On the Road Summer 2021 Days 9-13 Glacier National Park

I haven't felt much like writing since my son said I was being a bit judgy about large recreational vehicles. I'd been grousing that I didn't think they should be admitted into national parks, as inconsistent with the goal of "preserving unimpaired our natural resources." What raccoon wants to hear and smell that motor? The parks can bring in plenty of camping revenue from smaller vehicles. It was on the same day that a good friend was telling him how wonderful his family weekends were hauling his RV out of town and into the woods with his oversized pickup, towing both a golf cart and an ATV they'd use to have a blast. "How is that different from your carbon footprint supporting large music festivals and flying to Europe?" he asked. I guess we're all contributing to the deterioration of the planet. I am sorry subsequent generations. 



On the Road – Day 9-13 Glacier National Park


It was close to 6:30 a.m. when I pulled on a clean shirt and hit the road again in Shelby. If I could avoid any more delays, I could be cruising through Two Medicine Campground looking for a spot around 8 am. Perfect.

I like this photo because it gives the impression of snow-capped mountains. More likely in days of yore before global warming, but there are few snow-capped mountains and glaciers in the park now. There are patches of snow and even some remaining glaciers further north at higher altitudes in the Many Glaciers section of the park. But you won’t see snow in the Two Medicine area. Not in August. The skylines here are far more likely to be shrouded in wildfire smoke in August. The glaciers are melting, and the fire season is extending.

Long ago, glaciers dug into the mighty mountains here, creating giant bowls for over 250 lakes with precipices between, some simply sheer cliffs of jagged rock and others, slopes thick with alpine forests of slender deep green pines, with wildflowers and berry bushes spreading down toward the lakes. Waterfalls abound. Some of the lakes are deep blue and some milky green with glacier sediment. All are pristine. Rock thrust upward millions of years ago from the bottom of the sea by tectonic plate movement reveal bands of time in differing strata of colors reaching back eighty million years. Much of the terrain here has been touched only lightly by indigenous tribes and remains unspoiled.


I had snagged a ticket the morning before to take the Going to the Sun Road. Going to the Sun is a 50-mile drive that runs southwest through the Park from St Mary Visitor Center to Apgar. Visitors can start at either end. Both St. Mary and Apgar have visitor centers and campgrounds. Only so many vehicles can travel it at once or there is not enough parking at the overlooks. Breathtaking views abound and it is best to take advantage of the overlooks as driving requires your full attention. I went early, which is advisable as I was unable to find parking as the sun rose higher.


Lodging and certain activity reservations within the park include this entry privilege. Check the regs when you are traveling. Advance tickets were sold out for the days I hoped to be there. So, if I wanted one, for a nominal fee and good for seven consecutive days, I had to be one of the first callers at 8 a.m. no sooner than two days before my entry. The first time I tried, the four hundred available tickets were gone within three minutes and I was not successful despite devoting that three minutes from 8 am forward to dialing and redialing. I was however successful the next day. The drive offers unparalleled views.

Two Medicine is at the southeastern corner of the Park, about 13 miles north on Highway 49 from US2. It has a beautifully-maintained first-come first-serve campground on the lake and an amphitheater with regular ranger programs.


If you choose to stay in this corner of the park and are not inclined to rough it camping out, you might want to unpack, shower and sleep in the historic Glacier Park Lodge, the first hotel built by the Great Northern Railway. East Glacier is a seasonal stop for Amtrak on their Empire Builder line from April to October. Many folks who arrive by train get off at the Whitefish train station rather than East Glacier where there are no car rentals to my knowledge or West Glacier where the car rentals can cost twice as much. The lodge has a lot of rustic character and serves gourmet farm to table meals. Check out the reviews first though as many have been disappointed by small, shabby rooms, despite the many amenities offered. There are other interesting lodging options in the park as well, which you will especially enjoy if you love an historic building and have a propensity to see everything as charming. There’s the Village Inn at Apgar, Lake McDonald Lodge, the Rising Sun Motor Inn, Many Glacier Hotel and the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. Some are situated to have stellar views. I stopped to scope out Lake McDonald Lodge, but in these times of COVID, I tend to shrink back in horror when I come across hordes of people in small spaces, even if it’s a porch…so I didn’t make it in. On my next visit, however, I hope to secure a lakeside room on the sixth floor of the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton. It’s a seven-story alpine chalet on a hilltop overlooking the lake. I will stand in the five-story lobby and gaze out its enormous windows at glacier-carved Lake Waterton and her surrounding mountains. If a charming traveler offers to bring me a whiskey, I'll likely accept.


Back to skulking into Two Medicine campground, hungrily and critically eying sites as folks groggily packed up. I have been on the other end of this phenomenon and it doesn’t feel good. Camping on a coveted bluff site on the Olympic Peninsula, I entertained painting a sign in a disturbed script that read: NO. I’M NOT LEAVING so that I could have a morning without paparazzi-types who wanted my campsite slowing down to chat with faux-friendliness.


At Two Medicine, I unobtrusively and efficiently latched up a super cool campsite near the edge of a loop with its own secluded glade where I could hang my hammock and invisibly scan the cliffs of Rising Wolf Mountain for bighorn sheep or mountain goats with my binoculars. Only a dirt road and thin screen of trees separated the lake.  Those in the open area have a grander view of the lake and of the mountains towering around it. But I did not want to camp there with the RVs and without shade. I did however avail myself of that spectacular vista when splashing in the cool clear water or sitting on a lakeside bench. Do be aware that this was more of an anomaly among national parks; many, maybe most, do not allow hanging hammocks.


The host and rangers did a fantastic job of ensuring people did not leave food or utensils out, with the result that the campground always looked neat. There were of course bear-proof lockers. In Yosemite, the black bears have learned even to open car doors, but the bears at Glacier are still naïve and the rangers want to keep it that way. A ranger told me the same old sad story: about people who violated the rules even after a warning. Their cooler of food enticed a bear to come into the campground and the rangers had to kill the bear. Warnings are posted: A fed bear is a dead bear.


The bathrooms have flush toilets and there is potable water available from hydrants all around the campground. The dump for dirty dishwater is at the entrance, a short walk.


Just down the road from the campgrounds is a camp store and the Glacier Park Boat Company outfitters shack where you can sign up to take a boat tour and a guided hike if you’d like, or rent a motorboat, canoe or kayak from a laid back and entertaining team of naturalists.



Two Medicine is in the southeast corner of the Park, not far from US2.  If you continue westbound on US2 another hour and a half, you will come to West Glacier and the Apgar Visitor Center and Campground. West Glacier has a lot more commerce and more of an amusement park feel. It has an Amtrak station as well and bundles of lodging options. Apgar Village, inside the park, is much more populated than Two Medicine, with cars pulled off seemingly everywhere for the many trailheads and beaches along this southern portion of the Going to the Sun Road. As I was swearing in for my Junior Ranger Badge, the Ranger told me there is first come first serve camping at Apgar. I considered it as the Lake McDonald beaches looked quite inviting on a hot summer day as did the number and variety of trails, but I opted instead to stay on the quieter side. I did pull over on my way down from Going to the Sun Road to take a lovely soft flat trail through the forest that followed the course of rushing water simply because I loved the name of the waterfall there - The Sacred Dancing Cascades, and because unlike the nearby Trail of the Cedars, I could find a place to park.



At the end of the day, I was relieved to return to my relatively secluded campsite and away from the congestion. During my stay there, I took every trail from Two Medicine Campground my feet would sustain. I am healing from an ankle injury and 12 miles at a shot is my max. Eight is far less taxing. Wading through the cool lake water each evening was healing. I hiked to a couple of nearby waterfalls the first day. The second day I took the Going to the Sun Road, stopping at every possible overlook and then exploring the area around Apgar.  The third day I hiked the perimeter of Two Medicine Lake, clapping and whistling to warn bears away. It seemed a silly exercise as the berry bushes surrounding me were taller than me and would block any sound I could make over the wind. The red berries everywhere that look like little raspberries are service berries. They are good, tangy. This area is also all about huckleberries too. You can get huckleberry honey, huckleberry pie, huckleberry ice cream, you name it.


I met a woman on the trail coming from the other direction and asked her if she’d seen any grizzlies. I was walking with my hand on the trigger of my canister of bear spray, as was she. Bear spray is as essential here as a snakebite kit and a whistle, and lubricating drops for your eyes during wildfire season. Consider carrying an N-95 in your glove compartment as well. She told me that because she was alone, she kept changing her voice so that she sounded like a group. I found that fairly amusing and decided to try it. It wasn’t long before I heard myself asking, “Well, why don’t you like your job?” and realized my hike had turned into a therapy session.


I met a couple on the trail who I ran into a week and half later at an early morning Ranger Program at the tidal pools on the Olympic Peninsula. They told me then that they saw a grizzly down at the lake only minutes after passing me on the trail. Grizzlies are carnivores by the way and believe it or not, my badass brother who has repeatedly run the 1100-mile Iditarod trail in Alaska alone in February warned me not to hike at Glacier. He spared me the details I would later hear: a hungry bear dragged a female hiker out of her tent. You can guess the end of that story. Glad I didn’t know that, especially because I found myself with half the length of the lake to cover as sunset was drawing near. And, as beautiful as it was, there was absolutely no one else taking that trail winding across the hills above the lake.


The vistas are hazy from wildfires, but still striking. The next time I come, in the contracting window between blizzards and wildfire season, I’d like to hike from Two Medicine to Triple Divide Peak and stand at the tiptop point when it rains. I’ll stand there and imagine being a raindrop… with an equal chance of traveling northwest to the Bering Sea into the Arctic… or northeast to the Labrador Sea or south to other waters that empty into the Atlantic… or directly south to Argentina before spilling into the Pacific Ocean.


And I’ll try to guess which ones will go where before they hit the earth.


I dearly wanted to go north to Many Glacier to hike, at least to see Grinnell Glacier on this trip. The campground there was only by reservation and it was full, but the Blackfeet had openings at Chewing Black Bones campground on their nearby reservation. I liked the idea of patronizing them. I drove as far as St. Mary, but the wildfire smoke just kept getting thicker and thicker. The air quality was poor even at Two Medicine, so I pretty much kept my hiking pace to a plod. Maybe it was just an excuse to be lazy, but aerobics in smoke doesn’t strike me as a good idea. I kept eyedrops in my pocket too as my eyes were dry and burning from the smoke. Too, road construction getting to Many Glaciers was causing traffic delays, sometimes up to two hours. Someone suggested going early, but I’m glad I didn’t listen to that advice as a Ranger told me the crews work through the night and have no qualms about letting just a couple cars sit for three hours. I don’t have that kind of time left in my life. Sighing, I decided to put off hiking to the glaciers for another trip in the hope they are not all melted. The only glacier I saw was a pathetic little patch of ice, barely discernible in the smoke. I asked a stranger to take my picture in front of it, a requirement for my pin, but I was a little embarrassed. I bravely held my Junior Ranger book in front of my heart and smiled. But the dirty patch of ice in the distance was a dismal reflection of global warming and not something I wanted to remember.


Glacier has over 700 miles of trails, including an impressive number of wilderness hiking trails renowned for their splendor and tranquility. I fully intend to return when my ankle is healed and get a wilderness permit. I would like to stay overnight once or twice at the Granite Park Chalet, built in 1914 and 1915 by the Great Northern Railway to provide comfortable back country accommodations. You can pre-order linens and even food, but you’ve got to provide your own water, even for washing your dishes.


I might take two canisters of bear spray on that hike. The full formal name of the park is actually the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park World Heritage Site as it is joined with Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park. In normal years, the Chief Mountain Border Crossing in the park on Montana 17, Canada Highway 6, is open from May 15 through September 30th.  It remained closed in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID. Note that border crossings in this area are not open 24/7, so check ahead for the hours of the border crossing you are planning to enter through.


I attended three evening Ranger Programs at Two Medicine amphitheater: one on mountain goats; one on the modern-day Blackfeet Indian experience; and, one on the Bull Trout. The ranger presenting Interview with a Goat, Pat Hagan was funny and poetic, citing eloquent passages from Douglas Chadwick’s book A Beast the Color of Winter. A mountain goat’s adaptive features are truly quite unusual and impressive, and I imagine I’ll curl in front of the fireplace this winter and enjoy reading the book. Incidentally, Pat Hagan, who has worked at the park since 1986 said that after wondering, he’d researched the data and found that the fire season is indeed now 75 days longer than it was when he began. It is getting harder to get to the park in the shrinking window between blizzards and fire season. We got to talking about mountain lions as they have been sighted occasionally in Glacier. I bounced my idea of buying out the ranchers around Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the government going into the meat selling business. He said that is what the American Prairie Preserve is trying to do, purchase land in order to connect public lands and allow free migration for wildlife like the Serengeti offers.


The next night Ranger Hogan hosted a program featuring Blackfeet Indian balladeer Joseph Running Crow, whose music is available on Spotify and iTunes and at the East Glacier Trading Company. His repertoire was hauntingly beautiful and terribly sad. It was fascinating watching him sing and play his acoustic guitar as his eyes fluttered and he seemed to go to some remote mental space to shut off the pain he sang about. It was only recently that the bodies of the native children sent off to schools ostensibly to learn to be integrated into our culture were uncovered in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. This turned out to be the tip of the iceberg of a tragic story still unfolding and he personally knew affected families, his being one of them. The meth addictions, the poverty, the lack of self-esteem and opportunities…it was all crushing and left most of the white audience in tears, asking what we could do. His response was to support artists. I was angry and retorted that “we could certainly do a lot more than that.”  The Blackfeet lived in Glacier. Why aren’t they receiving proceeds? Where are the partnerships? Where are the economic opportunities? I lost a Navajo friend who contracted COVID on his reservation in Arizona before Doctors without Borders could get in there to help. Can’t we provide any resources for health and education like we do for foreign sovereign nations? We are idly watching a genocide that’s been ongoing for 250 years.


The third ranger program, the one on bull trout was offered twice while I was there as I didn’t want to leave, even though it was smoky, and I’d stayed past the revolutions of programs. When was I going to leave? I did hike up to tell the ranger there the story I wrote for my junior ranger badge inspired by her presentation. Although the endangered bull trout are protected within the park boundaries, a Canadian company has applied for an open pit coal mining permit at a headwater tributary to the North Fork Flathead River in Canada. Toxins from mining will seep not only into nearby groundwater but will readily make their way into the Flathead River flowing through Glacier National Park and into the gut of the stone fly. The poisons will become more and more concentrated as they pass through the food chain, a process known as biomagnification. The bull trout will eat the stone fly. The bull trout will be eaten by bears and other animals, and both directly and indirectly by humans. My story was a coyote legend based on this scenario.

Glacier National Park stewards are serious about protecting the integrity of the rivers.


I’d planned on kayaking the lake on my fourth day, but it was far too windy. I was tired anyway, so I just hung out in my hammock listening to birds and reading a fantasy novel I’d brought along. I saw a couple mountain goats on the cliffs above the lake and a golden eagle soaring overhead. Now and then I wandered down to the lake and waded in, just because it was exhilarating. One feels very alive in Glacier, even relaxing. 


A storm front was moving in. Rain would begin falling heavily in the morning and continue for two days. Time for me to move on.


A note in closing: if you can snag one, buy a Huckleberry Hefe craft beer called Halo brewed by the Lewis and Clark Brewing Company in Helena. It’s mighty tasty and has a picture of a huckleberry hound on the can.