Wildness All Around You: Backpacking the CDT Through Glacier
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.
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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.
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.
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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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.
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 Glacier and other parks in my book
Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.
Waterfalls, High Passes, Big Critters, and a Haunted Forest
I expected the nearly flat 15 miles from Reynolds Creek to the backcountry campground at the head of Red Eagle Lake might rank as one of the trip’s inferior days in the drama department—but those expectations begin to shift the moment we pass the triple scoop of fresh bear scat on the trail not 30 minutes out of camp. Then we reach lovely St. Mary Falls, Virginia Falls, and the long, unnamed cascade between them, three conspicuous reminders that Glacier isn’t just about ice, knife-blade mountains, and megafauna.
Walking along whitecapped Saint Mary Lake and up the valley of Red Eagle Creek, with steady views of more mountains shaped by ice, turns into an exercise in trying to keep our jaws from constantly hanging uncomfortably slack.
As we follow the meandering trail through an old burn along Red Eagle Creek, where lodgepole pine saplings stand two to three feet tall and low brush exhibits the reds, oranges, and yellows of autumn, the wind blowing through the blackened, skeletal trunks creates a symphony of whistles and moans coming from hundreds of dead trees, a sound unlike anything I’ve ever heard.
Todd says, “It’s the Haunted Forest.”
In the evening at Red Eagle Lake, we eat dinner while watching a moose leisurely enjoying his in the shallow lake. An elk bugles the next morning, but we’ve already been up since well before dawn. Pulling out of camp just after 7 a.m., we march steadily up some 3,000 vertical feet in roughly seven miles to 7,397-foot Triple Divide Pass, in the shadow of Triple Divide Peak, so named because it straddles both the Continental Divide and the Northern Divide, meaning water flowing off the mountain ends up in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic oceans.
The wind buffets us at the pass, but the sun feels warm, and the panorama could revive someone from advanced hypothermia. Far below, Medicine Grizzly Lake shimmers in a lushly green valley, below the cliffs of Medicine Grizzly Peak. The thin, white ribbon of a waterfall tumbles hundreds of feet off the cliffs.
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At our fifth camp, at Morning Star Lake, we watch 15 or so mountain goats scaling the cliff across the small lake. And throughout the night, yet another elk performs his affection-starved song, sounding like he’s very near our tents.
Every day, we meet several CDT thru-hikers, all within a day or two of completing their impressive, months-long trek.
At night, the sky becomes so flooded with stars that it’s actually hard to even distinguish individual constellations in that ocean of white specks. Few Americans see that kind of mystical night sky anymore. As with the glaciers, we have erased it from most places.
Pitamakan Pass to Dawson Pass
The wind again blows cold gusts but the sun warms us under another bluebird sky as we reach Pitamakan Pass at over 7,500 feet. It’s our sixth and final morning. The hike from Morning Star Lake involved yet another uphill grind of nearly 3,000 feet—but we hardly broke a sweat in the pleasantly cool temps, proving once again a lesson the four of us have absorbed many times over the years: If you’re going to carry your temporary home on your back up a big hill, you’ll be much happier doing it in the cool temps of morning.
It also doesn’t hurt as much when the big uphill rewards you with one of the finest vistas in Glacier National Park.
At the pass, we drop our packs not only for a break from lugging them, but to stroll around and take our time visually digesting the grandeur of this spot. Oldman Lake rests at the bottom of a deep bowl, nearly a thousand feet below us, a blue, not-quite-perfect oval like a slightly misshapen eye, embraced by dense conifer forest. At the valley’s head, a wide, steep rock face rises more than a vertical quarter-mile to the 8,781-foot summit of Mount Morgan, while across the valley, three knife-edge ridges join at the pointed crown of 9,225-foot Flinsch Peak.
Like virtually every corner of Glacier National Park, this pocket of mind-boggling topography whispers one word: ice.
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Ancient glaciers sculpted everything we see here—moving ice formed from snow that fell winter after winter and didn’t fully melt away each summer, accumulating so deeply over decades and then centuries and millennia that the snow compressed under its own colossal weight into ice. Then gravity pulled the unfathomable weight of that ice downhill, very slowly—at a positively glacial pace, you could say.
But speed isn’t the goal of the sculptor, especially one whose masterpiece requires patiently grinding away at earth and solid rock for millennia, sharpening the ridges and summits of mountains, leaving behind sheer cliffs and pinnacles that resemble a butcher’s tools, transporting multi-ton boulders, reshaping valleys, leaving in its wake great morainal walls of dirt and stone that direct the flow of streams and rivers, and hanging valleys where waterfalls tilt sideways in strong winds.
Today, from Pitamakan Pass, we cannot see even a remnant of glacial ice: Nothing remains of what once filled this nearly half-mile-deep valley, of all that frozen weight working over spans of time we can barely conceive. At least 7,000 years of ice accumulating because summers did not grow warm enough to melt it away has been undone by little more than one century of summers growing too warm for snow and ice to last.
We see only the evidence of what was and is no more.
In other words, the breathtaking view from Pitamakan Pass offers us a preview, a trailer for the fast-approaching future of Glacier. We might be wise to not only admire and photograph these scenes, but to let them prod us to contemplate what happens to nature when we remove the most necessary ingredient from the creation recipe.
From Pitamakan, the CDT descends almost eight miles directly to the north shore trailhead at Two Medicine Lake, where our 94-mile hike concludes. But we’re taking a longer way to get there, on one of the most spectacular alpine walks in the entire National Park System: the roughly four-mile traverse from Pitamakan to Dawson Pass.
The trail begins with a short climb, then mostly contours across the back sides of the peaks visible from Pitamakan Pass. With the wind strengthening throughout the afternoon to speeds that occasionally knock us off balance, we pull on insulation and shells and walk a path across steep mountainsides, gazing into the park’s remote interior at green, steep-walled valleys reminiscent of the Swiss Alps—which is why Glacier has (like the North Cascades) been called the “American Alps”—and sharp, rocky peaks holding ice that hasn’t yet melted into history.
About midway through the Pitamakan-Dawson traverse, as we stand in a tsunami of wind buffeting us, Mark sweeps a hand out and remarks, “It’s such a classic, U-shaped glaciated valley, so stunning.”
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A Symbol of Hope
I still recall the first time I ever laid eyes on a bighorn sheep. It was here, in Glacier, at Logan Pass, where every summer probably thousands of visitors see their first wild sheep or goat. This one resembled the very image I’d seen of its species in photos: a shockingly large ram with a bulging chest and a full curl of thick horns. And it stood as if posing, head high, on a scrap of dirt and greenery, appearing unfazed by the small herd of tourists that quickly gathered, photographing it.
Seeing that powerful wild animal, I felt like I’d passed through a wormhole back a couple of centuries in time.
That first bighorn sighting was a quarter-century ago, when I didn’t know yet that every glacier in the park would be gone in my lifetime—a foundational shift in the park’s ecosystem expected to trigger a raft of cascading impacts on stream levels and water temperatures, flora, and fauna. I certainly would not have imagined that I would one day describe to my children why this park named for glaciers would lose its last one sometime during their young adulthood—why their children will never see glaciers in Glacier National Park.
There seems no good way to explain to the next generation that you’re leaving them significantly less of the natural world than you inherited and enjoyed.
Climate change poses myriad, severe threats to iconic parks and the entire natural world. Glacier’s fate seems like a powerfully tragic statement about human hubris and bad decisions—and we continue to struggle over making the right choices in dealing with the greatest existential crisis in the history of human civilization.
But we can look at the situation as hopeless, or we can confront our failures honestly and find in them the impetus for a new start. Backpacking through Glacier National Park still retains the ability to awe us every day, in every mile. While the ice will disappear, we may still have the opportunity to preserve an environment that supports mountain goats, bighorn sheep, moose, elk, and bears, as well as trout, marmots, wildflowers, and countless other species.
There are a precious few places left on Earth where you can see the world largely as it existed before homo sapiens became the most successful and destructive invasive species in history. Glacier is one of those places. Although we cannot stop a disaster we have precipitated, we can accept that and act to slow and minimize the damage.
What will it take to convince us to do that?
Maybe the solution is simply embracing the idea George Bird Grinnell had more than a hundred years ago: showing more people just how special these places are.
I recall what U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist Dan Fagre, the renowned researcher who had first sounded the warning that the glaciers in one of America’s most revered parks would be gone within a human generation, said to me about Glacier National Park when I interviewed him for my book: “It’s still going to be a beautiful park. The notion that it’s being changed ultimately by human activities is something people have to take responsibility for. These are really good things for people to be thinking about.”
There is much that we can still get right. There are reasons for hope if we can embrace truth and action. We must see Glacier as a symbol of hope. We have no rational alternative.
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Watch for my trip planner for this 94-mile hike on the CDT through Glacier National Park, which I will add to this story soon. Or instead, get my e-guide to backpacking this customized CDT traverse through Glacier for a much more detailed itinerary and expert tips covering all you need to know to pull off this great hike. It covers everything from pre-trip planning, obtaining the permit, gear tips and more, to a day-to-day, on-the-ground hiking plan and alternative itineraries, including how to spread the trip over more than six days.
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See my story about a 90-mile hike through Glacier that included the park’s 65-mile Northern Loop; my story about a three-day family hike on the Gunsight Pass Trail; and all of my stories about Glacier National Park at The Big Outside.
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.
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