- Posted April 25, 2014 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
The world's best national parks
Straddling the Continental Divide
My brother and I, along with 10 other friends, planned to hike a 20+ miles stretch as a through-hike, starting on the Highline Trail at Logan Pass, which is at 6,646 ft on the Continental Divide. We would be hiking along the western side of the Continental Divide, crossing it at Swiftcurrent Pass at an elevation of 6,770 ft and then climbing down the eastern side of the Continental Divide, ending at Swiftcurrent Trailhead at 4,882 ft. To make the hike more interesting we planned to cover two side trails on the way. The first side trail would take us to Grinnell Glacier Overlook on the Continental Divide at 7,520 ft elevation. The second side trail would be to the top of Swiftcurrent Mountain, one of the peaks on the Continental Divide, which at 8,436 ft elevation has a fire lookout tower with a 360 degrees panoramic view.
We planned our hike for August when the roads and trails in Glacier National Park are relatively snow free. We all arrived at Kalispell Airport the day before our hike date, August 10th, 2013. After getting our rental cars we entered the park by West Glacier entrance. We took Going-to-the-Sun road which passes the center of the park through high mountains. The vistas along the route were spectacular and in every direction we looked, we could see snow speckled mountains. We made many stops on the way to take in the view and exited the park at St Mary. We reentered the park at Many Glacier entrance to reach our night encampment at Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. After stuffing ourselves with carbohydrates for dinner we called it a day and went off to sleep.
The next morning we were up and ready by 4:30 AM. Due to our early start we had to skip the shuttle service that runs in the park. Instead, we all squeezed into two cars (an SUV and a full-size car), leaving one car behind, and drove to Logan Pass from where we would start our hike. We had some trepidation due to grizzly bears in the park so we wanted to make sure we hiked only during daylight. A couple of us were carrying bear spray as our only line of defense. By 6 AM, as sunlight was breaking out over the mountains, we were on the Highline trail. Within the first mile the trail goes along a rocky ledge with a sheer drop of a few hundred feet on one side. A cable runs along the mountain wall for a few hundred feet to hold on to for safety, although we didn’t use it.
It was early in the morning and we were a bit apprehensive about bears in the vicinity so we made loud noises whenever the trail passed through a wooded section. The trail had been mostly flat but it started climbing as we approached Haystack Butte in a couple of hours. Taking a break and making sure all the hikers were together, we continued onwards. Up above on the Garden Wall we saw a bighorn sheep happily munching on the wildflowers oblivious to people below.
By 10 AM we reached the junction of Garden Wall trail which would take us up to Grinnell Glacier Overlook. 8 of us made it to the top of the narrow rocky trail from where we could look down the other side of the continental divide at the receding glaciers. In the shadows of Mt. Gould we saw Grinnell Glacier and Grinnell Lake formed by the melting of the glacier. On a ledge above was Salamander Glacier which was once part of Grinnell Glacier. High above clinging precariously was Gem Glacier, the smallest of all glaciers in the park. Climbing up the ridge to get a better view of the valley, I stumbled upon a mountain goat also taking in the same view.
Ruing that in less than a decade there would be no more glaciers left in Glacier National Park we solemnly headed down. We joined our original trail and reached Granite Chalet which was our half way point. We met other hikers of our team and had a quick lunch. Granite Chalet provides some shelter and food to weary hikers along this trail junction. The view all around was beautiful with Heavens Peak on one side and the Continental Divide on the other side. We spotted our next destination, the fire lookout tower on Swiftcurrent Mountain which seemed high up in the clouds. There was little enthusiasm to do another tiring side hike so we decided to hike towards Swiftcurrent pass before making the final decision.
As we climbed up to Swiftcurrent Pass it was about 1 PM and we still had 7 more miles of mostly downhill hiking left. 4 of us decided to hike up to the top of Swiftcurrent Mountain while the rest happily started their descent down the Continental Divide to the other side. Me, my brother and 2 other friends started the arduous climb up the switchbacks to the top. We could see storm clouds gathering at a distance and we hoped to complete our hike before any thunderstorms came our way. Slowly but surely we all made it to the top. We could see mountaintops in all directions and deep glacier-carved valleys down below with turquoise icemelt lakes. The grand scale of nature was a sight to behold.
Soon it was time to head down and we made it back to Swiftcurrent Pass trail by 3 PM. After a long and winding set of switchbacks we were in Many Glacier Valley floor. The trail became relatively flat but this was prime bear habitat which had us all very nervous. We passed through bushes of berries and even saw some bear scat on the trail. We talked in loud voices to make sure any bears in the area were aware of our presence so they don’t get surprised and attack us.
Fortunately we didn’t see any bears on the trail but we did see a moose happily munching on leaves by a lake side. We took a refreshing dip in Redrock Falls pool along the trail. Feeling rejuvenated by the icy cold water, we finished the remaining hike in no time, reaching Swiftcurrent Motor Inn at the end of the trail by 7 PM. Our other team members were already starting their dinner and we joined them in a well-deserved feast.