48 hours into our time in Montana, Elizabeth and I had seen many of the biospheres that the state had to offer. There had been the flat Big Sky Country, the rolling High Plains, the rugged granite-covered mountains, and the heavily wooded slopes. Herron Park south of Kalispell made an entirely new one. There were hints of tallgrass prairie along the lower elevations of the park, including the parking lot. But around us was a land of rugged ridges and hills covered in tall timbers. It was an interesting system, carved out by the Ice Age glaciers as they alternately flattened and scooped out the landscape. It sort of reminded me of Michigan’s topography (on a larger scale).
At 3.5 miles up the hills to our west, the Notch Trail wouldn’t be exactly a stroll in the park (so to speak), but it shouldn’t be the toughest challenge of the week. The one thing we could rest easy on was the relative absence of crowds. Although the little parking lot was completely full, Herron Park is completely criss-crossed by trails and it was mostly populated by locals anyway. The hordes could have the national park today.
It was yet another picture-perfect morning with the promise of warmth later. The skies cut such a blue figure in between the far-reaching branches of lodgepole pine above us. The grass was such a brilliant green. I don’t know what it was – the anemic 2022 growing season in Oklahoma, the drought in Grand Teton/Yellowstone the year before – but I had plumb forgotten what it was like to be among lush growth. Everywhere I looked on this side of the continental divide was literally a breath of fresh air.
Once again, if you looked at things from the right (or wrong) perspective you could see some alarming signs about Elizabeth and my hiking performance. Everything was fine during the first few minutes of steady-state hiking across the right to the top right side of the arc on the map above. But immediately after that, the trail began some rather nasty switchbacks. To add insult to injury, there was some sort of gravel fire road that just cut straight up the hillside, but you can’t just be cutting corners. Can you? The middle-aged lady who went flying past us (I have not heard somebody more local to their local park/trail system than she was to this one) certainly made an argument against it. I’m glad that we didn’t decide to cut corners, which is easy to say now, but if we hadn’t we would have missed out on what I’m confident was the greatest breadth of flowering plants I’ve ever seen on a hike (Lighthouse Trail in Palo Duro Canyon 2019 will have to take second place).
I don’t appear to have taken any pictures of the flowers since I was so focused on video. For that, a firm “whoops” is offered. But the camera did get its work in as we gained a few hundred feet above the valley floor. The big wall of mountains in the distance came into hazy blue view. So did the sweeping valleys and hills of the area.
It is my opinion that all landscapes should occasionally be scraped by glaciers so that we get glorious views like this across the globe.
Speaking of glaciers, one of them had been working overdrive when it carved out Foys Lake. After a grueling last few minutes stomping up toward the overlook in a twisty finish that was reminiscent of a (very) scaled version of the ending of Guadalupe Peak, the trail settled onto a bluff far above the surrounding terrain to the north and east. Even the pines that seem to tower over you wherever you go were offset far below this bluff. That gives a view of Foys Lake, which even among the brilliant lakes we would see all week was able to achieve distinction for its brilliance. Most of the water was a brilliant sapphire shade except for at two points. The first was a little peninsula jutting out into the water. The other was a little circular island that prompted Elizabeth to say “I want to live on that island”. Along the shores of the island and peninsula, the water shifted from sapphire to a brilliant jade. It was incredible. Beyond the lake sat a hill that probably served as a glacier’s terminal moraine, then miles upon miles of flat plains, then the snow-capped peaks of the national park far in the distance.
Ok. Enough words. Enjoy the view:
It’s not necessarily a show-stopping view. If my parents were driving to Glacier and would have 48 hours in and around the park, sending them to that overlook wouldn’t cross my mind. But it was pretty darn scenic, and there was absolutely no regret in either of our minds. The people boating may be a nuisance for Elizabeth in the future when she buys that island, though.
After a couple of minutes soaking in the view on the bluff, we were ready to continue up the back part of the trail along the property line of the park. I was very unenthused to discover that this meant going uphill again for a while, including a couple of brutal short stretches that were all the more annoying since they had come after the “big show” of the trail. To make matters worse, vegetation was sparse at times. The shade of a big tree was a coveted asset indeed.
But before long, Elizabeth and I had made it to the top of the hill and had a brilliant view of the surrounding foothills. It wouldn’t suck to retire somewhere just outside of the boundaries of Herron Park and raise your livestock, just a 10 minute drive from Wendy’s but also easy to shut out the whole world if you so chose. We finally got some merciful shade trees up at the highest point, and then the two of us began our southward journey around the remaining two sides of the loop, but this time downhill. As Elizabeth said, “It’s shocking how much easier the switchbacks are downhill”.
Completing the loop instead of turning around did end up using more time, but it ended up being worth it simply because of the amount of butterflies on the long descent down the southern periphery of the loop. There were monarchs everywhere. They darted from flower to flower, from ground to the air, and flitted their way among Elizabeth and myself like we were just supporting characters in a great blog series about the life of butterflies. One of them even landed on Elizabeth after a little bit of coaxing.
Other than the gore of seeing a wounded butterfly on the path, the little insects did nothing but provide joy to our day. I like that. There should be more things in this world that are simple and provide joy. The paper trail guide that I was holding, color-coded so you knew which fire lookout road you were on was the “trail” that was marked? A simple joy for me to navigate from. The big trees that once again towered over us further down the hill? A simple joy. The company of my fiancee, enjoying a hike that neither of us had planned, and enjoying the pleasure of being young and beholden to no one? A simple joy. Take time and enjoy the simple joys: a story of hiking near Foys.
Around 11:50, with my stomach starting to rumble, we finally emerged into the clearing from which we’d departed a couple of hours prior. Elizabeth conscientiously made us take the long way around to avoid stomping through any private property, which I respect (but also don’t respect as much when hungry). I looked up some likely-looking lunch spots in the nearby ski town of Whitefish as we got to the car, and set a course for a pizzeria that sounded good. My planned/unplanned day of fun was off to a very solid start.