Waterton – Glacier International Peace Park - In and Around the Four Historic Lodges
I am terrified. Tom and I are crouching in the lightning position with the rumble of thunder and lightning strikes all around us. We are backpacking into Lead King Basin, outside of Marble Colorado. Severe pain temporarily relieves my fear as golf ball size hail stones pound our bodies. We obviously started this hike too late in the day – big mistake. I have always had a healthy respect for lightening. Now I’d call it a real fear. The large round bruises covering my body last for over a week.
Seven years later, following a nine hour drive from Seattle to Kalispell Montana, we drive another hour into Glacier National Park, established in 1920. We are very excited to hike to Sperry Chalet – one of the surviving Chalets built by the Great Northern Railway in 1914. (All the Lodges and Chalets were built a day’s horse ride apart to accommodate visitors arriving from the East via the new railroad.) Today the forecast calls for thunder and lightning, severe at times. Not sure if you’d call it fear, or just plain no fun, but we opt out of the 7 mile, 3,300 foot hike due to the fall thunderstorms. Luckily, the historic Lake McDonald Lodge at the trailhead has a last minute cancellation. Good news - we will get to visit all four of the historic lodges in the Waterton – Glacier International Peace Park which was formed in 1932 by the United States and Canada.
Day One – We sit in the cozy timber framed Lodge plotting our new plans for the day in the lowlands (out of the weather) around the McDonald Lake area. The Avalanche Lake hike is a superb suggestion. The 2 mile, gradual climb winds through dense forest. As we approach the lake we are awed by the first spectacular waterfall. I let out an audible wow as we see the Lake. The expansive basins created by massive glaciers millions of years ago are described as being carved by a giant ice cream scoop - a perfect visual. Avalanche Lake sits in one of these basins (surrounded by high peaks) with several waterfalls cascading down from Sperry Glacier just above the ridge. The vibrant turquoise color of the lake is created by glacial sediment. By hiking to the end of the Lake and adding on the nice Cedar Trail Loop, we hike 6 miles.
Lake McDonald Lodge was built on the banks of the Lake in 1915 to greet visitors who all arrived by wooden boat from Apgar, at the west end of the Lake. My favorite spot is the patio overlooking the Lake – complete with rockers. Our room, in one of the cabins, is the smallest room and shower I have ever experienced. It’s called historical charm here in Glacier National Park.
The afternoon activity is a cruise down the tranquil Lake on the DeSmet, the original wooden boat built in 1929, with a particularly spirited Captain named Amanda. One of the most disturbing things we learn is that Glacier had 150 glaciers in 1850. Today there are only 25 and it’s expected that there won’t be any by 2020. We are also told Glacier is not named for the actual glaciers but for the way it was formed by huge glaciers millions of years ago. We wonder if that’s the future marketing story.
Our first day ends with a nice dinner in the Lodge dining room followed by some more rocking in front of the warm blazing fire in the lobby.
Day Two – 80% of visitors to the Park drive the Going to the Sun Road, completed in 1933 after more than two decades of planning and work. We are two of them. The engineering along with the incredible scenery are a must see! All the roadside stops are worth it including our short hike up to Virginia Falls. Not sure why I keep falling but today I had my worst one – total face plant right in the middle of the trail.
Tonight we have reservations at the Sunrise Motor Inn near the end of the Going to the Sun Road. It is not a particularly interesting area, so we drive 40 minutes to the Many Glacier Hotel, the heart of the Park. The largest Hotel in this Park, 215 rooms, has lots going on. We enjoy a great talk on the winter survival skills of the animals in the Park and a wonderful live guitar show by local, David Walburn. The Hotel continues the Swiss tradition created by the Railroad to attract visitors to the Park whom would otherwise go to Europe in the early 1900’s. The poor bellmen still wear lederhosen!
Day Three – It’s another stormy day which we spend around the bustling Many Glacier Hotel. Lunch is a treat (we usually have PB&J on the trail) in the spacious and newly renovated dining room – it’s wonderful to see the original design in old photos reflected in the recent updating. Two more wooden boat rides on Morning Eagle up Lake Josephine and on Two Guns up Lake Swiftcurrent follows lunch. Wildlife viewing begins here – bear and mountain goats dot the cliffs above the Hotel.
Day Four – After postponing our big hike up to Grinnell Glacier, we are very happy to get up and get going on this sunny day. Little do we know what a spectacular experience awaits us. Turquoise lakes, waterfalls, spectacular rocky basins, chiseled peaks, and wildlife all make the actual glacier someone anticlimactic. Although it feels like more, the hike is 12 miles with 1,600 feet of elevation gain. The last 400 feet are quite steep and rocky with a chilly wind howling off the glacier – layering required. Today I get my wish as we descend! I have never seen big horn sheep bulls in the wild. All of a sudden we come upon them posing – surreal like - on the rock cliffs just above us. Amazing.
Following the hike we drive about an hour north - transitioning to beautiful grasslands - on our way to the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Lake National Park. Glacier Park Inc manages all the Lodges in the Park including this one in Canada – a big job for such a short season. The Prince of Wales Hotel is spectacularly picturesque as it stands alone overlooking Waterton Lake and the surrounding peaks. Everyone is drawn to the expansive view down the Lake dominating the lobby. It is the National Park version of a five star hotel – old and expensive with modest rooms and splendid architecture (Swiss again) amid a spectacular setting. The charming seasonal Waterton Village appears to be grandfathered into the Park. Staying in town instead of the Hotel seems like a great option.
Day Five – In an extremely wind prone area, we awake to clear blue skies, forecasted temperatures in the 80’s and totally calm. I can’t resist touring Waterton Lake via the MV International, a classic wooden boat built in 1927. We board, greeted by the friendly boat crew as we head to the upper deck for warm sunshine. Tom hates my bear bell. The narrator on this trip teaches us that the human voice is the best tone with which to let bears know we are coming. Bear bells are better known as dinner bells among the locals! Even whistling sounds are not suggested because they sound like smaller creatures in the forest. The bears, grizzly and black, are very focused on eating berries this time of year (to store up for hibernation) so aren’t paying much attention to anything else. As we near the end of Waterton Lake, the surrounding peaks are perfectly reflected in the glassy lake as if it was a mirror – just gorgeous. We wish that we had planned for the Lake Janet hike at the end of the Lake – returning on the later boat. Instead we do a little walk, re-board, and enjoy the peaceful ride back as the International chugs along.
After disembarking, we pick a quiet and pleasant 4 mile walk up to Crandell Lake prior to driving a couple of hours down to East Glacier and the big timber Glacier Lodge. This iconic Lodge is actually outside the Park right across from the railroad station – where visitors began their adventure in the 1920’s. The big timbers in the lobby are not only big, they are enormous! Several porches overlook nicely manicured grounds. One disadvantage of the lodges being simultaneously managed is the similarity of menus in the dining rooms – oh well. We enjoy some local western music in the lobby on our last night.
Day Six - It’s hard to believe that we didn’t have enough time to explore the Two Medicine area of the Park. However, our final day begins with a nice speed walking type ascent up to Aster Park Overlook (4 miles, 800 foot elevation gain) which affords us wonderful views of Two Medicine Lake. Looks like a great place to come back to.
The drive home begins. Unfortunately it ends at midnight 13 hours later. At this point, scenic Highway 2 doesn’t feel worth it. Although very tired, we are totally energized by such a spectacular place. We are disappointed that we did not make it to Sperry Chalet. However, this is a Park to return to with so much to offer - including 700 miles of hiking trails. While I love all the Parks we have seen, our 21st Park is right up there even during nasty thunder storms! Oh, yes of course, I got the stamp.
Check out other National Park visits on our way to reach our goal (now 61) below:
We like to give back to the National Parks through the National Park Foundation.