Friday, September 25, 2015

Driving and hiking along Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park

This morning we woke up and drove up to Babb, Montana, to try breakfast at Glacier’s Edge Café; it was a good choice (and was closing for the season in just two more days). I had a filling omelette, not so large as the morning before at Johnson’s but tastier, with good hashed-brown potatoes.  On the way up and back, we grabbed some nice photos of the increasingly yellow-filled hillsides across the road in the National Park.

We headed back to the Red Eagle Motel, packed up and checked out, heading into the park with a quick stop at the Visitors Center for a quick consult on the day’s hiking.  Our first choices for walking that morning were to see the Sunrift Gorge and hike to Virginia Falls, but the entire area on both sides of the road had been closed because of a recent forest fire; the area was considered to be substantially unsafe because of the risk that more trees would fall.  So, a quick change of plans – we decided to hike the Gunsight Pass trail to some falls that would come in the first mile or two, then hike to Hidden Lake from Logan Pass.  As we drive along St. Mary Lake, we saw tiny Wild Goat Island in the middle of the water

We passed by the burn area, where we couldn’t even walk the 75 yards to reputedly lovely Sunrift Gorge


and paused by the side of the road where we saw several people looking up onto the hillside below the rockface.  It turned out they were watching a grizzly bear on high

even with my entry-level telephoto lens, I could only capture this fuzzy image

We arrived at the trailhead for Gunsight Pass, where we planned to hike past Reynolds Creek Campground for a look at a waterfall about a mile in.  However, we had barely been walking for ten minutes when we spied a moose just beside the trail.  He showed no interest in moving, and we were nervous about approaching within five feet as we would have had to do to progress on the trail.  So we took some photos (one of these adorns the top of this blog entry) and headed back to our car.

The trailhead was close to the Jackson Glacier overlook, so we gazed at Jackson Glacier far overhead

and drove on

We stopped briefly at Siyeh Bend (the road turns sharply)

and took a short stroll past a rushing stream,

little thinking that we would be back for a longer hike at this location.

Nearby, we could see a waterfall tumbling down toward the road -- quite a common sight on this road, even this late in the season.

The road went through this tunnel, hand-carved into the side of a mountain (there is a second one on the western side of Logan Pass)

and finally we approached our next destination, the Logan Pass Visitors Center, seen here with Going to the Sun Mountain looming in the distance.

This waterfall (Lunch Creek, I believe) could be seen plunging down from Pollock Mountain near the Visitors Center.

Logan Pass marks the approximate midpoint of Going to the Sun Road, and it is here where, when I was planning the trip, I was told that the plan was to close it on September 21 to enable road reconstruction to begin on the east side of the park before snowfall made this impossible.  So much snow falls each winter that each spring, the park staff plow the road enough to facilitate melting so that the road can open in June.

Our main hike for the day was to take us to an overlook of Hidden Lake from the Visitors Center, .  The hike begins with about three quarters of a mile of boardwalk

before turning into a broad, gravel path

We passed beneath Going to the Sun Mountain (here seen from a different side than the photo above along the road),and saw landslides of red and green colored stone

before Hidden Lake finally came into view

As we approached the Hidden Lake Outlook, our destination, it became apparent what a big lake this was, and how dramatic the setting.

The mountain dominating the view above is Bearhat Mountain (we would see it from a different side on a later hike); peeking out in the distance to the left is Gunsight Mountain (note the notch that gives it that name).

In the photo below, Mt. Brown can be seen just to Bearhat’s right, and Mount Stanton further to the right

We continued on about half way toward Hidden Lake itself, a drop of about 1500 feet.  From the vantage point below, we could see a small corner of a lake, which from the map looked as if it must by Avalanche Lake, where we were hoping to get space on a ranger-guided hike on our final day in the park.

But we were not sure we wanted to hike all the way back up from Hidden Lake, so we turned back before heading to the set of switchbacks, visible in the photo above, that led down to the lake.

We noticed interesting patterns in some of the larger green and red rocks along the path, showing shapes that remain frozen in time since the entire area was on the bottom of a large sea.  On our guided hike the last day in the park, the ranger told us that some 95% of the rock in Glacier National Park is sedimentary, having been formed in the pre-Cambrian era when this area was covered by water.

And here is a small rock showing sedimentary layers

On the way back, we paused near this “hidden pond” that is situated at the Continental Divide.  There were two such ponds there; apparently one’s waters flow eastward toward the Atlantic, and the other’s westward toward the Pacific.

As we headed down the boardwalk back to the Visitor’s Center, our eyes were drawn to the Garden Wall, a long arête rising above the Going to the Sun Road. 

Arêtes are fairly thin walls of rock, formed thusly when two glaciers are passing down in close parallel creating two valleys, with the arête in between.

Here is a view of the Garden Wall with Going to the Sun Road at the bottom third of the image.  Just above the road is the Highline Trail, said to have the most continuously sensational views in the park:  some hikers pause every few steps to take another photo.  The approach to the trail, however, is intensely vertiginous, very narrow with a long drop off.  The fact that there are cables sunk into the wall so that hikers can hold onto them as they pass was not enough comfort and we skipped this challenge.

As we drove toward the west side of the park, we passed this “weeping wall” right next to the road which is apparently, earlier the season, a veritable waterfall

Our final major sight on the drive to West Glacier was Birdwoman Falls, plunging nearly 500 feet from Mount Oberlin

across the valley from the road; plunging down on our side of the road, then running beneath it to the hillside beyond, was Haystack Creek

Looking down the valley we could see McDonald Creek wending its way toward Lake McDonald.

Here is a view of the Garden Wall, and the Going to the Sun Road from far below in the valley.

Finally we passed Lake McDonald and reach West Glacier – although the sun was nearly ready to set, we drove a few miles west of town to find our very comfortable accommodations for the next three nights – the Silverwolf Log Chalets.  

Each chalet is a log cabin, nicely decorated throughout, with nighttables, a table for sitting (or writing a blog), a queen bed, and a wooden bar that masks a microwave, coffeemaker  and refrigerator.  Each day, the staff stocks the bar and fridge with a continental breakfast for the next morning, so that guests can eat on their own schedules.  I would say that the continental breakfast was the weakest aspect of our stay there – it would generally include, for each of us, a box of crappy cold cereal, a Costco type muffin (on our final day, there was a croissant), and a humdrum apple such as Delicious or Granny Smith.    There were tea bags, but Lipton!  Silverwolf’s pretensions are high, but its continental breakfast was not befitting an accommodation that bills itself as a bed and breakfast; it was more befitting a Motel 6.

For dinner we headed back into West Glacier to eat in the restaurant of Belton Chalet.  This place has a hotel as well as a restaurant, and I was tempted to reserve there but noted a number of online complaints about how loud the trains are when they go by during the night, stopping at the Belton station (the town’s original name) right across the road from the lodge; the station’s parking area was the overflow when the Belton’s own restaurant parking area, for fewer than ten cars, got full.  The trains were pretty darn loud as they came through during our dinner.

The proprietors indicated, when I spoke to them, that train noise is not a significant issue and hardly anybody complains about the train noise — don’t they read their reviews?  The freight and passenger trains are  a fact of life for anyone sleeping in West Glacier – we could even hear them at Silverwolf, which was not quite so close to the tracks.  Silverwolf provides guests with a noise machine for those who need to obscure the sound of the trains going by.  We did not use that; I found the occasional train noises tolerable, and Nancy, who grew up listening to trains go by in her south-central Michigan hometown, actually found it comforting.
The Belton Restaurant was excellent.  We sat at an outdoor table and watched the sunset as we dined – it got a bit chilly but there were gas-flame warmers to help us accommodate.

There were almost as many "special" entrees whose contents were recited by our waitress as the number of entrees on the menu, but we both ordered from the menu.  I had the “Bacon wrapped bourbon and brown sugar cured Montana natural beef filet” while Nancy had the Montana Meatloaf, made of bison and also wrapped in hickory-smoked bacon.  Nancy steered clear of the bacon, which made a nice addition to our picnic lunches for our remaining two days in the park.  Entrees came with choice of soup or house salad; I couldn't choose and had both, but the extra item did not show up on the bill.  The house salad was a nice collection of interesting greens as well as small sticks of yellow and orange carrots and very sweet grape tomatoes.  The soup was a roasted broccoli and squash soup.  I saved room for dessert and had a delicious raspberry tart.  The one disappointment was that, with their season ending in a couple of weeks, the Belton was running out of some of their drinks, and my top draft and bottled beer choices were unavailable.  But I was happy to drink Moose Drool.

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