Hiking the “Crown of the Continent”
I watched the snow precipitations in the Montana Rockies all through winter …. and every call to the park offices brought a ” we have exceptional snowpack this year” to” Its good to see this deep snow”. Late April – the verdict was in – We have 70ft + drifts and do not expect high country passes/trails to be open early July. A June storm added 3-4ft of snow to this and I pretty much reconciled to be hiking the lower elevations and river valleys. Now I was reduced to hoping the “Going-to-the-sun Road” would open up in time — they park said they will most likly see the latest opening of the road — it was July 2nd and the snow ploughs were still chewing through a rather sizable drift at the top of the pass.
I found out we would be hiking in the Belly River area – just inside the US border with Canada. Spoke to guide ( I decided on a guided 4day-backpack since this was bear country and I wanted to learn the ways of bear country travel/camp and wanted to have the luxury of someone else dealing with the details and planning) and got the skinny on the trip — 3 days of moderate hiking , a few streneous day hikes and be prepared for mosquitoes!
Remembering the guides advice – I started packing with a generous supply of Deet! and since the trails were moderate & water readily available — I packed all my camera gear next. 4th of July saw me at the airport – amazingly everything worked out and I was soon descending into Kalispell, MT ( 30 miles from West Entrance to the park) — no views of Glacier National Park – thick cloud cover blanketed the area and as the plane descended it was raining hard! Guru met me at the airport and we headed of to our stay at the Belton Chalet in West Glacier — 19th century gem of a lodge that served the railroad travellers of the 1910’s.
Belton Chalet, West Galcier, MT
This is an exquisitely restored property and it was fun watching the trains thunder on by nearby — older construction meant the noise was not too bad. We watched 4th July fireworks light up the late evening sky — it was quite bright at 10:00 pm!
July 5th was bright and sunny and we headed off to meet up with our group – Glacier guides was the outfitter. We met up with the group – Total of 6 folks ( Guru, Ambika, Jean, David & Heather, Brian)+ lead guide Allison and trainee Spencer Mann. We got the trip briefing watched a Bear safety and “Leave no trace” videos and then set about packing — we had our own stuff + added about 10lbs of food & fuel between us. Each of the hikers carries 5-8lbs of food – Imagine that! But later we found that we’d be eating well — organic, fresh food – yummy! ( Personally, I’d be just as happy with my freeze dried stuff and not have to carry the weight!). A long van ride took us to the Belly River Trail head just shy of the US-Canada border…we left from the US Customs parking lot! The ride was not w/o incident — the maint crew had left the cap off the radiator and we had a boil over …cooled the van off and then some kind RV got us some water and we were good for the present! This was good since we got to know the group well — we all seemed to get along and everyone wanted to have a fun time so we bonded well.
A quick roadside lunch under the watchful gaze of Chief Mountain and we soon hit the trail for the day about 2:00 pm ….a steep descent through dense forests got us to the valley floor and away from the ubiquitoues mosquitoes. Views of the Belly River vally and surrounding peaks were great.
All trails in Glacier are no greater than 10% grade since they trails were groomed for horsepacking. The forest was just begining to bloom with “thimbleberry” — these later in the year will turn into berries and attract the Grizzly and Black bears…for now I learn the bears are still scanvenging at the higher elevation for avalanche kills and tubers of alpine lillies…we do not expect to be bothered by them for now. This was comforting to some and to me a bit of a bummers since I was hoping to some bears. Allison was still gauging the group so we had frequent stops in beautiful meadows and streams.
Guru maximizes his trailside break
In about 3 hrs we make it to the day’s camp after about 6 miles of walking — Belly River Ranger Station. We stop at the “Food Prep” area and unload all our food and toileteries and hang them up. We are allocated 2 camp sites so we have to share the sites….very different from what I am used to backpacking …. Camp set up, we wander about the camp area and explore the old ranger station (staffed in season) and take in views. The guides set about preparing dinner – a rather elaborate affair. Dinner done, I wander off to take pictures — We are in a beautiful valley abound in wildflowes – pinks, yellows, whites and oranges set against irridicent green ! The glacier carved valley sports sheer walls – Red Gap Wall & Patrimigian Wall (Aerte wall that is mega steep! We watch the sunset on the wall — deer come out to graze and its 9:30 pm when we wander back into camp and crash out for the day.
July 6th: This was the short day of the trip – 3.5 miles to Elizabeth Lake. We slept in and got going rather leisurely – very different from my other
backpacks. Glacier has hundereds of wildflowers that blanket the park and I spent the morning look at them — meadow flowers, bog flowers and more. There’s moss everywhere and dense grass as well — this year the hallmark Glacier flower — bear grass was blooming trailside and around camp- Tall plumes of white flowers.
We eventually got going about 10:30 am and headed up the hill. We crossed the creek a few times on wooden log bridges follwing the river. No sign of bear ….or for that matter any animals or birds but for the mosquitoes. Out came DEET and an uneasy truce was established between man and bug – but the cost was high — any part that was exposed was covered in welts from mosquito bites. We followed streams and crossed some ridges — thimbleberry, columbines and lillies decked the paths. Lunch break saw us at “Dawn Mist Falls” – This is the 2nd largest falls in the park and the Belly River falls over a major sill crashing down 200ft+. The air is thick with mist and the falls makes the area lush with dripping moss and other bog orchids. This is our “groupshot” moment and we all ham up for the camera!
Groupshot at Dawn Mist Falls
The mist drenches everything and I have a hard time keeping my camera dry and take pictures. An hour later we wind up lunch and hike up the hill and get an ariel view of the falls and keep walking to reach Elizabeth Lake! Excitement is our 1st suspension bridge — its a jolly good run across a swaying bridge over a deep cold river.
Suspension Hiker Bridge across Belly River
The usual drop off of food stuff in bear bins here and we find a camp along the lake front. The lake is spectacular and we all lounge by the lakeside –its too cold for a quick dip. Typically we would have dayhike options but with the weather acting up and this being “mountain country” they did not want to be out hiking.
Storm clouds roll in over the Patrimigian Wall at Lake Elizabeth
So we ended up lounging at the lake — the shoreline is all smooth pebbles of red/green arglites/mudstones and some assortment of sandstone – making for a very colorful dirt free beach! Can’t recall how many hours we spent scanning the slopes for signs of sheep/goat/bear — none showed up. We did however spy the resident bald eagle nexting pair soaring by the cliffs for a while – that was cool! Skipping stones provided some good entertainment & it was awesome to sit and watch the storm move in — tumbing over the arete walls into the lake area. In our limited walk about the immediate lake area, we encounted a few patches of turned over dirt — classic sign of bear activity -particularly the grizzly. Hiking at dusk or at night is not encouraged since its grizzly time so we hang out in camp and watch days end over the lake. I saw some deer wander into camp muching onthe Glacier lillies in camp and a few snowshoe hare (in summer colors) explored the camp. The cloud socked horizon does not make a pretty picture and there is no “sunset” to speak of – light goes from grey to very grey! Lapping water lulls us to sleep…
July 7th: The morning is breezy, the lake has whitecaps – no reflections . We bask in the AM sun for a while and eventually hit the trail. We backtrack and wander along rivers to reach Cosley Lake by 1:30 pm. A good majority of the trails in this area are through wait deep thimbleberry & wild rose bushes ( I am told they get upto 5ft+ by end of summer) under a pine canopy passing through flower bedecked meadows, meandering icy aquamarine creeks carrying glacial silt laden waters on their long travels …. (Interesting Fact: Waters that fall on Triple Divide Peak in Glacier National Park have interesting options. This peak is a hydrologic apex of the North American continent –The Continental Divide and the Laurentian Divide meet at the summit of the peak, and all water that falls at this point can flow to any of the Pacific, Arctic or the Atlantic Oceans.) We come to a quick descent & have to cross the raging Belly River using a cable guide. A few other hiking groups stoppped bt to watch us cross.
Brian braves the icy crossing
Stepping into the icy currents sucks you breath away (The
guys delibrated all morning long about the icy crossing and its effects.) and after a quick 70ft crossing we are in a sunny meadow to dry out and snack. I was glad all my camera gear made it across fine. A quick 30 min walk got us to Cosley Lake. This was a great location –campsite barly 10 feet from the lakes edge in a pine grove. We had some prior campers still squating the site so we had to wait to pitch our tents – a 1st especially when you are used to being the only tent in many square miles! The dayhiking option for today was a steep climb up scree slopes to Bear Mountain Lookout. 1500ft in ~ 1.3 miles with another 1.3 miles to access this trail. Storm clouds were gathering up so we set up in a rush and pretty much sprinted the 5 miles RT to reach the site of an old look out (just some old nails and concrete footings mark the location). This has great views all around and we did our best to make sure we did not get blown off the cliff face – its was a looooong way down. 15 mins later we were back down the trail trying to get into tree cover before the storm clouds came in — hiking down the scree trail was like walking on musical rocks … many pitched clinking was underfoot and provided the soundtrack for our descent.
Hiking down the scree slopes from Bear Mountain Lookout
We followed a rushing mountain stream down to the valley. Guru & I slowed our pace near camp & watched the antics of the Columbian ground squirells. The storm clouds closed in just as we hit camp. We rested for a bit along the shores watching the storm – dinner was called and we head off to the food area. We barely wrapped up the fondue party and the skies opened up! Pelting rain sent us to the tents and the day was done. No sunset again. Between the sugar buzz induced late night chatter of fellow hikers and the humid temps — sleep did not come easy. I think eventually it cooled off and I drifted away…
July 8th: Early light glimmers of waterdrops splitting into a million rainbows — it has rained all night long and everything is wet and glistening – including our tent! The lake is still and there are beautifyuly reflections of the soaring peaks on the placid lake.
Reflections in Cosley Lake
I watch morrning light dance down the mountain – its is tranquil and loons call …a fine fog sheets of the lake surface.
Morning fog sheets off Lake Cosley
We leave relatively early (8:30 am) today. Just out of camp is our 2nd big waterfall – Gros Vante falls — not as spectacular as the 1st one but impressive nonetheless – a quick detour is in order to takea closer look at the falls. We quickly are back on the trail – cruising along at a blistering pace so that we can be back at vans by noon….We come by our 1st day camp and head on out on the same trail we came in on. We finally hit the last 800ft climb out to the TH. One last look at the Belly River Valley & we climb out to the TH. We lunch at the van & soon are loaded up for a 2hr ride back to the town of West Glacier. For me, it was a delightful 1st encounter with Glacier National Park area — I saw it from the “non-tourist” perspective. No crowds, no parking, no sign posts….just pure wilderness – spectacularly stunning American Rockies. I will return to explore…..the high passes – arete wall traverses and high glacier fed lakes beckon.
We met that night as a group and relived a delightful trip with tall tales, cheap beer and pizza
Pictures : Click Here