24 September 2012
This was going to be a long day. It was about 110 miles from Whitefish to the eastern end of Going-to-the-Sun at St. Mary, plus whatever driving around I did in the park, then the drive back to Whitefish. The train was scheduled to leave at 2116, and I didn’t want to miss it. I elected to eat at the hotel breakfast bar, and checked out afterward. There was one of those ‘where are you from maps’ in the dining room, and I saw that someone from Beaverton (or close by) had already stuck a pin in the map.
After West Glacier, US 2 and the railroad follow the Middle Fork of the Flathead River southeast between the Flathead and Lewis ranges before turning northeast to follow Bear Creek. The scenery is your usual Western mountain range superlative. I made a brief stop at a historical marker, where a sign tells the story of some First Nation dust-up. While stopped here I saw a bald eagle, the first I’d ever seen. Didn’t have time to grab the camera, though.
The first stop of note on the road was Marias Pass. This pass is somewhat famous in railroad lore as the lowest pass and shortest distance between the upper Midwest and the Pacific ocean.
There’s a road side area with a memorial to Teddy Roosevelt.
Along the highway I saw a few houses. I wondered where these people buy supplies and fuel. The nearest towns of any size are West Glacier and Columbia Falls to the west, and East Glacier Park and Browning to the east. Going to the store involves an hour drive each way. I imagine that no errands are taken lightly.
On the east side of the pass the climate is markedly drier. The land and vegetation reminded me of eastern Oregon and Washington, although the rain shadow here isn’t quite as severe. The climate is more hospitable here, as there are vast swaths of aspens and larch. Still, the primary landscape color is brown.
Just before East Glacier Park is the entrance to the Blackfoot Indian Reservation.
I also took a picture of trees typical of the area.
These trees, and most of the trees in these parts, are stunted and twisted, a testament to the climate. Some trees appear to reach 25 feet, but most are shorter. Many of the trees are leaning in the same direction, much like the trees on the northern California coast. Another testament to the climate is the railroad bridge at East Glacier. There’s a massive steel lattice attached to the west side of the bridge, I suppose to act as a wind and snow break.
At East Glacier, you’re supposed to take Montana 49 north to US 89 and then to St. Mary, but I missed that turn and stayed on US 2. This caused a 12 mile diversion to Browning, where I headed back west on US 89. The Subaru Legacy surprised me, as I went to pass a car and found the speedo rolling past 100 mph without much effort on the car’s part. Whoa!
I’d noticed white metal crosses attached to a metal framework at various points along the roads I’d driven, and assumed that they marked the spots where people had died in auto accidents. Usually there’d be one or two. On US 89 out of Browning I saw one with nine crosses. I hoped that hadn’t been in a single accident.
When US 89 turns north at the junction with MT 49, it winds up and over and around the landscape through large areas of aspen. The road demands your attention, and this is open range country, so you have to keep an eye out for cattle. South of St. Mary, there’s a large section of burned out forest, a legacy of the fires of 2003. I could appreciate the irony of looking at this landscape through the smoke of the current spate of fires.
Here’s the park entrance at St. Mary.
The view looking southwest.
I spent some time in the Visitor Center. Most of the display space is devoted to the history of the First Nations tribes in the area, and some space is given to the various wildlife found here. There’s some information on the climate, with the obligatory remarks on anthropogenic climate change. A scale topographic model of the park is set up in the lobby, with lights showing current and historical structures in the park. The ranges had smoke maps available, coded by smoke thickness. A tendril of the darkest patch sat right over the park. You can see evidence of that in the photos. There’s an auditorium with films on the half hour, but I was concerned about time.
The road winds up the mountainside to the first viewpoint. You walk a little ways off the road, where you see this.
Oh, my. That’s Mt. Jackson in the middle at just over 10,000 feet, and a couple of glaciers are visible. My first glacier sighting in Glacier National Park. If I’d seen nothing else, this view was worth the trip. But it gets better. Much better. I didn’t know that at the time, but I knew that I was going to stop at every wide spot in the road.
The road follows the glacial valley now filled by St. Mary Lake, and the next stop is Sun Point.
Sunrift Gorge. You have to walk a short distance off the road for this.
The mountains in the area.
That’s Going-to-the-Sun mountain (9600 feet) on the left.
And directly across, Jackson Glacier.
Next is Siyah Bend , where the road gets serious about reaching the Continental Divide at Logan Pass.
Where you’ve been:
And where you’re going:
Some falls on the valley floor:
It’s just as far down as it looks. In fact, you want to pay attention to your driving. It’s difficult, but there’s only a few, not very large, rocks, between you and eternity.
It’s worth noting that it was about here I saw two cyclists in their 60’s (!) climbing this road. I was embarrassed.
The Visitor’s Center, Continental Divide, and summit at Logan Pass.
Looking east from the visitor’s center:
Looking west behind the center:
There’s a trail to an alpine lake winding up the mountain here. It’s about 1 1/2 miles to the lake, or about a two hour hike round trip. I’m sure it’s quite beautiful. Once you crest the ridge right behind the center, it’s all downhill. Of course, that means it’s mostly uphill on the way back. An older couple and a couple of women in their twenties were at the sign, and we agreed that a picture of the trail would suffice. It was 10 degrees cooler up here than down on the prairie, and the wind was fresh.
I’d learned about another part of the park at the visitor’s center called Many Glacier. The information claimed that this was ‘the heart of the park’, and it was only 21 miles up the road from St. Mary, so ‘why not?’ Back down the road (carefully), and headed to Many Glacier.
The road was rough, but not as frustrating as getting behind a truck camper going 25 miles per hour. The speed limit in this part of the park varies between 35 and 45. But 25? Really?
There are some things to see on the way, like Triple Divide Peak.
The peak is that bump in the middle of the image. Somewhat disappointing. Well, there’s the lodge.
The road terminates in a parking lot next to an RV park, and this is what you see:
Not exactly as advertised. It turns out that the parking lot is the trail head for a trail that runs into a valley, where spectacular scenery abounds. The map indicated that it was about a 12 mile round trip, or a solid day of hiking. Um, no. There was a consolation prize, though. I was scanning the mountainsides for bighorn sheep while driving out, and saw a herd high up on the mountain.
So that was pretty much it for Glacier National Park. But Montana wasn’t done with me yet.
My Mom wanted some postcards, so I stopped in Babb, MT, to mail them. This is Babb looking south from the post office:
And looking north:
That’s it. The image above shows the entirety of the municipal infrastructure (minus the post office). From the left there’s the school (K – 6), town offices, and fire department. Babb is also home to the rudest postal employee in town. Actual conversation:
Me: I’d like a couple of post card stamps, please.
Clerk: How many would you like?
Clerk: 64 cents.
Me (looking for a trashcan) Do you have a trash can?
Clerk: Nope, afraid I don’t.
Me: (noticing a trash can next to her) What about the one next to you?
Clerk: Just leave it on the counter, I’ll get it.
The only incident on US 89 back to the junction with MT 49 was a cow that started crossing the road, and stopped in the middle. The car ahead of me edged around, then the cow took a couple more steps, effectively blocking the lane. I’d had a similar experience in Nevada years ago. That time, I blew the horn, and the cow just looked at me. This time, the cow slowly finished crossing the road. I didn’t want to aggravate an animal that could do serious damage to a car that wasn’t mine.
I did take the ‘right’ road this time, MT 49, and shortly afterward wished I’d gone back around the ‘wrong’ way. The map shows the road juking around the landscape, and there’s a note that says the road is closed in winter. It’s barely passable any other time. This really is a case of the map not representing the territory.
The road is two lanes (mostly), and there isn’t a good surface on it. Ruts, dips, crumbling edges, washouts, reverse camber curves, and gravel stretches are the hallmarks of this alleged ‘road’. Did I mention that you’re climbing up the side of a mountain? Without guardrails? This is not a road for amateurs. I’m surprised there weren’t many white crosses along the way. I wouldn’t want to drive it at night. There is some scenery, but like CA 108, you’re concentrating on the road so much you don’t dare look around. I did stop at a pullout and took some pictures.
When I rejoined US 2 at East Glacier, I felt like I’d accomplished something.
The rest of the drive was uneventful. Got back to Whitefish around 1700. I washed and vacuumed the car, because there were a lot of bugs in the parts of Montana I drove through, and I wanted to get the tar spatters from the Many Glacier road off the car. Finally got something to eat; I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
Parked the car at the station at 1900 and turned in the keys. Found out the train was going to be 20 minutes late, so I asked the agent to hold my bag while I went off to the bar to watch Monday Night Football.
Back at the station, there was a surprising number of people in the waiting room. A line was formed at the ticket counter while an elderly woman engaged the agent in God-knows-what for over fifteen minutes while I was in line; no telling how long she’d tied him up prior to my arrival. I was just on the verge of going up and asking what the hell was going on when she finally finished her business, or maybe the agent shooed her away. The rest of the line disappeared in about five minutes. The train showed up at 2145, and didn’t wait around long.
25 September 2012
The train arrived right on time in Portland. I walked in the door at 1145, for a total transit time of 13 hours. A very enjoyable birthday weekend.
Next: conclusions and observations.