While Glacier National Park is beautiful and dramatic beyond words, it is no secret. High season is very short - the expanse of the park is only open 10-12 weeks out of the year due to the long, extreme winters, meaning the vast majority of visitors cram their visits into that three-month window (smaller parts of the park are open year-round). Limited availability then means that summers in the park are BUSY. VERY busy. And it's not like we were helping - Ed and I were among the million visitors to have visited the park as of mid-July. Yet, despite huge crowds it was entirely possible to get away from the busiest spots without missing out on the vast landscapes we came to experience.
We spent two days camping and hiking at Bowman Lake, two days hiking in the backcountry via the incomparable, out-of-this-world Highline and Swiftcurrent trails, and had a couple of days to spare. We weren't entirely alone but for an hour or two here and there, but the peace and stillness we sought can still be found. Few words are worthy enough to describe the place.
Here is a TL, DR video version (that also could be titled 'Pretty hikes during which Ed waits for me to take pictures')...
We arrived in the park on a Sunday, and scoped out a couple of too-crowded and too-close to the Going to the Sun Road campsites before heading out to Bowman Lake via Polebridge, a tiny town about 20 miles northwest of the Park entrance. It's just a couple of shops and cabins - their old mercantile (now a combo bakery, convenience store and gift shop), is about as perfect-looking and instagram-ready as any old shop can possibly be.
Bowman Lake is about six or so long, dusty miles past Polebridge down a rocky and winding road that would seemingly would defy RVs, yet you do see determined retirees trudging in their campers on down to the lake. Once you see the lake, you get it. Motorized boats are banned, rendering it a quiet paddler's and fisher's heaven. It is pristine.
Ugh, perspective - the mountains look much larger and closer in real life. The lake is about 7 miles long, and about 250 feet deep. It's crystal clear, and often quite still. The campsite-facing shore of the lake naturally attracts the most people in the area, with its broad gravel beach and its stunning views. At its most crowded, there were maybe 40 people there. For Glacier in high season, this is nothing. Occasionally (like when it briefly rained, or early in the morning) we were the only ones on the beach, and spare a few bird calls, there was silence.
We rented an inflatable two-person kayak. We quickly learned that we are not natural kayakers - especially on an inflatable two-person boat. We paddled aimlessly on our first attempt, wobbling back and forth near the shore, figuring out 'did I not put the paddles together right?' and 'Is there supposed to be this much water in the bottom of the boat?' Wobble, splash. The lake is full of downed trees - and the water is so clear that you can see everything underwater until you get to a depth of 40-or-so feet. We heard one kid swimming near shore say "there's a whole forest underwater!"
With a few kinks ironed out, our second go on the kayak was far more successful, and we paddled out to rainbow mountain, about 5 miles out from the gravel beach. We rested, watched loons and had a celebratory beer at the midway point. The water was like glass.
I'm so glad that Ed wanted to visit Bowman - there was plenty of room to spread out and be alone. We even got to sit at the lake shore for a (brief) thunderstorm. We could have spent a week here.
We opted next for a two-day hike, with a night spent at Granite Park Chalet, one of two remaining backcountry chalets built by the Great Northern Railroad in the 1920s to attract tourists. Originally, tourists would ride out on horseback. Now, a pretty moderate 7.6-mile hike (or a balls-to-the-wall 3-mile climb via 'the loop') is required to get out there.
The Highline trail just has to be one of the most beautiful hikes in the US - for much of the 7.6 miles out to the chalet, you are cruising well above the Going to the Sun Road, along the sides of mountains, with views of dozens and dozens of peaks, valleys and lakes. It's just, come on.
For the first couple of miles, you see a lot of hikers venturing out for a quick morning or afternoon hike along the trail. The trailhead starts at Logan Pass, which is located at the Continental Divide and sort of serves as the midpoint along the Going to the Sun Road. Beyond those first few miles you encounter ambitious hikers heading from the Loop, or ones more ambitious that are coming from St. Mary (our eventual destination the next day), a 15.2-mile trek with a serious 2,000 foot climb at its midpoint. 7.6 miles at a much higher altitude than I'm used to is enough for me, though, and even a few miles in my feet hurt. Yet, it's hard to moan too much about your feet when the tradeoff is this:
We left a little later in the day than would probably be optimal - at 2:30pm, when it is warmest and with the most direct sunlight. Yet, Montana alpine weather at about 75 degrees has nothing on blazing Midwestern summers and sunburn is a much greater concern than overheating. A handful of critters kept us company along the way - yet no bears (yet). I'd been on high alert for bears after a reddit inquiry in to whether we should buy bear spray (the resounding answer being YES). Apparently visitors the day after us along this trail saw a grizzly mama with two cubs. I desperately did want to see a bear(s) but not in this circumstance.
With loads of breaks, we arrived in about 5 hours, at 7:30. The sight of it coming up from the distance was beyond welcome for sore feet. Its remoteness is so impressive - that it was ever built in such challenging terrain is one thing - and that it continues to operate is another.
The chalet is lovely, and very rustic. There are three buildings, one outhouse and one water storage tank further down the hill (as well as a campground, which we didn't see). The largest building features the kitchen and a commons area, along with about 6 rooms. One other building featured more dorms and a building for forest service workers. We stayed in the separated dorm - complete with bunk beds and the thinnest walls of any building I've ever been in. You could literally light from other rooms through the cracks in the corners, and hear everything anyone in the building said even in a low tone. It be for sleeping only - and earplugs are provided. The commons room was cozy with a fireplace, a series of tables and lots of games. During our stay, a naturalist gave a short talk about pika, the funny little poo-eating rodents that live only in cold climates.
The chalet's kitchen has a commercial propane stove and the kitchen is well-equipped, so hikers staying here don't have to lug pots, plates or water for cooking - just your freeze dried food, pancake mix and whatever else you decide is necessary. Candy and freeze-dried camping meals are available for purchase. The beds are fine - better than sleeping on the ground, super squeaky and small - but the point of this place is not to be picky about these things. Everyone is psyched to be there. Many people brought their kids.
We headed out just before 9am the next day after a leisurely breakfast and after watching ptarmigans (birds) and their babies cruise around in front of the chalet. The second day's trail was the Swiftcurrent trail, which meanders past the Swiftcurrent glacier as it drops 2,000 feet in just three miles (I would not be up to taking this trail in the other direction - Ed is more game for these kinds of exhausting adventures). I didn't think that there was any way that the second day's trail could possibly be any more beautiful than day one, but in many ways it was. It began with a one-mile climb out from the chalet, and then was downhill the rest of the way.
Experts predict that Glacier National Park will have no glaciers in just 14 years, if not before - current estimates say they will be gone by 2030. Its glaciers are small now, and are shrinking rapidly. Even as they are, it is a privilege to see them while they still exist.
This view - from the trail's apex you can see from the glacier down to St. Mary lake - with three crystalline green-blue lakes in between.
The cruise down this trail was a little nerve-wracking at times - wind whips constantly down this valley, and as the trail switches back time and again to face the top of the glacier-carved valley, gusts of wind can knock you a bit off balance, which would be less anxiety-inducing if a) the drop-offs weren't quite so unbelievably steep (well over a thousand feet) or b) if the trail were wider. At its thinnest (just a few feet wide) and most gravelly points, I (who am quite prone to slipping and falling even on trails near our house in Missouri) had to hold Ed's hand.
I don't mean to be overly dramatic - I wasn't scared and knew we'd be fine. I would describe certain moments, though, as unsettling, because... damn dude, it's so steep! We were also sort of leap-frogging down the trail with a family of four from Iowa who had also stayed at the chalet. (If the little ones around 7-10 years old, could do it, so could I). Apart from this family, we only saw two other people hiking during the three-mile descent. Hats off a thousand times to anyone heading in the uphill direction. That will not be me.
Once we reached the bottom of the valley, the hike was flat and easy, and full of day hikers heading out to the falls or to see the glacier from the bottom of the mountain. We cruised by lakes (even seeing a moose), and headed towards St. Mary. At the end of our hike, we were exhausted, with aching feet like I haven't felt perhaps ever. But there was beer and pie (two of life's finest things) while we waited for the shuttle to take us back into the park.
Our last two days were icing on the cake. We saw a grizzly bear right upon re-entering the park from our two-day hike (from the road - yay!), the fulfillment of many weeks' of hoping. We did do the thing you are not supposed to do, which is stop and contribute to a 'bear jam,' but the forest rangers (who are totally Jimmy on the spot when there is a bear sighting) didn't make us leave because "at least you are pulled all of the way off of the road" (most people literally just stop on or slow way down on the road, blocking it). A ranger later told us that there are about 300 grizzlies living in the park, and about 500 black bears. You can't necessarily tell which is which by the color, rather, grizzlies have a hump on their backs just behind their heads, and their snouts are longer. If you go down the rabbit hole of watching bear safety videos as I did, you even learn that if you encounter one closely your reaction should be different depending on the bear. Anyway. Yay bears.
We hiked at Logan Pass, ate huckleberries and cheese at the gorgeous Many Glacier Hotel, and enjoyed our lovely hotel in West Glacier (and its amazing restaurant). We have talked about returning in five years, perhaps with another go at the two-day hike. No matter when we head back (and we will), we won't worry about the crowds. It's enough just to get up there.