First let me say, Glacier is not overrated. Not even one bit. It is absolutely one of the most beautiful places you will ever see and I can see why locals may think it bittersweet that visitor numbers are soaring.
There are various entry points but given our location in Columbia Falls, we started out in West Glacier. Located about 20 minutes down highway 2 from Columbia Falls, it’s an easy trip and the entire way the highway leaps and dips and winds…you’re surrounded by trees. Before our visit I’d reached out to a couple of visitor bureaus and one response was from a woman from Whitefish, also Lisa (hi lisa!), who responded with so many suggestions (including this hike!) and excitedly told me that the larch trees had turned. At the time I didn’t realize the significance…until we were there. Magic…mountains covered in a wave of gold.
Anticipation built as we passed under the West Glacier train underpass and found ourselves at the entrance. Pinch me, seriously. We bought the week pass (I think about $30) and we were on our way.
The realization that you are, in fact, in the wilderness is a terrifying one for a city person. I am not exaggerating when I say I felt panicked standing in front of this sign taking a picture, thinking all sorts of creatures were going to come racing out of the woods. Does it shock you that that wasn’t the case?
First stop was the Apgar Visitor’s center, the only location with a ranger still present for questions and maps and such this time of year. We gathered our maps and suggestions on day hikes and continued on.
Stopping along Going to the Sun Road is inevitable for a first-time visitor. Thankfully the park was all but abandoned at the hour we arrived, so we could do so with ease. How does this place exist? We hopped out a few times and headed to the lake (Lake McDonald). The water was perfectly clear making it seem shallow and the stones were every tone of red, blue, green. We forced ourselves to keep moving to the trail head for Avalanche Lake.
In my mind, I am a lot of things that in reality I am not. Like an outdoorsman. The Avalanche Trail is an easy one and normally heavily used. In this case, there were just a few others on it at that time. I took my “make noise” duties very seriously. Despite being on a wooden walkway I was all too aware of the whole “alone in the wilderness” thing. But even still, after a while we let go and let that sink in: alone in the woods.
The trail was perfectly quiet with exception of the birds in the trees and the sounds under our feet. The trees were taller and greener than I’d ever seen. There were waterfalls and obstacles that seemed to create a natural amusement park. We arrived at the first vantage point of Avalanche Lake and sat in awe: fog hanging over the mountain tops, waterfalls creeping down them, the sun creeping out. Fellow hikers pointed out the mountain goats clinging to the side of the mountain: tiny white specks that I finally saw at last. We continued on along the lakes edge until we reached the end at last. I’m fairly certain I let out a gasp, spinning around, taking in the vista. Again, how is this real—the impossibly clear water and the perfect reflection of the soaring mountains. Otherworldly. Heavenly. Pick your adjective.
We ate our lunches in silence then departed the way we came. By this time the trail was becoming more trafficked. Our pace was quicker now, more confident. We caught up with a group of four people as we walked the last half mile or so. Then suddenly, without any warning, I heard thrashing. The man in front of us hollered Whoa then a massive bear with brown fur barreled across our path and into the woods on the other side! Mouth agape, I was completely stunned! I look behind me and Luke is armed with bear spray (thank you, honey.). The man in front of us continues to talk Okay, keep going on your way, bear when at last the bear is out of sight. A young grizzly he reckons.
For the rest of the way back to the car we all hustled and stayed together. I became a unabashed loud talker. Adrenaline! You’re welcome, group. We neared the car and I felt relieved. The wilderness now also felt just a little less foreign. And you better believe that encounter gave us bragging rights for the rest of the trip.