Tag Archives: Glacier National Park

Western Montana

Glacier_NPMontana is a state of two halves. The eastern (much larger) part of the state is dominated by the vast rolling landscapes of the great plains, more similar to the Dakotas or Kansas than to any of the states to the west. The western part is dominated by massive mountain chains, including the mighty Rockies.

As much as I like the open sky of the great plains during our visit we were largely confined to the mountainous west of the state.

We entered Montana driving the I-90 from Spokane. Here this major freeway at times resembles more of a roller-coaster than the major road artery it is. There are none of the long tunnels or sweeping bridges of the Alpine roads in Europe, just lots and lots of tight curves. That makes driving it quite fun. But it is still a multi-lane motorway so we left it as soon as it was feasible and took some really minor local roads (in places controlled by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation) and headed north towards the Flathead Lake.

On our way we encountered the unique landscape of Camas Prairie. This distinct geographical region is a treeless and open area in an otherwise heavily forested and mountainous region. Its name comes from the Camassia plant which was once widely used by the Native Americans and the first white settlers as a food source. But now it is a place dominated by ranching. The landscape is somehow similar to the Great Plains with the exception of mountains visible in all directions and it all looks spectacular, especially in the late afternoon when the sun is getting lower. Late in the day is also the best time to examine the giant ripple marks visible from the Montana Hwy 382. These marks are essentially the same forms as the ripple marks you can see on a sandy bottom of a typical stream, or on a beach. The difference is the size as rather then mere inches here they measure 25 to 50 feet (7.6 to 15.2 m) high and 300 feet (91m) long. These rare geomorphological features were created during periodic cataclysmic floods in the last ice age, the same floods which carved the Grand Coulee in Washington state. Camas_Prairie

From the Camas Prairie Valley we headed towards the Rocky Mountains, passing along the picturesque Flathead Lake shore as well as through the suburban sprawling mess of Kalispell, which is the largest town in this part of the state. Then we finally stopped for the night in a small town right at the foothills of the Rockies. At the first motel we checked we were slightly put off by a skeleton, albeit plastic, hanging on the front porch. Sure, Halloween was just around the corner but the proprietor just didn’t fill us with confidence either.

The following day we started early as we really wanted to explore the Glacier National Park. Upon arrival at the gates of the park we learned that admission was free as it was National Public Lands Day. It was second time it happened to us, a couple of years ago we got in for free to the Grand Canyon National Park, both times it was an absolutely unplanned bonus saving.

Lake_McDonald_Lodge_1Our first stop inside the park was a loo stop in the beautiful Lake McDonald Lodge which, as the names suggests, is located on the banks of the namesake lake. It is a great example of the grand hotels built in a rustic resort style by the railway companies at the beginning of the 20th century to promote tourism in the American West. It might be not as grand as the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone but it is still an impressive building with its heavy timber frame (made of crudely finished logs), three-storey high lobby (where the timber frame is purposely exposed) and large stone fireplaces. It opened in 1914 and guests initially arrived there by boat. That explains why its current main entrance (from the parking lots) is somehow subdued in comparison as the road only reached it in 1921. The interior decoration, with skins and taxidermy mounts of native species might not be to everyone’s taste but overall the building is quite fun place for a short stop.Lake_McDonald_Lodge_Lobby

The best way to see the dramatic scenery of the park (without hiking for days) is to drive the spectacular, and aptly named Going-to-the-Sun Road. This is an absolute engineering marvel, a 50 miles long road, climbing all the way to the elevation of 6,646 feet (2,026 m) at Logan Pass where it crosses the Continental Divide. The road is narrow and winding, with tight hairpin turns, resembling narrow mountain roads in Italy or Spain more than anything in the US. However, built between 1921 and 1932 it is one of the first National Park Service projects specifically intended to accommodate the automobile-borne tourists which is as American an idea as it gets.Going_to_the_Sun_Road

We drove slowly uphill, stopping multiple times to admire the views and to take photos until we finally reached the top of Logan Pass.

Rocky_MountainsHere we decided to stretch our legs. First we chose to take the Highline Trail. It is about 18 miles long so we decided to follow it a bit and then backtrack. Luckily the most spectacular section stretches right from the Logan Pass. Here the trail follows a narrow ledge along the so called Garden Wall area, one of the most scenic areas in any national park in the US. In most places the ledge, hanging like a shelf, is only three to six feet wide, and has drop-offs of roughly a hundred feet or so down to the Going-to-the-Sun Road below. It is not a place for those who are scared of heights but it offers amazing vistas with no climbing involved as the trail is almost level. A perfect combination if you ask me; beautiful wild scenery and a bit of thrill but no sweat (unlike for example the also spectacular but extremely tiring Angel’s Landing trail in Zion NP). We walked for a while until we got stuck behind a group of hikers who got stuck behind a pair of mountain goats. As we passed the most spectacular part of the trail, rather than continuing slowly along we decided to head back to the main visitor centre at Logan Pass and try another trail from there.Highline_Trail_1

This time we chose the Hidden Lake Trail which, as the name suggests, leads to a lake. It slowly climbs via a series of boardwalks (to protect the fragile plants on the meadows) for 1.5 miles until it reaches an overlook offering a fine view of the lake and the surrounding amazing alpine scenery. The lake itself is a further 1.5 miles away but as the weather was threatening rain we decided to go back from the overlook.Hidden_Lake

Once we reached our car and were on our way out of the parking lot we got caught in one of the “bear jams”. As there was a bear, just a few hundred feet from the road, everyone was slowing down to see it and snap some shots. Of course we did the same. Luckily a park ranger was organizing the traffic to avoid a total standstill. It was a perfect end to our time in the highest part of the park. We saw a bear but from the safety of our car rather than on a trail (there were warnings about bear activity along the Highline Trail).

From Logan Pass the road heads east, dropping in elevation relentlessly until it reaches the end of the Rockies and the beginning of the prairies. It is amazing how sudden the change is. In well under an hour we had left the alpine scenery and threatening moody weather and entered the sunny countryside of eastern Montana, with its vast blue sky and open landscape (a landscape that stretches across several states as far as the Great Lakes, 1500 miles away). The eastern side of the Rockies is much drier and more sunny than their western slopes and it was clearly visible. Pure geography in action.

Overall the Glacier National Park is one of the most spectacular parks I have ever visited. The weather was a bit gloomy and moody, not unlike during our exploration of the Canadian Rockies a few days before, but it actually enhanced the majesty of the mountains. No, we don’t have the postcard-perfect sunny shots but on the other hand the lighting and shadows were constantly changing with every passing cloud, making things more interesting. Also, the dark skies and snow on the mountaintops were a constant reminder that we were in a wild territory. Logan_Pass

Now we only had a short drive north to enter the last region on our itinerary, the Canadian province of Alberta. We crossed the border at one of the small local crossings. No queues, no waiting, just a quick stop and we were back in Canada. More about it next time.

British Columbia

Trans_Canada_HighwayI guess most people when they hear the name of British Columbia they imagine high mountains, endless forests, wild landscapes and rain. We had exactly the same expectations when we entered Canada’s westernmost province driving from Lake Louise via the spectacular Kicking Horse canyon. And we were right.

Our first stop was the community of Golden where we spent a night. It is a really small town dominated by Canadian Pacific Railway, logging and tourism (quite a common mix in these parts of Canada). Located in a deep valley it is surrounded by the mighty Rockies to the east and the equally impressive and impenetrable Selkirk Mountains to the west. And yes, it was raining, or at least drizzling. But even in such weather there was no hiding the spectacular scenery. Especially the snow-capped Selkirks towering ominously to the west. Tim_Hortons_&_Selkirks

After breakfast in Tim Hortons (which some say is a true Canadian icon) we drove west on the Trans-Canada Highway (TCH) towards the Rogers Pass and Glacier National Park in the heart of the Selkirks. The park was established in 1886 (making it one of the oldest national parks in Canada), a year after Canadian Pacific Railway built the line across the pass bringing travellers into the region. Later in 1916 the pass was bypassed by an 8km tunnel, the tourists disappeared and with them most of the infrastructure. Then in 1962 the TCH was build and tourism recovered. Glacier_National_Park_2

The TCH from Golden to Ravelstoke via Rogers Pass is long and lonely, with a very few services (and no fuel for about 150km), but also a very scenic drive. During our crossing the weather wasn’t perfect so we only saw glimpses of majestic mountains and glaciers towering over the twisted route. Low hanging clouds and mist obstructed visibility but also enhanced the wild feel of the place. We stopped briefly at the pass to look at the memorial dedicated to the completion of the Trans-Canada Highway, something which, as a road geek, I simply couldn’t skip. Here I also have to mention that Trans-Canada Highway is 8030km long, which makes it one of the longest national routes in the world, and one day I would like to drive its entire length.

Giant_Cedars_Trail_2From the pass we descended west and the weather immediately improved. Taking advantage of the sunshine we stopped at two short board-walk trails. They are actually in Mount Ravelstoke National Park located just west to the Glacier NP. The first one, the Giant Cedars Boardwalk Trail, runs for half a kilometre through the old-growth cedar forest. Some of the tress along the trail are over 500 years old and they are truly magnificent, looking much like pillars of an enormous Gothic cathedral. I love forests, especially massive old-growth ones, and miss such experiences in the UK, one of the least forested countries in Europe. The next trail, located just a few kilometres down the road is the Skunk Cabbage Boardwalk Trail and it goes through a completely different environment. Here boardwalks lead visitors over a river valley swamp full of birds and other small fauna. These two trails, in such close proximity and yet so different, are great examples of varied mountain landscapes of British Columbia. Oh, and skunk cabbage didn’t smell of skunk.

Just before reaching the town of Ravelstoke we took the turn-off to Meadows in the Sky Parkway which climbs astonishing 1330 metres in 16 switchbacks and 26km to reach an elevation of 1835 metres above sea level. There are a few viewpoints on the way up offering great vistas to Ravelstoke and Columbia River valley but for a really spectacular 360 degrees panorama we walked from the the upper parking lot to the fire lookout at the summit of Mount Ravelstoke. From there one can see endless mountain chains stretching far to the horizon. In all directions. This is British Columbia as I have always imagined it.View_from_Mount_Ravelstoke

After driving back down we stopped at the Ravelstoke Railway Museum which focuses on the history of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which was the first transcontinental railway line in Canada. In fact this line was part of the formation of Canada as we know it. The colony of British Columbia only agreed to join the newly formed Dominion of Canada after the promise of building a railway from the east to the Pacific. Inside the museum there is a huge steam locomotive and one sleeper carriage (which you can enter) as well as some smaller exhibits. Outside there are more railway cars including a massive snow plough used to clear tracks through the Columbia Mountains (which the Selkirks are part of). It is enormous and helps one to imagine how much snow falls in this part of British Columbia. Literally metres every year. Ravelstoke_Railway_Museum

From Ravelstoke we travelled west across yet more mountains until we finally reached the Okanagan Valley where we turned south. This valley is different than the rest of British Columbia. Instead of dense forest and a harsh wet climate it offers dry and warm weather as well as open landscapes, nowadays dominated by the fruit and wine growing industries. Its unique climate is largely due to the fact that the valley is protected from the west, north and east by tall mountains but opens south towards the sunny central Washington state in the US. It feels like if is someone transplanted bit of California 1000 miles north to Canada. We arrived at the town of Vernon on a glorious sunny and warm afternoon to stay there for the night. The following day we turned west again, heading towards Vancouver.

It is about 400km from the Okanagan Valley to Vancouver and three quarters of the distance involves driving across more rugged mountains of the interior British Columbia. The roads are good quality motorways most of the way but services are sparse (sometimes over 100km without a gas station) and there are plenty of warning signs advising carrying snow chains, checking brakes, watching for “long combination vehicles” (essentially the massive multi-trailer trucks) etc. One of my favourite signs reads: “High Mountain Road, expect sudden weather changes”. One can only imagine that it can be a tough drive there in winter. In fact the Highway 97C crosses the Pennask Summit at the elevation 1728 m (5760 ft) above sea level which is actually higher then the Kicking Horse Pass in the Rockies where the Trans-Canada Highway crosses the continental divide. Luckily we only experienced a bit of drizzle and no major issues.High_Mountain_Road

For the last stretch towards Vancouver the road follows Frazer River through its flat bottom valley but mountains are never far away. In fact we stopped for a picnic at the Bridal Veil Falls Provincial Park, one of the many waterfalls on the slopes of the valley. The mountains here are fully exposed to the wet North Pacific climate which results in plenty of precipitation and, in effect, a temperate rainforest environment. We had a short walk to the base of the scenic 60 metres tall waterfall before munching some bagels with ham straight from the car boot. Sophisticated we ain’t. From the falls it only takes over an hour (obviously if traffic allows) to reach Vancouver. P9180731resized

So here we are. In a bit less than two days we managed to to drive 800km ( almost 500 miles) and cross the whole width of beautiful British Columbia. All the way from the cold, even snowy continental divide in the Rockies to the wet and mild Pacific coast north of Vancouver. In that distance we drove through numerous high mountain passes, quite a few small towns, and long stretches with not much civilization along the road. But now trendy and sophisticated Vancouver was awaiting us. More about it soon.Rogers_Pass