We had it all planned: 2020 tickets to three UEFA soccer games in Budapest and Bucharest, bear watching, Dracula’s castle, monasteries, bathhouses, goulash, Tokaji, and then, well you know the rest. How does one hit reset and within two weeks coordinate a whole new trip without moving dates around? Simple, the National Park Service and Google. Without skipping a beat, we booked a roundtrip ticket from San Diego to Boise, Idaho on Southwest (middle seats empty, thank you SWA) and rented an SUV for the national park loop that would result in one of the most stunning and rewarding road trips I’ve done in my lifetime.
Ponderosa pines lined the highway bordering the peridot-colored Payette River as the growing city of Boise faded in the distance. We were fortunate enough to kick off our trip with family (temperatures taken and COVID symptoms assessed) beginning with a log cabin nestled in Stanley beneath the jagged Sawtooth Mountain range and churning Salmon River.
It was mid-June, so moody weather spells swung between warm and sunny to cool clouds and brief snowstorms. We hiked tree lined trails like Fishhook and Ironcreek that bordered roaring waters of melted snow and hillsides peppered with Shooting Stars, Alpine sunflowers, and Arrowleaf Balsamroots. Alpine lakes and waterfalls awaited us at the top as summer began to shed the last of her winter layers.
Leaving family and an early morning earthquake behind, we followed Hwy 75 out of Stanley and into the Salmon-Challis National Forest that harbored the ghost town of Custer City and the Land of the Yankee Fork State Park, where lies an infamous ledge that Native American tribes drove buffalo to their demise.
Onto Hwy 93, we wound our way through the Selway-Bitteroot Wilderness accompanied by stunning views of the Rocky Mountains dividing Montana and Idaho. Our next stop was Glacier National Park, but not without an overnight break in Missoula. As we crossed over into Montana and bore down into Missoula, I couldn’t help but take long deep breaths of the fresh, crisp, pine air and gaze at endless green hills. What virus?
A cozy B&B on the Clark Fork River provided shelter for the night after indulging in our first dinner out in months. We dined at The Pearl, an age-old establishment boasting French cuisine and tables six feet apart. Under twinkly lights, we cherished the French onion soup, salmon marinated in a mouth-watering mustard sauce, duck with a cherry-peppercorn drizzle and of course, chocolate mousse cake. It wasn’t long before we drifted off in our cozy, antique room.
Anticipating an exciting ride into Glacier, we rose early only to be fueled with blueberry pancakes, potatoes and bacon. Our last leg to Glacier would take us through a plethora of natural wonders including Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge, Lolo National Forest and views of the Salish Mountains. We followed the 93 through small farms, ranches, one-room churches and rolling pastures butting up against the Mission Mountains. I finally understood what all the fuss was about regarding Montana’s “Big Sky.” Approaching the east side of Flathead Lake, signs for fresh huckleberry pie peaked from behind mailboxes while magpies and robins competed for attention. Flanked along the calm, azure waters of Flathead reigned cherry, peach and apple trees jockeying for position next to tall, ancient Douglas Firs and small vineyards.
Two and a half hours later, we rolled through the gate of West Glacier and into the park with a stop at Apgar, the main activity center. The jaw dropping views of snow-peaked mountains mirrored in Lake McDonald took my breath away, as did the blankets of endless trees enveloping the valleys surrounding us.
Though Glacier is 1,583 square miles, we would only see portions of the west side. With COVID, the eastern part of Glacier is currently closed with no access, and at the time of our trip, all campgrounds were closed.
We were lucky enough to secure a reservation at the Lake McDonald Lodge, a historic 106-year old, three story Swiss chalet constructed of stone and wood.
Famous for its lanterns designed by Kanai craftsmen and large fireplace, the lobby also sports several taxidermy mounts and hides of local wildlife while colorful paintings of revered Native Americans decorate the hallways and staircases. Though the restaurant was closed for seating, we acclimated well to the ‘grab and go’ that would be the norm for this summer’s dining options in the national parks. Eating an Elk burger with a glass of red wine while watching the sun slowly set over the glassy, serene lake did not disappoint.
Earlier that day, we scampered up Avalanche Creek trail via a raging gorge of ice water and tree lined path to Avalanche Lake. The two-mile hike uphill delivered a magnificent view of multiple waterfalls cascading down the slopes from several snow-covered peaks 8,500 feet high and tumbling into an emerald Avalanche Lake.
This was the last hike accessible by car as the Going-to-the-Sun Road was closed from this point on to St. Mary Lake. Though we couldn’t reach the other side of the park, this closure turned out to be a blessing. The next day we were able to rent electric bikes and head up the road all the way to the Loop, a section of the road sporting beautiful vistas, albeit in a light summer rain. We were blessed with no cars, traffic or hordes of tourists and biked the road virtually alone save for a few ambling pronghorn antelope. The silence was bewitching and only disturbed by the dreamy, teal McDonald Creek flowing below us. We lost count of the endless streams, swollen creeks, and waterfalls navigating around Black Cottonwoods, Hemlocks and Red Cedars. Dark, craggy slopes ascended to a white-crested pinnacle, sun speckled and smoking in a ghostly fog like a bald eagle in the mist. We spotted elk and bear grass blossoms, but no bears. According to the ranger, they were furloughed along with other park employees until next season.
Our last day in the park took us to a lake further north via a gravel road. Bowman Lake is 32 miles north of Apgar and well worth the effort. We arrived early to take in the still, quiet morning on this cerulean lake graced by more snowy peaks reflected on the surface. Bear spray in hand we swapped an overgrown trail for a lakeside hike at the last minute; we’re still a little green hiking in the “bush” where grizzlies roam. Mountain Bluebells and Wild Roses populated the shores of the lake, sharing real estate with the towering Western Larch trees. As we exited Bowman, a pensive bald eagle residing at the top of a barren tree bid us farewell.
After a fuel stop at Polebridge Mercantile, built in 1913, we opted for one more afternoon hike. We had to, after digging into the best pastrami sandwich I have ever had, cooked Calzone style with a pastry shell and sauerkraut to boot. The warm huckleberry bear claw was icing on the cake and further reason to squeeze in another 4 miles. Thanks to Jake Bramante, who hiked all 734 miles of trails in Glacier during one season, we were able to glean from his detailed trail maps the perfect option for us. The Huckleberry Trail seemed apropos for this exercise and took us through a meadow and canyon of Lodgepole Pines. The day came to a close magically as a female elk and her baby greeted us at the entrance to the lodge. It was time to say adieu to Glacier and make our way to Yellowstone.
Stay Tuned for Part II!