Roughly 12 hours from Portland to Montana is the “Crown of the Continent”, Glacier National park! Carved by prehistoric ice rivers it is nestled in the mountains and flush with alpine meadows, deep forests, waterfalls, 50 glaciers and 200 lakes. The park may be a bit overwhelming if you’re not use to that sort of thing as there are a lot more people than you’d expect. Away from the hustle of the shops and eateries, though, it’s a whole other world! With a bit of time and willingness to drive, there are views galore to see! Nature is showing off all her glory as the lakes are amazing, the wildlife abundant, and the views breathtaking!
We left Portland on Thursday morning with Coeur d’Alene, Idaho in our sights. We drove about 6 hours and arrived in Coeur d’Alene just as the sky was starting to turn pretty shades of pink and purple. We arrived at Camp Coeur d’Alene around dusk and within the hour we had the tent up, a fire going, and were beginning to warm up dinner at the camp kitchen (which was so wonderfully offered here!). It was a gazebo type structure with three stove tops and sinks, free firewood, and they even had free paddle boats and canoes to play with. Among the amenities was a pool, hot tub and bathrooms with one shower room and a small selection of commonly forgotten items in the office. Our last minute campground really impressed me! This lovely little place wriggled it’s way into our future plans, and we’ll definitely be back to check out the state park that’s right on the lake.
The next morning we woke gently around 7:30 am and packed up camp briskly and were on the road within an hour with our breakfast bars in tow. Montana here we come! We drove about 2 hours before we reached the unexpected beauty: Flathead Lake. Flathead lake is impressive! at 197 sq. miles and 160 ft of deep blue water in one of the largest natural freshwater lakes west of the Mississippi, we had to stop and check her out. As we stood at the back of the jeep looking out over the wildflower lined road eating string cheese, I realized “We’re on vacation!” and it was all so much more than I imagined it would be and we weren’t even “there” yet technically. It’s never really just about the destination, it’s always about the adventure – and I was just starting to rediscover that.
After another hour and half or so of driving we finally arrived in the park. It was a short wait to get through the gate, they checked our pass* and we were on our way to our first campground. Fish Creek is where we camped for the first 3 days in Montana. I picked this campground specifically because of its proximity to Lake McDonald, which is famous for its multicolored, rocky bottom. It was pretty early in the day still so we decided to drive over to Apgar, to pick up wood and get our first look at the lake. And it’s a good thing we did because this was the last blue sky and sunny day we saw for nearly a week.
*America the beautiful pass is a national parks and surrounding natural areas pass, you pay once and have access all year long. I think this is a great option especially if you plan on traveling to more than one national park in a year.
We woke up to our first morning in Montana with the beautiful song of birds singing away and..stormy skies?! Yep, this was the first day that we woke up to rain, and would later discover that the storms were hard pressed to lift off these mountain tops. Even so, we began our normal morning camp routine of oatmeal and coffee, loaded up in the jeep and headed up to Lake McDonald lodge. We spent some time along the river and then headed over to Avalanche creek where the road was still closed in mid June due to a heavy winter. We did a short hike: Trail of the Cedars. It was a nice stroll and ended up being the one and only trail we were able to hike, because we brought our dog to a place that’s not really animal friendly – at least not if you planned to see anything off of pavement that is.
Our next plan was to take some dirt roads about 40 miles around the other side of the park to see Bowman lake and Polebridge. Turns out that 6 miles down it was closed due to being washed out, so we headed back a different way. Even though we had to detour, this part of the journey was pretty fun: lots of backcountry views, meadows and forests lined with so many varieties of wildflowers. We stopped along this road to stretch our legs when we got a break in the rain.
By 4:30 pm we arrived in the tiny town of Polebridge! Here, one building serves as a cafe, bakery, and a saloon. They also have yurts and showers for rent .. if your into that kind of thing. We stopped in for some local pastries and lunch before we headed up to Bowman lake. It was a short drive in theory — 6 miles up a terribly potholed and uneven dirt “track” (yeah I wouldn’t even call it a road). It took nearly 30 mins but so worth it.
It was rough that our first day in Glacier was so overwhelming. The people, the noise…It felt like a zoo, and not the experience that we had hoped for. However… walking up to this lake with not another single person in sight made up for all of that.
We headed back to camp, made dinner, and sat around the campfire sharing moments from the day with each other. It was the perfect end to a day full of new experiences.
We decided to head to East Glacier today to see more of the “Going-To-The-Sun” road, plus a few more lakes. Because of the road closure this meant driving all the way around to Saint Mary, so we were racking up the miles quick! Along the way, we stopped at a roadside waterfall and Two-Medicine lake to have lunch and take some photos.
Once back through the entrance of the park we were able to make it to Jackson Glacier before we reached the turnaround point and the views just kept getting better and better. It seemed as we drove up the pass that the mountains grew steeper and each one more carved out by glacial rivers than the previous one. It was certainly a sight to see, I wish we could have seen more. We were lucky enough to see two bears on our way back from Jackson Glacier. Up on the hillside a sow and her cub trampled up through the trees.
After that excitement we headed back to the visitor center at Saint Mary lake to get stamps in my National parks passport* before we started our 2 hour journey back to camp. This would also be our last night staying in the park so even though it was a long day and a lot of driving, (10 hours by the time we got back!) we knew we probably wouldn’t be driving back into the park for the rest of our stay in Montana so we had to make the most of it.
*Passport to your national parks is a pretty neat way to track where you have been and can serve as a memento to keep from each place you visit.
The next morning we woke up pretty early, made breakfast and then headed over to the bathroom that had showers and took our first shower in 5 days. YES! Now that we were all clean and feeling ourselves again we checked out of camp and headed into “town”. We grabbed coffee for the road and started our journey towards the 24,000 acre Hungry Horse Reservoir where we would explore for the next 5 days in the Flathead National Forest.
Stay tuned for Road Trip: Beyond Glacier – part 2 next week, and my Guide to Glacier National Park