Glacier National: An Experience Like No Other

When my husband first told me Glacier National Park was on his bucket travel list, I brushed it off. I’d never heard of Glacier National before and it truly was just not on my radar. He showed us pictures and videos and eventually we decided to make it a reality by visiting the park.

We recently returned from what was supposed to be ten days at Glacier National Park in Kalispell, Montana. And even though I’d prepared myself by researching the park and its beauty, I had no clue what we were going to experience. Glacier National Park is truly an undiscovered gem. Yes, we’ve all heard of Yellowstone and Yosemite. We all know about the Grand Canyon, but how many of us have actually heard of Glacier or been taught about it in school? I’d venture to say not that many. Which is a shame in some regards, but at the same time this unfamiliarity might serve to preserve its beauty and sacredness.

Our travel to Montana was supposed to consist of 7 total hours of plane-time. The plan was to fly into Chicago and then connect on a flight to Kalispell, MT. I say that was the plan because as we would soon learn, plans sometimes go to shit. We made it to Chicago at the time we were supposed to; however, our Chicago flight to Kalispell was delayed by a few hours and eventually we heard the nice announcement made: “Kalispell flight has been cancelled”. We assumed this was due to the storms that Chicago had experienced that morning…but had completely cleared up. Soon the rush to the customer service desk ensued. As we walked to find the end of the line to the customer service desk, we soon realized our “quick” 7 hour flight time to Montana was now being prolonged. We just didn’t know how long at the time. After waiting in line for nearly two hours behind three hundred plus people, we finally made it to the front and scheduled a connecting flight to…drumroll please…Salt Lake City. From there, we would be able to make a flight to Kalispell the following night! So what was supposed to be 7 hours of flight-time turned into 48 hours of travel from Tampa to Chicago to Minneapolis (oh yeah our flight to Salt Lake made a quick stop in Minneapolis because the crew had timed out) to Salt Lake City and then finally to Kalispell, MT on Friday night at midnight.

Talk about the most stressful travel days of my life. Not to mention our luggage was lost and we had nothing to travel with. We had to scavenge for diapers the first night because most of the places in Salt Lake City closed at midnight. Needless to say we were thrilled when we made it to Kalispell and found our missing luggage had made it there ahead of us!

Okay, enough bitching and onto the epic adventure part. The first full day spent in Glacier was amazing. We took two short boat rides over Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine on the east side of the park in order to get to our planned hike – the Grinnell Trail. Over clear bright teal water, we were anxious to make it to the trail and start hiking. Our toddler was protesting being made to sit still on the first boat ride, so we quickly adjusted our approach and strapped him into our hiking backpack earlier than planned. We made it to Grinnell and began the three mile hike up the side of a cliff. When I talk about steep inclines, I mean these are steep inclines. I thought I was a fit person until I hiked up Grinnell. On the way up we saw evergreen trees rising high into the air and saw wildflowers we’d never seen before. Our feet waded through small waterfalls cascading down the mountainside…the heavenly run-off from snow fields above us, high in the mountains.

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Looking down on Grinnell Lake from the Grinnell Trail.

We made it to the top and looked out on a view unlike anything I’d ever seen. I’ve been to thirty five states and out of the country a few times, but this view was the most breathtaking view I’ve ever laid eyes on. More beautiful than the Caribbean. More picturesque than the Grand Canyon. The tallest mountain peaks rose above use, surrounded by greenery and colors of the rainbow, we looked down upon a vivid turquoise Grinnell Lake. And we took many pictures. But none could capture the true magnificence of this place. We hiked down the trail and made it to the bottom in about forty five minutes, which was very quick compared to the trip up.

Following the Grinnell Hike, we took a day off to check out the ranch where we stayed and relax a bit. The following day we did another strenuous hike – the famous Highline Trail. The hike began at Logan Pass, which marks the Continental Divide. The beginning of the hike was rather risky…switchbacks against the side of a rocky mountain with actual tubing for rails. Apparently people have fallen from this exact cliff to their deaths some couple hundred feet below to the road. We succeeded in safely making it across and then hiked through a forest on the side of the mountain with thick evergreens and wildflowers out the ying yang:  happy yellow arnica, violet mountain bog gentian, glacier lillies, and fields of blanket flowers and rosy indian paintbrush buds. Feasting on the flowers, indeed. And let us not forget the unbelievable amount of waterfall after waterfall. You are truly connecting with every element during this hike.

After a few miles of up and down, the hike hits a spot known as The Garden Wall. The woods open up to reveal fields and fields of blooming beargrass. If you don’t know what beargrass is, it’s the tall white thick flowers I’ve posted as the cover photo and to the right. One beargrass bloom consists of hundreds of tiny white lillies at the end of a stalk. They are otherworldly to say the least. And they are beloved to the pollinators – bees of various kinds, flies, and butterflies galore! My son and daughter couldn’t help but reach out and stroke the blooms as we strode by. Smiles for miles next to the beargrass fields. We thought we’d reached the top but realized we had a steeper incline to climb. This is when my daughter got a little winded and began tripping over rocks jutting out from the path. But we encouraged her to keep going and eventually we made it to the top. My quote for that day was, “this is one of the best days of my life.” To say I felt connected with my surroundings isn’t saying enough.

After our glorious Grinnell and Highline hikes, we took another hike (though much shorter and less strenuous) up to Hidden Lake. This trail can also be found beginning at Logan Pass, and it has a boardwalk and steps scaling the majority of the steepest part of the hike. My daughter was in heaven when we reached the first snow field. No, it was not cold that day, the weather had to have been in the seventies and yes there was snow on the ground still. We carefully made our way over about 5 snow fields, me worrying about my husband with the baby strapped to his back. Made it to the end of the hike to look out over Hidden Lake. There was talk that people had sighted a grizzly bear down at the lake, but we could not spot it. We did, however, get up close and personal with a family of mountain goats and a couple of marmots.

In addition to hiking, we also played in Lake McDonald, which is the most popular lake in the park for good reason. Not only is the water clear and teal colored, there are also multi-colored pebbles and stones that create a true piece of art to swim and play in. Nevermind the view of the majestic mountain peaks in the background and all around.

One of my other favorite parts of the park is a short walk down the Trail of Cedars. This is a trail that takes you through a beautiful forest of centuries-old giant cedar trees, western hemlocks, and cottonwoods. Not to mention you run into Avalanche Gorge…a carving out in the mountain made by rushing, ravaging blue glacial waters. Breathe it all in.

To try to put this trip into words is beyond difficult…almost impossible. While there were some rather stressful parts to the trip, overall it was a vacation we will never forget. Glacier National Park takes a piece of your soul when you leave. Or so someone else said before me. Would I do the forty eight hours of travel to get there again? In a heartbeat…but let’s make it a few years down the road.

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Lake McDonald