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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Glacier Park Part 2: Electric Boogaloo (and Waterton Too!)

Since I last left all you fine folk, it was Thursday July 7th (Day 42 of this tour for those of you following us with the “Play At Home” game.) We were in East Glacier Park, Montana. Since then, we spent three more nights in Glacier National Park. When one enters Glacier, the entry fee is good for seven days, and me being the thrifty Connecticut Yankee, I needed to use that pass to its fullest!

Thursday was a short day. We only need to bike a little over ten miles to Two Medicine Lake on the southeast corner of the park. Two Medicine used to be a prime spot in the park due to its closeness to East Glacier and rail service. Since Going-To-The-Sun Road opened, it became a less-travelled nook, since it is off route. Fine by me. And I knew Two Medicine would be a great spot to camp since it is the ONLY spot I visited during my 2007 park visit.

We originally intended to spend one night at Two Medicine, but after we set up camp I turned on my radio (which has weather band) to get the forecast. A chance of rain overnight, followed by lots of wind on Friday. So much wind that a High Wind Warning was in effect, with sustained winds 30-40mph and gusts to 70mph. 70mph? That’s 5mph shy of hurricane-force winds! And as soon as we were informed of this dire forecast that the promised rain followed by wind showed up. Maybe we should spend Friday in Two Medicine until the winds mellowed out? If our tent holds up, that is.

It wasn’t the most thrilling of nights as we lie awake in the tent while listening to the wind howl and howl around us. But the tent did stay up, thank god. So Friday was spent mostly lounging around the campground. We did manage a five mile hike, though. It mostly followed the south shore of Two Medicine Lake, then rise steeply above a waterfall to an open overlook named Aster Park. It felt like we were on top of the world!

Saturday arrived and the winds died down. So we hit the road and headed north. My original goal for the day was Many Glacier, another off-the-beaten-path nook in the park. This would have been a 50 or so mile ride. But we got a late start and the ride was a brutal one. Once we left the Two Medicine access road (about 7.5 miles one way) we began a long, unrelenting climb for about 4 1/2 miles on Montana Route 49 out of the Two Medicine Valley. The views we got were great, but the road was a workout. It was windy and sections were completely washed out and filled with gravel. Then it was a thrilling 4 1/2 mile descent down into the next valley, but the road was still shit so there was a lot of hard breaking to deal with washouts, cracks, and sunken grades. It was hard to enjoy the epic views surrounding me under these conditions.

I hoped that once we turned north onto US 89 things would mellow out a bit, but it wasn’t my luck. The problem was US 89 is a north/south route that parallels the Divide. So it crossed many river valleys, each valley crossing requiring a climb to the top of the ridge and then a descent to river level. We were either climbing or descending the whole time. The climbs were fairly steep, and the descents weren’t enjoyable due to poor road conditions, traffic, and a constant head or cross wind, depending which way we were heading. The eventual 35 miles of the day seemed like forever.

At least there was some interesting stuff to look at. Here is where the plains meet the mountains. So on one side of me was imposing rocky crags, the other was grassy hills rolling off into the infinite distance. Big Sky Country, indeed. And we crossed the least known and least imposing (though right here it’s a significant hill) of the “continental” divides, the North-South Divide, or Hudson’s Bay Divide. From this divide water either flows south to the Gulf of Mexico (Atlantic) or north to Hudson’s Bay (Arctic.) Not bad, TWO continental divides in one week!

By the time we got to the St. Mary’s entrance to Glacier National Park, on a lake at the east section of Going-To-The-Sun Road, it was already after 6pm. We had biked just around 35 miles. Many Glacier was still 20 miles away. And we would have to ride 12 miles into a headwind and off the main route (meaning 24 miles total) to get there. We decided to just camp at the campground in St. Mary instead. We’ll leave Many Glacier for the next visit.

Sunday July 10 (Day 45) was a big day. We needed to pull off 50 miles over rugged terrain to get to our next destination, Waterton Lakes National Park. Not only was it a new park, but it was in Alberta. Meaning Canada. Meaning a border crossing. Border crossings always make me nervous. I don’t want to say “the wrong thing” to cause the border official to suspect me of something. And I’ve been in that situation more than once. (Don’t get me started about the one who basically accused me of bringing drugs into Canada.) So one thing I always try to do before I cross is to make myself look as “presentable” as possible. This would require a shower, at least. The problem is that none of the campsites in Glacier had showers, the last one we saw was at the hostel in East Glacier, three days previous. We found a KOA down the road that would sell us one for the low, low price of $10 each. Yeesh. Not having any other options, we paid the hefty sum to clean ourselves.

The first 15 miles was a breeze. We were following the St. Mary valley, so terrain was level to rolly with a good tailwind. Then we turned off US 89 onto the Chief Mountain International Highway, and it got brutal. A pretty steep (7%?) climb for miles, under the baking sun, with swarms of flies to keep us company. It was a lot of climbing with not a lot of going down for the 14 miles until the border. And yep, the border. Nothing to worry about, it was a breeze as well. We were now in Canada for the second time on this trip!

Leaving the border we had a good 4 miles of steep downhill until we reached the Belly River. But it was soon up again for possibly the steepest climb of the day, as long as the hill we previously descended. And the bugs were out in full force. Worn out, I nearly bonked and got cranky at April for not stopping for me. (Sorry, baby!) But finally we crested the hill and were greeted with a spectacular view of the Waterton Valley with all its craggy peaks and pearly lakes. And yet another screaming 7% descent!

At the bottom the main entrance to Waterton Lakes National Park greeted us. We paid the entrance fee and rode the five miles along Lower Waterton Lake until Waterton Townsite. The village was quite a surprise! We were expecting something along the line of Apgar village in Glacier--a visitor center, small store and restaurant, and motel, that’s it. Nope, this was a full-on resort village with multiple restaurants, hotels, gift shops, and summer rentals. And deer--the mule deer in this area are practically tame, and wander around the town like they were humans.

We decided to camp at the main campground on the other side of Waterton Village for two nights. While it is the opposite of “rustic” (3/4 of the grounds are open lots for RVs), it did have a nice walk-in camping area, and would allow us a convenient base to explore the surroundings on Monday.

So we slept in on Monday and had a lazy breakfast of banana pancakes. That’s when we encountered the campground’s other main occupants, the Columbian Ground Squirrels. These squirrels look and act somewhat like prairie dogs, burrowing holes into the many grassy knolls in our campground. And like the deer, they almost seemed tame and not really afraid of humans. They surrounded us constantly, coming by us to check out if we had food (going as far as crawling over April’s feet) and entering the open door on the tent. And pooping in the tent. I’d have been more upset if they weren’t so cute and fascinating to watch.

The rest of Monday consisted of hanging out in Waterton village, buying overpriced food (like food in a tourist area would be reasonably priced?)*, failing to get cash out of ATMs (small Canadian ATMs don’t like my debit card), admiring the views, and going on a hike to Bears Hump, a promonatory 700 feet above the town. The hike was a strenuous one as it was all straight up, but the spectacular view of the valley made it worth it. We also saw Cameron Falls, which was a short walk from our campground.

And we got our first true thunderstorm of the trip. Walking from the village to the campground around 7:30 pm, we noticed ominous dark clouds above the mountains to the west. Soon we heard thunder and we saw bolts of lightning not long after. We managed to make it back to the campground right before the sky opened up. Thankfully there was a covered picnic shelter next to our tents, so we rode out all ten minutes of the storm there along with other campers. Watching a thunderstorm is fun in conditions like this. It’s not going to be so fun when one catches us out in the open, which I’m sure will happen pretty soon.

Waterton and Glacier are lovely parks. We’d love to spend more time, but camping at Waterton is pricey ($22.50 a night) and we still have a continent to cross. And just like with our Olympic National Park visit last summer, the way to truly enjoy these parks is through backcountry hiking. I’m happy that Glacier (and Waterton to some extent) are much more accessible for bike touring (and to rail transportation) than Olympic was. But there are so many nooks and crannies to Glacier that are not accessible by road, and we want to explore those as well. Maybe next year’s adventure?

*I wish we could have stocked up on food before entering Waterton. But since leaving Whitefish a week earlier, there have been no “real” grocery stores and food has been overpriced due to the remote location and tourist orientation. You can only carry so much food with you on a bike tour. I pretty much exhausted my supplies of dried soups and the like over the course of the week.


  1. Awesome! You two are being totally hard core! I didn't know about the N/S divide either - interesting. Sounds like you got one of the thunderstorms I was in the other day - they've been moving south to north with a little east drift, and I'm half a state south of you two. Today's were pretty knarly, but totally missed us here in Dillon - hope you didn't end up in the middle of them.

  2. Hmm, a squirrel ran in front of my bike once. Bears? No.


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