Outdoors

Notes from the Crown: Playing Tourist in Glacier National Park

11 minute read
by Jake Case

notes from the crown glacier

The Crown of the Continent.

Naturalist George Bird Grinnell gave this nickname to a rugged swath of Rocky Mountains known as the Lewis Range in 1901.

He bestowed the name as the title of an article he wrote for The Century Magazine in which he described the wonder of high mountain peaks, cliff-hanging glaciers, and clear-running streams that form the headwaters of North America’s great rivers.

Grinnell penned the article following a visit to the range where he and other members of the Boone and Crockett Club, among other adventures, climbed an iconic and formidable peak named Chief Mountain.

Grinnell’s piece boasted of grandeur. He claimed the Lewis to be even more impressive than the nation’s handful of young but famous National Parks.

“Here are canyons deeper and narrower than those of the Yellowstone, mountains higher than those of the Yosemite,” Grinnell wrote.

Yes, Grinnell’s ultimate vision for the Crown: designation and preservation in its own right as National Park. In 1910, the Boone and Crockett Club introduced a bill to Congress ultimately leading to the creation of Glacier National Park.

Without the vision and work of Grinnell and his partners, Glacier National Park might not exist in the capacity that I was able to enjoy during my visit. Thanks George.

Lake McDonald Kayakers
(Photo Credit: Jake Case)

Crystal Waters

Apgar Village is a quaint little row of shops and motels on the western tip of Lake McDonald’s elongated shoreline. T-shirts, foodstuffs, firewood, kayak rentals and more are all procurable — it’s a lively place with not quite enough parking spaces.

After passing through many a Montana town with restaurant billboards advertising huckleberryeverything, I took my chances on a huckleberry ice cream cone from a snack stand. Tasty and delicious, it was fun to experience a bit of local flavor too.

Sol inevitably sank lower in the western sky, and we ventured down to the lakeshore to enjoy the sunset. Like most other car-accessible vistas in the National Parks, the shoreline was popping with activity. Boys and their fathers skipped rocks, couples held hands while gazing into the mountains, kayakers paddled by on the crystal waters.

Lake McDonald Sunset Glacier
(Photo Credit: Jake Case)

My wife found a log that made a decent bench while I got out my camera and tripod to capture the view. The distant peaks were tinged with rich light as the sun disappeared over the horizon.

As we enjoyed the show, a retired couple joined us on the log. Locals by way of Polson, Montana, they were quite charming, and we traded stories with them about wildlife encounters, travel mishaps, and amazing experiences.

Places like Glacier are amazing to see and experience, but making human connections along the way will always make the voyage more fulfilling. Our first evening in Glacier was a memorable one.

Two Medicine Lake Boat
(Photo Credit: Jake Case)

Two Medicine Valley

We arrived at Two Medicine Valley under sunny, blue skies. A boat tour on Two Medicine Lake, which included a short guided hike to a natural water feature named Twin Falls, was the only firm plans we had for the day.

By the boat dock, the scene was breathtaking, and it was impossible not to compare to that of McDonald Lake the previous evening. Wuite a bit smaller than McDonald Lake, Two Medicine’s views are more “in your face.” Instead of peaks still a few miles distant, the pyramid-shaped silhouette of Sinopah Mountain towers dramatically overhead.

At 1pm on the dot, we boarded The Sinopah — the oldest operating tour boat at Glacier National Park. Our guide was a twenty-something Minnesota outdoorsman named Dan, and he laid out all the facts for us as the boat chugged slowly across the two-mile length of Two Medicine Lake.

Beargrass Flowers Glacier Montana
(Photo Credit: Jake Case)

Many of his tales were the folk stories of the Blackfeet, a native American tribe who treat Two Medicine Valley among the most sacred of their homelands and refer to the high peaks as the Backbone of the World.

We heard about Rising Wolf, a white man who befriended the Blackfeet and married the chief’s daughter (a woman named Sinopah), and how their names were bestowed upon the valley’s spindly peaks. Even the name Two Medicine was of Blackfoot origin: in honor of two women who built neighboring medicine lodges on opposite banks of the valley’s river.

After 20 minutes on the water, we found ourselves on the lake’s west shore and joined Dan along with 25 other would-be hikers for a three-mile walk in the woods. Along the way, Dan would pause on occasion to describe the local plant life.

We learned it was what locals called “The Year of the Beargrass”. Normally an unassuming patch of long grassy blades, beargrass produces a creamy white bulbous bloom that sits atop a stalk – growing three or four feet off the ground. Some of the beargrass patches contained dozens of upright blooms.

Twin Falls Two Medicine
(Photo Credit: Jake Case)

The guide told us that longtime rangers reported the beargrass was blooming in a way they hadn’t seen in 30 years. We arrived at Twin Falls with way too many people in tow as there wasn’t much standing room at the base of the falls for the two dozen of us. I scrambled about a bit on the rocks to gain a better vantage while my wife quizzed Dan about his knowledge of bears.

Ever the photographer, I was drawn to the photogenic nature of the right side of the falls and its tumbling cascades. As I carefully scaled up the rocky slopes, I enjoyed the falls up close and escaped the mob too.

Twin Falls was a cool spot but would have been better without the crowd. The highlight of the hike turned out to be Dan’s knowledge of the plants, geology, and native American culture. The factoids and stories he shared stayed with us and gave insight for the rest of our trip.

Logan Pass Boardwalk Glacier
(Photo Credit: Jake Case)

Logan Pass, In All Its Glory

In route from Two Medicine Valley back to camp, we set our sights the Crown’s Crown: Logan Pass.

A high saddle straddling the Continental Divide, Logan Pass is an otherworldly alpine meadow suspended among high peaks. It’s Glacier’s gem of gems, at least as roadside stops are concerned.

As we ventured out onto the Hidden Lake Trail — a boardwalk leading hikers across the fragile tundra — the landscape shimmered under the golden light of late day sun. Some of the highest crags in the Lewis Range towered just a couple thousand feet above while glacier lilies grew in carpets on the surrounding hillsides.

It was impossible not be struck with awe.

The boardwalk’s ramps and stair sets ushered us steadily uphill. Soon we approached snowfields clinging to the north facing slopes of Clements Mountain. We witnessed firsthand snow melting into clear-running brooks tumbling off the mountains rocky ledges in brilliant cascades.

Hidden Lake Overlook Glacier
(Photo Credit: Jake Case)

The hike now required the crossing of snowfields — steep, heavily-traveled patches of trampled snow-capped with a slick film of water and ice. We gingerly executed a couple of the snow-crossings, but with at least a half-dozen more to go, my wife decided to bail. With her blessing, I continued onward as she descended and proceeded to take iPhone videos of bighorn sheep clashing horns near the Logan Pass Visitor Center.

After the cresting the last of the snowfields, I stopped in my tracks at the sight of a mountain stream emptying into a pond glistening with the golden reflections of Reynolds Mountain.

Just another three minutes up the trail I reached Hidden Lake Overlook, a majestic scene dominated by the glacially sculptured form of Bearhat Mountain and the mirror-like crescent of Hidden Lake at its flanks.

A few wispy cirrus clouds floated across the sky as a herd of mountain goats grazed in a nearby meadow. The mountaintops of the Continental Divide smoldered a yellow-orange as the day waned to a close.

It was an evening of peace atop the Crown of the Continent.

West Tunnel Going-to-the-Sun Road
(Photo Credit: Jake Case)

Going to the Sun

Few roadways on the planet rival that of Going-to-the-Sun Road. The 50-mile long byway connects the parks’ east and west entrances by way of a winding scenic drive — a must-do for first time Glacier visitors.

There are highlights in the form of both roadside viewpoints and potential hikes throughout the drive, but the most impressive stretch of highway seemed to be from the West Side Tunnel over to the Siyeh Bend (just east of Logan Pass).

Crown-of-the-Continent
(Photo Credit: Jake Case)

This stretch has never-ending mountain vistas, roadside waterfalls, and vertigo-inducing dropoffs — all with the road literally carved into the mountainside. On a busy July day, cars packed the roadway early but evaporated in the late afternoon for a much more pleasant vibe.

My favorite landmark along this section was Bird Woman Falls – a name when said aloud garnered a joking retort from my wife, “What did you call me?”

The 560-foot tall waterfall is viewable from many vantages along the road, and it took my breath away to see its waters tumbling from a hanging valley perched halfway between the high peaks and deep valley floor.

Bird Woman Falls
(Photo Credit: Jake Case)

Near the Weeping Wall — a cliff face drizzling melted snow onto the roadway for the length of a basketball court — I discovered a hillside sprinkled with Beargrass blooms. To boot, the upper reaches of Bird Woman glistened in the distance and the peaks above bathed in sunlight — a brilliant scene that will be etched in my mind forever.

Down below and in the distance, amid the light and shadows of late afternoon, the meandering course of McDonald Creek reflected the light of the bright western sky. It appeared as a luminous river in the shade of the valley — transporting the mountain lifeblood into lowlands.

Going-to-the-Sun Road indeed lives up to its hype.

Glacier National Park Beargrass
(Photo Credit: Jake Case)

Grizzlies

At Siyeh Bend — a dramatic hairpin turn where the road crosses the steep valley of Siyeh Creek — we parked in a turnout jammed with cars. A patch of beargrass flowers along the uphill creekside drew my attention, while the hoards of people at the roadside all focused on the something else. I assumed it to be mountain goats, we’d seen tons of them at Logan Pass.

As I took a stroll in search of another beargrass photo, my wife was smart enough to stay at the car and investigate the fuss by the roadside. Unbeknownst to me and my camera 500 yards upstream, my wife joined the crowd only to witness a momma Grizzly bear and her cub cross the creek below and scramble up the scree slope on the other side.

I returned just in time to hear the whoop of a police siren as a park ranger ushered the two bears into the forest and away from the crowds. Unfortunately, a tripod malfunction foiled my beargrass photo. All I got to see of the bears themselves were a couple grainy but impressive videos on my wife’s iPhone.

Alas, on every great trip you still always miss something.

Sacred Dancing Cascade
(Photo Credit: Jake Case)

Sacred Dancing

The swan song of our voyage through Glacier was a visit to McDonald Creek and its rushing waters. We parked at a roadside turnout with a trail quickly leading to a footbridge and an upstream view. A few hundred yards uphill, McDonald Creek spills over a twenty-foot high ledge.

My wife enjoyed the view from the bridge, but I crossed it and followed a short trail leading to an easy scramble down the cliff to the base of the falls.

The maps call this Sacred Dancing Cascade, and a closer look reveals the possible meaning — maybe just my own interpretation — of its name.

Here, the main flow of McDonald Creek gushes in large gulps over the terraces of the bluff, while a small side stream winds its way around a flat-faced stone slab and dances gracefully and delicately to the bottom.

Perhaps the water performs two styles of dance here: the undulating yet direct cadence of the main current in contrast with the refined elegance of the flanking cascade.

That name is my favorite of all the landmarks in the park. It draws upon the rhythm of life evident in every nook and cranny of the region.

These life-bringing waters are key not only to the ecosystem in the park itself, these are the beginnings of river systems – important feeders eventually contributing to the Columbia, Mississippi, and Saskatchewan Rivers.

A drop of water that begins in Glacier could find its way to the Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, or Hudson Bay, or more importantly, provide nourishment to a living thing along the way and maintain the health of the land and its inhabitants in every corner of Northern America.

To spend our last evening in Glacier at Sacred Dancing Cascade was fitting. While we only had couple days in the park and didn’t venture far off the beaten path, to sit by McDonald Creek and feel the power of the water pouring down the mountain revealed to me the very essence of the name Crown of the Continent.

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