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Glacier National Park, Montana: Are you looking for a hike with extraordinary views? We have one for you. Check out what we saw, where we stayed and where we hiked during a week exploring Glacier National Park, Montana.
As we drove into Montana for the first time and made our way toward Glacier National Park, I had the unmistakable sense that our family was in for a truly extraordinary experience.
It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why I felt this way. By this point, we had already made our way through Colorado (where we had a few days at the breathtaking Royal Gorge and a few more days near spectacular Rocky Mountain National Park) and Wyoming (where we spent four days in Grand Teton National Park and hiked some fantastic trails). We had covered considerable ground and had our minds blown already as natural beauty we could hardly have imagined enveloped us at every turn.
These early experiences on our northbound summer journey were exhilarating, to say the least. But as I guided our truck and travel trailer quickly through Yellowstone National Park and then pointed us west on I-90 toward our first destination near the west entrance of Glacier (a tiny town called Coram), something shifted inside of me. I felt at peace, and maybe at home.
GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, MONTANA: SUMMER 2017
THE MONTANA VIBE
It wasn’t just the natural beauty of our surroundings. It was more about….the vibe. I know that sounds a bit corny and cliché, but it’s true. The vibe had shifted and my sense of anticipation and excitement had shifted with it.
It took us a couple more days to make it to the park, with stops in Bozeman and Missoula to break up the drive. In each city, we really soaked up the downtown areas and just felt an instant connection to the people and the spirit of the place. We could have stayed longer in either location and been just fine, but Glacier was beckoning!
Finally, at about 2:30 pm on July 16, we arrived in Coram and checked in to our RV park nestled in the grand pines that blanketed the entire area. We were thrilled to find out that the west entrance to Glacier was only about 7 minutes down the road.
Should we wait until tomorrow morning to head in? HECK NO! We got the essentials taken care of with the trailer and my two boys and I headed straight into the park at about 3:30 pm. We had to get a taste or there would be no sleep!
OUR FIRST TASTE OF THE PARK – LAKE MCDONALD
Folks, I can’t adequately describe what it felt like to lay our eyes on pristine Lake McDonald for the first time, with towering peaks reflected in its chilly and crystal clear waters. My boys wanted to get down to the lake so fast, they all but jerked at the steering wheel to get me to park so they could jump out the door and scamper down the small hillside to the lakeshore.
As I said, the water was quite chilly, but that didn’t stop my 13-year old from heading straight in! Trying to keep him out would have been like trying to hold back the tide. All of us in the family are fueled by intimate experiences with nature, but this one has no reservations at all about going in head first (literally) to such opportunities.
As a traveler, I get great joy and satisfaction from all of my experiences on the road, especially those immersed in nature. But nothing compares to the feeling of watching your children enter a state of ecstasy as they encounter mind-blowing natural wonders for the first time. In some ways, it is like watching a part of them come alive, like something new and untameable has been born in their spirits. That is probably my greatest joy and thrill.
When the travel days are long, when spirits are a bit low or things just aren’t going quite as planned, watching my children in an encounter like this sets everything right. It reminds me why we let go of nearly everything we had known and set out on this grand adventure in the first place. It reminds me that they are being fundamentally changed, enriched and shaped by these moments of simply being lost in the life-giving embrace of the natural world. And this reminder always fills me with peace and contentment in that moment.
DRIVING THE GOING TO THE SUN ROAD
Glacier National Park continued to provide one moment after another of jaw-dropping, heart-pounding encounters. The next day, the whole family headed back into the park and made our way up to Logan Pass Visitor Center via Going to the Sun Road. The first couple of trips up this road, it felt more like “Going to Die Road”. This is a VERY narrow and winding road.
How narrow? Well, I had the side mirrors on my RAM 2500 truck pulled in on some stretches of the road to avoid scraping the rocks on one side or colliding with the mirror of another truck on the other side. It. Is. Narrow. (Also, that stretch of road is currently restricted to vehicles under 21 feet in length only. And my long bed truck was right at the limit…or maybe just a bit past. Sssshhhh….)
But after a few trips up and back, you start getting used to it. And boy is it worth the extra bit of anxiety! We encountered marmots, elk, and mountain goats (even a baby one) up near the Visitor Center and were simply mesmerized by the beauty and the other-worldly experience of being up close and personal with the wild animals. (Not too close. We kept our safe and reasonable distance. The zoom lens helped with the up close aspect.)
MOVIN’ ON UP TO THE EAST SIDE – ST. MARY, MONTANA
After a few days exploring the park from the west entrance, we moved the RV about two hours away to the east entrance near the town of St. Mary, Montana. While we thoroughly enjoyed those first days of exploration in the west, we quickly found out that the east entrance near St. Mary is far less crowded and commercialized (gift shops, restaurants, etc.) than the west entrance. And we were quite okay with that.
In addition, at the time we were there, there was considerable road construction taking place on the west side of the park, while the east side was mostly construction-free. This could obviously change at any time.
Bottom line is that we enjoyed the slower pace and the easier traveling that the east entrance provided. And we were still able to make it back up to Logan Pass at any point as the Going to the Sun Road runs all the way across the park. If I remember correctly, it was about a 45-minute drive up to the pass from either entrance.
THE MT. OBERLIN CLIMB
During this stay on the east side at St. Mary, the boys and I decided to try out a challenging hike (climb). While not an official trail from what I can tell, the trek up to the peak of Mt. Oberlin proved to be a thrilling challenge for all of us.
We parked at the Visitor Center and tried to follow directions my son had found online to locate the trailhead to Mt. Oberlin. It took us a few tries and about 45 minutes before we were able to set out with confidence, but we had gotten an early start so it worked out just fine.
The trek up Oberlin absolutely had us panting and fighting for breath at some points, but it proved to be well worth it. We made our way up and across several snowfields until we reached the saddle back just below Oberlin’s peak. And this is where things got a bit more interesting.
In addition to keeping your eyes open for cairns that mark the optimal path up the mountain, several spots along the way required some real climbing on the rocks and squeezing through tight passes, pulling yourself up to the next level with your hands and scrambling to avoid a potential fall.
It’s hard to recommend an age limit for this trail, but I feel like it would have been extremely challenging to have anyone younger than my 13-year old up there with us. He is very agile and sure-footed with some hiking experience under his belt, so use your best judgment if you take a crack at Mt. Oberlin.
But, as you can see from the stunning pictures, the climb was well worth the effort! It was absolutely gorgeous on this clear and sunny day and we absolutely felt like we were on top of the world. It was a fantastic experience for all three of us.
THE LOST IPHONE
It also turned out to be nearly miraculous. Part of our time up near the top of the mountain was spent retracing our steps and trying to locate my 13-year old’s mobile phone that had somehow escaped his pocket. After looking for 30-45 minutes or so, we chose to just give up, head back down the mountain and hope for the best.
Thankfully, someone who came up after us that day had found the phone and turned it into the ranger station. It took a little while to figure out exactly where the phone was located in the park, but when we did we made a quick trip to the station and were able to retrieve it and avoid an unnecessary expense. So…thank you random and nameless people! You made our day.
Glacier National Park is an absolute jewel that I hope each of you can experience in your lifetime. I don’t have the ability right now to tell you about all of our adventures, but you can see some more pictures below that we captured on our hike to Grinnell Glacier. (It was phenomenal!! Go do it, please.)
I can assure you that you will not be disappointed with this place and this experience if the wonders of the natural world fuel your spirit as they do all of ours. May you also be filled, renewed, and changed by the experience.
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Todd Bonner is the slightly quieter half of the dynamic TREKKN duo. He spends most of his time sharing information about RV travel and safety, RV accessories and tips, and the National Parks he has visited and still desperately craves. When he’s not busy working on TREKKN, you will often find him staring at breathtaking pictures of Glacier National Park, probably his favorite spot on earth.