Hello there! Welcome to a little one-off write-up here on bobbywestside dot com, sharing the full two-week itinerary from mine and Izzi's mountain getaway in Jackson Hole, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Parks! If you're on a mobile device, hey that's fine, but this will be most exciting on your desktop screen!
First things first (I'm the realest), we need to thank two essential people who sent us their primary experiences and recommendations to help us plan our trip: Grace and Erica. Legends of the friend game, we couldn't have hit pause on our fitness bootcamp without them. Also because Grace let us crash with her in Jackson.
With that being said, five quick general details and perhaps some fun backstory on our trip before we get into the daily play-by-play:
NUMBER ONE | Neither I nor We are travel bloggers! Like fifty of you either jokingly or seriously said you wanted our itinerary so I figured hey sure I'll do several days of work to make that a reality. I wrote it like a short story to make it a little more enjoyable to digest.
NUMBER TWO | We actually wanted to go to Turks & Caicos! What started as a tropical vacation in the time of COVID became a rather dramatic pivot when we looked at flights going there (only American, who isn't changing anything in the interest of public safety), getting test results within five days of our flight (plus hoping it's negative), and finding an affordable, private place to stay.
NUMBER THREE | If you come on this vacation, I would highly recommend you remember it's a vacation and pack your patience for the full trip. 95% of everything out here is probably slower than you want: one-lane roads going both ways, *lots* of driving to Parks and Trailheads (I feel like people don't mention this), and nearly a hundred hours on your feet! This trip should be meant to help you slow down, refocus, and reset.
NUMBER FOUR | I impulse bought a fancy ass Nikon DLSR, in particular the 5600 because it was all that they had, the night before our flight for next-day store pick up. It was a lot of money! But for probably the first time ever (see: me owning a fancy ass drone) I'm happy with the purchase. There were *plenty* of times Izzi's iPhone took great and even better pictures than my new camera (see that one above!) but it was really exceptional for wildlife photos, landscape scenes, and the back of Izzi's head with both of those things. If you have the means, I would definitely recommend.
NUMBER FIVE | And finally, here's a few things you can do ahead of time to get ready for your trip. Download the Grand Teton and Yellowstone (one for each) apps. They'll give you access to an offline map that you can track while you're hiking, plus geyser predictions for Yellowstone. Glacier doesn't have one for some reason, but by then you'll be a pro. Purchase your $80 Annual National Parks Pass. This will give you unlimited access to all parks for an entire year! Or you can pay like $35 for one-time access every time you enter. Tough choice. Rent and carry bear spray. Don't try to check it in your bag, they'll throw it away. Be a morning person. You'll get the best parking and least traffic if you can commit to an early morning. After we heard horror stories of our own, we got to each hike between 7 and 8am (post-sunrise) and never had even close to an issue. Would also try for weekdays for the popular ones.
Alright - we've covered our bases so let's get down to the nitty gritty. I'm going to sort this chronologically in a day-by-day format, each day with a few pictures of what we did, what we saw, and how we got there. Feel free to skip around to your heart's delight, or just abandon ship right now because you clicked on Not A Travel Blog for some completely unknown reason.
This one doesn't count because we taught our two Saturday classes in the morning and then caught an afternoon flight into Jackson. One layover in Minneapolis. Got in late, but the airport is pretty centrally located between the city and the Tetons. We had a stunning view as we landed, and that was with the California wildfires smoking up our landscape. We'll probably come back for the unobstructed experience but some things you can't control. Anyway, we picked up our rental at the airport and then drove to our nifty condo Airbnb in Victor, Idaho.
You may be wondering...Idaho? Well, you can either stay in Jackson, about a 30 minute trip from the park, or you can drive through Jackson, through a little town called Wilson, and through the Teton Pass, a massive sidewinder to the other side of the mountains, all the way to the first town in Idaho: Victor.
This is where our friend Grace had set up shop and where we'd establish our Grand Tetons home base for the next five days.
Our first official day! As much planning went in to the whole trip - I'd say more than average but nothing obsessive, we still felt a little overwhelmed by our hit list. Instead of diving right in, we decided to sleep a little late and start with The Big Drive® through Jackson and most of Grand Teton National Park. This is often referred to as the Scenic Loop and has all the highway turnouts for iconic views and stunning photography.
Remember those one lane roads from above? Of course you do, you're an attentive reader and care very much about what I say. The Scenic Loop is pretty much a fifty mile round trip through the entire park on that one lane road. You'll start going north on Highway 89 (the only way to go from Jackson), past the airport from whence you came, and you'll hit Moose Junction.
Moose is a town! It's also the start of the Scenic Loop. For all of your hikes and trail adventures, you'll take a left at Moose and enter Grand Teton National Park ("GTNP"). For specifically this journey, you'll go straight ahead and loop all the way back around to instead finish back at Moose Junction. Moose. MOOSE.
Like I said earlier, you'll have plenty of opportunities to pull out and photograph the landscape, in and out of the park. There are way more than the ones listed here, but I'm happy to call out those ones we specifically made it a point to see.
1) Antelope Flats / Mormon Row: Pretty soon after Moose (Migos: MOOSE!), on your right hand side. It'll be the only one on your right before you enter the park. Great view from a little higher as well as an historic set of row houses. Grace took a pretty legendary Milky Way midnight shot with one of them in the foreground (pictured with her permission, you're welcome).
2) Schwabacher's Landing: Probably my favorite view of GTNP, this is a somewhat less publicized pullout that requires brief gravel road driving to arrive at. Once there, you'll get an incredible vista with the water and trees bringing out the majestic mountains behind it. If you can get there and set up before sunrise, the sun will hit the peaks and give you the chance for an incredible reflection in the dammed still water here. Coincidentally, Grace also did this and took another incredible picture. She probably has one for every place I talk about but these first two just happened to be my favorite.
3) Snake River Overlook: One of the essential shots of the Tetons, this is where Ansel Adams took his famous photo of the Snake River flowing into its peaks. You can *especially* see how smoky the mountains were for us early in our trip, but happy to report it had mostly cleared up by the end. Luckily, while the wide range views were cloudy, the smoke didn't impact our hikes.
3a) Deadman's Bar: Optional, but just like a quarter mile later on the road there's a somewhat hidden downhill road to pull off and go down to the river. It's a frequent put-in for boats and rafts, but we were just curious. From here, your next stop will be in the Park!
4) Oxbow Bend: After Snake River or Deadman's Bar, you'll likely (again, your choice to hit more stops along the way) make it to Moran Junction. Moose 2 would have been a cooler name. Here you want to take a left and enter GTNP with your $80 ANNUAL NATIONAL PARK PASS. It's like $35 for one time entry or $80 for a year at any and every National Park. This also covers the entire car. One per car. You should purchase this in advance - because of COVID we could use our email receipt, but I believe usually you need the actual card.
Once inside, you'll keep following a one lane road to Oxbow Bend. This is a beautiful river bend and common wildlife attraction if you can get there earlier or later in the day. We got there about noon, so, yeah. Nada. Regardless, great place to get near the water and on the shore.
5) Signal Mountain Overlook: I assume you're here because it's me and want my honest take, so I'll just say I didn't think this was worth the hour or so round trip it took to get to the top and back. It's nice because you can drive all the way! But nothing up there really did it for us. Could have been the smoke! But we did it and said great once is good.
6) Mt. Moran, Cascade Canyon, Windy Point Turnouts: After Signal Mountain, you'll have nothing but up close, personal, and breathtaking views of the incredible Teton Range. By this point you won't need me to tell you that you might want to stop and take some pictures, but here's the three we ended up doing ourselves. There will be some rightfully big hype around Jenny Lake, and that's deserved!, but you'll see it in all of its glory tomorrow (or whenever) for the Hidden Falls/Inspiration Point/Lake Solitude journey. So you can do it twice or just wait a little bit and see it soon.
All in all, this took us like three hours to work through. Once you're done, you can explore Dornan's right there in Moose (restaurants, gas, drinks, convenience store), head to Jackson to poke around, or just back to your Airbnb! We hit a brewery back in Idaho, but power be unto you.
THIS IS IZZI.
SHE'LL BE YOUR
SPIRIT GUIDE TODAY.
Once we got our bearings from Day One's scenic loop, we planned to attack the big dog first. Lake Solitude is probably the most-hyped sanctioned hike in the Tetons and was the hardest and longest of our entire two weeks. (If the italics have your interest, Delta Lake is technically off-trail but well enough known that at this point, it gets the rightful nod as Hype Hike. See Day 4 if you can't wait).
33,000 steps, 3,000ft elevation gain, 2,000 active calories, 200 flights climbed, 16 miles, 7 hour round trip (not including an hour lounging by the lake). By no means was Solitude an impossible hike, I don't think there was anything anybody couldn't do, it was just long and the last three miles particularly challenging. We probably should have packed more than two bottles of water each, and I wish I hadn't worn proper hiking boots and went with my trail running shoes instead. All things considered, however, the hike was worth the payout at the top. And what a way to start our trip!
I'm not going to be doing blow-by-blows of each hike, but I'll give you the gist of how to get to the start and then what awaits you during the hike and at your destination. In this case, you'll get to the top and have a choice: turn around and come back the way you came, or take a larger loop through the sexily named Paintbrush Canyon. The difference? Paintbrush adds about five miles to the end of your hike, but you get back all the same. In theory I wanted to do it, but we decided to turn back at Solitude and by the time we were near the end I was THRILLED we didn't have five more miles to go (see: comments about water and shoes).
START: Jenny Lake trailhead. This is the afore-scenic loop-mentioned Jenny Lake experience you'll now be getting! Getting there early enough will net you a spot in the Jenny Lake parking lot, and from here you'll walk to the small harbor where boats ferry you to the other side to start your hike. It costs like $35 for one round trip, but the alternative is to hike two-and-a-half miles around the lake to-and-from your starting point. Once you're on the boat, you'll see some phenomenal mid-lake views of the mountains you're about to hike through as well as the ones you're not. You'll be to the other side in ten.
THINGS TO SEE: This hike really baits you in by throwing two big attractions at you during your first mile or so. Hidden Falls (waterfall) is about half a mile from the boat drop, and Inspiration Point is a big Simba-esque overlook back onto Jenny Lake another half-a-mile after that. Both sensational photo ops, and then you'll have about six miles to appreciate the scenery, from water to plants to mountains to WILDLIFE. I SHOULD MENTION our first bear sighting was more of a bear-block as he was hiking the trail up to Inspiration Point ahead of us. All us early hikers had to just wait for little homie to pass until we could continue. Kinda scary but kinda awesome. This wouldn't be our only encounter, and an immediate reminder that you need to bring bear spray! He was a little fella but as the saying goes - where there's a cub, there's a mama. We also saw several moose and various other creatures. Quite the first hike experience.
DESTINATION: Lake Solitude! About four miles in you'll hit a big opening that basically says Go right and it's three miles to the Lake, or Turn around and go home. Either one is a fine choice! But we chose the lake, and it was a tough three miles to get to that glassy water. Like I mentioned earlier, we lounged at the top for about an hour and ate lunch, then decided to come back the way we came. You can do Paintbrush and add five miles to your journey, but I wouldn't recommend unless you're feeling pretty savvy. Pics below!
One of our favorite days of the trip, Phelps Lake was the perfect 'tweener for the double-digit hikes at Solitude and Delta. Six and a half miles round trip, it's known for its insanely gorgeous jumping rock that only brave adults - not just the ten year old in front of me who had a lot to say about my reservations about jumping - conquer. It isn't the only opportunity to cannonball into water on this trip - in fact there are three - but it certainly was the most picturesque. Also bears. MORE BEARS! This time we saw the mama and weren't in a big pack of other hikers. You're. Not. Stronger. Than. Bear. Spray. Also there's a sick ass sandy beach on this lake.
SPECS: 15,000 steps, 1,000ft elevation gain, 1,000 active calories, 7 miles, 3.5 hours (not including an hour on the beach)
START: Either Laurance S Rockefeller Preserve (limited parking) or Death Canyon trailhead (super rocky road). We were pretty banged up from Solitude the day before so got a slightly later start than usual, and because we knew there was limited parking at the Preserve we went straight for the DC trailhead. For better or worse they're about the same three-ish mile distance (albeit different paths).
THINGS TO SEE: From the Death Canyon trailhead, you'll hike about mile up to the Phelps Lake Overlook, which is pretty much Inspiration Point 2.0. Same 7,200 foot elevation overlooking an incredible lake. At the bottom awaits a Jumping Rock and the SANDY BEACHES OF WYOMING - but if you're us, first you have to escape the BEARS. From the Overlook, you'll take half a dozen switchbacks down to the bottom. Just like Solitude, it was on the trail we found our first bear, the cub, taking the switchbacks down to the lake. It was only about twenty feet away, if that, when we skirted by on the trail (but I had to get the shot, cmon now). On our way back like two hours later, it was in a tree, this time with its mama, validating the ol saying from above. BE CAREFUL! As my buddy Mike said in Glacier: people die in national parks!
From the bottom of the switchbacks, it's about half a mile to the lake and a BEACH! and another quarter mile to the jumping rock. Just make sure you take the trail fork to your left towards Phelps Lake Campground when you get to the signs at the bottom. It's intuitive but we kind of just assumed and didn't tell each other we weren't sure. It worked out great (and now you know).
DESTINATION: You're going to come out on to the lake at the beach if you take the Death Canyon trailhead. That's a great place to post up after you hit the jumping rock, which you'll see on the left hand side down the lake. I'd say it's a quarter mile. It's the opposite if you start your hike at the Preserve (rock first, beach further away). Izzi was at the edge of the water facing the beach for the extremely dope picture she took below. Enjoy!
I'd say this was the top hike of the trip, living up to the hype we heard from (too) many people. Everything from the excitement of the trail (boulder climbing) to the actual lake payoff at the end (beautiful turquoise water) delivered on our minimal expectations. If you read above, you know this isn't a sanctioned hike by the National Park Service, but I feel the need to mention we saw a guide wearing NPS badges lead a small group through the lake while we were up there. So who knows anything about anything.
Because it's not sanctioned, you'll have to do about two miles "off-trail" from the Lupine Meadow trailhead. This normally takes you up to the double trouble combo of Amphitheater and Surprise Lakes, which is a great hike in and of itself, but you'll jump off early at the next switchback immediately after you pass the signage for Garnet Canyon. There's a whole ass, obvious, deep step off the trail toward your new destination, but no signage or anything indicating what this is for. And beware, plenty of people we met, including Grace, had a bear sighting around this entry point.
From your top secret trail entry, you'll have three major obstacles in front of you: two boulder fields navigable only by cairns (small rocks stacked on top of each other as guideposts, pic included below) and a final super steep half-mile to crest at the lake. The rest of the hike is pretty easy (in my opinion) so the last half-mile is a small price to pay. Quick notes about the boulder fields then I'll let you go. Boulders are rather large rocks, this isn't Free Solo, it's just basically jumping lily pad to lily pad. I was glad I wore my trail shoes this time instead of boots. The first field is an easy practice course: just like three cairns guiding you straight across the field back on to the trail. The second one, however, was a little tougher. Iz and I were alone for about half-an-hour (morning people rise up) so we had some difficulty navigating the confusingly placed cairns (we eventually discovered they were in a switchback formation, can't tell you why, but it's fun to feel like you're starring in National Treasure 3 piecing it all together). Regardless, the gist of it is you should move up to the top of the boulder field and then across to find the trail. On our way back we actually found a new trail that circumvents the rocks on the nearside, but it was pretty steep. Good for the way down but rocks are probably better for the way up. Once you cross at the top, you hit that final half-mile hill climb and boom boom pow there's the lake!
SPECS: 20,000 steps, 2,500ft elevation gain, 1,300 active calories, 8 miles, 4.5 hours (not including an hour at the lake)
START: Lupine Meadow trailhead. You'll pull off about a mile or two from Teton Park road, parking in a small lot. If you get there late, parking is increasingly further away (think half-mile increments), so I'd advise just getting there. I mentioned earlier when to pull off, it's like the fifth or sixth switchback, whenever you hit Garnet Meadow signage, you'll know it's straight ahead.
THINGS TO SEE: Delta Lake! The water at Delta Lake is perfectly framed under three peaks (Disappointment, Grand Teton, Mount Owen) and a completely different hue of blue that we would see until I climbed to the Grinnell overlook in Glacier. It's a perfectly serene and picturesque destination that earned its many recommendations.
While this was the first hike we didn't see any major wildlife, there was a bear about a half-mile further up (if we hadn't pulled off for Delta, we would have ran into it). As mentioned, plenty of other bear sightings at the Delta pull off. I guess we did see a baby Elk, that was cool, but you'll see a lot of them.
DESTINATION: Delta Delta Delta. Once you come up to the top, there will be a bunch of debris sort of damming the river flow from the lake. This is a great place to get initial pictures, but I'd recommend going around to the right and posting up on a rock for lunch or lounging. There's one, just one, particular rock around to the left you can hit if nobody else has claimed it - we had the pleasure of seeing some girl's boyfriend take no less than a hundred different pictures of her on said rock (not that I'm one to talk). I personally climbed into the absolutely FRIGID water (it's from a glacier you know) after dropping my Nikon lens cap from our lounging location. You probably have sixty seconds before you lose feeling in your bones, but it was worth the shot. Hope you make it on a great day like we did!
Delta would be our last hike in the Tetons, with Day Five being a travel day from Jackson to Yellowstone ("YNP"). We spent some time in Jackson, had a couple pops at a Mexican restaurant and got a cool shot midday at Schwabacher's Landing (see: Scenic Loop).
Now let's get one thing straight: you'll see signs that Yellowstone is 90 miles away. This is technically true. Here's what you need to know: it's 90 miles to the southern entrance of the park. It's another 90 to where you'll be staying, either in West Yellowstone or outside the north entrance in Gardiner, MT. So we had haphazardly planned for maybe a couple hours in the car for what was ultimately a 3.5 hour trip. You've been warned. Additionally, your time-in-car to time-out-of-car ratio is going to be extraordinarily high compared to GTNP and Glacier National Park ("GNP"). This is a tourist attraction that involves far more driving and watching than walking and hiking.
Luckily, the travel itself is beautiful. My personal take is that Yellowstone's particular magnificence is the multiple layers of ecosystem it tends to represent (being a supervolcano and all). The attractions ended up being flat out meh but I'll leave that to you to discover and opine on personally. Still, you should know my expectations, fueled by years of choice angles and national park propaganda, were too high. Luckily, the incredible amount buffalo at dusk in Lamar Valley made both days completely worth it.
This first drive from Jackson to our Airbnb in Gardiner, MT (north entrance) was basically us doing the scenic loop in the Tetons. It helped us get our bearings and reckon with how much driving we'd be facing the next day. Highly recommend going into whatever trip you do with a full tank. We even saw a cute ass, huge ass, rainbow as we passed through the park before we got to our Yellowstone Airbnb. While the yurt in Glacier was probably the coolest place we stayed, this had to be one of the best places to stay for YNP. The pictures will speak for themselves, but we were in a guest house with massive windows opening directly on to the Snake River and sunrise. Highly recommend: if you'd like, the posting is here.
Alright. So. I don't want steal anybody's majesty about the great Yellowstone National Park. This is the perspective of somebody who wanted to see some cool shit and move on to the next one like an underrated Jay Z song. I'm sure there's plenty to do if you commit to the Park (trailheads, fly fishing, guided tours), but otherwise I'll say this:
Since you're already doing the dope ass hikes at GTNP and GNP, you can do Yellowstone in one full day. Sight seeing in the morning/afternoon, nap, bison at dusk. This is what we did, and we were plenty satisfied.
As with anything, given the sheer scale and time commitment of driving Yellowstone, probably best to go in with a plan. Our route considers you coming from the North. If you stay in West Yellowstone, would just modify the landmarks accordingly. I'm actually going to tweak our path a little bit because in retrospect I think we should have started with the Grand Canyon (not that one) instead of finishing with it. Old Faithful shouldn't be your top destination (@ myself).
1) SUNRISE AT GRAND CANYON: this is just Yellowstone's version of a big ass waterfall. There's two places to see it from: the Lower Falls, which is closer to the actual water, or Artist's Point, which is where we went for a distant view of the whole Canyon. You can see the Lower Falls people from here, and it's a big view. But there's no wrong answer! Like I said earlier, this was our last stop but I think the morning light would have been ideal and the crowd a little scarcer.
2) HAYDEN VALLEY: wildlife tend to travel early morning and early evening, not in the middle of the day when you're out and about. So if you can do the Canyon and continue south like 8:30/9am, you'll probably get some great shots of big mammals here. It's brother valley, Lamar, totally delivered at dusk, so I'd imagine Hayden would match that as well.
3) MUD VOLCANO: name kind of speaks for itself doesn't it? We actually cut this from our trip (remember, I'm reordering this for you), but I'd definitely stop here since the next stop will be Old Faithful. Not entirely sure if this thing erupts or not but why don't you let me know?
4) OLD FAITHFUL aka THE PRINCE OF THE PUFF GAME: you have to do it, simply put, it's the big blower for goodness sake, but you're going to be underwhelmed and that's okay. Many before you and many after you can empathize. It's called this because they can reliably predict the time within ten minutes, not because it faithfully blows you away. Remember to check geyser predictions as you plan your trip.
5) GRAND PRISMATIC SPRING: I'd say this is probably the crown jewel of Yellowstone, but you want to make sure you get the right angle. Don't pull off into the parking lot and see it ground level like we did. Take the Fairy Falls hike (I think it's 3-4mi round trip) to get up to the overlook and see it from above. This will give you the best angle for its wild coloring and photo-taking. Also, because this will be early afternoon for you (in the order I've suggested), a lot of the haze that typically lingers in Yellowstone before noon will hopefully be burned off. Again, not our experience, but what we should have done! LEARN!
6) GREAT FOUNTAIN GEYSER: a perfect trip would line this eruption schedule up with your scenic loop: you pretty much only get one shot every day (takes 12 hours to reload), but it's what you expected Old Faithful to be - averaging 100 feet tall with a chance at 200 feet. Didn't work for our trip, but maybe yours!
7) GIBBON FALLS: cool waterfall, a little hard to see from the car but if there's a parking spot hey why not. Definitely isn't essential viewing but great views here.
8) MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS: you have to pass these in and out of the north entrance. Were they worth it? Frankly? No. But you're on a nature trip so you might as well loop up to the top. Not like you're going to spend more regular time on a supervolcano, chief.
*NAP* Those 8 things are going to take you a criminal amount of time. More than any hike.
9) LAMAR VALLEY! Now this right here, this is the good shit. Bison up close and personal to your motor vehicle. Photography FUEL. I've included one picture from Grace in here, let's see if you can guess which one. Anyway, you'll drive about an hour each way to spend time with about a hundred migrating bison in their home valley. It's incredibly cool and unique, certainly a high point of our trip. Be safe!
MEET CARL AND JUNIOR
If you thought that Yellowstone drive was something to behold, Yellowstone to Glacier is a six hour SLUGFEST. You'll hit exactly one city, Butte, which has a gigantic statue of St. Mary overlooking the city. Not in the town square, no, in the mountains to your right, as you pass the city on your left. Montana is like, mega religious, but there wasn't much to do so I kind of get it.
Izzi and I woke up early and did a sunrise coffee situation to fully appreciate the cost of our wonderful Airbnb before we sat outdoors at the local Yellowstone Grill. They make their pancakes in the SHAPE OF BEARS not really relevant to this itinerary anyway then we packed up and headed north to meet our married friends for the first half of our Glacier experience.
There's not much to say about the drive, it's long and it gets nice near the end as you hit Flathead National Forest, a separate range that runs into Glacier. Other than that, you're going to find yourself enjoying 80mph speed limits as they try to move you through that BEHEMOTH of a state as quickly as they can. Fourth biggest in the country! Sneaky!
In the interest of informing you of things, though, I'll put a piece here on some of the Glacier social geography that surprised me. Where the Tetons had Jackson Hole and Yellowstone had Gardiner for us to bounce around, there wasn't any real noticeable neighborhood development around Glacier (clusters of restaurants etc). I'm not saying there weren't any of these things, they just seem strung out randomly on the roadside and few if any looked too desirable.
We stayed in a town called Coram the first three days of our trip, effectively ten minutes from the West Glacier entry point. As I said, there wasn't much to do around our cabin, but you can't beat proximity to the park. This ended up being huge for us to sleep in an extra hour before our two morning hikes at Avalanche and the Highline. Would definitely recommend trying to stay in West Glacier, Coram, or Columbia Falls to enjoy the same sleeping arrangement for at least part of your trip.
The second half of our Glacier stay, we relocated back down to Flathead Lake and stayed in a yurt for two days and a family ranch for another few. This was similar to the Idaho situation with our old friendly Tetons, where we were forty minutes from the park. By now you're generally tired of driving, and we did still have two more trips that would be two hours each way, but you're starting to slow down and not mind as much. We also had more luck finding other things to do in Flathead. The lake is perfect and it's too bad we couldn't find an available boat to go out on the water. We did, however, find some nice places to eat and quite a few breweries with outdoor options to load up. Definitely a nice change of pace to enjoy some us time at the end of our nature bender.
Alright that's enough of that, let's talk activities!
LAKE AVALANCHE &
Folks, this is what we in the fitness leisure travel sector call a TWOFER! Lake Avalanche is one of the two hikes GNP seems to force on you, and it's short and sweet enough to finish before lunch and a nap and the rest of your afternoon. In our case, we had the insatiable urge to abandon safety at death's door and leap from a bridge into absolutely NEAR FROZEN WATER. Belton Bridge as it's known was one of my favorite and sneakily most picturesque stints on our two week journey.
Lake Avalanche! The hard truth here is if you're doing this in the same order we did, this magnificent lake is going to disappoint you. Not because it isn't magnificent! I just said it was! Keep up! But rather because it bears a strong resemblance to Delta Lake without the crazy blue water or boulder climbing thrill ride. The hike itself is two miles there and two miles back, mostly flat terrain, and what I noticed first, a big difference from GTNP, was the amount of tree cover. Pretty much the entire hike up to the lake is in the shade so bring a jacket. While I'm not trying to deride Avalanche, I just want to write the most helpful itinerary for you so if you're short on visiting time, this is the third of our three hikes (Grinnell and Three Falls) I would recommend.
SPECS: 10,000 steps, 500ft elevation gain, 500 active calories, 4 miles, 2 hours (not including the driving portions and an hour at the lake)
START: Trail of the Cedars trailhead. You really can't miss all the Avalanche parking signs, and one will probably say Area Full but it's not true. Important to note even though this is probably the easiest hike on the trip, the lot will fill up real fast after 9am - it's the first big trailhead you encounter in the park (about 30 minutes from entry). Once you park, you'll find a nice and finished half-mile boardwalk introducing you to the hike. Around the other side is the official start of the Lake Avalanche trail (it's dirt, not boardwalk, don't worry).
THINGS TO SEE: Lake Macdonald, beautiful rocks, sunrise, and Lake Avalanche! Our first exposure to Glacier was on our early morning trek to Avalanche - which means it was our first sighting of Lake Macdonald. I talk about this a little more during Canoeing, but it's a truly incredible body of water. Early on the hike you'll also be exposed to all the differently colored rocks (reds and greens and whites oh my). The several plaques I read tell me they're over a billion years old so make sure you pack one for the flight home (do not do this). Furthermore, because we're parking spot warriors, we got to the Lake around 9/9:30 and before the sun had poked its pretty little head over the mountain peaks. Seeing the sun rise and reflect off the water was definitely an awesome and advisable thing to do. And, of course, the actual lake.
DESTINATION: As I mentioned, Lake Avalanche is a scene very similar to Delta with shimmering still water and a beautiful mountain backdrop. If you're not doing it in our order, this will serve as the perfect primer for what will inevitably be a longer hike and prettier payoff. Regardless, take advantage of the expansive seating arrangements around the lake and possibly hike a little further around for some different angles. It was such a short hike you might even consider bringing a full brunch spread for everyone involved. Once you're ready, head back for the drive home.
*LUNCH AND A NAP* you got up early. reward yourself.
I'm afraid of heights. Actually, no. I wouldn't call it a fear. It's an incredibly rational aversion to something that could maim or kill me. Regardless, after Phelps Lake's jumping rock, imagine my surprise, ending up on a bridge with my buddy, answering the age old question, "If your best friend jumped off a bridge would you do that too?" Apparently!
Belton Bridge is the former official entrance to Glacier, presumably before its rise to fame and fortune. It's also just out of sight as you go through the current West Glacier entrance, a cool breeze behind the place where Putt Putt now resides. Fittingly named Old River Bridge Rd, you just make one surprise right turn and you'll end up in one of the more unexpectedly beautiful parts of our Montana visit.
START: Old River Bridge Rd. You can drop a pin manually into Maps where the road crosses the river, or simply take a right as you pass Putt Putt going into the current GNP entrance point in West Glacier. You literally can't miss it if you take the correct right turn because the road dead ends at the bridge. Surprise!
THINGS TO SEE: While you're there for bridge jumping, which you may or may not do, the scene itself is really remarkable. Sort of a hidden gem, you're between two bends in the river with some pretty large rocks to lay out on and make wonderful conversation. We actual met some fellow out-of-towners who a) took an allegedly great drone video of me and Mike jumping ANDY SEND THAT TO ME AT SOME POINT PLEASE and b) recommended Sun Point aka Three Falls Trail to us. More on that later. Really great afternoon!
DESTINATION: The Bridge. Probably the same height as Phelps but something about it being a bridge and a river instead of a large, large lake threw me off my usual fake-tough-guy vibes. Hop over the railing and soar into the water from the middle! It's as easy as that! Sure I included photos of ANOTHER young kid haunting my dreams and doing it with ease! Whatever! Anyway we had a blast here and could have stayed longer, noticeably missing was a 24 pack of Truly Lemonade seltzers with some side sandwiches for nourishment. If you aren't staying as close as we were, definitely plan on this for the way out of the Park. Enjoy the lung-rattling water temperature if you make it :)
YOU CAN'T HEAR
Our third and final big hike, Grinnell Glacier is an overlook off of the Highline Trail. It's an optional extra mile at the top of the mountain, and optional for a reason - you gain as much elevation (1,000 feet) in the last mile to the GG overlook as you did the six miles previously. I can readily admit this left me and my tush sore for about a week, a WEEK! after we went up. If you opt out, you'll still be at the top of a mountain and get tremendous views of GNP, but I would definitely recommend going to the top if you feel physically able.
QUICK DISCLOSURE! This was, of course, the one and only hike I forgot to load my battery into the fancy camera. That means all the pictures you see below are from the ol iPhone - and I think we can agree: they're very good! Goes to show you absolutely don't need to drop a bag for a shooter (but I like my Nikon).
Now. Logistics. Two important heads up. First, the trailhead leaves from the Logan Pass Visitor's Center ("LPVC"), kind of the central point for Going To The Sun Road between West and East Glacier. It's about half-an-hour past Lake Avalanche, and if you do LA first like we did, you won't be fully ready for how batshit insane the road is about to get. One lane each way, hugging the mountains on the outside and scraping up against massive rocks on the inside. It's simultaneously super cool and terrifying, but ultimately grinds traffic to about 15mph for 10 miles. As I suggested at the top, it helped we chose to do this on a Monday morning (just like Solitude) for the least traffic.
Secondly, and this is pretty important, the Highline Trail isn't technically a traditional out-and-back. It's a straight shot, a line if you will: seven miles to Grinnell, four miles down the other side to what's known as "The Loop." You pass The Loop on your way driving to LPVC so this won't be just a random exit point. Now pre-COVID, there was a shuttle to take you back to your car, but those aren't running as of our Labor Day trip. Since we fortunately had two couples and two cars, we parked a car at The Loop on our way and then drove everyone to the top to start our hike. It was a good amount of driving on that Mario Kart inspired rock fall course, but it worked out well nonetheless. If you don't have two cars or don't want to risk asking a stranger to pick your ass up in the middle of a pandemic, you'll have to turn back at the top for a 14 mile hike. OR! You can park at The Loop and do an 8-10 mile hike and back. Save on distance, but you'll miss the cooler parts of the Highline, walking along the ridge of the mountain, bird's eye view of the entire Park.
Overall, Highline was actually the day with our *worst* weather, which is more of a blessing than anything! We were very satisfied with the conditions on our whole trip, and if anything hiking into zero visibility added some Mount Doom drama to the whole side of a mountain scaling situation. Plus, as you can see from the pictures, even if it's cloudy the Glacier is nestled in a valley at cloud level, so you'll still get chances for sunny pictures if you wait a few minutes up there.
A great day, and that was all BEFORE we moved into our YURT! Pics below and link here if the Airbnb interests you (it should). LINK!
SPECS: 30,000 steps, 2,500ft elevation gain, 1,600 active calories, 13 miles, 6 hours (not including the driving portions and an hour at the Chalet at the top)
START: Logan Pass Visitor Center. Ideally you grab a spot in this parking lot (and probably freshen up post-traumatic drive) then hit the Highline Trail starting point across the road.
THINGS TO SEE: Incredible Valley Views, Wildlife, Grinnell Glacier! and the Chalet (an unexpected and nice hotel at the very top). I think the coolest thing about Highline is that it's the first place called Highline I've seen live up to its name. You're effectively walking along the side of the mountain you just risked life and limb to drive through before plunging deeper into the range. This gives you truly marvelous views of the entire Park from above. We also got to see a ram up close and personal (plus a few from far away), some distant goats, and a whole lot of furry critters running around. Grinnell of course, such incredible water color and more on that below, then the Chalet! A currently unoccupied hotel or hostel at the top of the hike with picnic tables and bathrooms and water oh my! Very cool and unique stopping point.
DESTINATION: Ol 'Nelly! Grinnell Glacier is at the top of that final mile hike off of the Highline, about half-a-mile before you hit the Chalet. You'll be in sight of the Chalet for about two miles until you're there, and the signage is clear for the Grinnell overlook. Also kind of hard to miss people hiking pretty much directly up a mountainside. Like I said earlier, it's 1,000ft of elevation gain in a little over half-a-mile, or about the same gain as the last six miles. It's tough! But worth it - at the top is perfectly turquoise water (ice?) beneath you in the valley. Unlike other overlooks, this one is super ragged and rough, so you'll have to do some maneuvering to get comfortable. I'd move up and to the left once you crest the mountain and position yourself for the full-frontal view. For us it was cold and windy, plus the ladies were waiting below, so we only spent about fifteen minutes up there before making the trek down.
When looking at the trip as a whole, the thing I would say defined Glacier for me wasn't the hikes but the central Lake for the park - Lake Macdonald. It's ten miles long and you drive along it every time you enter the park. We saw it every day for a week and it didn't get old, so you can imagine that we were excited to finally get on the water.
Whole gang was pretty banged up after the Highline and a vigorous night of yurt Scattegories (Yurttegories), but we were all ready for a nice relaxing day of canoeing on Lake Macdonald. This is something I would highly recommend doing, at some point on your trip.
But here's the thing.
Wind had other plans for us.
We'd reserved two canoes for a half-day on this particular Tuesday a couple weeks in advance of our trip from a company in the park called Glacier Outfitters. Highly recommend them. Each couple walked their canoes a short distance to the Lake and we put them into nice, calm water. It was your uncle Bob's first time doing such a thing, so I wasn't at my best, but I'm a quick learner. Had kayaked a bit (once) in rural VA to retrieve one of Ellie's frisbees, so I was well on my way to becoming professional paddler.
They warn you at Glacier Outfitters that the middle of the Lake is a no-no, it's called the Windy Zone (they need to workshop that) and will basically carry you the full ten miles to the other end of the lake. Stick to the sides, everything will be fine, here's where you see some eagles, here's where you picnic, here's the furthest thing worth seeing (Rocky Point or something). The guide even said "you all seem more than capable to get out there and back, definitely do it." He's not wrong. We were capable. We listened. Stuck to the sides. Did everything we were supposed to.
What he didn't consider, however, were the WINDS OF CHRISTMAS PAST RE-CREATING THE PERFECT STORM STARRING MARK WAHLBERG THE FURTHER OUT INTO THE LAKE WE GOT.
When we eventually returned to Glacier Outfitters to give back the cursed canoes that crippled our collective character, we'd learn that they stopped renting out boats after we left. We were the last canoe they put onto the water. Death in my eyes and little feeling left in my body, hardly as loud as a whisper, I forced out a feeble "why?" It was too late but I asked him, "why didn't you come and stop us?"
He laughed. We left. Changed forever.
The middle of the story I'm leaving out is basically that after our first fifteen minutes of Izzi teaching me how to canoe properly, winds started to pick up. I don't know if luckily is the word, but the winds were at our back for the mission out to Rocky Point. We stopped at the lunch sandbar on the way, and kept on going to that end destination with ease. All in all, we got there in 45 minutes. Comfortably ahead of pace.
At Rocky Point (this is simply the name now), we had a quick lunch and appreciated the tremendous view you can see in the pictures below. From our new vantage point however we could see now that the whitecaps were fearsome. Not just fearsome, they were taunting us. Some would later say we should have waited at Rocky Point, let the wind die down as clouds covered us, but nonetheless we were back on the water in twenty minutes.
TWO HOURS LATER WE ARRIVED BACK ON SHORE.
I think my friend Rob (not me) best described canoeing on a windy day. "It's actually a wildly frustrating task that feels like a therapist is assigning it as a communication exercise." The fault of no one, it would be impossible for any two people to enter that boat and leave with smiles on their faces. At times you're paddling with your fiercest might while the wind and waves make sure you end up going absolutely nowhere. It defies human nature to see anything but agony in the experience!
Alas, me and Izzi eventually overcame stretches of strained silence as we fought Mother Nature and Poseidon himself, finding calm waters in the last ten minutes and drifting to shore, our relationship stronger, unaware of just how sore our upper bodies would be sipping huckleberry margs in thirty minutes.
All that (and I mean all that) being said - rent a kayak or canoe or stand-up paddleboard! Just check the wind forecast beforehand :)
GETTING THERE WAS FUN!
Somewhat related to our Olympic canoeing experience but mostly due to our couple friends returning home, us switching Airbnbs (LONG LIVE LINDA'S YURT), and three straight days of big activity, we took our first non-travel day off. Walked around our new ranch residence in Flathead, found a nice lakeside restaurant Harbor Grille to sample the local fish for the first time (weirdly), and had some Reese's s'mores by a campfire.
Very happy to take a lazy day, especially on a trip like this!
THREE FALLS TRAIL!
A random recommendation from fellow tourists at Belton Bridge became one of my personal favorite hikes of the trip and the perfect swan song for our time at Glacier. More widely known as Sun Point, this trail takes you through three, count em, TRES waterfalls of varying size and magnitude for a six-mile round trip. This is a relatively low-trafficked hike and for that reason apparently a favorite of the locals. Each waterfall is spectacular in its own way, plus you'll run into your third and final opportunity to launch yourself into water at the second fall, St. Mary's.
Worth noting you can also just park at the pullout for St. Mary's Falls and skip the first one, Baring Falls and two total hiking miles, but if you have the time I would definitely recommend going for the whole thing.
SPECS: 10,000 steps, 1,000ft elevation gain, 700 active calories, 6 miles, 3 hours (not including the driving portions and an hour lounging at Virginia Falls)
START: Sun Point Road turnoff (the official trailhead name was unclear, but you can't miss the signs for the parking lot). To consolidate some confusion I personally had, this is very close to the East Glacier entrance to the park, which was closed for our trip. That means entering from the West side (hehe) is going to take you about two hours to get there. It's well-past the Logan Pass Visitor Center and you'll see a bunch of other sights as you make your way to Sun Point. We got a late start (at this point, whatever) and still found a parking spot (there were a couple). Might not recommend going late but it worked out for us!
THINGS TO SEE: The East side of the park, Jackson Glacier, St, Mary's Lake, and all three waterfalls. Part of the excitement of this trip was seeing all of the park beyond the LPVC for for the first time. This includes the Jackson Glacier overlook, a really impressive view of the mountains directly off the road (seen below). Once you hit the trail, the beautiful St. Mary's Lake (the very first picture at the very top!) will shadow you on the left for a few miles. Then of course, the waterfalls each offer their own majesty, and it's nice because you basically have one every mile. So yes it's a three mile hike, but I'd approach it as three one-mile hikes.
DESTINATION: If you start at Sun Point, Baring Falls will be your first waterfall sighting after about a mile. If you start at St. Mary's, this won't be part of your hike. It's a beautiful, loud, and recessed fall with a perfectly placed rock center right of the water for optimal photo experiences. St. Mary's comes second (or first) and has an upper and lower fall situation. We went down to the lower sitting area and dipped our soon-to-be-frozen toes in the water for a little. If you're so inclined, you can also rock jump (carefully) from the other side of the Falls into the water. It's like half the height of the other jumps (woo) but we kept moving. Several groups were swimming though! And finally, you'll hit the only real incline of the hike, up to the mammoth that is Virginia Falls. 250 feet high, she's a beauty. At the fork in the trail, right will take you to her base and left will take you down to the river that you can wade in. Such a fun and unique hike, hope you get to enjoy it!
FIRST LOOK AT THE EAST SIDE!
LAST FULL DAY
And on our last full day of vacation, I'm happy to report we did absolutely nothing. We actually did try to rent a motor boat to go out on Flathead Lake but none were available - a waitress recommended this warm water spot called The Shallows (spooky tbh) where the Lake meets the River but we opted instead for nothing.
Ate lunch outside at the most popular place in town, Tamarack Brewing, hung out on the ranch because we were so full, packed a little, napped a little, watched movies a little, and got ready to fly home.
And that's all we wrote folks! Thank you so much for joining us on Bob's second-ever two-week vacation. At the very least we hope this was entertaining, and at the very most we hope it helped you plan, map, or even pull the trigger on your own mountain excursion. Let us know any questions you have, how your own trip went, or if Not A Travel Blog should become our full-time profession!
With the most love possible,
Bob + Iz