Glacier National Park from the Eyes of an Arizona Ambassador
By Sheila Doherty, Girls Who Hike Arizona Ambassador
Have you ever traveled to a National Park in another state? It can be both exciting and overwhelming. My siblings along with our spouses try to do a family trip at least once a year. For the past several years we have gone to different hiking destinations. In 2016 we did Yosemite and Half Dome. Another year we stayed in Arizona and did the Grand Canyon rim to rim, and last year in 2017 when everyone decided to go to Montana and hike Glacier National Park I was all in.
The number one tip I have for anyone who is traveling to a national park is timing. If possible try to plan your trip during the off-season. This way the trails are not as crowded, the hotels and camp-grounds have more vacancies and better rates, and permits for certain hikes are easier to obtain. We tend to go right after Labor Day in early September. The weather is absolutely beautiful and it is neither too hot nor too cold. Crowds are significantly smaller; school is back in session, allowing more time to hike and less time getting to the trailhead due to decreased traffic. (We hiked Half Dome in September and obtained day permits, when we got to the cables no one was there to check for our permits and the cables were easily accessible).
As mentioned above, in 2017 we went to Glacier National Park. We flew into Calgary, Canada as opposed to closer airports for several reasons. The main reason is because we wanted to go to Waterton NP in Canada after doing Glacier NP in Montana. The Calgary airport fit best for our plans, and flights were direct and cheaper. Waterton is on the Canadian side of GNP and it is called Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. Canada and the US linked the two parks together in 1932 to create the world’s first international peace park. Canada was celebrating its 150 anniversary and admission to all Canadian National Parks was free! For purpose of this blog post I will talk about both GNP and Waterton.
Lets address the overwhelming part of the blog. GNP alone has over 1500 square miles of wilderness with over 700 miles of hiking trails. How do we narrow 700 miles down to 2 ½ days of hiking in GNP? What hikes do we choose to do with only 5 days to do both parks?! Would we pick the right trails to hike and not miss out on a spectacular, must do hike? All of us did extensive research on various hikes. It made sense that since we were heading to Waterton, which is near the East side of GNP that we would stay, and hike, the trails in East GNP. We did not want to spend our time driving through the park, we wanted to hike through the park.
Our first hike was unanimously agreed upon after noting the top 10 hikes in Glacier National Park on various websites. We wanted to do an easier hike the first day, then a longer hike before heading to Waterton. Our first hike was to Iceberg Lake. The beauty of Iceberg Lake is amazing. The water is crystal clear and there are chunks of icebergs floating in the water. We saw an iceberg calve and turn over right in front of us.
An amazing and rare sight. The hike to Iceberg Lake was about 9.7 miles with an elevation gain of 1275 feet. It is rated as difficult and for a new hiker it may be difficult just because it is longer, I did not find it difficult in comparison to other hikes. (think Half Dome or R2R) The trail to Iceberg Lake intersects with the trail to Ptarmigan Lake and Ptarmigan Tunnel Trail. So, after experiencing the calving of the glacier, eating lunch and drinking in the beauty of Iceberg Lake we decided to hike to Ptarmigan Lake on the way back to the car. This turned out to be a bit of a challenge. The easier way to do it would have been to hike to Ptarmigan Lake first then proceed to Iceberg Lake. We were learning as we went and since we were so close we did not want to pass up the opportunity to do both hikes, so we forged ahead. The beauty of Ptarmigan Lake was not as majestic as Iceberg Lake. However, the wildlife we encountered on the way was impressive. We saw about 8 Big Horn Sheep. One crossed our trail less than 10 feet in front of us. We stopped in shock and thankfully we did because several more followed which I was able to capture on video! If we had not stopped a big horn sheep could have plowed into us and injured us severely. Their horns are impressive and much larger up close. We did not see any bears along this trail although it is bear country and the trails often close due to bear activity. We did carry bear mace and it is highly recommended. You can buy bear mace in stores around GNP. I do want to add that some experts say that you should carry a whistle, and wear bells as well. My sister had all the bells and whistles! In Waterton a ranger disagreed with this recommendation and said that wild animals are often attracted to the bells because it sounds like birds, or music, or people, therefore food must be close. The Waterton ranger also said a whistle will not protect you and will probably not scare away a hungry bear. We had all three: mace, bells and whistles and thankfully we did not use any of them! In total we hiked about 14 miles our first day. So much for a shorter, easier hike to acclimate to GNP.
The next day we set out to do the acclaimed Highline Trail. This hike starts out at Logan Pass along the Going-to-the-Sun Road. This trail is often described as Highline Trail Loop. IT IS NOT A LOOP! We were lucky enough to be dropped off at the visitor’s center at Logan Pass. The day was sunny and extremely windy. We were bundled up with our packs, food and water. The Highline Trail is an 11.8 mile hike with an elevation gain of about 1950 feet and is rated strenuous. I did think this hike was strenuous. It was long, (about 6-7 hours) and it started off cool and windy. We had several layers, hats and windbreakers on to start. The second part of the hike ended up being extremely warm especially for September, and you pass through an area that had been burned out by a fire in 2003, which offered very little shade from the heat. The sight of the fire is both hauntingly beautiful and devastating. The main attraction of the Highline Trail is the famous ledge that has 100-foot drop-offs. There is a cable to hang onto to help you traverse this area. If you have a fear of heights this segment lasts forever when in reality it is only about 1/3 of a mile. You come to this segment pretty quickly on the hike. The other highlight of this hike is the Granite Park Chalet, which was built in 1914-1915. It is a rustic lodge that does offer some snacks, cold drinks, rustic bathrooms and several guest rooms. Each room features 2-6 bunks or cots. This is a great place to stop for lunch, enjoy the views, and chat with the staff. In September the trail was moderately crowded and the rooms at the chalet were all reserved. From the chalet you head back down through the burnt out section of the trail, with a lot of sun exposure making it very warm. We were being picked up at the end of the trail near the Swiftcurrent hotel so we had time to stop in for cold drinks and ice cream! From there we headed to the hotel for hot showers and warm food.
In the morning we drove the roughly 40 miles to Waterton in Alberta, Canada. Our first greeter in Waterton was a bear walking along the side of the road. We actually saw 4 bears in Waterton and they were in populated areas near the park or the campgrounds. Rangers were on full alert and notified campers and followed the bears in their vehicles to make sure they did not disturb the campers or visitors.
After getting settled and eating pizza we decided to do a short hike to Bear’s Hump. Bear’s Hump is easily accessed from town. This hike is rated moderately strenuous and is only 1 ¾ RT with an elevation gain of 738 feet. From the top you see the majority of Waterton Village. The trail was not crowded and the views were somewhat dulled due to all the smoke from the forest fires that were burning in the distance. During high season this trail is very crowded during the day due to its easy access from town, short length of the hike and great views.
The main reason we chose to go to Waterton was for our hike to Crypt Lake! I could not sleep the night before. Crypt Lake is listed, by National Geographic as one of the top 20 thrilling hikes IN THE WORLD. The hike is a 10.8 mile hike with an elevation gain of 2,300 feet. What made me even more nervous is that there is a time limit to the hike. This hike can only be accessed via boat. A boat leaves Waterton at either 9 or 10 am and the last boat to return is 5 pm. (this schedule depends on the amount of hikers and weather) What if I couldn’t do this hike in the allotted time frame? What if it was too scary or dangerous? Crazy thoughts ran through my head all night making sleep difficult.
All those fears were ridiculous! We were lucky enough to get the first ferry out in the am, which left earlier than the scheduled time due to the number of scheduled hikers that day. Bonus! The trail starts off after the short 15 minute beautiful ferry ride to the trailhead. We were among the first people off the ferry so we could go at our own pace. The hike starts off tamely enough and we passed several waterfalls that were amazing. One of the biggest waterfalls is the Crypt Falls that is about 600 ft long. After about 5 miles into the hike the challenge begins. First you have to use a ladder to access a tunnel that is 60 feet long, with varying heights and turns. My brothers are all over 6 feet tall and they made it through with someone holding their packs for them. This part of the hike allows for only one-way traffic. If people are hiking to the lake and they are in the tunnel and/or on the cables you cannot return from the lake until the ascenders are safely across. This causes some congestion from the tunnel all the way to the lake because of the difficulty. Once you exit the tunnel on your ascension you have to hike up a narrow, jagged edge holding onto a cable. The drop off here is deadly. If you are afraid of heights this hike is not for you. I saw several people stop here, and others started to cry and physically shake. Experienced hikers will have no issues as long as you proceed with caution and stay single file. Once past the cables the lake is a short distance away. Remember, you have to use the cables and crawl through the tunnel on the way back, and wait for traffic from people ascending! The listed time for this hike is a total of 6-7 hours. We made the hike, took a break at Crypt Lake for lunch and even dipped our toes in the icy water, and still made the first ferry back to town!
The town of Waterton is a quaint, friendly and beautiful town. Wild deer roam the neighborhoods, bears stalk the campgrounds and the views are indescribable. It was heartbreaking for all of us when just prior to leaving the park on September 5th several roads in Waterton were closed due to fires and on September 8th the town underwent a mandatory evacuation due to the fires. 30% of the park was burned. The Visitors Center burned down and the trailhead to Bear’s Hump was severely charred. We are so grateful to have hiked GNP and Waterton prior to the evacuation. I highly recommend both parks and if you have more time head up to Moraine Lake, Banff and Jasper, Canada. We will definitely be back hopefully soon.