Glacier National Park adventures

May 22-26, 2024.

Photo album

Arriving at the park

It was not my intention to visit a national park on Memorial Day Weekend. It never has been, and never will be. However, our route itinerary just happened to put us at Glacier National Park for this time frame, and I racked my brain to figure out how to make the most of our visit. If you’re not interested in trip planning, skip to the next section.

I was still sick; I’d been sick for the last couple weeks. All I wanted to do was sleep. But I spent a bunch of time looking up camping options and untangling the complicated reservation windows, driving distances, park closures and all the other annoying logistics that comes with camping at a national park. It’s hard to believe people do this for fun for their one vacation of the year.

I knew that the east side of the park was less popular, so we put ourselves in position to arrive on that side. I also knew that camping was available at St. Mary Campground (the ONE option) by reservation only starting May 24. We planned to be there from May 21-26. So that was a problem.

I found out that the sites are first-come-first-serve before the reservation window. But there was no way to tell how busy this campground would be before we arrived. And after talking with two rangers (and then just figuring it out on the confusing website on my own), while the reservable sites appeared to be completely booked, I learned that a number of reservable sites are released a few days ahead of time. I set a calendar appointment on my phone to remind me to go online the instant they were released. Then I snagged a site for the dates I needed.

Last obstacle: I just had to hope there was an open campsite when we rolled into Glacier well after dark, after driving several hours. We pulled into the campground, saw site #1 was open, parked and breathed a huge sigh of relief. We’d made it.

Welcome to bear country

Despite having hiked over ten thousand miles in the course of this lifetime (no, really, I have a spreadsheet), I’d never really spent time in bear country. Thus, leading up to this trip, I did a ton of reading about the subject. I’d listened to podcasts with experts on bear behavior. I’d learned from stories of survivors of bear attacks. I knew a few general principles of travel in bear country, but now it was time to put the knowledge into practice. Here’s official guidance from the NPS, if you’re interested in learning more.

When I got up the next morning and saw snow-capped mountains towering above me, I knew I needed to go for a walk. I still felt very sick and unmotivated. However, I couldn’t sleep forever. I decided to walk from the campground to the visitor center on a little connector trail and then see how much energy I had.

Hiking solo is not recommended in bear country, but I thought since I would be in the main area and not off in thick, brushy forest I’d be okay. Nonetheless, I made a few bear-aware choices: I carried bear spray on my hip belt and I made noise while hiking.

I thought the latter would be a challenge. I generally like quiet when I’m hiking because I listen for birds and other animal sounds. How else would you enjoy the trickle of a stream or the rustling of aspen leaves? But I found out that I normally do make noise when I’m hiking. Naturally, I talk to the birds, chatter at the squirrels and squeal when I find a new flower. I didn’t know I’d carried bear repellent all along.

Going-to-the-Sun Road by bike

Feeling a little better the next day, and knowing this trip would blow by really fast, I decided to take a bike ride up the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road. The road was closed 13 miles ahead, which gave me plenty of miles to explore.

I only had a couple hours anyway, so I filled up my water bottle, packed an extra layer, put on my helmet and started pedaling.

Immediately, the mountains captivated me. I was lucky that there were not many cars out early in the morning, so I could ride comfortably in the road without fear of being hit. In fact, the vehicles that shared the road with me were all extremely bike-aware and gave me plenty of room while passing, which I appreciated. People generally drove at slow speeds and I even had a car sit patiently behind me as I climbed up a hill with a blind corner and waited for a safe opportunity to pass. I never felt pressured to get out of the way and had a really positive experience on this ride. This is rare and notable to me.

As I rode up the road, mouth open and eyes wide, I tried to see and feel everything. I stopped to gawk at this patch of wildflowers. I veered into a pullout to see the sweeping overlook above a gigantic lake. Then, I pedaled faster to see what was around the next corner. Everywhere I looked was a new kind of magic. I texted Aaron, “I’ll turn around soon to make you lunch!” If I hadn’t had that chore to do, I would have gone all the way to the road closure.

Since I hadn’t planned on riding so far, I had no food with me. I never do that! I sucked on a throat lozenge, one of two that I packed for the ride. As I coasted into my final pullout, I layered on a wind jacket for the ride down. I hoped the slight decline would help me get back to the campground in less time than it took me to get here.

What I didn’t realize is how much I climbed on the way up the road. Gravity eased my decent back to the van; at times I felt like I was flying. Please note that I’m a climber: I enjoy going uphill in all things, whether its on foot, on skis or on a bike. And I don’t like speed. So it was an exhilarating return ride. I stopped to savor that second throat lozenge and continued all the way back in time for lunch. My only regret was that Aaron didn’t get to see the scenery, which we remedied later that day.

Going-to-the-Sun Road by van

After work, I told Aaron he must see this road. And in the van, we could go all the way to the closure. We took an evening drive through somewhat finicky and tumultuous weather. We made several stops, including a few brief walks to get a closer look at the flowers, water features and mountainscapes.

My favorite stop was the Sun Point Nature Trail, where we saw a ton of flowers, including a variety of fairyslipper that doesn’t grow in Oregon. Despite seeing many thousands of these flowers in the past, I was overjoyed to see the unfamiliar yellow throat of this cute little guy. We also saw one sheep, learning that they like to come down to the road for the salt. It was odd to find him vigorously licking at the road stripe when he had this whole majestic landscape in which to roam.

Grinnell Glacier Trail hike

After taking a full rest day, we took the park ranger’s advice and drove to the Many Glacier area to hike the Grinnell Glacier Trail. She warned us that it would be closed by snow at some point so we could not complete the hike to the upper lake. But, since I was still feeling under the weather and the clouds looked ominous for the day, I’d be happy with any distance of walk we could do.

In fear of Memorial Day crowds, we left camp early to grab a parking spot at the trailhead and made breakfast there. By 8:30 am, we hit the trail.

Loaded up with bear spray, art supplies and plenty of food, we began our hike on the Swiftcurrent Nature Trail. Later in the summer, boat shuttles schlep hikers across two large lakes adjacent to the trail, shaving about 4.5 miles off their round trip distance to the lake. Without that luxury, we walked along the scenic lakes. Considering I would have greatly preferred being curled up in bed all day, this was a great option.

The trail was lined with flowers. Birds sung complicated songs all around us. Using Merlin as our helper, we identified Pacific Wren, Wilson’s warbler, Townsend’s warbler, Northern waterthrush, fox sparrow, song sparrow, yellow warbler and golden-crowned kinglet! We also saw some birds in the lake: Barrow’s goldeneye and common merganser.

A few other hikers passed us on their way up the trail. We took our time, stopping several times for rest breaks, especially on the steeper sections. If I’d been in full health, this trail would have felt a lot easier. But I honored what my body needed that day and dialed it way back.

We ended up going further than I anticipated: all the way to the snow closure. This had become the theme of Glacier National Park! The landscape compelled me to do more than I wanted to do at the start. I knew I had only so much time here and I wanted to make the most of it.

And it was a legitimate snow closure. The trail disappeared under deep, wet snow just before traversing a steep hills with high-consequence drop-offs. Even with no illness, traction and an ice axe I would not have continued on this route. We stopped for a quick snack break as now the clouds were spitting rain and it was getting miserable up there.

On the hike back, we passed many more people. By the time we returned to the van, the lot was full. Our bodies felt cold and damp, so we changed into warm clothes, made lunch and cocoa, and relaxed in the comfort of the van for the rest of the afternoon.

Becoming a Junior Ranger

As soon as the visitor center opened, we picked up a copy of the Glacier National Park Junior Ranger booklet. All you have to do is ask someone there. Over the course of our visit, we did the activities in the book. Some involved answering questions about the park, others required some coloring or drawing and all of them had elements of fun and discovery. We brought our completed booklet back to the visitor center on the way out of the park. The ranger on staff that morning asked us a few questions about our work in the book and then swore us in as “Junior Rangers.” Although the booklets are designed for children middle school age and younger, we have found the activities to be enjoyable, too. They also encourage us to pay attention to things that we otherwise would have skipped.

I’ve done a few of these books at other parks too, including Saguaro National Park and Nicodemus National Historic Site in Kansas. They’re extra fun to do with friends or family instead of on your own. At Saguaro, two friends and I collaborated on inventing a desert animal and writing park-inspired poetry, for example. If you naturally don’t connect with your creative side (believe it or not, you have one) or child-like wonder, these books facilitate both of those things.

I’m so glad we visited Glacier National Park in the shoulder season and on the less busy side. I’d still like to return in the summer to see the high country, even if that means more planning and likely backcountry camping permits. This is a really special place.

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