Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Glacier National Park: Highline Trail & The Garden Wall

Glacier NP – 8/20/13 – Highline Trail/Garden Wall/Grinnell Overlook – 13.4 Miles

Hikers never “sleep in” and especially in an awesome national park no daylight is wasted.  At crack-of-dawn-thirty this morning we pulled up (tent) stakes and relocated to another base camp to access even more incredible trails.  Where we’d been staying in St. Mary allows reservations, but most front country campgrounds in the park are first-come-first-served.  To score two spots in Avalanche Campground near Lake McDonald, we needed to be waiting as campers departed.  So…we enjoyed an early morning drive along the Going-To-The-Sun Road through the heart of Glacier NP. 

Good news:  we set up our new camp and quickly got back on the GTTS Road to…catch a bus shuttle. 

Shuttle buses, you hate ‘em when you have to drive behind them, but they do serve important functions.  Most people use them to enjoy the scenery between Point A and Point B and then back to Point A.  That’s better than everyone driving his own vehicle while gawking.  For us, it made possible an end-to-end hike without using our own cars, saving a lot of time at the end of the day.  We caught shuttles at The Loop parking area and rode up to Logan Pass where all of humanity was milling about in the parking lot and visitor center.  As quickly as possible we walked onto the Highline Trail. 

Walked, skipped, danced a little jig – my excitement for today’s hike was bursting out of my boots.  We were going to see Grinnell Glacier again, this time looking down from a notch in the Garden Wall where we had seen tiny people yesterday as we squinted upward through binoculars from the shoreline of Upper Grinnell Lake.  The Highline Trail is aptly named, like walking a level high wire above the Going-To-The-Sun Road with the longest vistas yet.  It’s a popular trail, but so what?  Let all the world enjoy and appreciate this magnificent place!

After less than half a mile the Highline Trail began winding around a sheer cliff face (Jeff’s photo).  A chain covered with a garden hose was bolted to the rock to hold onto.  What a shame to be afraid of heights and miss all this! 

This is the fun part!  (Ken’s photo)

(Jeff's photo) Haystack Butte

(Jeff's photo) Heaven’s Peak

(Jeff's photo) Purple mountains majesty L/R:  Clements, Oberlin, Cannon, McPartland, Heaven’s Peak

Going-To-The-Sun Road

Fringed Grass of Parnassus

We took an early lunch break sitting on a tremendous open slope because… we could and it was awesome.  I composed a love letter:  Dear Glacier National Park – I love you more today than yesterday, but not as much as tomorrow.

The Garden Wall in the left background, pink fireweed in the foreground alongside the trail

The Garden Wall is an arête like the Ptarmigan Wall, a long skinny ridge with a sharp edge created by two glaciers sliding down along valleys on either side of a mountain, and the Highline Trail trips blissfully along the Wall with minimal elevation gain.  I felt as though I were gliding along on a moving walkway at the airport.  Then came our challenge of the day:  climbing a steep .8-mile side trail up the Garden Wall to the notch overlooking the Grinnell Glacier.

As I approached the side trail I munched on a Clif Bar, hoping for a magic burst of energy, and then tackled the climb with short heel-to-toe footsteps, going slower than I wanted to but keeping my breathing under control.  With this method the climb was easier, and soon I popped over the top of the notch.

Wow…wow…wow… It looks as though I am sitting with my feet on the edge of Salamander Glacier but it is hundreds of feet below me.  Then hundreds of feet farther below that is Grinnell Glacier on the right and Upper Grinnell Lake, the shore of which we walked along yesterday.  In the middle left, the mountain with the green stuff, is Angel Wing.  Remember how massive it appeared from the trail?  This two-dimensional photograph simply cannot convey the vastness of what we were seeing. 

Resting in the presence of God’s power and trying to hide from the strong, chilling wind in the notch

After a long period of rest and reflection we backtracked down to the Highline Trail and continued another mile to Granite Park Chalet.  I wore my Virginia Tech hat to shield my sunburned scalp, and as often happens I made some friends familiar with my alma mater.  Funny, no matter how far away you go, you find someone who knows someone who went to VT.

We checked out Granite Park Chalet’s privy, looked inside the main building, stood out on the front porch and looked at Heaven’s Peak front and center.  The Chalet's outward appearance is similar to the 10th Mountain Huts in Colorado but the fees are pretty steep ($97 for the first person in a room, $78 per person after that, bedding is extra, and you must bring and cook your own food, no silverware or dishes).  Glad we did not opt to stay there.  I’ll take camping for $7 per night, thanks.

The Granite Park Trail descends nearly 2,500 feet back down to The Loop, passing through extensive burn areas left from the Trapper Creek Fire of 2003 which originated from lightning and burned nearly 20,000 acres.  What a difference, walking through these areas with few mature trees, no spruce or pine, skeletons of birch that looked starkly beautiful against the deep blue sky.   This part of our trek was hot and knee-wrenching, but I’ve read that the wildflowers are especially beautiful here as Mother Nature regenerates.

A wonderful surprise near the end of the hike – a bubbling creek perfect for soaking feet!  Cathy and Ken had gotten to the finish line first, but the rest of us stopped to splash and chill.




Me, myself and I

Yes, each day is better than the one before, but tomorrow’s hike had my nerves jumping.  As we ate pizza at Jammer Joe’s at Lake McDonald we discussed the plan, a steep 19-mile round trip up to Sperry Glacier and back.  Knowing that I was the slow person in the group, I just wasn’t feeling up to the hard work.  So… Sharon decided to take a mid-week “town day” filled with a different kind of fun.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Glacier National Park: Grinnell Glacier

Glacier NP – 8/19/13 – Grinnell Glacier – 11.7 Miles

Day 1 at Glacier National Park was great.  Day 2 was greater.  Day 3 was…well, let’s say there’s an upward trend.

By now we all agreed that Glacier NP was the best of all national parks.  I haven’t been to as many places as my companions, but the Grand Tetons was my measuring stick (a pretty impressive place) and by the second day Glacier had surpassed the grade.

Today's destination:  Grinnell Glacier, named after George Bird Grinnell, an American conservationist and advocate for the creation of the park.  Our hike started from the Swiftcurrent Picnic Area in Many Glacier with a short level walk past Swiftcurrent Lake and onto the North Shore Josephine Lake Trail.  When I took this photo I was focused on the dock and the beautiful water and didn’t realize that Angel Wing and Mount Gould were right there in front of me, a focal point for the day. 

More prominent, Angel Wing with Mount Gould right behind it, Lower Grinnell Lake below, Grinnell Waterfalls flowing into the lake.  Salamander Glacier is the horizontal slash of white in the upper right.

The group’s pace was a bit calmer and I settled into the rhythm of the hike, making sure to stop and look around, ahead, behind, up and down, at the surreal scenery.  Behind me Jeff deadpanned, “Man, this park sucks.”  Made me laugh out loud.

Mount Gould in the upper left, Angel Wing in the center, zoomed in and massive (Jeff’s photo).  I was a little stunned when he said next, “I’m going to summit Angel Wing today.” 

The trail climbed above the tree line into alpine meadows and the world opened up.  I struggled for words to describe what I was seeing.  Then it struck me, the perfect response to this wonderful place:  the Doxology!  And I began to hum and then to sing (quietly to myself) as I walked:  “Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise Him all creatures here below, praise Him above ye heavenly hosts, praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”  I felt very emotional, humbled, reverent, privileged and grateful to be in such a magnificent place. 

Not bear grass - pasque flowers gone to seed
Jeff taking photos

The long haul seemed to be over at a resting spot with comfortable rock seating and pit latrines, but there was another .4 miles to the trail's end at Upper Grinnell Lake. Our gang was all together as we made the last push up a surprisingly arduous trail of steep steps.  The reward:  our first look at the glaciers – Salamander Glacier in the middle right, Gem Glacier on the upper left and a small portion of Grinnell Glacier in the center. 

Walking along the moraine to the edge of Grinnell Lake (Jeff’s photo)

Grinnell Glacier and Upper Grinnell Lake, tiny people on the left shore (Jeff’s photo)

Brandon at the water’s edge on the “stone beach”, which is solid slick slanted rock the color of sand, and Grinnell Glacier

We settled on the “beach” to eat lunch, trying to chew with our mouths closed but gaping at this wondrous ampitheater.  Ken took a few minutes for some yoga stretches.

Cathy, Ken and I practicing the resting pigeon pose – just another day in Glacier National Park (!!)

After lunch the guys headed off to climb Angel Wing, shown here from the side view looking much more manageable than the sheer cliff face.  They left their daypacks with Cathy and Dolores and me, which then presented us with the quandary of what we were going to do for the hour or more they would be gone.  We couldn’t leave the packs unattended because of the hungry critters scavenging around.  Dolores said she would stay with the packs and chill while Cathy and I explored a bit, and then I would stand sentinel later while she wandered around.  So Cathy and I walked in the direction the guys had taken to get a closer look at Grinnell Glacier.

Cathy and I wandered across the slabs of rock toward the glacier, knowing that somewhere the lake was draining to form Grinnell Creek and the waterfalls that tumbled down to Lower Grinnell Lake and beyond.  What we didn’t expect was how dramatic the headwaters would be.  The rushing water was loud and our voices were muted but our wide-open eyes and O-shaped mouths communicated well – WOW.  But where did the guys cross?

(Jeff’s photo)  Ken and Brandon crossing the headwaters on Grinnell Creek on their way to summit Angel Wing

Salamander Glacier melt flowing into Salamander Falls flowing into Upper Grinnell Lake flowing into Grinnell Creek – nature is always perfect.

Jeff zoomed in on Cathy and me at the headwaters of the creek

We made our way back to Dolores.  I settled in and Cathy took Dolores to show her our discovery.  For a time there was no one else around, and I leaned back and contemplated life as I watched the water flow down Salamander Falls.  As I sat, the sound of the waterfall amplified, became fuller, and I tried to imprint the memory so it would last me a lifetime.  Such peace.

Cathy and Dolores returned but the guys were taking a long time and we were beginning to regret agreeing to stay with their packs.  A chill wind was picking up.  Other hikers were passing through.  We examined the rocks…so many variations and striations…I should have taken a geology course.  Once you start looking it’s hard to stop, as each one is more interesting than the one before.  

Dolores brought binoculars, and gazing along the ridgeline above Salamander Glacier she said, “There are people up there!”  Sure enough, in the low point of this photo there were teeny tiny figures (Jeff’s photo).  Jeff told us later that this is one side of the feature known as the Garden Wall and tomorrow we will be hiking on the other side of it to that same notch where we will then look down on Grinnell Glacier.  (Insert shiver of anticipation here.)

After two hours the guys appeared with tales of walking over snow fields and seeing bighorn sheep and the spectacular view from the summit of Angel Wing.  Our hike back was a bit faster but still interesting.  Even though we were covering the same ground, everything seemed new.  At one point a waterfall spills over the trail, a bit unnerving as we crossed the narrow, slippery wet rock face. (Jeff's photo)

A dignified bighorn sheep

The view on the hike back:  Lower Grinnell Lake, Lake Josephine, Lake Sherburne

We didn’t retrace our steps entirely.  When we reached the edge of Lake Josephine, we turned right and walked on boardwalk around the marshy southern edge to the eastern shore.  At a picnic area we stopped to watch this mama moose, very much at ease with an audience.  Maybe she’s a regular here.

The inevitable last mile was a walk through the forest near the water’s edge.  At the end of the lake we crossed back over on a bridge of land to the western shore, connecting back with our original route, and turned right again towards Swiftcurrent Picnic Area.  This was the view of Many Glacier Hotel across Swiftcurrent Lake.  I swear I heard the Munchkins of Oz singing, “You’re out of the woods, you’re out of the dark, you’re out of the night,” as Dorothy and her friends first saw the Emerald City!

Dinner each night was an event and tonight’s was as over-the-top as the hike had been at Babb Bar Cattle Barn Supper Club, a steak house with décor was big as the name, pillars of giant logs, saddles hung on the walls, and the steaks as big as seat cushions.  (Cathy and I split one and still couldn’t finish it.)  With giant beers we toasted our great good fortune at being on such an awesome adventure.  Surely if we brought our non-hiking friends here they would be converted to the hiking life?  And guess what:  we get to do it again tomorrow.

“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.” ~Jack Kerouac

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Glacier National Park: Iceberg Lake & Ptarmigan Tunnel

Glacier NP – 8/18/13 – Iceberg Lake & Ptarmigan Tunnel – 15.3 Miles

Okay, I’ll confess it out loud:  I didn’t realize there would be, like, actual icebergs in Iceberg Lake.  I have seen icebergs floating in Glacier Bay, Alaska, from the cushy comfort of a cruise ship deck, margarita in hand, but I just didn’t make the mental connection with Glacier National Park.  Ah well…

Day 2 of our Glacier NP agenda began again in the Many Glacier section, hiking to Iceberg Lake and Ptarmigan Tunnel (so if there are icebergs in the lake are there ptarmigans in the tunnel??)  The trail begins near the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn complex, an assortment of buildings including a motel, cabins, a restaurant and a gift shop with refreshments (very important.)  Marta accompanied us again for the first leg, telling us it was a gentle, easy hike.  Well, the overall trail gains only about 1,000 feet in 4.5 miles, but our group set a brisk trot pace at the beginning going up stone steps to connect with the main trail.  The masculine half of our crew quickly pulled ahead while the rest of us walked and gawked at the wide open scenery smorgasboard. 

The cirque that encompasses Iceberg Lake with Mount Grinnell on the far left – we’ll see that from a different angle later in the week

Monkey flower (Jeff’s photo)

Iceberg Creek (Jeff’s photo)

First glimpse of Iceberg Lake

Second look - icebergs!

Third look (Jeff’s photo)

Fourth look (Jeff’s photo)

We took an extended break at the lake’s edge (after all, isn’t that why we came?) amongst humans and creatures.  Here’s Cathy and a curious squirrel

Cathy, Dolores and me at Iceberg Lake

Marta put her toes in the lake and decided to stay awhile before going back to her home.  She was kind enough to lend me her bear spray canister for the week (with a quick lesson on how not to hurt myself).  Then the rest of our crew continued on our Y-shaped hike.  Next stop:  Ptarmigan Tunnel.

Which meant backtracking halfway down Iceberg Lake Trail and taking a left.  The brief downhill was forgotten as the uphill towards Ptarmigan Lake literally took my breath away.  Without Marta to set a leisurely pace and conversation, the others were soon out of sight and I felt pulled to hurry after them.  I felt a sense of protection from the bear spray on my belt and was no longer concerned about hiking alone, but I still wanted to stick with the group.  Jeff was behind me for a bit, claimed he was taking care of his knees.  At the lake we caught up with everyone – they had stopped for lunch – but they immediately started up the trail so I didn’t stop to eat.  

Mount Henkel

Slogging my way up to Ptarmigan Lake (Jeff’s photo)

On Ptarmigan Trail

Ptarmigan Lake at the bottom of a barren cirque - no icebergs, but still awesome looking at the Ptarmigan Wall.  From this great website, “the Ptarmigan Wall, towering more than 1700 feet above you at this point, is an arête, or a thin ridge of rock separating two valleys that have been carved by glaciers. In this case, the Ptarmigan Wall separates the Many Glacier valley from the Belly River valley.”

Big horn sheep mamas and young’uns were hanging around the trail between the lake and the tunnel, ignoring us.

On the switchback trail up to the tunnel, looking back at the lake (Jeff’s photo).  This is one of my favorite photos of the entire Glacier trip.  The trail looks narrow and intimidating and was quite steep but actually intense great fun.  Loved.  It.

So what is Ptarmigan Tunnel?  Well, a ptarmigan is a bird commonly seen in Glacier NP.  The tunnel is not a natural tunnel but was blasted through the Ptarmigan Wall in 1931, facilitating a nice day’s ride on horseback from Many Glacier to the Belly River area. 

A nice description of hiking to PT with fantastic photos and maps is here. 

Eastern entrance to the tunnel

You gotta go through it (Jeff’s photo)

The other door (break on thru to the other side)

Elizabeth Lake in the Belly River valley

We were about two-thirds of the way through our hike now and it’s all downhill in reverse (except for the uphills).  Again I was bringing up the rear and I spent the five miles back to the trailhead having a conversation with myself about what I wanted out of this trip.  Everyone has a natural hiking pace and I wanted to enjoy mine rather than chasing everyone else.  Well…no one was asking me to!  Now I had an invisible force field of bear spray so I could hike on my own and it was up to me to enjoy this incredible opportunity.  One thing to pay better attention to was making sure I ate.  It’s hard to have fun when your energy is depleted. 

Back at the Swiftcurrent gift shop and snack shop we hung out on the porch (alas, no big view like yesterday) and rewarded ourselves with ice cream and beverages.  That night we had a great meal at Two Sisters Café, the best restaurant “near Babb, Montana.”  We made room for rainbow trout, bison steak, huckleberry pie.  It’s true.

“When preparing to climb a mountain – pack a light heart.”  ~Dan May