It was mid June. I was facing one of the most challenging emotional times of my life. Every “bad” feeling you can think of fought for space inside me – terror, anger, deep sadness, disappointment, emptiness, exhaustion. I literally ran away to clear my head. My destination: my all-time favorite National Park, Glacier National Park.
Glacier is roughly divided into east and west, with Going-to-the-Sun Road crossing Logan Pass. In mid June, the Pass was still closed due to snow; the only way from one side to the other was to go all the way around. I was limited on the number of days on this visit – though long daylight hours made it well worth it – and coming from Missoula made the west side of the park the most accessible.
I hiked to the Apgar Lookout on my first afternoon. A 7.1 mile round trip hike with an elevation gain of 1845 feet, and close to the park entrance, it was a perfect option to get out of the car and get moving. The weather was drizzly and wet, and it seemed most people had chosen to stay indoors; I met only a handful of fellow hikers on the trail. A fire ravaged the area in 2003, leaving the landscape a contrast between blackened tree stumps and lush green just beyond the fire line, prairie grasses and vast vistas, all softened in the mist.
The solitude meant I had the magical views from the top, looking out across the mountains and Lake McDonald, all to myself. With the sun occasionally breaking through rain clouds, rainbows literally danced across the landscape. One after another, in a slow, mesmerizing ballet, colors would emerge in one part of the sky, and then in another, slowly fading back into the mist, and appearing elsewhere. It was stunning. I was wet, the wind whipped my hair and stung my cheeks, and for the first time in a long, long time, I felt pure joy. I was the crazy person literally laughing with tears and raindrops on her cheeks. It didn’t matter – I was the only one up there. I fell in love with Glacier all over again.
I stayed at Lake McDonald Lodge for a night, taking the opportunity to explore the trails that take off from Sperry Trailhead, and just sitting by the Snyder Creek and Lake McDonald. The rooms are sparse, but then, you aren’t there to stay in your room. I took my book and settled into a rocking chair in front of the fireplace I could have stood up in, and struck up a conversation with several young men who were on their annual trip together. We compared notes on trails and camping and they were the perfect company for a quiet night around a fire. It was quiet, peaceful, and just the right amount and kind of company.
One of the hikes I remembered from years ago was the Trail of the Cedars, a popular easy walk along a boardwalk through a humid and almost prehistoric-feeling stand of several-hundred-year-old cedars. I correctly remembered another favorite trail to Avalanche Lake took off from the halfway point of the loop.. There was just one problem: I’d gotten a later start than I’d planned, and I needed to haul back to Missoula to catch my flight home. I made a deal with myself. I’d head for the lake – if I didn’t make it up by a certain time, I’d turn back.
It didn’t take long for me to squirm my way out of that deal. I’m terrible about judging distance, and it seems when you’re not quite sure where you are, time passes a bit differently. Though the hike is only 4 ½ miles round trip, with an elevation gain of only 730 feet, I had no sense of where along the trail I was and how much further to the top. The time passed, and I kept convincing myself it couldn’t be much further, and besides, going down always went so much faster. I would make up time. It would be fine. When I reached the lake, I knew I would likely miss my flight. It didn’t matter. I was in heaven. The hike had been rewarding at all levels. The pace I was going was enough to make my heart pound and my blood race. I could breathe again – the mountain air, the cedars, the coolness. I was back to center, back to myself, and that’s what I wanted, needed.
I also flew down that trail at record speed. And of course, coming back down, the trail felt ridiculously short in comparison to how it felt on the way up, when my sense of distance wasn’t operating. Fellow hikers good-naturedly moved aside, and let this lunatic woman race past them, apologizing and saying something about a flight to catch. I slid through mud and scrambled over roots and rocks, laughing the entire way. Reaching the car, I knew that in spite of Montana’s generous speed limits, there was no way the math worked out. I’d reach the airport as my plane left the ground. Resigned to the missed flight, but so exuberantly happy that it really didn’t matter, I settled in to the drive. There would be other flights. I pulled into the airport – an hour ahead of my flight’s departure time.
No idea, to this day, how that was possible. It shouldn’t have been. As I sat at the gate, I thought that of all the miracles that happened this trip, this time warp was actually the least of them. The mountains had worked their reliable magic – they breathed new life into me. So many words can be used to describe it, yet none actually seem to truly fit the experience. Exuberance. Euphoria. Elation. Joy. Bliss. Grace. Reassurance. Perspective. Glacier gave me the escape I needed. In making me feel both small and insignificant, yet part of a vast and beautiful world, I regained my footing, my center, my perspective.
Happy 100th Birthday, US National Parks! Thank you for giving me a refuge to run to, mountains to climb, and the reminder that there are no rainbows without the rain.
With curiosity and courage,
Curious as to where to go and what to do for an amazing trip to West Glacier? Keep reading for the details!
Airport: Missoula, Montana
Distance to West Glacier (via Polson and Kalispell): 130 miles
Approximate driving time: 2 ½ hours, no stops, Missoula to West Glacier
**There are flights into Kalispell as well! Missoula is just a favorite stop, so on this trip, I routed through Missoula and rented a car from there.
Disclaimer: Western Montana is where I indulge my trifecta of great beer, good pizza and pub fare, and local ice cream.
Missoula is one of my favorite towns in the US. Outdoorsy, artsy, and intellectual, with a laid-back and friendly personality. The University of Montana takes up a good chunk of the town’s real estate, making it a smaller version of Boulder in many ways, but with its own lovely eccentricities and uniqueness.
Food and Drink
Bridge Pizza ~ Using local ingredients and creativity, these pizzas are not your chain fare! Eclectic and delicious, just trying one of their concocted creations may be a step outside your comfort zone. Traditionalists need not fear – the classics are available as well. Menu features daily by-the-slice options and build-your-own pizzas, as well as salads, sandwiches, and pastas. Added bonus: their house-made Bridge Brew Root Beer is available, as well as wine selections and great beers. Inexpensive and absolutely mouth watering! Hours: 11:00 am – 10:30 pm*
Big Dipper Ice Cream ~ A trip isn’t complete without ice cream. (I infamously pointed out every Dairy Queen off interstate from Minneapolis to Salt Lake City until my dad finally caved and stopped.) My tastes have changed somewhat, and I love trying out local ice cream shops. Big Dipper features homemade ice cream in traditional and creative flavors, great toppings, and fun sundaes at an outdoor stand with picnic tables. Or take your ice cream and walk along the Clark Fork River, or cross the bridge to Caras Park. My favorites: Coconut or Mexican Chocolate – depends on my mood! Hours: 11:00 am – 10:00 pm*
Iron Horse Bar and Grill ~ Incredibly popular and for good reason. The menu, in Missoula fashion, is a mix of traditional fare and eclectic options for the more adventurous. You’re in the west, so give the Buffalo Elk burger a try. Or share a few small plates – try the bacon wrapped elk meatloaf! The place is enormous, and if weather and seating permit, opt for the beautiful outdoor patio. Hours: 11:00 am – 2:00 am*
Missoula is a micro-and-craft-brew lover’s paradise, and I was too short on time to fully experience it. But here’s my take:
Big Sky Brewing is the largest brewery in the area and home to the nationally known and popular Moose Drool Brown Ale. The tours are free, there are often events (like the summer concert series), and the taproom offers the classics and their lesser-known creations. Keep in mind – taprooms are not open as late as bars, and may close as early as 6 or 7, so plan accordingly!
KettleHouse Brewing Company is a smaller operation, but with two taprooms – the original southside location at Myrtle and the expanded northside location in a very cool historic warehouse on the directionally-challenged North 1st Street West. I’m a dark beer girl, and their Cold Smoke Scotch Ale and Brick and Mortar Imperial Belgian Porter (currently available only at the Northside taproom) are enough to make me drool for Missoula.
Missoula is home to several other breweries that my limited time and low alcohol tolerance didn’t permit me to check out, but if this is your thing, there are more to add to your list – and I’d love your opinions! Bayern Brewing, Draught Works, Flathead Lake Brewing Company, Great Burn Brewing, Missoula Brewing Company, Tamarack Brewing (more on this one – I was able to visit their location at Flathead Lake, but didn’t check out the one in Missoula). For an up-to-date list, see Destination Missoula’s Guide.
The Artists’ Shop ~ If you’re going to pop into only one shop in Missoula, make it this one. Local artists have formed a co-op, and their works are for sale here. From paintings and photography to pottery and jewelry and everything in between, this is the place for the local, handmade, unique and quality memoirs of your trip.
Butterfly Herbs ~ My brother calls my tea collection a “witch’s cupboard.” I create a lot of my own blends, and Butterfly Herbs had a huge range of the basics – but, the blends they offer, both their own and specially selected from elsewhere, are so good that making my own seems like a failed attempt at redundancy, at best. (The owner, Bruce Lee, who recently passed away, created one of my favorite blends – Evening in Missoula.) Herbs, teas, coffees, and all matter of brewing accessories, this is a unique shop to check out. While you’re at it, there’s a coffee and teashop at the back – great spot to rest a bit and rejuvenate with their great coffee, or try one of their teas.
Bathing Beauties Beads ~ Beading is an on-again, off-again hobby, and I just happened to wander in here and started talking to the saleswoman. A great range, including natural stone beads that reflect Montana’s breathtaking natural beauty foster the creative types.
I was a wreck when I first got to Missoula, and its people reached out to me in ways I will forever be grateful for. One recommended I hike the M, and my puzzlement must have been obvious. Here’s the scoop: above the University of Montana campus is a giant “M” laid out in rocks. There’s a trail that winds up to it, and it’s a rite of passage for students and locals alike – and tourists. It is a lot of up – and then a lot of down – but the views from the top are worth it. This was early on in the trip, where I really needed to get out and move, and the M did not disappoint. The Mount Sentinel trail actually continues on to further points, and is a satisfying way to spend a couple of hours.
I also have it on good authority that the area around Missoula is dotted with many trails that are really off the beaten path when it comes to tourists. Locals know them and use them, but this isn’t a heavily trafficked area for out-of-towners, unless they are en route to Glacier. I also happened across live music and food trucks at Caras Park and a Stand Up Paddleboarding Yoga class. Check out Destination Missoula for the latest news, events, and tons more activities around the area. Another great resource for hiking and biking around Missoula is the thorough, informative, and easy-to-use The Missoulian Guide.
If you missed them in Missoula, Tamarack Alehouse and Grill on the northwest side of Flathead Lake is a great place to stop for food and drink. A little out of the way if you’re headed up the fastest route on the east side of the lake, but worth it for a cool atmosphere, creek-side patio, great twists on pub favorites using their brews, a menu that includes pizzas, and excellent beer. Hours: 11 am – 10 pm.*
On the northeast side of the lake, and personally untested, is Flathead Lake Brewing Co. Again, if you missed them in Missoula, now’s another chance. The pubhouse boasts a fantastic menu – get your buffalo burger here! – and the deck includes a fireplace. Hours: 11 am – 10 pm (dinner served til 9:00 pm)*
There are a few smaller towns as you approach Glacier, but Kalispell is the last of the bigger “cities” at just over 20,000. A great spot to stock up before heading into the park.
Food and Drink
Wheat Montana ~ Known for their bread, Wheat Montana is a state-wide chain that also offers up excellent sandwiches, soups, and deli selections. Located on Main Street, it’s a convenient and delicious option for lunch – or to grab sandwiches and go exploring. For the breakfast and sweet tooth crowds, their cinnamon rolls – along with their pastry selection in general – will definitely satisfy. Closed on Sundays, the Kalispell location is currently open 6:30 am – 4:00 pm weekdays, and 8-4 on Saturdays.*
Moose’s Saloon ~ You can’t go through Kalispell and not stop at Moose’s Saloon for pizza and beer – and to carve your name in the wooden booths. Open 10 am – 2 am,* this iconic saloon with sawdust on the floors and peanuts on the bar is a tradition. Their pizzas stick to the more traditional options and are absolutely delicious. The taps range from the more standard big brewery fare (think Bud, MGD, and Coors) but you’ll find the locals represented, from Big Sky to Bayern. Great spot for food in Kalispell!
Sweet Peaks ~ Rounding out the beer-pizza/pub food-ice cream trifecta in Kalispell is Sweet Peaks Ice Cream. With a few locations in Montana and one in Idaho, the company was started by two ice cream lovers in 2010, and has become a go-to for traditionalists and creative types. Great options, and right on Main Street, make this a must on the way through Kalispell.
In and Around the West Side of Glacier National Park
I mentioned in my previous post that I stayed at Lake McDonald Lodge. In Missoula and Kalispell, I ended up in mor
e standard hotels. Without camping gear, but wanting to stay in the park, Lake McDonald Lodge was a great option. As the rule with all National Park accommodations – lodges, cabins, camping, etc. – they book up fast.
I stayed in the main lodge, and the room was really basic (no televisions or air conditioners) – keep in mind this is a historic lodge over 100 years old. As a side note, there have been renovations and upgrades to many of the park’s lodging options, so don’t be surprised if a room is far above “standard.” Check out the main post for the highlights of the Lodge, including the enormous “lobby” with couches, rocking chairs, and the fireplace. There are similar options outdoors on the “back” facing Lake McDonald. The lodge also has a few dining options – a nicer dining option in Russell’s Fireside Dining Room, more casual Jammer Joe’s Grill and Pizzeria, and Lucke’s Lounge with a bar menu of burgers, sandwiches, salads, and appetizers. A lovely place to stay and truly have Glacier surrounding you.
Horseback Riding: Swan Mountain Outfitters
The only horseback riding option in Glacier National Park, the Outfitters is also in West Glacier. From hour-long trail rides to overnight trips – and Saddle Paddle packages! (horseback riding and whitewater rafting, something this girl will be taking full advantage of on the next trip!) – they have something for everything. To top it off, their guides are professional and fun, and are the icing on the top of an already memorable experience.
Check out my personal experiences on these trails here, but for quick reference, here are the details on some of what the west side of Glacier has to offer:
Trail of Cedars – Easy
Boardwalk, handicap accessible, flat, and a loop – so no having to factor in round trip!
Step out of crisp dry air and into humidity and a prehistoric shiver. Beautiful – and popular – walk.
Avalanche Lake – Moderate
Takes off from about half way around the loop on Trail of Cedars, and climbs up – but not too much “up” to Avalanche Lake. Look for the long waterfalls streaming down the mountains across the lake. See the white streaks? Yes, those waterfalls.
Apgar Lookout – Moderate to Difficult
Easy going, but enough of an elevation gain to make this one a bit more difficult for some. The views over Lake McDonald are simply stunning.
Glacier has over 700 miles of trails – and I could go on and on about the other hikes (Garden Wall, Grinnell Glacier, etc), To keep this manageable, I’ve kept it to three favorites in the Lake McDonald section. Glacier National Parks Trail Guide has trail maps, trail status and conditions reports and other tips on planning your hikes.
Another great resource is HikingInGlacier.com, a thorough guide on hiking trails, with searchable options by location, features, and difficulty level, as well as on other activities and accommodations for all of Glacier National Park and the surrounding area.
There is so much to Glacier that covering just this little corner is woefully insufficient; future posts will expand more on other parts of the park and more ways to get out and explore the area.
Until then, happy trails!
With courage and curiosity,
*I’ve included times on many recommendations, but it is always best to double-check before relying on these times. Businesses change hours, locations, hold special events, and sadly, even the best sometimes close their doors. There are links to all recommendations, so please check their websites and/or give them a call for the most up-to-date hours and locations.