The drive from Missoula, Montana to Glacier National Park is easy and beautiful.
After a quick stop for coffee on the northwest edge of Missoula, we reconnected with northbound US 93, swooping through a canyon and over a crest into a fertile agricultural valley that is part of the huge Flathead Indian Reservation, home to several tribes. Highway signs in the reservation are in both English and Native American Salish and Kutenai dialects and alphabets. The reservation boundaries extend many miles, to the northern end of vast Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater body west of the Mississippi River.
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At the town of Polson at the south end of the lake, we swung to the right on State Route 35 to continue north along the less developed eastern side of the lake. The road undulates from lake level up a couple hundred feet, affording almost constant blue water views between numerous healthy cherry orchards.
At the town of Columbia Falls, we joined eastbound US 2, our country’s northernmost transcontinental route, to continue roughly along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River until reaching the western entry to Glacier National Park at the intersection with the Going to the Sun Road.
Our lifetime America the Beautiful pass allowed us to avoid an entry fee and our reservation at the Lake McDonald Lodge assured our ability to enter the park at mid-day, as either a reservation or day pass was required during the park’s partial reopening and limits on visitor numbers.
We stopped briefly at the Apgar visitor center to get a detailed map of the park’s hiking trails and arrived a few minutes later to check in at the lodge. We were given the opportunity to select our room and chose one on the third (top) floor, front and center with a good view overlooking the lake.
The trade-off was that the room was tiny, forcing us to scoot sideways to pass each other on either side of the bed. The view was worth it. Extra points for beautiful barn swallows with green heads and white breasts nesting in the eave just outside our French doors.
The atrium three-floor lobby and the rest of the lodge were built from huge logs and hewn timbers, and the lodge was designed in Swiss chalet style, opening in 1914. An assortment of animal heads, ranging from small birds to huge elk line the upper walls of the lobby, and unique lanterns are suspended from its high ceiling.
Visitors in the early 20th century traveled by Great Northern Railway to within several miles of the park, then by wagon or stagecoach to the west end of the lake. Boats then brought them the last several miles to the lodge. When the spectacular Going to the Sun Road was completed in 1932 the primary entrance was reversed to the land side of the lodge.
As part of this year’s limited reopening, the lodge dining room was closed, probably for the season. No problem, as the kitchen was still producing a delicious limited menu, and the process was easy. We ordered at the dining room doorway and a short time later our lunch was ready for pick-up at a window outside on the covered rear porch. We found it quite fine to enjoy our sandwiches and dinner on a bench or table overlooking the lake.
Fed and unpacked, it was time for exploring. We drove a few miles farther along the lake shore, up the Going to the Sun Road until reaching its temporary closure point for motor vehicles at Avalanche Creek. Pedestrians and bicyclists can continue as far up the road as they are capable. Full reopening of the road over the summit and to the eastern park boundary typically happens sometime in July. This is mostly due to lingering snow and ice conditions and not unusual.
A quick U-turn brought us back to the roadside parking area for access to the McDonald Creek trail. A short walk down to the roaring creek led to a footbridge and trail on the other side. We continued up and back on the trail for several miles, with continuing views of the creek, lush forest and snow capped mountains, encountering only a smattering of other people.
A more interesting encounter was with a large and placid mule deer doe munching away on ground-level goodies within 10 feet of us. Along with other walkers we passed her in each direction and she barely moved.
The power of the roaring, glacier-fed stream, more like a raging river than a creek, is difficult to adequately describe as it continues to the lake after traveling miles from the bases of the surrounding mountains.
The end of the day found us back at the lodge. As we enjoyed dinner, I especially savored my elkburger at a lake-shore picnic table. Bedtime was accompanied by a sudden downpour and strong windstorm and the constant music of the rapids of tiny Snyder Creek as it spilled past the edge of the lodge and into the lake.
A mid-morning start led us back to the Avalanche Creek parking area. Our hike started on the wheelchair- accessible Cascade boardwalk trail, notable for its fern- covered groves of native cedar and hemlock forest. It follows a low cliff that seeps water into the small wetland under the boardwalk, leading to a bridge crossing over a narrow gorge and thundering waterfall.
That easy walk led to the popular 4.6-mile round-trip Avalanche Lake trail that we followed as it rose about 600 feet to the small crystal clear lake, with family groups relaxing as kids of various ages chilled their feet. From the shore, we enjoyed incredibly stunning views of three glacier-fed narrow waterfalls that plunged hundreds of feet down sheer cliffs to feed the lake.
A check of the region’s weather showed a cold front accompanied by wind and rain on the way, so by mid afternoon we were on our way out of the park to continue our scenic journey.
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