May - June 2011 | Back to Archives

Taming the Wild

Mix rousing adventures with prime rib and cushy beds in Glacier National Park

BY BILL FINK | PHOTO BY DENNIS COELLO

Above two medicine lake in Glacier National Park, amid towering pines and looming cliffs, our group leaves the main trail to ascend a steep, slippery slope beside the twists and turns of the Twin Falls cascade. When we reach the falls' summit, out of breath, we stop for a moment to admire the sweeping views around us. We're awestruck by a panoramic display of millions of years of glacial activity: streams tumbling into the deeply carved lake surrounded by jagged peaks thousands of feet above, rock faces stained with sweeping striated veins of twisted stone, all topped with extant glaciers.

But then someone notices our guide, Joe, is missing. We stand dumbfounded in a small clearing until he suddenly pops out from behind some bushes with a silver platter covered in peanut bags and PowerBars. So begins another day of our curious mix of adventure and comfort, combining breathtaking conquests with cookie breaks.

More than 100 years after its opening in northwest Montana, Glacier National Park encompasses more than a million acres of wilderness filled with grizzly bears, raging rapids, and vertigo-inspiring mountain paths. I like adventure, but I also wanted service with it.

Hearing that Austin-Lehman Adventures had just resurrected its trip to Glacier spoke to the explorer in me, and the company's promise of expert guides to show me the top spots, supply good food and bikes for the road, and wrangle scenic lodging every night sold me.

On the first morning of this six-day, five-night Glacier National Park tour, I arrive at the Amtrak station in Whitefish, Mont., to gather with the tour group of 10, mostly weekend-warrior type active professionals in their 40s looking for a new challenge during the day, and soft beds at night. During our week in Glacier, we'll experience both drama and comfort in our three main activities of hiking, biking, and rafting.

Hiking: Grizzlies and Parfaits
The grizzly is king in Glacier, home to more than 300 of the wildly unpredictable 500-plus-pound beasts. For the most part, they leave people alone; however, our targeted trail is closed due to grizzly bears having been spotted the day before. The alternate trail has a freshly posted bright-orange sign saying it's also closed due to "bear activity." So when the park ranger says we're going for "Plan C" and retreating from the active grizzly area, I don't object.

Over the six days, our four main hikes lead us across a couple dozen miles of terrain, ranging from a wet forest reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest to high alpine meadows like in the Rockies. We hike in sunshine and downpour, through boot-sucking mud, across slick river stones, and up thigh-burning slopes. And every time we arrive, tired but triumphant, at the shores of an alpine lake, sure enough Joe sneaks away to return armed with a silver platter carrying a new treat, perhaps a dozen parfaits, carefully mixed yogurt, nuts, and fruit dishes for each of the hikers. While we laugh at the excessive service, we relax in the real luxury of having knowledgeable guides leading us on a sensible yet vigorous journey without the need to use our pepper spray.

Biking: Climbing Tigers and Soaring Eagles
The hiking, while serious, is really just a warm-up for the trip's true challenge, a biking assault up the famed "Going to the Sun Road." Our ride covers 40 miles - 19 miles of it uphill, with a 2,200-foot elevation gain to the summit of Logan Pass. Amid roadside mist at 7 a.m., our guide Laurie offers a face-saving choice: "If your bikes get tired any time on the trip, feel free to put them on the support van, and we'll give you both a ride to the top."

Our group's gung-ho couple from Texas storms up first, a two-person peloton that alternately drafts and bickers about speed. Next, three lifelong buddies celebrating their upcoming 50th birthdays launch their bikes with disclaimers about bum knees, bad backs, and lack of training. One guy's 16-year-old son sprints ahead with youthful exuberance, but quickly falls behind gasping for breath, cursing dad for the aerobic vacation.

Most of our bikers claw all the way to the Logan Pass rest stop at approximately 6,600 feet without needing a van ride. We find our reward downhill. As we coast down the steep, winding highway, the morning fog lifts to reveal dramatic glacier-carved valleys, towering waterfalls, and sheer cliffs plummeting only a few feet to our left. We feel like soaring eagles dive-bombing into the countryside, our long uphill slog a distant memory.

At the end of our day's journey, we roll exhausted into the historic Lake McDonald Lodge, an old-school parks-service chalet with antler-encrusted walls and a massive fireplace. Legs quivering from our long day's journey, we feel like we've truly earned a hearty meal and a long night's rest, scoffing at the car-carried tourists around us.

Rafting: White Waters and Red Blood
Our final adventure is a half-day rafting trip down the Flathead River. But the river is anything but flat, with sections of roaring rapids boasting nicknames like "Jaws" and "Bonecrusher."

Local guides greet us with jokes, then turn serious to help fit our life jackets and talk safety. We're reassured to learn the river is rated only a Class III (out of five) in terms of severity of rapids, but the guides caution us to follow orders about paddling to steer our raft safely.

Surprisingly, the trip starts with a peaceful float downriver, the boats bobbing along slowly enough that we can dive in for a bracing swim in the chilly water. Once back in the boats, we hear the thudding roar of upcoming rapids from around a bend. Our guide, suddenly serious, shouts out rowing orders like we're Viking conscripts: "Front left! All back! Stop!" Despite our novice ability, our guide positions our raft perfectly to ride a high-powered blast of water between two massive boulders. We're showered with spray, the raft buckling and bouncing like a rodeo steer.

The river widens, the rapids quiet, and we hoot and shake our paddles in the air to celebrate another triumph of the trip. But the raft ahead of us has stopped at a sandbar to deal with the wounded. The 16-year-old has been clipped in the head with a paddle. He's upbeat and only slightly bloodied, but the incident reminds us that even soft adventures can come with some hard knocks.

Toasting and Tale-telling
At our final stop, the luxury Grouse Mountain Lodge, our group retires from hiking and recovers through massages, a visit to the outdoor Jacuzzi, or a drink at the fire pit, and golf reservations for the next day.

Our celebratory feast, in a private dining room, features mouthwatering prime rib, gut-busting jokes from our shared adventure, and a guest appearance by a Native American tribal elder, who has come to visit with his own tales from the Glacier National Park area, where he was born. "Any person can tell a story," he says, "but it is only nature that shows you the meaning of these stories." We nod, sagely, feeling after our vigorous trek through the wilds of Glacier that we truly understand the might of nature. Then we look around to see if Joe has brought dessert.

 

Glacier Essentials

Park Tours
Austin-Lehman Adventures (800-575-1540, austinlehman.com) has scheduled four Glacier trips from July through August 2011. The six-day, five-night trip costs $2,698 per person (double occupancy), including lodging, activities, ground transport, and most meals.

Getting There
Fly one of several carriers' regularly scheduled routes into Glacier Park International Airport, outside of Whitefish, Mont. For pre- and post-trip lodging, consider the Best Western Rocky Mountain Lodge (800-862-2569, rockymtnlodge.com) or Pine Lodge (800-305-7463, thepinelodge.com).

Dining
Whitefish, the gateway to Glacier, is an atmospheric western town with a combination of old-school saloons and trendy bistros. Be sure to try the family-run Great Northern Bar & Grill for its burgers and beer on the patio, and some live music afterward (406-862-2816, greatnorthernbar.com). If you're in the mood for upscale "Mountain Mexican" food, check out Pescado Blanco (406-862-3290, pescadoblanco.com).

Weather
It's easy to experience all four seasons in a single day in Glacier, so dress in layers and be prepared to trek in heat, rain, wind, and fog. In July and August, park temperatures range from the upper 40s to about 80.

 




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