The average tourist spends 2.5 hours in Glacier National Park, which is about what it takes to drive the Going to the Sun Road. But you can’t even scratch the surface of Glacier’s 1 million acres of preserved wilderness in 2.5 hours. To experience more of what this park has to offer, we decided to take our time and walk its entire length–over 100 miles in 10 days.
Planning for this trek started in February, as the online booking system for backcountry camping permits was scheduled to open at 7am on March 15th. We knew it would be competitive to get our desired route along the popular Continental Divide Trail, so we had our itineraries and credit cards ready right as the site was set to open. In 20 minutes we had logged in, completed our forms, and clicked submit only to be the 105th party on their list.
A month later we learned that we didn’t get our permits. All of our desired campsites were booked. Luckily, half of all campsites in the park are reserved for walk-in bookings, and we happen to have a grizzly-bear-fanatic-park-ranger-friend on-site who was able to secure us a route from Two Medicine campground, at the southern boundary of the park, all the way to Waterton Park Townsite in Canada. With a 2-night detour to Boulder Pass worked in as well, over 126 miles of untramped trail lay ahead. When September came, we hopped on the train from Seattle to East Glacier and started our trek.
Day 1: Two Medicine Campground to Upper Two Medicine (4.8 miles + a 9-mile return side trip to Rockwall Falls)
Short days are nice when your packs are at their heaviest and your legs are at their weakest. The walk to Upper Two Medicine was short; a good ease into the 10 days before us. We hadn’t gone more than 100 yards from the trailhead when K stopped dead in his tracks and yelled “shit!”. He was right. There, in the middle of the trail, was the biggest pile of berry-filled bear shit either of us had ever seen. No doubt, we were stepping into grizzly country.
After setting up our tent and dropping our packs at Upper Two Medicine a little before noon, we ventured back toward Two Medicine Lake to follow a trail to Rockwall Falls–a very worthwhile side trip that rewarded us with tiers and tiers of waterfalls to climb, pools to bathe in, and sun-soaked rocks on which to rest. And sure enough, our week of wildlife encounters started on day-one with two young bighorn sheep and a female moose meeting us on the trail as we tramped back to our tent.
Day 2: Upper Two Medicine to Morning Star Campground (11.6 miles)
We rose with the sun on our second day, eager for our first real climb with our packs. It’s worth mentioning that a smart pack weight is no more than 30% of your body weight. I’m 125 lbs. My backpack weighed 45 lbs. You do the math.
Another exclamation came from K as we climbed up to Dawson Pass: “f@#k balls!” (Which I later learned meant “my butt feels like it’s on fire”). And he was right again, this was hard. Every muscle in my legs, butt, shoulders, and back was screaming. We had only gone a few miles, but that first ascent felt like forever.
Looking back, I’d say this stretch of trail possessed some of the most impressive views of the whole trip. For miles we traversed a seemingly treacherous scree slope until at last reaching a junction that led us down passed some marvelous blue-green lakes and eventually to our final destination.
I remember how much the soles of my feet ached by the time we rolled into camp, and how the icy water (and sips of bourbon) had numbed all soreness.
Day 3: Morning Star to Red Eagle Lake Foot Campground (15.3 miles)
We set off early to reach the start of our day’s ascent before the sun did. The sky was a brilliant blue and the rain from the night before was still clinging to the grassy fields. Within minutes of walking through the need-deep grass our feet were soaked. No one had blisters at this point, but we knew well enough that trekking with wet feet and soggy socks was a recipe for disaster.
After taking an unanticipated stop at Atlantic Falls to put on dry socks, our trail began slopping upward and we began climbing toward Triple Divide Pass–the confluence of North America’s three watersheds. The climb took us hours. We stopped often to forage on berries, take photos, and reapply sunscreen (but really to give our burning muscles a reprieve). The exposed slope was adorn by rocks of every color and plants in various states of bloom. As we trudged, the view to our left got better and better, as the valley below was further exposed with every step.
At long last, we reached the place in our country where water runs in every direction. Atop the Triple Divide Pass, we dried our damp tent and aired out our pruned toes while listening to other trampers tell stories of grizzly sightings. We still had only scat to report.
The trail continued north, dropping us back down to the valley floor. For the next 8 miles to camp, we hiked by steep cliffs shiny with snow melt, mossy mountain springs, thick forest brush, and mile-high waterfalls. I learned this day that, under the weight of my pack, my feet can carry me about 10 miles before the pain kicks in. So after 15 miles, I was more than relieved to arrive at Red Eagle Lake and take another refreshing dip.
I also appreciated how tightly the Parks Service regulates backpackers this day. Though the campsite was full, and the sites were all exposed to each other due to the recent forest fires that have cleared away much of the trees and undercover in this area, we were easily able to find peace and isolation from our fellow trampers. That night, from our secluded spot on the lakes rocky shore, we had our first bear sighting. Like the most fascinating reality show, we watched this lone black bear wander around his waterfront property as we dined from across the lake.