When you think of National Parks in America, the names ‘Yellowstone‘, ‘Yosemite’ and ‘Grand Canyon’ are the first to pop up, at least with Brits. When you get to America, and specifically Montana, it’s a different story. Despite the state being three times the size of England and full of wilderness, wildlife and stunning mountain passes (check out our video of Skalkaho Pass!), the one park worth mentioning was Glacier National Park. Every local spoke wistfully of the Park and every traveller we met was either on their way or their way back. Glacier, it seemed, was a ‘must-see’.
The trouble is Glacier National Park has a postscript: get there before Labor Day.
The Labor Day weekend – when Summer becomes Fall
Montana experienced an unusual summer. It is so heavily wooded that fires are the norm. They ravage the landscape, affect visibility and leave a smoky smell everywhere. This year there was a wet spring and so core temperatures did not get so high. Montana was clear and lush and fresh. Many people told us we were experiencing it at its best and it was a total joy to travel and camp.
When you spend every day travelling, you lose sense of the days. As we happily meandered our way towards Glacier National Park, which sits on the Canadian border, people started mentioning the looming Labor Day – one of the busiest camping weekends in the season. After Labor Day, the kids go back to school, the RVs are replaced with people carriers, smaller campsites close down, work resumes in earnest, part-time Montanans head back down south to winter homes in Arizona and Texas, and Summer becomes Fall.
Without really realising it, we arrived within the vicinity of West Glacier on the first day of the Labor Day weekend with no reservations. Bad planning Chimps!
Hungry Horse Reservoir
Guessing that campsites would be busy and trails packed, we decided to wait out the weekend at a campsite on the Hungry Horse Reservoir, half an hour away from Glacier National Park. Many people use the campgrounds as a base for the park in the summer as the official camps fill quickly, but they are worth a visit in their own right. The campsites are in the Flathead National Forest and at $23 per night (no showers but they have water and long-drop toilets), they cost the same as the National Park sites and the locations are stunning.
The reservoir is enormous and beautiful with emerald green water, forested islands and winding creeks, ideal for kayak explorations. We stayed at Lid Creek campground, camping in the trees just a short walk to the water and a beach. Doris Campground and Lost Johnny Campground were both beautiful too.
We met some lovely folk in Lid Creek – Shannon and Brad – who live in Kalispell, the nearest decent-sized town. They had visited Glacier hundreds of times, pre and post having kids. They gave us loads of info on where to camp with our bus and where to trek with a family (nice and easy) as well as amazing hikes if you could get a bit further into the park (i.e. without the kids!). Obviously we wanted to do the latter and so we came up with a plan to work on the boys to get them to agree to a 10-mile hike: we’d start simple and build them up. “Use whatever is necessary” Shannon said knowingly, for it is a truth universally acknowledged by all mothers that bribery is the only way to get kids to walk that far. Marshmallow power!
Navigating Glacier National Park
Glacier’s full name is Waterton-Glacier National Park – it is billed as a ‘National Peace Park’ because it joins together Glacier National Park, Black Feet, Flathead and Kootenai Indian Reservations in America and Waterton National Park in Canada. Aside from the very obvious customs border, it is all one big park and there are some incredible back-country camping and hiking opportunities.
If you don’t want to / can’t head off with your tent in your backpack to find the true wilderness, you are a little more limited to hikes starting on the Going to the Sun road, the only driving route through the park. The narrow road snakes it’s way up and over Logan Pass in a series of hairpin bends and sheer drops, which make it pretty spectacular. It is closed to everything over 21ft so if, like us, you have an RV, you’ll need to get the shuttle from Apgar or St Mary’s Visitor Centres in West Glacier or St Mary’s respectively.
A bus problem
And here lies the Labor Day problem. The shuttles.
The free transport was introduced to reduce pressure on a park that is getting more and more visitors each year. The Going to the Sun road cannot cope with all the people visiting and there simply isn’t space in the car parks. Our camping neighbour said he had queued for a space at Logan Pass at 7.30am, which is 1.5 hours drive from Apgar – and this was now off-season. Summer must be awful.
The Park encourages people to leave their cars at the Visitor Centre and get in the bus queue. This isn’t too much of a problem if you go before Labor Day as they run frequently. If you visit afterwards, as we did, they are reduced in number. Most of the drivers are employed through a local agency for the summer only. And what does a summer bus-driving job attract? School bus drivers looking for summer work. If the weather is good after Labor Day, tough luck – the drivers have all gone back to their regular jobs.
Hiking and camping in Glacier National Park
Apgar campground is the place of choice for large RVs. After Labor Day prices go down to $20 per night. The sites have toilets but no other services – you need to have your own shower or just enj`oy your own filth. The big benefit is that you can walk to the Visitor Centre shuttle stop, as well as Apgar village and Lake Macdonald. We biked and pottered around the three on our first afternoon, picked up our Junior Ranger packs, ate huckleberry ice cream and skimmed stones on the clear water to settle in. It had a nice atmosphere – not as ‘fake’ as Yellowstone’s camps and villages.
Avalanche Lake and Trail of the Cedars
Day two we got up early to catch the shuttle to Avalanche campground, where the trailhead for the Trail of the Cedars begins. This is an easy one mile boarded promenade that weaves through huge old Red Cedars, magnificent thick trees with deep crevices in their bark. They tower over the path and keep it calm and cool.
Halfway around the trail there is a junction leading to Avalanche Lake. A gradual two-mile incline takes you up through the forest past chipmunks and ground squirrels, fallen trees, moss-strewn boulders and streams – remnants of an old glacier that forged a path here. Eventually it all opens out to a circle of mountains complete with waterfalls – all of which are cascading into the stunning, turquoise Avalanche Lake. It was unbelievably picturesque and serene, despite the number of people on the same walk. Any greater crowds and it would detract though, so think carefully before you attempt it in high-summer.
Logan Pass – Hidden Lake Overlook Trail and The Highline
You can catch a shuttle to Avalanche but then you need to transfer on to a smaller shuttle to make the ascent to Logan Pass. Two hours queuing and we gave up and put our thumbs out. I’m not normally an advocate of hitch-hiking but I’m not an advocate of sitting in a bus queue with two bored children either. The Park Ranger told us he always thumbs a lift and that was good enough for us. We split up – 1 boy each – and within 10 minutes had both secured lifts to the top of Logan Pass. Guy and Kit with a young couple from Chicago on a ‘vacay’ and Soren and I with a couple of retirees from North Carolina who were driving toward Canada to visit relatives. Winner!
The Highline Trail is actually an 11.6 mile hike that takes you to a spot further down the Sun road – the loop- where you can pick up the shuttle again. Shannon had told us that the first part of the hike is the best – it cuts across the Garden Wall, a sharp ridge, and gives you a panorama of the park. Because you start at the highest point, this section also has some of the most exciting action – there are parts where you have to hold on to a rope and traverse across a narrow passage at height. Boy heaven! You join this hike across the road from the Visitor Centre.
After lunch we scrambled back and took the popular, heavily tramped Hidden Lake Overlook Trail. The trailhead starts behind the Visitor Centre and at 3 km, much of which is boarded walkway or flat path, this is the trail that most people attempt. Shannon and Brad said it was worth battling the crowds so we powered past everyone, which was no mean feat as as soon as anyone hears our accent they want to stop and chat. Once they hear about our bus we can’t get away from the conversation so we tried to kept our mouths shut and our heads down but Kit’s thrift store Green Bay Packers t-shirt kept attracting attention. ‘Go Pack!’ people would shout at him and expect a some kind of return response!
The view was spectacular but full of people holding cameras and phones. Our campsite neighbour David told us to walk past the viewpoint and just carry on for a couple of hundred metres – a top tip as we had the view to ourselves of a deep blue lake flanked by steep crevices and Sperry Glacier.
St Mary Campground, East Glacier
As we couldn’t drive across the park, we headed out of Apgar and took the long route around the edge of the park, stopping at Browning for supplies. Browning is part of the Indian reservation and it was very desolate and run-down – very different to the American towns we had visited so far. It wasn’t helped by the drizzly rain that wouldn’t shift. They had a Visitor Centre somewhere that we thought might be interesting but we were wet, cold and a little bit too focused on the peach pie we’d bought at the supermarket. We headed straight back into the park again at the East entrance.
St Mary is the other end of the Sun road to Apgar. It too has a Glacier National Park Visitor Centre and free shuttles but it immediately seemed less busy and commercial on this side, more desolate. Bear activity in the area meant it was only open to hard-sided vehicles, which perhaps helped us secure a campspot at St Mary campground late in the day. Prices were the same – $20 per vehicle – and the Visitor Centre was just across the bridge.
The trees of Glacier
Kit had to attend a ranger talk to to secure his Junior Ranger badge (Soren had already nailed his by finding a Ranger and grilling him, ever so cutely, about the opportunity to spot Picas at Logan Pass). We duly biked to the Visitor Centre at 7.30pm and sat down in the theatre expecting something along the lines of Yellowstone’s Ranger talks, a slide show about the mythical ‘Old Man Coyote’. This one was by a Ranger who was talking about something a lot more personal to him though; his area of study and the reason why he was working in Glacier: trees.
We had been surrounded by trees for a month and it was fascinating to learn about five of the species found in Glacier. It shed a whole new light on how the forests work – for instance, I thought forest fires were universally bad but in some cases, trees have evolved to use fire as a tactic. Ranger Dan showed us a closed up Lodgepole Pine cone – this is a tree that has evolved its own niche way of competing in the forest. The trees grow close together which attracts pests, this kills some of the trees and creates dead wood. The dead wood catches fire easily and although this kills some more of the trees, it doesn’t take them all. Instead the flames allow the trees to play their trump card – the pine cones only open in intense heat. The forest re-seeds the area and allows the Lodgepole to spread before the other trees have gathered themselves. Fascinating!
St Mary Falls and Virginia Falls
We caught the 9am shuttle up to Sun Point on St Mary Lake and hiked up to St Mary Falls, then on to the slightly higher Virginia Falls. It was a beautiful, relatively quiet seven-mile return walk alongside the glacial St Mary Lake, past Baring Falls. The scarred Rockies rise up on the other side of the Lake, giving it the perfect backdrop – picture postcard. It was mostly in tree shade and flat-ish, with an easy final ascent – a good warm up walk that you could shorten depending on ability by catching the shuttle / getting off at Sunrift Gorge or St Mary’s Falls.
Many Glacier is considered by many to the be the heart of the park and so although the weather was on the turn, we wanted to try and fit it in. It’s on the east, further north than St Mary. Unless you have transport you can’t get there as the free shuttles don’t go there and, after Labor Day, the paid buses stop. Many Glacier Campsite is the most popular campsite and even though we arrived before 9am, we had to wait for a space to become free. There is a size limit at this camp of 35ft. Even though we are 37ft we regularly tell people at sites like this we are less. It’s not a massive lie – the sites are always massive and we have a huge overhang and know we can fit in smaller spots than most people think.
Camping was again $20 with no services apart from toilets. If you are in desperate need for services, the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn has coin operated showers and basic groceries. We bought bread and eggs for a small fortune. If it’s something more civilised you want, the Many Glacier Lodge is a short bike ride. You can enjoy the vista from the lounge, warm up at the huge fireplace and partake of the free Wifi whilst drinking cheap drip coffee.
Many Glacier was a big stop for us – this was the long walk that the boys had agreed to. We’d chosen Iceberg Lake, a 10-mile round trip that starts at Many Glacier – behind the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. The lake is famous for bobbing icebergs, which was the big draw for the kids. We checked the weather for the following two days and it was overcast and wet. We were over a week into camping with just solar power and the invertor had started beeping at us “give me power”…. we couldn’t really stay longer so we decided we should do our big walk that day.
The hike increases in elevation early on, then levels out as you walk down the valley. We strode along a ridge, kids motivated by sweet treats at every 2km. The tops of the mountains were hidden by low clouds but you could sense the size of them above you. The view down the valley, thick with trees and with no development or people in sight, felt like one of the wildest places we had been. This was definite bear country!
You reach a fork in the path at Ptarmigan Falls (where we did indeed see some Ptarmigans). You can hike up to Ptarmigan Lake on the right fork but we stuck to the left and continued through the pine forests toward the jewel in the walk – Iceberg Lake. It was a very beautiful spot but kids don’t care about beauty – where were the icebergs??? Before I even had a chance to get out the sweets to appease them, we heard a deep creaking noise and turned to watch a huge chunk of glacial ice slide off and sink into the water. Result!
The hike back was a challenge. The marshmallows I bought had merged into one sticky glob. Legs started hurting and more rests were required. There was only one way out of this one…. “whatever is necessary”…. I agreed to get them a kitten. The rest of the walk was spent discussing names. I now have nine months to talk them out of cats.
Glacier – too late in the season?
Yes we got here late and yes, the shuttle queues were a pain but we got lucky with the weather. We had ideal conditions for hiking most days and the late season meant a quieter Glacier. We had no trouble finding camp spots and we walked in some of the most beautiful scenery I have seen. I think the crowds in summer must make it a very different experience. The hikes we chose were all ‘park favourites’ and I certainly wouldn’t want to do them with any more company than we had. With better planning and warmer weather, it would perhaps work to do a back-country hike and camp instead. If that is your preferred option, don’t forget the bear spray – Glacier is known for the high numbers of both black and grizzly bears.
We absolutely loved the 11 days we spent in and around Glacier. If you could guarantee the weather then I’d recommend out of season. Of course you can’t – just three weeks ago we were merrily hiking the trails. Today the Sun road is closed and the camps are under four feet of snow. You will have to take the gamble we took if you go after Labor Day.