2019 – Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park is located in Northwest Montana and you can actually take the Amtrak train all the way from Union station in Chicago to East Glacier Village which sits right outside of Glacier National Park. It’s a quick and easy 33 hour train ride! Ha! One hilarious moment ensued shortly after my Mom dropped my Dad, Hayden, and I at Union Station. Lollapalooza was going on in the city and it felt pretty bizarre walking past a bunch of scantily clad festival girls while I was wearing my backpacking gear, backpack, and carrying a fishing pole.

The train ride itself was another one of those twilight zone moments in my life. It started off easy enough excitedly chatting with my Bro and Dad, reading up on some fantasy football tips, and taking videos of the countryside, but the train ride just seemed to go on forever! Of course we didn’t book a sleeper car either which meant we were sitting in airplane style seats. We continuously rotated between our seats, the observation car, and the little restaurant (commissary) car. There was also a dining car for dinner that served restaurant quality food. We were seated with a woman who lived in East Glacier Village and she told us about all the Bears she frequently sees there. This had my brother and I on edge, but believe it or not, I still have never seen a bear in the wilderness! When it was time to sleep, it was like trying to sleep in your car. I fell asleep at times, but it was very fitful. All through the night the train continued to make stops where people exited and entered the train. Another bizarre part of this train ride was the countryside itself. This train passed through some of the most desolate parts of the country. Vast stretches of North Dakota and Montana are effectively wastelands. Finally, we reached East Glacier Village and we were able to walk just a few blocks to a campsite on the edge of town where we could put our tents up and there were also showers and bathrooms available for us. We had one last dinner at a Mexican restaurant called Serranos. My Dad and I both got a burrito that came covered in a strange cheese sauce and Hayden had enchiladas which he could not stop raving about. He was dreaming about these enchiladas during the entire backpacking trip and kept giving me crap for my mediocre burrito! Anyway, the next morning we packed up camp and walked a few blocks to where a shuttle picked us up and took us into the park.

After checking in at the Ranger station and picking up our campsite permits, we were on our way. Our hike started in a pleasant forest where we saw marshes created by beaver dams, crossed well constructed bridges, and already we were surrounded by large mountains. After hiking for awhile the trail began to pitch up as we started to make our way towards Pitamakin Pass. We met a group of hikers on the trail that caught our attention when we noticed the leader carrying a large rifle. We went back and forth with this group all day and they rotated who was carrying the rifle. When they were hiking with it, the person carrying the rifle resembled a marching soldier. The rifle was there for protection from Brown Bears. We simply brought Bear spray. We made steady progress and eventually found ourselves hiking out of the tree line. The trees cleared out and were replaced by a vast array of flowers with representation from each color of the rainbow. We crossed bubbling streams and soon found ourselves on the ridgeline of Pitamakin Pass. As I got my first view from the top, I was blasted by an intense jet stream of wind whipping over the mountain. It was so strong that you could fully lean into it without falling over. We spent some time taking a break, eating food, and taking pictures before beginning the descent down the other side of the pass. Up until this point we had been moving well, but we began to slow down. My Dad tweaked his knee sometime during the hike and as we descended it really started to bother him. We were having to take frequent breaks and the sun was absolutely cooking us. Finally, after hours of slow progress we came upon the Upper Park Campsite. We still had 2 more miles to reach the campsite we had a permit for, but my Dad declared himself completely bonked so we found a space behind the locked up ranger cabin to put up our tents. I generally am not a fan of camping somewhere we aren’t supposed to be, but I didn’t complain this time because the Lake Isabel Campsite was 2 miles further uphill and we were going to have to retrace our steps and come back the same way the next day. The funniest part about my Dad claiming to be bonked is that he hammed it up all night long with the other backpackers who stayed at Upper Park. The hikers carrying the rifle eventually joined us at camp and another group of locals joined as well. They all made for good company.

The next day we broke camp and started hiking back the way we came. This day we retraced our steps back over Pitamakin Pass and would campout at Lake Cobalt which was situated just below the Pass. It was a shorter day, but hiking up out of the valley and over the pass still calls for a lot of climbing! My Dad continued to struggle with his knee (and perhaps a lack of fitness) this day and we again made very slow progress and got cooked by the sun when we were above the tree line. We saw a moose down in the valley that was trotting away from us. Also, we met a guy who camped at Lake Cobalt with us who managed the University of Oregon workout facilities. He had hiked 18 miles that day and he took super cool pictures of all his travels. His Instagram is called Cheese in the Wild (He’s from Wisconsin).

The third day of this trek was supposed to be the easiest day of the trip. We would hike back down from Cobalt Lake towards Two Medicine Lake and then eventually make our way over to our campsite at NoName Lake. This hike had a lot of descent and hiking on level ground. There was only bit of climbing towards the end. Everything went fine, but we immediately slowed to a snail’s pace when we reached the switchbacks towards the end of the hike. This had us nervous because the next day involved serious mountain climbing. My brother and I were worried that my Dad might be too injured to continue or become completely incapacitated on the trail. Hayden wanted to hike back to the trail head the next day and skip the mountains. My Dad wasn’t having it. We finally compromised by agreeing to move forward with the mountain hike, but Hayden and I took almost everything out of my Dad’s pack except for his water.

With my Dad’s backpack lightened, things went much better the next day. The trail away from NoName Lake kicked up into steep switchbacks. We found ourselves once again above the treeline and on the mountain ridge. The extra weight in my brothers pack and my pack made our shoulders and feet ache a bit more, but we were able to maintain a good pace and my Dad was moving without any issues! This trail took us over Dawson Pass. These were some of the best views that I have seen on any trip. There were so many mountains around us stretched out in all directions. In the pictures you can see how to mountains seem to layer over each other. Up here we also shared the trail with a herd of mountain goats! As we reached the end of the mountain trek and began to descend to our campsite at Old Man lake, we passed an old man who carried a bear spray can in each hand. I asked him, “Why are you carrying two bear sprays?” He replied, “What if there are two bears?” At our Old Man Lake Camp we each stripped to our underwear and dove into the freezing cold water in celebration. Hayden unfortunately cut his foot on a rock and he was getting absolutely swarmed by horseflies while he was waiting for my Dad to get the first aid kit. In a span of 30 seconds, I smashed 2 flies on his back and perfectly threw a rock that smashed a third fly.

Our final day in the wilderness was a solemn march back to the trailhead. My Dad kept stopping to take pictures seemingly not wanting the trip to end and my brother power hiked in silence, determined to be finished. It wasn’t long before we were back at the trailhead and scooped up by a shuttle taking us back to East Glacier Village. That night we relaxed in a motel and had a celebratory meal at Serranos. I got the enchiladas this time and Hayden was correct, they were exquisite. In fact, enchiladas have become my go to Mexican food order since then. The train ride back to Chicago was another bizarre 33 hour twilight zone trip. The end.