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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!