What Happened To Us At Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park has always been a bucket list item for me, but not really for Doug. If you’ve read his article about a Chasing an Endless Summer, you would know that Doug isn’t a huge fan of being cold. In fairness, he has always worked outside, and we lived in the Northeast; the cold has never been his friend. But for me, I’ve always been a fan of all 4 seasons.
When I was younger I was an avid skier, so the cold winter months meant that sport had returned to my life each year. Why Glacier National Park though? It isn’t like I could ski the glaciers. It just always seemed a little mysterious to me, so I just kinda wanted to see it for myself and check it out. So this is my Glacier story…
We met up with friends in West Yellowstone and toured Yellowstone National Park with them in mid-August. This was the second time we had experienced Yellowstone, third time exploring Montana, so I knew it was a perfect time of year to attempt to convince Doug that we should venture the 6 1/2 hour drive further northwest to Glacier.
I mean, we’re living the RV Lifestyle now, and we are striving to do as many of our bucket list items as we can, so my thought was, “Why not?” I’ll admit, persuading Doug to park next to “Giant Ice Cubes” as he put it, wasn’t easy. But he knew it was a daydream of mine to go, and we are working both of our bucket lists, not just a joint list, it really was a good time of year to go that far north, so we did it!
We truly fell in love with Montana while we were here, so we took our time getting to Glacier. Which meant we almost lost that “perfect time of year” argument that I had heading into this adventure.
When I say we took our time, I mean, we took nearly a whole month to make the 6 1/2 hour drive. By the time we arrived at the West Entrance it was now mid-September.
This wasn’t completely unplanned, but it was a little later than we had wanted. For the 2022 season the National Park Service began requiring a Vehicle Registration Pass for a large part of the Going-To-The-Sun Road from 6am to 4pm, which is literally the road that takes you from one side of the park to the other. That pass wouldn’t be required after September 11th.
Our thought was that if we waited until Labor Day there would be less people trying to get the pass each morning because it was the shoulder-season, and we would have less problems entering the park. We did still need the pass, but with a little planning, we didn’t have any issues getting one. So in that regard, our plan to wait until after Labor Day did work out.
We arrived at the Hungry Horse Dam Recreation Site late on the 9th which is only 20 minutes down the road from the West Gate. The Vehicle Registration Passes are released at 8am the day prior to your entry date. Unfortunately, they are only released online, and there was ZERO cell service where we were staying.
We got up early on the 10th, drove out to where we knew we had service, opened up both phone’s and a tablet and kept refreshing the site until the passes were released at 8am. We scored one immediately on my phone, paid our $2.00 fee and were set to enter the park on the 11th.
I wanted to do a hike while here, and really wanted to touch a glacier, but I had absolutely no idea which hike would allow that to happen. Plus, I now needed to coax Doug into hiking to a “Giant Ice Cube.”
The morning of the 11th, we got up and drove into the park, we wanted to drive Going-To-The-Sun Rd, and if nothing else, I needed a map! When entering the West Entrance, the park is really a little less than impressive for the first 10 miles or so. It’s pretty. I don’t mean to downplay the beauty of it, but we drove past Lake McDonald, and then the waterfalls that feed the lake.
We drove through forests of spruce trees, but these are all views that both of us have seen before. We’ve seen lakes and waterfalls and trees. The mountains in the backdrop of the views from the Going-To-The-Sun Road at this stage of the nearly 50 mile drive were fairly small, even compared to other mountains that we had seen, and drove over, on our way up to Glacier.
But then we drove through a tight turn on the road, came out of the trees, and all of that changed. Suddenly we were looking up at mountains that appeared to have no peak, they just ran off into the clouds where their tops were unseen.
Before you realize it, you are driving up the switchbacks of this road that has a sheer cliff face off one side and the other is a stone wall. You can see the lake and contributing streams below you, you can see countless mountains all around you. There’s no speeding on this road.
Even if you tried, the mountains themselves would force you to slow down and take in the view. The drive is filled with twisting, turning, uphill, hairpin turns. There are several small pullouts where people park and glamour at the sights, we stopped several times ourselves.
Doug was driving, and because the road requires such a crazy level of concentration to navigate, he couldn’t appreciate what I was able to see from passenger seat without making these stops.
At one point we went around a bend to the left and maybe 200 yards in front of us was once again the sheer rocks of a cliff that forced the road into a tight bend to the right. There was a very small little pullout that was already full, traffic was stopped as vehicles slowly made the 2 tight turns and jockeyed for a parking spot. My eyes caught the movement at the same time as a woman standing next to her parked car started pointing. I think we simultaneously said, “THERE’S A BEAR!”
Thankfully we were at a complete stop, and the bear was directly in front of us on the rocks, so I was able to point it out to Doug. Now, I had the GoPro in my hands, but the bear was just out of the distance for the GoPro to truly see it with a clear picture. The grizzly was navigating the rock wall like Spiderman!
Doug quickly pulled out his phone to try and capture it on video so we could share it with everyone on our YouTube episode about Glacier, but in the excitement of the moment, the footage came out more like something you would see from a Sasquatch sighting video than that of a bear scaling a mountain. Oh well. We both got to see it, I guess our YouTube fans miss out on our Grizzly experience, or will they?
We continued up the road, climbing and climbing seeing scattered glaciers off in the distance along several mountains as we went. It really is just as mysterious and beautiful as I had hoped for. The glaciers really just look like seasonal snow fall that hasn’t melted.
But it’s September, there hasn’t been any snow yet, which means this snow has been here since at least last year. Finally, we reached the highest point on the Going-To-The-Sun Road at Logan Pass.
The elevation at this point is 6,646′. When we started off passing Lake McDonald, we were at 3,153′. At this point, even Doug was impressed with Glacier National Park and the beauty that it holds within the gates. After Logan Pass, the drive down the mountain has just as many switchbacks but at least your engine and transmission get the opportunity to cool down a little bit.
We stopped at the St. Mary Visitor Center at the East Gate just before we exited the park and spoke with a Ranger there for assistance in selecting a hike for the morning of the 12th. She reviewed the map with us and pointed out that there was another entrance on the east side, north of the one we were about to exit called the Many Glacier entrance.
She said, just as the name implies, that there are Many Glaciers there and several hikes that we could do to get to one. New friends of ours, Kevin and Taylor (@slowdeathsuv on Instagram) were in Glacier while we were in Yellowstone.
Taylor had let me know that they did the Grinnell Glacier Overlook hike. The Ranger informed us that this was one of the more popular hikes up to a Glacier because it was one of the shorter hikes. By shorter, I mean it’s posted as being 5.7 miles each direction. The hike is also categorized as a ‘Strenuous’ hike on the Glacier Day-Hike suggestion sheet. Dogs aren’t allowed to do any of the trail hikes within most National Parks, Glacier included.
We knew that whatever hike we opted to do, she would have to stay in the camper, so we wanted to do one of the shorter hikes so she wasn’t left too long by herself. The Ranger let us know that the Grinnell Glacier hike was worth it, but that we should plan for a full day of hiking… But it was the shortest hike to get to a glacier.
We went out to the truck and talked about it. Where we were camping, it was a 2 1/2 hour drive to get to the trailhead of this hike. There is a campground within the National Park at St. Mary’s, but it’s a first-come, first-serve. We did a drive around the campground to determine if there was even sites large enough for our camper. We stopped and asked the Ranger at the campground how late in the day is it before the campground usually fills up, and were pleasantly surprised when we were told it wasn’t until about noon.
We made the decision that instead of doing our hike on 12th, we would get up early, pack up, and move the camper over to the St. Mary Campground. Like this we were only 30 minutes from the trailhead instead of the 2 1/2 hours. So, even if the hike did in fact take all day to accomplish, we didn’t also have to account for the 5 hour round trip from Lagertha.
We would just do our hike on the 13th instead. At the suggestion of our friend Vera, we stopped at Murdock’s and picked up some canned oxygen because we’re flatlanders, and the elevation was most likely going to get to us. Now, other than moving the camper, we were set for our hike.
The next morning we made it over to the new location with time to spare, and a few sites still available that we could squeeze into, and got ourselves set back up. The rest of the day was spent with Lagertha making sure she had more than enough exercise and time with us since we would likely be gone most of the following day. We made our lunches, packed our hiking bags, and went to bed early.
We were up, dressed, and had walked Lagertha, and were on the road by 6am on the 13th. We drove up to the Many Glacier entrance and were at the trailhead for the Grinnell Glacier Overlook Hike by 7am.
There were a few other people headed out on the hike around the same time as us, we passed some on the trail, some passed us. Some we just played leap frog with the whole way. At about 2 1/2 miles in, the climbing get’s underway. When two out of shape 40+ year old’s start hiking up a damn mountain I can promise you, it isn’t pretty.
It was a balmy 40 degrees out when we started, and we were both sweating and gasping for air. The canned oxygen was a true life saver, because we kept going. We took breaks when we needed too. We stopped and ate a sandwich, but we kept going. Doing a hike, any hike, you really get to see and appreciate the views so much more than when you just drive the main road through the park.
We felt very much the same way in Yellowstone. You can see a lot from the main loop, but you experience so much more if you leave the pavement behind you. Plus, you get to see things that most of the visitors to the park don’t get to see.
At about 9am we had passed a few of our fellow hikers and had about a 10 minute lead on anyone behind us. We aren’t sure what the time gap was in front of us, but we hadn’t seen anyone for a while. The hike is hard. It’s arduous. It’s strenuous. The higher you go, there are more rocks than trees. The trail is single lane in most areas. You cross tiny little waterfall creeks, traverse rocky outcroppings, and pass through some shrubbery along the way. But we’re tired…
I’m in front. Doug is behind me. We go around a bend to the right and I stopped dead in my tracks. Doug actually ran into me because I stopped and backed up so quickly. I didn’t dare yell, but I very quietly said, “BEAR!” and Doug looked up in front of me. This was no small black bear cub. No. This was a full grown behemoth grizzly bear and it was less than 5 feet from me in the middle of the trail! I didn’t want to startle it for fear that would prompt it attacking.
You’re supposed to make noise while hiking so the bears get spooked before you get near them. We were making noise. Trust me. If nothing else, we were gasping for air like 2 fish out of water! Like fools, we didn’t pack bear spray, and even if we had, I don’t know that we had a need to use it at this point. It wasn’t coming after us. It was just standing there. Eating it’s berries from the bushes. Is 9am breakfast time for 500 lb grizzlies? I don’t know!
Doug quickly got in front of me and told me to “GO!” I really struggled with this. Was I supposed to go and leave him there to be attacked by the bear? How far was I supposed to go? What was he actually capable of doing if the bear did attack us? What was I capable of doing if it attacked him while I was ‘going?’ What was I going to do, throw my granola bar at it?
He quickly let me know that he meant GO! And he meant NOW! And much further than the initial 3 feet behind him I was currently standing. So I did. This was the 2nd time in my life that I was less than 10 feet from a damn bear on a hike. The 1st time was on our family trip to Yellowstone and that encounter was a lot more comical than this was.
I made it about 50 feet back down the trail continuously looking back to make sure my knight of a husband was still safe, when I saw him finally start heading back in my direction. I breathed a sigh of relief and slowed my pace a little for him to catch up. We continued back down the trail to a large rock where we were able to sit down at a safe distance from Mr. Grizzly. By this time, the 10 minute gap had closed behind us and people were starting to catch up.
There were about 5 hikers that we told about the bear while we sat there and processed what had just happened and considered our options of continuing the hike. I can’t speak for both of us, but I know I was a bit shaken up. We thought about turning around and starting to head back to the truck. We’d made it over 4 miles up. We’d seen the glacier in the distance. We were out of shape. We weren’t trying to kill ourselves with this stupid hike. Or better yet, be killed!
Wait. Just wait. Touching a glacier has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. I persuaded Doug to park next to ‘Giant Ice Cubes’ so I could be here. Then I convinced him to endure an 11.4 mile hike so I could touch one. WHAT AM I THINKING?! I need to keep going. I need to do this. Not just because Doug will likely never let me live it down that we made it 3/4 of the way there and then turned around, but because I NEED TO DO THIS!!
A bucket list item is within my grasp and I can’t backdown now because a grizzly was out eating it’s breakfast. Nope! Not happening! None of the 5 hikers that had passed us came back. We hadn’t heard any screaming. So that was that. We kept going. I’ll admit to being quite nervous as we continued. Especially when we went back through the bear zone and even more so when it was gone and I didn’t know where it was. But we kept on trekking.
Eventually, we caught back up to one of the couples that had continued past the us through the bear zone. They were happy for us that we had made the decision to continue on the hike. They even said that they were talking about us and were really hoping that we didn’t decide to head back down after making it so far. But they also informed us that what we walked into wasn’t just a grizzly eating breakfast. Turns out it was a Momma Bear and her Cub out eating breakfast.
They had seen both climbing back up the mountain through the brush when they passed the area. HOLY CRAP!!!! Now I feel really lucky! Not only did we have a grizzly bear experience, but we had a Momma Bear Grizzly experience and we weren’t attacked while she was protecting her baby. Part of me almost wished they hadn’t told us that part. But only a part of me. Mostly I think it’s fanatical! And wild! And positively and undeniably one of the most invigorating experiences of my life thus far!
At 9:45am my watch was reading that we had accomplished the 5.7 mile hike up the mountain. Per the maps, we should be at top and at the end of the trail. And I guess we kind of are. There are suddenly benches to rest. The ground is more flat (ish). There are pit toilets. But there’s no glacier. You know what there is though… A sign that says another .4 miles to the Grinnell Glacier Lake. Oh! Ok! So the map only tells you how far it is to the benches and bathroom. Got it! Thanks National Park Service for that.
No worries though! We’ve done 5.7 miles so far, what’s another .4? We’ve got this! Or so we thought… That last .4 miles is almost straight up! I think we were taking a break every 10 feet through this section of the trail. But we kept going. It’s only .4 miles.
And well worth that last push. We crested the top of giant boulders and there it was. The most pristine crystal clear blue lake I’ve ever seen… right in front of us. It had colossal chucks of ice all throughout it that I can only call Iceberg’s. And slightly up the adjoining mountain was the iceberg that had formed this incredible high elevation lake. The same iceberg that created the little waterfall creeks we had crossed on our journey up. The same iceberg that contributed to Josephine Lake far below us. There it was! An almost perfectly white, gargantuan, solid chunk of a “Giant Ice Cube!” We did it! We made it to the top! We made it to the glacier!
It’s amazing how our bodies gain this little extra amount of energy when we can see a finish line. Like we’ve been holding onto it for just this very moment in our expedition. Yeah, I know, it’s called adrenaline, but it’s still pretty outstanding. Because all of a sudden I was just about running through the rock field to get to the lake. I’m not sure if Doug was just trying to keep up with me, or if he felt the same way, but I just needed to touch it!
We sat down on a flat rock right along Grinnell Lake. We ate our lunch. We enjoyed and appreciated the view. We took the time to allow our bodies a moment of rest, and then we put our hands down to the lake. The surface of the water had the thinnest little layer of ice across it. It broke so easily when we put our fingertips to it and then broke even more as we submerged our hands. It was so cold, but also so refreshing after our trek. We took our required selfie and started on our way over toward the glacier itself.
We made it about 100 feet before I looked at my watch. I looked over at the glacier and the hike that still needed to happen before we got there. It was probably close to another 1 1/2 miles away, and through a complete boulder field that neither one of us was truly prepared to do. It was now 10:30am. It took us 3 1/2 hours to get here. Probably, at least, another hour before we could get to the glacier itself, and we still needed to get back down the mountain.
We still had Lagertha patiently waiting for us in the camper, and our legs were already feeling like Jell-O. I took a minute to evaluate my bucket list. Could I do this? Yeah. I can make it over there. I can touch it. Do I need to do this? It’s been on my list for so long. We’re right here. We’ve come this far. But at what expense?
Is being here in this beautiful moment not enough? Will our back and legs hold out long enough for us to add 3 more miles to this hike? And you know what… I turned around. Not because I was overly worried about Lagertha. Not because I was concerned with our bodies giving up on us. But because this unbelievable wonderous moment sitting beside a glacial lake 6.1 miles up a mountain with my husband was enough.
I didn’t need to touch the actual glacier to make it special. This whole experience has been exceptional. We had just sat here sweating to death in 60 degree weather huffing oxygen into our lungs at an alarming rate and had the most romantic peanut butter and jelly lunch EVER! Yeah. This was enough. This moment put the big ol’ checkmark on my Bucket List.
We made our way back down the mountain. We made it down in 2 1/2 hours. Funny how gravity and increased oxygen in the air assist in making the decent much faster than the accent. There were significantly more people headed up the path at this hour than there was when we started off. Someone probably should have told them how long to plan for this hike…
If they made it all the way to the top and then came back down, it would likely be dark before they reached the bottom. But that will be their decision to make. For us, we did it! The pain in our knees and in our backs as we climbed into the truck was worth every single one of those arduous steps.
We were back to the camper by 2pm. Lagertha was happy to see us. We were happy to be home. By the end of the day, after walking Lagertha a few times, my watch read that I had completed 14.91 miles that day. Well over 30,000 steps. I felt it too. My legs and back were throbbing. All I wanted to do was sleep, but that didn’t come easily with all of the aches and pains. But you know what… Still worth it. All of it.
That’s my Glacier National Park story. All real. All factual. I’m super proud of the two of us for making it all the way and not backing down. Do I think everyone should go to Glacier NP? Yeah. I do. I think it’s absolutely beautiful and seeing these enormous mountains and the glaciers scattered throughout them is something we should all see. I think looking up in the night sky and being able to see the streaks of gasses from our galaxy are magnificent. I definitely think we should skip the trip to Aruba sometimes and enjoy what our own country has to offer.
Not everyone needs to reach out and touch a glacier and suffer through 12.2 miles in an attempt. I’m glad we did though. I wouldn’t trade those 10 minutes sitting next to Grinnell Glacier Lake for the world. You should check out our video of Glacier National Park so you can watch Doug’s reactions change the more and more we got to see. Plus… Our Grizzly encounter through the Bear Zone made it on camera! Y’all thought I was kidding that it was a 500lb bear!