By Michael Lanza
In the second week of September, the cool air in the shade of the forest nips at our cheeks as we leave our first night’s camp beside Glenns Lake in the backcountry of Glacier National Park, starting at a reasonably early hour for a day where we will walk nearly 16 miles and 6,000 feet of combined uphill and downhill. I’m hiking in a fleece hoodie, pants, and gloves and my friends Pam Solon and Jeff Wilhelm are similarly layered up. Once the sun reaches us within an hour, we’ll strip down to shorts and T-shirts.
Where the trail crosses a meadow, the expansive view west across a calm and insistently blue Cosley Lake reveals what looks like a long wall of overlapping stone shields jammed into the earth, each 2,000 or more feet tall and tilting at different angles. At the lake’s outlet—now in warm sunshine—we ford the Belly River, ankle- to calf-deep here with just a few tiny riffles and not very cold. More hiking through quiet forest brings us to the refrigerated, cliff-shaded alcove below Dawn Mist Falls, which spills thunderously over a sheer drop and crashes onto fallen boulders at its base, its force releasing a perpetual mist. Moss wallpapers the alcove’s short cliffs.
After a thoroughly relaxing lunch break on the pebbly beach at Elizabeth Lake—where the perfect combination of solar warmth and soft breeze probably converts in direct value to about a thousand hours of counseling—we start the long climb to the Ptarmigan Tunnel. Reaching the open alpine terrain, I repeatedly stop to spin 180 degrees and take big bites of our view of the valley of Helen and Elizabeth lakes and the peaks on the other side, which shelter what remains of a couple of glaciers in the shade of north-facing cliffs just below the mountaintops.
I’ve backpacked this trail before; this isn’t new to me. But time slowly renders a bit fuzzier the memory of how constantly breathtaking it is—which is, in a funny way, a gift to us: We get to experience that awe anew each time.
Everyone laughed when the legendary Yogi Berra said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again,” but I think I knew what he meant.
The trail leads us upward across the cliff face of the long rampart known as the Ptarmigan Wall, the path growing wide as a city sidewalk, with a stone wall just in case its ample width isn’t enough to prevent anyone tripping into the abyss. Then we walk through the 250-foot-long Ptarmigan Tunnel, blasted through the Ptarmigan Wall and completed in 1930 to enable people to ride horses between the Belly River Valley and Many Glacier. Today, it’s a novelty of a bygone era that happens to create a gorgeous trail for backpackers. The Ptarmigan Wall’s shadow falls over us as we descend past Ptarmigan Lake, rippling in the light wind.
Afternoon slides into evening as we walk below peaks that resemble giant cutting tools attempting to dice and chop the infinite sky. At dusk, we stroll into the backpacker campsites in the campground at Many Glacier—wrapping up another day of hiking that would receive no true justice from overused superlatives because the baseline for any day hiking in Glacier is already “great.”
Being in this campground again (I’ve lost track of how many times), I’m reminded of the only aspect of my planning for this trip that barely missed the target: Due largely to the frenzied process of reserving a Glacier backcountry permit (this story explains how to do that), I got a permit that had us arriving at Many Glacier the day after Nells Restaurant at the Swiftcurrent Motel, across the road from the campground, closed for the season. Jeff and I, with two other friends, had camped here one night on a previous backpacking trip and we were looking forward to another real dinner and gut-packing breakfast at Nells; instead, we’ll settle for backpacking food while sitting just a five-minute walk from a closed restaurant. (Before you question whether a restaurant compromises our wilderness experience, understand this: The Many Glacier campground is basically a small town, anyway. But it’s also a strategically located camp for backpackers. Nothing wrong with taking advantage of good food and trimming your pack’s food weight by two meals. As they say, when in Rome…)
Life really isn’t fair.
But considering that the seven-day hike we started yesterday was, of necessity, the best alternative—and a damn good one—to my original route, for which I had a permit, we have many reasons to be happy with the outcome of a situation that could have turned out much worse.
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Bear Trouble Equals Permit Troubles
Here’s a hard truth about backpacking in Glacier National Park: You can succeed at reserving a very hard-to-get backcountry permit, feel the anticipation building for months as your trip approaches, and then arrive at the park to discover that your planned route has been rendered impossible because of recent bear activity—meaning your only option is to try to alter your permit on the spot, creating a new route based on whatever backcountry campgrounds are still available.
And that’s exactly what happened to us.
When Pam and I drove up to the park backcountry office in Apgar Village in the darkness of 6:15 a.m. yesterday to pick up our permit, we stepped out of the car to our first big surprise of the morning. Expecting to see 20 or more people waiting for walk-in permits—the typical situation, and a backcountry ranger had warned me on the phone yesterday to expect a line forming two hours before the office opened at 7:30 a.m.—I found just one guy comprising the entire “line” until I doubled its length. And just one couple joined us before the office opened, the five of us getting to know each other while waiting together. Pam took orders from everyone and made a run to the nearest coffee shop open that early on a Saturday.
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But the propitious spot second in line only gained us a small advantage. Once inside, we encountered our second big surprise of the morning when a backcountry ranger informed us that my original permit reservation for a variation I’d customized of the classic Northern Loop would not work because two of our six camps—Fifty Mountain and Mokowanis Junction—were closed due to bear activity. (Disturbing detail: A bear at Mokowanis had shredded a tent, fortunately while no one was inside. The catalyst was food inside it, a no-no that proved expensive but could have gone much worse.)
And there were no good alternative camp options available for us on that loop or anywhere near it—another bear-related backcountry campground closure west of the Waterton Valley prevented us from hiking a traverse over to Kintla or Bowman Lake.
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We scrambled to find an alternative route, hoping to preserve a seven-day hike. This ranger, clearly eager to help us, laid out our options for campground availability on our dates. In the end, we walked out of there with an almost completely revamped itinerary, with our first two days unchanged but adding five days following the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) south to Two Medicine. It’s nearly identical to the route Jeff and I backpacked with two other friends five years ago (when we also had to change one day on our itinerary because of bear activity), with just one significant variation.
It feels a little disappointing to miss out on the Northern Loop. But we salvaged a great hike out of a difficult situation that, in reality, can arise anytime in Glacier.
After driving around to the east side of the park and arranging a shuttle to our starting trailhead (see details on that in the trip-planning details at the bottom of this story, available exclusively to subscribers), we finally started hiking at 2 p.m. on a bluebird afternoon. It was even a bit hot in the sun, which silhouetted the jagged peaks along the Continental Divide ahead of us. We passed a few backpacker parties, most doing the Northern Loop by banging out two consecutive days of about 20 miles to bypass the closed campgrounds. We stopped at Gros Ventre Falls, then reached our camp at Glenns Lake with a bit of daylight remaining to pitch tents and cook.
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Waterfalls and Lakes
The soft patter of rain on my tent wakes me up around 5:30 a.m. on our fourth day. The showers pause long enough for us to eat and pack up, and then the rain grows more persistent and the wind gathers momentum just as we hit the trail. Low, dark clouds charge across the sky, enshrouding mountaintops. The rain never comes too hard as we round the west shore of St. Mary Lake, passing St. Mary Falls and taking the short, steep spur trail to stand in the mix of rain and waterfall mist at the base of tall Virginia Falls.
By late morning, the rain expends itself and patches of blue sky appear through breaks in the clouds. We hike up a broad valley through a very open, old forest burn where skeletal standing tree trunks occasionally hum softly in the wind—a ghost forest. On both sides, green slopes rise to walls of shattered rock.
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In the cooking and food-hanging area at our camp at Red Eagle Lake, we meet three guys in their early seventies who’ve been coming to Glacier for 35 years and have, by their estimates, climbed at least half the peaks in the park. Now their trips consist of backpacking here for a week or so and they struggle to get a large portion of their old group of friends to join them each summer. Then six more guys gather with us. All 28, they are friends from college and post-college, plus one guy the rest met in a brewery. I tell them I’m pretty sure that’s how Lewis and Clark filled their expedition: in a brewery. We sit around talking, sharing stories, and laughing until well after dark.
Another chilly start on day five blossoms into another sunny, pleasant day, welcome weather for our plan to hike more than 14 miles. We cross Triple Divide Pass at 7,397 feet, below 8,020-foot Triple Divide Peak, named for the topographical rarity of a mountain draining its waters to three oceans: Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic. (The three creeks flowing off it are named for their destinations: Pacific, Atlantic, and Hudson Bay.)
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At the campground at Morning Star Lake, Pam and I spot at least a dozen mountain goats casually grazing the precipitous cliffs across the lake. In the cooking and food-storage area, everyone zipped up inside warm puffy jackets, we talk with three CDT thru-hikers very near the end of their long journey. While eager to finish, they all admit that they will “miss it in a week.”
Later, full darkness falls on this moonless night and the Milky Way spreads itself thickly across the sky.
See my story about a previous backpacking trip that followed this route but with one variation, “Wildness All Around You: Backpacking the CDT Through Glacier,” and all stories about backpacking in Glacier National Park at The Big Outside.
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