Glacier National Park: close encounters of the bear and fire kind

So my bucket list trip to Glacier was fantastic and it’s long since past time I published this post. How am I supposed to make everyone jealous if I don’t post copious amounts of photos of the park? Buckle in, y’all. This is a wild ride.

Thursday

I landed in Missoula, Montana on Thursday amid a haze of wildfire smoke. Did you know from a plane the smoke looks pink at the edges of the cloud? It’s nasty.

My friend and I had a two hour drive from the airport to our hotel for the trip and no pressing plans for the day, so we took a detour to one of the state parks around Flathead Lake. It was too hazy for the views to be great, but the water was cold and incredibly clear, and we waded in and stood in the water for a half hour, soaking in the fact that we were in Montana and doing this thing.

Once we got to the hotel and checked in, we decided to do an initial drive into the park. We wanted to drive the entire Going to the Sun road at some point, and figured Thursday would be a good day to do that before the crowds descended for the weekend. We only made it up to Logan Pass before turning around, but it was a good introduction to how stunning the park is, and a good opportunity to stop at a ton of overlooks and take photos while we weren’t in a hurry trying to get somewhere so we could get on the trail.

Hazy Lake McDonald

On the Going to the Sun Road

Up around the Hidden Lake trail at Logan Pass (ps it was 8:50 when I took this photo—it stays light for so long!)

Also, my parks pass for the win. There’s $35 we didn’t have to pay!

Friday

The name of the game for the trip was go big or go home, so we went big. Friday’s hike was the Highline trail, one of the most popular hikes in Glacier, and for good reason.

Hiking is great!

Pro tip that we got from reading some reviews of the trail: park at The Loop on the Going to the Sun Road, and then take the shuttle up to Logan Pass to start the trail from there, since the Logan Pass parking lot fills up quickly. As it was, the parking area at The Loop was also full by the time we got there, but we were able to create an unofficial-but-totally-could’ve-been-official parking spot. A half hour or 40 minutes on the shuttle later and we were on our way. And it was pretty awesome.

Where it starts
You hike far above the Sun Road for most of the first half of the trail

It was long and hot, but the first part of the trail had sections that were decently shaded. The views were amazing, and the terrain kept changing enough to keep the many miles interesting.

We opted to pass up the extra mile up to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook because we were tired enough when we came to the split to decide that no way in hell did we want to force ourselves to do the incredibly steep climb uphill (by Sunday it was clear this glacier was not happening on this trip but we didn’t know that at the time).

Yep, that’s looking back on the trail! We’d stopped for a snack on the very large boulders right near the trail below the snowfield

And then about eight miles in we came to the Granite Park Chalet (we’d been able to see the dang thing off at a distance for miles and it never seemed to get any closer), and that’s when I stopped taking pictures.

The view from the chalet was the last hiking photo from the day (that trail in the distance on the left? That’s the uphill of the Grinnell Glacier overlook)

Because here’s an even better pro tip: skip the loop section of the trail between the Granite Park Chalet and back down to the parking area at The Loop. Someone said to us when we told him we were doing the whole through hike, “that’s a long four miles,” and good lord was he right. None of the reviews we read of the trail mentioned much of anything about The Loop section, so here’s my advice: go as far as you want on the trail from Logan Pass towards the chalet, and then turn around. You’re going to get to see those amazing views from the opposite direction, and as a bonus, you already know what the trail has in store on your way back. After the chalet? Not so much.

It was the longest four miles of my life.

Get me off this damn trail

It was hot and sunny, the trail was narrow with dense underbrush that was starting to encroach onto the trail. This made me even jumpier about meeting bears, because instead of the wide-open areas we’d been hiking through, our visibility was pretty limited. The amazing views had disappeared (and that has nothing to do with the fact that the trail goes through a section of forest regrowing from a fire in 2003. There weren’t any amazing mountain views, although some of that was undoubtedly due to the lessened visibility thanks to the smoke. But I would’ve been too tired to enjoy any views anyway). And to make matters worse, much of the middle section of the trail was headed AWAY from the direction of the Sun Road and the car. We kept thinking surely we’d come to a switchback and start going the right direction finally, but it took forever to get to that point, and it was pretty demoralizing.

Aaaaaand we were more or less out of water probably about a mile from the end of the trail. It was fine, because we had lots more water in the car. But being aware of how far we still were from more water made the last bit seem even longer.

I could’ve cried with relief when we FINALLY made it off the trail and into the parking lot after a total of 13 miles. And then I almost cried for real when we got in the car and it wasn’t recognizing the key for the remote start. Five or ten very tense minutes later—we were tired and HUNGRY (definitely hangry by then) and didn’t have any cell service and were wondering how the fuck we’d go about getting the car started or towed and did I mention we were past ready for a real meal?—we finally found what we needed in the owners’ manual and got the car started. THANK GOODNESS. Lesson learned: actual keys you can stick in the ignition are better. Because they won’t get overheated in the sun in your bag to where the car won’t recognize the remote. I already knew this because I’m old school (2006 car, baby!), but it was very much confirmed to me during that fun time.

I was so exhausted that I don’t even remember what happened the rest of that day, other than watching a movie in the hotel room at some point that evening. I just know the meal we had at the restaurant at the Lake McDonald lodge on our way out of the park was the best damn thing in the world (their cheesy bread is the PERFECT post-hike appetizer. Because yes, you get leeway to split an appetizer in addition to eating a full meal after you hike 13 miles. And you also get to order pizza and breadsticks from Domino’s late that night for your other meal because cheese and carbs are all I could ever want in life 🤷‍♀️).

Saturday

Saturday was a “rest” day, which meant a shorter, five-mile hike during the first part of the day. And I had exciting plans for the evening!

Remind me why I do this hiking thing again?

There’s a dearth of shorter, still challenging trails in the park (most of the out-and-backs end up being about 5 miles one way, and despite the initial plans to do at least 10 miles three days in a row, we realized we should let one of the longer trails go), but the super popular, 2.5 mile one-way trail to Avalanche Lake seemed like the perfect thing to do after the Highline the day before. We’d heard people reporting a grizzly and cub crossing the trail closer to the lake and were a bit wary (but safety in numbers! There is something to be said for hiking a trail with a bunch of other people), but saw no sign of them, so all was well. Except that the hike was not fun.

It’s impossible to capture, but you know that fake blue they dye the water at mini golf places? Yeah, that’s what glacial water actually looks like

I honestly don’t think the trail was that hard and would’ve been fine under normal circumstances. But despite stretching and foam rolling, we both hurt like hell and were tired from the day before (and had gotten a way later start than I’d planned. Remember how slowing down on vacation is a thing I have trouble with?). So the very consistent uphill climb for most of the 2.5 miles to the lake was brutal. But the lake itself was gorgeous, even despite an overcast day that meant it wasn’t as intensely blue as it usually is.

You can walk most of the way around the lake, so we meandered down a bit to get away from the crowds and sat on the beach for about 20 minutes, listening to the other people at the lake and the distant sound of the five gigantic waterfalls that eventually feed into the lake.

And then it was time to turn around (still no sign of bears), eat “lunch” (more cheesy bread!) on the way out of the park, and for me to shower/pull my gross hiking self together for my evening plans. Because I was driving a town or two over from the hotel to meet Jillian from Montana Money Adventures!

Meetup time

Jillian has a goal this summer of eating 50 scoops of ice cream with people, and I was all too happy to join her for one of those scoops. Because ice cream is the best, and even more so when it’s with awesome people. We had a long, lovely, and wide-ranging conversation, and I am so glad I got to meet her before FinCon!

She did try to kill me at one point by having us sit under the apple trees in her yard on a windy day when apples were raining down to the ground, but we moved the chairs away from the trees so I forgive her for that 😉

Back at the hotel, unscathed from rogue apples, my friend and I spent the rest of the evening trying to decide which hike to do for our last day in the park. We were torn between an 11 mile glacier hike and a shorter 5 mile waterfall hike that would both be easier on our tired bodies and also leave us with more time during the day for things like potentially getting out on the water at Lake McDonald. We both wanted to do the Grinnell Glacier hike (that trail was my top priority back when we were planning), but it wasn’t looking likely.

The problem, other than not knowing if 11 miles was going to be physically doable? Turns out we’re both idiots who didn’t look at a map closely enough to realize the Many Glacier section of the park isn’t accessible via the Sun Road. And it was on the other side of things, so would require a 2.5 hour drive around. One way. The St. Mary and Virginia Falls trail was also on the far side of the park, but at least on the Sun Road. We hadn’t driven the road all the way through so we’d be passing by it anyway.

We decided we’d make a call the next morning depending on how we felt. If nothing else, we had a lot of driving ahead of us and we could make a decision when we got to the trailhead for the falls if we’d park or keep driving to Many Glacier.

Sunday

Sunday morning dawned way too early, and surprise! We were both tired and sore. But I was pleasantly surprised when my friend told me “I think we should do the long hike.” Hooray!

We stopped again at Lake McDonald briefly because it was such a gorgeous, clear day!
See that little bit of smoke on the ridge? We’ll revisit that…
A clear overlook on the Sun Road this time!

Bears?

Apparently it was the day for bears to be out. We ran into someone just after setting out on the trail who was watching one in the distance on a hillside ridge. He also told us there were bears spotted on the Grinnell Lake path. Psh, whatever, we were doing the Grinnell Glacier path!

Perhaps the lack of bears the day before made us cocky? After all, we’d heard before that there were bears but hadn’t encountered any. And there were a lot of people on the trail! Shouldn’t that scare them off? So off we went.

Grinnell Glacier is a fantastic trail. It’s narrow around Lake Josephine but once you start climbing things open up. And we were both in good moods and feeling surprisingly untired and up for hiking 11 miles.

Grinnell Glacier feeding into Grinnell Lake

I may have been biased because Grinnell was slightly higher on my list than the Highline even before we got to the park, but I think Grinnell was my favorite trail we did.

Have fun with your bears, everyone down on the Grinnell Lake trail!

We passed two park rangers on their way down, who asked us “any sign of bears?” The answer was no. They didn’t seem like they’d seen any either, so we were fine!

I wasn’t watching the mileage closely (and we parked farther away from the trailhead than we meant to, which added some to the start of our hike), but I think probably about a mile and a half from the end of the trail, our luck started to run out.

After having passed someone on their way back down who said “do you have bear spray? Get it ready in case you need it. There were a grizzly and two cubs about a half-mile back. They were about 50 yards below the trail” (followed by a “yeah, there were bears about 50 yards below the trail. But they’re probably gone by now!”), we got less cocky and more cautious.

BEARS

Oh, two cubs, huh? One bear is one thing, but I’m not fucking with a momma bear and cubs. So I took the bear spray out of my pack and held it. And at that point we were more or less alone on the trail with no one too terribly close to us. So we stopped and waited for a couple we’d passed a few times to catch up with us, at which point I asked, “so I assume you’ve heard the news about bears. You wanna hike together?” The answer was yes. Safety in numbers, y’all. So we cautiously proceeded (slowly because we didn’t want to get too far ahead of the much slower couple) for the next half-mile and came around a bend.

Oh. The bears were not gone by now. They were no longer below the trail. They had crossed over the trail and were now above it. And were about 50 yards away heading right for us along the trail.

There was enough adrenaline rushing through me that I don’t have a fantastic memory of what happened next. I want to say there were maybe one or two more people in front of us and we weren’t the first ones between everyone else behind us and the bears. Regardless, we were some of the first people to see the bears and turn around, and we were also the first people to make it off the trail (I think most people turned around when we passed them and reported bears coming towards us along the trail. We’d gone around a few bends and heard yelling coming back from that area off in the distance a bit later, but have no idea what happened. Were people deciding to continue and just trying to scare off the bears? I hope that was it instead of a bear attack, but the time to do that is before you see them).

Jillian and I had talked the night before about bears and adrenaline and how it’ll let you get your ass down the mountain to civilization if you’ve been partially eaten. We didn’t get partially eaten, but we did get our asses down the mountain, passing everyone else who’d been behind us, even despite the fact that we hadn’t eaten anything on the trail since we’d planned to stop at the glacier and have a snack there.

The last photo I took of Grinnell Glacier before we turned around

We did the 3.5 miles back to Swiftcurrent Lake in about an hour. When you’re a fast hiker, you get even faster in that situation, and while I think trail running in general is ridiculous and only for crazy people who hate themselves, sometimes you end up doing it for a bit. Adrenaline is one hell of a drug.

It’s hard to get a sense of the sheer size, but the waterfall there was a pretty impressive one you had to walk through as it went over the trail (also notice everyone is heading back DOWN, not up!)

Bye, Grinnell Glacier 🙁
Almost back and to safety!

Soooo, that was our glacier hike. We turned on the most hardcore thing we had available once we got to the car, which turned out to be AC/DC, because holy shit, we just survived bears! In the plural!

Look, okay, in hindsight maybe it would’ve been fine. Maybe the bears would’ve passed us by, intimidated by the number of people, and we could’ve continued on our merry way to the glacier. But that’s a maybe and I honestly didn’t want to stick around to find out what would’ve happened. Because they were only very slightly above the trail—they were close.

I’m still a bit mad that we didn’t get to finish the hike and go to the glacier. For one, I tortured myself afterwards by looking up pictures people had posted on Instagram of the glacier, and wow is it gorgeous. There’s also the sobering fact that they’re estimating all of the glaciers in the park will disappear between 2020-2030 (tell me again how climate change isn’t real 🤷‍♀️) so if I do ever find myself in the park again (and I would love to!), there’s a very slim chance I’ll see any. I specifically wanted to do this hike because it’s a glacier hike (also a lot of people said it was a good hike and they’re right). But I suppose not getting eaten (or partially eaten) by bears is a nobler cause. Damn you for being in your natural habitat, bears!

They’re not bears, but this run-in did cause a mini traffic jam on the way out of Many Glacier!

The day’s not done yet

After our eventful hike, we began the long drive back through the park. I’d seen a little cloud of what looked like smoke on our way in that morning by Lake McDonald and wondered if it was a fire. I got my answer on our drive back as we drove through clouds of smoke.

Driving through a previously-burned section of forest towards a new fire and the clouds of smoke is some apocalyptic shit

We were at a standstill before Logan Pass for a while, and I wondered if they’d closed the western half of the park for fires and were making us all turn around. They weren’t (thank goodness. It would’ve been a long drive to turn around and swing around the park to the south to get back to our hotel. Food couldn’t wait that long!), so we got to continue on the Sun Road back towards Lake McDonald.

Which means we got to see the fire, which had spread down the ridge to the lake. I managed to snap a blurry photo from the window—that’s the closest I’ve ever been to a wildfire and it was horrifying.

No longer a tiny little cloud of smoke

After gorging ourselves on burgers and all the fries at Five Guys, we returned to the hotel to pack up, so I looked up the news for the area. A dry lightning storm sparked three fires Saturday night. They were still small Sunday morning, like the one we saw, but it was windy all day Sunday and they got out of control quickly. I’m very surprised we didn’t get smoke during our hike to block out the views.

Monday

My flight wasn’t until the afternoon and it was a two hour drive back to Missoula, so we didn’t have to get up terribly early. Breakfast the next morning was packed with all the people who were going to go to the park but couldn’t, so I got all the gossip from them. We’d been on our way past Lake McDonald around 7 pm, and evacuations started an hour after we left. The Sun Road was closed from Lake McDonald to Logan Pass and still is since the fires have grown. Also turns out the traffic jam at Logan Pass that we’d been stuck in was due to a medical evacuation. So Sunday was an eventful day in the park for everyone.

The drive back to the airport was even more hazy than it had been on Thursday and I had an incredibly hard time not dozing off in the passenger seat during that whole trip. I’m very glad the timing of the trip worked out the way it did, both because I’m glad the fire didn’t affect our time in the park, and because I was so tired that I don’t know what I would’ve done if I’d been leaving on Tuesday instead. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to hike on Monday because my whole body hurt, especially my feet. (A week and a half later and I still have a blister on my heel, although it’s much smaller now and doesn’t hurt when I walk anymore.)

Bucket list trip complete

So we had a couple of close calls on the trip. And I’ve put off writing this post for an entire week because I’m still not fully recovered and am trying to catch up on sleep (and being busy/sleeping horribly since then has not helped at all). But despite the tiredness and near misses, this was an absolutely fantastic trip and I’ll be scheming about how soon I can make it back (so many national parks, so little time!).

And many, many thanks to my friend both for the idea and for making it happen.


I’m off to CampFI Midwest tomorrow, so definitely no post next Tuesday. Depending on how I feel (did I mention I’m tired? Camp hasn’t even started yet), Thursday isn’t terribly likely either. So I hope this was enough words and pictures to get you through the last week and a half of no posts and next week’s reduced schedule, too!

20 Replies to “Glacier National Park: close encounters of the bear and fire kind”

  1. Your trip sounds and looks amazing! In all the hiking we’ve done since moving to northwestern Ontario, we haven’t seen a bear yet. But I am so paranoid about running into one it borderline ruins the experience for me lol I’m so jealous you’re going to CampFI Midwest! I didn’t even know about it until last week when I was talking to Cait Flanders. Have an awesome time!

    1. Oh that’s awesome you haven’t seen one yet, but I can definitely relate to the fear of one ruining the experience! I’m sure my next hike out in grizzly territory is going to carry a similar fear haha.

  2. Unbelievably gorgeous views! Glad you didn’t get eaten by a bear, and didn’t catch on fire!
    And can I just say I’m jealous of both you and Jillian for getting to meet each other? Seriously two of my favorite people in this space!!! Hooray for carbs, cheese and Five Guys fries 😁
    Have an absolute blast at CampFI Midwest and see you soon in Orlando!!!

  3. Wow this sounds like an amazing trip! Glacier is 100% on my list of must see places.. and hopefully sooner rather than later! It’s really unfortunate and just makes me sad hearing about the fires.. so much beauty is being destroyed 😕

    1. Yeah, I totally understand that fires are a necessary thing for the ecosystem to stay in balance, but wow I hate what they do. And how droughts make them so much worse!

  4. So what you’re saying is we need to plan a trip to go to Glacier together so you (and I) can see that glacier. Those photos are STUNNING and I’m trying to figure out why I’ve never been because it’s not THAT far to Montana from Washington. Approximately a nine hour drive. Not that I’ve checked.

  5. My wife and I spent a week there a couple of years ago. Did all the long day hikes we could including the glacier hike. We are runners so we stuck with mostly 10 mile and longer hikes because those scare off most tourists because they are difficult. We had a grizzly get so close a ranger drew his side arm and fired into the air to scare it. Never had to use the bear spray fortunately. Didn’t work, the grizzly just looked at him and ignored us. It is a beautiful place, glad you got to see it!

    1. Oh wow that’s terrifying but glad everything turned out okay! That’s a fantastic strategy for choosing hikes because even if the longer ones are busy (and Grinnell definitely was), people are more spread out so you don’t have to constantly hear or pass a bunch of people.

  6. Wow! What a terrific trip synopsis! Glacier is one of my favorite places and I’m so glad you loved it, too. 🙂

    That fire, though? OMG. Terrifying. So am I understanding correctly that it came all the way down to Lake Macdonald?

  7. Wow, those pictures are stunning! Bears = scary. Wildfires = terrifying.

    You totally pushed yourself with those killer hikes. I’m so impressed.

    How lovely you got to share an ice cream with Jillian. Fifty scoops with people this summer is an honorable goal.

    I’ll end with my favorite line here, “…because cheese and carbs are all I could ever want in life 🤷‍♀️”

  8. WOW you are such a badass! I wish we could’ve hiked in my glory days of Colorado 14ers. I’m a wimpy office desk jockey now haha those photos are beautiful, I’m sad for you that you missed the glacier but verrrrrrry glad you were not bear food! Count me in next time?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *