Glacier National Park was the greatest surprise of our trip. When we booked our flights, accommodation and car hire- we had no intention of going to Glacier- we were going to Portland! However after a couple of chance encounters with other wildlife and outdoor enthusiasts early on we changed our plans and booked a place in Columbia Falls 15 minutes away from the park’s West entrance.
To get there we had a 6 hour drive North-West from Yellowstone right across Montana, we now understand the tagline “Big Sky Country”- Montana is beautiful!
We arrived at our hotel late in the evening after taking a small detour to Walmart in Kalispell and sat down with some food to discuss our plans for the next couple of days.
We had only two days spare to explore the park but we found at the time of our visit the whole park was not accessible. Glacier has a road which runs for 50 miles right through the centre from West to East called the Going-to-the-Sun Road. What a name! The road travels across some of Glacier’s highest mountains and reaches a high point of 6646ft above sea level at Logan’s Pass, unfortunately in May it was still covered in snow so we couldn’t drive right through. The road was open for 15 miles in from the West side and for 15 miles in from the East side so our plan was to spend our first day exploring the West side and the second exploring the East.
On our first full day we had a really amazing motel breakfast and headed out. To get a better feel for the place we decided the first thing we should do was go to the Apgar visitor centre. The ranger was particularly helpful, she recommended the best walks to do for the time of year and what roads we could and couldn’t drive on and places we should go to. She informed us that bears had been frequenting a lot of the walking tracks particularly on the East side of the park- there had been no wolf sightings recently but paw prints had been discovered further North near Quartz Lake. She also informed us there was a beaver’s lodge right around the corner no more than 2 minutes drive away under a bridge, so we rushed round to see what was there.
In our excitement we had forgotten it was about 11 in the morning and the beavers would be fast asleep. I’m surprised they weren’t wakened by all our excited noises. We decided we should come back later and instead headed to Apgar Village to rent some bear spray.
The ranger had also advised us to get bear spray for any walking we were planning on doing. There is an estimated 300 grizzly bears (double the number of Yellowstone) and 600 black bears that live within Glacier and unlike Yellowstone where there is a lot of open sagebrush land so you can see a bear approaching in the distance, Glaciers walks are typically through dense woodland so you’re more likely to turn a corner and surprise a bear on the path although the odds of this are extremely low. So to make sure you’re safe buy or rent bear spray and make lots of noise as you walk the trails, talk, sing and stamping your feet as you go will scare a bear off the path ahead of you. Personally I think my signing voice scares off all animals big and small!
In the village we stopped to take in the view of the incredible Lake Mcdonald and rent bear spray ($10 a day and we got a full demo of how to use), afterwards we started our drive up the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
The drive up the Going-to-the-Sun Road was gorgeous, even though we could only go 15 miles up it it took forever as we kept stopping to take in the incredible scenery and watch the locals.
Where the road ended was where we had decided to stop and take a hike. The ranger had recommended to hike to Avalanche Lake as it relatively easy, not too long and at its most beautiful at this time of year. So we and everyone else in the park took her advice.
Unsurprisingly the ranger was spot on! The hike was incredible; there was dense forest, waterfalls, trickling streams and gorges ending with the spectacular view of Avalanche Lake itself…
We sat for a long while eating our sandwiches and gazing at the view before returning and getting another fleeting glimpse of the Mule Deer we were pretty sure we had seen earlier..
Before heading home we went back to the beaver lodge and waited for roughly an hour but didn’t see any signs of movement. As we started to the lose the light, getting the impression the lodge was no longer in use we headed back to our motel. Although our first day had been an amazing one we hadn’t seen as much wildlife as we hoped but we went to sleep hopeful the East side of the park would have a bear or two in store for us..
Our second day started with another big breakfast and then a long drive around the bottom of Glacier to get to the East Entrance of the Going-to-the-Sun Road. We took the scenic route which passes the Two Medicine entrance to the park which we had decided we were not going to drive due to being tight on time. Two Medicine looks like the rest of Glacier National Park…
It took us about two hours to get to the East entrance from our motel (the same amount of time if you were drive The Going-to-the-Sun Road from West to East because the park speed limit is 40 mph). Once there we stopped in the St. Mary’s Visitor Centre for a quick look, this centre had a really interesting exhibit about the First People of Glacier and video on the parks history and future, before rejoining the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The scenery only got more breathtaking as we went and we had to make a stop at the postcard-worthy St. Mary Lake.
After posing for some epic photos we jumped back in the car to head further on. Just after leaving the lay-by we caught up to a car flashing it’s hazards and as we pulled up behind it we saw why they had stopped..
We only just caught sight of this not-so-little guy rummaging, before disappearing off into the trees. He was too quick for us even to get a good photo of him but it was amazing to see another bear. I don’t think I will ever get bored of seeing a wild bear in it’s environment. We stayed for a little while longer just in case he decided he’d forgotten something but once our excitement had calmed a little we decided it was best to move on and let him be.
We reached Jackson Glacier Overlook at which point the road was closed and got out to have a little wander. Glacier is currently home to 25 glaciers down from 150 glaciers in 1850 and it’s expected that by 2030 there will be no Glaciers left in Glacier National Park! Crazy! Unfortunately due to the cloudy weather we couldn’t get a clear view of the glaciers on show so we had a little walk down the path just off the road where we bumped into something unexpected.
It was a mother and her calf. They were scared off by other people on the track so we continued on but the mother decided to follow us..
We left the two of them happily grazing on the track and walked back to the car and made for Many Glacier. Many Glacier can be reached by a road in from the East side, North of the Going-to-the-Sun Road. It is so, so worth taking the time to see though.
On our way to Many Glacier we pulled in beside the dam wall at Lake Sherburne to have some lunch, we were just gazing out at the incredible view ahead of us when I noticed splashing in the water opposite. Initially we thought somebody must be walking their dogs, but then it dawned on us….WOLVES!!!!
We dropped our lunch, grabbed the camera and binoculars and got as close as we could. After watching them for five minutes it was pretty clear that there were four wolves in total, all adults and three were chasing off the fourth wolf which clearly had its tale between its legs submissively.
The three who were chasing would go right up to the lone wolf and force it into the water, once they were happy it wasn’t getting away they would then start to walk away back into the trees but each time the lone wolf would make a run for it and the other three wolves would start the chase again.
The lone wolf was clearly hurt and the pack of three seemed determined to exert their dominance over this individual.
The chase eventually went around a corner of the beach where they were out of our sight, so we jumped in the car and headed further up to another lay by but by the time we got out and set up we couldn’t pick them out and had lost them.
We couldn’t believe what we had just witnessed! It was one thing seeing wolves in Yellowstone who are tagged and monitored by a dedicated team of rangers so if you ask the right people you can find out where you can likely see them. This was a complete chance encounter where they demonstrated some very interesting behaviour. It was truly incredible.
We returned to the car to try and find the remainder of our sandwiches that we had thrown somewhere in a rush to watch the wolves. After finishing what we could find we headed into Many Glacier to see the historic wooden Hotel and Swiftcurrent Lake. Of all the incredible views we had seen throughout the trip this was probably the most beautiful place we had been.
We spent a long time here, it was mesmerizing but eventually we did have to leave as it was later in the day and we still had a long drive home ahead of us.
As we came to the junction where he had turned off the Many Galcier road to park beside the lodge we decided instead of going back there was a tiny bit more road to see to our left, lets see where it goes. Just after we turned left..
A bear run out in front of us. He was clearly trying to cross the road but had timed his crossing poorly. He then legged it further ahead of us as I got the camera out and got some shots before he ran back into the forest on the right where he had come from. We drove further on, parked and turned the engine off to see if he would try to cross the road again.
He did! The bear ran out behind us quickly across the road and down the hill out of sight towards the lake but not before we got this snap of him. Although the colour of its coat is brown, this was a black bear. You can tell because of its size, the shape of the face and the lack of a lump on the back of his neck which grizzlies have. Roughly 50% of all black bears have brown coats. It was an amazing sight and it just topped of an unbelievable day.
On our way back we noticed lots of little Columbian Ground Squirrels running around and couldn’t help but stop to take some snaps of them..
We also stopped at the dam where we saw wolves earlier to see if they may still be there but they were nowhere to be seen, so instead we took some shots of the scenery we missed when we were too busy watching the wolves.
We then started the long drive home but made sure we went back by the scenic route to take in that view of Two Medicine once again. We ended up getting back to our motel late but we had one of the best days of our long trip and we nodded off pretty quickly. The next day we headed back into Apgar Village to drop off our unused bear spray, sit by Lake McDonald and get some presents for our family and friends before heading on towards Seattle.
The main things we would thoroughly consider for our return trip to Glacier (it is on the cards!) are;
1.) Make sure you have enough time to see everything you want to. We only had two days which meant a lot of driving but there are so many beautiful walks to do in Glacier we wish we could have done more than just the walk to Avalanche Lake. If we were going to go back we would probably give ourselves a week to truly enjoy everything the park has to offer. With extra time other places we would love to explore are; Logan’s Pass, Two Medicine and the Waterton Lakes.
2.) Aim to visit when the Going-to-the-Sun Road is completely open. There is no set date in summer when it officially opens but it is usually open by mid July at the latest- you can check the parks website page regularly for updates on the road. We say this because all the rangers we spoke to and locals kept telling us that the best place for scenery and wildlife in Glacier is at Logan’s Pass and the rest of the park pales in comparison to it ( which I still can’t get my head around judging by how incredible the bits of the park we saw were). It’s seemingly far easier to see bears at a safe distance at Logan’s Pass as well as Mountain Goats which the park is famous for but we didn’t get a chance to spot ourselves. To see Wolves in Glacier though you have to be incredibly lucky, so if that’s what you’re into, definitely take a trip to Yellowstone after Glacier (See our Yellowstone post).
3.) We stayed in a lovely motel in Columbia Falls only 15 minutes from the West Entrance which came in under our budget of £50 a night which was fantastic. It meant we had easy access to the park, if the Going-to-the-Sun Road was fully open it would have been ideal. More expensive options would be to stay in the lodges within the park at Lake McDonald and at Many Glacier which makes it even easier to get to the walks or areas you want to be earlier. For us the East side at Many Glacier was the most spectacular with most wildlife and when we go back we would probably stay over there.
4.) As we mentioned previously, if you are going walking make sure you have bear spray and know how to use it. Our rental cost was $10 a day but if you do find yourself in a Walmart before you get to Glacier or Yellowstone you can buy bear spray for $30 (we saw bear spray retailing at $60-70 in the park). You could try and sell your unused can to another visitor at the end of your trip for half as much and save yourself a good bit of cash which we heard was quite common.
If you have any questions about our time in Glacier send us your question and we’ll answer it as best as we can.
Until our next post,
Kirsten & Elliot