Archive for the ‘Montana’ Tag

Mountain Monday: Big Chief   10 comments

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This beautiful mountain lies in northern Montana not far from the Canadian border.  It has great significance to the local Blackfeet.  It was a major landmark for trappers and other early explorers of the early 19th century heading west across the northern plains to the Rockies.  Big Chief, which is 9081 feet high, is protected not only by Glacier National Park, but also by the Blackfeet.  It’s eastern and northern slopes are on reservation land, and it is sacred to the tribe.

To see it you need to travel up the east side of Glacier N.P., going north from the turnoff for Many Glacier.  Travel up Highway 17 like you’re going across into Canada, and several views of the peak present themselves.  To get even closer of course you need to hike.  Just before the border station a parking area is on the left side of the road.  The trail, which is the northern terminus of the Continental Divide Trail, heads up the valley of the Bow River into Glacier’s heart.  It’s a spectacular area.

Glacier National Park in Spring: Things to Do   13 comments

Springtime in East Glacier, Montana

Springtime in East Glacier, Montana

Lets continue with Glacier National Park in springtime.  This post will suggest things to do if you visit the park in early season (May & June).  Check out the introductory post too.  I visited this beautiful park in NW Montana last month.  Though much of the park was snow-free, most of the high country was inaccessible because of snow.  The famous Going to the Sun Road, which crosses spectacular Logan Pass, was closed from the Avalanche trailhead & campground on the west side all the way over to the east entrance at St. Mary Lake.

Spring was in the air at lower elevations, with green meadows, flowers and busy critters.  That atmosphere, combined with relatively few other visitors and all those waterfalls made the trip very worthwhile, despite Logan Pass & St. Mary Lake being closed.

Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

A Caveat:  If you’re going to Glacier to knock some shots off your photography bucket list, you should stop reading right now and find another avenue of research.  For one thing, it being early season, I wasn’t able to access ever-popular Triple Falls or St. Mary Lake (at Sun Point).  So I’m not much help for these two very popular places to shoot at Glacier.

The internet features thousands of pictures from these two spots, and it seems everybody with a camera wants to (or feels they should) see and shoot them.  They’re on the itinerary of every photo workshop at Glacier (they have to be, people would feel cheated if they weren’t).

That’s why, as those who’ve been reading this blog for awhile have probably already guessed, I’ve happily skipped them on all my trips to the park, even in summer or fall when they’re accessible.  Besides, I don’t need to keep a group of workshop participants happy.  And I don’t do bucket lists.

St. Mary Lake, East Glacier

Here are a few ideas for things to do if you come to Glacier in early season (photography suggestions follow each one):

  • Rivers & lakes are plum full in spring.  So it’s a great time to float the Flathead (north or middle forks) in a raft.  These rivers approach Class III but are mostly mellow Class I & II.  Look for outfitters based in Kalispell or Whitefish, or closer to the park at West Glacier.  This is a favorite weekend activity for local residents of the Flathead Valley.

** Action shots on the river, especially if you’re able to capture people’s expressions in the great light of a lowering sun, will make you popular with companions.  If you’re nervous about shooting on the water, buy a relatively inexpensive waterproof point and shoot camera.  But the chances of capsizing on the Flathead, especially in a raft, are slim indeed.

Swiftcurrent Creek spills over a raucous waterfall on its way from the lake of the same name.

Swiftcurrent Creek spills over a raucous waterfall from the lake of the same name.

  • Camping lakeside is a wonderful way to spend a weekend in May or early June here.  Lake McDonald is an obvious choice, but Bowman Lake, also on the west side, is more out of the way and gorgeous as well.  You’ll need to drive a gravel road into Bowman, but it’s well graded for 2WD, and in early season not too washboarded.  On the east side, camping (and hiking) along Two Medicine Lake is a superb choice.

** Campfire pictures (and videos) are sure winners.  I’m talking people pictures, not close-ups of the fire.  Help to get your group in the mood to sing and dance, then stand back with your camera on a tripod and capture both freeze-frame (higher ISO) and movement-blur shots.  Or zoom in for a close portrait of someone telling a story, face to the firelight.  Can you think of other ideas?

  • As long as you’re camping by a lake, spring is a fantastic time to paddle, either in kayak or canoe.  Morning is best to avoid any wind that may come up.  And drop a line if you’re so inclined.

** Photograph canoes & kayaks in quiet, peaceful, and watery settings at sunrise, sunset, or even in the moonlight.  Shots of people (fishing?) or just the empty boats can both work.  Sure these can look a bit cliche, but if you’re genuinely trying to capture the mood of a peaceful paddle, these types of pictures can really shine.  Of course sunset or sunrise by a lake also provides the perfect chance to shoot landscape if the light is right.

Lake Sherburne, East Glacier

Lake Sherburne, East Glacier

  • Wildlife watching & photography is great this time of year.  Dusky grouse were mating when I visited in May, and the deep “thump thump thump” calls of the male permeated the forest everywhere I went.  I saw moose and plenty of deer, along with bighorn sheep.  Mountain goat are quite common as well, especially if you hike to one of the high rocky ridges, such as Apgar Lookout near the western entrance.

I didn’t see bears this time, but they are mostly out from hibernation at this time of year.  Note: there are plenty of grizzlies in this park, so travel in groups if possible and make noise when you’re hiking (especially if alone) in areas where you can’t see far (no bells, loud talking instead).  Discretion is the better part of valor: shoot grizzlies from a distance!

** You have to be patient to get pictures of dusky grouse, but the males (like males of any species, including us) are easier to approach when they’re displaying and their minds are elsewhere.  The real challenge is to get a shot of a female!

** Bighorn sheep are fairly easy in most areas of Glacier because they are habituated to humans.  But in order to observe more natural behaviors, and to get close to young ones, you need some patience.  For both sheep and goats, if the terrain and your abilities allow, climb above them at a fair distance and circle around.  Then descend slowly, approaching from above.  That tends to keep them much more relaxed than if you were to approach from below, where most of their danger comes from.

Dusky grouse displaying his inflatable neck sac, the sound a deep thump-thump.

Dusky grouse displaying his inflatable neck sac, the sound a deep thump-thump.

 

Next time I’ll cover hiking at Glacier.  It might have to wait until a follow-up trip in a few weeks, after which I’ll be able to recommend not only good trails for spring, but perfect hikes for summer as well.  Happy traveling!

 

Flowers bloom in springtime from an out-of-the-way spot I found along Flathead Lake, Montana.

Spring flowers bloom above Flathead Lake, Montana.

Glacier National Park in Springtime   18 comments

The Mission Mountains north of Missoula, Montana

I’m in the mood for a travel post, so here goes.  This is the first of at least two parts.  Glacier National Park lies in northwestern Montana.  It’s part of a larger park, an international peace park,  spanning the border with Canada.  The Canadian portion is called Waterton Lakes.

Glacier is a place of beautiful, rugged mountains and big blue lakes, a place of charismatic wildlife, including grizzly bear, moose, and even (rarely seen) wolves.  Because of widespread glacial retreat over the past century or so (an effect of global warming), you need to hike into high country to get up close and personal with the park’s namesake glaciers.  Those that remain, while visible from the road in places (mostly on the east side) are relatively small.  Much more obvious are the spectacular landscape features left by the extensive glaciation of the past.  U-shaped valleys, glacial lakes, sharp aretes (knife-edge ridges), moraines and more lie around every corner.

Springtime is lambing season: Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep

Before I get too far, I have a pet peeve.  When we read about travel destinations, either in a guidebook or in a blog like this, the author invariably tells you when is the best time to visit.  We are so used to this that we feel cheated if it’s missing and go off to another source to find out this important piece of information.

This of course, for nearly every destination, is pure bull.  I’ve heard professional photographers complain about how over-popular and over-exposed places like Iceland and Patagonia are getting.  Too many photogs. and too many pictures.  And yet they all continue to schedule their workshops at the same time of year.  It’s like the busiest road near where you live.  You only think of it as having tons of honking cars or bustling people on it.  But try taking a walk there in the middle of the night, or the middle of a snowstorm.

Spring is also a time of plentiful water falling down the mountainsides:  above Grinnell Lake.

Spring is also a time of plentiful water falling down the mountainsides: above Grinnell Lake.

Is there really a “best” time to visit?  Maybe, but travel authors are giving their opinions, as should be obvious from the word “best”.  You aren’t learning about the only time to go but the best time with regard to climate and other factors (the main factor being the author’s personal opinion).  It’s a very subjective topic that is far too often presented in a misleadingly factual manner.  Now some places are virtually off-limits during some times of year because of major road closures or other factors.  But it is a very rare destination that can’t be visited at any time of year.

Glacier lilies are the first to bloom after the snow melts in Glacier's subalpine regions.

Glacier lilies are the first to bloom after the snow melts in Glacier’s subalpine regions.

For example, on a trip across Montana a couple weeks ago, I had plenty of options other than Glacier.  But I love the scenery in the NW corner of the state, so I drove up toward Flathead Lake through the Mission Valley (top image).  After that, it was an easy decision to go a bit further to Glacier.  It was my first springtime in Glacier (late May is still springtime in the northern Rockies).

Every photo workshop plying this park I’ve ever heard of is scheduled in high summer, some in early fall.  But that doesn’t mean other times of year aren’t worthwhile.  I guarantee you’ll be amazed at the park whatever time of year you go.

I may sound like I’m contradicting myself here, but I’m going to recommend, if it’s your first visit to Glacier, that you think about sometime after 4th of July weekend, on up to early October.  But if you’ve been before, if you want fewer fellow tourists, or if you want a slightly different experience, consider either an early (May to mid-June) or very late (mid-October into winter) season visit.

In May, and most years well into June, you’ll be dealing with snow in the high country.  The famous Going to the Sun Road over Logan Pass was closed to vehicles when I visited.  It’s closed until at least mid-June most years.  That’s a big draw for Glacier; first timers want to drive over that pass.  But read on for a way around that apparent limitation.

It didn’t bother me too much that Logan was closed.  For one thing, I’ve been to the park before in summer and have driven over the pass.  Also, because of the closure, not too many people were there, even though it was Memorial Day weekend.  Best of all, I found out that Logan Pass wasn’t actually inaccessible after all.  You can bicycle up from the closure gate!  Bike rentals are available at the store in Apgar Village, the main hub of activity in the west part of the park.

You can also walk of course, but it’s a longish hike.  Granted, once on top you’ll be walking around on huge snow drifts.  But it will most likely be compact enough to not sink in too far.  And you’ll be sharing it with just a few or no other people.

Weather moves in over Two Medicine Lake.

High-country hikes were snowed in during my visit, but that left plenty of hiking to do.  Opened up for consideration were out of the way places I’ve never before explored, and probably wouldn’t if I was busy doing the more popular stuff you see in pictures on the web (over-shot Triple Falls or St. Mary Lake from Sun Point for example).

If you go in wintertime, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing is not only magical, you’ll get pictures very unlike the mainstream.  You can even go by rail in winter and stay at the historic Izaak Walton Inn, which has wonderful groomed cross-country ski trails.  The Inn is just outside the south boundary of the park.   You can rent a vehicle to explore (with XC skis or snowshoes) those parts of the park open to traffic.

A doe, a deer, a female deer...

A doe, a deer, a female deer…

You see, there are always ways to make a trip worthwhile, no matter what time of year you go.  So when you read about the “best” time to go someplace, you should at least take it with a grain of salt.  For one thing, “best” times are usually also the most crowded and expensive times.  Also, any pictures you get will end up looking more similar to what’s been done before.  That’s because each season brings its own unique light and weather conditions.

Next time I will offer some ideas for things to do if you decide to break with the crowd and visit in Glacier’s spring season.  I’ll also cover ideas for photography there in spring.  So stay tuned!

Light from the setting sun illuminates the peaks along Lake Sherburne.

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