Glacier and Banff National Parks

Flying into Kalispell, MT reminded me a lot of flying into Idaho Falls. Both airports are tiny, with no more than a handful of gates to fly from. You can arrive 30 minutes before your flight without concern of getting held up in security causing a missed flight. There might be one or two places to formally sit down and eat, and a couple choices for snacks and beverages. That’s where the similarities end when comparing my trip to Yellowstone to a trip to Glacier National Park.

We knew that there was no chance we would see nearly as much wildlife in Glacier as we saw in Yellowstone, so those expectations could not have been set too high. We thought Yellowstone would pale in comparison to the gorgeous, sweeping views and panoramic vistas of Glacier National Park since it is part of the Rocky Mountain range. Driving on the Going to the Sun Road from western Kalispell to eastern Many Glacier it was evident this was not a bad assumption. The road treacherously teeters along the side of the mountain, with drivers heading east clinging to the mountains edge and drivers heading west cautiously avoiding the sharp mountain wall. Many opposing drivers had to come to a stop to allow one or the other to proceed in order to make sure neither made an expensive mistake. Driving certainly isn’t for the faint hearted.

As we made our way through the park, smoke from ongoing wildfires permeated the air. The beautiful vistas were a hazy landscape. Only outlines of mountains could be seen. All color and texture were lost, muted by the dense smoke. It smelled like a campfire. We smelled like a campfire. To say it took the wind out of my sail was an understatement.

On our way through the park we stopped at Avalanche Creek and walked the mile long Trail of the Cedars. Huge cedars lined the wooden walkway, but the showstopper belonged to the Avalanche Gorge. About halfway through the trail there is a footbridge where the river water cuts through the rock to Avalanche Creek. Here we could see everything in the completely clear water. It was deceptively deep at about 6-7 feet deep, though it looked like it could only be inches because of how clear it was. This was one of our favorite parts of the park. Even with smoke permeating the air, the creek was crystal clear.

Continuing to drive east, we stopped at Logan Pass and hiked to Hidden Lake. Along this trail we got our first views of some of the applauded wildflowers that line the creeks. I can only imagine how beautiful this place would be in the spring! Further down the trail we encountered several mountain goats and a marmot right on the trail. Views of the lake below were not nearly as breathtaking as they would be on a clear day, but the unexpected wildlife raised our spirits. We loved the goats!

Day 2

Early the next morning we decided to hike one of the most popular trails, Grinnell Glacier Trail. We expected this experience to guide us to decide whether or not we wanted to spend the rest of our trip in Glacier, or if we should cancel some of our reservations and spend time across the Canadian border in Banff National Park. Starting around 7:30am, much of the smoke had dissipated overnight. We were excited to have a chance to see the park in all its glory. Armed with our bear spray, we began trekking along the Swiftcurrent Lake then Lake Josephine making loud noises to deter any bears from eating us for breakfast. Thoughts of bears consumed our minds, fueled by research and stories of encounters throughout bear country. We clapped and sang in mild paranoia of bears ready to lunge at us at any moment. Pretty sure we would’ve scared them with our off-pitch high notes, but alas, we did not see a single bear.

As the trail began to rise, views of a third lake came into view. Even with the smoke beginning to set in, sights of Grinnell Lake, bluer than any lake I’d ever seen, sat perched between the mountain range surprising unsuspecting hikers like ourselves, motivating us to continue. Our legs were quite worn out from the continuous climb but we pressed on. The last half mile was exceptionally killer since we were already tired and it was very steep and rocky. When we finally reached the glacier we could not believe our eyes. A fourth lake, milky turquoise blue, came into view. It sat directly below the Grinnell Glacier, no doubt formed by the melting of the glacier over hundreds of years. We were able to experience the glacier all alone because of how early we started our hike. Not a single sole was passed while we hiked to the top. It was awesome 🙂

We passed many people on our way back down, everyone asking “how much further?” out of breath. Lunch was had and finally we were back where we started at the Many Glacier Hotel. In all, we made the 12 mile round trip in about 6 hours. We collapsed on the couch in the lodge, right in front of the giant fireplace. Shortly thereafter snow began falling in the mountains. After already hiking 3 trails and not seeing a change in anticipated smoke, we decided it would be best to head to Banff the next day. Both of us had always wanted to go to Banff anyway, and this was a good opportunity to find out if it was worth a trip at some point in the future.

Day 3

We left our hotel at 5:30am, cramming in the few minutes of network usage we got between the park’s edge and the Canadian border. Since we didn’t have any maps of Canada and we wouldn’t have reception outside the United States, this was vital. We took numerous screenshots of the route to Banff and TripAdviser’s top 10 things to do once we got there. Once we arrived at the border, there was a large gate, locked tight, with a sign saying “Hours of Operation 7:00am to 11:00pm.” The border closes?! Let this be a lesson to everyone that the United States is open from 7-11 only. Ha!

We waited about 20 minutes for the clock to strike 7:00am before a man pulled up and unlocked the gate. The Canadian border patrol tried to convince us to go to Waterton instead of Banff, stating the bad traffic in Banff and Asian tour busses that flock to the park. We disregarded her advice and followed the Rockies straight north. The morning sun and big sky of rural Alberta made for an extremely pleasant drive. Once we arrived in the park, we stopped in the title town of Banff to get maps and advice from the Visitor Center. We waited in line for about 30 minutes before finally receiving a tiny map of the town and the Lake Louise area. I requested a map of the surrounding area and though the guide acknowledged she had them, she denied me. Ok. Onward.

We decided to spend our time in two ways: the Cave and Basin National Historic Site and the Plain of Six Glaciers trail. The Cave and Basin National Historic Site is located in Banff and is the reason why Banff is a national park. That said, it was nothing special. The cave was about 25 feet in diameter with a pool of water giving off strong scents of sulfur. We paid $3 to get in, and were in and out in about 10 minutes. I’ve seen bigger, more interesting caves in the boring midwest. Once we realized we had been duped, we got out of there as quickly as we could. Better experiences were to be had!

It took quite a bit longer to get to Lake Louise than we anticipated. Banff (the park) is huge! I think it took us about 45 minutes to get there from the town via the highway. Traffic backed up throughout Lake Louise. People parked all along the road as the end was a giant parking lot that undoubtedly was full. We parked near the end and walked up to the lake. After having seen Grinnell Lake and it’s milky turquoise blue color, Lake Louise did not shock us with its color. However, Lake Louise was much more accessible. We could walk right up to it and put our hands in the water. Red canoes speckled the lake. White-capped mountains shot up on both sides of the lake. It was yet another spectacular sight.

The Plain of Six Glaciers trail begins at the far end of Lake Louise, and of course goes straight up the mountain. Early on there were rapids and waterfalls that lined the trail. As we climbed higher, the view of Lake Louise behind us only got more incredible. The bright blue water cradled between the towering snow-capped mountains covered in vibrant green pine trees resulted in the same photo captured over and over again. It was beautiful! Near the top of the trail there sits a tea house. It appears to have been someone’s home that’s been converted into a small restaurant. The Lake Agnes Tea House workers climb the same trail as visitors once a week, bringing with them fresh groceries for their rotating menu. We wanted to enjoy a piece of blueberry pie, but we were already pressing against our allotted time if we wanted to make it back to the US before closing time. We pushed onward to the top of the trail, taking in the sights of Abbott’s Pass and the Lower Victoria and Mount Lefroy Glaciers before heading back down.

At this point we were power-walking back around Lake Louise, watching the clock in growing recognition we were getting a little behind schedule. The plan was to be on the road by 5:00pm so that we would make it back to the border even if we needed some contingency time. As we pulled out of our parking spot right at 5:00, we were happily on our way back. We decided to get out of the park and stop in Calgary for food and gas. That plan went out the window right when we crossed the park border and hit deadlocked traffic due to road construction. We spent at least 45 minutes going about 5 kilometers in distance. Eventually we approached an exit for a road that I could partially see on one of my map screenshots. It headed south and looked like it might be a large, makeshift bypass around Calgary. Given we had already spent about an hour going nowhere, we didn’t have a choice but to try it if we wanted to sleep in our already paid for hotel that night. By this point it was evident we weren’t going to be stopping at a restaurant. Pringles and beef jerky ftw!

As we headed south on Route 40, we passed through some of the most beautiful scenery, though we were more focused on where we could find the nearest gas station. After the gas light came on, we finally passed a tiny gas station buried off a side road. We pulled a U-turn and headed to the pump, relieved we finally found a gas station in the expanse park. I jumped out and tried to turn on the pump with no avail, so I headed to the door. The gas station was closed. It was 8:03pm and the gas station closed at 8:00. It was starting to feel like nothing was going to go in our favor when we got back on the open road. Eventually we made it to the tiny town that connected us to the main highway we drove in on. Theresa shot off to the restroom while I got the gas pumping. We traded places, dug out our passports, hung up the hose and hit the road. No time to spare! The fastest path back to the main highway turned out to be a gravel road. Awesome. Now on the main highway we encountered more construction, speed limit set to 50 km/hour. Here we started running manic calculations of the conversion of kilometers to miles, our speed and the distances from one town to the next. We sped like crazy for an hour and a half in pitch black on a highway surrounded by free range horses and bison hugging the white lines of the highway. Fortunately we made it to the border station in one piece with 15 minutes to spare. Whew! We made it!

Day 4

Much of the next day was spent chuckling about how ridiculous our previous day had been, and how lucky we were to be back in Glacier for the night. We checked out of Many Glacier en route to Whitefish. We opted to make our last hike the Highline Trail after ditching the Iceberg Lake trail because it would have been our third trek up a mountain to see a glacier. The Highline Trail starts at Logan Pass and took us along the edge of several mountains, the trail sitting like a shelf on the mountain ledge. We went out about 4 miles before the smoke started overtaking the views. On our way back west along the Going to the Sun Road, we visited Lake McDonald. This lake is traditionally blue, though it is extraordinarily clear. We enjoyed some peaceful moments at the lake’s edge, before continuing to make our way to Whitefish. By now we had our fill of the park and decided to head to Whitefish where we would spend our remaining time in Montana.

Whitefish is a very nice town located a few miles west of Glacier National Park. It sits on Whitefish Lake and boasts some of the best summer and winter vacation spots for travelers all around the area. The Lodge at Whitefish Lake delivered some of the most relaxing moments of our entire trip. The rooms were not missing a thing! They were huge, with a lavish bathroom complete with separate bathtub and shower. After a couple of hours enjoying the comfort of the room, we made our way down to the pool and tiki bar where we had a couple drinks and delicious dinner all while overlooking the lake and the sun setting behind the hazy mountains. It was the perfect ending to a great, albeit unexpected trip!