For years, Elizabeth has had one goal: see the glaciers of Glacier National Park before they’re all gone. She’s got a point: there’s basically no reality where the small alpine glaciers that remain in the park as of 2022 will still be around by 2100. Heck, they may not be around by 2035. So when we prioritized parks that were going to be the most impacted by climate change, Glacier was always one that we would have to visit sooner rather than later. 2022 began to look like the perfect opportunity to book the trip. The main holdup I had was uncertainty in when I would start my new job. My thesis defense was tentatively planned for June 28, and the end of the summer semester was going to be July 8, but how soon after that would an NWS office want me?
But the cutthroat world of recreation.gov reservations waits for nobody. By mid-January, Elizabeth and I had to commit to our summer trip. When shopping around for trips we found that United flights to Great Falls, Montana were actually pretty reasonable. Rental cars out of Great Falls for $100 a day or so? Not too bad. And obviously I trusted our ability to find campgrounds. So late in January we took a semi-plunge and booked refundable flights from July 12-19 and a compact rental car from the airport. That way, if an NWS office called me in to work asap we would only be harmed emotionally, not financially. I needn’t have worried – when I was offered my job at NWS Norman, my new boss Mark told me he didn’t want me to start until my thesis was defended, and when I mentioned Glacier he agreed to push my start date back to August 1. Perfect.
The one thing we couldn’t book at that point were campsites. Glacier is inundated with visitors every single year, and one of the consequences of that inundation is that more campgrounds go from “first come, first served” to “reservation only” each year. 2022 was a transition year as certain sites moved toward a reservation system, but for whatever reason Glacier didn’t open up the new campsites for reservations through all of January and February. So Elizabeth and I were able to grab a campsite at St. Mary campground on the east side of the park from July 15 to 19 to cover our last four nights, but the first few were still up in the air. Given the uncertainty in arriving in the park before sunset on July 12 we got an AirBnB in Babb, Montana on July 12, and as a fun surprise Elizabeth booked us a night at the Belton Chalet in West Glacier on July 13. That left just the night of July 14, where we wanted to stay on the west side of the park.
Ironically, the day the next reservations opened for something I woke up just outside of another national park. In mid-March Elizabeth and I were staying at Della Terra and I was up in time to enjoy a beautiful sunrise against the Gore Range along the continental divide.
While Elizabeth slept in the cabin next to me, I secured our vehicle reservation for Going-To-the-Sun-Road for the first few days we were there. All that remained was to get somewhere to pitch our tent on July 14 as close to the continental divide in the park as we could get. In April, Glacier finally announced that the new campgrounds on the west side of the park would open up. We cued in on Sprague Creek, along Going-To-the-Sun-Road as close to Logan Pass as we could get. I secured the campsite the moment it opened, and just like that, plans were set.
If all of those words mean nothing, let me use a map to explain our plan and rough itinerary that we’d sorted out by April.
When Elizabeth and I landed in Great Falls on Tuesday, July 12, we would get our rental car and load up our gear into it. Then we’d drive the 2 and a half hours from Great Falls to the small town of Babb, where Elizabeth had found a cute little cabin as an AirBnB. On July 13, we’d drive Going To The Sun Road from east to west and spend the day doing fun stuff from Avalanche Creek back to Lake McDonald. We’d end the night at the Belton Chalet in West Glacier. On July 14, I had planned a surprise day of fun for Elizabeth in the tourist/skiing towns west of the national park – Kalispell, Columbia Falls, Whitefish. We would end the night at the Sprague Creek Campground so that we could get up early on July 15 and sprint to Logan Pass to get a parking spot and hike the Highline Trail, the crown jewel of America’s National Park Service. After we were done with the hike, we would head back to the east side of the park and stay at the St. Mary Campground for the last four nights. That would allow us to visit Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada on July 16, the Many Glacier area on July 17, and have July 18 as a flex day to do whatever we felt like we still needed to do in the park before heading back to Great Falls on July 19. It was a well-laid outline of a plan.
One of the things the plan tried to allow for was flexibility and uncertainty. If you think a day-by-day itinerary and a run-on paragraph doesn’t seem very flexible for a plan, then you should see the pages-long Grand Teton and Yellowstone itinerary we had. I didn’t want that this time. I didn’t want to feel the pressure of having do everything a certain way so that the trip would be “perfect”. Elizabeth and I only watched *some* Glacier videos as opposed to the hours of Grand Teton Youtube watchtime. We looked at a bunch of backup plans in case things went awry.
And in early June, things went awry. The mid-July visit date worked for two reasons in my eyes. First, it would be prior to my new job. Furthermore, mid-July straddled the period after the famous Going-To-The-Sun-Road traditionally opens for the year, but before wildfire smoke annually engulfs the Rocky Mountain Front. Plus, in July there should still be snow to make it all feel more authentic. Well, we weren’t wrong. After a dry winter that was emblematic of the western U.S. drought, the snow machine finally kicked in near Glacier by mid-spring. And it continued and continued, culminating in an anomalous June snowstorm that dropped *feet* of snow in the mountains. All of this interfered with the annual NPS task of plowing Going-to-the-Sun-Road so that motorists can enjoy it all the way up to Logan Pass above 6,000 feet. This is almost always done by the 4th of July. And yet, this time, ominous notes came in that the road would be ready “no earlier” than July 13. If you look at that Glacier map, this is an issue for a park that has… one road. If that road is closed, it’s a multiple-hour detour to get from one side of the park to the other.
Elizabeth and I tried to take this all in stride. If Logan Pass wasn’t open, we could certainly find other fun stuff to do in the park. Glacier isn’t lacking in those. But it would at least make getting from spot to spot tougher. No help for it, though.
The days wound down before our trip. I defended my thesis on Tuesday, June 28, the 2-week mark before we left. I tried to keep my work ethic up during that period, since I promised my thesis committee that I would have a near-final copy of it before I left. We spent a long weekend in Michigan for the 4th of July, and all of a sudden it was the last week before our trip. This was happening. Elizabeth and I were going to Glacier National Park, the crown of the continent.
Because we flew United, Elizabeth and I had to pay per checked bag. The two of us decided to each pay for a checked bag for ourselves, a carry-on suitcase, and then Elizabeth’s Camelbak and my camera bag. Sounds like a lot of space, right? I was haunted by the memory of Elizabeth’s Subaru being packed to the literal brim the summer before. It was clear we needed to downsize. I made a good dent on the packing while Elizabeth was in DC picking out her wedding dress, but she had to a majority of her packing the night before. On the morning of July 12, with a beautiful sunrise off to the east of our new house, we haggled over the last few items to stick in the checked bags. With our cooking stove and cast iron, one bag weighed over 60 pounds. We got rid of both of them by figuring we could cook stuff on lighter surfaces like a pie iron, and eventually both suitcases came in at 48 pounds. Scipio was safely ensconced at Fetch and Stay. Our flight to Denver took off mid-morning. It was time to see what the fuss about Glacier was really all about.