Glacier Day 2: Iceberg Lake

Knowing that the bulk of our visit would be concentrated in the Many Glacier and St. Mary regions of Glacier National Park, we opted to camp in St. Mary. Online reviews suggested that St. Mary was quieter and less crowded than West Glacier, and we found this to be true as well. Although I would had preferred to camp directly in the park, at 6 minutes away from the St. Mary Visitor Center, St. Mary KOA was a convenient kid-approved compromise that included a swimming pool, hot tub, and showers. The stargazing was indeed as stellar as I’d hoped; seeing the Milky Way and myriad of nighttime stars from our tent is an experience I won’t soon forget. Our campsite was quiet and secluded; we absolutely loved our time there!

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Watching the sun set over our St. Mary KOA campsite
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Just another gorgeous technicolor sunrise at St. Mary KOA

Day 2 began with a 35 minute drive to Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, located in the Many Glacier region of the park. We had an 8:30 am date with Ranger Eric for the 10-mile, 1,200 ft elevation gain Heart of Glacier hike to Iceberg Lake. Although we’d purchased bear spray the previous day, taking our first big hike in Glacier with experienced company seemed like a wise idea, and we looked forward to learning from Ranger Eric’s wealth of knowledge. The crew that gathered that morning on the Swiftcurrent Inn porch numbered over 20, running the gamut from young to old, fit to less so, experienced to those toting just one 16 ounce bottle of water for an expected 5-6 hour hike (!! not the best idea!).

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Iceberg Lake Trailhead; Ranger Eric rallying the troops

Ranger Eric moved at a quick clip. The first 15 minutes of the hike included a series of fairly steep switchbacks, and the faster-than-anticipated pace left me winded and nervous that we might have gotten in over our heads. However, once we reached a higher elevation, Ranger Eric explained that the first 15 minutes were the steepest, and that the going would be much easier from then on. Fortunately, he was right, and pace was never an issue after that initial climb. Later, I also realized that the faster pace was meant to compensate for the frequent ten-minute breaks and ranger talks to come.

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Scenery for days, Iceberg Lake trail
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Glacier National Park, Day 2

The hike to Iceberg Lake differed from our experience at Hidden Lake, but it was every bit as spectacular–perhaps even more so. Mount Grinnell dominated the skyline the first mile of the trail; the Ptarmigan Wall was just barely visible in the distance. Little did I realize that this hike would eventually lead us to the foot of this distant wall! Unlike Hidden Lake trail, the lower elevation of Iceberg Lake trail made for snow-free hiking and different alpine views. Here, summer was in full bloom: an explosion of bear grass and riot of wildflowers commanded the mountainside. Like with Hidden Lake, I found myself turning constant circles to take in the magnificent 360 degree views.

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Scenery for days, Iceberg Lake Trail
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Hillside of wildflowers
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Listening to a ranger talk, gorgeousness abounds all around
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Looking back from whence we came, 360 degree views; Iceberg Lake trail
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Shield Mountain, Iceberg Lake Trail, Glacier National Park
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Ptarmigan Wall still far in the distance

Shortly after completing the initial climb, we came upon an aspen grove that overlooked a wide meadow clearing. Here, we spotted not one, but two moose bulls grazing among the slender trunks! As moose sightings had eluded us in Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone National Parks, this was quite a thrill for our family! Even from a distance, it was clear that these were massive, majestic creatures.

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In all of our excitement, our moose photos wound up blurry, but you can still see how this guy dominates the landscape around him.

About a mile in, we came upon an unobstructed frontal view of Swiftcurrent Glacier and Shield Mountain, aka Mt. Wilbur. Knowing that these glaciers may disappear within our lifetimes made this sighting all the more special. Ranger Eric explained that contrary to popular belief, Glacier National Park is not named for its abundance of glaciers (there are parks that contain greater numbers), but for the way its landscape was carved by the movement of glaciers.

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Swiftcurrent Glacier, front and center

Climbing into the treeline, Ranger Eric pointed out trees with distinct bear claw markings, embedded with tufts of fur. We knew that we were in a region with one of the highest concentration of grizzlies in the lower 48, but it was still a little disconcerting to see how many trees were marked. We also stepped over several piles of fresh bear scat that made us truly appreciate the wild and untouched nature of Glacier. Ranger Eric also explained how bears graze in elevator fashion up the mountainside; there is a one-day bloom difference in flora per one-hundred feet of elevation gain which influences the bears’ feeding preference.

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Bear claw markings; Iceberg Lake Trail
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Is it just me, or does Ranger Eric seem a little too gleeful about these bear marks?

Climbing above the treeline to an exposed area brought cooler temperatures and a commanding view of the Ptarmigan Wall, now closer than ever. Its pinnacle-spired ridge and sheer cliffs were magnificent to behold. Below the treeline, numerous waterfalls both large and small carved exquisite paths across the mountainside.

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Ptarmigan Wall; innumerable waterfalls all around us–too many to count!
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Ptarmigan Wall, Iceberg Lake
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Easy-moderately graded path; beauty abounds, Iceberg Lake Trail

As Ranger Eric talked about avalanche areas during a snack break at Ptarmigan Falls, I turned to find our youngest fast asleep, gummy bears still in-hand, enroute to his mouth! When I tapped his shoulder, he immediately jumped up and tightened the load lifters on his backpack, saying, “So, two more miles, right?” as if nothing had happened. The narcolepsy incident was hilarious, but it served as a good reminder to more closely monitor the kids’ water/food intake to ensure they maintained good energy reserves.

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Feeling refreshed after an unintentional nap 🙂

Three hours after setting out from the trailhead, we finally came upon Iceberg Lake, and what a glorious sight it was. Framed below the commanding spires and sheer cliffs of Ptarmigan Wall, Iceberg Lake loomed far more massive and imposing than mere photos could possible capture. With lake water the prettiest shade of teal and chunks of floating ice large enough to withstand human weight, Iceberg Lake defied words. We learned that the term ‘iceberg’ as it is applied to this lake is actually a misnomer, as these ‘bergs’ are not the result of frozen lake water, but rather, the broken-off chunks of frozen ice fields. Hearing that there were no icebergs in the lake as recently as a week before our trek, we felt grateful to have witnessed Iceberg Lake in its full glory. Like at Lake McDonald, there was a collective, reverent hush here in spite of the number of hikers present.

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Ptarmigan Wall, approaching Iceberg Lake
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Just beyond a small patch of snow, Iceberg Lake
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First glimpse of Iceberg Lake
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Iceberg Lake, Glacier National Park
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Iceberg Lake, Glacier National Park
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The lake was the most vibrant shade of teal
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Teal beauty beneath the Ptarmigan Wall
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Pristine and crystal-clear, Iceberg Lake dazzled from every angle

We enjoyed a leisurely packed lunch of peanut butter, pretzel crisps, and trail mix at the lake, marveling in the view that was made all the more special by the effort it took to get there. Soon thereafter, our hiking group dispersed, traveling in pairs or small groups back to the trailhead at their own pace with Ranger Eric bringing up the rear. Less than a mile into our return trip, my oldest shouted, “Oh, my gosh, look!” which got my adrenaline pumping in a holy-cow-I-hope-my-husband-has-the-bear spray-at-the-ready kind of way. He pointed just off the trail and yell-whispered, “Bighorn sheep!” Not 5 feet below us was a bighorn sheep looking utterly unimpressed and annoyed by our presence in his path. We contained our excitement and scrambled twenty yards back to give him berth. It was an amazing first encounter for us with bighorn sheep! We watched him canter across the trail and up the mountainside, to which the kids exchanged grins of astonishment and whispers of, “Best hike ever!” It was one of those moments of pure joy where I remember feeling exceedingly blessed to be able to experience such a wild and remarkable place with my family.

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Moments before our bighorn sheep encounter
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Bighorn sheep cantering up the mountain, Iceberg Lake Trail
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Seeing this bighorn sheep up close was such a thrill!

Without ranger talks or long breaks, we were able to make it back to Swiftcurrent Inn in just under 2 hours, where we treated ourselves to cold drinks and some well-earned ice cream and cheese/beef sticks. While not a difficult hike, the hike to Iceberg Lake was a hot and fairly long one at ten miles, and we were glad to soak our feet in the KOA hot tub and cool off with a dip in the swimming pool for sure!

Tips for families:

  • It’s important to note that this ranger-guided hike does not include a ranger on the return trip, so carrying bear spray is advisable.
  • Depending on your return pace, the projected time for this hike is 6-7 hours, so plan water and food accordingly. Snacks were indispensable to keeping our energy up; we each packed a quart-sized Ziploc of trail mix, dried fruit, and candy that we reached for throughout the hike. Note that there is also a convenient pit toilet at Ptarmigan Falls 3 miles into the hike.
  • Much of this hike is exposed; sunblock and hats are advisable.
  • While the initial switchbacks may be trying for little ones, the rest of the trail is very moderately graded, making this hike very doable for kids 8 and up despite its long length.

I’d love to hear about your experience at Iceberg Lake! What other trails have you enjoyed at Glacier National Park?

 (Photo credit to my husband and son for many of the above photos!)

 

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Glacier National Park Day 1: Of Snow and Lakes

It’s so hard to get back into the swing of real life after a great vacation! A month has passed since we returned from our trip, and I still find myself thinking, “Wait, didn’t we just get back?” with regard to work, email, and other real life responsibilities. Oops, not so much!

This year’s trip began with a 3 hour drive to Moses Lake, WA after an early evening touch down in Seattle. Our original plan was to drive 4.5 hours to Spokane to decrease our drive time to West Glacier the next day, but considering how exhausted we were, I’m glad we opted to stay in Moses Lake instead. We were only there long enough to enjoy late night pizza at Guido’s and an evening at the Interstate Inn, but we enjoyed our time in this quiet little town nonetheless.

The next morning, we drove an hour and a half to Spokane to stock up on groceries and supplies at Walmart and Trader Joe’s before tackling the 5 hour drive to West Glacier.  I loved the ever-changing scenery through Coeur d’Alene, Flathead, and Kalispell.

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Trader Joe’s, Spokane–oh, what I would give to have a TJ’s in HI!

Knowing we had two weeks of camping ahead of us, we decided to splurge on a one-room kamping kabin at the West Glacier KOA for the night. What a treat this was! It was so nice to be able to unload our sleeping bags from the car and call it a night. We all enjoyed the pool, playground, and porch swing before drifting off in our comfy bunks.

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One-room kamping kabin, West Glacier KOA
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Organized chaos. At campgrounds with swimming pools, we have our priorities straight. 🙂

We checked out bright and early to get a jump on our first day in Glacier National Park. After a brief stop at Apgar Visitor Center for Junior Ranger booklets and bear spray, we traveled the much-anticipated Going-to-the-Sun-Road. GTSR is a 32-mile engineering marvel that connects West Glacier and St. Mary, hugging sheer cliffs and winding through majestic mountains that overlook glacially-carved valleys. Glacier has been on my bucket list for ye-e-e-ars, and I’ve googled every image and video of the park available, but nothing could prepare me for the grandeur and incomparable beauty that is Glacier in-person. Standing along the bank of Lake McDonald, admiring the expanse of crystal-clear lake before me, I felt my eyes fill; I had to swallow to keep from embarrassing myself. The placid, mirror-like lake seemed to have a similar effect on other travelers, whose raucous shouts and laughter in the parking area faded to reverent silence upon reaching the lake.

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Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park
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Seamless reflection, Lake McDonald
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GTSR, LakeMcDonald

At the time, I was convinced that Lake McDonald would remain the highlight of GTSR, not realizing that each new twist and turn in the road would reveal more awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping beauty than the last. I’ve never seen so many cascading waterfalls, snow-capped peaks, and verdant valleys in my life! GTSR truly is a feast for the senses.20160630_11121220160630_111628 - Edited20160630_111745

20160630_11122420160630_111848_Richtone(HDR)20160630_11301420160630_112703_Richtone(HDR)20160630_113113Located at an elevation of 6,600 feet, Logan Pass marks the highest point along GTSR, as well as the start of numerous hikes in Glacier National Park. It is also the most popular and crowded stop on GTSR. As the Logan Pass Visitor Center parking lot can be somewhat of a nightmare to navigate, we were happy to secure a parking spot and set out for Hidden Lake without having to circle too long.

Hidden Lake Overlook trail is a short and sweet 3-mile out and back hike that begins on the west side of Logan Pass Visitor Center. While there is usually an option to continue an additional mile past the overlook to the lake itself, this portion of the trail was closed due to high bear activity that day. The announcement put us slightly on edge as a man had been killed by a grizzly a mile away from our campground a day earlier, just an hour before our arrival. My bear concerns, however, took a backseat once we got to the top of the stairs at the trailhead and were greeted by this looming wall of white:

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Where’d the boardwalk go? Beginning of Hidden Lake trail

I quickly scanned the area for the “easy boardwalk” path I’d read about. Turns out, Hidden Lake boardwalk and 85% of the trail were hidden under winter snow and recent snowfall from the previous two evenings. Visitors paraded past by the dozen as my eyes flitted between our flimsy hiking shoes, woefully unequipped with microspikes or crampons, and the dirty blanket of snow before us. Hikers tromped up the hill in a motley assortment of swim shorts and Chacos, tank tops and flip flops, unfazed by the wall of white that was no doubt as familiar to them as tropical sand and surf are to us. Their confidence only served to reinforce the singular thought looping through my head: we are not a snow people. The farthest I’d ever walked through snow was maybe several hundred yards. During a snowball fight, no less!

We had no business leading three kids through 3 miles of snow.

And then my youngest squealed, “Ooh, I can’t wait to hike through snow! This is going to be the best hike ever!” and just like that, we found ourselves squelching through icy puddles, crunching our way up that slick initial climb. The going was slow–two steps forward, one giant sli-i-i-de back–but the husband and kids could not have been more delighted by the novelty of it all. They hiked circles around me, running ahead, then sliding back down to where they’d left me behind with my cautious turtle steps. “C’mon, mom!” they’d yell. “Go faster! You have to embrace the slide!” Me, on the other hand…I was just trying to remain upright. Which I wasn’t all that successful with to begin with, but I was pretty sure going faster probably wasn’t going to do me any favors in that department. 😀

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Cautious first steps before all the fun ensues; Hidden Lake Trail
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Having the time of his life, Hidden Lake Trail, Glacier National Park

20160630_122429Our trekking poles definitely came in handy for navigating the slippery slopes and ice. And the 360 degree views on this trail? Simply STUNNING. I was so glad my phone was dangling in a waterproof case from my neck, because I found myself reaching to take pictures nearly every second. About ten minutes from the Hidden Lake overlook, we were thrilled to come upon a family of mountain goats, baby kid safely shepherded between mom and dad. Clearly habituated to humans, the shaggy, snow white trio paid us no heed as they ambled across the trail to graze. It was a thrill to come so close to these beautiful creatures.

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Views along Hidden Lake trail
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Majestic and expansive; Glacier National Park
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Gorgeousness from every angle, Hidden Lake Trail at Logan Pass
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Hidden Lake trail seriously showing off 🙂

 

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Finally, a respite from the snow, ten minutes from the overlook
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Almost there! The beauty of this rest stop made it feel like a destination unto itself
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Ten minutes before the lake, signs of summer returning
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Family of mountain goats!
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We moved off the trail to give these beauties space to cross; they must have come within 20 feet of us, which was amazing to behold.

After all of the fun we’d experienced on the trail, I wondered whether the journey might prove more exciting than the destination itself, but I needn’t have worried. Hidden Lake did not disappoint, its beautiful sapphire depths punctuated by chunks of floating ice. Photos and words do no justice in capturing the tremendous scale and beauty of this lake and Glacier National Park. We sat at the overlook for almost an hour, sketching and absorbing the stunning view before reluctantly turning back. Once we hit the snow, trekking poles were key for the descent; I can’t imagine having navigated some of the sketchier sloped sections without them. Once we completed these portions, though, the kids tossed their poles aside and ran/slid their way back to the trailhead.

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Hidden Lake, Glacier National Park
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Talk about lunch with a view! Hidden Lake, Glacier National Park
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Incomparable beauty, Hidden Lake
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Sapphire blue, Hidden Lake
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It’s hard to imagine a better view 

They had such a great time; you couldn’t wipe the smiles off their faces! We all agreed: Hidden Lake was one of our favorite hikes ever. It was an amazing beginning to our explorations in what was to become one of our new favorite parks. With Hidden Lake behind us, we made our way to St. Mary to set up camp for the night, excited and full of anticipation over what the next three days in Glacier had in store for us.