We made it! Glacier National Park may be the place we were most excited to go as we traveled the country. 1 million acres. 130 lakes. 200 waterfalls. The Rocky Mountains. How can we go wrong?
We decided on a primitive campground on the southeastern edge of Glacier National Park called Cut Bank Campground. It was down a 5 mile dirt road. We didn’t realize it was a super rough dirt road. While Stan makes for a cozy rolling home, he’s not really built for off-roading. So at 5-10 mph we bump, bump, bumpity, bumped toward the campground past dozens of free grazing cows. These cows were not afraid of vehicles and the only reason they left the road was because there wasn’t any grass on it. They just stared and moo’d at us. I swear I saw annoyance and maybe even defiance in their eyes. They will rise against us someday. They will.
What the road lacked in driveability, it made up for in views. It cut through fields of wildflower filled valleys surrounded by amazing rocky peaks. Cut Bank Campground is also a popular trail head for back country—connecting to a network of trails in Glacier that extends 700 miles. With camp set up we hiked and played (bathed) in the river and readied ourselves to explore the park the following day.
Bump, bump, bumpity bump…moo.
This was our morning song as we drove Stan out of camp, down the dirt road, and headed north to the proclaimed “heart of Glacier National Park,” Many Glacier. After passing “many cow” and going down another bumpy road we arrived and immediately hit the trail. Our first hike to Red Rock Falls (aptly named) delivered stunning mountain views, beautiful lakes, a waterfall (of course), and 4 moose.
At most national parks it’s hard to miss signs saying “do not approach wildlife.” Well, one of the moose apparently didn’t see the sign saying “do not approach humans” because she crossed the path about 10 feet from us regardless of our attempts to give her a wider berth. At first Liana only heard the moose and thought a bear was close. She disappeared down the trail ahead of me. She knows she cannot out run a bear, but with a head start (and a trip) she may be able to outrun me.
The next part of the day we hiked around Swiftcurrent Lake. The views of mountains towering above this blue lake were not disappointing. As you circled the lake, each angle of the mountains was more impressive than the last. The amazing peaks in the park were carved into their present shapes by huge glaciers from the last ice age.
Going to the Sun Road
Bump, bump, bumpity bump…moo.
The next day we drove to St. Mary’s Visitor Center—the main entrance and the eastern terminus of the Going to the Sun Road. Our mission: take the free shuttle the full length of the 50 mile road. To accomplish this we actually have to take 1 shuttle to Logan Pass, at the Continental Divide. Then catch 2 more west bound shuttles that descend the steeper side of the divide to Apgar Village. Stops along the way include Avalanche area and Lake McDonald. We hoped to jump off a few places on the way back for some hikes.
Here is a tip about trying to do the entire shuttle line and day hikes along the way. Get up super early and don’t expect to have time for a lot of hiking. In small print the shuttle signs say a round trip is 7 hours long. While I didn’t believe it at first, because it took only 45 minutes to get to Logan Pass—the road’s summit—they’re not lying. Later in the day when everyone tries to head back east you will most likely be waiting. And not just waiting for the next shuttle. Waiting another 30+ minutes for the shuttle after that, because everyone is trying to head back.
The shuttle drivers warn all passengers that the last shuttle is at 7 pm sharp and you’ll be walking or hitchhiking if you don’t make it. They all have a story of leaving someone behind that was just a few minutes late. “If I made an exception for them, I’d have to make an exception for everyone,” one driver told us.
We took our chances on the return trip and stopped for a hike to Avalanche Lake. This 4 mile round trip hike first follows a surreal canyon carved by the raging Avalanche Creek. The lake is fed by 5 waterfalls running down the mountainside that keep this blue-green beauty filled. The dream-like color is created by the silt formed from rocks being ground by moving glaciers.
The bumpy road to the campsite claimed its first victim of our stay that evening. Liana’s computer began making a clicking sound before crashing completely. Luckily, we have been backing up and didn’t lose much data.
We took our own advice and shuttled to Logan Pass early the next day. We wanted to hit the trail by 9 am. The Highline Trail begins at the Continental Divide—6,646 feet up. The hike is close to 12 miles. We planned to stop for lunch 7 ½ miles in at the Granite Park Chalet. This historic landmark was finished in 1916 to offer comfortable back country accommodations. It is one of two chalets that have survived in the park. If you decide to stay, know that it is rustic. While they provide a kitchen, you cook your own food. Also, they don’t have running water so you need to pack it in or filter it about ¼ mile away.
The next 4 ½ miles of trail drop 2,200 feet and pass through an area that was devastated by the 2003 Trapper Creek Fire. This fire which was ignited by lightning burned more than 19,000 acres. It’s hard to look at the scars of a forest fire and not feel a sense of loss. To tell yourself they are a part of nature and the forest regenerating. You do receive some consolation from the life that is already springing back to create a new forest.
Things get Interesting
The trail ends at a sharp switchback on the Going to the Sun Road called the Loop. Here we planned to catch the shuttle back up to Logan Pass. However, it seemed like quite a few people had that idea too. When the shuttles heading to Logan are already packed they can only take 2 to 3 people at a time. We waited for 3 shuttles before we were able to get on.
Once at Logan our next step is to jump on the shuttle to St. Mary’s—sounds simple, right! Too bad when we arrive there were already 50 people heading to St. Mary’s and the shuttle only holds 24. An hour later and over-baked from the sun we finally were heading down the mountain. As we sat on the floor in back of the shuttle (they gave us this option instead of waiting for the next shuttle) I smiled at Liana. She looked at me with wide concerned eyes and said, “There’s something wrong with your face! You need to get to a hospital.” That’s when things got interesting.
Diagnosis: Bell’s Palsy.
Symptoms: half my face is partially paralyzed.
Cause: nobody knows.
Prescription: Steroids and antivirals for a week. If symptoms get worse, go to a bigger hospital for a CT scan.
The hospital in Cut Bank, Montana isn’t big but they had a great doctor and a helpful staff. While the prognosis was a bit disconcerting we were thankful it wasn’t worse.
At about 9 pm we finally were able to head back. As we drove our 90 minute return to our campground we thought, What a day! 6 hour hike, 5 hours of waiting for and riding shuttles, 3 hours driving to and from the hospital and 2 hours at the emergency room. My saggy face was ready for the day to end!
Bump, bump, bumpity bump…moo.
Yes, cows moo in the dark! About a ½ mile from the campsite we finally started to relax. Then we noticed a noise. “Hey, pretty sure we just got a f*#%ing flat tire.”
Luckily, we were able to roll into the campsite and sure enough a deflated rear tire. After staring at it for a minute, holding back a laugh (the kind of laugh you would hear in an insane asylum), Liana and I decided to go to bed and deal with it in the morning.
Adjusting the Plan
The next day we opened our eyes to a new day. Well, one eye for me anyway. The left one is taped shut. Some effects of Bell’s Palsy is that involuntary blinking doesn’t work so good and your eye may not shut all the way when you sleep. To protect the eye you need a patch or to tape it shut at night and put drops in it throughout the day.
We decided to go to the western side of the park and regroup. Stan has a full spare so it wasn’t too long before we were on the road. We headed to Whitefish, MT, found a pharmacy and a Les Schwab. We left with 2 new tires and an estimate for new brakes and rotors. I had the breaks checked before we left on the first leg of the trip so I was pretty surprised to hear we only had 1 mm left on the pads. Damn mountain driving!
We decided to spend 2 nights at the Whitefish RV park and look for a mechanic. At least we were getting a shower out of this! We were recommended a local mechanic who could do our breaks for a hundred less than Les Schwab so we basked in free WiFi and hot water for the next two days.
We also adjusted our original plan. Adjusting the plan is something we are getting used to. Our original idea was to head north to Waterton and Banff National Parks in Alberta Canada after Glacier. With the recent radiator leak and the droopy face thing we decided leaving the US may not be the best move. However, Glacier still had more adventures in store for us.
To be continued…
Has vehicle trouble or medical issues ever made you change your travel plans? How’d you handle it?