Taking 13 years to build (between 1921-32), the purpose of the 52-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road was to allow visitors to Glacier NP the opportunity to get up-close and personal with the fantastic scenery that this part of the Rocky Mountains has to offer. Because of the short summer season and the rugged working conditions on the side of steep mountain valleys, the initial survey of the route required over 130 surveyors in order to keep 30 of them working continuously during the seven week period at their disposal. The road design was unusual for a mountain highway in that it did not use a large number of zig-zag switchbacks as is commonly done, instead opting for a gradual ascent creeping along the mountainside. This policy resulted in the construction of two short portals where the road burrows through the side of the mountain, one on each side of the continental divide at Logan Pass. This photo was taken coming down off the the divide as we head east into the East Portal.
We paid our US$25 National Park entrance fee (good for a week or $50/year) at the eastern end of the GTTS Road in St. Mary. There were a number of interesting views as we traversed this side of the mountain ranges, with a few handy roadside pull-over areas located at the best spots. The second photo is a distant view of Jackson Glacier, now shrunk to less than 1/7th the size it was when first documented in 1850. Eye-popping scenes are everywhere you look on the GTTS Road, such as the beautiful bowl-shaped valley with its stand of conifers and sharp-peaked mountain backdrop (3rd photo).
As we drove higher along the mountainsides, we could see 8180-ft Mt. Clements indicating that Logan Pass over the top of the divide was not far away (4th photo). The not very impressive looking round mountain to the right is 9642-ft Going-to-the-Sun Mountain. Also along this stretch is the 492-foot high Bird Woman's Falls (partially shown in the 5th photo), which cascades down the slope in several stages carrying snow and glacier meltwater off Mt. Oberlin.
Although we ended up at Lake McDonald twice during our time in Glacier NP, we were short of time on both occassions and did not really do much in the way of activities. At 10 miles long, 1 mile wide and gouged 472-ft deep by glacial action, this is the largest lake in the park. Because of the large and sparsely populated Blackfeet Indian Reservation located on the eastern side of the NP, there are more and larger populated communities on the Pacific side, making Lake McDonald one of the most popular destinations in Glacier NP. I took this photo during our first day in Glacier when we had to make an 'emergency' shopping trip to West Glacier for photographic supplies. The other two photos were taken near sundown a couple of days later after a late arrival for our overnight stay at Lake McDonald Lodge.
The most common game to be found near the lake are grizzly and black bears, as well as moose and mule deer. Although a scenic spot, the lake is not actually noted for its fishing because the waters are not very rich in the nutrients required by most fish. However, the area is popular with visitors for the camping areas and many hikes that are possible to be undertaken from here. Among them are walks into the rustic old Sperry Chalet (part of the Great Northern Railway accommodations) and the Trail of the Cedars Nature walk to enjoy the Pacific-side forest.
After our first day of arriving in Glacier NP from Canada's Waterton Lakes NP, including a round-trip drive on the Going-to-the-Sun highway, we finally spent our first night in Montana just outside the southeast border of Glacier in the little town of East Glacier Park. The next morning, since we had to drive north again to reach our next accommodations, we took the opportunity to detour into the Two Medicine Lake area of the park while we were in the area (see my 'General' tip map for its location). It was another bright and sunny morning, with the Moon still visible in the clear sky as we drove toward the lake (2nd photo). The name for this part of the park arises from an intended joint sacred 'Medicine' meeting to be held here by the Blackfeet and Blood tribes. However, because the Blood were a day late in arriving, the tribes ended up holding separate Medicine councils.
This area is a popular camping spot, being located on the shores of the lake and with 8271-ft (2521-m) Mount Sinopah as a scenic backdrop to the blue water. As detailed in my Accommodations tips, Glacier NP was developed early-on in its history with a number of large hotels to provide luxury accommodations for wealthy patrons brought in by rail. Along with these major establishments, a series of chalets was also built throughout the park area about a one-day horseback ride apart, in those pre-road days of the early 1900s. Most were built of stone, but the 3rd photo shows the lone survivor of the original two log chalets built here in 1914, this one being used as the dining hall. With the coming of highways, the chalets were mostly retired and now only three of the original ten chalets remain standing. This one is presently used as the Camp Store during the summer tenting months at the Two Medicine location.
At 1 PM, it was still too early for us to check into our new accommodations at Many Glacier Hotel, so we decided we would try another hike to a waterfall - this time to Apikuni Falls, starting out not far from the hotel in the area between Sherburne and Swiftcurrent Lakes. We upped the exercise factor slightly with this 2-mile round trip involving an elevation gain of 700-ft as we climbed up and around the side of Altyn Peak (2nd photo).
We were now in the heat of the afternoon and the sweat was starting to pour, despite the very nice breeze as we gained elevation. A couple of sets of other hikers passed us on their descent, with one group saying that they had watched Big Horn Sheep near the falls just a short time before. As we got closer to the falls, the trail became more difficult, with many sections of dry, loose rocks that had a tendency to roll and slide underfoot, so you had to be careful where you placed your feet.
It only took less than a half-hour to reach the falls, now deserted but for ourselves. The clear pool of water at the base of the falls looked very inviting, but we decided to enjoy the view out over Sherburne Lake to 8400-ft Wynn Mountain (5th photo) as we sat beside the waterfall enjoying our light snack of bananas, jalapeno cheese sandwiches and water bottles. I took my T-shirt off to cool down a bit in the sunshine but had to hold onto my hat during periodic severe wind bursts! It seemed as though we were in a wind tunnel of sorts here because every so often a tremendous gust would buffet both us and the waterfall, actually tearing spray from the falling water and sending it upward (4th photo) before a fine mist settled over us. It was a great way to get cool. However, there was no longer any sign of the Big Horn Sheep, so we made the easy descent by shortly after 2 PM to see how things were going at the hotel.
We had to get at least one major hike in during our four days of moving from place to place within Glacier NP, so we decided to try for Grinnell Glacier on the morning we were to leave Many Glacier area for Lake McDonald. We were up before 7 AM to pack up our stuff, leave it in the trunk of the car in the parking lot, check-out then go down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast before going dockside to catch the 8:30 AM voyage of the tour boat 'Chief Two Guns'. We had bought tickets the night before for this ride to the end of Swiftcurrent Lake, followed by a short hike to Lake Josephine where we boarded a second boat, 'Morning Eagle' which dropped us off near the end of that lake. This cut a bit less than 2-miles of hiking off this 11-mile round trip with an elevation gain of 1600-ft.
The Park Ranger who boarded the boats with us was very helpful as he explained various facts about the hike to the approximately 15 people who ended up on the boat with us. To help us get to know each other, he carried out a little exercise as we hiked through the vegetation on the hillside above Lake Josephine. As he came to a plant, flower or object of interest he would have the person behind him point it out, along with its name to each of the other members of the party as they passed by. He did this with each of the hikers until we all had a turn. I had a bit of a drab white flower, with several blossoms per stem, called a Pearly Everlasting but I carried out my duty nevertheless!
We had not known a Ranger would be along on the trip and he mentioned that everyone could just do their own thing at their own pace. The group was slowing down a bit too much for us, so we soon struck out ahead on our own, although there were quite a few other hikers on the trail as well.
It was noon and three and half hours after we set out before we reached the heart of Grinnell Glacier, a mass of ice with bits of water set into a rocky bowl in front of the Salamander Glacier. The temperature was very nice, in the mid-20s C with a comfortable breeze blowing, so it was great to take some time to just savour the moment! Various hikers were examining different parts of the Glacier and many, like us, also sat down to have the remnants of their food for lunch while enjoying the scene. The final photo of me standing there also shows the trickle of Salamander Falls dropping down into this lake, which in turn feeds the larger Grinnell Falls near our previous banana break spot.
We could not linger too long up here because we were hoping to catch the tour boats back to the Many Glacier Hotel. Even going back down the trail was hot work, and we had to ration our water supplies because we had not really started out with enough bottles. However, it only took about two and a quarter hours to reach Lake Josephine where we managed to catch our ride with only 10 minutes to spare! A short time later and we were back in the hotel lobby enjoying cold beers and wines respectively in celebration of our accomplishment. There was still no time to linger though, we had to be on our way in the car back down to St. Marys and then once more through the park on the Going-to-the-Sun Road to reach our night's accommodations on Lake McDonald. Because we had already driven the GTTS Road once, this time we just put a relaxing CD on as we cruised past the sights, well contented with our days work!
Our very first experience with Glacier National Park was enjoying the magnifcent views of the 10-mile long Saint Mary Lake, only minutes after entering the eastern entrance of the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The lake is surrounded by many spectacular peaks, carved from the mountains about 22,000 years ago by glaciers flowing out toward the Prairies. I clambered down to the shoreline for this southwest view up the lake, with Red Eagle Mountain standing tall on the right side. A little further along the road, we swung around a corner for a more westerly view toward the head of St. Mary Lake. In that 2nd photo, the tiny tree-covered Wild Goose Island sits alone with a series of jagged peaks behind (from the left to distant centre are Matatopa, Little Chief, Dusty Star and Fusillade mountains). We also had a couple of chances to see what the lake looked like in the other direction, as we returned to the east in the 3rd photo. Our last experience in the Park was also here, as we awoke to early morning clouds around the peaks near our cabin at the Rising Sun Motor Inn (4th photo). This was the only time in our four days that we saw clouds on any of the mountain tops!
Sitting at an elevation of 6646-ft (2025-m), with the 8180-ft Mount Clements towering above, Logan Pass Visitor Centre is the only building located in the mountainous part of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, and it is a popular spot. We passed through this area four times (twice in each direction) and were only able to get into its parking lot on the final pass (a Monday instead of our earlier Friday and Sunday drives).
However, it was worth the wait, with its helpful displays on the geography and animal/plant life in this part of the Park. We were even able to buy a small book to help us identify some of the many wildflowers that are were still in-bloom at these high elevations. The really great part though is a very scenic, enjoyable and easy hike to Hidden Lake that leaves from here (one of my later Tips). We did that one as our last adventure before the holiday was over - it was nice to go out on top!
Once over the continental divide, a great view of the steep valley beside the 'Garden Wall' awaits you. In this view, the slash winding along the mountainside to the right is the route the Going-to-the-Sun Road takes as it gradually descends to the 3150-ft elevation of Lake McDonald on the Pacific side of the ranges. Even higher than the road is the Highline hiking trail, leaving from the Logan Pass VC - too bad we missed out on that one! Just over that jagged peak to the right lies Grinnell Glacier (on the eastern side of the divide). We actually did the hike up to it later in our trip as we undertook our most ambitious adventure from the Many Glacier area of the park. Unlike the eastern side of the park where the flat Prairies march right up to its boundary, the western side is a sea of mountain peaks from various ranges that cover the ground all the way through Idaho and Washington to the ocean.
There is another small vehicle pull-over here only a few hundred feet away from the Logan Pass Visitor Center, but it was just as busy the Center itself, also limiting us to one stop there from our four drive-bys. While standing there for the second photo, we heard a rustling noise below the wooden platform and were surprised to see a very large Hoary Marmot (they grow up to 30-lbs) digging around beside a tree trunk. These largest of the North American ground squirrels are not shy around humans but often end up as a nice-sized meal for bears or golden eagles!
The Pacific side of the Going-to-the-Sun Road is warmer than the eastern side, so its winter avalanches don't tend to be as severe, allowing more of the stone 'guardrails' to survive as seen here. When traveling west, just after an almost 180-degree switchback known as The Loop, you will come upon the West Portal tunnel through a portion of the mountainside here (2nd photo).
This is a very scenic spot that actually has a sidewalk inside that connects to the quite large vehicle parking area near the entrance. Inside the tunnel, two alcoves off the sidewalk, with stone arch 'windows', allow pedestrians beautiful views down the McDonald Creek valley far below (3rd photo), as it bends behind the big peak on the right side. This is where the GTTS Road ends up once it is down off the slopes and a pleasant drive alongside the creek will soon find you at Lake McDonald.
Lake McDonald is fed by the relatively tame McDonald Creek, at least when we were there in mid-July. Despite the tranquil appearance of this small cascade where it enters the lake, this creek can reach enormous flows during the spring snowmelt and, further up, the 30-foot McDonald Falls is a sight to behold.
The second photo shows the view from the Going-to-the-Sun Road when returning to the east through the cedar forests along the bank of the creek. Getting closer to the end of the valley, the jagged summit of the continental divide, called 'The Garden Wall' towers above the mountainside along which the Road will eventually take you. On the other side of those peaks lies Grinnell Glacier, accessed from Many Glacier by one of the most popular hikes in the National Park. By the way, the 'S-shaped' clearings going up the side of the mountain are due to water run-off - the highway is hidden by the trees.
It was only mid-morning by the time we finished checking out Two Medicine Lake, so we decided to take the easy hike into Running Eagle Falls from a roadside parking area just a short distance from lakeside. This little trek is only a 0.6 mile round-trip and is wheelchair accessible. We took a path that led us along the edge of a gravelly creekbed and over a small wooden bridge until we could finally hear the roar of the falls.
I have seen a lot of waterfalls during my time, but Running Eagle was still quite a sight - with a huge torrent of water coming straight out of a hole in the side of the cliff face! The 3rd photo gives you some idea of its size, with me standing on top of a large boulder (difficult to see me with my light coloured clothes). The waterfall is also known as 'Trick Falls' because during the spring snowmelt, the main flow of water is off the now dry cliff above, completely obscuring the water coming from the 'cave' below.
After our short hike at Running Eagle Falls, we had a relatively long drive up the east side of the National Park to reach the Many Glacier area that we had driven past the previous day, due to the way our accommodations had been set up by the National Park Service booking agency. As we drove in the access road, we were liking the looks of the mountains ahead, as we passed the strangely coloured water of Lake Sherburne. This is actually an artificial lake created in 1919 when an almost 1100-ft wide and 107-ft high earth-filled dam was built here across Swiftcurrent Creek, now used as part of the Milk River water storage project to assist agricultural activities in this part of Montana.
This area turned out to be the site of our best hikes and also the most fun accommodations-wise! The second photo shows the view as we neared the end of Lake Sherburne, with Wynn Mountain on the left and Mount Grinnell to the right. Later, we actually managed to hike up to the area of the ice-field in the distant background, known as the 'Salamander' Glacier because of its shape.
Once we went on ahead of the group it was a more enjoyable walk since we often had large sections of the trail to ourselves and could enjoy the beautiful scenery with just the sounds of nature in our ears. This portion of the hike was relatively easy as we were nearing the end of the tree-line on the steeply sloping side of the glacier-carved valley leading up to the remnants of the ice field. The 2nd photo shows the third lake we came across during the hike (after the two travelled by boat), Grinnell Lake and its overshadowing 7430-ft. Angel Wing mountain.
As we continued further along the trail, we could see the large white Salamander Glacier on the side of the Garden Wall ridge, with a thin stream of water from Salamander Falls as it dropped down into the area of brown rocks in the middle of the 3rd photo. This is the area where Grinnell Glacier is located and where we were headed, although this used to be just one big glacier when first discovered. The larger waterfall in the foreground is Grinnell Falls, feeding meltwaters into Grinnell Lake.
Although most of my photos don't show it, the hiking trail up to Grinnell had very sharp and deep drop-offs into the valley below for most of its length. It definitely made one be careful about where each footstep was going! One of the most interesting parts was along a stretch of rock wall that had various waterfalls flowing down into the valley below. The one in this photo was the most challenging because it had a fairly decent water flow that was drenching the inside part of the trail closest to the rock face and the wind was also occassionaly swirling the spray onto the large boulders on the outside edge as well. Everyone had to stop here to somehow put cameras and other valuables under cover before stepping onto the wet boulders at the edge of the precipice to get past. The same spot is shown in the 2nd photo - there is a larger waterfall at the right side, but it was not a problem. The hiking trail is the narrow line running along the bottom third of the photo and off to the left with a few small hikers visible here and there. The 'wet' waterfall is coming out of the green clump of bushes in the middle of the photo.
Once we were past that spot, we walked up around the mass of snow to a lookout point over Grinnell Falls, where we stopped (3rd photo) for a banana and a drink of water before continuing along. The 4th photo shows Sue on a typical section of trail as we continued from there.