Getting out of Big Sky was tough, not going to lie. We partied a little hardy at the wedding I guess. There was definitely talk of finding a motel to crash at rather than face the 6 hour drive and ensuing tent set-up in weather that threatened wetness. But somehow, miraculously, we made it. And so glad we did. But here’s a tip: NEVER, and I mean NEVER eat at a Taco John’s, even if it’s the only place that appears to sell food in a random Montana town when you are 5 ½ hours into a drive to middle of nowhere, hungover, starving, and about to set up camp in a raining, thunderstorming glacial lake area. I took a couple of bites of my quesadilla and threw that thing in the bear proof trash can where it belonged. Have you ever seen that Jim Gaffigan skit about hot pockets? Where he says the instructions should read, “open container, insert directly into toilet”? Yeah, I’m pretty sure the wrappers on the tacos at Taco John say that explicitly. [To be fair, Alan ate his and his digestive tract did not appear to implode. But really, why run the risk for a high calorie cheese whiz infused heart attack of a meal?]. I had never seen a Taco John’s before, but it’s apparently a big chain out in these parts. Every time we drove by one afterwards I held my fingers up in a big X and averted my gaze. Aside from the Taco John’s though, the drive heading into Glacier is quite beautiful, with the Rockies painting the horizon.
Oh, also, because I forgot to mention it in my Big Sky post, here’s another free tip: use Doritos as a fire starter! It totally works. I personally believe Nacho Cheese work better than Cool Ranch, but in a pinch it’ll do. (And Alan thinks I’m wasting my time on Pinterest! Pshhh, I learn cool camping tricks that impress all the men struggling to light a Duraflame-less fire).
OK, OK, back to Glacier. It’s a glacial wonderland! We arrived too late to snag a campsite at Many Glacier (known as the day-hiker’s mecca of Glacier), but fortuitously settled instead with Two Medicine. The campsite we chose was not incredibly private, but the view was superb. We had a direct view of Rising Wolf Mountain and a little creek in which we watched beavers swim each night. And, we woke one morning to a pair of long-horned sheep hanging out just a few yards away at the water’s edge. Lovely spot, indeed.
Our first morning we had had plans to hike near our campsite, up a steep trail with supposedly stellar views at the top. Instead, due to a forecast calling for rain and thunderstorms we opted to head up to Many Glacier for a 10ish mile hike with more tree cover and slightly less risk of death by electrocution. Don’t worry, the death by bear factor was in full force, so we still got our danger fix in. Which brings me to the bears. We spent a lot of time in bear country on this trip, and I’ll just go ahead and give you the spoiler alert even though I’ve not posted yet about Wyoming… we only saw one bear. Kind of a bummer, considering the stories we’d heard about other hikers’ bear encounters, BUT I think we were lucky because the bear sighting we had was a great one. We spent hours with our eyes peeled, staring out of car windows and through binoculars trying to sight a grizzly or black bear, to absolutely no avail. But driving from Two Medicine up to Many Glacier – while we were OUTSIDE of the national park – an incredible thing happened. A bear literally crossed our path. It jumped out of the trees on the right and scampered across the road to the left. I may or may not have screamed some expletives as Alan slammed on the brakes and my mind wrapped itself around the fact we nearly ran over a bear. He was quick, and I was in awe, so the picture proof of this is less than incredible, but if you look closely through the bug smeared windshield photo you can see a little black blur that is a black bear crossing the road. It was pretty neat.
Seeing a bear before our first proper hike in bear country of course instilled in me a consequent childlike excitement for bear sightings to come, as well as a healthy does of absolute fear. Thanks to the multitude of bear awareness signs and pamphlets, I’d by now deduced that the worst way to greet a grizzly is by surprise, and so when the national park service recommended I make noise while hiking to avoid death by surprised grizzly thrashing, you can bet I made noise. It’s not always easy to yell out when you’re hiking up hill, plus Alan and I now spend 24-7 together and occasionally, just occasionally, run out of interesting to things to talk about, so we got a little creative. Sure, we used some classics, like “Bear Aware!” and “Hey bear!” These were often interspersed with a simple, “Human!” or “Noises! Loud Noises!” My personal favorite was calling out, “I am a human, do not be alarmed!” This is especially fun when you round a corner into other hikers. (Who, by the way, were not very bear aware!! Nobody else made noise for safety, at least within our earshot. I’d much rather run the risk of being slightly annoying to fellow hikers or mildly embarrassed than to try and play dead while an 800 pound beast with four inch claws bats at me like an antenna topper.) My human chants ignited Alan’s creative side and he re-mixed his own version of the Killers’ Are We Human, singing every so often, “Are we human, or are we bear-ser?” We of course also carried our bear spray with us EVERYWHERE. But thankfully, our bear awareness was rewarded and we were not forced to employ the oversized pepper spray. Nor were we regaled with the opportunity to snap shots of a grizzly and her cubs, but such is mother nature and the way of those ever so private bears.
We had a few other cool wildlife sightings. On the way up our Many Glacier hike we saw the cutest little creatures in the path and then, up close, swinging around and playfully jumping between the trees. We weren’t sure what these little guys were, but they sure moved like monkeys. Upon showing our photo to a park ranger later in the day we discovered they were Pine Martens, a type of weasel that is rarely sighted and even more rarely photographed. We also saw plenty of pika (which, for the avoidance of doubt, are neither paper nor chalk eaters. Those are people with Pica. Pika do, however, make really funky noises, hence dubbed ‘whistling hares’ (so says Wikipedia)), a few mountain goats in the far distance, and these strange fat little birds that did not appear to fly.
The scenery impressed even more than the wildlife. The pictures do not do it justice (and are rather disappointing given the poor lighting we had. Rain, rain go away), but after hiking about 5 miles into the mountains, you arrive at a hidden glacial lake that is a perfect turquoise and full of floating icebergs. All this is perched in a little pocket of the continental divide. Not bad.
Feeling unmotivated to head back and cook in the rain, we opted for dinner at a little restaurant in the Many Glacier village area. It was nothing fancy, but the menu did offer huckleberry ice tea and huckleberry lemonade which sounded quite nice (as well as huckleberry ice cream, of course. We quickly learned that this is a Montana/Wyoming staple). The drive back afforded some lovely views as the sun set. Much like India, you must use caution to avoid hitting the cows in the roads.
On our second full day in Glacier we again hoped to check out the scenic hike but learned that the forecast for the following day promised rain, thunderstorms and hail. This sounded less than ideal for our anticipated cruise down the scenic and legendary Going to the Sun road, a long windy path through the park which we’d planned to drive before camping a night over by Flathead Lake and Whitefish. For those of you who have not had much camping experience I’ll go ahead and let you know that camping in the rain is nowhere near as cool as camping in no rain. I’ve illustrated this with a little venn diagram for your learning pleasure.
So we altered our plans again, deciding to check out all of these spots on a day that offered sunny skies and no large objects thrust from the heavens, and skip a night camping at Whitefish to head out to drier land the next day. While bummed to miss out on a full day at the lake, we couldn’t have picked better weather for Going to the Sun Road. We cruised along with Sven’s top down, enjoying the spectacular views and ever on the hunt for more wildlife.
Flathead Lake was nice, though we were unable to find a tour company that was both open, available and offered at a time that worked for us, so we missed out on the opportunity to see those spectacularly clear waters from a vantage point where it allegedly looks shallow even at depths of several hundred feet. We stopped briefly in Whitefish, but mostly to use wifi in order to find some shelter to get us through the upcoming storm. On the way out we saw a lovely beach with a view of the ski mountain where people were paddleboarding and swimming. Not a bad spot. We could imagine worse things than a cabin in Whitefish.
We’ve been opining much on this trip about how much the weather impacts one’s opinion on a place. I suppose it bodes well for Glacier that we found it so stunning even despite a number of weather scares. It is a spectacular park, that is for sure. I think I had expected more of what I saw in the wintry photos of Glacier, and for that and the continually threatening thunderstorms I’d say I was just ever so slightly disappointed with the area. That, and that fact that we saw less wildlife in the park than we did on the roads in Big Sky. But all in all, it is an excellent little chunk of America (and also makes me want to check out what Canada has to offer just a few miles north)!
One thought on “Going Glacial: Montana Part 2”
love the Venn diagram. a dry camper is a happy camper. a wet camper is not a happy camper. so many interpretations:-)