After camping in Tally Lake (and my first bear encounter), we decided to head out to Glacier National Park. The majestic park is located only twenty four minutes from Whitefish. We had never been and we were really excited to check it out. It is the number one tourist attraction here in northwest Montana and I would say that we had high expectations. We spent a lot of time backpacking through Yosemite and Ansel Adams Wilderness back in California mostly in our late twenties. We absolutely loved spending time in nature hiking and exploring the sometimes overgrown terrain, roughing the elements. This time around would be different in our current situation, but very cool to see nonetheless. As we approached Glacier, there were several small charming towns advertising huckleberry pies, bundles of wood, ice and local goods for sale.
Many of the stores we entered were really cute with all the basics you would need, plus cool stickers for your car, mugs with funny slogans, trucker hats and t-shirts. We ended up staying at one of the only available campsites we could find last minute. I would not recommend trying to visit Glacier National Park during the busy summer season without having advanced reservations. Although, we didn’t have reservations and brought our two dogs and two kids and we still managed. But we did stress about it and could’ve easily found ourselves out of luck. Had it been maybe July or August, that would’ve been a definite. There are some really awesome sites that we saw and if we had been able to reserve ahead of time, it wouldn’t been really nice to stay at one of those better sites. We ended up staying on one of the last remaining spots, located right next to the restroom and far from lake access. But our site was cute and convenient, so we were stoked.
Ryan decided he wanted to bike up to the top of Going to the Sun Road. This is by far, the most popular thing to do while visiting Glacier. Well, actually what I mean to say is that driving up to the top is the most popular thing to do while visiting. Many people do bike up to the top, which is also popular, but just much more difficult and not recommended when the road opens up to car traffic. Going to the Sun Road tops out at six thousand six hundred and forty six feet. You travel up this incredibly narrow windy road with the most amazing views up to the top where you stop at the visitor’s center. There are a few deaths per year on this treacherous road. It is incredibly dangerous but so worth the risk.
After Ryan came back from this incredible bike ride up to the top, he didn’t really provide much detail at the time. Well, he did say that it was ridiculously cold and he didn’t wear enough clothing so asked random people if they had any newspapers. He used what he could gather up to insulate himself for the icy cold ride back down the road. Besides that, all he really said was that we needed to take the family up to see it for ourselves. And he was so right!
We had heard that this drive up can take hours depending on landslides, weather, traffic jams and the very possible scenario of an accident. Luckily for us there was hardly any traffic. It was late June and quite cold and rainy. I don’t know if we just hadn’t hit the full blown summer tourists yet or if we were picking a crappy weather day to go. It was probably the combination of the two. Luckily, it only took us about an hour total to slowly drive up. It was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. In the distance we could see patches of snow here and there. I think we saw part of a glacier but I knew that to see more of them, we would have to ditch the kids and dogs and hike much further out. This wasn’t going to happen on this trip, so we just had to settle for this drive. The sights all the way up to the top were just so mind blowing. The Weeping Wall, the beautiful beargrass and other wild vegetation, and of course the enormous mountain peaks covered in snow patches or greenery.
All I could do was imagine planning our next backpacking trip to see more. The road was quite scary for me. I am terrified of heights, especially while stuck in a car that someone else is driving. I tried hard to not let it bother me, but there was one small stretch of road that I couldn’t contain myself. I had to close my eyes and hold on tight until it was over. I know, I am totally lame. My six year old got a huge kick out of seeing my freaking out. Soon it was over and we were closer to the top. It was so green, wet and mossy. There were waterfalls pouring out of enormous dark rocky mountains. I had hoped we would catch a glimpse of the mountain goats that Glacier is famous for, but we didn’t. I know that some of the trails that you hike into provide a definite sighting of the goats.
The views were stunning, even through the tremendous fog. When we got to the top, I could swear it had dropped down to 30 degrees or less. I saw tourists dressed for every weather situation. Some of the more prepared people were dressed in down coats, hats and gloves. Others less fortunate, were still in there shorts and t-shirts from the much higher temperatures that we experienced in the lower elevation. Being in a car helped shelter you from the elements, but at the top you feel the need to get out and see the visitor’s center. I don’t necessarily think it is a must. But if you choose to park and visit, let’s just say it is a very cold run into the center. The winds were howling, the rain was so fierce and cold. We at least had our sweatshirts, sweatpants and rain gear. It wasn’t the best, but it was okay. After visiting the visitor’s center, we headed back down the windy treacherous road. I didn’t realize it on the way up because we must not have seen a large vehicle, but on the way down we did encounter a large truck that forced us to squeeze through the very narrow road. It was pretty nerve wracking but again, it feels like another world up there. One I have never experienced. You just have to forget the fear and go for it, I guess.
When we approached the lower elevations, I was relieved that we were safe but was also sad to leave such an overwhelmingly place. I actually teared up when I reached one point of the drive, it just overcame me. I will definitely go back to see the glacier’s in the very near future. Well, I would be a fool not to considering how close we live to it. Hopefully Ryan and I can arrange a sitter for a day and do an awesome hike in to see those famous goats!
Back at our campsite, we decided to see if we could swap sites after a couple of days. We were in luck and the park ranger gave us a site that was a little more secluded. We pulled in to set up and found that our new neighbors had a pet falcon just hanging out secured to this metal stand. Ryan took our kids over to talk to them about their bird and they said they were rehabilitating it and were there to give a talk that evening at the campground educating others about the Falcon. Pretty cool! We didn’t make it because our kids go to bed so early, but I am sure it would have been very interesting.
We basically had one day left before heading out of Glacier. I think I struggled with a little altitude sickness because I was growing very restless and really wanted to leave for some unexplainable reason. We spent the afternoon checking out the incredible beach at Lake McDonald and just wrapping up our incredible visit.
I decided that I couldn’t really leave Glacier without at least one bike ride, so I decided to bike down this dirt road towards Pole Bridge. Ryan recommended it to me and it was an easy road to access from our site. Up until now I had hiked and biked quite a bit on my own through very dense woods, so the threat of a bear encounter was now my new normal. My eyes were used to constantly scanning the surroundings almost causing me to feel motion sickness from the shakiness of doing that while trying to concentrate on the path as well. The only time I could relax biking was after I was completely exhausted and my fear of crashing outweighed the fear of running into a bear attack.
So here I was strolling down this dirt road only a few miles in, when I scan over to see this black mama bear and her cub walking along next to her. They were only about 50 yards away up this hill. Far enough that whatever they decided to do wouldn’t be instant, but close enough that my heart was thumping and adrenaline was racing. I started biking full force ahead until they were no longer in sight. I didn’t sense that the bear was going to chase me but the mama bear did look very surprised as her head perked up at the sight of me. When I had a minute to stop and catch my breath, all I could think about was how they were travelling in the direction I needed to go to get back to the campsite. At this point, I had only been riding for about forty minutes, so heading back was kind of lame but I really didn’t know what else to do. After seeing the bear, my appetite to keep biking by myself in the woods was totally gone. So I turned my bike around, decided to test fate and get back to our campsite.
Later, a local would tell me that Glacier National Park hosts about 800 bears. I have no idea how real that number is, but from my short trip in Montana so far, the numbers sound about right. After having had two bear encounters in just two weeks, I really was starting to think that biking here was either going to toughen me up or cause me to quit riding. I guess only time would tell.
(to be continued…..)