STATE 22 - MONTANA
08/01/2011 - 08/02/2011 60 °F
We left behind the beautiful state of Idaho and entered another state just as scenic. Megan and I headed to one of the most awe-inspiring National Parks in the country, Glacier National Park!
Driving through the Rocky Mountains was just as beautiful crossing from Idaho into Montana as it was driving through the mountains passing from Colorado to Utah. Forested mountains surrounded blue lakes, and it seemed like we were the only people for miles.
To get to Glacier National Park from Sandpoint, Idaho, we were supposed to follow a state highway north to about 10 miles from the Canadian border, head a couple miles west through a mountain pass, and then come back down south to the entrance of Glacier National Park. It was a long loop, but apparently there are not many passes through the Rocky Mountains in this area. When Megan pulled up the directions to Glacier National Park, the GPS found a direct route through the mountains that would cut 2 hours off our drive. I'm not usually one for blindly following the GPS, but a 2 hour time savings sounded too good to pass up. I left the highway and followed the road heading straight east.
Turning off the highway, the road looked like a standard two lane country road. 15 miles later, it turned into an unmarked paved road.
In another 15 miles, we were no longer on a paved road.
At this point, we had been driving for about 40 minutes. We could only drive about 20 MPH since our tiny 2 wheel drive Ford Focus was not quite equipped for off-road travel. I figured that turning around would cost us 40 minutes of time backtracking, plus 2 additional hours of driving time. The road was probably only gravel for a few miles before connecting to another road. Unfortunately, that didn't quite happen.
It turns out that NFSR-401, the name of the road we were on according to the GPS, does not stand for "Neat and Fast Shortcut Route" as I had naively thought, but rather for "National Forestry Service Road". The narrow, unpaved road we were traveling on was used by the National Forestry Service to travel through the Kootenai National Forest. The slow progression down the road was bad, but seeing that we still had another 43 miles until the next turn was even worse. I took a couple deep breaths, and tried to focus on the beautiful scenery around me. That worked until we encountered a log laying across the road.
I slowed the car, and briefly considered turning around. We had been traveling on the detour for over an hour, and it was going to start getting dark soon. I didn't want to be caught driving through a National Forest, on a narrow dirt path, with hundred foot drops at night. I said screw it, and stubbornly decided to continue forward. I punched the accelerator and attempted to "jump" the log. The car slammed into the log, the steering wheel jerked hard to one side, and Megan and I were thrown forward. When we landed, we miraculously ended up on the other side of the the log, and I thanked God when the car still seemed drivable. Expecting that the worst was behind us (there was now only 10 miles until we left the NFSR), we ran into the next obstacle—a river was running over the road.
I always heard you shouldn't drive through standing water, but it's not like we had a choice. I didn't want to try log jumping again, and the water didn't look that deep. Megan, who kept uncharacteristically silent during the log incident, began to openly express her concern with going across the water. I told her that I would try to go through the shallower looking mud and just try to keep moving. Figuring it had worked well before, I punched the accelerator and tried to get as much momentum as possible before reaching the water and mud (while muttering a quick Hail Mary). Water shot off the side of the car as we sliced through the river. We slowed to a crawl, and I fully expected water to start coming in from the door jams. Somehow we made it to the other side without getting stuck.
Thankfully we emerged from the dirt road with our car still intact. Our route through the forest had taken over 3 hours. The previously white, shiny car was now covered in mud and dust. A thousand insects peppered the front grill and windshield, but at least Megan and I had made it through alive. I wish I had more pictures of the off-road ordeal, but honestly I had been too nervous to think about documenting the experience.
Sticking to the main road, we eventually found ourselves on the outskirts of the National Park. We entered an Visitor Center to get more information on which trails through the park were closed. Never did I expect that we would have to worry about trails being closed due to snow at the end of July. It can snow at Glacier National Park at any point during the year, even the middle of summer! The Visitor Center didn't have any information on closed trails because it was actually the Alberta Visitor Center (for traveling into Canada). I took a picture with a mounty, looked around quickly, and then got back into the car to head into the park.
Glacier National Park is humungous, over a million acres in size. Wildlife is abundant. Mountain goats, black bears, grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, lynx, cougars, wolves, moose, deer, and plenty more can be found throughout the park. Megan was scared to death of encountering a bear while we were out hiking, and I had spent a good portion of the road trip assuring her that we would not see a bear. However, not 30 seconds after paying the entrance fee to enter the park, we came across our first bear.
It was awesome seeing the bear walk through the forest, although also a little scary. Megan had read up on what to do when encountering a bear (play dead when encountering a grizzly, fight back when encountering a black bear). She had also tried to convince me to get bear bells (bells attached to your backpack that jingle as you hike so you don't sneak up on a bear) and bear spray (heavy duty pepper spray). My fears grew upon stopping at the Visitor Center when we learned that of the top 3 trails we wanted to hike, 1 was closed due to snow, 1 was closed to a bear attack the day before, and the third had both a grizzly and black bear sighting earlier in the morning. To get Megan's mind (and mine) off of bears, we walked outside to take in the view of Lake McDonald and head to a bear-free trail.
We took the bus to the Avalanche Trail trailhead. There is only one road that winds through the mountains of Glacier National Park, Going To the Sun Road. It is incredibly scenic, as we caught spectacular views of Lake McDonald and the surrounding mountains.
We did a quick hike through the Trail of the Cedars before heading up Avalanche Trail. The trail was only a couple miles long following an ice-cold, cool-blue stream. The trail was fairly busy, with a large number of people jingling from their bear bells. With all the foot traffic, it seemed unlikely that a bear would be anywhere close to this trail (I was both relieved, but also disappointed). Bears, or no bears, the hike along the stream and through the woods was great.
At the end of the trail we encountered a glacier lake, Avalanche Lake, that was the source of the stream. The sun was warm, and encouraged us to wade out into the water. The water was like ice! Waterfalls streamed down the mountain ridges in the distance, and the clear, blue water sparkled magnificently.
We sat on the edge of the water and took in the scenery. It was late in the afternoon, so the crowds had thinned out, and we were almost left alone. Once our feet had thawed from wading the water, we put our boots back on and made our way back down to the bus stop. Tomorrow morning we planned on getting an early start to do a full day hike on the trail with the multiple bear sightings.
We parked our car at the trailhead leading to the Granite Park Chalet. The sun was just starting to rise over the horizon, and everything was eerily quiet. The trail lead straight up one of the mountains to an overnight camping lodge, although we planned to hike back down later in the afternoon. We were the first ones on the trail that morning, and a sign that said "Entering Grizzly Country" reminded me that this trail had bear sightings the day before.
As we hiked, Megan did her best to engage me in a conversation (one of the tactics to prevent a bear attack is to make noise while hiking, such as talking loudly, to make sure you don't surprise them), but I am not much of a conversationalist on the trail. Plus, I thought, I would be able to spot a bear well before we got close enough for it to be a threat. About that time, the bushes rustled 10 feet in front of me and a large animal jumped onto the trail.
It was only a deer, but it could have been a mouse and I would have been just as startled. If I didn't see a deer 10 feet away, I was just as likely to miss the bear. On either side of the trail, grasses and flowers rose 4 feet, almost totally obscuring the immediate view. Once my heart started beating at a normal pace, we started back up the trail.
The first part of the trail wound through a section of dead trees. A wildfire had burned 10% of the park in 2003. The dead trees weren't as pretty as the live ones, but they allowed clear views of the surrounding mountains while we hiked.
Wildflowers were everywhere on the trail, adding vibrant color and contrast to the green fields and trees. Pink and purple, yellow and white, big and small, flowers were in every color and size.
Eventually the trail wound above the treeline and offered awesome views of the mountains and glaciers off in the distance.
About 2/3 the way up the trail, snow and ice began to dot the side of the mountain and eventually covering the pathway. The trail also wound back through a heavily forested area. Megan began trying to talk to me loudly again, so I knew she was nervous about entering the forest. After an hour or so of clear visibility, we could no longer see what was waiting around each turn.
Deciding it was time to take a break, I turned around to give Megan some water. I noticed she was carrying something in each hand. When I asked her what she had, she held up a rock in each hand. She had picked up weapons to use in case a bear attacked. One rock was her "stunning rock", a larger baseball-sized rock, while the other rock was the "cutting rock" due to its sharp edges. In the event of encountering a bear, I was now more likely to be pelted with rocks as to be attacked by a bear.
We made it safely through the woods and up to the Granite Park Chalet. The view was outstanding.
We sat down outside the lodge and ate a light lunch. Chipmunks scattered about, anxiously awaiting for us to drop something. From the lodge, the trail forked to go different directions. We watched hikers attempt to cross snow covered passes off in the distance. Only one group made it successfully across, the others turning around to come back to the lodge. The cold bite in the air encouraged us to begin the hike back down the mountain.
We got back to the car and decided to drive the rest of the Going To the Sun Road through the park. The entire road was over 40 miles long, but it offered magnificent views of roadside waterfalls, valley views, and mountain ridges. The road was uncomfortably tight, and delays due to road construction gave us plenty of time to soak in the views. Upon reaching the far side of the park, we encountered a totally different view of the park. The great plains of the middle of country stretched out as far as we could see, a stark contrast to Rocky Mountains behind us. We circled around the park to begin the long drive back into Washington to catch our flights home.