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.

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Down, down, down we go… we definitely rued these steps on the way back!
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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.

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Baring Falls
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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.

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

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St Mary Falls, Glacier National Park
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View from the footbridge, St. Mary Falls
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That beautiful Glacier turquoise-teal
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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.

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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!

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

 

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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.

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Historic Many Glacier Hotel
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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.

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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.

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The last visitor we would encounter for a while, Lake Josephine
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Beauty in the details, Grinnell Lake Trail
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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!”

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

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

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

 

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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.

 

 

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!)

 

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.