Glacier.

Getting There

US Highway 2 leaves Whitefish, MT and winds through Columbia Falls (a cool tourist burb), Coram (home of Glacier Distilling and their tasty North Fork Rye) and past West Glacier (Gateway to the Park). And I went past the entrance to the park because vehicle combinations longer than 21 feet are prohibited on Going to the Sun Road. As the crow files, it’s 49 miles from my campground in Whitefish to my campground in St Mary, on the east side of the park. So I had to roll down the longer 122 mile route—which was just fine because the route was fine (mostly!).

Winding along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River and through a couple towns/outposts was awesome! I love how clear the rivers are! As you approach Marias Pass stunning views of Glacier National Park’s peaks appear. So hard to keep my eyes on the road.

On the east side of Marias Pass I passed by East Glacier (another route to the park) because the railroad bridge wouldn’t let Synko pass under (and because long loads aren’t permitted on MT 49 either). So I continued to Browning and then headed back westward to St Mary, the real eastside entrance to the Park.

US Highway 89 to St Mary
US Highway 89 to St Mary

That highway, US 89 was also under severe construction and I ended up shifting into four-wheel-drive to gain traction over the loose dirt and steep grade. I would not have wanted to drive that road in a half-ton truck or without 4WD. Anyway, I arrived at the nice KOA in the junction town of St. Mary and grilled up some wings for dinner, also mapping out my itinerary into the park on Saturday.

Glacier.

I bought the GNP t-shirt that just said “Glacier.” on a background of Montana because I though it was simple & solid. The national park is anything but simple & solid. It’s stunning & spectacular! I’ve wanted to visit here since high school (you know, for the past 20 years!) and my dream was coming true.

Jackson Glacier
Jackson Glacier

Going to the Sun Road is phenomenal. From the lower land meadows and large lakes on each side through craggy peaks and sheer cliff faces the road winds 52 miles across the Continental Divide and between the Park’s western and eastern portals. Exhibits in the visitor centers pique your interest in the incredible geology of the mountains. The power at work, through an awesome Creator’s hand never ceases to amaze and humble me. God, I love the mountains!

Crowds were fairly heavy but not overwhelming. I took advantage of the park’s shuttles a couple times to avoid parking hassles but I wanted the experience of driving Going to the Sun myself. It. Is. An. Experience. For the most part, the road is good and provides outstanding views of peaks, waterfalls, meadows, creeks, lakes, trees. The rivers simply amazed me in how the sparkling water rushes over colored rocks, so clear and pristine. In slower-moving pools, the glacier water reflects beautiful turquoise colors. It’s unreal beauty.

In other sections the road narrows considerably along the sheer cliff face and I knew I wasn’t being too cautious by folding my mirrors in when I saw other F250s with their ears tucked in too! There were a couple spots where I slowly snuck by oncoming traffic. On the east side of Logan Pass I passed an oncoming rig towing a 25-30 foot Airstream. What a fool. Back in camp later I was chatting with my neighbors who had advised the Park Service of this errant dude. The rangers said they’d intercept him but by that time, he’d have significant damage to his trailer. Yeah, the tunnels and cliff overhangs are real. I dunno how he missed the restriction signs, or if he was just “special.” Wasn’t my problem…

When I reached the west side (where I’d been with Synko in tow the day before) I fueled up to save $1.00 a gallon vs. the price in St. Mary and headed back across the Continental Divide. I enjoyed a quick stop at 1913-era Lake McDonald Lodge for a TwoSki Brewski Pilsner from Kalispell Brewing and then headed back up the hill. About three hours later I was back in St Mary and chatted with a cool lady from Hawaii by way of Calgary. We enjoyed a couple drinks at the local pub and then I headed back to camp (alas, alone, lol). My first visit to Glacier was so great; I’d be returning in a week to take in the “Many Glacier” section of the park.

Leaving There

But until then, in the morning I stowed my good wines and shotgun at the KOA since Canada is averse to such evils. Clearing customs 20 miles from St Mary was a breeze this time, quite different than last year when I tried to take my gun with me. The customs official asked if I had any firearms and when I said, “no” he replied, “you’re from Texas and don’t have a gun?!” I told him I’d left them at the campground in St. Mary and he waved me on through.

The drive through southern Alberta’s green and yellow farmland was easy and in a couple hours I arrived in Calgary and checked into the biggest hole of a campground I’ve found. But it was just for the one night to position me close to Banff and my next destination in Golden, BC. I was headed toward a couple more national parks (this time in Canada) that I’ve wanted to visit in the 20 years since high school!

People I’ve talked with tell of wonderful sights in Banff and Jasper. I can’t wait to get there!

Canadian Rockies

Banff & Yoho National Parks

I slogged through Calagary traffic, headed west toward the mountains. I’d seen dark outlines of them in my left window while driving up from Glacier in Montana, and I was ready to put the city behind me after just a quick overnight. Nothing bad to say about Calgary (other than the crappy campground); I just wanted to get back to the mountains.

As soon as I cleared the outskirts of town traffic slowed and stopped. The radio reported a bad wreck ahead on Trans-Canada Highway 1 and traffic crawled along at 5-10 MPH for 75 minutes. By the time I started moving again all signs of wreckage were gone and traffic flow returned to 100 KPH (60 MPH). Soon I began winding up into the foothills and into Banff National Park.

Absolutely gorgeous! Seems all the rivers and streams run turquoise from the glacier runoff. Pretty stunning views of rivers, meadows, and towering mountains. Much of TC-1 through the park is protected from wildlife by high fences that don’t obstruct the view at all but keep vehicle and large mammal encounters to a minimum. As you travel along, the road crosses 44 wildlife crossing structures—tunnels and bridges built to allow animals to migrate and not have to cross lanes of traffic to do so. Wildlife underpasses are there for black bears and cougars while the overpasses better serve grizzlies, elk and deer. It’s a great execution of a very cool idea that saves wildlife from execution!

I exited the highway to enter the town of Banff and squeezed through the touristy mountain town. With Synko in tow there really wasn’t anyplace to stop, as the RV lot at the visitor center was already jammed with Civic Day holiday tourists. So I continued through Bow Valley on toward Golden where I’d hang for three nights. Banff looked like it’d be a nice play to stay for a few days but it’s much like other mountains towns, so I wasn’t too disappointed at having to keep rolling.

The beautiful drive continued up to the Lake Louise exit and then turns west and through Yoho National Park. It’s a 76 kilometer (45 mile) roll downhill to where the Kicking Horse River joins the Columbia in the town of Golden. The highway through Yoho follows the Kicking Horse through a glacial valley, providing countless scenic views. I eventually passed through Golden and pulled into a fine campsite at Golden Eco Adventure Ranch a couple miles south of town. In a few days I’d backtrack and visit Lake Louise on my way to Jasper National Park. In the meantime there were a couple other parks in the Canadian Rockies I wanted to visit.

Glacier & Mt Revelstoke National Parks

There’s lots of construction on TC-1, widening to four lanes, upgrading brake-check pullouts and easing some curves. But the highway department does a good job to keep traffic flowing. Once entering Canada’s Glacier National Park the road passes through several snow sheds in the tight valley where avalanches are common. This busy, crucial road must cost a fortune to maintain.

Glacier NP (7404)
Glacier NP (7404)

Several trailheads originate near the visitor center atop Rogers Pass. I wasn’t hiking though. Even if a stabbing muscle pull in my chest (not my heart!) hadn’t been giving me grief I wouldn’t have headed down any trail in the area. They are serious about grizzly bears around here! Warning signs are everywhere; trail permits often require groups of at least four; and bear spray is sold at every store and kiosk. It’s implied, “if you head out you’ll likely encounter a black or grizzly bear.” Even in established RV campgrounds you’re required to store BBQ grills and any cooking gear inside when not in use. The owner of Whitetooth Brewing in Golden shared with me a video of a guy this week who was inside a tent while a grizzly was knocking on the tent’s door. Impressive.

The wonderful road continues through the mountains to Mount Revelstoke National Park, home to a unique inland/mountain rainforest. Meadows in the Sky Parkway which departs from the town of Revelstoke is a twisty climb to the near-summit alive with wildflowers and views of so many mountain peaks. I like how the park guide puts it: Mount Revelstoke is rainforest, snowforest, no forest. Perfect!

I stopped into Mt Begbie Brewing in Revelstoke for a quick flight of their good beers before heading back 148 kilometers (89 miles) across Rogers Pass and home to Golden. Famished by the time I got back to camp I broke out the grill. I dry rubbed a sirloin with finely ground Columbian coffee, garlic powder and freshly cracked black pepper then grilled it Pittsburgh style, accompanied by spears of zucchini drizzled with olive oil and simply sprinkled with Himalayan sea salt & black pepper. It was excellent!

Domesticating

Originally I planned to drive back up to Banff for a day but decided I could incorporate a visit to Lake Louise on my way to Jasper. And since Synko had gotten pretty dang dusty the past couple weeks I spent the day mostly hanging at camp giving the rig a good inside cleaning and reordering of a jumbled pantry and cabinet contents. Road construction back in Montana had taken its toll on things… Enjoyed an incredible bison burger at The Bear’s Den for lunch then grilled some chicken, marinated in mesquite spices for din-din. The chicken would be lunch/dinner for a few days. It was kinda nice to have a lay day.

Jasper National Park

The drive back up the Kicking Horse Valley from Golden to Lake Louise takes about an hour. When I arrived at the Lake Louise overflow parking lot to gab the shuttle into town I learned the wait was two hours. While disappointed to not visit this iconic town I wasn’t hanging around for two hours. I had a long drive on Icefields Parkway ahead of me.

Jasper NP Icefield Parkway – Athabasca Glacier (7444)
Jasper NP Icefield Parkway – Athabasca Glacier (7444)

Icefields Parkway is an awesome 3-4 hour drive through forests, meadows, along rivers, over passes and, of course, by glaciers! There were a gazillion people at Icefields Discovery Center which made it virtually impossible to park my rig anywhere close to the making a glacier hike possible, especially since that stupid chest muscle was still a little sore. I’ve hiked across small glaciers before so I didn’t consider this a significant loss. After checking out the discovery center (and declining a >$100 glacier tour) I saddled up Synko again and headed down the pass into the Jasper region.

I had to continue about an hour east of Jasper to get a campsite (still too many people out here!) but enroute to the town of Hinton, Alberta I encountered at least 8-10 bighorn sheep on the road. So very cool to see these beautiful animals!

A quick overnight and then in the morning I was retracing the 144 miles across Icefields Parkway to TC-1. I followed TC-1 a short distance back east to Highway 93 which leads west and south through Kootenay National Park and down through congested Radium Hot Springs toward the town of Cranbrook and checked into a brand new KOA which, inarguably, has the best utility setups I’ve ever encountered. Sometimes it’s the simple things…

I’d reached the westernmost point of my trip in Spokane and in Hinton had gone as far north as I’d travel this time. I was looking forward to the last third of this trip, joining Julie & Brad in South Dakota and Wyoming. But first, I needed to revisit St Mary, MT to reclaim my shotgun and vino. I was also looking forward to taking in the Many Glaciers section of our Glacier National Park! More about that later. Cheers—and happy birthday, Julie!