Glacier is a really big park. I don’t think we fully understood this when we chose it as a tentative destination. From the southwest, we conveniently hit the park through the Apgar entrance, located next to Lake McDonald. This has one of the largest campgrounds and is a popular spot for visitors. We were able to get rolling pretty fast Monday morning and were inside the park, scoping out campsites, by about 8:30. This park has a very efficient system for updating the status on all the campgrounds and we could see that most of them were indicating “Full” by 10, over prior days. We were nervous about getting a spot, but needn’t have been. There were many empty places, plus others where people were packing up to leave that we could have snagged. We got a really nice spot in the B loop, but all of the sites are nicely spaced, pull through, curved sites, that are mostly level. There are no electrical hookups, but there are water spigots. There was not much solar unfortunately, but it did make for nice scenery under all the trees. Plus, though it was not hot exactly, it was warm, and the shade made for a perfect afternoon lounging spot.
Once we got situated and all registered, we needed to orient ourselves to the park, so we biked a short and wildflower bordered path to the Apgar Visitor Center. One thing I’ll say about Glacier, they do a dandy job of scaring the crap out of you over bears. There are big signs posted everywhere showing the “bear frequented” areas. That seemed to include just about everything, so even on the bike, I was scanning the bushes continuously. The first order of business for me was to obtain some fabled bear spray and learn how to use it. There was a ranger talk in the afternoon, so we went and got lunch in Apgar Village before returning for our arms training. Our particular ranger was not all that alarmist about it and shared that part of the reason they are so up in arms about it is because they want people in the campground to take storage of food VERY seriously so that the bears don’t come to associate campgrounds with food, like they do in Yosemite. She also pointed out that bears don’t typically want to eat or kill humans, even if they charge. Most aggressive encounters happen because a bear got startled, or because someone got too close to a cub. So if you just talk to each other while on the trail, probably nothing will happen. If you see a bear on a trail, she said to “give it the right of way.” No problem. Done. Then talk in a normal, soft voice, and slowly back away. The bear spray is supposed to be a last resort and I have a feeling people are far more likely to tear gas themselves than the bear. In fact, during our three day stay, we heard an entire shuttle bus was taken out of commission because a bear spray canister went off. Fun.
We then decided to get a preview of the famous “Going to the Sun Road,” which Richard had long been anticipating riding on his bike. There are no bikes allowed on this road from 11am to 4pm, and we soon understood why. You also cannot take big vehicles, and definitely not trailers, past the Avalanche campground on the eastern side of the lake. Very good call there. We were happy to try out the park’s shuttle system and head up to Logan Pass, the midpoint. We didn’t have to wait too long to get a shuttle from Apgar to Avalanche, but then we had to disembark and wait for a much smaller bus to make the trek up to Logan Pass. That took a while. But we did catch one, and I will say, I’m glad I wasn’t foolhardy enough to just jump in and drive that thing. In fact, seeing the last stretch of road from the less deathy side of a shuttle bus will do me just fine for a lifetime, thanks. I think I may have passed out if I’d been driving myself. Here’s a video of the road. I took some pictures through the shuttle bus window until I couldn’t even do that. Then, I just looked intently at the rock wall, rather than the abyss.
We decided not to try to take the shuttle all the way to the eastern side of the park and back again because we were quickly becoming aware of the limitations of the shuttle system. In short, there are really not enough buses in circulation to handle peak visitor populations. It would be a hard thing to manage, way more challenging than the short valley floor of Zion. But if they want to reduce car traffic along that road, they’ll need to be able to cut down the wait time of 1-2 hours at shuttle transfer points. That would also mean hiring a lot more drivers, which would be hard too. We listened to the driver taking us down from the pass telling a woman he’d only been driving a bus since July 1st and that after 4 or 5 of these trips, he’s “whipped.” Great. Please stop talking and keep your eyes on the road. How many is this for you today by the way? Another driver literally ran his bus into a stop sign and had to sheepishly call in to the dispatcher to report the damage to both shuttle and sign. I don’t think it’s their fault, or the park’s fault. I think they just need a lot more drivers and busses, and that would take a lot of money. Not the best time for the National Park System. I wish I could be a wealthy donor and make that happen for them. Meanwhile, there was a Red Bus Tour we wish we’d known about ahead of time. It was booked through the end of the month, alas.
Tuesday was bike day for Richard and lake day for me. He got up really, really early and headed out, not sure if he was going to try the whole thing, or just go up to “The Loop.” I leisurely go up and got myself out onto the lake. My goodness that was glorious. Also, the best cell reception I got was from the middle of the lake, so I got to catch up with a few people and check in on home. Good all around and I scoff at the technology haters. Richard did indeed make it all the way to the top and opted to take the shuttle back down, rather than try to descend that thing.
That afternoon, we went to Lake McDonald Lodge and caught a boat tour. There we learned about the massive fire that swept through the park in 2003, wiping out 17% of all burnable land. We also learned that most of the park stays buried under snow far more than not. The season is very short if you’re not into cross country skiing. Also, apparently, all of the glaciers in Glacier National Park will be gone by 2030. Sobering. After the lake tour, we drove out as far as “The Loop” to take in some of the scenery. Around 7pm appears to be the perfect time to do that road. Most of the traffic has died down and the 3-4 construction points that stop traffic dead have cleared for the night. If you’re going to do that road, I suggest you either reserve a Red Bus Tour, or drive it before 10 or after 6.
Wednesday we went for a hike out to Avalanche Lake. Given some debate, and not having yet given up on the shuttle system, we decided not to try to drive because parking is mostly gobbled up by 10ish and I didn’t want to have to rush. The way out wasn’t too bad and we spent several hours enjoying the steady hike upwards to the lake. Was I worried about bears? Of course I was. But we were both packing, holsters ready and hanging from our backpacks in easy to reach locations. Also, there were so many people on the trail, all making plenty of noise, it just didn’t seem likely any bear could stumble upon us accidentally . I think if a deer had surprised us on the trail, it would have gotten nailed by at least 20 canisters and we would all have spent the rest of the day rolling on the ground crying. Didn’t happen, but would have been “funny.” This hike is about 2.5 miles one way, mostly up on the way out. It winds its way along a rushing river most of the route, through a dense forest of cedars, pines, ferns, huckleberry bushes, and a profusion of wildflowers at the top. The reward is well worth the effort and the color of the water is just beautiful. Also, to my surprise and delight, there were pit toilets up at the top. There is a boardwalk trail, very accessible, down at the beginning that is only about a mile loop and it’s easy to do the whole thing as part of the longer out and back.
When we returned to the shuttle stop, there were already maybe twenty annoyed people waiting in the sun for a bus. There was also a harried guy on a radio, trying unsuccessfully to lift spirits and make it seem like something was going to arrive soon. The crowd only grew and became more annoyed. Two small busses came, and left, to take people up to Logan Pass. Finally, after over an hour with no shelter, a large bus arrived. Most people disembarked like you’re supposed to. But, there was a group of 17 people at the back who were flat out refusing to get off. Much heated discussion ensued between the angriest of them, the bus driver, and the guy with the radio. Ultimately, they stayed on and the driver crammed as many of the waiting people as possible into the aisles. We stood right among the shuttle system protesters and soon learned the reasons why they stood their ground. Apparently, their wait at Apgar had been two hours and they kept being told the next bus would come “any minute,” so it became an irrational challenge. They had like ten small kids with them, all in various stages of melt down. It was hot outside, and they had brought no food because they were terrified of bears. Given all of that, I support their position of not getting off when they were told they had to. We chatted during the long drive back and they were nice people. Little did they know I was pondering peppering them just a few minutes earlier. Maybe bear spray is too much power for me to handle.
All in all, we loved this park very much. We didn’t even scratch the surface of exploring it. There are several distinct sections of the park, most on the eastern side, that we didn’t even see. We would like to come back and do some of those areas, especially the eastern side of the Going to the Sun Road. We liked staying at Apgar, though our battery did hit 50% on the last night there because there just wasn’t enough sun to keep up. In retrospect, we should have turned the fridge down to 1 instead of 2 upon arrival. Might have helped. We liked the plan of staying in a “whatever” kind of place, super close to the park the night before. Good visit all around and another pin goes in the National Parks map.