Trail Report: Glacier National Park
Backpacking in the continent's crown jewel
The imprints of Glacier National Park’s eponymous treasures define every captivating view in the park: towering arêtes cast shadows over cirques and U-shaped valleys, opalescent lakes extend like fingers between summit and valley floor, and glacial melt cascades from hidden valleys over rock banded with shades of yellow, purple, red, gray and green.
In early August, I took a backpacking trip in Glacier to see the crown jewel of the continent with my own eyes. I was not disappointed.
The glaciers of the last ice age were among the world’s greatest sculptors, chiseling perfection into Glacier’s sediment like Michelangelo did with marble. The scenery they created is as priceless as any antiquity in any of the world’s museums. But sadly, the park’s remaining glaciers, built up by the 19th century’s little ice age, are the last icy remnants of these architects of magnificence. And they are disappearing fast. Soon, perhaps within a decade, a carved masterwork will be the only evidence that they ever existed.
Grinnell Point, one of the Many Glacier area’s most famous features. Mt. Gould is on the left and Swiftcurrent Mountain/Glacier are on the right. Photo: Sam Edmondson
Though Glacier National Park is celebrating its centennial this year, anecdotal evidence suggests that this summer’s record number of visitors were drawn not by the anniversary, but by the vanishing act underway. As we rode the park shuttle from St. Mary to Logan Pass, an off-duty park ranger from the Many Glacier area said that most visitors she spoke with pointed to the receding glaciers as the impetus for their visit.
The ranger credited newspaper articles from earlier this year, like this one from USA Today, which heralded the permanent changes underway in Glacier as portents for a planet facing uncontrolled climate change. It’s probably too late to save the glaciers, of which only 25 remain, but we stand to lose a whole lot more if rapid, coordinated action isn’t taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants, automobiles, deforestation and other sources.
Ultimately, I was drawn to Glacier because of Earthjustice’s work in the region. In 2008, Earthjustice and EcoJustice, our Canadian counterpart, petitioned the United Nations to investigate proposed mining activities in the Flathead River Valley.
The Flathead River runs along the entire western border of Glacier. It greeted us when we woke from a night of intermittent sleep on the Empire Builder Amtrak train from Seattle to West Glacier. As the train snaked its way along the river’s banks, the morning sun penetrated the blue water, and from our seats in the observation car we could literally see fish jumping. It was quite an introduction to Montana’s beauty.
Earlier this year, the governments of British Columbia and Montana signed an agreement to ban all mining and energy development on public lands in major portions of the Flathead River valley, protecting the region’s rich diversity of wildlife, water quality, and the ecological health of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso aptly noted that "a treasure more precious than coal or gold" has been saved.
One could spend a lifetime exploring these treasures by hiking the 700 miles of trail that crisscross Glacier’s one million acres. The first leg of our journey took us along the Garden Wall, on the western slopes of the Continental Divide. The hike starts from Logan Pass, the high point on the famous Going to the Sun road, the only road that traverses the park’s interior. Going to the Sun road is an absolute feat of construction.
The Garden Wall is a classic arête. The Highline Trail to Granite Park is visible in the lower left. Photo: Sam Edmondson
We hiked in dense fog and light rain the whole way to Granite Park, where we camped that night. The entire area is prime habitat for grizzly bears, and it seems like every hiker we met along the way had several sighting stories. A couple who stayed at the Granite Park chalet, a Swiss-style backcountry accommodation that overlooks the meadow where we camped, regaled us with stories of three grizzly mamas (not the Palin variety) they spied with binoculars nearby. The night before we arrived, rangers reported seeing six grizzlies. We returned with rumors only (and memories of fresh scat). Oh yeah, and pictures of the awesome views.
Heaven’s Peak, part of the Livingston Range, from the Granite Park campsite. Photo: Sam Edmondson
Salt-hungry mule deer visited our camp throughout the evening. Photo: Sam Edmondson
After what was, ironically, one of the best nights of backcountry sleep I’ve ever had, we climbed Swiftcurrent Pass and descended steep switchbacks into the Swiftcurrent Valley, a beautiful example of the U-shape that had me stopping every minute or so to admire its curves.
Admiring the Swiftcurrent Valley and its many lakes. Photo: Sam Edmondson
The ridgeline south of Swiftcurrent Pass, which is part of the Continental Divide. A portion of Swiftcurrent Glacier is visible on the left. Photo: Sam Edmondson
Ultimately, on a trip of nonstop jaw-drop, Cracker Lake was the most stunning.
Siyeh Glacier, visible on the left, rests on cliff walls that ascend nearly 4000 feet in some spots above Cracker Lake’s shores. Photo: Sam Edmondson
The lake’s opaque turquoise color comes from suspended glacial silt, which flows into the basin in streams running down from Siyeh Glacier. Photo: Sam Edmondson
We shared the lake with a bull moose and a mountain goat, which ended up sleeping outside our tent for part of the night. At 2 a.m., we were jolted awake by a severe thunderstorm that battered our tent and even uprooted part of the rainfly. As we tucked ourselves into lightning position, I took comfort in the fact that the metal pole for hanging food was twenty feet tall and 300 feet uphill from where we slept. I’d rather be hungry than struck by lightning.
Our companion at Cracker Lake. Photo: Sam Edmondson
Our time in Glacier was too short, but the memories have hardly faded. Already, I am planning a return trip for next summer to delve deeper into the park’s wilderness.
Avalanche Lake is an easy hike from Going to the Sun road. The cliffs at the end of the lake obscure Sperry Glacier and the Gunsight Pass area, which is high on the list of backcountry adventures for the future. Photo: Sam Edmondson
Glacier is a product of cataclysmic change, but the sediment deposits, continental thrusts and glacial carving that created its majesty began more than a billion years ago and unfolded slowly over time. Today’s changes can be measured in spans shorter than a human lifetime. Global warming is ravaging the planet and irrevocably changing Glacier and other special places before our very eyes. The coming years are a critical time, and the decisions we make as individuals, as nations, and as a planet will determine how our world looks in a generation.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for example, is working on Clean Air Act rules that could dramatically reduce global warming pollution from coal plants, which are altering our atmosphere and environment on a scale comparable to the way glaciers changed Montana’s landscape. Strong rules from the EPA are among the best tools we have to reduce global warming impacts and build a clean energy future. Earthjustice will be working hard to secure strong rules as part of our efforts to protect people’s health and the stunning natural heritage found in Glacier National Park and beyond.
Sam Edmondson was a campaign manager on air toxics issues from 2010 until 2012. He helped organize the first 50 States United for Healthy Air event. His desire to work at an environmental organization came from the belief that if we don't do something to change our unsustainable ways, we are in big trouble.