butt on dirt friction. He recounts this being not the most pleasant experience of the trip. The extreme downhill made me weary of my ability to hike back up it in the morning (obviously, I made it out). We passed the trail crew again as they were wrapping up and thanked them for the tree-free trail. Mad props to the Glacier NP Trail Crew, you rocked our hiking socks off.
|No moose, but the Eye of Sauron was vigilant|
Slide Lake had moose tracks all around it. In an attempt to catch a glimpse of the goofy animal (and get away from the camp mosquitoes) we sat lakeside for 2 hours with our binoculars, splitting our time between the upper and lower lakes. We saw loons and lots of rocks and logs which looked very much like bears.
We shared camp with an off-duty ranger and her friend who informed us about possible Alaska style Aurora Borealis in the night sky. In hopes of fulfilling a dream, we set the alarm to wake us up every hour but we saw nothing but clear skies. By the time morning came, we were sleep deprived and dreading the climb back up to Gable Pass.
|Beautiful place to work|
We made it past Gable Pass and up the small snowfield to the junction with the Lee Ridge Trail at 8:30 AM. Rather than get to the car at 10 AM, we decided to take the long way back. We headed down to the Bell Ranger Station. This was arguably, the most beautiful area we have seen in all our travels. The Belly Ranger Station looked like a postcard we couldn't afford.
|Not a great shot but a moose nonetheless|
We stopped for lunch at the station and started up a conversation with the volunteer ranger. He seemed to know everything about the park and we would later find out that he used to be the Resource Manager for a few decades. He was telling us about all the wildlife in the area and trail conditions. Then I asked him about the moose. As he was telling us that we probably wouldn't see one since they usually come out at dawn and dusk, we saw one run across the meadow and hop the fence. As the ranger said, it was serendipitous.
|Hiking along the Belly River|
|This would be the Belly River|
The rest of the hike out to Chief Mountain Trailhead, we kept turning around to take in the striking views and documenting the variety of wildflowers with the camera. The trail was mostly flat until the last couple of miles, which required some slight thigh burning. Back at the trailhead, we used the toilet, took off our boots, and hiked up the road to our car. Another successful backcountry adventure behind us, we ate a scrumptious dinner at Park Café in St. Mary (Luke ordered 2 main courses) and then drank beer at St. Mary Campground in preparation for our day hike out to Gunsight Lake.
Sights set on Gunsight
|Crossing Reyonlds Creek|
|The picture doesn't do Gunisght Lake justice|
Giving ourselves a break from having to hang our food in the backcountry, we decided on a day hike to Gunsight Pass, we heard the pass was completely snowed in so we decided to hike out to the Glacier Overlook. The hike to Gunsight Lake was not a strenuous one but it offered satisfying view of the Jackson and Blackfoot Glaciers most of the way. It was six miles to the lake where we ate lunch as we took in the beauty that is Gunsight Lake. The lake quickly became my favorite lake of all time. Our pictures could not do justice to the waterfall surrounded glacial pool at the bottom of a cirque.
|Soon before the trail disappeared under a sheet of snow|
|The dwindling Blackfoot Glacier|
Breaking away from the allure of the lake, we headed up toward the Glacier Overlook. At first the trail was steep and then it disappeared into the snow. Snowmelt was running underneath the sheets and exposed slabs were more slippery than ice. Cairns marked the way but it seemed as though many people had build them at different times so we zigzagged along the hillside trying to find our way. We met two other guys that said they reached the top of the lateral moraine and were able to see the slide created by the Jackson Glacier and it was amazing.
|View from the moraine (to us a.k.a. Vertigo Ridge)|
So of course Luke was all in. I was on the lateral moraine, so to speak. Luke scrambled to the top and told me it was totally worth it so up I scrambled. When I reached the 2 inch knife-edge ridge, I instantly lost all sense of up/down/sideways. As I stood there with my head spinning, trying not to slide down to the ice sheet, Luke started yelling, “LOOK AT IT!! Look at it! Its so BEAUTIFUL!” And when I told him I couldn't look, his only response was, “BUT DID YOU SEE IT?!?! Did you see it when you were coming up? Did you at least see it?” And then he wanted me to walk down the skinny little ridge. He’s a crazy person.
After I got my equilibrium back, we head back down trail to the lake for a short break before heading back to the car to end a very, very exhausting walk. The drive to the North Fork proved interesting. Completely different from the other two sections of the park we had seen.
North Fork of the Flathead River: Close encounters of the 4th kind
|Clearing in the burned forest of the North Fork|
|See that? Nobody around!|
The North Fork looked to be much less visited. An interpretive trail about fire, the Huckleberry Fire Trail, burned down a few years ago and is now about the 2007 fire. However, the trail guides were not available so it was just a .6 mile walk with numbered signs. We can't decide between 2 and 6 as our favorites.
|Camping in a sea of yellow|
We spent a very quiet night camped among charming yellow flowers in the Flathead National Forest. When we awoke, we headed out for our last adventure in Glacier National Park.
Our goal was Upper Kintla Lake but first we needed coffee so we stopped at Home Ranch Bottoms. The coffee was excellent and shopkeeper was incredibly friendly so we made a mental note to stop on our way out for a Huckleberry Margarita and other huckleberry goods.
Next we stopped at the Polebridge Mercantile where we made a mental note of their delicious peanut butter cookies and beer selection.
|Kinnerly Peak to the left and Kintla Peak to the right (I think)|
Finally, we made it to our trailhead, just outside the Kintla Lake Campground. The Boulder Pass Trail followed Kintla and Upper Kintla on a mostly flat trajectory so we made fast pace towards camp. Stopping at the very busy Kintla Lake Backcountry Camp, we made small talk with the many outdoor enthusiasts. About 2 miles after leaving the company of the campers, Luke casually said, “OK, that’s a bear!” This time it really wasn't a log. I saw a bunch of black fur pounce away, down trail, towards our camp. For the rest of the day, we made plenty of noise as we strolled into camp to meet the only other camper in our 4-tentpad campsite.
|My new desktop background (Upper Kintla Lake)|
|Rocky Mountains? More like Smokey Mountains? Hahahaha!|
Upon reaching camp we chatted a bit with an adventurous, vacationing school teacher from North Carolina. His tales of the PCT, kayaking the Inside Passage, and other adventures re-ignited too many ideas in Luke's head. I decided to pitch the tent while Luke stayed in the food prep area to cook. Considering it started to thunderstorm shortly after, my decision was deemed wise. We were forced into our tent at an early hour with plenty of daylight to taunt us as we tried to sleep.
We did eventually fall asleep though. And despite our best laid plans to awake early and head out by 7 AM so we could begin our drive back to CA, we slept in and tried to avoid the wetness left by the evening storms. Eventually, we had to face the moisture and began our journey home.
|Baby loons not to be confused with Babylon|
|First the scat|
For the first time this trip, we came across on-duty backcountry rangers. We had a nice talk and they actually checked our permits. Soon after Luke stopped and exclaimed, “There’s the bear again.” The bear was sitting right next to the trail. We made noise but it didn't seem to respond. Then it started to huff and we started talking quietly and consolingly as we slowly backed away; but not before Luke got some pictures. The bear eventually rambled away and left us fuddled and confounded, amazed at the sight of a bear so up close and personal. We viewed the bear as a final farewell from the Glacier National Park.
|"I feel dirty" (I know you're laughing, you know who you are :))|
We washed the dirt of the park off in the lake and went back to our car. We were ready to drive home. But first we had to stop at Polebridge Mercantile for cookies and beer. And then we had to stop by Home Ranch Bottoms for huckleberry good. The only problem was that Home Ranch Bottoms is a friendly place and we talked away a good chunk of time with the shopkeeper and a former bartender that was visiting.
The long road home in 3 paragraphs
Finally on the road, we thought our adventure was over but the road never disappoints. We just had to stop at the goat lick to observe the large number of mountain goats hanging out. We eventually stopped for the night right after crossing the Montana-Idaho border. We pulled off into national forest lands and decided to pitch our tent so we stepped around the piles of cow poop, found a clear spot, and pitched for the night. When we woke 3 hours later, we heard cows sniffing our tent and chewing on the grass around us. I asked, Luke if it was safe to get up and he responded by unzipping the tent and peeking out. This frightened the poor cows who all bolted across the road and stared questionably at us as we packed up and rushed to drive away from the stench.
|Out of pictures so here's a flowers and insects collage|
Idaho Falls proved to have decent coffee joint but that was our last real stop. We drove for 20 hours to make it home by Monday morning.
|And a ground squirrel for good measure|
Another proverbial notch on our trekking poles (carbon does not take too well to notching), we slept soundly that night. Or morning. Whatever you want to call it.