Waterton Lakes & Glacier

Waterton Lakes and Glacier National Parks straddle the Canada and United States border. Waterton Lakes is only about 195 square miles, compared to Glacier’s 1,583 square miles. We decided to spend a couple days in Waterton Lakes before heading to Glacier, curious to see the similarities and differences between the parks. Waterton Lakes was devastated by fire just a few years ago, which burned 38% of the park and impacted 80% of the hiking trails. One upside of the fire (for us) is that one of the main roads in the park is closed to vehicles, making for an amazing bike ride. Although Red Rock Canyon Parkway is only 8.7 miles in length one-way (it ends at the Red Rock Canyon parking area), the ride took us a few hours between wildflower viewing stops and the incredible headwinds. At times the wind was so strong it was hard to control our bikes and we envied those on e-bikes (the town of Waterton rents e-bikes to visitors – they appear to be doing well!). However, the wind made for an incredible, swift return ride. The wildfires have left amazing wildflowers in their wake which make for great scenery.

We spent a second day in Waterton Lakes hiking to Bertha Lake, where we backpacked for the night. Although David was looking forward to lounging in our hammock by the lake, I convinced him to hike up to Mt. Bertha with me. The trail to the summit is a little hard to follow, but I enjoyed the hunt of looking for cairns and small yellow ties that marked the route. From the top of Mt. Bertha, we had a great view of Waterton Lakes as well as part of Glacier. We got back to the campsite with time to make dinner before dark (although not lounge in the hammock – sorry, David). There were only two other groups camped at Mt. Bertha. We chatted with another couple who had just spent several days in Glacier – they were excited to give us lots of recommendations. David wanted to wake up in the middle of the night to take photos of the night sky over the lake. I reluctantly agreed to join him to man the bear spray, since I did owe him for accompanying me to Mt. Bertha. At least he got a lot of great photos and I did see a couple shooting stars.

After hiking out from Bertha Lake the next morning, we drove to Glacier National Park and spent a rest day lounging at Cut Bank, one of the primitive campgrounds in Glacier with only 12 sites and a pit toilet. Fortunately, most of the campgrounds in Glacier are first-come, first-served. However, this meant we had to wake up very early our second day in Glacier to get to one of the more popular campgrounds, Rising Sun, to secure a spot. At this campground, the campground host keeps a list of campsites that are opening up and then directs incoming vehicles to open spots. When we got there around 7:30, a line of about ten cars were waiting for spots. Fortunately, we easily secured a spot and got ready for the day’s hike (Highline Trail). The main east-west road through Glacier, Going-to-the-Sun Road, provides access to many of the hikes and is a big attraction in and of itself. Since it isn’t recommended for vehicles over 10 feet due to rock overhangs, we opted to take the free shuttle from our campground to Logan Pass for our hike. The walk to the shuttle stop took us by the queue of vehicles still hoping to get camping spots. David noticed that someone standing outside his car looked familiar and when they made eye contact, the guy asked David if he works at Elemental (David’s former employer in Portland). David quickly recognized Jared, who works on a different team at Elemental but who David had crossed paths with a few times. After chatting for a couple minutes, it occurred to me that we should ask Jared and his wife, Mary, to share our camp spot. They eagerly took us up on the offer and we were excited to have new friends to spend a few days with! While we did our own day hikes, we had a great time hanging out for two evenings with Jared and Mary. We learned we have a lot in common (adorable cats, a love of hiking and the outdoors) and it was really fun to spend time with other people we hope to see again. While I haven’t felt lonely on the trip yet and we’ve had plenty of small talk with fellow travelers and locals, I do miss spending time with friends and people that know us. We quickly felt like we knew Jared and Mary and had been friends for more than just two days. Unfortunately, they had to return to Portland and we moved to a different campground (Two Medicine) for our last couple days in Glacier.

Other highlights from Glacier:

  • A new friend and grizzly encounter: we hiked to Iceberg Lake in the northern part of Glacier our third day in the park. When we got to the trailhead, a single hiker asked if she could hike with us for the first few minutes as she was nervous about bears and didn’t have any bear spray. We happily said of course and ended up doing the whole hike together and giving her a ride back to her campground afterwards. Esmee is from Amsterdam and was in Glacier as part of an organized tour around the United States and Canada. No one else in her group likes hiking, but she was determined to take advantage of her time in Glacier and get farther into the park. We loved chatting with her on the hike and hearing about all the travels she has been on. At just 18 she traveled for nine months in Australia by herself. Esmee was very hopeful we’d see a grizzly, as Iceberg Lake is known for grizzly sightings. Given the crowds, I thought we had no chance and would have needed to start hiking significantly earlier. However, after we saw Iceberg Lake and were headed back to the trailhead, we came upon a large group stopped on the trail. They had come across a grizzly on the trail who now was about 50 feet up the hill in some trees. Although we were too far away to get a very good view or picture, it was still pretty exciting to see a bear while hiking. Esmee was super excited and I was so glad her grizzly dream came true.
  • Dawson-Pitamakan Pass hike: David’s friend from college, Sam, spent a summer working in Glacier and recommended all the hikes we did in the park. My favorite hike was the Dawson-Pitamakan Pass hike, which conveniently starts from the Two Medicine campground (where we were camped for a couple days). We hoped to do the hike as a backpacking trip, but couldn’t get permits. Even though the hike is about 18 miles and a little more rigorous than we’d typically tackle in a day, we decided to go for it. Fortunately the hike doesn’t have too much elevation gain and the trail was relatively smooth and rock-free. Compared to the crowds on our other hikes in Glacier, this trail was relatively quiet (we probably saw about 30 people over the course of the day). A good portion of the hike is a ridge with views of a variety of lakes and surrounding peaks. This hike was a great ending to our time in Glacier and left us looking forward to some city-time and rest.
  • S’mores: David has really honed his fire making skills and therefore we have been eating a lot of s’mores. David is a little obsessed with campfires and has eagerly been using his new saw and hatchet to perfect his technique. I’ve also fine tuned my marshmallow roasting – delicious.

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