Glacier National Park latest adventure for father, son
Editor’s Note: The latest national park trip of Robert and Scott Szypulski took them to Glacier National Park. (The pair have also chronicled their past visits to Zion and Yosemite.)
Ever since a relatively safe encounter (40 yards away, 40 years ago) with a blond grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park, I’ve been fascinated by these magnificent animals.
With my son, Scott, a willing participant in fall hiking trips, we visited an area with the largest concentration of grizzly bears in the lower 48 states, Glacier National Park. Our primary search for the bears would occur on two of my bucket list hikes: Grinnell Glacier and the Highline Trail.
More remote than other parks, Glacier is in northwest Montana and extends to the United States-Canadian border. As with prior trips to Zion and Yosemite, Scott and I visited after Labor Day to avoid summer crowds. We flew into Kalispell, Mont., its airport just 35 miles southwest of a park split in half by the Continental Divide.
The west/east division is not only seen in weather patterns and hiking terrain, but also in the habitable areas flanking the park. Outside Glacier’s eastern border is the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. The culture of these proud people is on display at the Museum of the Plains Indian in the town of Browning. It’s also delivered by Native American guides leading bus tours into the park (Sun Tours). Blackfeet legacy further endures in the names of many of the park’s natural features, such as Going-to-the-Sun and Rising Wolf Mountains, Running Eagle and Bird Woman Falls, Wild Goose Island and Swiftcurrent Lake.
What time must permit when hiking Glacier is acquiring bear spray. This is especially true if hiking alone or in a small group. Rent the spray, don’t buy it. It’s cheaper, and you can’t take the likely unused product home on an airplane, even in checked luggage. We rented two canisters at Glacier Outfitters, just inside the park’s west entrance. It’s returnable there or at the airport. The outfitters also gave a training session on how to deploy the spray in the rare case of a bear attack. If nothing else, the canisters provided peace of mind.
That’s important in a wilderness with 700 trail miles crossing a diverse, million-acre ecosystem. The park delivers mountains, lakes, waterfalls, glaciers and all of the wildlife and wildflowers you can handle. Consider our first hike, an 11-mile round trip to the most accessible glacier in the park, named after George Grinnell, an early American conservationist.
The trailhead started a half-mile behind Many Glacier Hotel on the park’s east side. The hotel itself is a stunning visual, built in front of Swiftcurrent Lake, with Grinnell Point piercing the sky on the opposite shore.
For 2 miles of level hiking, we skirted the northwest shores of both Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine. Near the end of the second lake, the trail diverged uphill. After the trees thinned, Grinnell Lake rounded into view below. Its brilliant turquoise color comes from suspended particles of rock flour ground down by the glaciers above it. The silt is then carried to the lake in spidery rivulets cascading down the mountainside.
As we continued around the glacial cirque, three bighorn sheep sunned themselves on a nearby slope. After climbing slippery, cliff-side stairs and passing the lone outhouse, we crested the trail’s summit and looked down on Upper Grinnell Lake and the namesake glacier that feeds it. We scrambled down the bedrock for a well-earned lunch next to the frigid waters, dotted by small icebergs. In the glacial basin above, the static Salamander Glacier spilled its own runoff down a cliff into Upper Grinnell.
Goats and rams
Our descent revealed new angles of sun on the classically U-shaped, glacial valley that framed the three lower lakes. It also brought us face-to-face with some park “natives.”
Rounding a bend, we met a female mountain goat and her three kids, munching miniature wildflowers that survive alpine elevation. A ranger-led group was nearby, as fascinated as we were.
It only got better. Further down the trail, Scott and I exited tree cover to find a bighorn sheep 10 feet to our left and set to join our hike. Unnerved by the imposing ram (massive, tightly curled horns) and his two brawny buddies, we patiently waited for them to cross and continue climbing.
Less than 100 yards later, a couple was training binoculars on a clearing next to Grinnell Lake. You didn’t need magnifying lenses to spot the full-rack moose lumbering through, but we pulled our set out to draw him closer, too.
Then Scott saw it. In a creek flowing off the lake, a large black bear (no shoulder hump) waded in and lay down to cool off. Transfixed, the four of us watched it play in the icy water until it ambled into trees. So, nine larger animals in less than a half mile, seven of them quite close. We had yet to see a grizzly bear, but all that megafauna was mega cool.
We finished the hike and did the one thing many people only come to Glacier to do: Drive Going-to-the-Sun Road. The 50-mile journey across the Continental Divide deserves its own article. For now, I’ll just say that this National Historic and Civil Engineering Landmark was the most breathtaking mountain road I’ve ever seen.
After a night in folksy Glacier Guides Lodge, we drove up to Logan Pass to hike Highline Trail. We learned that the trail was closed several miles out due to “bear activity,” often meaning the defense of a carcass.
We hiked what we could, starting at a scary ledge with a hose-covered chain bolted to the cliff wall for support. The trail loomed above the Sun Road for a mile before angling away. For 15 minutes, we hiked above clouds that eventually drifted off. Once they did, the views were spectacular.
About 2 miles in, a group of hikers gazed across an amphitheater-like opening, several using binoculars. High on the opposite valley wall was a grizzly bear, identified by its signature shoulder hump. Its elevated position made us doubt it was the one that caused the coming trail closure.
Scott and I continued to the far side of the opening, then up a switchback to Haystack Saddle. That’s the unofficial start of the Garden Wall section of the Continental Divide.
Because of our late start, we turned back. On the way, we spotted another grizzly bear, this one closer than the first and 50 yards under the switchback we had just negotiated. We watched it for several minutes before it disappeared into trees. A passing park ranger told us he believed the bear was injured. He planned get as close as possible to monitor it.
We finished the incredible hike and headed down the mountains. If the thrill-seeker in me wanted a closer-but-still-safe encounter with a grizzly, the humble realist was grateful just to see them again in the wild with my son. Glacier National Park gives everyone that chance … and so much more.