Among the laundry list of places we intended to see during our tour of the US, Glacier National Park was at the top. We had lofty expectations for our time in the park, not only because of the stories shared by family and friends who had visited, but because Glacier is one of the most highly coveted backpacking playgrounds in the US.
Upon entering the park our first stop was the backcountry office where we intended to plan out our week. The way Glacier operates its backcountry sites is by allowing half of the sites to be reserved in advance starting at 9:00 am on April 15 (which we later found out were booked by 9:02 am on April 15th) and the other half of the sites to be set aside for walk-ins such as ourselves. After reviewing the reservation list we quickly realized just how desirable the NE section of the park was since almost everything was booked. Our ranger tried fervently to link together some kind of trip for us to no avail. He did, however, find a site open that night at Granite Park. We were hesitant since it was already late in the day but the ranger was surprisingly pushy and insisted that we just get out there. He informed us we’d be hiking the Highline Trail and as soon as he said the words “you won’t regret it” we signed the papers and rushed to the van to start prepping our packs.
The drive from the West Entrance goes through the heart of the park on Going to the Sun road. The two-lane, winding road was constructed in the 30’s and is one hell of a way to be introduced to the park. Dug into the edge of a mountain, the road climbs from the valley floor to Logan Pass at 6,646 ft. Across the valley, the view consists of a lush mountain ridge with more waterfalls than one could count. If a T-rex had crossed the road in front of us it wouldn’t have seemed out of place. Hiking the Highline trail gave us a second chance at all the views we had from the road but with a much improved vantage point. The trail hugs the same ridge but it is high enough up that the road rarely comes into view. Fifteen minutes, a group of big horned sheep and one mountain goat later, we were both in agreement that this was THE most beautiful hike we had ever been on. By the end of the week Glacier would occupy four of the top five spots on that list.
Because Glacier is in the heart of Grizzly country, each camping area has multiple camp sites with one communal food prep area and a bear pole for hanging food. While preparing our dinner we shared the food prep area with a group of father/son duos from Wisconsin. An extremely friendly and somewhat quirky group, we enjoyed their company and had some laughs while we cooked. At one point we mentioned our difficulty finding sites around Many Glacier and our hope that something would open up in the next few days. After they exchanged a few back and forths within the group they told us that they were losing a few people due to injuries so they would have an extra tent site. With a surprisingly little amount of hesitancy they invited to us to tag along on their four night trip. After getting out our map and reviewing their itinerary, I had to work hard to conceal my excitement – the trip they planned included many highlights of the North Circle loop, ranked one of the best hikes in the country. We worked out a few more details and soon retired to our tent with the agreement that we would meet our new friends at Poia Lake in a couple days. To be honest, Jill and I were a little hesitant about sharing so much time with a group we knew little about but in the end we agreed that the opportunity was too good to pass up. It didn’t take long for these doubts to dissipate.
Day two, our longest day of the trip, was a 14 mile hike from Poia to Cosley Lake which included going over Red Gap Pass, a more than 1500 ft climb. From the crest of the pass we were rewarded with a beautiful vista of peaks and valleys as far as the eye could see. While resting at Elizabeth Lake, still 4 miles from our destination, we came across a ranger who informed us that the park would be temporarily closing the Ptarmigan (pronounced Tarmigin) Tunnel trail due to bear activity. Not only was this one of the more famous sections of our trip, it was also our route out! Still three days away, we had hope. The trail would open back up if the rangers had two consecutive days on the trail without seeing bears. In 2006, the Wisconsin crew had made their annual trip to Glacier and found themselves in the exact same scenario. They had intended to hike out the Ptarmigan Tunnel trail but had to avert their itinerary due to bear activity. We could tell that they were determined not to have the same thing happen again as they showed blatant optimism in the face of the ranger’s doubt that the trail would be open by the time we came back around.
The next few days flew by. While at Cosley we had gained a new member to our group, a young solo hiker from Michigan who had to amend his itinerary due to the trail closure, making our group 8. Our campsites weren’t more than a half day’s hike apart so we filled the rest of our time visiting swimming holes, fishing for trout and learning the most complicated card game known to man, Sheepshead. Over dinner the final night we discussed our game plan for the final day. In the scenario that the Ptarmigan Tunnel was still closed, we would hike to the point of closure at the Iceberg Lake Junction and “bushwhack” (a term for going off trail) a mile and half towards another trail that also ended at Many Glacier where our cars were parked. Since Jill was struggling with a horribly blistered toe we agreed that we would get an early start to the day in order to prevent slowing the whole group down.
As we started the days hike, the sun was still hidden by the mountains, the air was cold and the brush wet with dew. We had gotten a healthy head start, and with the MacGyveresque super gluing of Jill’s pinky toe (thanks Tony) we were keeping a pretty good pace. Confidently walking past the multiple closed trail signs we made our way up the steep pass towards the Ptarmigan Tunnel. It was apparent why the trail was a highlight in the park as it was literally carved into the side of the granite face of a steep mountain side. It climaxed with a man made tunnel through the mountain providing hikers access to the other side of the pass. As we arrived on the other side of the tunnel we were greeted by an amazing view of the three dimensional version of the map we had closely studied the night before. We were also greeted by a rope across the trail signifying the point of closure, a full mile before the Ice Berg Lake Junction! Realizing we were in trouble, Jill and I weighed our two options, hoping to be in agreement before the rest of the group caught up. Because we didn’t have enough food to be on the trail another night, we had to either continue along the bear-heavy closed trail or hike back out the way we came over the dreaded red gap pass. We had already climbed over 2000 ft in 6 miles and turning back would add another 16 miles and almost 3000 additional ft in elevation to get to our cars. But the alternative would mean we’d be completely disregarding the wishes of the park staff who have not only the best interest of hikers in mind but also that of its natural inhabitants. We discussed the pros and cons but in the end decided as a group that the right choice was to suck it up and take the long road out.
As we began the climb back up Red Gap Pass one of the members of the Wisconsin group, Mike, began to take breaks more and more frequently. It was apparent that he was low on energy. Water was not an issue as we all had filters and had just filled our bladders at the last stream. However, each person was down to a single energy bar along with a small amount of trail mix Jill and I had remaining. Not a ton of food for a 20 mile day never the less one preceded by four days on the trail. Throughout the many decisions we made during the day, it was collectively assumed that we were no longer a collection of three groups but were now one. During one of the breaks up the pass, while Mike was catching his breath, we proposed a plan – Dave and I would go ahead of the group and hike to the cars while the rest of the group would stay with Mike and take a shortcut that cut off 2 miles. Dave and I share the same stubborn, competitive personality and thus found ourselves keeping a less than 20 minute mile pace for the next 13 miles, taking just one luxurious 5 minute break. We got down well before we anticipated and figured we’d have another two hours before the rest of the group finished. We took a quick swim in the ice cold Swiftcurrent Lake and I relished in the satisfying exhaustion that was felt in every muscle of my body. While driving back to the trailhead, we were surprised to see a group of scraggly looking hikers sprawled along the curbside. Turns out the rest of the crew was as anxious as we were to be finished and had also refused to take breaks. Pushing through the pain that day, we all discovered an extra gear needed to finish what was easily the most intense hike anyone in this group had experienced.
We barely summoned enough energy to say our goodbyes. We were sad to see our new friends go. It would days before Jill and I got used to it just being the two of us again. We relished the company we had stumbled upon in the least likely of places – the wilderness. Driving away from the trailhead I couldn’t help but think of something Jill’s father had once said: it’s not much of a hike unless at some point you feel your life might be in danger. In this case, we had had one hell of a hike.