Road Trip Montana: Glacier National Park (West Side)

I’m undeniably different in the mountains. It feels like I belong here in a deep and magnetic way. Today we set off for the west side of Glacier National Park, along a beautiful drive around Flathead Lake. The entire journey was scenic – dirt roads jutting off infinitely into the mountain bases and tiny lakes tucked alongside bright green hills. Flathead Lake reminded me of the landscape in New Zealand, but of course there was nowhere easy to stop for photos to prove it. Before beginning our drive up the lake, we took a detour to the Miracle of America Museum in Polson – a collection of old artifacts and Americana spanning several acres of land. The air was hot and dry as we meandered quietly through old buildings and antique cars with weeds growing around them, much like the ghost towns of our earlier days here. Worth the $10 ticket.

Along Flathead lake are several state parks, and one entrance fee gets you into all of them. We took a little extra time getting to West Glacier, stopping to sit on rocks by the lake or wander through the forests. We also made a critically important stop to buy a can of bear spray – essential for any Glacier National Park hiker. By the late afternoon, we rolled into West Glacier to stay at the Glacier Guides Lodge, a friendly accommodation tucked just off the road alongside thick forest. There were exactly two restaurants open in town, so we chose Belton Chalet (where we ended up going both nights). I inhaled a plate of incredible “Montana meatballs” with huckleberry compote and buttery potatoes inside the restaurant’s rustic bar. Our server Maria gave us some great hiking recommendations all over Glacier and tempted us with pics from her trips. She was confident in telling us that we could manage longer hikes than we thought. But she didn’t know that the only exercise I’ve gotten in a year is walking to the grocery store (*cough*, the bar)…

Getting into Glacier was going to be an excursion. Going-to-the-Sun-Road, which runs straight through the park, doesn’t open fully until late June or early July due to heavy snow. I’m writing on a delay, so at the time of our trip, it was plowed for just 13 miles on each side. The park also instituted a capacity-restricted, ticketed entry system due to COVID that, despite trying for weeks, was harder to snag than front-row concert tickets. Without a ticket, you can enter the park before 6am or after 5pm – we opted for 6am. Once you’re in, you can stay in.

At 5am, after a restless night’s sleep (anticipating the 5am alarm), we rose to a quiet outdoors and snuck into the lodge kitchen to grab some breakfast before the other guests woke up. Getting into the park was easy – nobody mans the entry station at that time, and only about 8 other cars had the same idea. The air was cool and serene in those early hours. Driving along the road just after sunrise made the mountains look strangely blue, with a pink glow peaking over the very top.

We reached the trailhead for Avalanche Lake, and the parking lot was already full of other early risers. I wondered what it was like during the “busy” hours. The hike was one of Maria’s recommendations, an easy 4-mile out-and-back trail along a flat, tree-filled area that ends in a sweeping lake. We began to encounter more and more hikers as we moved forward, but still felt like we had our own space. By the time we arrived at the lake, the light had brightened and changed the color of the mountains, which reflected like a beautiful mirror against the calm water. We snapped pics and watched in awe as a bear moved lackadaisically along the shoreline in the distance. We found out later that it followed a group of hikers down the path – making us thankful for the busyness of the hike and our can of bear spray (which we learned you should always have within reach, and not in your backpack). Hike in packs, like the animals do.

Coming back down the road we decided to veer off north to the tiny town of Polebridge, nestled inside the park’s borders. To get there you drive down a half-paved, half-dirt road for about 25 miles from Apgar Village alongside rural farmland and nature trails. Camas Road takes you to North Fork Road – be sure to avoid “Inner” North Fork Road, a poorly maintained forest route. Our road was flat and manageable, but the dust was so intense that you needed headlights just to drive behind another car. Polebridge is a funky little spot with a general store/mercantile serving food, and a cute looking saloon which was, unfortunately, not yet open for the day. I dug into one of their famous huckleberry bear claws (sugary and good) and a hot chicken sandwich before we made the trek back.

Taking one final mini-hike to Rocky Point for a view, we then went and found the so-called “pebble beach” we’d seen in Instagram photos (covered in brightly colored rocks), which ended up looking muted and anticlimactic. Moral of the story – Instagram lies.

We came home to our lodge exhausted and toasty, settling into the upstairs lounge room with cans of beer to plan our next few days in the park. A thunderstorm that night shook the ground and gave our SUV a much-needed bath. Birds sang outside our windows long into the evening. Our room looked out over sweet green forest, quiet except for the occasional passing train somewhere. Rain kissed the leaves in a melody, and I drifted, captivated by the wholeness of everything surrounding me.

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