Glacier Day 4: A Tale of 3 Waterfalls

As with all good things, our time at Glacier had come too quickly to an end. Determined to maximize our final hours, we spoke with a park ranger in St. Mary, who broke the news that the Highline and Grinnell Glacier hikes we had so anticipated were still closed due to hazardous conditions. Piegan Pass, our only other alternate, had re-opened overnight, but the prospect of a 9+ mile hike coupled with a 5-hour drive to Spokane later that afternoon proved too daunting. Scrapping our itinerary entirely, we hatched a brand new plan: Virginia, St. Mary, and Baring Falls in the St. Mary region of the park.

The ranger pointed out the falls on a map. “You want to make sure you go all the way to Virginia Falls,” she cautioned. “Don’t stop at the little cascade just past St. Mary Falls. Most people turn around too early, thinking they’ve seen Virginia Falls. Believe me, you’ll know Virginia Falls when you hear the roar–there’s no mistaking it for anything else. If you start from the St. Mary shuttle stop on Going to the Sun Road, it’s a five-ish mile trek.”

“-Ish,” my youngest repeated. His smirk revealed he’d gotten wise to my sly habit of subtracting a mile or two from hike distances and covering the difference with the same term.

“Of course, you could always tack on a side trip to Sunpoint via Sunrift Gorge,” she said. “It’d only add a mile and three quarters or so to your total.”

My youngest’s eyes widened with disdain, but in my mind, the detour was a done deal. An extra mile or two meant an extra hour immersed in Glacier’s extraordinary beauty, and there was no way we were passing that up.

Thanking the ranger, we hurried to Sunrift Gorge, prepared to double park and jockey for a spot. As luck would have it, we snagged the last available space and pulled in straightaway–a good omen, indeed.

We ventured down the steps to Baring Creek Bridge and Sunrift Gorge, a channel formation carved by glacial run-off from Baring Creek. After three days of hiking among majestic mountains and expansive vistas, we couldn’t help but notice that Sunrift Gorge was–well, neither. But here’s the thing about Glacier: everything here is beautiful. Even in a formation as humble as Sunrift Gorge, there is beauty in the details–the turquoise-tinged creek colored by glacial silt; the multi-colored pebbles beneath its surface. In a land marked by superlatives, it is perhaps in the minutiae that one can most fully grasp Glacier’s perfection.

Down, down, down we go… we definitely rued these steps on the way back!
Baring Creek Bridge, Glacier National Park

A short jaunt from the creek brought us to Baring Falls, the first of three falls we were slated to see. Now, I know I’m on record about our family being a bunch of reluctant waterfall-ers. And given our history, I wasn’t sure whether hiking to three falls would prove more or less ridiculous of a decision than hiking to one. But something about Baring Falls changed my mind about waterfalls. Maybe it’s that I went in with zero expectations. Maybe it’s that everyone had pooh-poohed Baring, and I love a good underdog. Maybe Glacier had simply become golden in my mind. Whatever it was, I loved that feisty little waterfall with an affection that surprised me. It was overcast that morning, and the spray from the falls felt downright icy as it rushed headlong toward the creek. There was nothing complacent about Baring Falls; it seemed determined to perform in spite of–or maybe because of–its diminutive size.

Baring Falls
Baring Falls–The Little Waterfall That Could

From Baring, we heeded the ranger’s advice, detouring toward Sun Point a half mile or so to get a better visual of Wild Goose Island (the little island featured in many photographs of St. Mary Lake). From there, we backtracked and continued to contour St. Mary Lake. Despite hiking for close to an hour, we hadn’t crossed paths with another soul–and wouldn’t again until just minutes before St. Mary Falls. We felt like keepers of some secret, hoarding the splendor of the lakeshore to ourselves. We later learned that most hikers take a different route to the falls, bypassing the lakeshore entirely. Although I’m sure there are great sights either way, I can’t recommend the route from Sun Point or Baring Falls to St. Mary Falls highly enough. The scenery here is simply stunning: on one side of the trail, wildflowers explode to life in a technicolor array beneath the barren remains of a burnt forest; on the other, St. Mary Lake remains the constant–placid and serene.

Lakeshore trail; Sun Point to St. Mary Falls
Though not taken from the trail, here you can see Wild Goose Island and St. Mary Lake
A hike with a view
The lakeshore trail makes for a stunning study in contrasts: burnt forest and wildflowers; snowy peaks and glacially carved valleys 
Beautiful St. Mary Lake
We kept looking behind us to catch this amazing view

Soon enough, the trail wended away from the lakeshore toward Waterfall #2. St. Mary Falls did not disappoint, cascading and pooling in that vibrant shade of turquoise-teal I’ve come to think of as distinctly Glacier. A wooden footbridge beckons you to the edge of the multi-tiered falls; here, the rush of water drowns out all sound. Swollen with spring runoff, the roar of the falls is phenomenal!

St Mary Falls, Glacier National Park
View from the footbridge, St. Mary Falls
That beautiful Glacier turquoise-teal
The view on the opposite side of the footbridge, St. Mary Falls

We lingered just past the bridge for a bit, breaking for a quick bite of trail mix before beginning the final push toward Virginia Falls. True to the ranger’s words, it wasn’t long before we came upon a pretty cascade that while not particularly tall, cut a long path through the rock. Thanks to the ranger’s advice, we knew better to soldier on toward The Real Virginia Falls.

Not Virginia Falls, but still an awfully nice spot for a snack

We’d been warned that this stretch was all uphill, and that was certainly true. But at less than a mile, the push was doable, and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves high in the cool, dense forest, deafened by a thunderous roar that made St. Mary Falls sound like a mere trickle. There was no mistaking it: this was the real Virginia Falls!

Virginia Falls, Glacier National Park
‘Not us’ posing for scale; the real us snapping shots from the safety of the lower lookout
Virginia Falls is massive!
Virginia Falls; spray from the footbridge

Of the two stationed vantage points, the lower lookout is situated farther away, giving a broader perspective of the falls. The second vantage point involves crossing a narrow footbridge to the foot of the falls and jockeying for position on a small landing. A few brave (ie: crazy) souls ventured out onto the slippery rock to pose for selfies while we were there, but we were less daring, content to take a peak and return quickly to safety.

Though our time at the falls was limited, Virginia managed to leave a lasting impression on us. When asked by hikers at the trailhead if Virginia Falls was worth the extra mile, our answer was a resounding yes! Not because the falls were towering and immense (though they definitely were), but because our experience at Virginia felt intimate. Ditto for St. Mary Falls. Baring, too. Isn’t it funny that venturing out is almost always about seeking a way in? Both beautiful and contemplative, we couldn’t have asked for a better hike than Sunrift Gorge/Sun Point/Virginia Falls to end our last day in Glacier National Park.

What is your favorite Zen hike in Glacier or any other National Park? Favorite local hike for sitting and pondering?

Coming soon: North Cascades National Park!


Glacier Day 3: Many Glacier

First, the bad news: we didn’t get to do a single thing we’d planned to do on Day 3 in Glacier.

The good news?

Day 3 turned out be one of our favorite days of the whole trip!

We pulled into the Many Glacier entrance of Glacier National Park early with high hopes of hiking Grinnell Glacier. Chatting with the ranger at the guard shack, however, we were crushed to learn that the last 2 miles of the Grinnell Glacier trail were closed. The ranger explained that we could do the first half of the trail if we wanted to. “But,” he said, “I wouldn’t advise it.” He peered into our car and shook his head, solemn. “Especially not with little guys. The snow’s really steep and sketchy. I wouldn’t be surprised if they wound up closing the whole trail later today.”

From the backseat, my daughter cheered; she’d been dreading this hike for months after reading accounts of bear maulings on the trail. The boys were more stoic about the situation, though I could’ve sworn I heard a whispered, “Thank goodness, we don’t have to hike 12 miles today!”

“So, what now?” my husband said, eyebrows raised.

I unpacked our itinerary and pointed to a list of alternate hikes. “We choose another trail,” I said, but my heart wasn’t in it. Grinnell Glacier is an iconic hike, one I’d been anticipating for months. To be sure, this unexpected monkey wrench was about as First World as problems come, but I was still disappointed. And then it hit me–this was Glacier. Iconic or not, every hike here held promise. I scanned the list in earnest. “Well, we could try Piegan Pass,” I offered. The kids nodded. With renewed enthusiasm, we headed to the nearest bulletin board to check on the trail’s status.

Only to find that Piegan Pass was closed.

Ditto for the Highline Trail. And Siyeh Pass. And Ptarmigan Tunnel.

Feeling more than a little desperate, I pointed to one of the few ‘open’signs left on the list. “Look! Swiftcurrent Pass is open,” I said. I traced a finger across the posted map to locate trail details. “And it’s only…15 miles long,” I managed to say, before being met with a chorus of “Are you crazy? 15 miles? No way!”

My heart sank. And then I remembered the one option I’d forgotten to list: Grinnell Lake. To be sure, it was no Grinnell Glacier. But it was the gorgeous turquoise lake I’d looked forward to seeing from the Grinnell Glacier trail. Seeing that the lake was open, I quickly scanned the trail details.

“It’s a little less than 8 miles roundtrip,” I said. “And there’s no elevation gain, I promise.” The kids were dubious, but we were already in Many Glacier, minutes away from the trailhead, and the next nearest option meant an hour-long drive to Logan Pass, a prospect no one relished. And so it was that we found ourselves pulling into the Many Glacier Hotel parking lot.

Historic Many Glacier Hotel
View from the Many Glacier Hotel parking lot

Situated along the scenic shores of Swiftcurrent Lake in the heart of Glacier National Park, Many Glacier Hotel is an historic lodge reminiscent of a Swiss-style chalet. With its incomparable views of Grinnell Point and Swiftcurrent Lake, Many Glacier is the kind of hotel that gives new meaning to the phrase “location, location, location.” It’s the kind of place I dream of staying at post-lottery win. It’s also the kind of place that can be confusing to navigate when you’re searching for a trailhead, especially with all of the renovation work being done there this summer. For those who may be planning a Grinnell Lake hike in the near future, please note that the trailhead is not located near the parking lot. You’ll want to avoid poking around various stock trails near the parking lot like we did and mistaking them for Grinnell Lake trail. Rule of thumb? If it smells reallllly bad and/or you find yourself sidestepping steaming piles of unknown origin–gingerly as through a minefield–you’re probably on the wrong trail. Instead, take the stairs from the parking lot down into the hotel lobby’s back entrance, and exit the lobby via the hotel’s front entrance toward the boat dock. Following the lakeshore, bear left past several private cabins, eventually reaching a marker for Swiftcurrent Lake Nature Trail, which you will follow for a mile. Note that there is no actual marker for Grinnell Lake for at least 2-3 miles.

Why my kids don’t trust me, otherwise known as Mom’s famous last words: “I’m sure the trailhead is somewhere around here.” …Not!

About a mile in, we reached a proverbial fork in the road and opted to take the North Shore Josephine Lake Trail instead of the South Shore trail. Although we didn’t realize it at the time, both trails eventually merge into a single trail to Grinnell Lake. Without a map or printed directions, we were operating on faith in choosing the northern route and hoping for the best, our flawed logic being, “well, if we can see the ferry, we must be going the right way…right?” We agreed to confirm with the next visitor we saw–only, there were no visitors to be found! We plodded through the shoulder-high shrubbery, calling “Hey, Bear!” every few yards to nary a soul. The secluded quiet came as a welcome surprise. Any worry that we might’ve taken the wrong trail disappeared as we contoured gorgeous Lake Josephine. The going was easy, all flat terrain and soft dirt; the unassuming views both immense and peaceful. If the North Shore trail was wrong, we had no desire to be right.

The last visitor we would encounter for a while, Lake Josephine
Beauty in the details, Grinnell Lake Trail
Grinnell Lake Trail via Swiftcurrent Nature and Lake Josephine North Shore trails

Eventually, we reached the ferry dock (the merge point for the North and South Shores), hearing the familiar strain of voices and laughter ahead of us. Ferries shuttle visitors across Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine Lake several times a day; this popular-though-somewhat-pricey option saves you 5 miles roundtrip. Still, the term “crowd” here remains relative, with less than 20-30 people entering and exiting the trail from the landing at any one time.

We took a short spur trail to a small cascade called Hidden Falls 3/4 of a mile past the boat junction and crossed a suspension bridge, continuing the last 1/2 mile to Grinnell Lake along narrow wooden boardwalk planks. The kids loved the swinging suspension bridge–or maybe they just loved poking fun at my irrational fear of swinging, unstable structures. All I know is that we seem to have an inordinate number of video recordings of the ‘Mom crossing the bridge incident’ where the sound of rushing water is obscured by giggles and shouts of “Don’t die, Mom!”

Why people look at signs that say, “Danger: Cross One At A Time” and think, “Ooh, fun!” is beyond me.
Suspension bridge, Grinnell Lake Trail. Love those colorful rocks!
Boardwalks mean you’re almost there…
Final boardwalk before Grinnell Lake

Grinnell Lake was every bit as gorgeous as I’d imagined, hints of its famous turquoise tinge visible in the distance. On the opposite shore, Grinnell Falls meandered an intricate yet gentle path beneath Salamander Glacier, with Angel Wing and Grinnell Point towering above all.

Beautiful Grinnell Lake, Glacier National Park
Hints of turquoise in the distance
The view across Grinnell Lake
Grinnell Falls beneath Salamander Glacier, Grinnell Lake

We sat along makeshift log seats, hoping to enjoy our picnic lunch among the grandeur. The mosquitoes, however, were relentless in their voracious pursuit of our every square inch of exposed flesh. We gave lunch a valiant attempt before fleeing to the mosquito-free asylum of the boat dock. From there, it was an hour and a half jaunt back to Many Glacier Hotel, where we nursed hot coffee from the gift shop before gatecrashing the lobby to take a peak at how the other half lives. It was quite the luxurious bathroom break, complete with plush arm chairs, power naps, and picture windows overlooking Swiftcurrent Lake.

Caffeinated and refreshed, we decided to rent a rowboat on Swiftcurrent Lake, just outside the hotel lobby. I cannot recommend this highly enough! For a grand total of $18.50, the five of us had more fun in an hour than should be legally allowed. None of us knew what we were doing, which made the experience all the more fun. We bumbled around the lake, alternately lazing and laughing at each person’s pathetic attempt at rowing and then combining our efforts in furious, panicked, spastic bursts to avoid colliding with incoming ferries. I can only imagine how ridiculous we must have looked from shore, but we had an absolute blast!

Boat dock and rowboat rental, Swiftcurrent Lake
Row, row, row your boat…


Quick stop at Many Glacier Ranger Station to turn in completed Junior Ranger books

Rounding out our evening was dinner at Nell’s Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. Though not inexpensive, dining out was a treat, having cooked the rest of our meals at camp. And boy, had we worked up quite the appetite! We feasted on burgers and salad, finishing the evening with sweet and smooth huckleberry soft serve from the gift shop next door and a final dip in the St. Mary KOA swimming pool and hot tub. It was as perfect a day as I can remember. It’s said that happiness isn’t something you experience; it’s something you remember. All I know is we were lucky enough to find ourselves in the midst of a perfect day–and even luckier to know it. Thank you, Glacier.