|Highline and Swiftcurrent Trails, MT|| |
Highline and Swiftcurrent Trails, MT
|Hiking||18.70 Miles|| 9 Hrs 40 Mns ||2.13 mph|
|3,516 ft AEG|| 52 Mns Break|
|Glacier Day 4|
This was the second of our three big/classic/must-do hikes in Glacier. While most visitors head out from Logan Pass to the Garden Wall along Highline for an out-and-back of a few miles, I wanted to get to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook and the Granite Park Chalet. And once at the Chalet, it's actually shorter to continue on the Swiftcurrent Pass trail down to Many Glacier than to backtrack to Logan Pass. Either way, it's an 17-19 mile day, with 3,000+ AEG.
The Challenge: Setting up a shuttle from Many Glacier back to Logan Pass.
The Plan: NPS does not operate a shuttle from Many Glacier, but the park concessionaire, Xanterra, advertises on its website that it offers a shuttle from Many Glacier to St. Mary. NPS offers a shuttle from the St. Mary park entrance on Going-to-the-Sun Road to Logan Pass.
The Hurdles: (1) The Xanterra shuttle is first-come/first-served, with extremely limited seating, and only offered at certain times (which the website says will be posted at Swiftcurrent Motor in and Many Glacier Lodge). (2) For 2021, the NPS has instituted a requirement that a shuttle pass is needed from recreation.gov in order to ride the in-park shuttle. We didn't have shuttle passes, and the ones that had been made available were sold out months before.
The Due Diligence: To address the Xanterra shuttle concern, I spoke with the employees at the Swiftcurrent Inn following our earlier hike to Iceberg Lake and was informed that: (a) the shuttles were actually running every hour on the hour, and (b) that Xanterra wasn't charging for the shuttle, and (c) mostly employees were using it, and few hikers, so there should be plenty of room. Perfect! To address the NPS shuttle ticket concern, the NPS was issuing a small number of additional shuttle tickets on recreation.gov that would be available at 8 am, two days in advance. Although we would be hiking to Iceberg Lake at that time, I put my sister back in AZ and her Jeopardy-fast fingers in charge of trying to secure the NPS shuttle passes. As expected, they sold out in minutes, but my sister was able to secure passes for us. I downloaded them from my email and we validated them the day before the hike and got our "wristbands" at the Visitor Center in St. Mary. So, we were all set!
The Execution: [Spoiler Alert] The Xanterra shuttle never came .... More on that later, but first, how was the hike?
The hike was spectacular (mostly)!
The "mostly" asterisk is that this is an extremely popular hike, and even though we arrived at the Logan Pass Visitor Center by 6:00 a.m., the large parking lot was already nearing capacity. This was also, in part, due to the fact that cars driving Going-to-the-Sun road in 2021 are required to purchase a separate pass through recreation.gov, but the pass requirement does not apply if you get on the GTSR before 6 am. So, the non-pass-holders are incentivized to get on the road early.
Back to the hike ...
Even though the first couple of miles were a bit of a conga line, we took it in stride and still enjoyed the views. The much hyped "exposure" along the Garden Wall was grossly overblown, as wide path is carved out of the wall. They have also bolted in a hand rail on the cliff wall for those with queasy stomachs. So, while it is possible to fall of the cliff side in this section, you'd have to be trying pretty hard to actually do it.
As the trail carves its way along the mountainside, the views down into the valley and of the surrounding, snow-capped peaks is excellent, though on this day still obscured somewhat by lingering smoke in the valleys.
At about the 2.3 mile mark, the trail begins to veer away from the GTSR below and climbs up and over the pass behind Haystack Butte. Then it begins a relatively gentle descent on the opposite side and mostly flattens out until the junction with the Grinnell Glacier overlook.
At the junction--7 miles in--is where the real work begins. The climb from there to the Grinnell Glacier overlook gains about 900 feet in 0.8 mile. A solid work out, but well worth the views across the divide of Grinnell Glacier and down into the Many Glacier valley. Along they way, we saw several bighorn sheep, a marmot, and we were greeted at the overlook by mountain goat, which just casually walked within feet of enjoying the views down to the Glacier.
We ate lunch and then I poked around the area and climbed to a couple of different viewpoints, while my wife and daughter began their descent back to the Highline Trail.
We reconnected at the Granite Park Chalet, which is less than a mile from the junction. Another time, I would like to stay at the Chalet, which offers rustic accommodations for backpackers. We enjoyed the shade and views off the back porch and pulled off the shoes/socks to give our feet a bit of a breather.
We were surprised to find cell service at the Chalet (Verizon), and sent a Marco Polo video to the rest of the family before transitioning the the Swiftcurrent Pass trail from the Chalet.
Once on Swiftcurrent, we left all crowds behind and enjoyed solitude, passing only two or three groups over the next 6-7 miles.
Swiftcurrent climbs about 500 feet from the Chalet to Swiftcurrent Pass at 7185 in about 0.75 mile. Before long, Bullhead and Red Rock Lakes come into view, along with a relatively brief glimpse of Windmaker Lake. All are beautiful, and provided a contrast to the views on the opposite side of the pass. Additionally, as we rounded the corner about 12.5 miles in, the waterfalls draining from the suspended Swiftcurrent Glacier come into view--cascading probably 1,000 feet into the valley below. They were spectacular and something that photos have difficulty capturing. More than the views, the powerful SOUND of the falls was breathtaking.
As we snaked our way down the switchbacks to the valley floor, the heavens opened up and we got a pretty solid downpour, but it only lasted about 10 minutes. Then the clouds parted. But the rain with a little breeze did wonders for clearing out the smoke--and laid the foundation for wonderfully clear day the following day.
Bullhead lake was calm, and its glassy surface offered beautiful views and reflections. For the lower half of the lake and down toward Red Rock Lake, the trail skirts back into the trees and cuts through thick underbrush, where we frequently were brushing off the moisture from the rain-stained plants as we traversed the narrow pathway. At points, we could hear cascades along the creek, and I jutted out off trail to catch a glimpse of one at one point.
Eventually, we came to Red Rock Falls. A beautiful area, where we stopped for some photos, and began to run into the short-hiking crowds who had come up from the opposite direction to play in the pools and cascades which make this area a perfect destination for families with younger kids. As for us, we were pretty beat, so despite the beauty, we were focused on the finish line.
One more stop along the way at Red Rock Lake, where we were able to observe two moose grazing out in the water, while a baby rested on the nearby bank in the reeds.
At long last, we made it to the Swifcurrent Inn at 3:40 pm--just enough time to catch our breath and get a treat before the 4 pm Xanterra shuttle would arrive. But 4 pm came and went with no shuttle. I checked with the front desk and was told that the shuttle is sometimes late. Meanwhile, we chatted with another set of hikers on the porch of the Swiftcurrent Inn who were headed over Logan Pass, but we didn't want to intrude by asking for a ride, and we were sure the shuttle would come. Our new acquaintances left. When 4:30 and then 4:45 and then 5:00 passed with no shuttle and with the parking lots in Many Glacier beginning to empty, we found ourselves wishing we had bummed a ride off the folks we talked with earlier. As it was, we were reduced to asking random strangers, and eventually writing a sign "Need Ride to St. Mary or Logan Pass" and sticking out the old thumb.
Eventually, we got a lift a little further down the road to the exit point of Many Glacier Hotel, which gave us access to a few more departing cars. Finally, a group with a truck offered to give us a ride to Babb, which was only a couple of miles from our Airbnb. From there, my wife and daughter could walk back to our place, while I continued to figure out how to get from Babb to Logan Pass. Thankfully, when we reached Babb, the folks in the truck told us they were going over Logan Pass and made space inside for me to join them. Turned out to be two young couples from North Dakota. I've never been there, but it now has a special place in my heart. :-)
Long day; beautiful hike; and some extra adventure to cap it all off ....