Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks
Grizzly bears, did I mention the grizzly bears? We saw them four times in Yellowstone. And there is a reason I was a bit spooked by the time we reached Banff after leaving Glacier National Park.
The summer vacation season is gearing up and sounds like several fellow bloggers are planning trips to Glacier National Park. Time to finish my post … from last year!
We journeyed through Glacier and Waterton Lakes as part of what I call our eastward migration from LA to Minneapolis. That trip was quite a bit longer than this year’s, spanning almost two months and seven national parks.
I’ve written up some of the adventures that you can read about here:
We booked a bit late for all the various parks we visited so we had to be flexible. Glacier was set for the first week in July which is the start of high season. I had to split our days between two hotels which actually worked out well for logistics. Our first couple nights were on the west side of the park at Motel Lake McDonald (not the Lodge) followed by our last two nights on the east side of the park at St Mary. That left the drive on the Going to the Sun Road with hikes at Logan Pass as our transition day so no doubling back was required.
We missed the last tickets for the evening boat ride on Lake McDonald which was a disappointment but that left time to catch the evening Ranger Talk at the Lodge. The boat rides are highly rated so those go on the “next time” list.
The public spaces are a really nice thing about the National Park Lodges, you aren’t required to be a hotel guest to sit and enjoy the lobby or the many porches. I spent a lovely night watching the sunset over Lake McDonald chatting with a widow that was working for the summer in one of the park shops. As just another one of the seasonal employees, she was rooming with two young women so she was enjoying her time as if she was young but with the wisdom of age. (A prime example, she declined the offer to be a store manager and chose to stay a clerk.)
Having spent two summers working in Glacier during her college years, my mom enjoyed hearing about my new friend and glad that the park was still providing summers of adventure.
Our Fodor’s Complete Guide to the National Parks of the West gave us a rough idea of the possible hikes but a consultation with a Ranger using the Park Guide got us dialed in for some fantastic hiking.
Avalanche Lake Trail
This is one of the easier trails with very little elevation gain over the out-and-back 3 miles that leads to a backcountry lake. Spread out along the beach for photo ops and picnics there was still some peace and quiet even with fair number of people at the lake.
Going to the Sun Road
An early start gave us plenty of time to stop at overlooks along the road as we made our way up to Logan Pass. Clear water cascades down from the snow melt into McDonald Creek which parallels the road for quite a distance.
We stopped at the overlook just below the Logan Pass Visitor Center and left our car there while we hiked. Mountain goats frequent this spot and we got to spend some time with a molting mama and her kid. (Researchers are finishing up a study of the mountain goats near Logan Pass to find out how the interaction with visitors is affecting their behavior.)
Parents with kids will be able to relate to this video as this mountain kid tries to play king of the hill with the yearling.
The parking lot at Logan Pass does get full so consider using the Park shuttle or book a guided tour in one of the antique red buses with the convertible top. Either one will allow everyone a chance to enjoy the amazing views on the drive.
At some point the shuttles may be the only option as the park tries to manage the increased number of visitors. I generally find that the shuttles make for a better overall experience in many parks such as Grand Canyon and Zion. What is lost in personal convenience is made up in more natural and peaceful surroundings. Plus I get a kick out of seeing young kids experiencing the parks.
Hidden Lake Overlook
The boardwalk portion of the trail leaving from the Visitor Center was chock full of people … and a grizzly… casually walking across the boardwalk as he journeyed along the hillside foraging for lunch.
Here’s one of the challenges of the National Parks – this was a wild and potentially dangerous animal and people kept moving forward to snap photos. I’m not sure they realized that the bears can run up to 30 mph. Having seen the reaction of our Yellowstone guide when people were approaching a grizzly, I decided to backtrack down the trail a bit. That Yellowstone story ended with rangers involved and probable arrests for a couple photographers. (Another post I need to finish…)
Using the old adage that I only have to outrun one person, I kept a ring of slower, older folks between me and the bear… at least that’s what a gentleman using a cane quipped as we descended the stairs together.
Once the grizzly excitement was over, we headed back up the mountainside. Surprisingly, there was still a fair amount of snow on the trail leaving some slippery patches and muddy puddles. Use some judgement if you are traveling with older family members that may not be sure footed on the snow. Also, wear appropriate shoes!
The trail levels out after reaching the top of the boardwalk passing by a small pond. And then the payoff, the Hidden Lake overlook is absolutely gorgeous!
We felt pretty good so headed further down the trail to Hidden Lake. This is a more difficult trail primarily because of the steep climb coming back up. The entire route down the mountainside was blanketed with wildflowers and maintained views of the lake reflecting the passing clouds. (Click on the gallery to see full size photos.)
As we descended to the lake, returning hikers were giving warnings of a momma grizzly and cub at the creek mouth. It must be time to teach the cubs to fish. We decided to enjoy the lakeside and stopped well before the creek to leave the grizzlies in peace. Other hikers made their way past to the waterfalls at the trail end, singing to give momma notice that people were in the area. (Again, the old adage came into play – we just have to run faster than they do.)
By the time we made our way back up the trail it was roped off and closed. The wildlife – especially the bear families – get first priority to the parkland.
On the list of things not to do in Glacier, is try to take selfies with the wildlife. Near Logan Pass some of the animals are getting aggressive as they become acclimated to the presence of humans (and their snack food). A couple of tween boys got pretty close to this ram to snap selfies as he crossed into the overlook parking area.
Many Glacier – Grinnell Glacier Trail
This trail starts out fairly level with beautiful views of Lake Josephine and there is an option to take a boat ride back to Many Glacier Hotel. Feeling pretty good we decided to press onwards and upwards to Grinnell Glacier Viewpoint.
As the trail climbs, the overlooks to Lake Josephine and Grinnell Lake provide stunning views of the aqua marine colors of the glacial lakes reflecting the clouds. We encountered more hillsides covered in wildflowers and interesting geologic outcroppings.
One of the local rams chose our lunch stop for us near a waterfall. While he was grazing along a narrow section of trail, the human hikers had to just wait their turn until he was ready to move up the mountainside.
The trail in this section is a bit narrow but not real scary if you are willing to scamper through a short section of actual waterfall. If you try to stay completely dry, it will take you just off the trail.
As we closed in on the peak of the trail which included some bathroom facilities, a woman encouraged us to continue on past the crest. What an amazing surprise! We hadn’t really known the details of our destination. The upper lake formed by the Grinnell Glacier and the backside of the Garden Wall.
A few brave folks tested the water very briefly, mainly as a dare from their hiking companions. (I say, choose your friends wisely… I’m not sure how comfortable the hike back down was for anyone who ventured into the icy water.)
Fodor’s rated this hike as difficult but I think it is just long with climbing versus a technically difficult hike. As we began our descent, we met a father and son who had just trekked their way across the ice field including crossing a crevasse. Locals, these two were spending their last couple of weeks together adventuring before the son was off to join the army. After a nice chat they bounded their way down the trail like mountain goats. We guessed that they would be home and fed by the time we finished our hike.
“Do you have any guns with you?” No.
“And where do you keep your guns?” We don’t have any guns.
“But you’re from Texas!” We moved there from California.
“Ah, so no guns then. Welcome to Canada.”
Be prepared if you plan to cross into Canada. Passports are required and notarized travel permission is required if only one parent is traveling with a child. We crossed the border at Chief Mountain which is not open year-round so check the timetables if you are traveling off-season.
Oh, and you shouldn’t plan on bringing guns across the border.
Waterton Lakes is the Canadian National Park that is paired with Glacier to form the first international peace park. If you have the travel time available, it is worth exploring this park as part of your trip.
We made a stop in at the Prince of Wales Hotel known for its high tea service overlooking Waterton Lakes. The views are wonderful as you experience the pampered life. We decided to skip high tea and enjoy the gourmet hot dogs (including veg options) at Weiners of Waterton in the middle of town.
After driving along the Akamina Parkway we hiked a portion of the Carthew-Anderson Trail from Cameron Lake along the eastern shoreline to Summit Lake. This was just over 5 miles round trip with about 1100 feet of elevation gain making it an achievable hike for older kids.
Cameron Lake has boat rentals and concessions if you are looking for time on the water or a snack. Canoes and paddle boats dotted the shoreline in hopes of spotting wildlife. Our trip coincided with the Canada Day holiday week so the park was fairly crowded and wait times for boat rentals were too long for us as we needed to continue down the road.
Sad to be leaving the Glacier-Waterton Lakes International Peace Park so soon, we were pleased to have survived our grizzly encounters.
Next, it was off to Calgary to visit a friend and sample the Annual Calgary Stampede!
Have you been to Glacier – Waterton?