Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Our visit to Glacier National Park – two days on the east side

Nancy and I decided to seize the occasion of my trip to Portland for the annual September gathering of Reed alumni activists, and my aunt Essie’s 90th birthday party in Seattle the following weekend, for a week’s trip to Glacier National Park in Montana.  Nancy flew out to Portland on Sunday, scheduled to arrive early afternoon.  I figured we could make a good start on the very long drive to Glacier; as it was, her plane was late and we stopped for lunch at the Mekong Bistro, where I am always happy to return; it was 4 PM before we finally hit the road toward Montana.

We chugged along on I-84 through the length of the Columbia Gorge and then central Oregon – across the Columbia in Washington the ridges were lined with with mills.

the walls above us on the Oregon side were also striking

We only made it as far as Kennewick, Washington, where checked into a cheap Days Inn and where most of the interesting-sounding eateries were either closed on Sunday altogether, or closed too early for us to eat there.  Considering how out in the middle of nowhere we were, we had a surprisingly decent Indian dinner at the Masala Indian Restaurant, which was walking distance to our motel.

We started driving early the next morning, wanting to get to our motel before dark.  We stopped for lunch along Route 35 between Big Fork and Columbia Falls at Woody’s Country Store, where the meal was fine and the beer selection was excellent – I had a dark beer called Irish Death that I am going to be looking for again (research tracks it down to Iron Horse Brewery in Ellensburg, Washington.

We arrived at West Glacier just before 4 PM – at least, I had assumed it was 4 PM, but when we stopped off at the National Park Visitors’ Center they were just locking the door even though the opening hours were 9 to 5.  Turns out that we had crossed into the Mountain Time Zone without noticing it.  The ranger took pity on us and handed us a set of maps and guides, but even more important he gave us a key piece of information.  When I was planning the trip, I had been told that the Going to the Sun road, which runs through the park from West Glacier to St. Mary, would be closing from Logan Pass to St. Mary on September 21 – our planned day of arrival.  Just to be sure, I asked him whether the road was still open, and mirabile dictu, not only was it open today, but its closing had been postponed until the end of September or later.

This was good news, because instead of taking Highway 2 all the way around the southern end of the Park, we could get to our motel by this most spectacular of scenic drives.  And later in the vacation we could, if we wanted, drive the eastern section of the road to the vistas and trailheads that could be found in this part of the road.

So, we took off along the Going-to-the-Sun road, enjoying the view from our car windows but also pausing every mile or so to get out and look at the vistas.

Finally, we made it to our lodgings, the Red Eagle Motel in St. Mary, Montana.  Of the Red Eagle, not much good to say.  Our lodging selections were limited because many of the facilities on the east side of the park were shutting down by our arrival time, and I procrastinated a bit in finalizing our plans, so by the time I made accommodations selections it had the only reasonably priced room with private baths.  The place was clean, at least, but the walls between rooms were so thin that we could hear neighbors speaking in conversational tones.  The motel supplied soap but not shampoo.  There were nice benches on the porch running in front of the rooms; it was nice to sit there and read, looking up at the mountains.  Wifi is guaranteed only in the motel office (limited opening hours), although from time to time I could pick up enough signal to get online.  It’s an OK place to stay when no other options are available.

At least there were nice views from the parking lot, both of sunset at night and the nearby mountains in the morning.

Dinner was hard to find in St. Mary, because, again, facilities were closing down for the season.  When I was first deciding on our accommodations for the east side of the park, I had asked the proprietor of the Red Eagle about what eateries would be available near the motel so late in the season, and she was vague in answering -- now I understood why.  We had dinner our first night in “World Famous Johnson’s of St. Mary,” which is part of the same complex as the motel.  The place was packed but the menu was modest, especially because, with this being the penultimate night they would be open for the season, they had run out of most of the dishes – our choice were  chicken-fried steak, burger steak and pork chops with an apple cinnamon sauce.  The chops were tough and they came out undercooked.  Nancy found everything too salty to eat.

On the other hand, we tried the same place for breakfast and it was quite passable – I had The Works omelette that was quite large and well done, and Nancy had home-made granola with yogurt. There was a heaping plate of toasted white bread that tasted pretty good.  Johnson’s was going to be closed after this date, so the waitress offered us some advice about where we should consider eating breakfasts and dinners thereafter – basically she pointed us to Babb, about eight miles to the north, identifying several good places.  These turned out to be fine recommendations.

We headed for the St. Mary’s Visitors Center to get hiking advice. Figuring that we would likely be headed back west over Going to the Sun Road the following day, we asked in particular for hiking ideas in the Many Glacier area of the park.  We were both worried about whether my leg, still recovering from a nasty soccer injury a few weeks before.  I had planned to hike to Iceberg Lake, a moderately strenuous jaunt that ends in a lake filled with icebergs and sitting under a 3000 foot sheer rock wall, but the ranger told us that the icebergs were melted for the season and Nancy was unwilling to have me make such a rugged hike on a bad leg.  We resolved that, instead, we would first follow what appeared to be a fairly level hike to Fishercap and Redrock Lakes; I thought we might try a short hike with a significant elevation gain later, to Apikuni Falls.  In the end, we did both.

Our first hike was to Redrock Lake, following a path with gorgeous peaks in front of us

The trail plunged into a pine and aspen forest,

passing this Canada jay by the trailside;

 after about half a mile we saw a spur leading to Fishercap Lake.  We decided to leave that for last, and pushed on toward Redrock Lake – at last, we spied it in the distance, with Swiftcurrent Mountain, Swiftcurrent Glacier, and Mt. Grinnell towering over it

and walked on down to the shore.

At the very end of the lake, we could see (and hear) a waterfall, to which we continued
Here is the view back down Redrock Lake from near the falls

And here are the falls themselves, first from the bottom and then from the top

On the way back, we spotted an unusual plant — out of a patch of thick green grass would rise a narrow pole with seeds on top

We stopped off at Fishercap Lake on the way back to our car.

Rather than stop to eat along this trail, we headed toward the closed-down Many Glacier Hotel, hoping to find somewhere we could eat while I elevated my leg for a while.  Although the hotel was closed,

we were able to sneak a look inside at the grand lobby,

before we were shooed out because it might not be safe for us, in that large plastic bags filled with bedclothes were being tossed down to be carted off for winter storage.  Boards were being nailed over all the windows at the ground level of the buildings. 
There was a stiff wind, but we wedged ourselves on the ledge of a window facing Swiftcurrent Lake and had our picnic lunch with this gorgeous view while I kept my leg elevated.

Then we headed toward Apikumi Falls.  We couldn’t see the falls at all from the trailhead – they turned out to be in the notch between Altyn Peak and Apikuni Mountain shown here. 
Here is a better view of the wall that towered above us as we headed toward the falls

After walking through grasslands with an easy incline, we climbed quickly through a forested area, a sharp climb of 500 feet in less than half a mile of the trail to reach the falls.

It looked to me as if we could have passed by the bottom part of the falls by stepping on rocks along the water on the side closest to us, and then scrambled further to reach the very bottom of the taller falls in back, but with my leg still tender from my injury, wisdom was the better part of valor and I contented myself with the view from where we were.  On the way down, we could see through the between the branches of a tree and the rock wall to Redrock Lake in the distance.

At this point, we headed back to our motel and grabbed some dinner.  Instead of going back to Famous Johnson’s, we drove up to Babb to eat in the Cattle Baron Supper Club.  I had a huge and delicious ribeye steak cooked from local beef – my only criticism is that although I asked to have it medium, and the bill reflected that this was how the order went in, the chef sent it out rare.  Still, the food was good and there was a substantial loaf of brioche quality white bread that was so moist it did not need a spread.  The steak came with a large quantity of sauteed peppers, onions and mushrooms, which was what Nancy had for her main dish along with a shrimp cocktail appetizer.  I was too full to try dessert.

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