Glacier National Park Without a Car, in the Rain

(August 8, 2021)

I woke up this morning around 5 AM to the sound of heavy drops splashing against the rainfly of my one-person tent. It’s the same tent I took on my solo, cross-country train trip in 2017, but that time, I somehow managed to get from Atlantic to Pacific and back without having to test its water resistance. It was still dark this morning when the storm rolled in, so I felt around the seams of the tent to make sure there was no water dripping in or pooling in the corners. It was still storming when I woke again at 7–warm, dry, and grateful not only that the rainfly was doing its job, but also that the storm might help to quash the Hay Creek Fire that had been burning in the park for the last two and a half weeks.  

I lingered in the tent awhile, wondering how long the storm would last. Since there was no cell reception to check the radar, I formed a mental plan as to how I would dress and break down my tent in the rain before making my way toward the Amtrak station to catch the Empire Builder to Seattle that evening. I’d read somewhere that you shouldn’t keep your pack inside your tent in case a trace of some scent lingered that might attract an animal; since there had been a light mist before bed, I’d put the rain cover on my pack, just outside the door to my tent. So in the morning, I simply unzipped the door, pulled my pack toward me, and retrieved some moisture-wicking clothing and my raincoat. Once I was suited up, I ventured outside to the bear-proof storage bin where I had stored my toiletries, and then I trudged off to the bathroom to brush my teeth. 

Then I returned, deflated my pillow and sleeping pad, and rolled everything up. I tucked my eyeglasses away in their case to avoid the hassle of rain-fogged lenses and fumbled to put my contacts in without a mirror. Then I broke down my tent and stuffed the sopping heap into its case, knowing I would need to pull it out again for a good cleaning once I reached Seattle. I crammed everything into my pack and stored the tent in an exterior side pocket to avoid dampening the precious few clean underwear and socks I had left since I’d last done laundry in Minneapolis.

During a normal season, the Glacier Park Shuttle stops across the street from the campground, but since the Sprague Creek stop was not in service during the pandemic, I heaved my pack onto my back and slogged a mile from the campground to Lake McDonald Lodge, propelled forward in spite of my sore knees and calves by the promise of hot coffee and breakfast. (I’d hiked over 17 miles on the the day before, mostly on the Highline and Garden Wall Trails.)

For my 2017 trip, I’d brought a pair of heavy-duty, water-repellent hiking boots, but I opted not to lug them around this time because they were bulky and a bit warmer than I would have preferred for August. I’d decided instead to bring one pair of good quality rubber flip-flops and one pair of lightweight Brooks Ricochet running shoes, which had served me well on my various hikes and jogs up to this point. Since there was considerable overgrowth along the road to the Lodge and I would be carrying a 30-pound pack, I went with the sneakers. For socks, I wore one of my two remaining clean pairs: some lightweight Feetures I use often for running. Within five minutes, I realized the combination was not ideal, and for the third time already on the trip, I wished I’d brought more merino wool Bombas–the only socks I’ve found that are truly all-weather (thick enough to have adequate moisture-wicking properties while still keeping my feet cool enough in the summer and warm enough in the winter). A man driving a U-haul truck stopped and asked if I wanted a ride, but I figured wet feet were less potentially dangerous than a random man, so I declined. Luckily, I had just a short way to go, so I sloshed to the Lodge and changed into the Bombas, which in spite of being quite dirty made my feet feel dry and warm even though my shoes were not. (Fun fact: I later figured out that enterprising people had resorted to renting Uhauls in order to circumvent the rental car shortage.)

The restaurant take-out window by the lake. I ordered a coffee, a sausage biscuit, and a hashbrown. Seeing my pack, the server asked where I was headed. I explained that I had a train scheduled out of Whitefish at 9 PM, and he asked if I was walking. I shrugged. He raised a thumb and his eyebrows to ask if I was hitching. 

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m taking the shuttle to Apgar, and I’m wondering if there might be a bus or something from there.” 

He nodded. “You look resourceful.”  

I nodded back. “I am.”  

He handed me the coffee and told me I could pick the food up at the window around the corner in five minutes or so. I moved aside, took off my pack, stretched my legs, and remembered what another server had said yesterday about how he and some friends wanted to take the train from West to East Glacier sometime. I thought I’d read somewhere that the East Glacier station was open only during the summers and West only later in the year, but I figured it was worth double checking. So I waited out the weak Wifi signal long enough to figure out that I could indeed change my reservation to depart from West Glacier rather than Whitefish, and I could walk two and a half miles along a bike path from the Apgar Visitors’ Center to the West Glacier Amtrak Station. Furthermore, the rain would be on lunch break from 11-12 AM. As much as I wanted to see Whitefish, the weather forecast made it seem like more trouble than it was worth. I reasoned that it was writing weather, anyway, and I could do that from any dry location with a power outlet. 

So after breakfast, I sat in the Lodge and wrote until around 10:30 and then caught the shuttle to Apgar Village, an adorable little outpost on the west side of the park that I regretted not having explored in nicer weather. I didn’t know how long the break in the rain would last, though, so I found the bike path and headed in the direction of the Amtrak station.

About a quarter mile from the West Glacier Amtrak Station, a small stretch of Going to the Sun Road was lined with some charming little shops and restaurants. I had quite a bit of time to kill before the arrival of the Empire Builder, so I ordered huckleberry pie à la mode from the West Glacier Cafe and settled in to write.

Huckleberry pie à la mode from West Glacier Cafe

That afternoon, I posted a photo of myself at the Grinnell Glacier Overlook from the day before, and although most of my Facebook friends cheered me on, a couple expressed concern that it hadn’t been safe for me to hike the Highline alone. My sense is that people usually mean well by this kind of concern, and it is true that under certain circumstances, I am less risk averse than many; it comes from having grown accustomed to volatility in my early childhood. When some of your earliest memories involve things like being hidden in a closet by your older sister so that you won’t get trampled by the fist fight happening in the living room, your adult brain becomes capable of a mental calculus a lot of people aren’t wired for. For instance, how might the risk of something like hiking alone compare to, say, the risk of being a victim of domestic violence? Might something as common as marriage actually be more dangerous, statistically?

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.