Grizzlies, Glaciers, and Climate Change: Dayhiking in Glacier National Park, Montana

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 13242A, Lodge

Highlights

  • Hike on some of Glacier National Park’s best and most stunning trails
  • Learn about glaciers and climate change, geology of the park, and local flora and fauna during on-trail professional environmental education      
  • Explore a glacier up close

Includes

  • Rustic accommodations at the Glacier Institute’s Field Camp         
  • All meals
  • All ground transportation, including airport shuttle from Kalispell, Montana

Details

DatesAug 10–17, 2013
Price$1,495
Deposit$200
Capacity16
StaffMary Owens

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Trip Overview

The Trip

Glacier National Park was born 170 million years ago as the earth’s crust was compressing and uplifting.  It was then carved by glaciers during the last ice age 20,000 years ago into the peaks and valleys that characterize the park today.  In 1901, George Bird Grinnell -- who was very influential in the establishment of Glacier as a National Park -- said that “no words can describe the grandeur and majesty of these mountains, and even photographs seem hopelessly to dwarf and belittle the most impressive peak.” 

The amazingly diverse landscape, wildlife, and spectacular scenery of Glacier National Park will be ours to explore on our moderate to moderately strenuous day hikes -- hikes that have been specifically chosen to introduce you to the various ecosystems in the park. This trip will afford you the opportunity to immerse yourself in the beauty of Glacier, while learning from experts provided by the Glacier Institute. These knowledgeable professionals will accompany us on our hikes as we learn about geology, glaciers, and the flora and fauna of the park. You will definitely want to come with an inquisitive mind and strong hiking legs.  In order to maximize our learning opportunities, and to comply with park regulations, we will break up into two groups with two similar hiking options offered most days. After a day of hiking and learning we will return to our rustic, but very comfortable, accommodations at the Glacier Institute’s Field Camp for hot showers, a warm meal, and lively conversation.

Itinerary

Note that changes in the itinerary may be necessary due to trail closures or fires.

Day 1: Everyone should arrive at the Glacier Institute Field Camp sometime between 3:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. on Saturday. If you fly into Kalispell, you will be picked up at the airport by the Glacier Institute staff and transported to Field Camp. There will be some time for you to get settled into your cabin, and then we’ll plan on having a meet-and-greet happy hour followed by our first dinner. The evening will be spent discussing the week’s activities and familiarizing ourselves with the camp. 

Day 2: Our first hike will be a stunning introduction to the park as we drive up Going-to-the-Sun Road to Logan Pass, and hike to Hidden Lake Overlook and along the Highline Trail to Haystack Butte. Be prepared to be wowed by the stunning views from both of these trails as we are introduced to the geology of the park and glacier activity. There is a good chance that we will have a personal encounter with mountain goats as they are often seen on both of these trails. Today we'll cover nine to ten miles round-trip, and 500 feet of elevation gain.

Day 3:  Today’s hike options will be either Huckleberry Mountain or Firebrand Pass. Huckleberry Mountain is 12 miles round-trip with 2,700 feet of elevation gain. There is a manned fire tower on top. The trail begins in a lush forest and climbs steadily, but never steeply, to the top. The last half-mile or so is along a ridgeline. The views from the top are impressive, looking into the north fork area of the park and the Livingston Mountain Range.  There is a fair chance for bear sightings along this trail, and for huckleberry picking.

Firebrand Pass is 9.6 miles round-trip with 2,200 feet of elevation gain. The hike will pass through a riparian area, an aspen grove, a pine forest, and numerous flower-filled meadows before climbing above timberline. This trail is in one of the least traveled areas of the park. Once at the pass, we will be rewarded with some stunning mountain views of the park’s southern peaks.

Day 4: Our hike today will be to Grinnell Glacier -- one of the most spectacular trails in the park -- where we will get the chance to learn about climate change and its effects on the glaciers. The hike begins in the Grinnell Valley, once referred to as Land of the Walled-in Lakes by Blackfeet Indians. The first three miles are a gentle grade through pine forest as we pass two lakes. Soon after leaving the lake shore, the trail climbs to an alpine meadow where there will be panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and the Grinnell Valley below. Twin Falls and the Salamander Glacier will come into view, and the view just keeps getting better as we ascend to Grinnell Glacier. The trail ends at Upper Grinnell Lake, which lies at the edge of the Glacier. Although we won’t be hiking on the glacier, we will hike up to the glacier’s edge. This hike is 11.2 miles round-trip, with an elevation gain of 1,500 feet. The trail is in prime bear and moose country, so wildlife sightings are a good possibility.

Day 5: This is our rest day. You will have the option of taking a short, easy hike on the Trail of the Cedars and Avalanche Lake Trail, or a half-day river float trip. The cost of the river float is not included in the trip price (approximately $60). We will leave some time in the afternoon to explore the shops at Apgar Village, located at the southern end of Lake McDonald and not far from Field Camp.

Day 6: The Two Medicine Valley is our destination today. Many of the peaks in the Two Medicine Valley are some of the most photographed in the park. It is a classic glacially carved, U-shaped valley, which will afford us an opportunity to learn more about glacier activity and the geology of the park. The hiking options will be either Cobalt Lake or Upper Two Medicine Lake. Cobalt Lake is 11.4 miles round-trip with an elevation gain of 1,400 feet. The trail follows the south shore of Two Medicine Lake, passes some falls along the way, crosses a creek on a suspension bridge, and then ascends a valley to deep blue Cobalt Lake. 

Upper Two Medicine Lake is 9.6 miles round-trip with just 400 feet of elevation gain. The trail begins by following the north shore of Two Medicine Lake; soon after leaving the lake, there will be a short spur trail to Twin Falls that we will take. We will then return to the main trail and continue our hike to Upper Two Medicine Lake, which sits in a beautiful cirque. 

Day 7: Our final hiking day will take us either to Piegan Pass or Siyeh Pass. Both trails begin at Siyeh Bend on Going-to-the-Sun Road, just past Logan Pass. After climbing steadily for 2.7 miles, the trail enters Preston Park, where it forks. The right fork goes to Siyeh Pass and the left to Piegan Pass. For Siyeh Pass the trail levels out for a mile or so where we will hike through beautiful fields of wildflowers, past a couple of tarns, and then rock hop across a creek before ascending to Siyeh Pass. At Siyeh Pass we will be rewarded with views into the St. Mary Valley, and then begin descending, where we will have relatively close views of the Sexton Glacier. The trail continues to descend steeply above Baring Creek Valley to Sunrift Gorge and back to Going-to-the-Sun Road. Siyeh to Sunrift Gorge is 10.3 miles with an elevation gain of 2,200 feet and loss of 3,400 feet. 

The trail to Piegan Pass will ascend gently after the trail fork, and then traverse a barren, rocky slope to the pass, where there will be some awesome views into the Many Glacier Valley, where we hiked on day four. Piegan Pass is nine miles round-trip with 1,700 feet of elevation gain.

Day 8: The trip will end after breakfast, and if you fly out of Kalispell you will be transported back to the airport by the Glacier Institute. Please don’t plan on leaving before noon.

Photos

Details

Getting There

The Glacier Institute Field Camp is located just inside the West Entrance to Glacier National Park.  The nearest airport is in Kalispell, Montana, about 40 minutes from the Field Camp.  If you fly into Kalispell you will be picked up at the airport by someone from the Glacier Institute.  Try to arrive in the early afternoon on Saturday as we would like to be at the Field Camp between 3:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. 

If you find airline reservations are difficult to make by flying into Kalispell, an alternative is to fly into Missoula, which is about three hours from the park.  If you fly into Missoula you will need to rent a car for the drive to the park.  For those of you who can travel with Southwest Airlines, another option would be to fly into Spokane, Washington, and then drive to the park from there.  The drive would be approximately six hours.  On past trips, some participants have traveled to the Park by Amtrak.  The Empire Builder line, which leaves from Chicago, makes a stop at West Glacier.  Note that airfare and car rental are not included in the trip price.

The trip will be van supported.  As part of the trip fee, all ground transportation is provided from our field camp to the trailheads. 

Accommodations and Food

We will be staying at the Glacier Institute Field Camp, which is best described as “rustic.” Though rustic, it is quite comfortable. The camp is located on a bluff overlooking the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, and includes five sleeping cabins, a community bath house, a classroom, a library and a kitchen.  Each sleeping cabin comes with four or five twin beds and has electricity, but there is no running water, TV or phone. The cabins do have a portable electric heater for use if the nights get too cool.  A bottom sheet, blanket, and pillow are provided, but most people bring their own sleeping bag or other personal bedding.  The community bath house has flush toilets, sinks and hot showers.  All meals will be provided by the Glacier Institute staff.  Breakfast is continental-style and dinner is catered; lunch fixings are provided for each participant to prepare their own lunch to eat on the trail.  Vegetarians can be accommodated.  For more information about the camp and the Glacier Institute, please visit their website at www.glacierinstitute.org.

Trip Difficulty

Our hikes will range from 9-12 miles in length.  The hikes will be moderate to moderately strenuous, with elevation gains of 400-2,700 feet.  All of the hikes are on maintained trails and will take place between elevations of 5,000 to 8,100 feet.  In order to comfortably complete the hikes on this trip, all hikers should be participating in regular aerobic activity four to five days a week for a minimum of 30 minutes duration -- jogging, bike riding, or using the aerobic equipment at your local gym are just some examples. To help build your endurance, you should begin weekly hikes a few months before the trip that are 8-10 miles long with at least 1,500-2,000 feet of elevation gain.  By the time of the trip you should be able to comfortably maintain an average hiking speed of 2-2.5 mph for six to eight hours -- the key word being comfortably.  If you have participated in other Sierra Club trips you may be used to hiking at your own pace.  However, because of the small, but real potential for grizzly bear encounters while hiking in Glacier National Park, it is not safe for people to become separated from the group.  Therefore, it is imperative that you are able to maintain the hiking pace recommended by the leader.

Equipment and Clothing

About two months before the trip, you will be sent a list of required / recommended equipment and clothing.  No special gear beyond what is usually needed for day hiking will be required.  The most important piece of equipment for you to have is a pair of broken-in hiking boots or shoes.  Weather in Glacier National Park in August is usually warm days and cool nights.  Daytime temperatures will likely be in the 70s to 80s, while nighttime temperatures will cool to the 40s.  Though August is usually dry, you should be prepared for rain, and snow is possible anytime of the year.  Weather can be notoriously fickle in the park, so it is best to have clothing that you can layer.

References

If you want to know more about the hikes, pick up a copy of Hiking Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Park (a Falcon Guide).  National Geographic Trails Illustrated has a nice map of Glacier / Waterton Lakes National Park. The Glacier Institute’s website is www.glacierinstitute.org and the park's website, www.nps.gov/glac, is also a great source of information. 

Conservation

Glacier National Park was established in 1910 and encompasses more than one million acres of wilderness, with over 700 miles of trails. The park, one of the crown jewels of the national park system, is a land carved by the action of glaciers, and contains striking barren peaks, lush forest, alpine meadows, numerous lakes, abundant wildlife, and of course, glaciers.  Designated a World Heritage site in 1995 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Glacier National Park is threatened by climate change, with some experts predicting the disappearance of the park’s namesake by 2030. We will discuss this topic in depth, as well as learn about grizzly bears, geology, and local flora of the park with the help of our experts from the Glacier Institute.

Staff

Leader:

After spending 22 years in the United States Navy, Mary Owens retired to her adopted home of Montana, where she continues to work part-time as a nurse practitioner. She loves the outdoors and an active lifestyle, and has hiked extensively in Montana, the Sierra Nevada, and Arizona. Mary is the Outings Coordinator for the Montana Chapter of the Sierra Club, and has been leading national outings since 2007. She looks forward to sharing her love of Montana and the outdoors with you.

Co-Leader:

Ann Cocks grew up hiking in the Sierra Nevada and has discovered other favorite mountains in the Rockies, the Cascades and Alaska. She has co-led trips in The Rockies, Alaska, and the Sierra Nevada. She loves Sierra Club outings for the way that wilderness brings people together. Ann is a teacher in Illinois who gains sustenance from dreaming about, planning, and traveling to landscapes that challenge us to live simply and in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, “heighten our sensitivities to the promises of life.” She completed the Sierra Club leadership training program in 2004 and is certified in Wilderness First Aid (WFA).

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