(Aug. 6, 2021)
The last time I took a rail pass trip, I spent over six months planning prior to the departure, but this time around, I had only a month and a half of lead time–a good deal of which was spent mapping out an itinerary that had to be overhauled at the last minute. Since I had covered some of the other expenses, the woman who was going to travel with me had volunteered to rent a car in Montana to get around Glacier National Park; however, I heard a couple of weeks before our scheduled departure that there was a rental car shortage, and I figured we might need a contingency plan.
After some research, I found that Glacier has a pretty great shuttle system that travels along Going to the Sun Road. This year’s stops were more limited than usual, and some of the campgrounds were closed–I’m guessing due to staffing shortages stemming from the pandemic–but it appeared to be possible to get around the park without a car. Further complicating matters was the fact that people were flocking to the park in record-setting numbers, and all of the accommodations that could be booked were. Still, I’d read that some of the campgrounds operated on a first come/first served basis, so I figured we would be able to find a place to pitch a tent.
Then the woman who was supposed to travel with me backed out, and I considered skipping the Glacier stop altogether. Instead, though, I decided to challenge myself and do something uncharacteristic by heading into the park without knowing where I was going to stay–figuring it out on the fly.
I took the Empire Builder from Minneapolis to East Glacier Park Village, where I stayed for a night and then used Blackfeet Public Transit to get to Browning, where I also stayed for a night. From there, I took Blackfeet Public Transit again from Browning to the Saint Mary’s Visitor Center, where I bought some overpriced bear spray and then caught the shuttle into the park. In the morning haze of the Hay Creek Wildfire, I hopped on the bus without knowing much about where I was going, and my cell phone service was not good enough to review which campgrounds were and were not open this year. (Sidebar: having travelled cross-country a few times previously as a Verizon customer before switching this year to Spectrum, I can assure you that Spectrum’s coverage is not as good as Verizon’s, in spite of the fact that Spectrum uses Verizon’s towers. With Spectrum during this trip, most of my apps were useless outside of major cities when I wasn’t connected to wifi.)
Going to the Sun Road Road winds for about fifty miles between Saint Mary and West Glacier with just a guardrail to keep the cars and busses from plummeting down the mountainsides. The drop-off is so steep that as we zig-zagged through switchbacks, some passengers gasped and closed their eyes, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many people had died building, maintaining, and traversing the road since its conception in the 1920’s. (When I later Googled that question, the numbers didn’t seem that high in recent years, by the way.) As long as you’re not too scared of heights, the views are mesmerizing.
For my first shuttle ride, I was a bit preoccupied with figuring out where I was going to sleep for the night, and I initially decided to get off at the Avalanche stop since I remembered reading that there was a good campground nearby. I asked the driver whether he knew if it the Avalanche campground was open, but he wasn’t sure. When I hopped off at the stop, I discovered the campground was closed this year and asked around for recommendations. One of the drivers heading back toward Saint Mary suggested I wait for a westbound bus to the Lake McDonald stop and then walk a mile or so to the Sprague Creek Campground. The shuttle stops in service this year did not correspond well with the campgrounds that were open, so a little walking would be necessary–something I normally love doing.
Though I wouldn’t call the road between the Lake McDonald shuttle stop and Sprague Creek Campground treacherous, exactly, it wasn’t particularly safe either–at least not for walking. The shoulder was narrow, and I could tell that visibility from drivers’ perspectives wasn’t great since the road was curvy. Where possible, I walked through the overgrowth along the side of the road, lugging the thirty-pound pack that held my tent and other supplies. When I arrived at Sprague Creek, I was greeted by a sign informing me that the campground was full, but I decided to venture in and see for myself.
Inside the campground, I noticed several unoccupied tent sites situated in a circle with a sign saying they were reserved for campers without cars at a cost of $5/night. A family nearby told me the sites had been unoccupied the night before and pointed me in the direction of the camp host, who had left a note to indicate she would return later. I decided to pitch my tent anyway and left her a note to say I would move it later if there was a problem. Then I walked back to Lake McDonald Lodge to hop a shuttle east to Logan Pass, which I’d noticed on the way in was the stop luring most of the people off the bus, so I wanted to see what all the hype was about.
Back at the Lake McDonald shuttle stop, I encountered a group of four women around my age who were also waiting for the bus to Logan Pass. They’d been hiking the last few days in the backcountry and were exuberant when they discovered that the camp store nearby sold cold beer. When they found out I was traveling alone, they adopted me into their group and told me about how a marmot had tried to steal one of their hiking poles. One of the women dove into some bushes and saved the pole, whose handle still bore the teeth marks to prove they weren’t kidding.
There’s something sacred about women traveling together, especially through rugged terrain, and I immediately felt a kind of kinship with them, albeit tinged with a small pang of envy. The beauty of traveling alone is that it facilitates meaningful connections with people you may not have gotten to know otherwise, but paradoxically, it can also make you feel your solitude more acutely. Sometimes both things are true at once.
On the ride to Logan Pass, the women fantasized at length about how good it would feel to take off their shoes and about everything they were going to eat once they got back to civilization. They had researched the park much better than I had and gave me a lot of pointers about good hiking spots. From Logan Pass, I could get to Hidden Lake or the Highline Trail, but it was too late in the afternoon to get to the best part of the latter: the Grinnell Glacier Overlook. They’d hiked past the glacier on a different trail in the backcountry and showed me some photos. I decided that I’d set out on the Highline Trail the next morning, and when I parted ways with the group, I headed for the Hidden Lake Trail.
From Logan Pass to the Hidden Lake Overlook, the hike is a little more than a mile one-way–just about all I had time for in order to catch the last shuttle back to Lake McDonald that evening. As a relatively seasoned hiker, I would call the trail easy, though the wind was quite chilly even on a sunny August afternoon. The path is well-populated, and the highlight for me was having my overpriced bear spray purchase validated when I saw a mama grizzly and her cubs at the overlook. They were far enough away that I had no cause to use the bear spray, but it was good to know I had it as a last resort if I were to encounter any others up close.
On the hike back, I snapped a cute photo of two complete strangers having a moment:
That night, I returned to Sprague Creek, where the camp host gave me a warm welcome, and the family I had talked to earlier offered me a hot cup of tea before bed.