Passing through the western entry, a massive lake came into view on our left. Jagged mountains reached for the heavens to our right.
Whenever the mountainscape comes into view, stress just ebbs away as if the valleys have wrapped around me in a warm embrace.
Our tires coasted along the famed 59-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road, as we weaved along the s-curves. This rather impressive stretch of engineering carries thousands of tourists high into the mountains to view the wondrous landscapes carved millions of years ago by glacial giants.
The road is only completely open for a few months out of the year; it is fortuitous that our travels took us here in August, when the roads were open and several of the trails had finally melted enough to be opened for hiking.
We pulled off at a place called red rocks. Much of the rocks in Glacier National Park are a rusted color. I spent a good percentage of our 33-miles of hikes wondering why. Back in the land of internets, NASA informs me that it is because of iron oxide in the rocks.
I laced up my boots, grabbed my camera bag and slid in a canister of bear mace.
As we stepped into the forests, I took a long, deep breath and was consumed by the smells of Christmas time – fir trees rose up all around us. I hope that for the years to come, that seasonal scent transports me back to this place.
The little trail brought us to a bright blue waterfall. This iconic color of the glacial lakes is caused by glacial flour, a finely ground sediment that is left behind as the glaciers scrape across the rocks. The flour is carried via the waterfalls and rivers to the lakes, where it is suspended in the water and then absorbed and scattered by sunlight, reflecting a beautiful turquoise.
The palette of the glacial lakes was striking – rusty red rocks set against turquoise lakes with dark green pines and purple lilies on the mountain side.
In the U.S. side of Glacier National Park, we explored three popular hiking trails: the six-mile Hidden Lake, the twelve-mile (plus some for exploring at the top) Grinnell Glacier, and the twelve-mile Highline Trail that traverses Garden Wall rounds the chalet and drops down to The Loop.
This might as well have been called Mountain Goat Mecca. We started the trail with a million people—there is a short-trek version of this hike and it draws quite a crowd—and one big-horned sheep, which will from now on be referred to as a mythical creature, because it looks totally unreal.
The first half of the trail is a set of boardwalk stairs lined on either side by wildflowers and surrounded by mountain peaks. If you find yourself along this stretch of trail, take a moment to pause and slowly turn around to take in the 360-view.
Mountain goats scampered right up along the trail, occasionally turning to face off with one another or lazing around in patches of snow trying to cool off in the 80-degree heat.
We slipped past the main overlook and continued down the trail to Hidden Lake. The crowds quickly thinned as we switchbacked down the mountain side.
Fly fishermen and one boater who had lugged his boat down the trail were already enjoying the lake.
We found a nook, unlaced our boots, and dipped our toes into the crisp waters. There’s nothing quite as a refreshing as a midhike foot soak.
When we were rested and ready, we made the return trek.
Pro tip in grizzly country: Check in with the ranger station before you start your day. You might find out that a trail is closed for bear activity and you need to reroute.
We began our trek on the south shore of Lake Josephine as the north shore was closed for said bear activity. There is a little boat that you can take across to knock off a total of four miles on this trip, so Josh and I found ourselves alone on the early morning stretch through shoulder-high berry fields.
Cue bad singing and a lot of “Hey Bears!”
Once we crossed the lake, though, we encountered a few more hikers and felt a little less like bear bait. There’s only 1600 feet of elevation gain across the four-mile ascent along the lake. It is a gradual up for most of it, except right after you cross the lake there’s a quick gain and then the last push up to Grinnell Glacier.
The trail is unmatched in my hiking ledger, and I’ve been to some pretty amazing places. Almost always in view of at least one waterfall or turquoise lake, you are surrounded by wildflowers and hiking across the famed red rocks.
There are even points where you hike directly through waterfalls.
But truly, the star of the show, is Grinnell.
The final climb is a set of steep stairs along a switchback. It’s a last hard push after six miles, but sometimes you just need to earn the view.
We came over the crest to see a 300-acre glacier. Imagine a turquoise lake laden with icebergs fed by a massive waterfall that was coming directly from the melted snow.
We settled along the scraped-rock shoreline, took our boots off and laid back, baking in the sun with the crisp breeze coming off the lake.
When I finally did dip my toes into the icy waters, the hairs on my arm stood on end and a cold shock went up my calf. An iceberg bobbed lazily from the ripples of my dip.
After a long rest, we geared up and followed the shoreline toward the glacier. As we came around the corner, we saw that the lake dipped into a waterfall cascading into another lake and then a stream, leading to a massive waterfall we had seen on our ascent that fed one of the lakes below.
The signs warned of danger for walking on the glacier (crevasses), so we opted to skip that section of the journey and followed the cascade until it led us back to our trail and began the long descent.
Highline to Garden Wall
Gripping the steel-cable wrapped in a garden hose that lined the walkway with the sheer drop off down the mountain, I learned that when I am not tied into the mountain, I might have a minor fear of heights.
I took several deep cleansing breaths and talked to Josh as I edged along the trail.
It is an amazing experience and totally worth it.
After crossing what is known as the Highline, we wound our way around the mountainside through the aptly-named Garden Wall. Wildflowers of all kinds lined the walls of the trail. It was akin to scuba diving along a massive reef wall.
We crossed through pine forests and avalanche chutes, always with stunning views of the mountains and the u-shaped valleys that were carved by the glaciers.
A spur trail led to the Grinnell Glacier overlook, a different view of the same site we’d hiked to the day prior.
And then as we continued on, we came across a backpacker chalet, a massive stonework turn-of-the-century cabin set atop the cliffside with kitchens and beds, offering an amazing launching point to explore other sections of Glacier’s 700 miles of trails. We will need to try a stay here on our next visit.
Just past the chalet, we dipped down the mountainside for the 2,000-foot descent.
After a final crossing beneath a waterfall, we emerged from the trail to catch a shuttle back up the mountain to the BeepJeep to make our way to Watertown Lakes in Canada.