This is the fifth guest post by Adam’s dad as Adam, Anna, Cyndi and I toured the Canadian Rockies and Glacier National Park. There are previous introductory, Jasper National Park, Columbia Icefield & Lake Louise, and Banff and Waterton National Parks posts as well as one final post about our stops at Custer State Park in South Dakota.
Back in the USA
After visiting Banff National Park and Waterton International Peace Park in Canada, it was back across the U.S. border and through customs toward East Glacier, Montana and Glacier National Park. It only took us 5 minutes to get through customs since we were the only car there at the time. This was fantastic since we would be arriving at the campground after dark.
Along the way south, we encountered roaming cattle blocking the road, which seemed to look up at us as if to say, “Hey, what are you doing on our road?” as they continued to chew on vegetation.
As the sun set, we came into East Glacier and had this wonderful view of Chief Mountain and another of Two Medicine Lake in the Blackfeet Indian Reservation near Glacier NP.
An Unexpected Change in Plans
The most disappointing part of our trip was the evening stop at Johnson’s of St. Mary’s Campground. We arrived after dark and were assigned a spot that felt like we were in the off-season RV storage area with RVs lined up very close to each other, right alongside the road. Also, the bathrooms were full of dead bugs and you also had to use tokens to use the showers in order to keep showers shorter than 6 minutes. Although we originally planned to make this our home-base for the next few days while visiting Glacier National, we cancelled after that first night and headed out early the next morning to West Glacier not knowing where we would camp, but knew it would be better than Johnson’s in East Glacier.
We left the campground in East Glacier and drove down to West Glacier. Given we had the camper, we could not take the most direct route, which would be on Going-To-The Sun Road due to the vehicle length restriction of 21 ft. So we head an hour out of our way down Route 2 and stopped in at Glacier Campground (just south past the West Glacier entrance) to see if they could accommodate us. Fortunately, they could and it ended up being a great place to stay.
After setting up camp, we ate lunch at a roadside food wagon called The Wandering Gringo Café just outside the campground. Even though Adam worked at Chipolte, this place lived up to his expectations with their monster-sized burrito.
After lunch, we went to the Glacier Visitor Center—or what we thought was the Glacier Visitor Center just inside the park area off Route 2. It was actually the Alberta Visitor Center (great placement by the Canadian tourism folks). After getting our bearings, we took the obligatory picture at the national park sign and drove to the entrance to buy a 7-day park entrance ($35 USD), then headed to the real Glacier National Visitor Center, which was essentially the hub for all our routes the next few days.
Lake McDonald Lodge
After the Visitor Center, we drove to Lake McDonald Lodge which is nestled on Lake McDonald’s picturesque shore. It’s a historic lodge, built like a Swiss chalet of stone with a wood-frame structure. The lobby has a massive fireplace and numerous stuffed game heads. The rustic lodge was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1987.
According to Wikipedia, Lake McDonald Lodge was initially built in 1895 and was only accessed by a steamboat that ran the 9 miles from the Apgar area to the hotel. The hotel was built during a period when the Great Northern Railway was building other hotels and backcountry chalets in the area as part of a trend by railroads to build destination resorts in areas of exceptional scenic value to attract tourists. The hotel’s name was changed to Lake McDonald Lodge in 1957, but was damaged in a Snyder Creek flash flood in 1964. It was sold in 1981 and extensively renovated in 1988-89 to restore details that had been obscured over time or damaged by the flood.
The Trail of the Cedars
After a short walk around and some pictures both inside & out, we drove part-way up the Going-To-The Sun Road to a hike along The Trail of the Cedars, about 5.5 miles east of the McDonald Lodge. This hike is a 1.0 mile loop hike that is an extremely popular hike so parking can be a problem during the peak season. However, there are about 3 or 4 areas in which to park within a short walk of the trailhead. This hike travels along a raised boardwalk through a forest of ancient western hemlocks and red cedars… very impressive with some cedars to grow to heights over 100 feet with and diameters of 4 to 7 feet.
Some of the trees in this area are more than 500 years old. There are a lot of lush green ferns and mosses growing along the forest floor, which makes for some great pictures with the streams and waterfalls.
At roughly the half-way point, you can divert onto the more strenuous Avalanche Lake Trail, which we opted to do the next day.
Since Adam & Anna were looking for more hiking, Cyndi & I agreed to drop them off at the Logan Pass Visitor Center where they did an 11.9 mile hike while we went back to town for grocery shopping. The plan was to meet 4-5 hours later back at the Apgar area center since they could take the free shuttle bus back after their hike.
The Glacier Distillery
Cyndi & I headed to the town of Columbia Falls, about 25 miles south of West Glacier to restock our coolers with food and ice. On our way back, we made an impromptu stop at the Glacier Distilling Company, a mile or two south of our campground. Glacier Distilling is a craft distillery that specializes in small-batch whiskeys using local grains and pure glacial water from the Northern Rockies. We enjoyed a flight of 4 whiskeys and 4 liquors (don’t worry, it was only .5 ounces per glass) and purchased a bottle of Bad Rock Rye Whiskey.
We ended up waiting an extra hour for Adam & Anna to return to the Apgar Center since the bus they wanted to take back was full, but they did catch the very last one of the day…phew!
Avalanche Lake Trail
The next day, we returned to The Trail of the Cedars for the more strenuous Avalanche Lake Trail. It’s a short, steep climb to the banks of Avalanche Creek, and some amazing glacially melted waterfalls that rushes down the gorge. The trail continues on for another 1.6 miles to Avalanche Lake and some more amazing views. In total, this hike is 4.5 miles with a 730 foot elevation gain to 4,031 ft. Once there, the lake sits at the base of 8694-foot Bearhat Mountain, which rises to dominate the view that includes several long waterfalls cascading down the submersed timbers in the crystal-clear water of the lake; a great picture. After that hike, it was back to the Apgar Center to catch our tour bus for the highlight of the day.
Red Bus Tours
At the Apgar Center, we boarded one of the Red Buses or what is more famously known as a “Jammer”. These vintage 1930’s buses are an ideal way to see Glacier National Park since much of the scenery is vertically-oriented, the roll-back tops are perfect for providing full views of the stunning mountains and area.
Jammers are driven by seasoned park veterans who enjoy sharing the park with visitors. The name “Jammers” carries over from the days when the buses had double-clutch transmissions and drivers could be heard “jamming” the gears as they drove up and down the rugged mountain highway.
Other facts about the iconic Red Buses:
- The Red Buses Model 706 were made by White Motor Company and originally cost $5,000 each back in 1936.
- Of the 33 buses used in Glacier National park today, 17 are from 1936, 11 are from 1937, 4 are from 1938 and 1 is from 1939.
- Ford Motor Company donated over $6 Million to restore 33 buses to keep them in operation.
- 2011 marked the 75th anniversary of the 1936 buses giving tours in Glacier National Park.
- The Model 706 White Buses are the third generation of touring buses in Glacier National Park.
- The Red Buses now run on gasoline and propane, which is 93% cleaner.
- The fleet of 33 buses in Glacier are widely considered to be the oldest touring fleet of vehicles anywhere in the world.
- The Red Buses, on average, transport 60,000 tourist each summer through Glacier N.P.
- Each red bus is estimated to now be worth $250,000.
We suggest picking your day and one of the numerous routes then pre-purchasing your tickets for a Jammer since the one we tried was sold out. We ended up getting the 4-hour trip from Apgar to Logan’s Pass (about 2/3 of the way) rather the 6 hour one that ran all the way back to East Glacier along Going-To-The-Sun Road.
Going-To-The Sun Road
Our stops included Lake McDonald, Trails of the Cedars, some road-side waterfalls, and finally up to The Continental Divide at Logan Pass.
On the way up, you get a great view of Heaven’s Peak, an 8,987 ft. mountain that is still very snow covered into July. At certain points, we could see the shimmering glacier with the sun’s reflection that made the view extra spectacular.
You can also see the regenerating of the forest from the 1936 fire in the McDonald Valley and how the U-shaped valley between the mountains distinguish a glacial movement area from a tectonic plate uprising and water erosion of the Rocky Mountains that is more V-shaped.
You also see West Tunnel, a 192 foot tunnel through the mountain that was built in 1926; Bird Woman Falls (aptly named waterfalls that cascades down 492 feet), the Weeping Wall, many collapsing snow packs (yes, snow even at the end of July), and the spectacular vistas of Mt. Oberlin, Mt.. Canon, and Heaven’s Peak.
We arrived at the Logan’s Pass Center at the Continental Divide with only 15 minutes to spare so there was not much time to explore. When time was up, we drove back down the mountain side to the Visitor Center where we started. We had a great guide/driver so all-in-all, the Red Bus Tour was money well-spent.
After a few days of great hikes and scenic drives in Glacier NP, it was yet another early start the next morning to drive across the “Big Sky Country” of Montana all the way to our final stop, Custer State Park in South Dakota.