Western Canada #07 - Kooteney & Glacier
Western Canada #07 – Kootenay and Glacier
This installment is the final for our trip to western Canada and Glacier National Park that we took in late May and early June.
Lake Louise to Glacier National Park
Lake Louise to Glacier
Kootenay National Park
As I mentioned earlier in this series, there are four adjacent national parks in Canada along the continental divide. These are Banff, Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay. Kootenay is on the West side of the continental divide adjacent to Banff which is on the East side.
On this day, we packed up and left our hotel at Lake Louise and headed south, back to the US. After leaving Lake Louise we headed a bit south to the junction of route 93which takes you east over the continental divide and then south through Kooteney National Park. Route 93 is also known by the wonderful name of “Banff-Windermere Highway” as well as the “Kooteney Highway”. I guess in this region of Canada when there is contention about highway names, rather than annoying one faction or another they just use all the names.
The park is named after the Kootenay River which flows down the middle of the park – literally. The park was created in 1920 as part of an agreement between the province of British Columbia and the Canadian federal government to build another highway across the continental divide. The agreement to build the highway included a stipulation that a strip of land 5 miles (8 km) wide on each side of the newly constructed Highway would be set aside for a new national park. So, the park is a strip of land, 10 miles wide and approximately 56 miles long which follows the Kootenay River to the town of Radium Springs where it joins the mighty Columbia River. Just jump in your inner tube and float your way to Portland Oregon (or not).
Kooteney has nowhere near the fame of either Banff or Jasper but even so, it is pretty magnificent in its own right – just can’t compete with the other three as it is more off the beaten track (TransCanada Highway1), and is on the more weathered side of the mountains where erosion has softened the terrain quite a lot over time.
Having just spent several days in the much more spectacular Banff, Jasper and Yoho national parks, we only stopped at a couple of pull outs along the Kootenay river. One such pull out was at Numa Falls. Our visit here was at the very end of May and let me tell you, the snow melt was in full force and the river was raging. In fact at this location it had washed out the pedestrian bridge, cutting off a major hiking trail through the park.
Kootenay River in full flood at Numa Falls
On to Glacier National Park
After leaving Kootenay National Park at Radium Springs we headed south on Route 93 which follows the Columbia River for a bit then reconnects with the Kootenay River which it then follows all the way down to the US border at Roosville. Crossing the border the road changes from Canada 93 to US 93 – isn’t it nice when countries talk to each other and coordinate things.
US-93 continues down the western edge of the continental divide of the Rocky Mountains through Montana. When they talk about rural America this is it. It is quite lovely watching the crest of the Rocky Mountains flow past the driver’s side window and many times the valleys and peaks on the other side of the road are beautiful as well. But, one has to overlook the dilapidated homesteads – some abandoned, some not - with abandoned rusted out cars, trucks and trailers strewn around their front yard with piles of junk just discarded willy-nilly across the property. But, then right next door is an immaculate ranch with perfect white fencing surrounding each field and sporting a modern multi story, many thousand square foot house with matching barn. These properties have lush green cut fields with horses peacefully grazing and metal covered sheds full of bales of hay. It really is a stark representation of the income/wealth disparity between the have’s and have not’s and I’m sure the have not’s work just as hard – if not harder – than the have’s but with no possibility of improving their lot.
Well, enough of that (even as important as it is). On we went till we cut over to the West Glacier entrance to Glacier National Park.
Glacier National Park is a 1,583 sq.-mi (over 1 million acres) National park in Montana's Rocky Mountains at the Canadian border, with the continental divide going down its middle. Actually though not only is the crest of the Rockies the continental divide, within the park is also the triple divide. Rain falling at this location can go west to the Pacific Ocean, South East and on down to the Gulf of Mexico and, believe it or not North East into Hudson Bay.
The region that is now Glacier National Park was of course first inhabited by Native Americans. In the late 1890’s these were mostly the Blackfeet. However they were forced to give up the mountainous parts to the federal government in 1895 which eventually became part of the park.
The park itself was established in 1910 and a number of hotels and chalets were constructed by the Great Northern Railway and several are still in use.
Although large forest fires used to be uncommon in the park. in 2003 over 13% of the park burned. And then again just this year several fires broke out in August and also burned large sections of the park. Sadly to say, Sperry Lodge (1913), one of those magnificent backcountry Chalet’s built by the railroad burned down at the end of August this year - a casualty of one of those forest fires that devastated much of the park.
One really needs to think about Glacier as two separate regions, one on the east side of the mountains and one on the west. In order to get from one side to the other without trekking over the top one had to traverse a long route around the southern side of the park and through a pass that is also used by the railroad. Much of this route follows the Middle fork of the Flathead River.
However in 1932 work was completed on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, later designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, which provided a driving road connecting the east and west sides of the park crossing the crest at Logan Pass. This is not a road for the faint of heart. On the west side it was literally carved out of the side of a cliff. It is quite narrow with no shoulders and very steep. On this trip in early June they were still plowing out the winter snow so we did not have the opportunity to drive this magnificent road again.
The mountains of Glacier National Park began forming 170 million years ago when ancient rocks were forced eastward up and over much younger rock. The current shape of the Lewis and Livingston mountain ranges along with the positioning and size of the lakes show the telltale evidence of massive glacial action. These glaciers carved U-shaped valleys and left behind moraines which impounded water, creating lakes. Of the estimated 150 glaciers which existed in the park in the mid-1800’s, only 25 active glaciers remained by 2010. Scientists studying the glaciers in the park have estimated that all the glaciers may disappear by 2030 if current climate patterns persist.
Glacier National Park has a sister park just across the Canadian border called Waterton Lakes National Park. The two parks are known as the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park and were designated as the world's first International Peace Park in 1932. Both parks were designated by the United Nations as Biosphere Reserves in 1976, and in 1995 as World Heritage sites. In April 2017, the joint park received a fourth designation with "provisional Gold Tier designation as Waterton-Glacier International Dark Sky Park through the International Dark Sky Association", the first trans-boundary dark sky park.
West Glacier and Lake McDonald
The little town of West Glacier marks the entrance to the western side of the park and just a few miles up the road one gets to Lake McDonald at the littler town of Apgar. Apgar is within the park itself and has a restaurant, gas station, post office, general store and a couple of motels. We had booked a nice room with a kitchen in the motel right on the lake. Even though I had a wicked cold, and was on all sorts of drugs to keep the nasal waterworks at bay I did appreciate the scenery.
Now, normally I don’t include photos of our hotel rooms in these travel blogs, but you have to see the view from the window
Lake McDonald from our motel room
Lake McDonald is the largest lake in Glacier National Park and is one of the most popular visitor destinations on the west side of the park. It is a long skinny lake approximately 10 miles (16 km) long, and over a mile (1.6 km) wide and 472 feet (130 m) deep, filling a valley formed by a combination of erosion and glacial activity. Lake McDonald lies at an elevation of 3,153 feet (961 m) Being at a relatively low altitude and being on the west side of the mountains where it gets lots of afternoon sun there was no ice on the water (June 1st) which made for a lovely view.
The lake is surrounded by a dense coniferous forest dominated by various species of spruce, fir, and larch. However, shortly after our visit much of this forest on the east side of the lake succumbed to a major forest fire. Starting in mid August several fires erupted along much of the length of the Rocky Mountains. This included areas of Banff National Park in Canada as well as Glacier National Park in the USA. One of several fires in Glacier National Park was the Sprague fire which blackened most of the ridge just east of McDonald Lake. The fire did not reach the shore of the lake and the famous Lake McDonald Lodge was spared but that outcome was not always certain as the fire raced down the hill toward the lake.
McDonald lake excursion boat
Last Rays hitting eastern shore of McDonald lake
Storm Brewing over McDonald Lake
The Going to the Sun road goes from West Glacier northward up the eastern shore of Lake McDonald which is quite a nice drive. Near the northern end of the lake is the magnificent Lake McDonald Lodge which dates from the 1930’s. On our visit the road was closed at Avalanche Creek (a few miles north of the lake) as they were still clearing snow from Logan Pass. At Avalanche creek is a campground, picnic area and quite pleasant nature trail which wanders through the thick cedar forest. This mile long level trail (Trail of the Cedars) is mostly a raised board walk affair so is accessible. In many regards this area of forest is quite similar to that found in the rain forests on the Olympic Peninsula of Western Washington State.
Avalanche Creek (Trail of the Cedars)
Roots (Trail of the Cedars)
Brook over a ledge (Trail of the Cedars)
Heading back down to Lake McDonald, there is the storied Lake McDonald Lodge. This 3.5 story lodge was built in 1913 in the large-scale Swiss chalet style. It was originally called the Lewis Glacier Hotel and replaced the original Snyder Hotel built in 1895. Prior to the opening of the Going to the Sun road, the only access was via steamboat from Apgar, 10 miles away at the southern end of the lake which itself was preceded by a two-mile trip on a horse-drawn carriage and a ferry ride over the Middle Fork Flathead River. Now you just zip of the highway.
Being a well known landmark as well as being right on the Going to the Sun road and having a restaurant as well as other amenities, this hotel is the epicenter of activity for the western side of the park – but don’t tell the folks at Apgar unless you want an argument. One of the most famous attractions here – and throughout the park - are the bright red 1914 era tour coaches operated from the hotel.
White Motor Company tour buses (rebuilt by Ford in 1999)
In the early days of the park people came by train and carriage and the only way to get around once in the park was by foot or horseback. Eventually the horse trails were replaced by narrow gravel roads allowing for motor vehicles. Beginning in 1914, the White Motor company began taking passengers around the park in shiny red touring busses. By the late 1990’s after 60 years plying the mountains and valley’s of Glacier National park, the fleet showed serious wear and had become a safety concern. Then, in 1999 the red busses were taken out of service. But through the generosity of the Ford Motor company, along with other donors, the original fleet was refurbished, had new V8 bi-fuel engines installed and got a new chassis matching the original wheel base. The fleet returned to service in 2002 with the same look and feel as the originals.
Polebridge sits between the Continental Divide and the Whitefish Mountain Range just outside the western edge of Glacier National park. It is an off the grid community made up of a handful of houses, cabins, a hostel and small ranches along the North Fork Road. Following the Flat Head River this road connects the south end of Lake McDonald (Village of Apgar) to a couple of spur roads that enter the park from the west each of which dead ends at a lake not too far from the park boundary. Other than farms and ranches, Polebridge is the only semblance of civilization along this road.
Falling down house
Cabin still in use
The hub – to use the word loosely - of this area is the historic Polebridge Mercantile and its neighboring Northern Lights Saloon—both powered by generators. "The Merc", as the locals call it - is a one stop shop for locals and visitors alike and is famous throughout the state for its freshly baked goods, sandwiches and authentic personality. . It is said to be one of the most iconic buildings in Montana, serving as a general store and heart of the community for over 100 years, since 1914. The “Merc’ has been at the heart of this frontier town for over 100 years
The Polebridge Mercantile
Out back, behind the “Merc” is a small field with a stage. Looks like something right out of a 1960’s hippie commune – and maybe it was. It is unclear if they still have shows there but, hey, why not. Other than a few cabins scattered around that’s it for this town
On the wall
The surrounding area has some cabins for rent along with some ranches. Some of the ranches seem to be doing quite well while other seem to have seen better days.
Well kept ranch with Glacier National Park behind
The views of the Livingston Range and continental divide to the east across the Flat Head River are spectacular in a rugged pioneering sort of way. Even though it is not my cup of tea, I really do have to admire the pioneering spirit of the people who live here year round. I can’t imagine how rough the winters can be in this area but with this beauty as your backyard I guess you can put up with a lot of cold and snow.
Meadow of a prosperous ranch
Rocky Mountains from Polebridge area
Eastern Side of Glacier
As I mentioned, Glacier National Park is split down the middle by the continental divide with the east side being distinct from the west side. From the Lake McDonald Lodge on the west side the distance to the town of St. Mary on the east side as the crow flies is 22 miles – not to mention a mountain range in-between. By vehicle there are two ways to get from one side to the other.
Two routes across the park
One can circumnavigate the park around its southern side along route US-2 which follows the Middle Fork of the Flathead River – and the canyon it carved through the mountains - much of the way. On this route you’ll clock over 2 hours and nearly 100 miles to get from the Lake McDonald Lodge to St. Mary. The other driving route is via the Going to the Sun Road which pretty much just goes right over the top of the mountains crossing the continental divide at Logan Pass at 6,646 feet (2,026 m). This route is only 40 miles but it takes well over an hour even if you don’t stop to take in the magnificent scenery.
Going-to-the-Sun Road (or “Sun Road” as it is sometimes called) is quite a marvel and is the only road that crosses the park. After 11 years of construction the road was opened in 1932. The road is the first to have been registered in all of the following categories: National Historic Place, National Historic Landmark and Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. The two lane Sun Road is quite narrow and winding with hairpin turns and due to this vehicles longer than 21 feet or wider than 8 feet are not permitted in the steeper section.
The road is one of the most difficult roads in North America to snowplow in the spring. Up to 80 feet (24 m) of snow can lie on top of Logan Pass, and more just east of the pass where the deepest snowfield has long been referred to as the Big Drift. The road takes about ten weeks to plow, even with equipment that can move 4,000 tons of snow an hour. The snowplow crew can clear as little as 500 feet (150 m) of the road per day. On the east side of the Continental Divide, there are few guardrails due to heavy snows and the resultant late winter avalanches that have repeatedly destroyed every protective barrier ever constructed. The road is generally open from early June to mid October. But, not as early in June as our visit so we were not able to experience this marvelous drive on this trip.
We were forced to take the longer route 2 option to get to the east side of the park. On the east side, one uses US-89, which flanks the eastern side of the park as the main North-South road. From this artery you can turn into the park at many different locations and drive up into the side valleys passing dozens of lakes along the way.
After our long drive around the south side of the park, our first stop in the park was in the Two Medicine area in the southeastern part. From the period starting in the late 1890s until the completion of the Going-to-the-Sun Road in 1932, Two Medicine was one of the most visited sections of the park with lodging, restaurants and a small town.
The region has always been considered sacred ground by several Native American tribes including the Blackfeet who performed Vision quests here and this area is considered one of the most sacred areas to the Blackfeet.
After driving past Lower Two Medicine Lake we took a little hike along the Running Eagle Falls Nature Trail. The waterfall at the end of the trail is named for Pitamakan, or Running Eagle, a female warrior leader of the Blackfeet Nation in the early 1700s. In her youth she experienced a four-day vision quest in the mountains high above the falls that now bears her name. Later, Running Eagle led war parties on many highly successful raids, and was the only woman in the Blackfeet tribe ever to do so, or to be given a man's name.
Apparently this waterfall is also called “Trick Falls”. It seems there are actually two waterfalls at the same place. There is a smaller and lower falls that runs year round and the larger and taller falls that only run during the spring thaw and flows right over the top of and in front of the smaller falls. Being the spring time, we were seeing the larger falls. The smaller falls is totally obscured in my photo behind the bigger falls. (Google “Running Eagle Falls Images” and you’ll see images of both falls)
We then drove on up to Two Medicine Lake where the old Chalet is (just a general store now). This is a good size lake and in the summer you can take excursion boats. But, this time of year, on a very overcast and cold day we didn’t do much there.
Running Eagle Falls (larger one)
Lower Two Medicine Lake
From Two Medicine we backtracked back out of the park and, after finding some lunch in St. Mary, headed on up to the Swiftcurrent Lake area. This area is one of the most popular sections on the East side of the park. It hosts the famous Many Glacier Hotel, a lovely campground, a motel and the trail head for the immensely popular hike up to what’s left of the Grinnell Glacier.
The Many Glacier Hotel was first opened on the Fourth of July, 1914 as one of the prime destination hotels put up by The Great Northern Railway. The Railroad promoted the area as the Alps of North America and as such built the hotel in Swiss Chalet style which it maintains today. Of course in its heyday only the very wealthy could afford to stay there but once they arrived they tended to stay for several weeks admiring the scenery and taking advantage of horseback excursions, hiking and boating on the many lakes. But always knowing that a 5 star gourmet meal was waiting for them back at the hotel at the end of the day.
This hotel, which sits right on the edge of Swiftcurrent Lake is massive with over 215 rustic guest rooms and spectacular panoramic views of the mountains on all sides. In the summer it is a beehive of activity and a central hub for this quarter of the park. On our visit in very early June, the hotel was in the throes of construction getting ready for the summer season so we were not able to go inside.
Corner of Many Glacier Hotel on Swiftcurrent Lake
Mountains by Swiftcurrent Lake and Many Glacier Hotel
Swiftcurrent Creek where it exits Swiftcurrent Lake
Eastern end of Going to the Sun Road
After leaving the Swiftcurrent area we once again backtracked out to good old US-89 to start heading back south. US-89 is no where near as well known as I-95, I-80, I-5 or even old Route-66 but it sure does connect a large number of natural wonders for such an unsung little road. Up here in Montana it skirts Glacier National Park, then further south goes right through Yellowstone and on to the Great Salt Lake. From there it continues its southward journey past Capitol Reef National Park, by Bryce National Park (Grand Staircase – Escalante) followed shortly by Zion National Park. It then heads over to Lake Powell and by the Famous Slot Canyons at Page Arizona and then past the eastern entrance to the Grand Canyon. That’s quite a list of national wonders for one little obscure 2 lane US Highway.
On our way back to the West side – the long way of course – we decided to head back into the park at St. Mary (still on the east side), which is the eastern end of the Going to the Sun Road. A few weeks later and we could have actually taken the Sun Road back to our hotel on Lake McDonald but it was still being plowed. But, as we had some time, we decided to drive up the road a ways to see what we could see.
We didn’t go too far up the Sun Road as daylight was getting short and we wanted to get back to the West side before dark. Our first stop along the road was at Wild Goose Island Lookout along the shore of St. Mary Lake. As are most lakes in the region, St. Mary Lake is long and skinny and resting in the bottom of a glacier carved valley left over as the glacier retreated. It is almost 10 miles long and 300 ft deep. At one time it was two lakes with a left over glacial moraine dividing the two lakes. But, over time this moraine weathered away and the two lakes became one. The only remnants of this moraine are two points sticking out into the lake from either side and Wild Goose Island nearby. As this island is the only island in the lake, and the road goes right by it, they figured they might as well put in a scenic overlook. And, since they went to the trouble of putting an overlook, we took the trouble to stop and see what could be seen.
Well, guess what? We saw an alpine lake surrounded by mountains along with a tiny spec of an island that with normal water levels is most likely much bigger. Okay, I’m being rude. It was a lovely lookout but in many ways quite similar to dozens similar views at other lakes in the park.
Saint Mary Lake is the 2nd largest lake in the park, behind Lake McDonald. It is nearly 1,500 feet (460 m) higher in altitude than Lake McDonald and is thus much colder, rarely even reaching 50 °F (10 °C) even in the heat of summer and in the dead of winter the ice is routinely over 4 feet thick. For you film buffs, the opening scene in the 1980 Stanley Kubrick film The Shining was shot at Saint Mary Lake.
A bit farther up the road we grabbed a quick stop at the rushing Baring Creek where it comes racing out of Summit Gorge – in the rain. But, time was not on our side and so at that location we turned back and started the long drive back to our lodging in Apgar by Lake McDonald.
Lake St. Mary from Wild Goose Lookout
Baring Creek exiting Summit Gorge
Spring flowers in burned area near Lake St. Mary
I hope you enjoyed reading this episode of our Western Canada trip and perhaps the whole series. This marks the last segment for this trip. I hope that you’ll come back for other journeys or catch up on prior ones on my website (see below)
PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS AS I ENJOY HEARING YOUR REACTION TO WHAT I'VE WRITTEN
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These and other Images of this trip are posted in a Gallery on my website.
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Thanks for reading – Dan
(Info from Wikipedia and pamphlets gathered at various sites along the way along with attraction websites)
Keywords: alberta canada, apgar, apgar village, blog, canada, candadian rockies, dan hartford photo, dantravelblog, dantravelblogwca, glacier, glacier national park, going to the sun road, kootenay, kooteney national park, lake mcdonald, lake mcdonald lodge, lake st. mary, many glacier hotel, montana, polebridge, rocky mountains, running eagle, running eagle falls, sun road, swifcurrent lake, trick falls, two medicine
Your photos, as usual, are stunning. These make me want to go there as soon as the weather permits.
Hi Dan -
thanks for the great travelog of this area - you make me want to saddle up and repeat the trip. The Canadian Rockies are so rugged and beautiful. I'm sorry you couldn't get across the Sun Road, but it is a massive job for even the giant blowers to clear the massive amounts of snow that fall or drift in. They do the same thing on Tioga Rd across Yosemite - 30 and 40 feet of snow, and they struggle to get it open by July 1 in many years. I've been in the Jasper/Banff area on that Highway, and it is lovely. Now I want to head south! Or north from here.
Best to you and Ellen.
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