By Michael Lanza
The air temperature feels not much above freezing, pinching our faces as we hit the trail just after 8 a.m. on our second day of backpacking in Glacier National Park. The still, glassy water of Elizabeth Lake captures a razor-sharp, upside-down reflection of the jagged mountains flanking it; only the upper slopes of the peaks above Elizabeth’s western shore catch the early sunlight on this September morning. We pause occasionally on the strip of sandy beach along the lakeshore just to gawk at our surroundings.
Then we hear it.
A high-pitched, nasal whine builds into something like a shriek, the note suspended for several seconds before it’s abruptly cut off. It’s an elk somewhere in the forest, not far from us, bugling an invitation to prospective mates. Throughout our week, that sound will greet us repeatedly—but it will pale on the excitement meter compared with some of our other encounters with wild megafauna.
My friends Todd Arndt, Mark Fenton, Jeff Wilhelm and I have come here in the second week of September to backpack a north-south traverse of Glacier. Combining sections of the primary and alternate routes of the Continental Divide Trail, we will hike 94 miles through much of the finest backcountry in a park that CDT thru-hikers frequently identify as one of the two very best sections of the CDT (the other being the Wind River Range—both places gracing my list of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips”).
We had also heard an elk bugling—possibly the same bull as this morning—last night while sitting around our campsite at the head of Elizabeth Lake, still buzzing over our first day in the wilderness of one of the last two parks (along with Yellowstone) in the Lower 48 that still hosts nearly the full complement of species that existed here before European settlement.
As we sat in camp, two women arrived, all smiles and laughter after hiking 20 miles from Many Glacier that day—the reverse of what we’re doing today. They told us they saw seven bears, grizzlies and blacks, including one griz from a distance of only about 20 yards. Fortunately, it gave them no more than a glance.
Bears tend to dominate one’s thoughts in the backcountry of Glacier—for good reasons in an ecosystem dense with both kinds. Indeed, not long after hearing the elk bugle, as we’re hiking along Elizabeth’s shore, we spot a black bear sow with one cub trailing her on the talus high above us.
As that bugling elk illustrates—and as I’m reminded every time I hike here—part of the experience of any journey through Glacier consists of observing the evidence of the wildness all around you in this raw landscape. The elk you hear bugling without ever seeing it. The shockingly large pile of bear scat deposited right in the middle of the trail, as if the bear intended to give conspicuous notice that he lurks nearby and knows where you are even if you don’t know where he is. The fingerprints of glaciers that carved today’s deep, U-shaped valleys, but have retreated to the highest elevations to make their last stand before climate change erases them all.
In Glacier, the unseen narrates almost as much of the story as everything on display before your eyes.
In that respect, Glacier—because of its history, the evocative power in its name, and the certain fate of every one of its namesake rivers of ice that began forming thousands of years ago—symbolizes so much that we have done right and done wrong as a society. In the blink of an eye on the timeline of geologic history, we have simultaneously protected many soul-stirring landscapes like Glacier—established in 1910, barely more than a century ago, as America’s eighth national park—and through our aggressive burning of fossil fuels, we have dictated their steady demise.
As the four of us carry backpacks loaded with gear and food to walk for six days in the wilderness—each with a pepper spray canister holstered on our belts, as defense against an attacking grizzly bear—I wonder:
Can Glacier now become a symbol of hope?
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About an hour after crossing Redgap Pass at 7,520 feet on our second afternoon—following a long, stunning ascent from Elizabeth Lake, with views of the peaks and glaciers above the Belly River Valley; and after we stopped on the trail just beyond Redgap Pass to watch at least 10 bighorn sheep grazing and ambling around on rock ledges—Todd and I stop again.
More than a hundred yards ahead of us in this meadow, a broad-shouldered mass of brown fur shuffles through the low brush, disturbingly close to the trail we’re descending toward Poia Lake.
Mark and Jeff are not far ahead, but must have passed through here when this grizzly was farther from the trail.
The bear lifts his huge head and sniffs the air; we’re upwind, so he clearly knows we’re here. He shakes his head in a way that suggests he doesn’t like what he smells.
Then the griz turns and starts toward us.
Todd and I back farther away, maintaining a comfortable distance, but the bear appears much less interested in us than what he can find to eat in the meadow. Two or three times, he ambles in our direction and we back off farther. Finally, after more than 30 minutes of hoping the bear will leave the area, we decide to bushwhack a wide, off-trail arc around him, following the nearby creek bed downstream until we’re well past the griz and can bushwhack safely back to the trail. When we catch up to Jeff and Mark at Poia Lake, they say the griz was at least 75 feet off the trail and ignoring them when they walked past.
Just on our second day in Glacier, we’ve seen three bears and at least 10 bighorn sheep.
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We hike a 20-mile day to Many Glacier—not what we planned, but our only option, because rangers had informed us when we picked up our backcountry permit that the more-direct route from Elizabeth Lake to Many Glacier, via the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail, was temporarily closed due to high grizzly bear activity around Ptarmigan Lake and Iceberg Lake (also closed). That turned out to be our good luck, for more reasons than today’s wildlife sightings: I’ve backpacked the Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail before, and while it’s spectacular (and quite worth doing), Redgap Pass, while harder, is even more so.
As we descend to Many Glacier, smoke that has crossed the Divide from a large wildfire on the west side of the park reduces the peaks to ghost-like silhouettes, and the sun to a red-orange orb. With the wind direction generally working in our favor, though, this will be the only time all week that we see much smoke. We hitch a ride from tourists to avoid walking about two miles of pavement to the campground—where we’ll spoil ourselves just a little bit.
After setting up camp at the backpacker campsites (reserved on our permit) in the campground at Many Glacier, we walk across the road to Nells Restaurant at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn for a big meal of pizza for Todd and me, and chicken pot pie for Mark and Jeff.
Tomorrow, after a big breakfast at Nells, we’ll hike over 15 miles, diving fully back into the wilderness again. But for this one night, we’re all good with the positively Euro-indulgent pleasure of eating real food and drinking beer in the middle of a wilderness backpacking trip.
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The quiet seems as deep as this valley and as broad as this forest as we hike along the shore of Lake Josephine early on our third morning. That quiet amplifies the soft chuckling of the creek flowing from Josephine when we cross it, and the gentle splashing that prompts us to peer through the trees to see a moose feeding in the lake.
And the quiet sounds all the more suddenly and sharply pierced each time a neighborhood elk bugles somewhere nearby, as we begin the long climb on the CDT from Many Glacier to 7,560-foot Piegan Pass.
Having backpacked over Piegan Pass almost 10 years ago, I’ve been eagerly anticipating that today would be one of the trip’s highlights—and happily discover that this valley possesses all the power to awe that I remember. But my companions haven’t hiked this trail before. Their expressions and body language as we walk remind me just how much the trail from Many Glacier to Piegan Pass shocks the senses.
The serrated crest of the Garden Wall appears above the trees flanking the trail. Before long, we emerge from the forest to meadows bisected by Cataract Creek, craning our necks to take in the cliffs that shoot straight up hundreds of feet. The Garden Wall is literally that: a wall of stone jutting upward like a giant meat cleaver, vertiginous on both sides and stretching for several miles along the Continental Divide north of Logan Pass.Below Morning Eagle Falls, we cool—or more accurately, numb—our feet in the icy creek. A stone’s throw upstream from us, snowbanks drip meltwater directly into it.
The Garden Wall exemplifies the regal quality of Glacier’s landscape, mirrored all over the park. In the early 20th century, naturalist and historian George Bird Grinnell—who spearheaded the effort to create the national park, where one of the best-known glaciers now bears his name—bestowed the nickname “the crown of the continent” on this part of the Rocky Mountains. Indeed, the pinnacled cliffs and jagged mountains resemble scores of royal crowns strewn across the land. Even the megafauna—bighorn sheep, elk, mountain goats, moose, and bears—look a bit like courtiers in a royal court.
The Blackfeet Indians, who have lived and hunted in and around these mountains for thousands of years, call them “the backbone of the world.” At over one million acres, mostly pristine wilderness, Glacier comprises the larger portion of the world’s first international peace park, established in 1932 with neighboring Waterton National Park across the border, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
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and backpacking the Continental Divide Trail through Glacier.
Everywhere we go, we see the footprints of the glaciers that sculpted this landscape for at least 7,000 years, but have largely disappeared from their namesake park. It’s not hard to imagine the miles-long tongues of cracked, moving ice that once filled these meadowed and forested valleys and the “hanging valleys” above them, and how different a place it was then. The distinctive, blade-like Garden Wall, in fact, was created by glaciers grinding away at the rock and earth on either side of it.
But if you really want to see how Glacier looked under thick blankets of ice, scores of photographs from the turn of the last century, easily found in online searches or viewed in books and displays in and around the park, show people standing beside towering walls of ice at the toe of glaciers—ice that melted away or receded uphill decades ago.
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In 1850, there were 150 glaciers in the park—so numerous and dominant on the landscape that it must have seemed obvious that this new national park could have no other name. Today, just 26 remain, all of them fractional remnants of their size a century and a half ago. Researchers in Glacier predict that the last of them will be gone within about a decade—all the more reason to explore the park’s backcountry as soon as you can. [The story of Glacier’s disappearing ice inspired my book about taking our young kids backpacking, sea kayaking, dayhiking, canoeing, cross-country skiing, and rock climbing in 11 national parks over the course of one year, including Glacier, being transformed by climate change.]
After eating lunch at Piegan Pass, we make a long descent on the CDT to the Going-to-the-Sun Road, cross it to visit Deadwood Falls, where Reynolds Creek slices a dramatic gorge through rock, and pitch our tents in the backcountry campground at Reynolds Creek by early evening. There, we meet Marisa and Rafael, a young couple from D.C. who are seeing Glacier for the first time on a three-day backpacking trip—no doubt experiencing the awe we feel, and perhaps learning something about how rapidly this iconic landscape is changing.
Read about how climate change is affecting the Olympics and other parks in my book Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.
Glacier Area Lodging and Restaurants
We spent the nights before and after our backpacking trip at the Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier, glacierparkcollection.com/lodging/glacier-park-lodge, and a night at the Marriott Springhill Suites in Kalispell, marriott.com/hotels/travel/fcash-springhill-suites-kalispell.
Favorite restaurants in East Glacier include the Two Medicine Grill (great breakfasts), the Whistle Stop (excellent huckleberry pie), and the Looking Glass.
Kalispell, outside the park’s west entrance, provides a good base for an adventurous visit to the Glacier region. Find info on lodging options, restaurants, and activities at DiscoverKalispell.com.