We decided to do something different for summer vacation this year: instead of visiting family in Utah, we drove to a place we’d never been before: Glacier National Park, and it’s Canadian sister-park, Waterton Lakes National Park.
Mostly, the desire was to go to a place that was a shorter drive away — only 9 hours away! Instead of 12! Ha ha ha ha ha!
Also, it had been a very long time since we’d had a just-our-family trip, instead of an extended-family trip. Not that there’s anything wrong with extended-family trips, but it’s nice to mix things up a bit.
I also can’t remember a time that I devoted a whole week to exploring a national park. Even our trips to Yellowstone were rarely more than 4-5 days, not a whole week. What a luxury!
Because of that, I’ve decided to write about our adventures by region, instead of chronologically. We visited certain parts of the park multiple times, and it just makes sense to write about it that way.
The Going to the Sun Road
This is the main road that runs through Glacier, and is deservedly famous. I can’t imagine how it was built, twisting and turning across high cliffs through the mountains! But I also couldn’t stop taking pictures, either. Everyone in the car rolled their eyes at how I kept taking pictures out the window.
To complete the glorious experience, I brought along a CD of music I thought matched the landscape perfectly: Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto, also known as the “Emperor” concerto. And what a perfect match it is — many times it seemed as if the music was perfectly timed for when we’d zoom around a curve and a huge new peak would swoop into view. In fact, click here and you can listen to the concerto on YouTube while you continue to read this post. It’s magnificent.
At first, the kids whined about listening to classical music in the car — but soon it was also obvious to them that this was a landscape/musical match made in heaven. After the first time listening through, the kids loved it so much, that they insisted we listen to it every time we drove on Going to the Sun Road. “Beethoven, Beethoven, Beethoven!” they’d chant.
They even played “air orchestra” in the back seat.
We ended up listening to the entire album (which also has the 4th concerto) about eight times. Everyone in the family kept humming the different themes while we hiked and picnicked around the park. You’d think everyone would get tired of it, but no — those melodies are infinitely refreshing. Can’t get enough.
Once we drove through just as the sun was coming up the sides of the valley. Check out the sunbeams. I took a dozen out-the-window photos that morning.
Another time we drove back at sunset. Beethoven, perfect timing as always, was on one of the slow second movements. Eleanor took all the out-the-window pictures this time.
Moments in between all the picture taking was spent knitting. I made wonderful progress with my shawl while we drove around. Brian didn’t initially understand how I could possibly tear my eyes away from the beautiful scenery for a second, but I replied that people vacation in different ways — and I have faint childhood memories of my mom working on cross-stitch while my dad drove us around Yellowstone.
This, along with Two Medicine, is one of the quieter sections of the park. We visited it early in the week when we didn’t have a clear idea of what the park would be like or what to expect. So, we kept things easygoing.
A picnic, and then a nature hike around Josephine Lake.
We saw a deer in the woods . . .
. . . and a moose cow with her calf on the side of the road.
But the biggest shock was when we had three bear sightings over the space of two hours! (Granted, Brian was the only member of the family who saw the first bear, but we still count it.)
All of these bears were seen on the roadsides, so we weren’t too alarmed. The second bear was a black bear who stood up twice (I looked away both times and missed it, rats!).
But the last bear sighting was very special . . . it was a mama grizzly, and there were two cubs in the tall grass with her. You can’t see them in this picture, unfortunately, but as I watched the cubs jumped around, and I saw their fuzzy bear heads pop out of the grass. I’ve never seen cubs in the wild, and I literally jumped for joy on the side of the road.
Seeing bears was a cause for celebration. The Swiftcurrent Motor Inn had wonderful ice cream: vanilla-blackberry soft serve swirl. You could have all you could fit in a cup for $2.50. Num!
We also spent time checking out the Many Glacier Hotel, which is one of the grand old “parkitecture” lodges of the parks system. I love this funky set of staircases:
It has a “Swiss chalet” theme (okaaay) so the bellhops all wore leiderhosen. My heart goes out to them. True heroes. I’m wondering if the women employees were required to wear dirndls once upon a time . . .
Another quiet corner of the park. Our picnic game was strong with this place. What a view!
We decided to take the kids boating on Two Medicine Lake, which was extraordinary. We gave in to Eleanor’s requests to use a two-person kayak, and Eleanor and I headed off together. This was one of my favorite parts of the trip. She and I chatted and talked and referenced the rowing scene from Ben Hur. We went so far, so fast! Probably 2/3rds of the way across the lake.
The rest of the fam was in a big canoe together. Brian says his ride was less than optimal. Ehhhhh, sorry my love! You are a hero!
Afterwards we indulged in more vanilla-blackberry soft serve (it’s also carried by the Two Medicine general store, nummmmm).
Then we took a quick hike up to see a waterfall. The waterfall itself was kind of dismal (it was more like a series of rapids far below us. I didn’t want anyone to get too close to the edge of the cliff to look) but the view was still spectacular.
We also stopped to see Running Eagle Falls, which are stunning. The story of the woman the falls are named after is also incredible — a real person, a female warrior, not a legend. Awesome.
Waterton Falls National Park
Remember all those pictures I took of Going to the Sun Road at sunrise? Yeah, that was the day we decided to drive to Canada, to see the sister-park across the border. Waterton Lakes is managed in conjunction with Glacier, as an international peace park. Thanks to Canada celebrating 150 years of nation-hood, all national parks admission in the country is free this year! Thanks, Canada!
Waterton Lakes has such a different feel from the American park — there’s a town right in the middle of the park! Almost all of the buildings there have European architectural styles, like a tiny Cotswald village in the middle of the Canadian Rockies.
Again, our picnic game was strong with this trip. Cameron Lake is gorgeous. Lots of great rock-skipping potential. Too bad we didn’t have time to use the paddleboats! The lake straddles the U.S./Canada border, so yes — the mountain peak you see is in Glacier.
(I would also like to point out that the Cameron Lake parking lot is where I saw an honest-to-goodness French-speaking biker gang. Thanks, Canada!)
The reason we didn’t have time for paddleboats is because of this:
A real boat ride down Upper Waterton Lake! Almost all the lakes in Waterton-Glacier have these lovely wooden boat tours, and while they all look great, the Canadian one looked the most interesting.
Our boat is the “oldest continuously operating wooden boat in Canada,” and we had a very windy excursion on the deck. The views were spectacular.
My favorite part was when our guide pointed out the famous “no touching zone,” the gap of felled trees showing where the border is.
The other side of the lake, Goat Haunt, is in Glacier. We could walk around the shoreline for a few minutes, but if we wanted to hike further into Glacier, we’d need to show our passports. Maybe if we come back someday, we’ll do that. It’s called “the back door to Glacier,” and a great way to hike away from the crowds.
After our boat ride we loaded up on ice cream and Kinder Surprise eggs in Waterton (the kids were THRILLED about the eggs. They found ones with Zootopia characters) and of course Wunderbars for me. We discovered Kit Kat flavored ice cream for Jeff which was something of a revelation — Canadian chocolate is delish.
Well stocked with treats, we headed up to the Prince of Wales hotel. That place really knows how to exploit a good view.
The girls and I wistfully gazed at the high tea service, but we were full of sweets already (and tea time was almost over). Next time, girls, I promise!
And yes, the employees here wear tartan plaid kilts instead of leiderhosen. Which seems marginally better, I suppose.
Our boat guide recommended taking a drive up to Red Rock Canyon, so we decided to check it out with the remainder of our afternoon.
Holy cow! A slot canyon! This was not what we expected! Brian wanted to take the big kids upstream to explore the canyon, so I agreed to stay with Katie while she played in the water.
Which she did for about three minutes. Then she insisted we go catch up to everyone else.
Katie is often the Family Whiner on hikes right now, but since this hike was her idea, she was marvellously full of pluck and determination. “Come on, Mom, we can do it!” she cried. “God is making this easier for us!” Even though I was terrified that Katie would fall and drown — or, more likely, that I would drop my phone and/or roll my ankles — we caught up to everyone else unscathed, save our feet turning purple from the cold water.
I will never, ever hike the Zion Narrows, if this is what it’s like. My toes were freezing! But I will admit the hike was incredibly fun. Clambering over rocks is like solving a puzzle, which I enjoy.
Wet and exhausted, we planned to cook hot dogs for dinner in the trailhead picnic area, only to have a French-speaking gentleman ask if we had matches to spare so he could light his camping stove.
Turns out we only had one match left in the box. We gave it to the guy and bought hamburgers in Waterton. Good luck to that gentleman — I hope he caught the flame on the first try!
On our way out of the park, we stopped and took a gander at the bison wandering around a paddock.
And yeah, we saw another bear on the side of the road. That’s Bear #6 for the trip.
Hilarious moment: on our way back to the U.S. we drove through the clear-cut forest border, and the kids yelled “no touching! no touching! no touching! no touching!”
St. Mary is on the eastern edge of the park, the closest side to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation just beyond the park border. The park has made an effort to ensure that all presentations or exhibits about native peoples are created by and for native peoples. As such, there was a performance of dance by local members of the Blackfeet at the St. Mary visitor’s center on Wednesday evening. We drove there first thing in the morning to get our tickets.
Then we had the afternoon to fill up any way we wanted while waiting for evening to come. We had a picnic lunch at an old ranger’s cabin from 1912. It was locked up, but had a fun porch for hanging out.
Afterwards we took a short hike around St. Mary Lake to Baring Falls.
The wildflowers were gorgeous! But since this hike was at a low elevation, it was kind of hot and dusty. Katie wasn’t a fan.
But the waterfall was lovely. It was fun place to climb around and explore. I was paranoid that all the kids would get soaked, but we were just fine.
After the hike, we had a picnic lunch at the Rising Sun picnic area, and let the kids pretend-play in the woods for a while. They chose “Ewok Village” as their play scenario.
After hitting up the Rising Sun general store for ice cream, we headed back to the visitor’s center for the dance performance.
It was so cool — not only because the dancers were incredibly talented, but also because they were local people. The host for the evening was kind of a chatterbox talker, but everything he had to say was so candid (“I’m going to dance first because this dance getup is hot” . . . later he totally embarrassed his granddaughter by telling everyone what a great athlete she is) that it painted a great picture of who these people are and how they are working to preserve their heritage. Many of the performers are teachers at the Blackfeet immersion-language school on the rez.
Afterwards the performers and their families sold handmade doodads to tourists in the parking lot (“hey, it’s tourist season,” said the host. “Gotta do what we can to survive, right?”). I usually don’t bother with souvenirs at national parks (photographs are all I need) but this was different, since I was purchasing something directly from the local person who made it. Eleanor got a tiny replica painted tipi with a night-light inside (it’s in her shadow box now) and Katie got a beaded keychain thing.
Funny story about St. Mary: in the afternoon, while we had our picnic lunch, Brian put his and Jeff’s spare shoes on top of the van to dry off in the sun, since they were still damp from the slot-canyon hike the day before. After the hike to Baring Falls, I took care to ensure the shoes came down and were safely packed away before we drove off.
So imagine my surprise when, on the drive back home from the dance performance, we see a shoe in the middle of the road that looked a lot like Brian’s.
Yeah, turns out that Brian put the shoes back on top of the car during dinner, but didn’t tell me about it, and then totally forgot about it himself.
We turned the car around, searched, and were able to find both of Brian’s shoes, but Jeff’s? No idea. We drove back and forth along the road between the picnic area and the visitor center, and no sign of his shoes. Fortunately, they were spares a little too small for Jeff, but did we leave shoes behind in a national park? Hopefully someone else found them and picked them up.
This is by far the most crowded part of the park. According to the rangers, park attendance went up 30% in 2016, and 2017 is likely to break that record. The park’s infrastructure simply can’t handle that many people. Even though there is a shuttle system to help reduce parking, it was nearly useless as the filled-up shuttle buses skip over hikers stranded at trailheads. We attempted to use the shuttle to get to Logan Pass, but discovered that the shuttle wait would be two and a half hours to board.
(That was the morning we decided to drive to Two Medicine instead.)
Hence the parking lot at the Logan Pass visitor center is usually packed all day. In most seasons, said the rangers, you’re fine for parking if you arrive before noon, but this year you needed to show up by 9:00 a.m. or you’re stuck. Some rangers spoke of fistfights breaking out in the Logan Pass parking lot.
So we avoided the place altogether during the day, because we know one simple secret about national parks: everyone goes home at 5:00 p.m.
Yeah. The place is empty by six.
So for our big day of hiking in Logan Pass, we woke up early and raced all the tourists for a parking spot by the Avalanche Lake trailhead (one of the most popular hikes in the park). Even with getting up at dawn, we had to park in the down-the-road overflow area, but still. A spot. Hooray.
And it was totally worth it because the hike was gorgeous. Beautiful forest, rivers cascading over boulders, the works.
A pristine mountain lake at the end! Perfect for making mud pies, according to Katie.
And then . . .ANOTHER BEAR.
This is probably the best bear sighting I’ve ever had. A small grizzly emerged on the far side of the lake, then slowly walked along the shoreline, allowing everyone there a nice long look. It was really fun to watch the bear climb up and over all the logs. About twenty full minutes of bear watching. Holy cow. (that was Bear #7, if you’re counting.)
We kept our car in its spot during lunch, choosing to walk our food to the picnic area across the road from the trailhead.
The Avalanche Picnic Area has a just-right river for wading and skipping rocks.
In fact, we liked it so much that we returned there later that evening for dinner, too.
Finally, it was late enough to go up to the Logan Pass parking lot. The reason why this place is so popular? It’s the trailhead for the most iconic hike in the entire park: The Hidden Lake Overlook trail.
I admit that I was skeptical of all the hoops we needed to jump through to make this hike happen, but whoa, was it worth it.
This place is gorgeous. And since we didn’t begin until evening, there weren’t very many people.
The challenging part of the hike was walking across a series of snowfields. It wasn’t very cold, but it was slippery. Fortunately we were all lucky and nobody had any serious falls. More than anything, it made us feel like we had really “done” Glacier.
Another perk of going in the evening: mountain goats! We saw so many of them next to the trail that we stopped being flabbergasted at them. Just regular gasted.
The trail down to Hidden Lake was closed (too many bears) but that’s okay. The overlook was worth it. This is one of the most beautiful views I’ve seen, period. The lavender-and-evergreen mountains, with the silver lake at the bottom? Lines of indigo ridges disappearing into the sunset? Take me there, any time any day.
Eleanor and I chatted all the way down, experimenting with my camera’s panorama setting. The sunset was spectacular.
It was so spectacular that Eleanor insisted on photographing it on the drive down the mountainside. The CD player automatically flicked on as we pulled out of the parking lot, and who was playing? Beethoven’s 5th concerto. The slow 2nd movement. Perfectly timed with the sunset. I kid you not.
Apgar and Lake McDonald
This the part of the park closest to where we were staying, so we often by while coming and going.
The big attraction for the visitor center was the ranger-led stargazing parties in the evening. They had big telescopes set up so we could have close-up views of Jupiter and Saturn, as well as various nebulas and galaxies. Brian and the kids were so excited they began singing Uncle Peter’s song “Ganymede,” while waiting in line for the next scope.
I spent a lot of time experimenting with the slow shutter speed on my phone camera, taking pictures of the night sky. It was really challenging! The pictures below are the ones that turned out. One of them is from the night we spent stargazing at Logan Pass — there was no astronomy program there, we just spontaneously stopped on the way home to look at stars.
Apgar Village is also home to the Nature Center, which hosts a lot of ranger programs the kids attended to earn their Junior Ranger badges.
Pluuuuuuuus there is pretty good ice cream at the general store.
We spent our last day in the park in Apgar, and asked the kids what activity they enjoyed so much they wanted a repeat. The vote went to kayaking, so onto Lake McDonald we went!
Well . . . everyone but Jeff, who had no interest in going on the water again. We have him a little cash for an ice cream cone, and he had a ball hanging out on the beach by himself. (A much happier teenage boy when we rowed back.)
This time around, Eleanor and William were rowing buddies, while Brian and I took Katie in a canoe. Confession: being in the canoe made me extremely nervous about tipping into the water and losing my phone, and hence all my Glacier photos. Brian, on the other hand, told me later that he loved rowing with a competent adult instead of children. Either way, after an hour of rowing I asked to be taken back to shore with Katie. Since Wim and E. hadn’t returned, Brian went back out in a kayak to help them navigate their way back to shore.
After lunch on the lakeshore, we took a detour to the western section of the park that very few people visit: the Camas Road. (Funny story: this road was built in order to prevent a dam project from flooding/destroying Glacier NP in the 1940s. Once the dam was cancelled, road construction halted. That’s why there’s a really nice road there.)
There was nobody in this part of the park, which was a shame because there were some lovely overlooks that would be perfect for watching wildlife at dusk.
But we were headed out to the Camas Creek Entrance of the park to hike along the “Forests and Fire Nature Trail.”
We all felt a little skittish about this trail, since there was nobody else there, and the trailhead sign was atypically empty (a sign with nothing on it). So everyone was a little nervous when we began. Would this trail loop around as we’d been promised by our park map? Or was it a different trail altogether? Were we about to get lost? Pudding!
It was also very hot and dusty, similar to the St. Mary lake hike but without the scenic benefits of a lake. A sign told us that park visitors are allowed to harvest huckleberries (a pint per visitor, per day!) but we didn’t find any.
But it all turned out okay, and we headed out of the park in early enough to enjoy some swimming back at our base camp.
“Base Camp” in Columbia Falls
It was nice to return to “civilization” for our last evening on vacation. We rented a condo that was part of a vacation resort, and the swimming pool was right next door! We gave the kids a nice long swim on the first day we arrived (well . . . Jeff abstained. He came shopping with me instead, and we spent way too long flipping through magazines).
I took the littles swimming on our last evening as well, while Brian and Jeff played Magic and then fetched us dinner from the local Dairy Queen. After spending the day kayaking, hiking, and swimming, those burgers tasted a-ma-zing.
At bedtime we finished up the read-aloud book I’d brought for the trip, The 13 Clocks, by James Thurber. So nice to have everything all checked off and tidy for our return trip. I felt we did everything we wanted, but just little enough that I’m totally craving more. Maybe we’ll have to return to Glacier sometime in the future — who knows?