Waterfalls and Mountains – Glacier National Park

A visit to Montana’s Glacier National Park had been on our wishlist since long before we began our RV adventure.  Now into our fifth year of full timing, we finally arrived.  Having been here for more than a week now, we can attest to the park’s beauty as awe-inspiring, stunning and dramatic.

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park east entrance

Within its 1 million acres, Glacier NP is comprised of high alpine meadows, glacially-carved mountain peaks and valleys, hundreds of lakes, cascading waterfalls, glaciers, rolling foothills and unparalleled vistas.  I initially thought the park was named for its existing glaciers, but actually it’s for the work done by earlier glaciers at the conclusion of the last ice age.

Those glaciers left scoured dip valleys, sharp ridges, carved rugged mountains and deep lakes.  Of the 150 or so glaciers known to have existed in the mid-19th century, only about 25 remain.  Global warming models predict that by 2030 – or even sooner – they will be gone as well.

Going to the Sun Mountain

Going-to-the-Sun Mountain, the namesake of the Going-to-the-Sun Road

Jackson Glacier

Jackson Glacier is one of the 25 remaining glaciers

Many hikes begin at trailheads along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, the only highway that crosses the park from east to west.  An engineering marvel and National Historic Landmark, the road spans 50 miles and crests at the Continental Divide at Logan Pass (6,646′).

Free shuttles run on the east-west route, with Logan Pass as the transfer point to proceed to either side.  Coming in for a quick visit, folks would probably want to take shuttles or drive their own car (start EARLY) to best see the park in a hurry.

Of course, staying a while and hiking as many of the wonderful trails as possible is really the way to go!

Triple Arches

Triple arches on Going-to-the-Sun Road blend a man-made structure into the surrounding environment

Going to the Sun Road at Sun Rift Gorge

Going-to-the-Sun Road at Sunrift Gorge

St. Mary Area Waterfalls hike

We were camped right outside the east entrance to the park, at Johnson’s of St. Mary RV Park (Steve’s review here).  With dozens of trails to choose from, we decided to warm up with the St. Mary Area Waterfalls hike.  Armed with our latest hiking accessory – bear spray – we tried the park’s shuttle service from the east entrance visitor center at 7AM.  We got off at popular St. Mary Falls and noticed several cars already parked in the small lot.

We followed the moderate trail that descends 200′ to St. Mary Falls and then climbs 250′ to Virginia Falls.  This area was involved in the July, 2015 Reynolds Creek Fire that burned 4,800 acres.  It wiped out all of the trees, but the area is recovering rapidly as evidenced by new growth and the incredible variety of wildflowers – most notably the Alpine Fireweed – blooming in abundance.

Saint Marys Falls Trail

We hiked through burnt stands of fir, spruce and cedar which graced the west end of St. Mary Lake

Alpine Fireweed

Alpine Fireweed

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Saint Mary Falls

St. Mary Falls gushes through a rocky channel, thundering down 50′ feet over two tiers

Unnamed Falls

Unnamed Falls, a quite impressive cascade that drops in a series of four separate tiers

Virginia Falls

Virginia Falls tumbles 100′ down a string of tiers

Since we didn’t even break a sweat on this short 3-mile trek, we added a segment of another trail that continued along the cliffs to descend toward St. Mary Lake.

St Mary's Lake

St. Mary Lake glimmers behind this colorful, but ailing, tree

Eventually we reached a small boat dock (which we actually docked at later in the day) then turned left to Baring Falls, only a couple hundred yards away.

Barring Falls

Baring Falls drops about 25′

From here we climbed back up to the road to end our hike at 5.6 miles, then took the shuttle from Sunrift Gorge back toward the visitor center.

Baring Creek Bridge

Archway of the Sunrift Gorge Bridge

Sun rift Gorge

Sunrift Gorge is a straight steep canyon cut through the bedrock just 200′ off the main road. All of these waterfalls feed into St. Mary Lake, the second largest in the park

Rising Sun Boat Tour

We thought this day in the park was over, but our shuttle driver was very persuasive when she told us it was a perfect day for a boat tour on the lake, if we could get a seat.  When she stopped at the Rising Sun Boat Tour stop, Steve jumped off and got tickets ($26 each), then we had lunch as we waited for our tour.

Rising Sun Boat dock

A family-owned business, the boat tours have been offered at four locations in the park (Many Glacier, Lake McDonald, St. Mary Lake and Two Medicine) since 1938.  The 1.5-hour narrated tour at St Mary’s Lake features classic wooden boats.

Little Chief

Our boat “Little Chief” at Baring Dock, where folks were allowed to check out the falls we had hiked past earlier.  Note the scarred trees in the background

Instead of describing the tour, I’ll let my photos tell the story of of the immense mountains and lake scenery we viewed during our relaxing ride.

St Mary Lake

Diseased trees displaying orange and brown contrasting colors

Wild goose island

Iconic Wild Goose Island, a little spot the initial glacier failed to carve out of the deep lake

Wild Goose Island

A different perspective – Wild Goose Island seen from Going-to-the-Sun Road

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Glacier National Park

Heavy Runner on the far right and Reynolds Mountain to its left

Fullisade Mtn

Fusillade Mountain on the right and Gunsight Mountain on the left

Baring Dock

Crystal clear St. Mary Lake with Dusty Star Mountain in the background

Little Chief Mountain

Little Chief Mountain on the left and About-to-be-a-Dog Mountain on the right

Baring waterfall

A waterfall cascading from Sexton Glacier to Sunrift Gorge, running under the Going-to-the-Sun bridge, through Baring Falls and into the lake

Divide Mountain

Divide Mountain marking the border between the Blackfeet Indian Nation and Glacier NP

East Glacier NP shuttle

The shuttles on the east side of the park run only every 45 minutes – far too long between shuttles when the park is busy.  After the boat tour we waited 40 minutes for the next shuttle, which zoomed right by because it was full.  Now we were getting very unhappy.

We started walking toward the visitor center and our car, but it was a daunting 5-mile walk along the busy highway with no shoulders.  I suggested we wait at the next shuttle stop just up the road, but it went to Logan Pass – the opposite direction.  Steve agreed with me that it was better to take a trip up to Logan Pass and back and see the scenery, than to sit around and stew for another 45 minutes hoping for a shuttle with space.

Rising Sun Dock

An unhappy camper waits for the woefully understaffed shuttle service

It turned out to be a good move.  Enjoying our first scenic views of Logan Pass, we ended up back at our car an hour later.  This is terrible shuttle service – these shuttles should be running every 15-20 minutes like on the west side of the park!  We never took the east side shuttle again, instead driving our car early in the mornings to guarantee parking for our hikes.

And these hikes were just for starters!

 

Next up:  Picturesque glacial lakes