Week 54: Glacier National Park: Part 2

We’re back with Part 2 of our trip to Glacier National Park, a place so beautiful it makes the background of our pictures look photoshopped.  If you haven’t seen Part 1, check it out here.

Logan Fog

Due to grizzly bear activity, hikes in Glacier tend to close without warning.  That happened to us when we reached Logan Pass, the top of Going-to-the-Sun road, and found the option we wanted was closed.  So, in the spirit of adventure, we persuaded Jake’s family to go on one of Glacier’s most famous hikes:  The Highline Trail.  The Highline Trail starts at Logan Pass, and it runs directly above Going-to-the-Sun road.

Oh, and it starts with a walk along the side of a cliff.

There is a handrail, of sorts.  A chain wrapped in long pieces of garden hose is bolted to the wall, reminding us of a more comfortable version of Angel’s Landing at Zion.  Jake’s mom is no fan of heights, but she got made it through beautifully – perhaps because a massive fog bank made it impossible to look down.

Unfortunately, the fog hung around for more than just the cliff walk.  The actual trail was bursting with birds and bees, Spring flowers and cute little animals, and melting snow (in July!) but we couldn’t see a damn thing more than ten feet away.  The swirls and eddies of the fog would provide tantalizing glimpses of the valley we knew was there, but couldn’t see.

We decided to turn back after a while, but as luck would have it, the fog lifted right before we made it back – and it was a stunning sight.

Incidentally, Logan Pass isn’t especially high by Rocky Mountain standards (6,600 feet), but it does have one thing going for it:  mountain goats!  They hang out right near the visitor’s center, slowing traffic and accomplishing basically nothing.  As far as we can tell, their life consists entirely of licking rocks and sleeping.

Animals after our own heart.

West Side > East Side

After our week with Jake’s family was up, we sadly said our goodbyes – to Jake’s mom and dad, that is.  Nothing Mundane’s official sister, Kate, stayed with us for a few more days, as we traveled around the park to… the East Side.

That probably makes no sense, so here’s the explanation.  Glacier is huge, and the main entrances are on the west side and the east side, connected by Going-to-the-Sun Road.   The west side is near a large tourist town with restaurants, breweries, grocery stores, and the coolest gift shop we’ve ever been to.

The east side has… an RV park, and a gas station.  And that’s about it.

That’s a slight exaggeration, but not by much.  There was a bar, a burrito stand, and the world’s tiniest and saddest-looking miniature golf course, but certainly no brewery or grocery store.  Our Internet connection approximated the AOL dial-up days.  We couldn’t even buy cooking wine, since the area is on the Blackfeet Tribe reservation and it was a tribal holiday (although apparently the bar was fine!).

At least we were able to get reservations at the RV park here.  As it turned out, the RV park itself has its own restaurant.  The enterprise was essentially built by hand by settlers in the 1950s, and there were some interesting mementos.  Our favorite were the guestbook pages laminated into the table.

There is a downside to being a family run business, however, not to mention being the only game in town.  The waiters and waitresses may literally have never been to another restaurant, because their service was so terrible it was almost impressive.  They genuinely could not have cared less whether we enjoyed our meal.  Jake also learned that, while “chef’s choice” may get you something good and unique at a high-end sushi restaurant, it gets you “a pile of whatever crap we couldn’t sell this month” at family-run RV park restaurants in northwestern Montana.

Learning is fun.

Ice, Ice Baby

Undeterred by culinary atrocities, we struck out with Kate on a hike to Iceberg Lake.  The trail cuts through a beautiful alpine meadow teeming with wildflowers, set against a backdrop so magnificent we can’t possibly do it justice with words.   Just take a look at the pictures.

We passed through a dense forest with few people around, which made us slightly nervous because this is grizzly bear country.  We certainly didn’t want to surprise any grizzlies, so we clapped and talked loudly as we went.  (Some people wore bells for this purpose, but several different rangers later confided in us that these are worthless.)

No bears were encountered – maybe they didn’t like our singing – and we soon reached the lake, surrounded on three sides by sheer mountain cliffs.  It was July, but icebergs were floating in the water.

The waters here were crystal-clear, and very cold.  A few people were taking a dip anyway, but we decided that discretion is the better part of valor and politely declined that option.  We had a lovely picnic by the lake, made a photosphere, and headed back.

There was a lot of beargrass here – tall, white, fuzzy flowers, like huge cottonballs on a stick.  They were allegedly named beargrass by Lewis & Clark, who saw some grizzlies playing in a field of beargrass and assumed the bears must love them.

We have no idea if that’s generally true.  Buuuuuut… we did come close to a grizzly bear on the way back!

It was foraging just off the trail, nearly invisible becuase it was downslope and around the bend from where we were walking.  Jake caught a glimpse of someone down the path gesturing wildly, and somehow correctly interpreted it as, “bear nearby – proceed with caution!”  He stretched out his arm for Heather and Kate to stop.

Heather assumed someone was just taking a picture, and tried her best to barrel through Jake’s arm (and into the waiting paws of the grizzly up ahead).

Luckily she stopped in time, and no mishaps were had.  We waited a bit, then edged around the trail, bear spray in hand.  We were relieved to see the bear had dropped lower down the slope, and we quickly scooted past.  It had probably been just a few feet off the trail you can see below.

We reported the bear sighting, like good junior rangers.  And we took the opportunity to visit one of Glacier’s many beautiful chalets, set in a preposterously beautiful location right by an alpine lake.  We have no idea what it costs, but wow.   This would be a rather nice place to stay.

Light At The End of the Tunnel

After Iceberg Lake, Kate left to head back to Colorado, and we decided to stay one more day for one more hike.  Many camping spaces at Glacier are first-come, first-served, so at 7 a.m., we drove down to the park and snagged one of the prettiest parking spaces you’ll ever see.

The trail we picked is called the Ptarmigan Tunnel, named after the bird (the “p” is silent).  The first two miles or so share the trail with the Iceberg Lake hike we had just done, but we didn’t mind – that’s a view we would happily see every day.

The trail then branched off and became considerably less populated.  We trekked steeply uphill through an even denser, more enclosing forest than the day before, making us more than a little nervous.  A guidebook we read described this area as “natural grizzly bear habitat,” and we were grateful for our hiking prowess as we pushed hard to get out of the danger zone.

Then things opened up, and we picnicked for lunch near a beautiful alpine lake.  (Glacier has a lot of those.)  Several marmots – like beavers without the big teeth – frolicked nearby, cute, furry, and utterly unafraid of humans.  There was a lot of wildlife on this trail, all habituated to visitors – we even walked along the trail behind a deer for a little while.

Eventually, we tackled the final stretch of the trail.  The path switchbacks up an incredibly steep mountainside, almost a cliff.  Thankfully it was a relatively short distance to the top, because this was probably the most punishing stretch we ever hiked.  We were more or less delirious in the picture below.

You can’t see it in that picture, but we were facing the Ptarmigan Tunnel.  Created in the early 1930s by the CCC using dynamite, it passes through the very top of the mountain.  Due to massive winter snows, the rough-hewn tunnel is sealed by a large iron door for nine months out of the year – and it had just opened.

On the other side?  Paradise.

Friends, we had been on the road for over a year at this point.  We had seen the country’s most beautiful mountains, deserts, beaches and plains, but nothing – nothing – ever stopped us in our tracks like this.

It was the most fantastical thing we have ever seen.  At that moment, tired, sweaty, and half-delirious, we knew we had reached the pinnacle of our trip.  There were more places to visit, and a lot more pictures to take, but nothing would ever come close to this view.

We wandered around for a few minutes, taking photos and another photosphere, and prepared to leave as a storm began forming in the distance.  Before we turned, Jake took a look at the trail, which continues on, across the mountainside and down into the valley beyond, and made a promise to himself.


We passed back through the tunnel and found the storm clouds had already blotted out the view from the other side.  It felt fitting somehow, like nothing else deserved to be seen after the beauty we had just experienced.  And then it was a long, tired walk back to our car.

On the drive back out, we spotted two more grizzly bears, foraging in a meadow near the road.

Nearby, another pristine lake beckoned, its shores lined by brilliantly colored rocks.

Perhaps there was more left to see, after all.

Thanks for an amazing visit, Glacier.  ‘Til next time!

Roadtrip Time Travel

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We’ve reached the end of our roadtrip!  We’re settled down in Denver, but we’re going to keep making blog posts and posting our favorite photos from the trip, so stay tuned for more.

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Week 17.1: Around The Big Bend

We talked in our last blog post about our week in Marfa, a cool desert art town in the middle of nowhere, but our day trip from Marfa to Big Bend National Park deserved its own post.  Big Bend is a remote desert wonderland, a giant wilderness preserve chock full of crazy mountains, beautiful vistas, and incredible surprises.

It’s so spectacular, it nearly made us sick.

Location, Location, Location

Let’s start with location: to say Big Bend is “remote” does not do it justice.  The park is about 100 miles south of Marfa, which we have already established is in the middle of nowhere, so it is fair to say that Big Bend is 100 miles south of the middle of nowhere.  You might call it the edge of nowhere.

The edge of the edge of nowhere is the Rio Grande, which is also the U.S.-Mexico border.  The other edges are desert.  There are few roads that lead to Big Bend, and the closest airport of any size is in El Paso.  The closest “city” is Alpine, Texas, population 6,000, about an hour away.  As you will see, the only nearby town, Terlingua, is part ghost.

Suffice it to say, getting to Big Bend is not an easy task, and we saw few other people when we visited (probably less than 100 total).  Adding to the feeling of isolation is the park’s huge size:  about 800,000 acres, slightly larger than Rhode Island.  Unlike Rhode Island, of course, there are no cool hippy markets or walks along fabulous oceanside mansions, but on the plus side, there are a lot of bears.

Wait.  Is that really a plus?

Ye Olde Ghost Towne

Our first stop on the way to Big Bend was at Terlingua, a ghost town with a twist.  Terlingua was once a mining community, before it went bust, and the ruins of the town still remain, slowly decaying in the desert.  Spooky ghost town graveyard?  Sign us up.

Terlingua’s twist is that some flesh-and-blood humans still live there, right alongside the ruins.  These hardy folk provide services to park entrants and visitors to the edge of nowhere, running a few restaurants, a cafe, and a gift shop.  We might have thought they were ghosts too, but no ghost would have the gumption to charge $4.50 for a large iced coffee.  (We would have been mad except that the coffee was delicious, and also, there were no alternatives within 60 miles.)

One of the few shops in town is an art gallery, and surprisingly (?), they had some cool sculptures on display outside.  Our favorite was a piece called “Blow Out Survivor,” which the accompanying text explained was created from the melted remains of a natural gas well that caught fire.  It burned for three days, and at the end, portions of the crankshaft, engine, and gearing were fused together.

We don’t have a gas well, but we were reliant on modern engineering, in the form of our poor Honda Fit.  The question of whether it would be “blowout” or “survivor” was yet to come.

Bear Patrol

After we had finished being gouged by the local merchants, we headed into the park itself.  On the way in, we got to live the dream of anyone who has ever visited a National Park:  we bought a National Parks Pass!  $80 for one years’ free access to every federal park and national monument.  Access fees are normally $10-$25, so it’s a decent deal if you plan to visit 4 or more parks in a year.  It’s an extraordinarily great deal if you do something crazy like, say, quitting your job to travel around in an RV for a year.

And so, pass in hand, we were ready to Big Bend it like Beckham.  As we mentioned before, the park is massive, but there are essentially three distinct regions:  mountain, desert, and river.  Part of the charm lies in how they all pile up on top of each other, particularly the mountains and the desert.

The remainder of the charm is how stinking beautiful it all is.

Our first stop was at the visitor center, located in the mountains.  We had planned our trip to Big Bend the way we usually plan things – which is to say, not at all – so we asked about the hikes and the best places to see.  While there, we noticed a map on the wall with lots of yellow sticky notes:

The sticky notes turned out to be recent bear sightings.  We ended up doing the Lost Mine hike, which is relatively short but offers an amazing view of the nearby valleys.  As you can see, the hike also was smack dab in the middle of a field of bear-related post-it notes, but we trusted to blind luck and nobody got mauled, not even a little.  There was a tense moment where we heard leaves rustling right next to us on the trail – a moment in which we considered whether cacti could be used as a weapon – but it just turned out to be a family of deer.

After catching our breath and cursing Bambi, we continued up the trail and were treated to some spectacular views.

However, the Lost Mine hike is where we discovered one of the iron laws of hiking:  if you ever start to feel like a badass, for example by hiking up a mountain full of bears 100 miles south of the middle of nowhere, you will immediately be disabused of that notion.  In this case, it was via the couple that passed us, with an infant strapped to their back, hardly breaking a sweat.

We really wanted to ask why you would ever bring a baby to Big Bend, but they seemed like they knew what they were doing.  Instead we just had them take a picture of us, shortly before before they continued on the trail and we wussed out and headed back.  Thanks guys!

Just Deserts

After a picnic lunch, we headed down out of the mountains and began exploring the rest of the park.  Or, at least, the small slice of it we could see in one day.  For two people raised in the temperate Northeast, the desert sights were fascinating.

Colorful mountains and cacti!

Endless wilderness!

Road runners! (!!!)

It’s nearly impossible to capture the grandeur and the magic of Big Bend; whatever you’re picturing, it’s much cooler than that.

Unfortunately, we ran into a small, slightly murderous issue.  A day that started off comfortably warm, around 70 degrees, continued to grow hotter as the sun progressed across the sky.  By mid-afternoon it was approximately 90 degrees, and even though the park is mostly traversed by car, we had spent a deceptively long amount of time walking around at each of the different stops.

Dehydration is always a special concern in the desert, because of the heat and the sun, but it can sneak up on you.  Your sweat evaporates so quickly in the intensely dry air that you don’t realize you’re sweating.  We had brought two Nalgene bottles full of water, but they were draining at an alarming rate, and the extreme size of the park meant that we were miles away from refilling stations.

Oh, and remember how we mentioned we don’t always super-plan ahead?  Yeah, well, it’s normally fine, but every once in a while, it really bites us in the ass.  This was one of those times, because we stupidly split a bottle of wine the night before we went to Big Bend.  There was probably a good reason for it, like being a Monday, but we were definitely a bit dehydrated before we ever arrived.  Combine with the sun and the heat and that oh-so-dry air, and you’re gonna have a bad time.

Well, one of us, anyway.  We both have our strengths and weaknesses:  Jake doesn’t get blisters or sunburns, and he can open jars, but he’s bad with heights, or anything requiring “stamina” or “dexterity.”  Heather is pale like a ghost and can’t reach the top of our cabinets, but she’s graceful and a trooper, and, as it turns out, immune to dehydration.  So she continued driving and taking photos of the beautiful landscape, as Jake slowly curled into a ball in the passenger seat.

We did eventually get more water, at one of the park’s campgrounds – after first refilling a bottle from a bathroom faucet with water so awful-tasting, it must not have been potable – but it was a little too late, and things were progressing from bad to worse.  Our final stop of the day was the beautiful Santa Elena Canyon, split by the Rio Grande and therefore standing in both the United States and Mexico.  Heather wanted to ford the river for more photos, but the shadows were growing long, so we decided to head back.

A Bump In The Night

Just one problem:  actually getting back.

You see, the Big Bend scenic drive is about 45 miles long, and although it looks like a loop, the paved part ends at Santa Elena.  The final leg of the loop is actually a dirt road, recommended for four-wheel drive cars only, although a ranger had told us regular cars (like our Fit) drive on it all the time.  There’s no other exit there, so the only options were to drive an hour back the way we came to the park entrance, or take a short, 12-mile drive over Old Maverick Road, which is unpaved.  (lower left on this map)

With Jake feeling really awful, we picked the dirt road.  Let us advise you if you ever visit Big Bend and face a similar scenario:  do not pick the dirt road.  Why, you ask?  Well, it’s more like a “loose fist-sized rocks” road, and every single one of the twelve million bumps will (1) cause you to think your tires are going to explode, just like that gas well in Terlingua, leaving you stranded in the desert emptiness; and (2) make your sick passenger’s stomach do flipflops, to the point where you both begin to wonder whether throwing up in a National Park is a violation of federal littering laws.

Oh, and because the road is in such horrible condition, your max speed will be something like 10 miles per hour, meaning that the route is actually slower than just driving back on the well-maintained, non-tire-exploding scenic drive.  Except you’re also racing the setting sun, because the only thing more difficult than driving on that spin cycle of a road is doing it in the all-encompassing darkness of night in a desert National Park located 100 miles south of the middle of nowhere.

Not to spoil the ending, but we did eventually make it out alive, thanks to Heather’s skillful driving, a Honda Fit that didn’t quit, and our old friend, blind luck.  Plus, Jake avoided littering in a National Park!  Once we made it back to Terlingua, some general store aspirin and Pepto Bismol set him right as rain, and the drive back was smooth sailing (emphasis on smooth).

We finished off a looooong day with food from the Sonic Burger in the big city of Alpine, tired but happy.  Big Bend is an extraordinary place, but it will likely be a long time before we go back – which is just fine with Jake.


What’s now:  We are leaving Morro Bay to visit Pinnacles National Park.  Another notch for the National Parks Pass!

What’s next:  We’ve got a few short stays planned, because everything in California is brutally expensive.  Monterey (and Big Sur), San Francisco, and then YOSEMITE!

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