Shuttle to the Sun: Glacier National Park Without a Car

(Aug. 6, 2021)

View from the shuttle on Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park

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.)

A view from Going to the Sun Road on a slightly less hazy morning later in the trip

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.

Shuttles along Going to the Sun Road travel in both directions most of the day, and in my experience, a shuttle traveling in the direction I wanted to go arrived every thirty minutes or so. Tickets had to be reserved in advance, though, and I did encounter several people who were unable to use the shuttle because they had not reserved tickets ahead of time.

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.

At 8 AM each day, cars line up at Sprague Creek Campground, hoping to secure a site.

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.

My site at Sprague Campground

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.

Trail from Logan Pass to the Hidden Lake Overlook

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.

Grizzly mama & cubs at the Hidden Lake Overlook near the Logan Pass shuttle stop

On the hike back, I snapped a cute photo of two complete strangers having a moment:

Farther down the trail, I stopped these sweet ladies to show them the photo, and I promised them I would include it in my blog so that they could look back on it later.

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.

Walking the Vera Wagner Memorial Labyrinth, in Tribute to Elspeth Pope

On May 18, I arrive at the Holly House in Shelton, Washington, about an hour and a half south of Seattle, down a long, gravel drive shaded by grand, impossibly green cedars and maples and oaks, all draped in a fine filigree of moss. I am so grateful to have been granted a month-long writing residency here by the very generous organization, Hypatia-in-the-Woods. Approaching the cabin, I pass a pebbled labyrinth that winds through the late Jim Holly’s orchard, a small meadow hedged in by blackberry brambles and dotted with a few pear, cherry, and apple trees. A wooden box at the entrance contains pamphlets describing the spiritual tradition of walking the labyrinth as a mirror of our lives’ journeys.

I am reminded of a book I have just picked up, Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Interior. “The sun and moon are eternal travelers,” it begins. “Even the years wander on.” I am greeted warmly by the writers Carolyn Maddux and Marilyn Vogler, but I do not have an opportunity to meet the director, Elspeth Pope, who during the previous week, while I was winding my way cross-country, checked herself into hospice.

Bashō’s opening paragraph continues:

A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. From the earliest times there have always been some who perished along the road. Still, I have always been drawn by wind-blown clouds into dreams of a lifetime of wandering.

The night I arrive, Elspeth passes, so this time, it seems I have wandered into someone’s death. It feels as if I am arriving as the curtain falls on a great play—one I have never seen—the audience still standing in reverential ovation, then shuffling out slowly and leaving me alone with the set: a charming cabin in the woods alongside the house of a generous scholar who made it her mission to provide other women with a creative sanctuary. The stage is still cast in the quiet spell of its absent heroine, and I am surrounded by what she left behind: shelves of books inscribed with heartfelt thanks, paintings, a sculpture, various drawings and prints, journals penned full of poems, musings, and sketches from previous residents, and a handmade box filled with remembrances of those who helped her create this place. A soft, but almost constant rain, chimes through the trees for the next two weeks, shedding white petals from the blackberry brambles and swelling the fruit to a deep red on its way to sweet.

Travelogue, 05/18/2013: Portland, OR

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I don’t know if I could stay forever in Portland, but I would definitely try it out for a year or two. We had dreary weather, but people were dressed so brightly, and the smell of wood smoke carried through the streets, which were lined with giant calla lilies and great, drooping peonies. We visited Powell’s City of Books—a blissful place—and I drank chai and browsed through shelves and shelves and shelves of excellent poetry. Bought a bunch. Wanted to buy more.

I picked up was my dear friend Sheila’s new fiction book, Keeping Safe the Stars. I don’t read much children’s lit these days, but Sheila’s work is really special. Last summer, I picked up Sparrow Road, a book about a girl who lives for a summer with her mother at an artists’ colony (the setting is loosely based on the Anderson Center, where I met Sheila), and I was totally enchanted.

After reluctantly pushing ourselves out back out into the daylight, Ally and I visited the Japanese gardens and spent awhile admiring the meticulously-sculpted shrubs and trees and the way the reflections all wavered in the koi ponds.

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Being Called a Twat on an Otherwise Lovely Day: Travelogue 5/17, Yellowstone to Boise

We had an uneventful night in Cody and moved on the next morning through Shoshone National Forest into Yellowstone. Exposed rock rose up dramatically along the Sylvan Pass, and as if right on cue, the bison, still shedding their winter coats, appeared along the road just as we reached the park:

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Much of the forest near the east entrance had been damaged badly by fire, but the melting snow made stunning cascades down the rocks, and the distant mountains provided a lovely backdrop for Yellowstone Lake, still an expansive, slushy pool of ice in mid-May:

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On down the road, we stopped at some geysers and discovered Dragon’s Mouth Spring, a rock-cave that belches sulfur-scented steam and waves of boiling water. I saw on a documentary once that no one believed the descriptions of those who first discovered Yellowstone, and I can totally see why not. It’s totally other-worldly. We continued on to a lovely view of the Lower Falls at Artists’ Point:

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As the name promised, there was a painter perched on a stool nearby, trying to capture the colors of the falls with his oils.

We exited the park into Montana, where I was promptly accosted by a woman behind the counter at Kiwi’s Takeaway. I’d been sitting there for about five minutes while she was attending to some other customers, and I decided that while I waited, I would iron out the route to Boise on my smart phone. She eventually approached and said to Ally, “I’ll take your order, but she’ll have to email me hers.” Haha, I thought, putting my cell phone away to indicate I hadn’t planned on sitting there and fiddling with it while she was trying to take our order. (I worked in restaurants for ten years and know how annoying those people are.) I looked up and smiled, but she didn’t take the clue–just glared and proceeded to yell about how rude I was being. Not in the mood for a fight, I just shrugged, said, “Nevermind,” and gathered my things to leave. (I certainly wasn’t going let her anywhere near my food after that.)  As I was on my way out, she yelled behind me, “Enjoy your Twitter, twat!” –which I admit was amusingly alliterative. Still, I hope some local hooligans vandalize her restaurant, and she is forced to spend a whole Sunday sandblasting spray-paint vaginas off her building. So much for beauty.

 

Travelogue 05/16/2013: Scenic, SD to Cody, WY

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This morning, I had perhaps the best breakfast of my life— fresh scrambled farm eggs, homemade apple cinnamon dumplings, a strawberry salad, homemade granola with yogurt, and blueberry pancakes made from wheat grown by our host’s brother—all prepared by Amy, one of the proprietors of the Circle View Ranch.

Over breakfast, Phil, the other proprietor, described Scenic, the all-but-abandoned town just up the road. In the 60’s, Scenic was renowned for the brawls that broke out at the saloon, but slowly, everyone had died or moved away until no one was left. The whole town then went on the market and was sold to a church in the Philippines for $900,000. Now one couple lives there and sells odds and ends (but no gas) out of the old gas station.

On our way toward Yellowstone, Ally and I stopped there and had a lot of fun creeping around the squat-roofed, stone jailhouse and snapping pictures of the saloon, which had strung across its roof many strands of sun-bleached animal skulls, coils of barbed wire, and a sign that, for years, had read “No Indians Allowed,” until someone finally got enough sense to climb up there and paint over the “No.” Next to the saloon was an open-air cell with a couple of rusty bed frames. I bet that place saw its share of soul-splitting headaches:

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By evening, the landscape had changed dramatically as the clouds’ shadows slid like butter over the mountains and valleys of Montana. On our way to Cody, where we stopped for the night, we drove through the Bighorn National Forest, and the shadowier hilltop roads were still lined with snow.

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