Big Views: Rockies, Cascades

After a handful of shifts at Harborview, we geared up for another trip. We’d tried a trip to glacier national park two years ago, but our plans were thwarted by a September snowstorm bringing 5 feet of snow to Montana’s Rocky Mountains. 

With a quick check of the forecast, we were all systems go for a second chance at seeing the Park. Temps would be in the 50’s during the day, with ample sunshine.

Charley stayed back for this trip, unable to join us due to national park restrictions.

Everything out west is a drive. You just get used to it. And with the stunning landscapes offered out in the great northwest expanse, the reward is worth the cost.

A 9+ hour drive took us east on I-90 through the Cascade wilderness and into its rain shadow, with our surroundings changing from lush, chilly green to arid windswept desert. There’s no hiding from the sun in central and eastern Washington. We crossed the Columbia river near Quincy, WA, and surged to Spokane, bordering Idaho. Coeur d’Alene sits just on the other side, and its lake shined brilliantly among the blanketed hills surrounding it. The national forest land in that area is remarkable, and not as well-known to folks from outside the area. We don’t fish, but I’m pretty certain it’s considered among the best stream fishing in the country.

It’s a common misconception that Idaho and Montana can be clumped in as “flyover states.” And if people keep thinking that, that’s fine with us. Sure, they are large in area and much of it is high prairie and farmland. But the mountains and rivers, oh man. The topographic wrinkles of western Montana and the panhandle of Idaho are special.

We approached Glacier National Park from the east, and had gotten an AirBnB in Columbia Falls, just outside the entrance. We caught some live music at a saloon in town, and mowed down some food. We were so satisfied that we’d return to the same place again the following night.

But we got to sleep early the first night, eager to get a head start on the crowds that were sure to show up in the park by sunrise. We arrived at the Logan Pass parking lot in Glacier and were pleased to find ample parking as the sun started to peek into the area. 

The highline trail would take us 15 miles out and back, along the west side of the continental divide. A grizzly greeted us from the first meadow we encountered, as he was digging for roots and berries to get ready for the impending long Rockies winter. Paying us no mind, he continued his foraging. It’s important to note that for the safety of humans and the bear, try to keep at least 100 yards from a grizzly. And carry bear spray in the event things go a little sideways. Grizzlies can run as fast as a racehorse, climb trees, and just generally can ruin your day and/or life.

We carried on along the trail, skirting big drops and lengthy steep hills, all the while enjoying sensational foliage in the way of canary aspens and grasses and bushes in every shade of red and orange. The trail was quite busy, as it’s the ideal (albeit a little long) trail to get your bearings in the park. We could make out Lake McDonald to the west, following its tributary creek by the same name.

Much of the hike was undulating, and lacked any steep ascents. Until the terminus, when we took a spur off the main trail and up to Grinnell Glacier. It was about a mile slog up the hill along skinny track, and crested the continental divide ridge. Once over the top, the glacier came into view in its majesty, tucked beneath Grinnell Mountain, and letting out into an impossibly turquoise lake basin. We enjoyed lunch on some boulders along the ridge, snapped some photos, and made sure to just stop and let the moment sink in. I’d seen this place before, in photos. Even before I knew where or what it was. And here we were, spectators of the real thing.

As we retraced our steps, there was still more to enjoy. Yes, same trail. But in reverse, the vistas are so much different. We spotted some mountain goats along a cliff, grazing and napping casually a thousand feet up a sheer drop. We weren’t able to get any photos of the buggers- too far away. We were smart in investing in a pair of binoculars before the trip, though. 

Our day was mostly spent by the time we returned to Logan Pass. That was fine. We, too, were mostly spent. And we were doing exactly as we had intended, soaking up as much time in the park as possible. The drive on Going to the Sun road, the only way to get all the way east-west through the park, takes about 2 hours to drive, and even from Logan Pass, it was well over an hour for us to exit. But there are few roads more scenic and impressive, and driving it is an experience on its own. We did make a stop at Lake McDonald before sunset, and marveled how glassy the water was.

We awoke before sunrise the following morning as well, realizing that our chances of getting parking up at Logan Pass were vastly diminished if we let our lazy bones take precedent.

We did a short hike on day two, up to Bears Hat Mountain and the Hidden Lake that half-encircles its base. It’s a crowded walk, even in the early hours, so we elected to take a side trail and approach the area from a less-traveled path.

Having hiked the Rockies in Alberta, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico, we’d seen the different geologies laid out. Jamie noted that these Rockies, in Montana, bear strong resemblance to those we’d encountered in Canada. Big ole blocks of rock, really. Not craggy and dramatic in their peak profiles, but great big brutes, massive and grand. The scale of the mountainsides and glacial valleys are impossible to process. We find ourselves shaking our heads in disbelief most of the time.

After a few miles out on the trail to check out Hidden Lake, we returned the way we came and back to the parking lot. We spotted a few friendly Ptarmigans right by the trail. I didn’t even know what a Ptarmigan was, but they sure are cute and make a lovely little noise.

We were obliged to make a trip down east from Logan Pass to see the other side of the park. We drove down to St Mary Lake and were assaulted by relentless winds that made the large lake appear more like a sea. It was probably 45-50F, but the gusts kept us chilly, and after making some soup and grilled cheese at a picnic bench, we jumped back in Archie and drove the two hours back through the park and home for the day.

Before making our way back west and homeward the next morning, we stopped at Avalanche Lake in the west area of the Park and did the short hike up. We thought that it being Monday would help us avoid the crowd on the popular hike. There were still plenty of folks there. For good reason, too. Waterfalls cascade down the sides of the massive basin, making their way down to the lake. Nature’s cathedral, and its walls speckled with autumns arrival and dots of white, mountain goats on the cliffsides far above us.

We spent the evening in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, about halfway between Glacier and Seattle. It was rainy, but we perused the downtown area and grabbed dinner and drinks. We booked a last minute AirBnb because of the rain, deciding it wasn’t worth soaking our camp gear that evening.

Another 5 hours of driving was staring us in the face the following morning. It’d be a wet drive most of the way- Fall had arrived. But we took a detour anyway, in the desert of eastern Washington before reaching the rain of the Cascade range. Palouse Falls is a pretty neat waterfall, and seemingly the only feature worth stopping for on the way home. Signs were posted everywhere: “People have died here; we would like you to live. Please stay away from the edge.” To the point. We took some pictures, made PB&Js in our camp kitchen, and climbed back in for the last haul to Seattle. We were excited to see Charley, it sounded like she had a good stay with the dog sitter while we were gone. 

Our next day off we got together with Maggie, Brandon, and the boys Donald and Gurley. They’d be leaving town soon to go the next assignment in Palo Alto CA. It’d be strange, as we had spent the past year going to the same locations as them (Santa Barbara, Phoenix, Seattle). Charley hung out with her pals one last time, and we played some games and had dinner and beers, a routine we’d gotten familiar with over the last year. Something tells me we’ll see them again soon.

Jamie was itching to see some Northwest foliage. Time was slipping away, between fair weather and non-work days. We picked a day, unfortunately it was a weekend day. The trail was sure to be busy.

Carne Mountain Trail is about 3 hours from Seattle. Distance-wise, its only about 130 miles. But 30 or so miles are on dirt and gravel forest roads deep into the Wenatchee National Forest. The drive was more than worth it. It’s a tough hike for sure- 7.75 miles and just over 3600 ft of elevation gain. It featured a couple beautiful meadows, spectacular foliage, and a mountain summit. The foliage was top notch. Yellow larches dominate the landscape around Carne Mountain. As I found out from eaves dropping on another group (who must’ve had a dendrologist in their company), larches are one of 20 deciduous conifers- trees that lose their needles yearly. People come from all over to see larches in autumn, and thus these hikes are appropriately named “larch marches”. 

We were thoroughly spent after the long haul on the hike, and ready to make our way back home. We made our usual stop for a greasy burger on the way home in Sultan. It was a good day.

Stay tuned for the next post, as we headed home to Massachusetts to see family.

One thought on “Big Views: Rockies, Cascades

  1. Some of the most spectacular pictures you’ve taken so far. Fall foliage is beautiful. So enjoyable to see. If I never have the opportunity to see it in person , I ‘ll be satisfied with all the beauty you guys have captured for all to see😊

    Liked by 1 person

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