COOPER DISCOVERER - Glacier National Park


Weekend Adventurer
My wife and I have a tradition of visiting a new location every year. Most of these are national parks, but can be anywhere really. This year we chose Glacier National Park in Montana, and my wife's parents joined. We made all of the necessary plans with set dates for backpacking and white water rafting, but left everything else open. I even acquired my mom's beloved 2000 Jeep Grand Cherokee as my car didn't have enough room for the 4 of us with and all our gear. It turns out the Jeep didn't either.


My wife and I loaded up all of our gear, and just in case we didn't have enough room for my in-laws' gear inside the Jeep we brought a tarp and a receiver hitch cargo basket. We left Utah on a Saturday in August. We had decided beforehand that to get to Glacier we would drive up the west side of Montana in the Rockies and for the return trip we would drive on the East side of the Rockies in the flat lands. The West side of Montana was beautiful, which made the 10 hour drive doable. We broke the drive up into 2 days and stayed in Butte Saturday night.


We arrived at Glacier NP around 2:00 p.m. Sunday afternoon. After a quick stop at the Apgar Visitor Center we headed to our campsite in the Fish Creek Campground. While the campsites were quite close together, it was a nice area in the trees that would do fine as our base camp for the next three days. We quickly made camp and placed our food and other scented items in the bear box at the campsite. It was about 4:00 and we needed to pick up my in-laws at the Kalispell airport at 5:15. Everything went as planned and we were back at camp in time to have a fire and talk about the adventures that lay ahead.

Monday morning we drove most of Going to the Sun road to get to our big hike for the day. It was a great drive with amazing alpine views. Just doing this drive and stopping at the viewpoints would have made the whole trip worth it, but there were much greater things to come. We reached the trail head to Piegan Pass around 9 a.m. The trail is just over 9 miles with an 1850 ft elevation gain, and can be done as a one way through hike or an out and back hike. Since we only had one vehicle we did the out and back trip.

It was a beautiful trail with plenty of wildlife and wild flowers.

At the top of the pass you are treated with an astounding view of the glacier-formed valley you just hiked out of, as well as a panoramic view of the Rocky Mountains overlooking a small milky turquoise colored lake on the other side.

My wife and I take a photo of her on my shoulders everywhere we go.

We spent 45 minutes at the top of the pass eating lunch and enjoying the views, but now it was time to return. When we reached the Jeep we noticed some snow on the cliff side that seemed to have drawn the attention of those around us. Knowing that there was probably an animal up there of some sort, I got out the binoculars and video camera with a 40x zoom so that we could look at it. Sure enough it was a mountain goat, and the only one we would see for the whole trip.

It was getting close to dinner time so we returned back to camp, built a small fire, and started cooking dinner.
My wife had made soup a few days before the trip and froze it so that all we needed to do was heat it up. It was an excellent idea as it made for a quick, easy, and delicious dinner - my mother-in-law and I prepping dinner.
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Weekend Adventurer
Tuesday, after a quick breakfast, we met up with a rafting company in West Glacier, just outside of the national park. They supplied us with everything we needed to make the trip. This was my wife's first time white water rafting so she was a little nervous, but after talking to our guide I knew it was going to be a pretty mellow trip. We launched from a small side stream and quickly entered the Middle Fork Flathead River. The water, while having a slight blue color from the glacial silt, was so clear that you could see the bottom of the river even when it reached depths of more than 20 feet. This late in the year the rapids were small and the water was fairly calm. One could likely have done this on an inner tube only having to paddle here and there to avoid the rough spots. There was even one section that was so calm that our guide let us jump out and swim in the river for a minute. Out of our group I was the only one who braved the 50° F water and jumped in. It was refreshing and very, very cold.

Rafting only took up about half of the day, so the rest of the day was spent relaxing at camp, walking around Apgar village, eating huckleberry pie, and planning out what we wanted to do for the rest of the week.

Wednesday we packed up camp and loaded the Jeep up. Turns out it was a great idea to bring the hitch basket as we filled that with luggage, and used the roof rack to put the firewood on. At that point we were nearly riding on the bump stops, but of course we were too busy to stop and take a picture. For the rest of the day we did a lot of small hikes and tourist stops. In order to do back country camping you have to watch a video, check the weather, and get your permits from the rangers, so we did all of that in Apgar Village. There was a 20% chance of rain which worried us a little, but we were prepared for that. We walked the Trail of Cedars, Avalanche Gorge, and took the short hike to Avalanche Lake. We visited Lake McDonald Lodge, Logan Pass visitors’ center, and St. Mary Visitor Center. Glacier national park was founded in 1910 and has an interesting history of adventurers going to visit even before it became a national park.

Trail of Cedars

Avalanche Gorge

Beautiful water in Avalanche Gorge

Trail to Avalanche Lake

Avalanche Lake, one of my favorite pictures in the whole trip. If you look closely you can see many waterfalls running down the mountains.

Our plans for the day allowed us to drive the full length of the Going to the Sun Road. Near the end of the drive we caught a glimpse of a grizzly bear near the Rising Sun Campground. There was a ranger chasing the bear away from the campground, but it did cause quite a traffic jam. We set up camp that afternoon in St. Mary Campground, and headed into the town of St. Mary to fuel up, have some dinner, and even a little ice cream. We returned to camp and had a relaxing night around the fire.


Weekend Adventurer
Thursday We once again loaded the Jeep up, this time leaving our firewood at the campsite and loading all our backpacking gear into the cargo basket on the rear. This way there would be nothing left outside of the locked doors of the Jeep while we were backpacking. We planned many months in advance to backpack to Cracker Lake and spend one night there. This gave us time to read a lot of other trip reports to the lake. It turns out there is a resident moose and resident mountain goat who are almost always at the lake. The goat seems quite friendly and there are pictures online of it sticking its head into peoples’ tents. We couldn't wait to see them. We drove to the Many Glacier Lodge and left the jeep there at the trail head to Cracker Lake.

The hike is just over 6 miles one way with an elevation gain of 1400 ft. The first mile and a half or so is also used as a horse trail. The horse trail portion was quite muddy and uneven, but followed along the edge of Lake Sherburne which provided some nice views. Once we got past the horse trail portion the trail dried out and smoothed out. The rest of the hike provided us with varied flora from pine forests to berry patches.


More berries

Even more berries

Bear Scat Full of Berries

Knowing that bears really like berries and seeing some fairly fresh bear scat, we knew we were in bear country. I looked forward to, but also feared running into a grizzly bear along this overgrown path. I was prepared with my bear spray and, as a last resort, my .45. I’m not sure either of those items would have stopped an angry grizzly. Luckily we didn’t run into a bear and we didn’t run into too many people until we reached the lake.

Ptarmigan hanging out on the trail

Much of the trail was overgrown

One of the few river crossings

Just like everything else in Glacier the hike was beautiful and once we crested the natural dam we were presented with views of the possibly most spectacular landscape I've ever seen.

Cracker Lake at last!


Weekend Adventurer
Still Thursday, Cracker Lake is surrounded on three sides by a wall of mountains with Mt. Siyeh (elevation 10,003 ft.) towering 4,000 feet above the level of the lake. To top it all off the lake has a breathtakingly brilliant blue water. We took about 500 photos during our trip and more than half of them were of this lake and surrounding area.

Like I said, every time we go somewhere cool we get a picture with my wife on my shoulders

We arrived at the campsite around 2:00 p.m. We quickly set up camp and hung our bear bags from the metal pole supplied by the National Park. My in-laws recently purchased a backpacking tent and decided that I needed the same one. My birthday was a few days before the trip so they bought the same tent for me as a gift. While this tent is smaller than the one I usually use for backpacking it is significantly lighter, has a built in ground cloth, and a really good rain fly.

Hanging the bear bags

For the remainder of the afternoon we wandered around the lake and an old mining site that was close by. We lowered our bear bags and cooked the typical backpackers' food of freeze dried meals for dinner.

Our tiny tents give some perspective of how massive the mountains surrounding the lake are

Our tents can be seen overlooking the lake

I probably spend more of my time thinking about vehicles than any one thing, but there are some places that you just can't drive to.

Mining equipment and ruins

Old steam engine at the mine site

Eating dinner

Shortly after dinner the clouds started to roll over the tops of the surrounding mountains and down into our protected little valley. Within 10 minutes we could no longer see the tops of the mountains. The rain started and we decided to retire to our tents.

Clouds rolling in over the mountain peaks

By 10 p.m. the wind was blowing very hard. If I was in my usual backpacking tent I would have been like the guy in the campsite next to ours who was fixing his rainfly and stakes all night. It turns out he had a Jeep Wrangler without a top on it that was probably just as wet as he was when he returned to it the next morning. I was happy to be in this new tent with its low profile and full rainfly. Around 11:00 p.m. I heard a noise that sounded like the crack of whip next to my head. It was quite terrifying. I opened the door to my tent to find that one of my stakes holding the rainfly down had been pulled up. I did my best to put it back into the ground without leaving the shelter from the wind and the rain that the tent provided. That happened another time later that night, but once I put the stake back in the ground it held until the wind died down.

Friday we woke to a perfectly still morning which was surprising given the storm of the night before. The lake was like blue-stained glass with a reflective finish. We ate breakfast, filtered water from a small spring and watched the sunrise before packing everything up and heading out. Much to our disappointment we saw neither the resident moose nor the mountain goat.

Cool reflection from the perfectly calm lake in the morning

Me looking for the resident goat in the morning, I never found him

The hike out was similar to the hike in except with more people and horses on the trail. The weather was perfect and the trail wasn't nearly as muddy as we had expected it to be. Upon returning to the Jeep we found everything to be in good working order, so we loaded up and headed off to St. Mary for some lunch and huckleberry pie, after all we had been through we earned it.

Driving down the East side of the Rockies was a mistake. Looking west the beautiful glacier carved mountains could be seen in the far off distance, but the terrain near the road and looking east was basically flat. Being from Utah I have always felt uncomfortable when I'm in a location where I can't look in any direction and see a mountain range of some sort. The drive to Butte was uneventful but now that we had our in-laws with us we stayed in a nice hotel with functioning air conditioners in our rooms and a working swimming pool and hot tub.

Saturday we finished our drive home to Utah and dropped off the wife's parents at the Salt Lake airport for their return flight home. Upon arriving home my wife and I both felt that we could make that same trip again right away to hike the trails we wanted to see but didn't have time for. Glacier was an amazing place and I'm sure we will return there before too long.
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Looks like an awesome trip. I've wanted to get out to Glacier at some point, I better do it sooner than later. I'll make sure to stick to the west side.


Weekend Adventurer
Thanks! Glacier is my favorite national park that I have visited so far, but we still have a lot more to go. The jeep was totaled a couple of weeks ago, got hit on the rear passenger side. It broke the axle, bent the frame, and broke the windows on the passenger side. Surprisingly the insurance gave quite a bit more money than we were expecting for it due to the excellent condition it was in, and for the rims and tires.