Note: Elizabeth is my fiancee and my hiking companion on the route to Piegan Pass on 15 July 2022 when we saw a grizzly bear just off-trail. Elizabeth has generously written a blog post about her experience. Her account has been lightly edited.
I always thought I had a “healthy” fear of bears. Nolan and I have camped in Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, and the Arapaho National Forest in Colorado, all of which are prime bear territory. We also have camped in areas where black bears frequent in Tennessee and Virginia. We know what to do when you see a bear and how to properly store food at camp. We carry bear spray when we hike or even just walk to the bathroom at camp. It never really bothered me that there were likely bears around us; I respected them, and they respected me for taking necessary precautions (right?). One thing I had never been through: seeing a bear on trail. All our bear encounters had been in the “safety” of our car or from extremely far away…up until visiting Glacier. I figured we might see a bear on the trail since we were planning on doing a lot of hiking, but I always figured it would be around a ton of people. Trails in Glacier are notoriously crowded and all the videos I had seen showed people gathered in large hiking groups while the bear just kind of minded its own business.
Originally, we were planning on hiking the world famous Highline Trail, but due to a late season snowstorm, the trail was still closed due to snow. We were camping at Sprague Creek Campground which meant we could bypass the early morning road closure and beat all the cars up to Logan Pass, which is where the Highline Trail begins. Due to the closure, we asked a ranger what she would suggest as a good alternative, and she suggested the Piegan Pass trail which begins at the Siyeh Bend Trailhead, about 2.2 miles east of Logan Pass. It’s about 9 miles total with about 1900 feet of elevation gain. I was already on edge. I did not sleep much the night before because we were greeted with a sign at our campground that said “Welcome to Glacier! We got bears! 32 in camp (so far) more coming! Most recent sighting 7/14”. Well, guess what day we were camping there? You guessed it! 7/14. Our camp host also made me feel bad about sleeping with the bear spray because APPARENTLY bear spray can attract bears – still not sure about that one. And yes, I still slept with the bear spray.
We woke up the next morning bright and early, ready to hike to Piegan Pass. I was somewhat disappointed that we would not be able to hike the Highline Trail, but we trusted that the rangers had the trail closed for a reason. The real punch in the gut was that Highline Trail officially opened for the season on July 21st, a few days after we left Glacier. The ranger assured us that Piegan Pass was still well worth it, was more of a hidden gem in Glacier, and offered very similar views as Highline. We drove up to Logan Pass and laughed as we watched the line of cars below us, trying to get up to Logan Pass once the road closure opened near Lake McDonald. After some debate over where we were allowed to park at the trailhead, we pulled behind the only other car nearby, and we were officially the second group on the trail!
Whenever Nolan and I hike, we always talk loud or sing songs so we don’t surprise a bear. I was joking with Nolan that if I were a bear, I would want to hang out near this trail because it was secluded and there were a lot of shrubs and good things to snack on. On this trip, our song of choice was a remix of the famous David Guetta and Nicki Minaj song “Where Them Girls At”. (Editor’s note: Imagine disrespecting Flo Rida this much by not even mentioning his name). Instead of “girls”, we would sing the word “bears” so it sounded something like “So many bears in here, where do I begin…Where them bears, at bears at”. It helped calm my nerves, but I think I asked probably half a dozen times if we should turn around because there might be bears within the first half mile. Occasionally one of us would shout “Hey, Bear!” and I would clap my hiking poles together. About a mile into the trail I hear Nolan say “Oh, bear!”…I convinced myself he meant to say “Hey bear!” and so I said it back. Then I heard Nolan say the words I always feared on a trail, “No seriously, there’s a bear!” My heart sank…I slowly turned around and quickly took off the cap of the bear spray I already had in my hand. I looked down the hill below the trail and sure enough, there was a large, light brown grizzly bear sitting on a tree stump, and it was staring right at us. We did everything we were supposed to do leading up to this moment but in this moment I froze. I didn’t know what to do. Nolan was yelling “Hey, bear”, while I was yelling “Hello, hello”. The next thing I knew, I was way uphill away from Nolan. Whoops. He finally realized that not only had I left him behind, but I also had the bear spray. Whoops again. He quickly finished the video he was taking – luckily, the bear decided we were not a threat and continued to lay on the log. Once Nolan caught up to me, I couldn’t stop crying. I was so SO scared. Something about seeing a bear when no one else was around – in the middle of the wilderness – really, really scared me. I don’t like to jump to the words “panic attack” in stressful situations, but I think it’s safe to say I had a full blown panic attack on the trail. I wanted out of the woods.
Nolan was very nice and understanding of my fear, and assured me that he would help keep me safe, and we did everything we were supposed to do, AND that the bear ignored us. That’s a win, right? My mind just couldn’t think that way. I wanted to turn around. Nolan muttered “but then we have to go back to the bear…” so that option was quickly forgotten, and we kept making our way up the trail. I remember thinking to myself that I wanted to be ABOVE the tree line SO bad. It couldn’t be that much farther, right? We had been increasing our elevation rapidly, and I convinced myself we were close. I also was really hoping we would see another group of hikers. Through my still crying eyes and sharp intakes of breath, I heard and saw a group coming up behind us. Perfect! We hiked with them for a little and told them about our encounter. They were extremely jealous. I quickly realized these guys were doing the WHOLE trail through rather than turning around at the pass, and they certainly had places to be. I think they could tell I was visibly scared after our encounter, but they quickly moved past us on their trek. Gosh darn it. The other memory I have while being below the tree line is coming across GIANT and I mean GIANT grizzly bear footprints. This led to panic attack #2 of the trail. I really really really wanted to turn around. This time, Nolan agreed, but again assured me that we were so close to being above the treeline. I was having flashbacks to when we climbed Guadalupe Mountain. I literally quit 30 feet from the top of the mountain. While this time we still had many miles to go, I really wanted to keep going, so we did. And let me tell you, the views from the top were some of the best I’ve ever seen in my life.
What I learned from this hike is that I have a healthy (or maybe unhealthy?) fear of bears on trail. I’m so glad we didn’t turn around and there’s no way I would have completed the hike without Nolan’s reassuring help. We were deemed “the grizzly couple” on the trail because as it turns out, we were the only people who saw the bear on trail. Word gets around fast when someone has spotted a bear. We passed WAY more people on the way back down and even befriended a couple, who I believe were from Canada, We hiked most of the way back with them (mostly because I really did not want to hike in a group of two any longer). I thank them for being so willing, even though I never asked them, to let us keep pace with them. Looking back months later, this is the story I tell most often from our trip. Seeing bears in Glacier is pretty much a guarantee. Seeing one on the trail, when it’s just you and the bear, is a quintessential Glacier experience.