Glacier National Park, Montana – August 15-16, 2012

Wednesday: I flew from LaGuardia to Kalispell, Montana via United, changing planes in Chicago. I arrived in Kalispell at 12:30 p.m., and was relieved when my duffel bag (with all my camping gear) appeared at baggage claim.

I had reserved a rental car with Thrifty, and the van was waiting for me when I arrived, with the Thrifty employee holding a sign with my name and that of three other travelers. It was a nice touch! The others either weren’t on my flight or else tarried, so she took me alone to their off-airport location, where she rented me a Toyota Corolla. The car only had 6000 miles on it, and was nice enough, though I thought that the stereo provided very poor sound, far inferior to that of my ancient Toyota Camry. I tried different stations, tried adjusting the balance, fade, bass and treble, and was not able to obtain much improvement. The VW Jetta that I had rented at Yosemite, which had a satellite radio and a sun roof, had been a much nicer car.

As a side business, the manager of the Thrifty’s agency also rented bear spray, and I rented a can for $20, as opposed to buying a can for $45-50. They also rented coolers, I think for $10, but I declined, as I had brought a folding cooler with me.

I drove immediately to the park, as I was concerned with getting a campsite before they were all taken. I found a suitable site at the Apgar campground, on the south shore of Lake McDonald, set up my tent and paid for 7 nights.

I then drove back at least 3/4 of the way to the airport, to the Smith’s grocery in Columbia Falls, where I stocked up on groceries. To prevent attracting  bears or other animals, the park requires that food and scented toiletries be stored in the trunk of a vehicle. I remembered that my folding cooler leaked and that therefore I couldn’t store it in the trunk of the rental car, and therefore I bought a cheap Styrofoam cooler at Smith’s. I don’t like Styrofoam coolers, due to their poor performance and the fact that they take up landfill space and never deteriorate, but I compromised my principles and bought one. (Maybe I should have driven back to Thrifty’s to rent their cooler.)

Regular readers may recall that at Yosemite, we were told that we had to store food items (and toiletries) in bear lockers that the park provided outside of each tent cabin. We were specifically not allowed to store such items in cars, and videos showed a bear breaking into a car for food. Therefore, it was surprising that Glacier’s management tells visitors to store food items in cars. One local resident gave his opinion that because Yosemite gets three times the visitors as Glacier, the bears in California are more sophisticated and have learned to break into cars, whereas the Glacier bears had not attained that level of advancement. That seems farfetched, though.

As it turned out, this cheap cooler also leaked water into the trunk of the rental car. However, I learned that while the individual campsites did not have bear lockers, there was a bear locker near our local bathroom. Thus, after discovering the problem with the leaking Styrofoam cooler, I moved it from the trunk to the bear locker.

I did not even unpack my camera on this first day, though I remember being impressed by a mural on a building in Columbia Falls that was across the street from the Smith’s grocery. I had developed a bit of a headache, so I decided to return to the campsite, take a couple of Tylenol, and rest for a while. I planned to take photos of the mural on my way out of town.

At the campsite, I rested for a couple of hours. I woke up feeling much better, and it was just in time to attend the ranger talk that evening at the amphitheater. The talk was on the wolverine.

Thursday morning: I remember having felt chilled in Bryce Canyon with my old sleeping bag, with the temperature in the low 40s, so I had bought a new MontBell sleeping bag for this trip. It worked well. I think the temperature did drop into the low 40s the first couple of nights, though afterwards it was in the upper 40s or 50s.

My first hike was the Apgar Lookout Trail, a path that would take me 3.4 miles up a ridge of the Apgar Mountains, from 3350′ elevation at the trailhead up to a lookout at about 5000′ elevation. I would then descend the same way, for a total hike of 6.8 miles.

Getting to the trailhead involved driving almost 2 miles on a gravel road that only seemed wide enough for one car, though in places there were areas to pull over to let another car pass. An SUV came up behind me, and I pulled over to let it pass. When I arrived at the parking area for the trailhead, the SUV was the only other vehicle there. It held two couples, who started up the trail before I could put on my boots.

8:23 a.m.: The trail began through a wooded area:

Apgar Lookout Trail, Glacier National Park, Montana

Start of the Apgar Lookout Trail

Pretty wildflowers lined the path. The Moon Handbooks guide to Glacier National Park said that wildflowers peak in late-July, so I was delighted to find them still plentiful in mid-August.

Wildflower, Glacier National Park, Montana


Flora of Glacier National Park lists ten species of Indian paintbrush!

Indian paintbrush, Glacier National Park, Montana

Indian paintbrush

8:28 a.m.: For part of the hike, the trail followed an old woods road through the forest. I should note at this point that the park experiences about 25 fires a year, almost all of them are small fires and are caused by lightning strikes. One exception was the Robert Fire of July 2003: it was caused by a negligent party’s campfire, and it was a large fire that consumed 57,570 acres.

Apgar Lookout Trail, Glacier National Park, Montana

This part of the trail through the burned forest follows an old woods road.

8:42 a.m.: While many of the dead trees have fallen over the years, thousands more remain standing nine years later. The absence of foliage has turned what was once a forested hike into a bright hike with excellent visibility.

Apgar Lookout Trail, Glacier National Park, Montana

The forest of burned trees remains standing 9 years after the fire

The trail was generally well-kept, though the first mile of the trail was blocked in about a dozen places by a fallen tree that had not yet been removed by chainsaw. It was usually a simple matter to step over the fallen trees, though one or two required a “sit on and swing over” technique, or a “duck under” technique to pass.

I caught up to the two couples from the SUV and passed them. As there hadn’t been other cars in the parking area, I suspected that I was now in the lead to be the first one up the mountain that morning. I made sure that I had my bear spray handy, and remembered to clap my hands and make noise every once in a while, so as not to surprise any bears that might be lurking.

9:05 a.m.: The first third of the hike was relatively flat, but then it began gaining altitude:

Apgar Lookout Trail, Glacier National Park, Montana

Gaining elevation

9:14 a.m.: After gaining about 500′, tackling the lower slope of the ridge head on, the pitch of the ridge became steeper, and the trail changed to follow three long switchbacks to the top. An idea of the extensive scope of the fire damage became more visible with the gain in elevation.

Apgar Lookout Trail, Glacier National Park, Montana

The trail that I have already climbed appears below me as a narrow brown ribbon

9:22 a.m.: At least one area had been spared by the fire, as I discovered:

Apgar Lookout Trail, Glacier National Park, Montana

Trees remain in a few places

9:28 a.m.: The tiny forested area provided some shade for hikers, and concealment for critters, such as this mule deer:

Mule deer, Glacier National Park, Montana

Mule deer

9:35 a.m.: I believe this view was roughly toward the south:

Apgar Lookout Trail, Glacier National Park, Montana

Gaining more elevation

9:40 p.m.: The trail was dusty, or perhaps a mixture of dust and ash. As I climbed through the switchbacks, chipmunks constantly ran along the trail in front of me, before dashing off into the brush beside the trail.

Chipmunks, Apgar Lookout Trail, Glacier National Park, Montana

Chipmunks were my constant companions as I climbed the dusty switchbacks

9:56 a.m.: This is one of the switchbacks followed by the trail:

Apgar Lookout Trail, Glacier National Park, Montana

The shaded end of one switchback

10:18 a.m.: I believe this is a view toward the southeast, showing a bend of the Flathead River:

Flathead River from Apgar Lookout Trail, Glacier National Park, Montana

Bend of the Flathead River

I reached the end of the trail, where radio antennas and the Apgar Fire Lookout (on the right) stood guard. The first fire lookout here, erected in 1929, burned down within a couple of weeks. This is the replacement, still standing 83 years later.

10:28 a.m.: The two couples came up to the top shortly after I did. One couple–a judge and attorney–was from California; the other couple was from Baltimore.

Apgar Fire Lookout, Glacier National Park, Montana

The lookout post and antenna farm at the top of the trail

Shortly before reaching the summit, I saw an interesting animal running along the trail. I didn’t know what it was. I saw another at the top, and one of the hikers from the SUV referred to them as gophers. I have since learned that these are not true gophers, but rather “gopher” is used a slang term for some of the species of ground squirrels. They are larger than the tree squirrels I am used to seeing, and they also stand on their hind legs more often, something that tree squirrels do not often do. I saw many Columbian ground squirrels at the park; there are also Richardson ground squirrels, which are smaller and more slender. I’m not certain which kind this one is.

Ground squirrel, Glacier National Park, Montana

Ground squirrel

This is a view from the fire lookout, I think toward the southwest:

View from Apgar Fire Lookout, Glacier National Park, Montana

View from the fire lookout

The view from the fire tower toward the northeast was obscured by the antennas, so I descended from the tower and walked around the antenna, capturing this view of the mountains of the park. At the lower right, Lake McDonald is visible through the trees:

View from Apgar Lookout Trail, Glacier National Park, Montana

Lake McDonald and the mountains of Glacier National Park

After resting a while at the top and talking to the couples from California and Maryland, I hiked back to my car, arriving at 12:36 p.m. Thus, the climb had taken me about 2 hours, I stayed at the top for about 1/2 hour, and the descent took me about 90 minutes. Along the way back to my car, I passed about 20 other hikers on the way up. So I had been the first to reach the peak that morning (unless someone had come and gone before I ever got there), but there were many who followed me.

Thursday afternoon: One deficiency of Apgar Campground was that it does not have showers, so I drove to the KOA campground about 3 miles outside the park, where showers were available for $5.

My friend Julie from law school was scheduled to join me in Glacier, our third year in a row visiting a National Park together. I phoned to offer to pick her up at the airport, but she had made advanced reservations to take a shuttle to the park. Before long, she arrived and set up her own tent.

3:57 p.m.: We walked over to the nearby boat ramp at the south shore of Lake McDonald, where I took a few photographs that stitched together nicely into this panorama:

South shore of Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park, Montana

Southern end of Lake McDonald, from the boat ramp at Apgar Village

In the evening, we went to the amphitheater, where a different ranger gave a talk on “Fire and Ice,” describing the impact on the terrain and animals of the frequent forest fires and long and frigid winters. The ranger stated that scientists believe that the glaciers of the park will all melt within 8 years or so. Species respond to change in different ways: they can adapt, relocate, or go extinct. She feared that some species, such as the pika, might not survive. I enjoyed the ranger talks, though our schedule on the remaining days was such that we did not attend any other amphitheater presentations.

Next: Friday we head to the Continental Divide and the Highline Trail!

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