Road Trip Day 7: Glacier National Park

If you ever visit Glacier National Park, I recommend the following:

  • Spend the night before somewhere relatively nearby on the eastern side, such as Great Falls
  • Download the podcast audio tours of the park, which you can listen to while on the Going to the Sun Road shuttle
  • Enter the park on the eastern side, at the St. Mary Entrance, early in the morning while the air is clear
  • Your first view of Glacier National Park will be the iconic view of St. Mary Lake in the glacier valley also called St. Mary, surrounded by tall craggy mountainsView from St Mary Lake
  • Take the boat tour across St. Mary lake, get off at Baring Falls, and hike from there to St. Mary Falls and on to Virginia Falls, then take the shuttle from St. Mary Falls along the Going to the Sun road to Logan Pass, the highest point in the road
  • Then take the shuttle back to St. Mary Visitor Center, get your car, and drive through the park from east to west

We did not do any of the above, but now having been to Glacier, this is what I would have planned, if we had been able to make other choices. It didn’t matter, though, because our day really worked out perfectly.

View from Logan Pass Visitor CenterA brief orientation: Glacier National Park has only one road that goes across it, called the Going-to-the-Sun Road. From east to west, it starts at St. Mary Visitor Center (at the tip of St. Mary Lake), where the prairie ends. The road climbs past some glacier-topped mountains to a pass – Logan Pass – at 6646 ft of elevation. From there it winds its way downward and across the park, hugging the mountains, then McDonald Creek, and down to Lake McDonald. You can drive across Glacier along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which takes a couple of hours. Or you can take two shuttles – one that goes from St. Mary Visitor Center to Logan Pass, and then another that goes from Logan Pass to the Apgar Transit Center at the western end of the park.

There are a number of other areas of Glacier that are not accessible from the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Rather, you have to drive up the east or west side of the park and take roads across to get into the mountain areas of each of these zones. We didn’t visit any of these areas, but no doubt they are beautiful.

Check out our Glacier photos from Day 7 here.

Back to our adventure: we had stayed on the west side of the park because we believed we were more likely to find a campground on that side. This is likely true, and as I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, we ended up at a lovely campground just outside the western entrance to the park. We left our campground at about quarter to 8 in the morning and got to the Apgar Transit Center just barely in time to catch the 8 am shuttle to Logan Pass.

Heaven's Peak, as seen from the Going-to-the-Sun RoadWhile on the shuttle, Dave snapped photos and we chit-chatted with the driver and some of the passengers. The driver shared that she had seen a bear when she got into her bus that morning. The bear saw her, and she carefully slipped into the bus, and there was no trouble. =)

Travel up the Going-to-the-Sun Road was a bit precarious – it is a rather winding road, and the surface and shoulder were torn up in a few places due to construction. We were so glad to not have to be the ones driving.

Dave and Jenn in front of Jackson GlacierWe arrived at Logan Pass at about 9:20 am, made use of the restroom there at the top of the road, and took a few photos. Then we caught the 9:30 am shuttle toward the St. Mary Visitor Center. We got off two stops later at the Gunsight Pass Trailhead. At this spot is a perfect view of the Jackson Glacier, so we took several shots here before hitting the trail.

We also took a few moments to honor Lucas, as Dave clipped Lucas’ dog tags to my backpack. I wept for our absent hiking companion as we started down the trail.

Reynolds Creek - Deadwood FallsWe started hiking around 10 am. The trail was perfect for us – relatively flat and shady. About half an hour into the hike, we came across Reynolds Creek’s Deadwood Falls, and admired the beautiful water in the sunshine. Fortunately this was also an opportunity to be passed by the youth group that had been trailing about a hundred yards behind us.

Overgrown trail - Gunsight Pass TrailWe continued hiking, and the trail at times was very overgrown. A few times, the tall flowers were higher than my head! We were thankful that it was warm and sunny, but not too hot that we felt uncomfortable wearing pants – it would have been awkward wearing shorts in such overgrowth.

St Mary FallsAt 11:30 am we found ourselves at St. Mary Falls. There were a number of people coming and going, and Dave ended up taking photos for a few of the groups. I told him he should work for tips.

Jenn and Dave at Virginia FallsWe then continued up the trail to Virginia Falls. It was a deceptive trail: it climbed a bit, then there were some falls, then it climbed some more, then more falls, etc. I noticed that a lot of hikers seemed to think they had reached the Virginia Falls when they got to the first set of falls. Fortunately Dave checked the map, and we knew we got to the “real” Virginia Falls when we arrived at a bridge that crossed the creek. Also, it turned out there was a sign that pointed toward the Virginia Falls overlook.

We arrived here around 12:15 pm and had lunch under a tree growing out of the rocks next to the river that flowed beneath the falls. It was a peaceful and scenic spot to have lunch. We took a few photos and then got back on the trail by 12:45 pm.

All in all, we probably hiked about 5 miles – a good hike for us.

Our aim was to get back to the road and take the shuttle onward. We had to double back past St. Mary Falls, back to the original trail, and then follow the signs to the Sun Road. However, when we got there, the only evidence of the shuttle stop was a tiny (2 in x 2 in) sign on the side of the trailhead post with a shuttle symbol and an arrow pointing to the right. We were in the middle of a parking lot beside the road, where there was no shuttle stop sign. We took a few steps in the direction indicated by the arrow, but didn’t see anything. We walked back to the other end of the parking lot, where a middle-aged couple was just hanging out in the shade. They acted surprised that we didn’t know the shuttle stop was in the other direction. We hiked back that way and about 100 yards away from the parking lot, but saw nothing but the road curving away. We walked all the way back to the previously mentioned couple, where they gave us more detail: the shuttle stop was perhaps another 1/4 mile down the road.

Tour boat on St Mary LakeSo frustrating, but we finally found it, and the shuttle came about 10 minutes later, at approximately 1:35 pm.Our next aim was to take the 2 pm bus tour across St. Mary Lake, but as the bus poked east along the road, we were really wondering if we were going to make it. The shuttle came across the bend at Rising Sun Boat Dock, and we could see that the boat was still at the dock. As we pulled into the parking lot and got dropped off at the shuttle stop, we were amazed to see that the boat still hadn’t pulled away, and it was after 2 pm! We ran toward the dock and asked the woman on the shore if we could get on the 2 pm tour. At first she told us no, because the boat was full, but then she went to double-check the numbers and came back to tell us that we could! She made it a point to emphasize that we must pay once we returned, but that she was glad we could squeeze on.

View from St Mary LakeThe boat tour was very relaxing after hiking 5 miles. It was informative – the tour guide shared information about how the lake had been formed glaciers millions of years ago.

She also talked about much more recent history, when the park was first developed for tourists. The original owners of the park created a series of chalets, and one of them had been on a point that jutted into the lake. Visitors arrived by boat and were taken up to the chalets in an elevator system. Once the park service gained ownership of the park, including the chalets, it burned this one down and bulldozed it into the lake. I was highly amused by this.

Baring FallsThe ride across the lake took about 40 minutes, and then we pulled into a dock where we were encouraged to take the very short hike (5 minutes max) up to Baring Falls. Dave and I had originally considered hiking to these falls as the final leg of our morning hike, but this was much easier. The port stop was about 20 minutes, long enough for everyone to poke around and get some photos of the falls. Then it was a leisurely 30 minute boat ride back across the lake.

Back at Rising Sun Boat Dock, we waited a long time for the shuttle. It finally arrived around 4:15 pm. We had to watch our time, to be sure we caught the shuttle westward early enough to make the connection at Logan Pass to take us back to our car at Apgar. We told ourselves that we could spend no longer than an hour at St. Mary. Once we got there, we found that this wasn’t even a concern. There was really very little to see at the Visitor Center. We poked around, bought a few postcards, admired the osprey nest, etc.

As we waited for the next shuttle back to Logan Pass (they run every 30 minutes), we had ample time to admire the view. As I mentioned at the beginning, the scene at St. Mary Visitor Center truly is the iconic view of Glacier National Park. It was starting to get a bit hazy by that point in the afternoon, but the water in the lake was still an incredible blue, and it was a marked contrast next to the mountains and the glaciers above it. As I watched, I noticed curvy streaks in the sky, evidence of the airstream there on the edge of the east side of the continental divide.

Logan Pass Visitor Center, with Reynolds Mountain in backgroundSomething must have been going wrong with the shuttle bus and/or drivers, because it wasn’t until after 5:15 pm that a fairly surly guy came out to start up the shuttle and get us all going. After that, though, the trip went really smoothly. As soon as we got off the first shuttle at Logan Pass, there was a shuttle to Apgar ready and waiting. We got on that shuttle and it left immediately – leaving enough spaces in the bus to pick up additional passengers later on the route. It would have been a good opportunity to nap, except that the ride was so bouncy. It was better to enjoy the scenery anyway, and to listen to the amusing conversations of the other passengers.

We finally arrived at the Apgar Transit Center at 7:15 pm, having been on buses for two hours straight. Still, we couldn’t complain – at least we didn’t have to drive! We were thrilled to realize that we probably drove a total of 3 miles today – a big contrast from the previous several days.

We did a bit of shopping there in the Apgar Village, and got back to camp around 8 pm. Our camp neighbors across the road had a very rowdy but good-natured game going – something that involved tossing little disks into holes in boxes. They were amusing to listen to. We had hot dogs and beans for dinner, then make a campfire and watched the wood burn for a while. We were too sleepy to do much else, and were in bed around 11 pm.

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