300 feet. 0.7 miles.
Almost a year later, I refuse to believe either of those numbers. According to AllTrails, it’s only 0.7 miles from St. Mary Falls to Virginia Falls by trail. You only have to go up 300 feet to get there. Neither of those felt remotely true.
My Fitbit passed that marker as Elizabeth and I slogged uphill along the west bank of Virginia Creek. That one I was willing to believe.
People kept telling us we were so close. At a certain point, you just have to tune those people out. Clearly they were liars. As three quarters of a mile stretched past (two) in my head, I came to dread the “You’re almost there!” encouragement. A (deeply elitist) part of me wanted to scream, “You’re the little piggies, not me! We’ve already hiked 12 miles today! There’s a valid reason we’re huffing and puffing!”
Instead, I thanked them in a voice that betrayed how short of breath I was.
It was more than a little consolation that Virginia Creek was putting a hell of a show on for me. How many places do you go where there’s a creek or a river that causes a major waterfall, and downstream of the falls you either have rapids or just calming water? I’ve seen it on the Potomac, the Snoqualmie, and the Yellowstone below the Lower Falls. Virginia Creek has a major advantage over those – it forms of snowmelt in the high country, and it tumbles and tumbles and tumbles until it meets the St. Mary River on the valley floor. There’s no time for placid water. There’s no time for swift-flowing water. There’s not even time for rapids. It’s tumbling, cascading, and flowing over a bunch of different beautiful waterfalls. Elizabeth was less than amused by the number of times that I stepped out over an outcropping to take a picture.
Also from Virginia Creek: the absolute pinnacle of all of Glacier’s rock colors.
There will never be another time in my life when I see a creek that is that colorful. And honestly, that’s okay.
After what felt like an eternity of Elizabeth wondering if each individual cascade might be Virginia Falls, I heard a thundering roar in the distance. It was nearing 4:00 in the afternoon on July 15, and we had officially made it to our last destination on one of the most grueling days Elizabeth and I had ever subjected ourselves to in a national park. You had two options to see the Falls – either hike further up the west bank of Virginia Creek another 100 yards, and you’d be right at the foot of it. On a normal day, in a normal season, it’s a sedate curtain of water spilling over the face of the cliff.
Not this time of year. Not this year. In July 2022, Virginia Falls was roaring like every other body of water in Glacier National Park. Besides, the extra 100 yards was more than I dared ask of Elizabeth. Instead, we walked across a short footbridge to the opposite bank of Virginia Creek and stopped at the Virginia Falls viewpoint.
I’ll say this up front: I had been more excited for St. Mary Falls than Virginia. I didn’t expect a whole lot, which probably played into our decision to stay further away. If I had known that Virginia Falls was that raging torrent pouring straight off the mountain that you could see all the way from GTSR on the other side of the lake, maybe we would have gone up. As it was, the viewpoint did not have a great viewing angle. It looked a lot cooler than this meh picture in person, I swear.
“Cool” is a good operative word. Just like everywhere else in this park (Lake McDonald notwithstanding), the water was very, very cold. I wanted to step into the creek and soak my poor legs. Elizabeth as always demonstrated that she has the common sense in the relationship by warning me not to actually step into the swift-flowing water. That seems extremely silly when you look at Virginia Creek and realize the water is only ankle deep. But I took a half step into the water just to soak my feet and was nearly knocked ass over teakettle. Flowing water is something to be respected. Instead, I nonchalantly (to cover up my fear) sat down and decided to scoot my feet into the creek as far as they would go. It felt nice, but the feeling of being defeated by such a small creek sort of took away from the triumphant feeling of the ice bath.
Once again, it was surprising how little the crowding was. Maybe in this case the little piggies went right up to Virginia Falls since this would be their only close encounter with a natural feature in the park (at least that’s what us certified snobs told ourselves). Maybe we were stinky and sweaty and scruffy and nobody wanted to be near us. Or maybe we just got lucky. Who knows! But for 15 whole minutes, the Virginia Falls Viewpoint belonged to Elizabeth and myself. The whole time, the creek roared past like a constant stream of applause for our efforts.
Darks clouds began to gather off to the southwest above the big lodgepoles that frame Virginia Falls. Remembering our near-miss with the downpour a couple of hours prior, Elizabeth and I made the decision to beat a hasty retreat back down the side of Little Chief Mountain to our car. Fortunately, this time our luck held and whatever storm there may have been, it didn’t break over us. The trail stayed crowded, giving Elizabeth even more chances to work on her by-n0w-well-polished story about our bear encounter that morning.
One small regret that I have from our hike: when we passed back over the St. Mary River bridge near the Falls, we saw some guys stepping up onto the railing and then plummeting into the turquoise water below. I’d forgotten – this is the bridge where you can just jump into the river! Maybe not the best idea to do so when it was as raging as it was right then. Elizabeth let out a sigh of relief when I didn’t argue with her too hard after she told me not to make the plunge. But the guys made it look so fun though.
The last mile was an uphill slog back to the parking lot. Little piggies kept walking past us, and you could tell they were judging how out-of-shape *we* were. That’s how the tables get turned.
It was getting toward late afternoon now and the two of us could not possibly do any more hiking. All of the bear-based adrenaline and the multiple of views were leading us to a crashing point, so it made sense to go get our final campsite of the trip set up at the St. Mary campground. No more excitement today, please.
Which of course why we saw our second bear of the trip in a field just to the left of GTSR on the way to the campsite.
In Elizabeth’s defense, she did not flip out about this bear. It helps that it was several hundred yards away and we were inside a car where we could go at any point. I was happy enough, since the last bear had been too close to switch camera lenses. This time we could get the Big Dog out and Elizabeth could start doing Bear Photography out the driver window. Unfortunately, several hundred yards is pretty far.
All I can tell you about bear number two of the trip is that it had a hump on its back, so our count was now Grizzlies 2, Black Bears 0. Elizabeth claimed that this grizzly was much smaller than the one that morning, but there may have been some revisionist history going on there.
Surviving that day called for some ice cream in addition to getting a campsite set up. The St. Mary entrance to the park had a little cafe next to the grocery store, and an ice cream section inside the little cafe. I don’t need to tell you that Elizabeth chose to go for two scoops of huckleberry. I wasn’t much more interesting, opting to go huckleberry/vanilla. There’s something about putting in 37,000 steps that just makes ice cream taste better.
I’m going to save a lot of the granular detail of the St. Mary for the blog post from July 16, since we spent a good chunk of our evening in and around the site doing interesting things. For now, I will just say that it was a pretty site located in the shadow of one of those finger-like ridges that extend toward the eastern border of Glacier. Or, it should have sat in the shadow. In July, if you’re waiting for the sun to go down behind the mountains, it’s going to take a while. This shot was taken after 8:00 pm as the sun finally got out of our eyes.
Not a whole lot of shade – a complaint that had been echoed in some campground reviews I’d read, but one I didn’t take too seriously until right about then.
The Official Menu of the Week called for a dehydrated meal tonight. But Elizabeth wanted a little bit more in the way of direct carbs, so we boiled some water for Kraft mac and cheese cups then I got the frying pan busy making plenty of bacon and eggs. The same point about food tasting better after 37,000 steps from above applies to breakfast for dinner, fyi.
One place where expectation always seems to outrun reality while camping: the thought of sitting around a campfire, roasting some marshmallows while the sun slowly sinks below the horizon. Every time we’ve gone camping, we’ve bought marshmallows for that specific purpose, but after a long day of hiking and photographing and driving and campsite setup sometimes you just want to enjoy the rapidly cooling mountain air and the crackle of the flames. I was very careful to clear all bacon grease out of the pan (and not into the fire either; we’d already been warned by yet another camp host that a black bear had been getting into our campground loop the last several nights and we needed to be extra careful not to give it more reasons to come sniffing around) as we cleaned up. The sky faded from a brilliant blue to a dull powder as the long twilight of northern summer fell upon us. Elizabeth and I went to the nearby bathroom to change, brush our teeth, and get ready for bed. The campground slowly quieted down. We got in the tent, zipped ourselves into our sleeping bags, and quietly chatted about tomorrow’s plans. July 16 would be bringing us all the way across the border to our first Canadian national park – Waterton Lakes National Park. Excitement warred with exhaustion, and if the rhythmic deep breathing coming from the sleeping pad next to me was any indication, exhaustion was going to win… any… second.