Montana: Glacier National Park

September 2, 2013 (Monday, cont’d) – After a Herculean effort to overcome last night’s bender, we arrived at Two Medicine Campground in East Glacier Park around 6 pm.  It costs $25 for a 7-day pass valid only at the same park, or $80 for an annual pass valid at all national parks and recreation areas etc.  We chose the $25 option but two days later paid the extra $55 to upgrade.  For all you old folks out there, $10 buys lifetime access for anyone 62 or older plus up to three accompanying adults!  When your social security runs out, you can still enjoy our finest natural wonders.

Glacier N.P. is quite large and it can take a long time to get between places.  We intended to camp in Many Glacier because it is known to have the best access to day hikes.  However, the park’s online campground status site informed us that it was fully occupied.  I think this was for the best because Two Medicine is relatively isolated and quite stunning which means (a) it is more like serene wilderness and (b) we probably would never have seen it had we not camped here.  At Two Medicine, we chose site number three from the many available options.  This site is close to the entrance and right across a little stream that connects two lakes.  Rising Wolf Mountain affords a magnificent backdrop.  It costs $20/night and there are flush toilets and potable water.  Here, too, one may store food in the car.

Sven effortlessly made the quarter-mile drive down to the general store by Two Medicine Lake after camp was set up.  This is a fairly well-stocked country bodega open 8 am – 8 pm with beer, wine, eggs, chips, assorted outdoors gear, some guidebooks, etc.  We picked up wood plus a neat, natural fire-starter made of wax and other materials costing a buck.  This sure beats $5+ for a Duraflame.  A beaver swimming in the lake near our site bade us goodnight.

September 3, 2013 (Tuesday) – Big horn sheep across the stream greeted us this morning.

The weather forecast was spotty so we passed up Scenic Point and lit out at 11 am for a less exposed hike in Many Glacier.  This is bear country.  Already smarting from a failure to see said furry beasts in Yellowstone or Big Sky, desperation was setting in.  As luck would have it, on Route 49 just a bit before the junction with Route 89 a black bear ran across the road perhaps 50 feet in front of Sven!  Shout out to my Cal Berkeley peeps: my inner monologue was on repeat with “You know it, you tell the story, you tell the whole damn world this is bear territory!”

In Babb we took a left onto Many Glacier Road.  The road slows but the aptly named parallel Swiftcurrent River and scenery offer solace.  We parked at 12:30 pm at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn (with bathrooms and water) but one could go past here and park right at the Iceberg Ptarmigan trailhead.  I am always happy to see Jenni, and there was a can of bear spray in my pocket.  There are endless warnings about grizzly bears and the need to carry bear spray and make lots of noise.  Shockingly few heed the latter instruction.  We were the vocal minority, periodically clapping and shouting things like “noise!”  I did my best Killers impression belting out “are we human, or are we bear sir?!”

The trail to Iceberg Lake is in great condition as this is a very popular hike.  It is just under 10 miles roundtrip with a stated elevation gain of 1,200 feet, though I believe this is simply the difference between starting and ending levels and does not account for the ups and downs of the trail.  Perhaps a quarter of the way up we saw some white mountain goats on cliffs across the valley.  Ptarmigan Falls is roughly halfway and would make a pleasant picnic spot.  Around the corner is a trail junction and just beyond that we saw some pine martens playing in the trees.  These are funky creatures, they look like a cross between a bear cub and a monkey and apparently are the most arboreal of the weasel family.

Around three-quarters of the way up we saw some big horn sheep on a hill in the distance.  After crossing a mountain stream on a short wooden bridge, we came to a lovely lake with a dearth of icebergs.  Panic set in, until we realized that global warming is just a liberal hoax and a few hundred yards further there was a veritable iceberg silent disco rave in a deep blue lake set in an amphitheater of 3,000 foot cliffs (including part of the continental divide).  It had been raining for a while and I imagine sunlight makes this place glorious, but it was still quite special.  The sound of glaciers calving enhanced the experience.

We “summited” at 3 pm and spent about 20 minutes there, returning to the car at 5 pm.  Early dinner at Swiftcurrent Motor Inn was a family pizza with two toppings for $18 and caprese salad with shrimp for $6.95.  The menu is mainly Italian and fairly tasty and reasonable given its remote location.  There is a good beer selection and several bottles of wine under $30.  Décor is medium colored wood with green or white fence squares on the walls, gingham curtains and green vinyl tablecloths.  A slightly nicer version of my old Maine summer camp dining hall.  Late summer in this region means huckleberry food and beverage items are pervasive.  Here we could have chosen iced tea, lemonade or cream soda, all huckleberry flavored.

On our way home, the Cattle Baron Supper Club in Babb was busy, as was Two Sisters Café a few miles south.  We refueled at a pricey Exxon in St. Mary, which has the area’s most substantial grocery store, a few other shops, and the St. Mary Lodge.  There are cows all over the roadside and one must exercise caution, especially at dusk.  The views and sunset were beautiful.

There was a man from Choteau conversing by the stream who cracked me up.  He had this accent and spoke in a nasally voice and generally reminded me of Dan Akroyd in Caddyshack 2.  “I don’t read” became one of our favorite quotes of the trip.

September 4, 2013 (Wednesday) – Today’s forecast was good but tomorrow’s was even worse than yesterday, so again we bagged plans to hike Scenic Point and instead drove the famous Going to the Sun Road which bisects the park east to west.  Our thinking was that Going to the Sun is the most popular activity due to its views and driving it in a hailstorm might be sub-optimal.

Driving to Going to the Sun Road
Driving to Going to the Sun Road

We ate Ezekiel bread and almond butter for breakfast and stopped for coffee at the St. Mary Lodge, which sits at the eastern entrance to Going to the Sun Road.  The scenery is spectacular and there are various trailheads.  At a construction stop, we caught nice views of a glacier, which are fewer and farther between than 10-20 years ago.

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The Logan Pass visitor center is at the apex of the road and even after Labor Day the parking lot was a mob scene.  I dropped Jenni off to take a quick look while I circled for a spot to no avail.  Sadly we missed the short hike to Hidden Lake as I think this may be the best location for seeing mountain goats.  I remember visiting Glacier in the early 90’s and at one place seeing these goats all over and up close.  I think that was at Logan Pass.

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Beyond here, the road is a narrow, cliff-hugging affair that is a tad hair-raising.  Large pick up trucks must fold in their side mirrors.  I was happy to be here on a 70’s and sunny day with the top down.  Traversing the park took about 2.5 hours without a lot of stopping.  Now on the west side of the park, we drove to Bigfork to visit Flathead Lake.  Bigfork is a nice lake town with activity concentrated on Electric Avenue.  We had hoped to take a scenic cruise or rent kayaks, but most of the boat rental companies had already closed for the season or needed more advance notice.  We stopped a few minutest at Flathead Lake State Park for a closer view of the water.  It is said to be remarkably clear, but this was hard to judge in the shallow area we could see.  It does seem like a nice area for summertime recreation.

From here we drove north through Kalispell, which looked fine and has everything you might need…Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, Starbucks, Five Guys, etc.  I had heard great things about Whitefish so we parked on Central Avenue to see the charming town center.  Most of our time was spent doing research over coffee drinks at Red Caboose.  Next we cruised over to the city beach.  I found this an idyllic locale.  It was calm, there were people paddle boarding and the lake is surrounded by mountains with a great view of the Whitefish ski slopes.  I do not mean jagged, dramatic peaks but more like Vermont mountains with a higher-starting elevation.

We were tempted by Piggyback Barbeque near the lake and Southern fried chicken at The ShakMacKenzie River Pizza is a Montana casual dining chain with a location here.  It was disappointing to learn that the Taste of Whitefish would occur tomorrow, just out of our reach.

To return home, we took Route 2 which is definitely not as scenic as Going to the Sun Road but it does not close at night, offers nice scenery parallel to the train tracks and one may drive 60-70 mph.  Grilled cheese sandwiches cooked on foil on the campfire grill grate were good enough; the stars better than that.

Observations on Glacier N.P.: The scenery is up-close and jaw-dropping.  Our experience was a tad disappointing because it was gray much of the time, and we did not see as much wildlife as expected.  There are a lot of options for accommodation.  Choose wisely or you might find yourself with a 2-3 hour drive to get from your bed to a point of interest.  The backcountry lodges of Granite Park Chalet and Sperry Chalet probably make excellent options for those so inclined.  The west side of the park is more developed, accessible and has more recreational opportunities and more mountains outside the park.  The east side is less developed, harder to reach and I would say far more spectacular, plus it offers the contrast of jagged peaks and plains.

Observations on Montana: Distrust in the federal government is palpable. Ted Kaczynski took to the extreme and committed atrocities in the name of feelings that are probably shared on a much softer level by many.  I read that Montana has the third highest gun ownership percentage in the country, behind only Wyoming and Alaska and just ahead of South Dakota.  This is one of the only places I have been where I might choose to drive below the speed limit.  Drivers do not speed much, perhaps because the limits are set so high.  At gas stations one does not need to input his zip code.  Cows are abundant.  I was stunned by how many female workers I saw at road construction sites.  I love the large parking spaces because here nobody pretends that everyone drives a compact car.  Montana is beautiful and uncrowded, and it seems these folks want to keep it that way: http://www.montana-sucks.com/.  I found locals quite friendly.

September 5, 2013 (Thursday) – We woke and packed up early fearing rain and hail.  Tracing our route back to Bozeman, we again passed through Browning, which seems to be the home of the Blackfeet Nation.  At our campsite we had heard talk of recent peaceful protests.  I think there is ongoing tension here between the tribe and government.  There are several roadside stops with large dinosaur figures, apparently this area was fertile ground for fossils.

View to the west on Route 89
View to the west on Route 89

Beyond several miles of construction, we ate lunch at Chubby’s Diner in Augusta.  What a classic spot.  There were hilarious signs and notes, like the permanent advertisement of free food all day tomorrow (jest) and the poster for an upcoming lawnmower race (real).  Jenni’s eggs and toast came with enough hash browns for four people.  I ordered the Super BOB (breakfast on a bun) with eggs, cheese, two large spicy sausage patties and raw onion with hot sauce on a sesame burger bun.  Strong.  This is the kind of place where when you ask if they can do iced coffee, they simply say “no,” even though we all are sure they have ample supply of the two key ingredients.  If you need a place to crash for the night, check out the Bunkhouse Inn.

We made it to Bozeman a little before 2 pm and Sven sheltered us from a torrential downpour while we awaited a response from an airbnb inquiry.  This never came so we checked in to the Western Heritage Inn.

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