Glacier National Park

June 27-30, 2019

When my mom was my age, she and my dad sold our house, packed up everything we owned and drove across the country from Georgia to California with two young kids in the car (me 8, my brother 2) so that my dad could start a company in Taiwan. That is way more hard core than me quitting the legal profession at 35 to pursue outdoor adventures. I have no responsibilities. I can hardly imagine. Compared to my mom, I feel like I have not gotten very far in life at 37.

And my parents could not have foreseen that that trip would have germinated my romantic notions of The West and eventually lead me to live this definitely not achievement-oriented / make-your-Asian-parents-proud vagabond life

This was what I thought about during my drive from Big Sky to Cut Bank Campground Thursday evening after work for the beginning of my solo adventure in Glacier National Park. The skies north of Butte and Helena were immense and the clouds enormous. During my six hours drive to Cut Bank, I drove through two storms. The sky would darken as if it were dusk, and then I would emerge into day again. And then it would become night. And then I was driving with headlights and wipers and sunglasses on as the setting sun emerged again below the storm clouds at 9pm.

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Cut Bank, a quiet and secluded area of the park, when I arrived at dusk

It’s not an adventure if eveything goes as planned. I had planned to camp for two nights at Many Glacier, but I got greedy and I am in the backcountry permit office in Many Glacier discussing backpacking options with the ranger when Many Glacier Campground fills up in the morning. So, I grab the last backcountry camping permit for Gunsight Lake for the following night, drive to Rising Sun Campground to stake out a spot for that night and then drive back to Many Glacier for a day hike.

I can’t decide whether to hike to Grinnell Glacier viewpoint or Iceberg Lake and let the parking situation dictate my decision. I get the last parking spot in front of Iceberg-Ptarmigan Trailhead, so Iceberg Lake it is! (“Ptarmigan” always makes me think of Chicken, Alaska which supposedly got its name because its early residents didn’t know how to spell “Ptarmigan.”) The trail to Iceberg Lake is perched on one side of a u-shaped glacial valley with beautiful views almost immediately of sharp fin-like glacially carved peaks. The trail was lined with Indian paintbrush and fluffy white bear grass flowers. I stop with all the other tourists to observe a mama bear and her cub playing a safe distance up a small drainage above the trail. I really enjoyed the vibrant turquoise green and brick red of the mudstone on the trail where there was water running over it. 

I stop for a snack break and water above Ptarmigan Falls, which is very much like Vernal Falls at the beginning of the JMT, but there doesn’t seem to be a good place to take a photo of the falls without falling. The second half of the trail to Iceberg Lake recalls The Great Valley from the Land Before Time, much like Yosemite Valley from Half Dome or all of Zion NP. Iceberg Lake is the tarn under the cirque at the end of the valley that forms part of the Continental Divide. The lake is beautiful when you first see it, but as I approached the shore in search of a good lunch spot, there were kids throwing rocks in the lake, rowdy folks shrieking from each other’s polar plunges and unsteady tourists trying to walk out onto the “glaciers” in the lake. A regular circus. High above the commotion, a herd of sheep impressively traversed the cirque to get to little patches of green grass, so I stayed and watched a while. 

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Iceberg Lake

It was still early so on the way back to the trailhead, I decided to take the side trail to Ptarmigan Lake. Not a few minutes from where Ptarmigan Trail forks off, I found half a dead baby sheep on the trail, followed by some bear scat a bit further on. Unlike the trail to Iceberg Lake with its expansive views, this trail was in heavily shaded woods. I started “Hey Bear!”-ing and soon ran into two girls who told me they turned around because they were spooked. I kept going anyway, because, whatever, I’m a card carrying Montanan now and can’t be scared of no bears. 

I cross paths with an older couple coming back from Ptarmigan Lake who inform me that I’ll have it all to myself, there is no one on the trail behind them. This is excellent news in light of all the bear signs, but once they are out of earshot, I say out loud to myself, “I guess I can pee wherever I want!” Iceberg Lake trail had the problem of being too exposed and well-trafficked and there had been a line at the pit toilet. 

Following a moderate climb, the views opened up on Ptarmigan Pass. This cirque, at the end of another glacial valley that forms a Y with the one ending at Iceberg Lake, is much less dramatic and photogenic than the one at Iceberg Lake, but I can see the faint line of the trail that switchbacks up to Ptarmigan Tunnel, which is really cool. Why is there a tunnel? Why doesn’t the trail just lead over a normal pass? How did they build the tunnel? What is on the other side? Piques the imagination. It made me think of the “Tower of Babylon” short story by Ted Chiang. Ptarmigan Pass does not open until mid-July.

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Ptarmigan Pass in the distance

I aspired to get up early for my overnight backpacking trip, but only managed to wake up at 8am. By the time I get onto Gunsight Pass Trail (part of the CDT), it is almost 11. The trail dips off Going to the Sun Road into the lush, heavily vegetated valley floor. The trail is narrow and lined with bear grass in full bloom. When I stop for water where the trail first meets the river flowing over rocks in swirly waterfalls, a deer appears and doesn’t seem bothered by my presence. I stop for lunch where the trail follows a meandering stream at the bottom of the valley, and a moose is also lunch-ing nearby in the marsh on aquatic plants. 

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Bear grass lined trail to Gunsight Lake

I arrive at Gunsight Lake campsite around 2pm and while it looks idyllic, I seem to collect a cloud of mosquitos as I hang my food and pick a campsite. I have a headnet, but the mosquitos attack my hands as I stake out my tent. So I keep moving and after I set up my tent I head off to try to hike to Gunsight Pass and see what’s on the other side. 

The trail climbs up over Gunsight Lake on switchbacks with great views of the splindly waterfalls on the opposite side of the valley that cascade into the lake. I climb over and around a small snowfield, then the trail cuts into the rock walls of the steep mountain side. I am thwarted from making it over the pass by a snowfield about half a mile from the pass. It’s not too wide, but would be a long drop down into Gunsight Lake. With no means of self-arrest, I decide not to risk it. I attempt to climb around the snowfield off trail, but get scared, especially after thinking about how I have to downclimb anything I climb up, turn around and head back to camp. 

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Gunsight Lake and Gunsight Pass Trail

After getting around the small snowfield I climbed over before, I see a hoary mountain goat maybe 100 feet ahead of me on the trail. It starts walking toward me so I pull out my phone and start taking photos. It starts getting really close, so I turn my phone to video and back up against the wall. I don’t want to be butted off the trail! The goat seems to check me out, probably asking for food, and determining I’m not going to feed it and am not a threat, kindly climbs up off the trail and lets me pass. I was very jealous of the ease in its climbing ability. If I was a goat, I would have made it to Gunsight Pass!

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Live to hike another day or YOLO?

My final day in Glacier was a straightforward hike out the way I came, a drive across the Sun road, with no stops because there was no parking anywhere, ending up at Polebridge Mercantile, where I bought and ate three pastries and hung out until they opened up the showers at 4pm. 

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Glacier NP definitely reminded me of Alaska, even down to Polebridge Merchantile. 

Backpacking in Denali

My summer season job with MICA Guides wrapped up September 10 which gave me just enough time to do an overnight backpacking trip in Denali National Park before the park service stopped running their buses on September 13.  My plan was to rent a car from Anchorage, drive up to Denali on September 11, pick up a permit and camp at Riley Creek Campground near the park entrance. Then I would take a Camper Bus into the park on September 12, camp out in the backcountry, and hike out and catch a bus back to the park entrance on September 13… the last day buses were running, so no being over ambitious and missing the bus!

A few unique things about backpacking in Denali National Park:

  • Private vehicles can only drive the first 15 miles of the 92 mile long Denali Park Road, the only road in the park.
  • Park busses only run from late-May to early-September. (Basically, when snow is not expected.)
  • Backcountry permits are only issued in person at the Visitors Center from 8 AM the day before the start of your trip, so you can’t really make a detailed hiking plan before you get there and you will want to get to the park as early as possible the day before your trip to maximize your permit choices.
  • There are no established trails, your permit is for a Unit or Units that you have a certain amount of time to move through. Based on the quick search I did, there isn’t much information about suggested backpacking routes in Denali NP on the Internet besides climbing Mt. Eielson. But I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be — a true wilderness experience!
  • From the whiteboard behind the permit desk at the Visitors Center, it looked like for some Units the maximum number of people who can camp per night is 4 people, so don’t plan to backpack in a large group.  
  • No trails means assuming you will be hiking at a speed of no more than 1 mile an hour. You don’t know what the vegetation will be like, if the drainages will be swampy, what stream crossings will look like, if a scree slope will be traversable.

In summary, it’s an intimidating mix of needing to plan in advance and then not being able to really plan much in advance. Luckily, I had learned quite a bit about hiking in Alaska — following moose trails, alder bashing, finding campsites, bear awareness — over the course of the summer and felt like I was prepared with realistic expectations. Here’s a good read if you are looking for more information about backpacking in Denali.

The drive to Denali National Park

It had started to get cold and rainy in at the end of August, such that I had started to long for being indoors and having insulation (I lived in a tent all summer), but from Labor Day weekend Alaska was enjoying an Indian summer which brought us back to the warm sunny weather of early July and camping was once again quite pleasant. Parks Highway offered impressive views of Denali (The Mountain) on my drive up from Anchorage, but I didn’t stop to take any photos because I was trying to get to the park in time to pick up a permit. (The Internet said that permit pick up was until 3:30 pm, luckily for me the desk was actually open until 5 pm.) The scale of the scenery on Parks Highway was much bigger than Glenn Highway where I’d spent the summer. The mountains were striped rust red tundra and spruce green with the gold of aspen and alder lower down, their black rocky peaks dramatic against a bright blue sky. It was a bit confusing when I got to Denali National Park. I got a camper bus ticket at the Wilderness Access Center, then had to go to the Visitor’s Center to get my backcountry permit and then Riley Creek Mercantile to get a walk-in tent site. I was glad I had a rental car to run all these administrative errands; I had considered taking the train.

Picking up my permit

The process of getting a backcountry permit worked like this. There is a whiteboard listing Unit availability above the permit desk. You get a form to fill out from the permit desk and the ranger sends you to flip through binders that describe the different Units. I had done a bit of poking around on the park website Unit map so I had a few Units written down as candidates for an easy overnight backpack. Unit 12 Sunrise and Sunset Glaciers on my list was available, so I snapped the last spot up. Of course, after hiking on a glacier almost every day for 3 and a half months, the thing I wanted to do most in Alaska was see more glaciers! Then I watched the required leave-no-trace, stream crossing, bear awareness videos, purchased a USGS quad map of my Unit to study and borrowed a bear canister.

Backpacking in Denali

The next morning at about 7 am, I got on the earliest camper bus for the 4 hour ride to Eielson Visitor Center to begin my hike. We saw a couple of moose and a mama bear and two cubs from the bus. The bus driver would stop to allow everyone to capture the wildlife with their gigantic telephoto lenses. It was cloudy, overcast and windy. When I arrived at Eielson Visitor Center, Denali was hidden behind a shroud of clouds and I nixed the possibility of climbing Mt. Eielson as it was covered with a dusting of snow at the top.

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Perfect conditions for hiking!

I hiked down to the end of the developed trail from the Eielson Visitor Center, and gingerly picked a crossing across Gorge Creek. First real stream crossing ever completed, my feet were soaked but my merino wool socks squished out quickly and stayed warm. I walked along the gravel bar of Thoroughfare River as recommended by the ranger who issued my permit, but got bored and decided to punch up into some tundra to see what I could see. After a short bash through some small trees and wading through shin deep shrubbery, I started to recognize the plant life I wanted to walk on. The red stuff, mostly blueberries, was short, firm and easy to walk on, so I let the vegetation direct my path. Greener vegetation indicated drainages and I learned to follow the moose paths across those parts to avoid ending up in boggy marsh.

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Beautiful tarn

I didn’t have much of a plan except to camp in the valley along Sunrise Creek, since that was the closest area I was allowed to camp. The problem with Unit 12 is that most of it is visible from the Denali Park Road and you have to camp out of sight of the road. That also makes it a not so wilderness-y experience, but easy access to the road and Eielson Visitor Center made it a fool-proof, if a bit boring choice, for my solo end-of-season backpack.

I came to a small creek before Sunrise Creek where I found I had to backtrack and lose some elevation. Being stubborn I tried to climb higher across a scree slope but I kept falling so I ended up scree skiing down into the gorge and rock hopping across to Sunrise Creek.

Then I tried to walk as far as I could up Sunrise Creek. I was hiking up the north bank when the gravel bar virtually disappeared. Making the silly decision to avoid getting my feet wet, I was attempting to boulder across a short section of the gorge wall when a cinder block sized rock I was hanging on to detached from the wall and fell into my lap. I was lucky to only suffer a bruised thigh. So after a cold crossing, I gave up on following the river and climbed up on the south bank of Sunrise Creek.

It was only 4:30 PM, but suddenly, I was completely exhausted. I had only hiked about 6 miles but I think the fatigue from an entire summer of physical work and little time off caught up with me. My plan to hike up to the bottom of Sunrise Glacier was abandoned for the more urgent need to find a place to lie down. I set up my little tent on the bench below Bald Peak, and sheltered from the katabatic winds, took a nap for 1.5 hours. Somewhat recovered, I made dinner of Idahoan mashed potatoes and a foil packet of lemon pepper tuna and lay back down again reading Into the Wild (Chris McCandless’ ill-fated Alaska adventure having happened not far away) in my tent until the valley came ablaze at sunset around 8:20 PM. I was a less exciting expedition than I had hoped, but I guess the luxury of solo hiking is having the freedom to do things like pull in early to take a nap.

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My campsite view of Sunrise Glacier

In the morning, I left my tent up to dry and set off to climb the saddle under Bald Peak and up a little knoll in front of it. The cloud cover from yesterday burned off over the course of the morning, revealing dramatic white peaks framing Sunset Glacier. As I got to the precipice, the peak of Denali poked up over the ridge behind Mt. Eielson. A pleasant surprise! I’d been hopeful but not at all certain I’d get a Denali view from there.

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Sunset Glacier

Me and Denali

Obligatory Denali selfie

I descended back to my camp, packed up and had an easy walk down the bench and back down to the gravel bar. I planned to simply follow the gravel bar along Thoroughfare River back to Eielson Visitor Center, but the stream crossings got intimidating and I ended up tussock hopping around a tarn and retracing part of my route across the blueberry fields from the previous day. There were still a lot of blueberries good to eat, but thankfully I didn’t see any bears! I arrived back at Eielson Visitor Center by 2:30 PM and first things first, took off my wet boots and socks and put on my Crocs. Yay, camp shoes! I put my name on the bus list and watched a video about climbing Denali before getting put on a bus for the 4 hour ride back to the park entrance.

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Thoroughfare River

Denali

Denali with lenticular cloud

Post-hike

It was late evening by the time I got back to my car and I was feeling strangely not stoked about more camping and hiking adventures. I think I was realizing my body just wanted to recover from the summer. I sat in the parking lot feeling a bit defeated and found an AirBnb in Palmer and booked it for the next night. Too tired to make any other plans, I camped at Riley Creek Campground again. I had slept like a log on the tundra, but seemed to have trouble getting comfortable that night. When I got up in the morning to use the bathroom, I noticed that the tenugui I had hung on the corner of the picnic table at my campsite had frozen into a stiff origami shape. The plastic collapsible water bottle I had left on the picnic table was crunchy with ice crystallized across the inside. Ah, that’s why I had trouble sleeping. It was too cold to wait for hot water to boil and percolate my own coffee, so I quickly packed up my things and went to Morino Grill next to the Visitors Center to restore the feeling to my fingers with a cup of corporate-y Starbucks latte. My backpacking night had actually been very comfortable, and it had definitely not been close to freezing cold, even though it was at higher elevation. I had been super lucky with the timing of my trip! As my fingers regained feeling, I felt pretty good about my decision to spend my last two nights in Alaska indoors.

Epilogue: My AirBnb host turned out to be a super cool fiber and ceramics artist, I had the most comfortable stay, and the house was walking distance from two craft beer breweries (Arkose and Bleeding Heart)!