Stories from the Backcountry: Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks

I cannot stress enough how amazing the backcountry is. Camping in the backcountry brings us away from the crowds and into the heart of the wilderness, where natural beauty is, to a certain extent, unobstructed by man. Out in the backcountry, we are visitors to a gorgeous wonderland home to bears, elk, deer, mountain lions, coyotes, wolves, squirrels, bunnies, chipmunks, birds, and many more fascinating creatures.

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Loons in the Backcountry – Glacier National Park

Another benefit of the backcountry is the great people we meet out here. My goal from the start has been to get away from people altogether, but snow and water have prevented us from achieving complete solitude very often; we always end up staying with one or more other groups. As it turns out, this has been much more a blessing than a curse. In the month that we’ve been travelling in and out of backcountry paradises, we have not met one soul who has not been wonderful. Fellow backpackers share many common interests with us, and, best of all, they are full of amazing stories as well as great recommendations for local hikes and hot spots.

Upon arrival at Glacier National Park, we headed to the backcountry office and reserved a couple of nights at Upper Kintla Lake, along one of the northernmost trails of the park. Our reservation didn’t start until the following day, so we spent some time exploring the Going to the Sun road before heading to Quartz Creek Campground, which is primitive, cheap, and close to our trailhead.

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Going to the Sun Road – Glacier National Park

It was a long jaunt from the trailhead past Kintla Lake to the end of Upper Kintla Lake where our campground was located. Notwithstanding, the iridescent blues and greens of both Kintla Lakes were mesmerizing.

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Kintla Lake – Glacier National Park

When we first reached Upper Kintla, we were very sweaty from the long uphill jaunt between lakes. We stripped down to our underwear and waded into the crystal clear lake.  It was icy cold, and therefore a very short albeit refreshing dip.  We soon learned that swimming in any glacial lake is not so much swimming, rather dipping: you certainly do not linger.  It made us miss our mild Minnesota Lakes.

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Upper Kintla Lake – Glacier National Park

Upon reaching the campground, we were greeted by a couple of campers from Boston who turned out to be great conversationalists. One was studying the sociology of citizens of Olympic cities, which we found very fascinating. He explained how the claim that hosting the Olympics bursts tourism in cities is a fallacy, and that citizens are generally negatively impacted by the Olympics being held in their city.

After conversing over the fire and enjoying out dinner, we headed into the tent for an early night’s rest. Once settled into our sleeping bags, we suddenly heard a distant cry out of “Hey, oh!” The cries continued and became increasingly close. At first, we thought an obnoxious group must be approaching, but then we realized they were just calling out in case of bears. “At least they’ll be bear safe,” Stephanie said.  Once they reached the campsite, we heard the unmistakable sound of them plunging into the lake, followed by loud exclamations of shock. Considering it was too cold for us at midday, I can’t imagine how it must have felt at 10pm, with no sun to warm one’s bones. “These people must be crazy,” we concluded.

The next morning, the Boston couple packed up and left while I prepared breakfast and coffee.  Soon thereafter, the night divers began emerging from their tents. I asked them about their cold dip, and we struck up conversation about the park. They turned out to be very cool. Eventually, we found out that they were in fact off-duty park rangers! It was awesome to have casual conversations with three young rangers.  As rangers often do, they had worked at and visited many other parks, including the Everglades in Florida. At one point, they were comparing bears to gators. “At least you can kind of read a bear’s reaction,” one guy reasoned. “Alligators are so foreign to us, being reptiles.  You never know what they’re thinking, because they are always still.” They told the story of an alligator encounter they had while canoeing in the everglades together. One of the ladies had been in the front of the canoe and suddenly saw an alligator not five feet in front of them. “There’s a gator right in front of us!” she shouted.  However, the guy steering wasn’t sure which side it was on, and before he could figure it out, they had already crashed lightly into the gator. Fortunately for them, the gator seemed unperturbed by the bump, and they moved along safely.

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View of Upper Kintla from Boulder Pass Trail – Glacier National Park

The rangers had to get back to work that day, and we headed up to try to reach Boulder Pass. We didn’t make it all the way as there was a snow-covered creek that we didn’t want to cross.  I enjoyed hopping over the mountain streams. I loved the red and blue rocks, especially when seen through the flowing water. The dried rocks hardly look colored, but when they’re in water, their beautiful maroon and sky-blue colors shine through. The two colors complement each other quite aesthetically.

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Rocks in Water – Glacier National Park

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Water Wall – Glacier National Park

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Troll in Water – Glacier National Park

When we returned to camp, we were shocked to find that it had filled with three new groups.  The trailhead alone is a two-hour drive from the entrance, up a small dirt road. All the groups turned out to be great, though, and we enjoyed their company until our early night’s rest.  We were then the first to pack up and leave in the morning, hoping to catch a 2:00 ranger talk at Logan Pass Visitor Center.  We didn’t make it in time–not even because of the long hike and drive along the dirt road, but because of the slow drive once we got back to where the majority of the tourists roam.

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Going to the Sun Road – Glacier National Park

Instead of attending the ranger talk, I enjoyed being a passenger on our journey across the Going to the Sun Road. I stuck my head out the window and took a video, enjoying the view while Stephanie berated the slow drivers. We stopped for some pictures, but were too exhausted from the long hiking days to do anything strenuous.

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Saint Mary Lake – Going to the Sun Road

We attempted to get a campsite near Many Glacier that night, but it was full.  Instead, we paid four bucks each for a shower, cleaned out the car, and headed for Canada. A couple of hours after crossing the border, we crashed at an overpriced park campground outside of Waterton.

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The FunBus Enters Canada

Waterton Lakes is a stunning place.  Before starting our backcountry adventure to Snowshoe campground, we checked out the Prince of Wales Hotel and climbed the Bear’s Hump for a view of Waterton Village and the mountains.

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View from Bear’s Hump – Waterton Village

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Paddle-Boarders Viewed from Bear’s Hump – Waterton Lakes National Park

After picnicking and preparing food for the next few days, we hit the trail; this time on mountain bikes! Biking through bear country was a bit intimidating, but we made sure to call out frequently. The ride in was a brutal eight kilometers uphill. We were so thankful once we finally arrived at the adorable picnic tables and chairs made of stumps at camp.

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Snowshoe Camp – Waterton Lakes National Park

That night, we camped with seven others, including an awesome duo from Saskatchewan, with great names to boot: Tim and Jim! They are long-time backpackers, and on this particular trip, they brought along a third friend and his son who was 11-years-old. This was the boy’s first backpacking trip, and they had just brought him on a brutal day-hike in which he did fantastically.  He was the only one not out of breath when they showed up at camp.  The other three were a mother, a son, and his girlfriend from Calgary. Everyone gave us great advice for where to hike from Snowshoe, but it was Tim and Jim who we stayed up late with, relishing in their kindness as they shared smokies and pulls of fire whiskey.

My favorite story of theirs took place on the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island.  As they were hiking on the coast, they had to keep an eye on the tide charts while camping. They had set up their tent behind the high tide line, but alas, when Tim woke up in the middle of the night, he saw that the tide must have come up extra high on this day, for it was just a foot away from their tent! “Jim, we need to move, wake up!” he exclaimed. “What?” grumbled Jim. “The ocean is right there!” said Tim. “Yea, the ocean is right there, go to sleep!” said Jim.  “No, man, I mean it’s right there! You got to get up!” Jim, finally looking outside the tent, shouts “Holy shit, the ocean IS right there!”

The next day, after our friends left, we made the journey up to Newman Peak. The trying journey granted us an amazing panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and glacial lakes.

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View from Newman Peak – Waterton Lakes National Park

Upon returning down from the peak drenched in sweat, we took a detour to lost lake for a quick alpine dip which cooled us instantly. That night, we had the camp to ourselves. In the morning, we hiked to Twin Lakes where Tim and Jim had recommended hiking to the second lake for solitude. As it turned out, no one was at the first lake either, which was flanked by a campground on one side and a rockwall on the other. The second lake was truly dazzling. Just as our comrades had promised, we could see trout swimming in the crisp, clean water. It was a paradise I would have sat at longer had it not been for the overabundance of pesky mosquitos and flies.

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Twin Lake #2 – Waterton Lakes National Park

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Beargrass – Waterton Lakes National Park

After day hiking, we packed up camp then hit the trail. This time, it was a quick and tremendously fun ride down, in which we braked often and shouted out constantly in case of bears or lions.  It was a safe journey down to Red Rock Canyon. We had considered exploring the canyon, but it was so crowded with people that I snapped a photo then got the heck out of there back to the FunBus, and onto the open road toward Calgary.

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Red Rock Canyon – Waterton Lakes National Park

Before we began this remarkable journey, I was already a huge fan of camping in the backcountry.  However, I had only done so in Minnesota and South Dakota; in places where sharing backcountry sites with strangers does not usually occur. I would have thought I’d hate sharing sites, but our experiences at Glacier and Waterton showed that there is a lot to gain from befriending backcountry neighbors.  People in the backcountry are generally very friendly, knowledgeable, and full of exciting and hilarious stories. I look forward to hearing more stories from short-term neighbors in the future.

4 thoughts on “Stories from the Backcountry: Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks

  1. Carly and Stephanie, I am so enjoying your wonderful blog and beautiful pictures! You make it all seem so easy and I feel like I am along with you on this wonderful ride. I will be forwarding your notes on to a few adventurers in our family, namely Joel and his girlfriend Allie, who are living with us for the summer after spending 9 months traveling the US and Mexico; with plans to return to the wild life after Kyle gets married this fall. I have always believed there is nothing more important than travel and to do it while you are young is such an amazing and wonderful plan! Have fun, stay safe, and I look forward to your next installment of life on the road.
    Lynn Youngblom

    Like

  2. Your pictures are fantastic, they show the real beauty of the areas, like you could almost touch the rocks, hills and trails. I am glad you are meeting some really nice folks who are willing to share their
    stories and adventures. There are lots of nice folks around. When will you be back in the USA? Keep the stories/pictures coming, look forward to hearing from you. Thanks for the nice post card.
    love you both.

    Like

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