After most of a good, hard day, Elizabeth and I had been delivered to the end of Going-to-the-Sun Road. Apgar Village lies in the far southwestern corner of the park, where McDonald Creek exits Lake McDonald and begins its terminal sprint down toward the Flathead River along US-2. This is the commercial side of the park, and doubly so given the closure of Logan Pass. Most people who go to Glacier stay in West Glacier just outside the park boundary, or else the little towns that make up the Flathead Valley to the west – Kalispell, Whitefish, Columbia Falls. Without an outlet to let them spill across the length of the park, they were all bottled up from Apgar to Avalanche with no place to go.
It was into this busy world that Elizabeth and I stepped around 4:00 on July 13. The thunderstorm that hadn’t quite ruined our kayaking adventure was still blowing by, with a moderate rain falling at the visitor’s center when we approached. The center was rather modestly apportioned compared to some other NPS locations I’ve seen.We had three principal reasons for stopping:
- To get Elizabeth’s stamp, which she managed to procure with a flourish inside the gift shop.
- To buy any souvenirs we wanted. I got Elizabeth a sweatshirt, and myself a pin.
- To talk to a ranger about the closure of the Highline Trail. After waiting in line under an awning for a few minutes, we talked to a ranger who bluntly told us that with angled snowfields still on the trail, it was too dangerous to get rangers out to assess the state of the hike. Highline would have to come off of our bucket list if we were only here for the next week. Hiding our disappointment, Elizabeth asked if there were any alternate trails up in the alpine country that we should consider. The ranger said that we could basically take the reverse of the Highline Trail by taking the Loop Trail up to Granite Park Chalet, but that this was a punishing and rather thankless task. Last she’d heard, the snowfields along the Siyeh Pass trail were still too deep to cross. But, if we wanted to be adventurous, Piegan Pass might be a good way to go. We thanked her for her time and headed back to the car.
We at least wouldn’t have to make that decision right away. First, we had our own chalet to check into. The Belton Chalet was just a couple of miles from Apgar, outside the park boundary. To get there, you take the park entry road across the boundary and through the tiny tourist village of West Glacier, which huddles between the Flathead and US-2. The chalet sits sited above the highway on the slope of one of the big slopes that surround West Glacier, overlooking the town and the nearby mountains. Elizabeth gifted me a one-night stay at the Belton Chalet as a “congrats on defending your thesis” present. The main draw of the chalet as a means of hospiting ourselves was its historical value. Belton has been around as long as Glacier Park has. In fact, when the Great Northern Railway came through all the way back in 1910, the railroad built the chalet along the tracks to encourage tourism into the area. It’s a charmingly rustic structure built in the brown wooden style of the early NPS, although fancier than most buildings of the area. The hardest thing to figure out was parking – the chalet is built into the side of the hill with a slightly hidden parking lot, and it took a few minutes of searching to figure out where to put the RAV4.
Elizabeth and I figured out where we were going, and dragged our hiking-weary selves into the lobby of the chalet. When I say this thing was full to the brim with chalet memorabilia, I mean it was full to the *brim*. The chalet clerk handed us our keys and we dragged our bags upstairs to our room. The room was charming – small (but not as small as our cabin), clean, and rustic. I was thrilled to see we had a balcony overlooking the mountains on the southwest rim of the park. Elizabeth was thrilled that we had a soft bed, a shower, and a welcome note with earplugs for all of the trains that would go by in the night (I never heard one). Priorities.
The Belton Chalet had everything we needed. I was able to put my wet swimsuit and Elizabeth’s wet clothes out on the balcony to dry. Elizabeth was able to take a warm, steamy shower and then lay down. And then I was able to take a shower of my own and sit outside drinking a Halo Huckleberry Hefe from my six-pack. After such an early morning and gruelingly long day, it was nice to unwind for an hour or two. The best part of all? The chalet had a fancy restaurant just down the hill and Elizabeth had gotten us a reservation at 7:00. All we had to do was get changed into more-appropriate clothes and wander down the hill gingerly (sore calves!) for food.
I will admit, I did a poor job of taking pictures of the inside of the Belton Chalet’s restaurant. It was similar to everything else: grey-brown rustic chic. The restaurant was bumping in the way that tourism-based-establishments in northern Montana probably have to be during their brief summer. There was a happy and healthy buzz among the patrons. When I saw everyone else’s food, I understood why. This place was legit.
We were so hungry from our adventures, Elizabeth barely even complained that the window we were seated by had a wasp crawling all over it threateningly. She got the tortellini with elk sausage. I got the bison meatloaf. Ain’t western-based food dishes grand? These were. My only regret was that the portion sizes weren’t larger; I was still wolfing down my food hungrily to the very last bite, and only barely restrained from licking the plate. If it hadn’t been a nicer establishment, I would have.
There’s only one correct way to finish off a day and a meal like that. Ice cream. Vacation isn’t vacation if you don’t have ice cream every night, even if you’re broke and literally only have a few hundred dollars left in your bank account. There were a couple of ice cream shops down in the village of West Glacier just calling our names, and we obliged them happily as the sun sank toward the mountains. The West Glacier Cafe had pies, their own beer selection, and a variety of ice creams. *But* they did not have huckleberry ice cream. That fact was enough to get Elizabeth to seek out a second option across the street at a putt-putt location. As for me, the Cafe’s offer of a huckleberry cream soda float was enough to earn my business. I sat out at one of their tables outside, soaking in the perfect evening and drinking my perfectly smooth and creamy confection while I waited for Elizabeth to return with her huckleberry/birthday cake double scoop. We didn’t say much while enjoying our frozen treats. When everything is so perfect as is, what more can words add on?
Here’s the thing about being near the 49th parallel in Mid-July – the days are so, so long. I’d woken up at the 6:00 a.m. alarm to the sun just rising over the St. Mary Ridge in the distance. Now it was 8:00, a full 14 hours later, and the sun still wouldn’t sink below the horizon. That was the most surprising part for me: how damn long evenings last in those northern summer days. We still had 90 minutes before the sun went down. May as well go somewhere to enjoy it, right? So we piled back into the RAV-4 and through the entrance station on this side of the park, bound back for the Apgar Village.
Apgar was popping – a little motel, convenience stores, and picnic area crawling with the Glacier crowds on this evening. Fortunately, things were at least a little bit quieter on the lakeshore – quiet enough that we could find an open bench from which to stare out at Lake McDonald and watch the alpenglow magic begin to set in. Off to the left in the distance, where McDonald Creek exits the lake once more, a wedding party was getting twilight photography. Elizabeth sighed for what could have been. Off to our right, little shits frolicked and played alongside the Apgar dock. And directly down the path of the lake, the sun’s ever-setting angle lit the mountains a brilliant orange just like we’d seen last night at Many Glacier. I spent a good chunk of my time taking pictures, realizing the lighting had become better 5 minutes later, and then taking more. By bracketing the exposures and using the Big Dog, I was able to come out with one true breathtaking winner upon further editing.
Otherwise, we quietly watch the sunlight disappear from Mounts Brown (right) and Cannon (right center). That view that I had declared the “best in the Rockies” earlier was just as damn impressive right here. And the water was smooth as glass, only occasionally disturbed by rocks chucked by the little shits at the docks. Finally, the alpenglow faded away, leaving a peaceful blue hue over everything. Some girl was doing a photoshoot of sorts near us, so I offered to do the same for Elizabeth. Turns out the lighting was a lot tougher than I could have imagined, but I came out with one good shot that is still her Twitter bio in early 2023.
Beautiful! And the scenery was alright too.
We stayed until a little after 9:00 p.m – still short of actual sunset, believe it or not, but after the daylight had leaked out of everything on this side of the Glacier’s rolling ridges. Right before we left, I took two more pictures:
Little did I know before going in that the two absolute best sunsets we would get would be on days 1 and 2 in the park. I couldn’t tell you which was better – sunset at Many Glacier, or here at Apgar. Both were incredible in their own right – I don’t think any one sunset we saw in Grand Teton or Yellowstone could possibly come close to either of these. The only more incredible sunset than these two that I can recall was on a random June day in 2019, in a field in the Oklahoma panhandle with Elizabeth.
Back in West Glacier, we made a quick pit stop at a camping supplies store to keep our cooler well-stocked on ice. The mountains behind the Belton Chalet were still lit brilliantly orange with alpenglow.
Back at the chalet, Elizabeth was quick to change out of her “nice dinner” dress and into something comfortable. We finished up the video-taking by recapping an incredible day. Seriously – July 13 took me months to blog about, it was so action-packed. There were horses at daybreak, the incredible moments on Going-to-the-Sun Road, a rainbow at Logan Pass, deer along the Avalanche Lake trail, kayaking and swimming and Lake McDonald, a fancy western dinner, and now this insane sunset. It was like an entire trip’s adventure packed into a day – the best day of my life (so far). It was no wonder that Elizabeth’s eyes immediately closed.
I stayed up for a little longer. Our room viewed northwest, which meant I got to somehow enjoy the never-ending sunset even longer.
But soon, my eyes too were closing. And thus our story will pick up next time on July 14.