Around the fourth of July, Susan and I responded to our RVer friends Ron and Tony that, yes, we would love to go to Glacier National Park with them! I didn’t know where that was, but they mentioned a road called “Going-to-the-Sun,” and, as we had been in the fog since May on the Northern California coast, it sounded like a bright idea. We hadn’t gone anywhere in our Unity all year (it’s complicated) unless service and tire shops count. As a landscape photographer, I thought I should learn more about this Glacier place, like its state. Ahh, Montana! I have two cousins who have vacation homes in nearby Whitefish Lake, not that they’ve ever invited me.
Hitting the Road…Leisurely
With new tires and a new custom mattress, we duplicated our friend’s travel itinerary, leaving on Labor Day for Redding, California, then Bend, Oregon, where we’d meet up, then Kennewick, Washington, for two days, Flat Head Lake, Montana for three days and finally arriving at West Glacier on September 11. I think we were going at Lewis and Clark’s pace, albeit in the wrong direction. Our friends didn’t actually catch up to us until late afternoon on September 9 due to mechanical issues with their diesel pusher. We didn’t bring our Jeep, intending to rent a car close to Glacier National Park. Other than one jaunt on my bike to a city park at Flathead Lake, we hung out at the RV parks.
Let Them Eat Cake!
An important task was the three-mile journey to pick up Susan’s birthday cake our in absentia friends ordered from a bakery in Polson, Montana, breaking camp to go there in the Unity. I had considered picking it up on my bike but thought better of it, even before seeing how huge and heavy it was. It weighed about 14 pounds, had real flowers on top, and required refrigeration. Not that we had room in our fridge. A tip to RVers shopping for a cake on the road–cupcakes!
After our friends finally arrived, we belatedly celebrated Susan’s birthday at Polson’s finest restaurant, Finlay Point Grill, riding in their Jeep. On the way home, we were pulled over by Montana State Police; a newly purchased E-bikes cover obscured the license plate and tail lights. We were driving in stealth mode on a very dark Montana night. Our driver, Tony, was also in personal stealth mode, having left his wallet and badge in their RV! Yes, he’s a deputy sheriff; yes, he was embarrassed.
We eventually reached Glacier National Park at the scenic and spotless West Glacier RV Park, less than a mile from the West Glacier entrance. The park was full of new 40′-45′ $400-$800K diesel pushers. Our site was next to another Unity from Connecticut! Our first foray into the park was to shoot sunset at the beautiful, ten-mile-long McDonald Lake, a few miles from the entrance. Unfortunately, there was repaving from 5:00 pm on, causing traffic stoppages with flagmen on the miles of dirt roads. Getting anywhere in the park is not the work of a moment at almost any time of day.
Most of the season requires a vehicle reservation unless taking a shuttle bus. We arrived on the day that reservations stopped being required, September 10. It’s worth knowing that when visiting the park, especially if hiking any distance, it will be an all-day adventure. There was a long line at the gate until close to midday. For those of us traveling with dogs, they are not allowed on most of the trails. This means leaving pets for extended periods in the RV and requiring power for air conditioning in the summer months.
We only had four days at the park, and my wife ended up staying with our two young dogs most of the time, knowing I would be putting in long days in the Subaru Outback rental car, driving all over to the places I planned on photographing, which was also not conducive to being with the large group we were traveling with. Shoutout to Susan for giving up most of her days of park access to dog sit and to LTV owners Stacee and Jey (who is also a photographer @143.moments on Instagram), for helping me with locations to visit and shoot, as they had just been there.
Am I There Yet?
I headed out in earnest the following day, albeit in the afternoon (it’s complicated), driving to the East Glacier Park entrance because the line to get into the West entrance was still long. This was an hour’s drive, but at least I was moving, unlike the night before. I went to Two Medicine, a lovely lake with a large mountain peak. It had kayak rentals and a boat tour. The park offers many campgrounds, but the length limit for RV’s is 21′, with some narrow mountain passes to navigate. Running Eagle Falls is nearby, with an easy 1/3 mile hike featuring water flowing from a cave.
Drinking in the Views from a Firehose
Next was the St. Mary Gate entrance, sporting a Unity RL at the visitor center. St. Mary is a town at the eastern end of the Going-to-the-Sun Road and a picturesque lake that goes pretty far west into the park.
I continued heading west, the road beautifully paved with many scenic pullouts. I mean lots. It was visual overload! Majestic peaks with glaciers, huge valleys with waterfalls–I must have stopped every 100′ or so, it seemed for photo ops! The road was gaining altitude, and the scenery became more and more dramatic, heading towards the 7,000-foot Logan’s Pass and Continental Divide, where I saw numerous glaciers and large sheep with curly horns. Sadly, they are about 20% the size they once were (the glaciers), when there were 150 glaciers as recently as 1910. Now, only 25 are active, and it is estimated that the glaciers may disappear by 2030, given current climate conditions.
I’ll Be at the Lodge
Having descended back down to flatter areas, I drove to Lake McDonald Lodge for sunset. It reminds me of a Swiss Chalet from a time gone by; even the tour buses are from the 1930’s! Being only a couple of weeks away from the end of the season, when parts of the park are shut down for the winter, I was surprised at how warm the temperatures were in mid-September.
The next morning, very early, Susan joined me for sunrise at Lake McDonald Lodge and a rapid tour of the park via the 48-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road, only West to East this time. While shooting the sunrise, it got foggier and foggier and began to rain. This was really dramatic at elevation, with clouds below the sheer peaks, rainbows, and sun trying to pop out. Driving early in the morning in the opposite direction from the afternoon before made for a different and memorable experience.
Late in the afternoon, I headed to Bowman Lake, off Camas Road and North Fork Road, driving north on the West side. Mainly dirt roads through a tiny town called Polebridge. Getting to this lake felt remote, but then I saw this spectacular lake! Staying in one place with my camera and tripod setup for around three hours, waiting for sunset, and watching the changing light and color of the water was wonderful. I met a landscape photographer from San Diego who declared Glacier National Park his new favorite. Someone yelled, “we have nothing like this in Ohio!” Having been born in Ohio, I’d have to agree.
The Pitfalls of Falls
On the third day, I decided to hike to a couple of waterfalls, Baring and St. Mary Falls. Our friend Ron’s Uncle Mike joined us while in Flathead Lake. He walks three to five miles every morning, and I invited Mike on the six-mile roundtrip hike. Did I mention that he is 80 years young? As it turned out, besides having left my hiking shoes in the Unity and having to carry a 25-pound camera backpack and tripod, it was the hottest part of the day. Even being 20 years younger, I had many things to complain about–the high elevation, my feet, my back, the heat. On the other hand, my hiking buddy was ready to add an hour to the hike to see Virginia Falls, to which I said I’d love to, but the light was all wrong!
On the final day, most of the others in our party, including Alice, the sister of Mike’s wife Lola, an experienced hiker and rugged camper, decided to hike. She recommended that due to Grizzly and Black Bears getting close to hibernation and, therefore, hungry and in a bad mood, it might be prudent to test and practice using bear spray. Tony is a police instructor on using mace, so he gave the group instructions on bear spray safety, including being mindful of wind direction. Lola shot a can of bear spray in a clearing, at which point the wind shifted, and everyone was hit with the spray. Luckily, no bears happened upon them whilst in their compromised condition!
Meanwhile, I was headed to Many Glacier, which is near the northeast extreme of the park and the Canadian border, a two-hour drive. I got to the very pretty hotel and lake setting, parked in the upper lot, and walked to the back of the car to get my backpack. A man 100′ in front of the car said, “You do know there’s a bear behind you, don’t you?” Of course, I knew there was a bear out back of my Outback! Right after jumping back into the car with windows closed and doors locked, I said that. As it turned out, my encounter with a bear was less dangerous than my group’s encounter with bear spray.
By the Numbers
Having put 750 miles on the rental car in four days and 2400 miles on the Unity in fourteen days, I think we made up for not having made any RV trips the first eight months of the year! We saw a total of 22 Unitys, one Wonder, and one Free Spirit. Glacier National Park should be on everyone’s bucket list. I know I want to go back with my backpack and an Outback!