Road Trip Montana: Glacier National Park (East Side)

My favorite thing is the mountain air first thing in the morning. It’s infinitely gentle – full inside my lungs in a way that’s almost too much. We prepared for another pre-6am entry into the park to drive the Eastern side of Going-to-the-Sun-Road from St Mary’s Village. Our car rolled slowly down the quiet road while the sun slowly awoke.

Rounding a corner, I squinted to make sense of a car that was stopped and idling on the wrong side of the road. Then something shuffled in my peripherals – a medium sized grizzly bear was just ahead of our car, lackadaisically eating grass and bumbling around on the shoulder. It was wholly uninterested in the two SUVs idling in its midst, so we sat like watchers enjoying the rare chance to be so close.

The trailhead for our sunrise hike was only a few hundred feet down the road from the grass-eating grizzly, but such things had become commonplace by now. The hike to Virginia Falls was just 3 miles round trip. It cut through patches of endlessly tall trees that are void of leaves, like grey pencils sticking out of swaths of lush greenery. Some trees are peppered with burn marks and groan when the wind hits them, which sounds like a distant howl in the right spots. The trail moves past three different waterfalls, warning you of their presence with an increasingly loud roar of water over rock. The endpoint of the hike is a large waterfall nestled into thick forest, with damp walkways that allow you to stand directly in the clouds of mist.    

After hiking, we drove 40min further north and entered the park again to stay at the Many Glacier Hotel. We were greeted with 5 miles of rumbly dirt road due to ongoing construction – just can’t seem to avoid the dust. The Many Glacier Hotel is like something from a movie. It’s old and rustic with a style that belongs in the Swiss Alps, nestled between numerous mountain peaks and overlooking a glassy lake.

That night we were disappointed to learn that the restaurant and bar were take-out only due to COVID, which didn’t make much sense since it resulted in hundreds of hotel guests competing to sit at tiny end tables and lounge couches in the main lobby. The roast duck was pretty decent, even with plastic cutlery. We grabbed some cans of beer and settled into oversized wooden chairs on the deck as the sun continued to pierce our vision well into the evening. Families mixed with solo travelers and gossiped about bear sightings, their voices echoing through the atrium-like ceiling. I managed to sneak into the bar for one final beer after “last call” (9pm…) through the exit door and get in line behind a little girl ordering bedtime cheesecake. The bartender could see right through me but smiled and cracked open two cans (big tip $$). The lodge felt nostalgic, like it had been lived in by thousands of people. You could feel it in the wood.

I looked out at the mountains that night through our tiny 4th floor window after everybody was asleep. The moon created a wrinkled reflection on the water and the snowy peaks looked almost blue. All was still, and my mind drifted. I felt like I was right where I belonged.

We were, regrettably, only in Many Glacier for one night. We awoke early to take one final hike before beginning our drive back down south towards Billings. The Grinnell Glacier trail snakes along Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine before beginning a slow incline. It’s only open for about 3.5 miles in each direction, versus 5-6 when all the snow is cleared. Our hiking stamina has increased though and 6-7 miles round trip now feels like a relaxing morning jaunt. Since hikers had warned of nearby grizzlies, we befriended a family of 5 to walk alongside and make our “presence” louder. The air was searing hot on this morning, and we quickly shed our wind-resistant layers and inhaled the bulk of our water supply.

We made the unfortunate decision to turn back with only ½ mile to go for fear of running out of liquids, having underestimated what we’d need based on cooler hiking days this past week. But by now you could see a piercing turquoise colored lake in between vast, vast ranges of mountain from the zig-zagging cliffside trail. I didn’t mind being drenched in sweat and sunburned. Things just roll off your shoulders in places like this. Before turning back, I stopped at a quiet edge of trail and stared out at the mountains one more time. My eyes instantaneously welled up with tears, hidden by my sunglasses. It was just so overwhelmingly emotional, so indescribably beautiful. I ached to stay close to the snowy hills like I’d always belonged there. Like they used to be mine.

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