My backpacking partner has always wanted to adventure in Glacier Park. My family and I live about 45 minutes from Glacier Park and we VERY rarely go. I love and appreciate the scenery and grandeur of the park, but I don’t like going. Too many people (even after Labor Day we found out!) and I don’t want to go where everybody else goes. Also, dogs aren’t allowed in the park and I don’t want to hike without Moxie. However, backpacking is another story. Though I want to venture out backpacking with Moxie sometime, I’m okay to leave her home if I have company on the trails. So when my friend said he wanted to go somewhere in Glacier I said yes, because though I don’t want to go where a lot of other people are, I do want to see as many new places as possible while on this earth.
After some research he came up with a plan, a two-day hike starting on the Highline Trail at Logan’s Pass, camping at Granite campground and the following day hiking over Swiftcurrent Pass to Many Glacier, about 14 miles, catch a shuttle back to Logan’s pass to the truck…wah-lah! One last backpack trip in the books before the end of the season. It was a perfect plan until about 28 hours before we were to head out. While checking trail status I saw online that Logan’s Pass was closed due to snow. I saw this while I was up in the middle of the night freaking out at the thought of meeting bears on the Highline trail with nowhere to go but over a cliff to escape and snow on the trail over the pass. So I sent him a screen shot of the closure information and efforts began to come up with Plan B, the day before we were leaving. When camping in the backcountry of Glacier there are logistics, picking up Backcountry Use permits, should you reserve campsites or try to save a little money and reserve a campsite the day you go in, hoping there are some available when you show up to buy your permit. Also, where to camp, some campsites don’t allow campfires and if you have done any camping or backpacking you know how sad and cold it is if you can’t have a campfire. Do you hike out and back or do you thru hike and arrange a ride or shuttle to take you back to your vehicle at point A? After a day of discussing options we came up with Plan B, park at Many Glacier, hike up through Ptarmigan Tunnel and down to Elizabeth Lake, the following day hike back out the way we came. We both preferred the thought of thru hiking from Chief Joseph Border Trailhead to Many Glacier, because you get to see something new every step of your trip, but there were more logistics. We would have to catch a shuttle from Swift Current Lodge in Many Glacier back to the border and my friend had to drive back to Helena when we were done and the shuttle doesn’t run until 1:00 p.m. That just gets to be a long day and getting home late for him. I felt that was just a ridiculous amount of driving, both at the front and tail end of the trip.
So with a new plan in place we were ready to go. My hubby drove me out to a meeting spot to toss my 28.6# pack in the truck and we were on our way at 7:00 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. The day was already sunny and gorgeous and that was the forecast for the next couple days. Magnificent backpacking weather. We enjoyed a quiet drive and gorgeous fall colors up to Many Glacier to buy our permits. We walked inside the visitor’s center and the woman behind the counter asks where we’re going, “To Elizabeth Lake through Ptarmigan Tunnel”. She says, “We had a report this morning of snow drifts on the North side of the tunnel.” “Well, what kind of drifts?” From hikers coming through it was described as “doable, but unpleasant”. With this information we checked the campground status and found there was only one campsite left at the head of Elizabeth Lake. This campground is an additional 1.6 miles from the trail that reaches the foot of the lake, but this is the campground of the two on the lake that allows campfires! Sold! Well, also “sold” since it was the last campsite available. So we had a campsite secured, now just had to decide how to get there, through the tunnel with unknown severity of snow and drifts or head up to the border and hike out and back from Chief Joseph trailhead, both equal distance, about 11.6 miles. After little deliberation and in an effort to make sure I wasn’t freaked out if the snow and drifts were bad on the side of a mountain we chose to drive another 45 minutes in the sunshine and changing fall colors up to the border and hike out and back from there. If you have been keeping track, we are now on Plan C.
With backcountry permits in hand and a new plan we hopped back in the truck to head to the border and Chief Joseph Border Trailhead. As we’re making the drive I said, “You know…if we wanted…instead of hiking back out tomorrow, we could thru hike to Many Glacier and hitch a ride to your truck in the morning…..” “YES!!!” was the answer I got without hesitation. Plan D!! We were back to the plan we decided was crazy because of all the extra driving, but why not! We were adventuring and where’s the adventure if there isn’t a possibility of hitchhiking?!
So our adventure began around 11:00 a.m. with cloudless blue skies and giddy excitement as we headed into the Glacier backcountry from the border. I love this part of a backpack trip, the beginning, anxious to see new things and knowing I will be in awe and wonderment of the grand scheme of the beauty in front of me. Excitement for my favorite parts of remote areas, meadows and anything water, ponds, rivers, lakes (oh my, the lakes), and waterfalls. Loving the thought of being out in the middle of nowhere, the backcountry, a place where so few go, see things that many will never see. (More on Glacier backcountry later…) From the Chief Joseph Border Trailhead we headed out on the Belly River Trail. This route to the Elizabeth Lake Head campground was 10.9 miles (we swear all mileage was much longer according to our GPS unit and hiking times, but everything online agrees with the parks mileage) with our first destination point along the way being the Belly River Ranger station which was 6.1 miles from the trailhead.
This route to Elizabeth Lake is the most gentle and kind, as in it didn’t kick my ass like day two. It’s a pretty “flat”, easy route, with an elevation gain of 475 feet and a 741 elevation loss. Piece of a cake and a leisurely walk in the park (No pun intended!) we will find compared to our hike on day two.
Despite a lot of slogging along muddy trails due to recent snow, the hike to the Belly River Ranger station was incredible, it started out in pine trees for only a short distance and then opened up to what seemed like meadow upon meadow broke up by aspen groves. I had in my mind we would at some point hike along the river, but we never did. At every meadow I wanted to lay down in the long grass and look up at the sky, at every meadow I would quietly sigh, it was my soul settling and feeling absolute peace, embracing the solitude. This is what being somewhere remote does for me. This is what I was searching for when I bought hiking boots, a Hiking in the Flathead book, and a bear bell for Moxie this spring. I wanted to be alone and escape from the world.
I can’t remember the exact time when we arrived at the ranger station, but it was probably around 2:00. When we arrived at the trail intersection we met three guys that were hiking together, two from Missoula and one from Atlanta. They had all got snowed in at Granite Campground a couple nights before. The two guys from Missoula saw that Atlanta was traveling alone and invited him to join them, so he did. This was something I loved about hiking in Glacier, but also something that wasn’t my favorite part, it was a pro and con. Meeting people on the trail. Let me explain. My fascination with long distance hiking (which I’ve decided I am not woman enough for! lol) started with watching and reading “Wild”. A memoir by a woman who in an effort to heal herself emotionally went on a trek to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), a 2,659 mile hiking and equestrian trail that runs from Mexico to Canada. I’ve been intrigued with the thought of hiking that distance alone with everything you need on your back. In reading and watching documentaries on this trail and the Appalachian Trail I loved the stories of people meeting on the trail, hearing their stories, learning where they had traveled from to make their journey, why they chose to hike where they did. So though we were going to be covering less than 1% of the distance of the PCT we were still enjoying meeting people on the trail. We were learning a little of their story, people you will never see again, but you will remember that you met in the middle of nowhere all with the same goal, to escape from the real world for just a short time and see something amazing, something that really so few people see.
Now why I also put meeting people on the con list. It isn’t necessarily the meeting of people, it’s not being totally alone in the backcountry. Glacier’s backcountry experience, at least the route we chose this time, is too “civilized” for my taste. Don’t get me wrong, I love the scenery, the massive scenery, and any experience that includes carrying all that I need for a couple of nights on my back. But, to me backcountry isn’t meeting ten to twenty people on the trail every day. It isn’t designated campsites and designated food prep areas with constructed fire rings, bear boxes and poles for hanging your food and pit toilets in the middle of the mountains. Yes, all great conveniences provided for a fantastic backpacking experience, but just not what I envision for MY backpacking experience. I want to search for a site adequate enough for pitching a tent, I shouldn’t have a toilet at my disposal (though it was nice not to dig a cat hole to do my business…pro and con), preparing meals with strangers isn’t my preference (again, pro and con…more later). For myself, backpacking is for solidarity and I like “roughing it”, so to speak. That’s what the backcountry means to me.
We wished our fellow hikers good-bye and safe travels and walked to the edge of the meadow along a fence that ran past the ranger station. We unbuckled and dropped our packs, for a much deserved rest and to enjoy lunch in the sun. I shed my long sleeve shirt because it was warm, nearly 70 degrees, and it felt so good to sit in the sun in a tank top in the mountains. What a gorgeous day, great company, and still early in our adventure. Happy doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt in that moment.
After about an hour break to relax and thoroughly enjoy our surroundings and the gorgeous sunshiny day it was time to load up and continue hiking. We had about five miles left to our campsite at the head of Elizabeth Lake. We walked out of this meadow and into the pine trees. The nice easy hike, very little elevation gain and lost, continued on down the trail. A little over a mile and a half past our lunch spot we passed a sign that said Mist Falls and a trail heading off to the left. With our mind on our destination of Elizabeth lake and the trail we were following we didn’t think anything of it and then all of a sudden we realized that the dull roar in the air was water, a waterfall, Mist Falls. We couldn’t not take this detour and see the waterfall when we may never be back on this trail again so we turned around and hiked the short .3 mile detour to the falls and, oh my, thank goodness we did. It was named Mist Falls for a very good reason, the mist that sprayed back up into the air as the 50 foot waterfall crashed into the water below was gorgeous, especially since we had sun to shine through the mist. The falls were magnificent and equally gorgeous was the view when you turned around and looked down the river. We stayed there for about twenty minutes and enjoyed having the waterfall all to ourselves. What an amazing place in nature to sit and feel the peace in the day. That scene was a blessing. We hiked back up to the trail and after a few minutes the trees cleared out and we were able to see the river cascade into a waterfall. Simply beautiful.
We hiked on through the trees, passing a volunteer ranger along the way, for a couple more miles before reaching the Elizabeth Lake Foot. By this time I was totally wore out and my back and knees were hurting big time. I really try to never complain when tired or hurting, because if you have just hiked 11 miles carrying 28# on your back, what can you expect but some fatigue and a little discomfort. It was such a relief arriving at Elizabeth Lake, but…our campsite was at the head of the lake, another 1.6 miles. So after some much deserved oohing, ahhing and celebrating our arrival at the lake we hiked on as hard as we could to get to our campsite and start setting up camp.
The hike along the shore of the lake as the day was coming to an end was outstanding. A hiker the following day asked if Elizabeth Lake was the one with the mosaic rocks. Looking back I wonder if they were talking about Lake McDonald, but the tiny rocky and sandy beaches definitely could have made this the lake he was indeed talking about. The sandy beaches of this lake would make this a number one recreation lake in my opinion if it wasn’t a day hike into it. 🙂 I would love to be there in the middle of the summer and have a day to spend hanging out on the beach basking in the rays of the sun. Maybe I will do that sometime!
Finally around 7:00 we arrived at our campsite. At this point we were the first ones to arrive at the campground. The first thing you are required to do when arriving at a campground in the park is to hoist all your food, toothpaste, toiletries, and cookware up in the food storage area. No food is to ever go in the campsites. After that task was taken care of we chose a campsite and got to work on starting a fire, filtering water, and making some dinner in the food prep area. It was nice to know we would have a fire going for the rest of the campers arriving that evening as it was now pretty darn chilly out.
About an hour after we arrived we were no longer the only ones in a campground, four of a party of six hikers from Cincinnati on a five-day backpacking trip arrived and began their tasks of setting up camp. This is one of the pros/cons for me. I love the idea of being someplace and never seeing a soul, total solidarity, but there was also something very enjoyable about sharing a fire and sitting around and meeting new people. I did enjoy that, the camaraderie of warming up and settling in around a warm fire at the end of a long day, knowing tomorrow will be the same. In addition to our fellow hiking guests we had a bull moose stroll down the trail right next to the food prep/campfire sight. My hiking partner is a wildlife biologist and apparently with that comes the knowledge of a moose mating call! 🙂 He got it to stop a couple of times and look back at us, but thankfully it didn’t find any of us pretty enough to come back for an up close and personal visit!
Here ends day one of our two day backpacking trip in Glacier. It was glorious and I can’t wait to share day two with you. I think it will be a bit shorter of a tale, but the pics are equally spectacular! I’ll see you later on day two! Happy trails!
“Nature is one of the most underutilized treasures in life. It has the power to unburden hearts and reconnect to that inner place of peace.” ~Janice Anderson