Glacier National Park
Distance: 10 miles Time: 3 hours Type: There and back
I was very, very excited about visiting Glacier National Park during our time in Canada and had spent months planning our trip. Google those three words and you are presented with countless images of the most perfect, serene landscapes imaginable: as soon as I first saw Glacier's snowy mountain peaks, pristine alpine lakes, endless forests and boundless skies I knew it was somewhere I had to visit.
Having such high expectations before visiting somewhere is never a good idea, as the potential for dissapointment is great. And the reality of visiting Glacier was certainly different to what I had envisaged: with the hoards of visitors, the stress of trying to secure a camping spot and some poor weather the experience was in fact far from serene. But Glacier still left me with an unforgettable impression: the promise of landscapes so beautiful they defy belief, the lure of a raw and wild frontier and my first encounter with a grizzly bear.
But first, some back story. Crossing the US-Canadian border into Montana, the contrast with Alberta could not have been more striking. The radio stations were suddenly filled with country music and the voices of preachers spreading of the word of God, the homes were adorned with white crosses and stars and stripes and in any direction you could see pickup trucks and cowboy hats. The place exuded a rough and rugged, American charm.
After we stocked up on supplies at a Walmart we were packing our purchases into the car boot in the parking lot when a bearded, slightly gruff man pulled up in the space next to us in his pickup. Figuring we were planning on camping, he told us about his tried and tested method for dealing with bears, placing his gun on the hood of his truck in dramatic fashion. He claimed he sometimes helped out at the sheriff's department, although the way his hands were shaking was a little off-putting.
Things took an even stranger turn when we arrived at our motel in Whitefish. Turning on the television, the very first programme was a news feature on how to survive a bank robbery. Picking up a leaflet about local literature left on the bedside table, the top of the non-fiction list was a book called 'Eyes of a Predator: How to Spot a Pedophile'. It was all a bit odd. But it wasn't all bad - that evening we ate at a fantastic steak house, our first non-camping meal for a week. While waiting for our table we helped a singer carry her amps and kit into the adjoining bar, where we later relaxed to the sound of her folk-country Portishead covers.
Our trip to Montana was already proving memorable and we hadn't even reached Glacier yet.
The next day we headed to the park. Things became stressful almost as soon as we arrived at the entrance point. For starters, it was far busier than I had anticipated. The visitor centre was crammed with people and the atmosphere was anything but calming. A young black bear ran across the road near the centre entrance as we were pulling into the parking lot and a couple of women starting running, and screaming. The problem is that the Going-to-the-Sun Road - the only road through the main section of the park - is only open for a few months of the summer, and being the park's best-known attraction it becomes lined with traffic most days. It was not even possible to find parking at most of the view points or picnic areas and each of the campsites we passed were already full by 10am.
So our first day in Glacier did not go to plan. Realising we needed to up our game, so to speak, we got up very early on the second day to try and secure a spot at Many Glacier campground. The issue is that it is not possible to reserve a place - the park operates a first-come first-served system in all the official sites, which the park workers claimed was more fair. We arrived at the campground at 7am and, splitting up, began waiting next to two pitches whose signposts indicated their occupants would be leaving that day. It was very awkward waiting outside someone's caravan while they slept but that was the only way to get a pitch, and it was a tactic employed by many other people. By the time it transpired the occupants of both pitches were in fact planning on staying longer than indicated, any other free spots were taken and we were without a pitch. We felt dejected but I was determined to make the most out of Many Glacier. With that mentality, we set off on the hike to the Grinnel Glacier overlook.
The hikes to Grinnell Lake and Grinnell Glacier start from a car park near the end of the Many Glacier road, just before the campground. The hike to the lake is shorter and flatter but we opted to head for the glacier viewpoint, which includes fantastic views of the lake itself and the mountains beyond.
It's possible to take a boat from Many Glacier Hotel across a lake, which cuts out the first section of the walk, but that seemed a little like cheating. Soon the trail reaches Lake Josephine, which it runs alongside for around 20 minutes. Toward the western edge of the lake the trail splits: the left path heads onward to Grinnell Lake while the right path starts to climb above the lake and toward the glacier. The views become more and more astounding as you continue the gradual ascent.
When we hiked the trail, however, the path became impassable before reaching the glacier due to a barrier of ice, snow and water blocking the route. There were a number of other hikers around and everyone seemed to be stopping at this point. We crossed a stream to sit on a rock ledge by the ice, and enjoyed some beef jerky while we enjoyed the view. Below us was a broad grassy area, and beyond that thick forest, the Grinnell Lake and a mountainous backdrop.
After a couple of minutes, we spotted a very large bear moving across the grassy area toward us. It was moving very, very quickly and we could tell instantly that this was not like the other bears we had seen in Canada: this was a grizzly. The size and speed of the bear was alarming, and it was clearly heading our way. Realising the danger of our situation, given that we were cut off from the trail by the river, we instantly grabbed our bags and made a retreat to the other side of the water. The other hikers had seen the bear as well, but it disappeared from view once we had crossed the river. It was then that we spotted a solo hiker making his own way across the grassy area, and we realised that the bear had in fact been tracking this hiker. He seemed oblivious, however, to his predicament.
Then there was no sign of the bear for a few minutes - it appeared to have stopped behind some trees - and as it began to rain we decided it was time to head back. We made a hasty departure. I presume the solo hiker made his way back safely!
Despite the setbacks earlier in the day, the hike to Grinnell and our sighting of a grizzly became one of our favourite memories of our entire trip. Glacier was not what I had envisaged, but in the most important ways it did not disappoint.
A map of hikes in the park can be found here: