Three of our 4 days in Glacier National Park were mostly rainy with overwhelming cloud — and for 2 of those days, a main portion of the famed 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun road was closed to traffic due to snow. Sadly, it was the most beautiful part (see red, below).
Could it be that after a year of waiting, we may not get to see the whole park?
We had one perfect day of weather where we basked in the utter grandeur of Glacier National Park.
Here is our story.
Two Medicine (Part Deux)
Labor Day started with the Going-to-the-Sun road still closed due to weather. That meant Plan B (yet again), which was to head back to Two Medicine to hopefully see what we missed the first time. [Note that this means we circled around the bottom of the park (again), since we couldn't go through the middle.]
Luckily for us, the clouds lifted about halfway through our 1.5-hour drive. From there, all went right, including this visit from a cow during our drive. Made me laugh.
But more importantly, we got to see the previously elusive backdrop at Two Medicine Lake. Yahoooo!!!! It was definitely worth a second trip.
And better still, we got to take the boat ride across the lake, in the oldest of the Glacier National Park boat fleet — the Sinopah, a wooden boat built in the 1930′s. The boat was presumably named after the triangular peak of the same name in the pic above. These names come from the Blackfeet Indian Nation.
The Sinopah boat is one of 5 boats that tour the lakes of the park — we rode 4 of the 5 during our stay (only because the 5th was closed for the season).
While the tour was informative, I really didn’t hear much of what the guide said! I was just mesmerized by the beauty of the mountains. The view below was from the other side of the lake, where we docked to let hikers disembark.
This was the last day of the season for the boat rides at Two Medicine and the Campstore we had visited just 2 days earlier was already closed up for the winter. How quickly things change!
On the way out we checked out the Running Eagle/Trick Falls before deciding to head northward to Many Glacier on the east side of the park.
During spring, this waterfall actually has 2 tiers, the highest of which is due to spring run-off. At the end of the summer, the high tier is no longer visible, and the lower tier looks like it comes straight out of the rock.
As we left Two Medicine and got back to the main road, this is when our day changed.
Back in the land of cell phone reception, we quickly learned that the Going-to-the-Sun road had re-opened! This meant we could finally take in all the famed road had to offer…after our trip to Many Glacier, that is.
On the way up to Many Glacier, the scenery changed dramatically. While the mountain scenery remained on our left (west), the scene on our right changed to what almost looked like plains.
One of our boat drivers explained that this was due to the geologic upthrust that formed this area. The Rocky Mountains were formed when 2 plates collided, pushing both plates upward to form the mountains. In Glacier National Park, the Lewis Overthrust (millions of years ago) caused one plate to slide over the other, pushing old rock over new and resulting (uncommonly) in plains adjacent to mountains. [I'm sure there is a more scientific explanation than this, but this is what I took away from it!]
We knew we wanted to do a hike at Many Glacier the following day, so we went ahead and visited, to see if we needed to book in advance. As it turns out, we got a bit of a crush on the area instantly, so stayed longer than anticipated.
The heart of Many Glacier is the Many Glacier hotel — a Swiss-chalet style hotel at the head of Swiftcurrent Lake.
When you view it from the front (above) it is clearly an impressive structure against a stunning backdrop. But when you go across the lake and view it against the mountains (below), it seems to shrink in size. This gives you an idea of the sheer size of these mountains!
The view of Mount Grinnell from the almost Titanic-like balcony was also incredibly impressive.
Many Glacier also made an impression on us because it was the first place on this trip where we saw wildlife– a grizzly, a couple of black bears (adorable!), and some mountain goats grazing on a hillside. [It was also the place where we accidentally got back into the wrong car after viewing said wildlife --- ooops! Fortunately we realized it quickly and jumped into our own car.]
The Many Glacier hotel also had a unique fireplace in its lodge — the warmth from the fire was definitely welcomed after being out in the cold.
After enjoying a coffee by the fire, we finally set out for the pièce de résistance – the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
The Going-to-the-Sun Road is an ~50-mile long road that goes through the middle of Glacier National Park and contains (by far) the most popular sights of the park. It is open from about June through September and is the first US road designated as both a National Historic Landmark and a National Civil Engineering Landmark.
How do people decide they want to build a road in the side of cliffs? And how did they decide to do it in 1921? And better still, continue building until 1932? That kind of vision and carry-through impresses me. As does this road…
Going from East to West, the first thing we came upon was Two Dog Flats — the meadows in the foreground (below). I didn’t even realize what we were seeing — as I was mesmerized by the backdrop.
Next up was the area called Rising Sun, much of which has been closed due to fires this year. This lake (St. Mary Lake) was already closed for the season, but still provided a gorgeous setting for a pic of one of the 5 boats in the Glacier NP arsenal.
Next up was Wild Goose Island, the tiny island counterpart to the mountainous backdrop. You really have to look in the below image to find it (look to the left).
Several of the next points of interest were closed due to the recent fire, the results of which were easily identifiable on both sides of the road. This fire broke out on July 21st of this year and, miraculously, some green undergrowth is already starting to bloom from the ashes. Nature is amazing.
One of the next stops was to view Jackson Glacier, one of the only glaciers that can be seen from the Going-to-the-Sun Road (see it in the far back, below, behind the tree).
As the placard describes, of the 150 glaciers present in 1850, only ~25 are left. It is expected that they will all be gone by 2030 — so if you want to see them, visit soon!
Also, FYI, we learned the definition of a glacier on many of our tours — the ice must cover 25 acres, be at least 100 feet deep, and be moving. Many of the glaciers are retreating and decreasing in size after which point they will no longer qualify as a glacier.
At this point, I really stopped caring about particular stops and “points of interest” because the landscape got ridiculously gorgeous. I had to pick my chin up off of my chest. Here is an example:
The sheer size of these mountains was incredible. And I’ll admit, the equally sheer cliffs on the side of the road had me white knuckling part of the drive. Woah…
Here’s another view:
Are you starting to understand why I was so devastated at the thought of not being able to see this whole road? WOAH!
As it turns out, we were incredibly lucky for the rain that had fallen in previous days. Not only had it extinguished most of the fires, but it also cleared the smoke (so that the mountains could be seen), covered the gray glaciers/snow with freshly fallen powder above ~6000 feet, and provided the pristine vista we were able to see. Thank you rain and snow!
Clearly, someone enjoyed the snow enough to make a little snowman on one of the ledges.
From here, it was on to Logan’s Pass, site of the Continental Divide, which separates where the waters of the US run to the east or to the west. Logan’s Pass sits at 6466 feet in elevation, is the highest point along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, and was covered in snow when we went through. Hard to believe that it’s in the upper 80′s (degF) back home!
[Notably, we drove through Logan's Pass again the next morning, and it was completely shrouded in cloud. Aaaaack! Talk about white knuckles!]
At Logan’s Pass, we saw a typical site in the Park — the red buses. Red bus tours are a popular way to view the whole Going-to-the-Sun road without having to drive it yourself. Our tour of the park had been cancelled due to the road closure earlier in the week — so we never rode in one, but did see them all throughout the park.
In good weather, the canvas tops open up, allowing an overhead view of the park as well. Very cool.
Just after Logan’s Pass, this view from Oberlin Bend is of the Garden Wall, which is covered heavily in flowers during the summer months. I bet that is even more stunning than being covered in snow.
The amazing views continued (until I was almost at sensory overload — are you???)…
The focus of the below pic is not the gorgeous river in the valley (though beautiful) but rather the “hanging valley” in the upper left (looks like a bowl of snow). These valleys “hang” above the actual valley floor and are a unique feature of Glacier National Park.
The below pic is from a random pull off that was ridiculously amazing. Note that it takes about 2 to 2.5 hours to drive the 50 miles of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, depending on how many pullouts you turn into. We turned into most of them. (You’re shocked, I know!)
Given that it is late summer/early fall (and after the first snow fall), we didn’t see many of the flowers that usually cover the park in the summer. So when I saw these, I had to take a pic.
From there, our journey along the Going-to-the-Sun road was almost complete, as we made our way to Lake McDonald Lodge for our 7pm boat tour of Lake McDonald. This was the last boat tour of the season, and a perfect way to end the day.
As it turns out, it was the perfect end to the perfect day as well as the perfect end to the boat tour season. Our guide said this was the best rainbow she’s seen all summer. I believe it!
Some things are just meant to be. And today was one of them.
We felt very, very, very fortunate to have been able to see the Park during good weather. Especially since we talked to a woman on the boat tour who had been here for 2 weeks and had never been able to see the Going-to-the-Sun road at its best (due to smoke or cloud).
Deep exhale…so thankful we were able to see such beauty. We highly recommend that you plan a visit!!
Hope you enjoyed this pictoral tour of Glacier National Park. Thanks for letting us relive it!