Glacier National Park & other Montana adventures (June 20 – 29, 2017)

We left West Yellowstone on June 20th and drove 195 miles to Garrison, MT where we spent two nights at Riverfront RV Park. The campground was very nice. We had a long pull-through site with plenty of room for our rig and both vehicles, as well as large grassy areas between us and our neighbors. The scenery was also very nice, with lots of green hills and snow-capped mountains surrounding the campground.

Since there was nothing to do in Garrison, we spent most of June 21st in Deer Lodge, MT which was about 10 miles away. We spent our day at the Old Prison Museums, which are actually several historical collections on both sides of Main Street. Our exploration began with a self-guided tour of the Old Montana Prison. The prison was established in Deer Lodge in 1871 to deal with the bands of outlaws and vigilantes who roamed the Montana Territory. Constructed primarily with convict labor, Old Montana Prison was an active prison until 1979 when it was moved to a site four miles west of town.

The self-guided tour consisted of 29 stops throughout the prison. We got to walk through the cell blocks and enter many of the cells, including the “hole” where prisoners were kept for up to 10 days with no light in the cell except for through the peephole. We also got to walk through the tunnel and look in through the gun ports where guards were posted to oversee the inmates during meals and in the theater.  We learned about the riots in 1908 and 1959 in which the Deputy Wardens were murdered. The two convicts involved in the 1908 murder were hung in the prison yard. Due to the deaths, the prison is widely believed to be haunted. In fact, there are Ghost Tours and Paranormal Tours available that enable visitors to spend a night in the prison. The prison looked as though it had been largely abandoned since it was shut down, which added to the spooky nature of the facility.

Jan in a cell
Phil behind bars

After the prison tour, we walked through the Montana Auto Museum. This museum had about 200 beautifully restored classic automobiles from the 1900s through the 1970s.

After taking a lunch break, we walked across the street and strolled through several of the other museums. At the Cottonwood City restoration, we spent time visiting with the blacksmith as he worked. We also toured the Powell County Museum and the Frontier Montana museum. After being on our feet for several hours, we skipped the last few museums.

On June 22nd we drove 187 miles to the Columbia Falls RV Park in Columbia Falls, MT, which is only about 14 miles from the west entrance to Glacier National Park.

On June 23th we visited Glacier National Park. Throughout the park we saw a strange plant that we discovered was bear grass. We later learned that this plant had been misnamed by the Lewis & Clark Expedition who mistakenly believed bears fed on these plants. In reality, although bears don’t eat them, deer love bear grass and will eat the entire flower in one gulp. This year’s growth of bear grass is the biggest in 20-30 years.

After visiting the visitor center, we did our first hike, the Johns Lake Trail. It was supposed to be a 2 mile loop. However, to achieve a total of 2 miles required hiking parts of three different trails.  The trails markers were rather confusing and we had not brought a trail map. We got somewhat lost a couple of times and had to backtrack. As a result, we hiked more than 2 miles. Regardless, we got to see the colorful McDonald Creek and Falls.

On June 24th we took an all-day tour of the park in vintage tour buses. These 14-passenger buses had been built for the park by the White Motor Company in 1936. The bus had a fold-up canvas roof that was open for most of the drive, allowing for great views of the scenery.

Red tour bus, built in 1936

The tour was supposed to drive from West Glacier to East Glacier via the Going-to-the-Sun Road that climbs over the mountains. Unfortunately, we learned on our first day that the Going-to-the-Sun Road was not yet open for the season. Although the snow had been cleared from the highway, avalanches had wiped out some of the guardrails and these needed to be repaired before the road would be reopened. Since they could not predict when the road would reopen (it is sometimes closed until mid-July), we decided to go ahead and take the tour which was rerouted along the southern perimeter of the park.

We ate lunch at the East Glacier Park Lodge, which was constructed in 1913. The lodge was built around a three-story lobby with 40-foot columns constructed from 500-800 year-old trees that were brought in by rail from the Pacific Northwest. 60 such trees were used, with Douglas-fir in the lobby and cedars for the exterior.

Despite our disappointment with missing the Going-to-the-Sun Road, we did see some beautiful sites that would not have been included on the original tour. After lunch, we visited Running Eagle Falls. These are also known as Trick Falls since there are actually two waterfalls. In the early summer, when the snow is melting, both waterfalls are active. However, when the water level drops later in the year, only the lower falls are active. We also spent time at Upper Two Medicine Lake before returning to West Glacier.

On June 26th we headed out early to hike to Avalanche Lake. The first and last half-mile of hike was on the Trail of the Cedars. This loop trail travels along a boardwalk through a forest of ancient western hemlocks and red cedars, some more than 500 years old. The humidity in the Lake McDonald Valley allows cedars to grow to heights of 100 feet and diameters of 4 to 7 feet.

Phil on Trail of the Cedars

The next half-mile took us along the banks of the Avalanche Creek where we could see the power of the melting snow as it rushed through the narrow gorge. The trail took us past hundreds of downed trees, the result of avalanches that thunder down the slopes of Mt. Cannon.

After hiking 2.3 miles (mostly uphill with a 600 foot elevation rise), we reached Avalanche Lake where we relaxed on the beach. The lake sits at the base of 8,694-foot Bearhat Mountain and 7,886-foot Little Matterhorn. There were several waterfalls plunging hundreds of feet to the lake. We then continued on the trail for another half-mile to the head of the lake. Our return hike covered the same path but, fortunately, was mostly downhill and much easier.

On June 27th we hiked two trails with a combined distance of three miles. The first trail was the 1.1 mile Forest and Fire Nature Trail. We reached the trailhead by taking the Outer North Fork Road. The last ten miles of this road were gravel and very rough. The Forest and Fire Nature Trail highlighted the regrowth of the forest following forest fires in 1967 and 2001. There were thousands of pine saplings of about seven feet in height and fields of yellow clover. This trail is rather isolated and, as a result, was rather overgrown. The trail passes through a thimbleberry patch so there was an increased chance of a grizzly bear encounter but, fortunately, we didn’t have one.

After the first hike we stopped for lunch at the picnic area near Fish Creek Campground, on the shore of Lake McDonald.

After lunch we hiked the 1.9 mile Rocky Point Nature Trail. The trail begins near the Fish Creek Campground and climbs steadily above the shore of Lake McDonald. There were several stops along the trail that provided outstanding views of the lake.

Jan on Rocky Point Nature Trail
Phil on Rocky Point Nature Trail
Western Tanager spotted on trail

On June 28th, our final day at Glacier National Park, we were happy to learn that the Going-to-the-Sun road was finally open for the season. The Going-to-the-Sun road is widely believed to be one of the most scenic drives in America and our experience found this to be true. We made the 50-mile drive from West Glacier to St. Mary on the east side of the park and then returned late in the afternoon. We had read that the drive was a white knuckle experience but didn’t find it nearly as scary as the drive we’d made up Pike’s Peak years ago. We stopped at numerous scenic overlooks along the way and took lots of pictures. Unfortunately the pictures couldn’t possibly fully capture the beauty of the panoramic vistas.

We stopped for lunch at Logan Pass which sits on the Continental Divide at 6,646 feet. We had hoped to hike the Hidden Lake trail there but found that it was still snow-covered. In fact, there were quite a large number of people skiing the hill.

After lunch we continued down the road and stopped at the St. Mary Falls trailhead. We hiked 3 miles on the trail that took us to both St. Mary Falls and Virginia Falls. Both falls were beautiful and definitely worth the effort. We encountered a deer on the trail and had to wait several minutes for it to move out of our way.


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