The Great American Road Trip–Part V

Glacier National Park

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 Day One

Well I was stoked to have finally made it to the edge of Glacier National Park after all these years!  This is truly a place of superlatives.  Here are just a few facts.  Glacier became our eighth national park in 1910 and encompasses over one million acres.  It borders Canada’s Waterton National Park and in 1932 the two became Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, the first of its kind in the world.  Both are designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites and UN Biosphere Reserves.  This vast pristine ecosystem is the centerpiece of what has been referred to as the “Crown of the Continent Ecosystem”, a region of protected land encompassing 16,000 square miles (Wikipedia and NPS).  Whew!  This is seriously rugged country, home to grizzly bears, lynx and wolverines as well as over 1,000 plant species.

This is seriously rugged country, home to grizzly bears,
lynx and wolverines

On the road at 6:00 a.m. (lunch made and packed) I was easily into the park before 7:00 where I ‘tackled’ a ranger and quizzed him at length about challenging hikes, especially any that would lead me to glaciers.  Turns out the glaciers are rapidly receding, but one can still hike to the Grinnell Glacier on the other side of the park.  He also informed me that the Going to the Sun Road was closing the following day at midnight for the season.  Because of heavy snowfall it had not even opened until July 13, the latest opening in park history.

Well no time to waste.  With only today to explore the west side of the park, I decided to hike to Avalanche Lake.  A short drive to the gorgeous Lake McDonald brought me to the trailhead.

Hiking Avalanche Gorge to Avalanche Lake

Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park

From here I began to climb steadily following the Middlefork Flathead River which carved its way through rock formations colored by iron and copper.

Can you tell which way the avalanche went through?


If you don’t mind a climb and you want to be humbled by the power and diversity of nature then this four mile round trip hike is for you.

Ninety minutes or so of steady climbing through Avalanche Gorge brought me to the shore of Avalanche Lake.  The rear of the lake is ringed with high mountains from which tumble a number of waterfalls.

Lake Avalanche, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park


Although barely 10 o’clock, I nonetheless greedily consumed my lunch before returning on the same route.  Arriving back at the trailhead just after 11:00, I was ready to dedicate the rest of my day to traversing the 53 mile Going -to-the-Sun Road.

 Going-to-the-Sun Road

Construction of Going-to-the-Sun Road began in 1921 and was completed in 1932.  It is the only road to cross the park cresting the Rockies at Logan Pass–elevation 6,646 ft (2,026 m).  Being a film buff, I noted that the road was featured in The Shining and in Forest Gump.  It takes 10 weeks each year to clear massive snowdrifts, often topping 80 feet from the road using plows and dynamite.


GTTS Road Under Construction 1932–NPS–Public Domain Photo


Going-to-the-Sun Road Today

In the above photo, one can see two elevations of the road giving an idea of the massive scale of this place.  The lower elevation, situated directly across from the camera is where one sees the ‘tiny’ white semi truck.  Looking upward to where the green ends, one can just see the cut of the road snaking its way toward Logan Pass.


Detail of Douglas Fir and Western Cedar Prior to Timberline


Although the road is only 53 miles, I took roughly seven hours to complete the trip to Saint Mary, stopping often to walk, gawk, breathe and photograph.

Approaching the Summit and Looking Back

At Logan Pass there is a visitor center which had a fair amount of folks getting in their last chance of the season visit.  Being in a rather transcendental space by this time, I passed and instead went for a 30 minute hike on a nearby trail.  The altitude was high and the temperature was definitely dropping fast.

Logan Pass, Glacier National Park


Back in the Jeep and decending the eastern side, I saw several examples of glacial runoff.

Well, I finally arrived in St. Mary.  The day rapidly became dark, windy and frigid.  There is a handsome and pricey historic lodge on the shore of the lake which was quite full.  However, they have a few rustic cabins that were built in 1937 and have had wall furnaces added.  One was still vacant and I was fortunate to grab it.  After a beer and a hearty steak dinner in the lodge, I walked back to the cabin and quickly crashed with the knowledge that tomorrow I planned to hike to the Grinnell Glacier.

To be continued…

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4 Responses to The Great American Road Trip–Part V

  1. Stephanie - The Travel Chica January 26, 2012 at 12:49 pm #

    That Lake McDonald photo really stands out.
    Stephanie – The Travel Chica recently posted..Welcome to El Chalten

    • Philip January 26, 2012 at 1:01 pm #

      Appreciate that Stephanie. Next up are the glacier photos although Grinnell Glacier does not come close, glacier-wise, to what you are experiencing in Patagonia.

  2. jade January 26, 2012 at 5:42 pm #

    Wow- this looks like a hike and a part of the country I would love to visit. I really like taking short mile drives and taking all day to explore and get outside. Looks like you took full advantage of your time.
    jade recently posted..Filming with The Travel Channel: Day One

    • Philip January 27, 2012 at 9:45 am #

      You should definitely go Jade. It’s a short season but do go. So many great hikes there.

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