Day 4: Red Eagle Lake To Gunsight Campground (19.8 miles)
Though our daily mileage had been increasing each day, our pace (and the daylight hours) stayed the same. So this morning we ate breakfast in the dark, attempting to get an extra early start on our first 20-miler. We had 13 miles of flat walking ahead of us followed by a 6-mile climb to where we would stay the night: Gunsight Campground.
The section of the trail between Red Eagle Lake and Victoria Falls (a short day hike from the Going to the Sun Road) was the most primitive and unmanicured that we encountered during the whole trip. Once the trail turned to follow the southern side of Saint Mary’s Lake, we found ourselves eyeball deep in thimbleberry bushes–for miles. But not being able to see the trail in front of or at our feet, invited some fabulous singing, clapping, and overtly audible conversations as we kept our presence known to any hungry bears that might be enjoying the thimbleberries as much as we were.
Crossing the line back into “tourist country” was strikingly obvious. Suddenly, the brush cleared, the trail widened, and we could hear the piercing noise of wailing children. We had reached the road (or at least were a mile from it). Surprisingly too, after all our morning solitude in the backcountry, it wasn’t until we popped out into the front country that we–and a hundred others–encountered another black bear. But with us being highly tourist-adverse, we hurried through this popular day hike spot to get farther away from the road.
The hike up to Gunsight was as pleasant as it was diverse, and the destination itself, despite our paining and exhausted bodies, was well worth it. The campground sits by a lake (as do most campsites in this park), at the base of several magnificent mountains, which once boasted grant glaciers. Now, most glaciers in Glacier National Park have been reclassified as snowpacks. In the place of grand sheets of ice, the mountains in Glacier are wet with tears, streams from melting snow flow down the face of each cliff and hillside.
Again, we enjoyed our meal on the waterfront, counted the falls, popped some sweet blisters, and were in bed by sundown.
Day 5: Gunsight to Many Glacier (21 f@#king miles)
If we had to do it again, we would have stayed a second night at Gunsight to take advantage of the plethora of day hikes that extend out from the campground. Alas, the Park keeps backpackers on a tight schedule and we had a date with a cold beer and a hot shower at Many Glacier to get to.
A large bull moose greeted us for breakfast as we clumsily made coffee in the dark before retracing our steps back to the Going to the Sun Road. Our decided route was to trek to the small settlement of Many Glacier via Siyeh Pass. The trail cuts directly across the road (which we figured out the hard way because from that direction we actually had to get on the Piegan Pass trail) and is a very steep climb out of the woods. We were met by several groups of tourists along this section as well, but were still able to find a sheltered place out of the whipping wind to have lunch on the pass.
The wind at the pass was strong enough to knock me off my feet–which is not a comforting feeling when you’re already off balance by having a 40-pound growth on your back. So whether by force or fear I booked it down off that pass as fast (though not as gracefully) as a mountain goat.
Eventually I found safety from the wind in the trees, and our pace slowed to normal (for us), which means: step, step, take photo, pick huckleberries, and repeat. Until we once again found ourselves amidst a pack of tourists, and finally, only a couple miles from the end.
Day 6: The Loop to Granite Park Chalet and Campground (4 miles)
Many Glacier was our half way point. We figured after 5 days we’d be ready for a real shower, clean clothes, and a fresh stock of food supplies. Unfortunately, Many Glacier doesn’t have much in the way of food provisions for backpackers (unless you’re okay with eating nothing but freeze-dried meals and chocolate). Lucky for us, our friend lives in Many and was very, very gracious. Not only did he give us his bed for the night, provide us with a place to take a hot shower and do laundry, and let us raid his kitchen, he also welcomed us off the trail with a bottle of red wine–which we devoured instantly.
We lived large that night: dined at the fancy restaurant, toured the Inn’s photo exhibit of glacial retreat in the Park, sat around in a warm, fully enclosed structure and drank delicious dark beer until we couldn’t. Needless to say, the next morning was a little slower than usual.
We said thank you and farewell to our friend after a hearty breakfast at the Motor Inn, where a man had a giant telescope pointed at a family of Grizzlies on a mountain-side a few miles away. Given that it was midday and raining by the time we were re-packed and ready to go, we got dropped off at a place on the Going to the Sun Road called “the loop” which saved us 3 miles of wet walking.
From the Loop, it was a short and easy hike up to Granite Park Campground. We pitched our tent and then scurried one more mile up to the Chalet, where many people choose to splurge for a night and pay to stay in the stone guest buildings. But even as lowly campers, we were welcomed in for free tea and cocoa, and allowed to play cribbage by the fire until it was dark.