My first view of Glacier Park from the west is both sudden and magnificent.
I round a curve and there they are: the iconic Ice Age-carved horns of the mountains Glacier is famous for. Many compare them to the Swiss Alps, my ancestral home. From my vantage point they seem to rise directly from the ten mile long Lake McDonald, whose water is impounded by the terminus of an ancient moraine. Thunderstorms are blowing up over the mountain peaks and soon they’re shrouded in cloud and rain, an awesome sight.
I make my usual introductory tour of the visitor center and small village called Apgar, which is a couple of miles from my campground. The rangers shower me with maps, guides, park newspapers, and other information. I’m overwhelmed, there’s so much to do here and, with only a week to spend, so little time.
When I get back to my trailer, the carbon monoxide detector is beeping every 60 seconds, warning that there’s not enough 12-volt electrical current to operate it properly. It’s too late to run my generator now (park rules) so I’ll have to wait until 8:00 a.m. tomorrow. Apparently the detector is on an unfused circuit because in spite of pulling every fuse I can’t disable it; I get to sleep all night with the piercing beep sounding every 60 seconds.
Regarding my previous blog about solitary people meeting their demise in the mountains, I see a front page story in the local paper headlined, “Bones and pieces of clothing found believed to be that of hiker.”
I wake up at 5:30. My plan has been to catch the free Going-to-the-Sun Road shuttle at 7:00 a.m. and ride it end-to-end today to get an overview of the park. But instead I’ll have to sit here until 8:00 so I can run the generator for a couple of hours. Damn! What a waste of time! Park rules allow generators from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m., 12:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., all times I’d rather be out there on the trail.
But nothing in the trailer functions without electricity. No lights, of course, but no water pump and no refrigerator either, since even when running on propane it requires a small amount of electricity to monitor the pilot light. To top it off, the check engine light came on in my truck for the last 50 miles yesterday, and I have to decide what to do about that. Kalispell, the only town of any size, is over 30 miles away; I don’t want to drive several thousand miles only to have to make repairs to my running gear. Such is life.
Unfortunately, no internet is available unless I go into town several miles away, and then it’s pay-per-hour. Cell service is so poor I can only text intermittently. No voice calls, for sure. I could sure use access to cell and internet to look up some RV service companies in Kalispell; I need to get these batteries replaced. Oh well, I remind myself, that’s why they call it getting away from it all.
But all is not lost. I switch off the generator at 10:00 a.m. and take the free shuttle to the trailhead of the four mile Avalanche Lake trail.
I’m afraid I’ve used up my allotment of superlatives describing the other parks I’ve visited. Should have held something in reserve I guess. Glacier has a grandeur that is so penetrating and exquisite that I’ll only be able to describe the surface of it, at best, and not the moving splendor that’s at its core.
I’m completely taken aback by the Avalanche Lake trail; it rises into a steep V-shaped gorge that’s covered with moss and all kinds of ferns and flowers. I’m reminded of the Hoh rain forest on the Olympic Peninsula, and indeed, the western slopes of Glacier receive much the same moisture-laden weather from the Pacific as Hoh, only here the majority of precipitation falls as snow in winter—last winter as much as 60 feet in some areas.
Towering cedars flourish, some as large as 4 feet in diameter, mixed together with many varieties of highland pine that I don’t know the names of. A roiling stream churns at the bottom of the V, in some places sculpting polished twists and turns out of solid bedrock, like a water-slide at an amusement park, with untamed torrents of water sluicing downward through the green forest.
When I reach the lake, I’m confronted with an array of jagged peaks, still sporting pockets of snowpack into mid-August, surrounding the lake on three sides. Melting snow sends rivulets of water cascading hundreds of feet down the treeless mountainsides, through the ring of forest surrounding the lake, and finally into the still waters of the lake itself. How can these two magnificent, dissimilar settings—the towering mountains and the verdant valley—be juxtaposed in such perfect equilibrium?
And I’m wondering: if this, my first real exposure to but a tiny slice of Glacier Park can be so breathtaking—what treasures have I yet to discover?
I soon find out.
By taking the shuttle from Avalanche Lake trailhead up to Logan Pass, the summit of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, I’m lifted beyond belief into a fairytale landscape of impossibly sheer mountains, plunging cliffs, green valleys with contorted rivers twisting through them until, at last, we burst above the treeline to reach our destination, the Logan Pass visitor center.
Behind the visitor center a path leads to a boardwalk that climbs ever higher, until it gives way to pure snowfields, perhaps 1000 feet above. I’ve had no intention of doing more hiking today, but I’m lured up the path thinking I’ll go just far enough to find a good vantage to take a picture of the visitor center in its natural surroundings. But I continue to climb upward and upward, through two or three snowfields at least a hundred yards wide, stopping many times to take pictures. Higher yet, I’m told, beyond a curve around the side of the mountain, lies a sublime lake. I’ve come this far—so close—but I’m resigned to begin my descent or I’ll miss the last shuttle of the day. A day of wonderment.
OFF TOPIC: Yesterday evening I rented a pair of trekking poles, which are like ski poles only adapted for hiking. Many Alpinists use them, and I thought they might give some support for my injured foot. As the ranger said, “Up here, four legs are better than two.” And I do believe they helped somewhat. (They were great on the icy snowfields.) I’ll know better in the morning when my feet hit the floor. At any rate, I’ve decided to hobble onward; if anything bad happens to my foot I’ll just get it fixed once I’m back home. I can’t afford to miss this opportunity by just sitting on my ass.
Getting to the Point
Cobalt Lake sits 5.9 miles (11.8 miles round trip, for you products public schools) from the marina at Two Medicine on the southeast side of the park, 70 miles from my campground. The hike begins as an easy packed earth path meandering through the woods. The first couple of miles trend slightly downward, which is a bit disconcerting since the trail guide notes an elevation gain to the lake of 1400 feet. I’m thinking, “For every step I take down, I’m going to have to take several up.” But never mind—for now I’m strolling along like a gentleman on a boulevard in Paris.
Within a couple of miles, my stroll becomes more like an Rambo expedition; the trail is barely a trace, slicing through huckleberry thickets and cow parsnip that rises to my armpits. Huckleberry being one of the bear’s favorite snacks, I’m yelling, “Hey, Bear!” every few seconds at the top of my lungs, the recommended practice to warn any bears of my whereabouts so they can move away.
I feel pretty foolish when an unseen hiker, maybe 50 yards behind me on the trail, yells back, “What???” But it’s really good to know there’s other folk out here. In fact, a half hour later I run across another old fart schlepping through the woods alone. His name is George and he’s closing fast on 65 years, like me. Turns out we share pretty much the same pace and temperament, so we fall in together for the rest of the hike. I feel better giving the bear a choice of meals—even if it’s still only 50-50.
Speaking of age. You would be astonished at the number of tough, wiry old-timers, both men and women, I see out here rambling around the mountains. I met one man in Rocky Mountain National Park who was 80 and still handling the trails like a mountain goat. On this particular hike to Cobalt Lake, I run across a gentleman of 72 who’s still running marathons.
But I have a narrative to finish, so let me continue…. After 10 minutes or so, George and I exit the jungle-like foliage and are soon confronted with a swaying suspension bridge hanging tenuously above a turbulent stream. Only a few boards are missing, and obviously others have trod it before us; by acclamation I go first. After venturing three steps I’m wobbling around like a drunk trying to pee overboard while standing in a rowboat. I freeze. Then, slowly, I discover that if I slide one foot ahead of the other, like a tightrope walker, I can move forward without rocking the bridge unduly. Thirty seconds later I’m on the other side, waving to George who, having learned from my experience, sashays across without incident.
About a mile later—and I knew this was going to happen—the trail begins to rise steeply in a series of switchbacks. This is the 1400 foot gain they were talking about. Parts of the trail here are composed of sedimentary rock, eroded by the ages into a staircase of 18-inch steps, each one more painful than the one before. We take a few steps. We rest. We step again. We rest.
This continues eternally.
Yet finally the trail broadens again and begins a moderate but smooth final ascent to Cobalt Lake, a small pristine body of water surrounded by towering, moss-covered mountains and a true glacier that slopes from the water’s edge upward for several hundred yards.
I have learned something about glaciers while in the park. A glacier is a body of snow and ice that moves inexorably downhill by force of gravity. On the other hand a snowfield, which looks similar to a glacier, just sits there and doesn’t move. Most of the snow I see on the mountains in the park is snowfield, or snowpack as it’s sometimes called.
There are only about 26 glaciers left in Glacier National Park and some people estimate they’ll be gone by 2020. In 1850 there were over 150. I can’t help but toy with the idea that only 20,000 years ago receding glaciers thousands of feet thick filled these valleys and covered the mountains, creating the masterpiece of rugged beauty I’m surrounded by today. Where would we be if the Ice Age glaciers hadn’t receded, how would we be living? As human beings sometimes I think we lose perspective, forgetting that our world is in a constant flux, changing from what was to what will be. All our hysterical efforts cannot, nor should they, change that. Al Gore…how’s that speech coming along?
Well. We spend an hour or so at the lake, along with a number of other hikers who linger, come and go.
But reaching a destination is not really the point, is it? I don’t climb these trails just to snap a few pictures of a scenic spot that few ever get to see. Everywhere I turn in our national parks (the best idea socialism ever hatched, by the way) there’s a beautiful picture I can shoot without taking a step. Or I could buy a glossy coffee table book and see much better photos than mine without leaving the sofa. No. To have made the trek; to sweat, to pant, to fear the unknown that lies around the next bend in the trail, to feel exhaustion to the bone yet persevere—and to overcome it all—that’s the point.
At my age, I generally need at least day to recoup after a strenuous hike like Cobalt. And to me, a visit to Glacier Park wouldn’t be complete without driving the full length of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which bisects the park. So I decide to spend the day in my truck, “resting” by driving across and back, about 2 ½ hours each way.
As it turns out, resting and driving the Sun road are not compatible concepts. Starting from the west end, where I’m camped, the firs0 miles of the road lazily parallels the shoreline of 10-mile long Lake McDonald. So far so good. Beyond the lake, however, the road begins a narrow, serpentine ascent toward the Continental Divide and the Logan Visitor Center, an unbroken 12-mile climb.
By narrow, I mean I literally have to fold back my rear view mirrors so I don’t scrape the cliff on one side of the truck or smack an oncoming car with the other. In a few places it’s so narrow that realistically only one vehicle can pass and the line of cars heading each way shuffles through one at a time. The outboard edge of the road has an 18-inch retaining wall built of native stone by the WPA, and beyond that is, well…space. Large, menacing amounts of space, sometime a thousand feet of it, straight down.
The inside, or mountain, side of the road is carved from living rock that’s so jagged and uneven sometimes it’s difficult to judge my distance from it, especially while concentrating on the clearance between me and the vehicle coming toward me.
And serpentine! It seems there’s hardly a straight stretch the whole 12 miles. I go into hairpin turns unable to see who’s coming toward me from behind the cliff. Because of the tight turns, the maximum allowable vehicle length on the road is 21 feet which, as it happens, is the exact length of my truck.
All this concentrated navigating happens while passing through the most extraordinarily beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen (too bad the sun’s never in the right place for good photo lighting.) But a furtive glance at the panorama of mountains, waterfalls and verdant valleys is about all I can manage. I have to keep my eyes on the road and my mind on the task. Fortunately, there are many turnouts where I can pull off the road and take a picture. By the end of the day, though, I realize I haven’t “rested” at all.
The Highline Loop Trail is a 12-mile excursion that starts at Logan Pass and ends on the Going-to-the-Sun road at a point called The Loop. It wends its way among the mountains and over a high pass to Granite Park Chalet, one of several such destinations built around 1913 by the railroads as a way of luring rich clients onto their trains with visions of an untamed West. Unlike tourists today, those from an earlier era rode horses up from a train depot near my campsite in the valley. It was considered quite a ritzy deal, very expensive and upper crust.
To reach the chalet, I hike a pencil-thin trail past precipice and across talus slopes, over numerous swift-running rills of snowmelt, and past weeping walls glistening in the sun, festooned with flowers thick like hanging baskets. I’ll let pictures tell the tale:
Who knows if I’ll ever return to Glacier? Truly, I’m not ready to bid farewell to it.