Upon learning of my just-completed backpack adventure in Montana, the first question I’m almost always asked is, “Did you see any bears?”
I often wonder if my negative response provides a sense of relief or twinge of disappointment. There seems to be a paradigm that the beautiful state of Montana has either black bears or grizzly bears lurking behind every tree and that they are extremely dangerous.
Yes, Montana does have the largest population of grizzlies in the U.S. — but other states have many more black bears — and if you include a whole lot of avid University of Montana Grizzly sports fans and alumni (of which I am one), I suppose you could conclude that there is a certain risk when tromping around on their sacred ground.
I have loved living in Oregon for over 40 years and enjoying the great beauty found here, but when it comes to backpacking, Montana is hard to beat. Extensive trail systems provide good access to most of the 6.5 million acres of wilderness and roadless areas in the state.
This year’s hike in Glacier National Park and in the Scapegoat Wilderness with my friend Mark Lewing illustrates the state of backpacking in Montana and the changes that have occurred in the past 50 years.
Beginning in the 1960s, I did a lot of hiking, fishing and climbing in the Northern Rockies. We seldom encountered other people in roadless areas or even in Glacier National Park. So this year, I thought it would be fun to redo one of my favorite and most spectacular hikes in Glacier National Park.
Oh, was I in for a surprise! You must now obtain a back-country camping permit and camp only at designated sites. So I went on to the website and dutifully applied for five nights of camping at selected locations, along with alternative dates in case the preferred dates were not approved.
In May, I received an email of rejection with option of re-submission for other dates. When I called the park office, they told me that on March 15 they received 3,000 applications in the first 15 minutes — that blew my mind. I then reapplied for dates in September, but again, there were no sites available.
At this point, I abandoned my hope of hiking those trails, and decided to find another place where we could simply hike, camp where we wanted to and not compete with the hoards of people now frequenting our beloved national parks.
Immediately south of Glacier National Park is the enormous 1.5 million acre Great Bear/Bob Marshall/Scapegoat Wilderness complex. Three years ago we completed a 100-mile hike in the Bob Marshall portion. This year, we decided to visit the Scapegoat Wilderness, located along the Continental Divide and about 60 miles south of Glacier National Park.
It was a great decision, as we saw almost no one in five days while hiking 43 miles of trails and the weather was good.
We encounter a band of bighorn sheep and a few mule deer. We hoped to see bears but sightings were limited to some fresh black bear scat on the trail. We were able to reach the 9,202-foot summit of Scapegoat Mountain, with great views in every direction.
On the fifth day, we arrived back at our car and we immediately drove north to St. Mary on the eastern side of Glacier National Park. A friend met us there and we camped in a private campground.
Early the next morning, our friend drove us up to Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. By then, the parking lot there was already full of cars.
Limited parking is causing a big problem. Visitors are being forced to park miles away and be shuttled to the pass. The heavy usage of our national parks is now impacting most of the premier parks like Yosemite, Sequoia, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Glacier. It is nice to see our country enjoy these special places, but they are almost being loved to death.
Anyway, with just a light day pack, Mark and I hiked 8 miles north to Granite Park Chalet from Logan Pass on the spectacular Highline Trail and just under the jagged crest of the Continental Divide. We immediately encountered three mountain goats on the trail, as well as many other hikers immortalizing the goats with their cameras.
Soon, we were hiking through large fields of tall bear grass with its showy white blooms and myriads of other colorful wildflowers. This section of trail is aptly called the Garden Wall.
A dry cold front had passed through the region during the night, so it was overcast for awhile and quite windy but not cold. At the chalet, we ate some lunch inside to get out of the wind.
The chalet was built of stones and wood in 1914 by the Great Northern Railroad and is a National Heritage site. From the chalet, many hikers continue 4 miles down to the Going-to-the-Sun Road and ride a park shuttle back to their vehicle.
Mark and I continued east and crossed the Continental Divide at Swiftcurrent Pass and continued 9 miles more to my car at Many Glacier. This section of trail is one of the most spectacular that I have ever hiked, dropping 2,500 feet in elevation via many switchbacks cut through rock cliffs with great exposure and with super views of Swiftcurrent Glacier and many waterfalls.
While the trail is well-maintained, it is not for those who have a fear of falling, especially in the gusty 50 mph winds that tried to blow us off the cliffs.
Once the trail reached the valley filled with many lakes and small waterfalls, we again encountered many families with kids. Our leisurely 17 mile stroll took only 8 hours and was a nice compromise with the reality that we couldn’t get a back-country camping permit in Glacier National Park.
If you are looking for a wilderness experience, my advice is to seek wilderness and not a national park. The internet is invaluable for obtaining maps and planning your adventure.
If you want to visit one of our larger national parks, I suggest you plan several months ahead and find lodging or camping outside of the park, or visit the area in the late fall or winter if weather permits.
After our 60 miles of hiking, I drove down to Yellowstone National Park at Gardiner, Montana and camped at a free, remote U.S. Forest Service campground. The next morning, I entered the park and drove east through the Lamar Valley toward Cooke City. I wasn’t surprised to see two moose and perhaps a thousand bison in the valley, but I was surprised to encounter dozens of cars full of tourists already blocking the road at 6:30 a.m. while they took photos.
I suppose though, that if there had been a grizzly on the road, I would have been doing the same thing.