Our travel day from Lakeside MT to West Glacier was a short one – only 58 miles. We used the time in the morning to “do chores” and then left at the last second of mandatory check-out time. By taking our time and stopping for fuel, we delayed our arrival until 1:00p. That gave us the entire afternoon for checking things out!
Our first stop with the Toad was to back-track about 10 miles to Hungry Horse Dam and it was another “good find”. Proposed in 1944 with a primary purpose of flood control throughout the Columbia River Valley, it was built in four years (1948-1952) and became active on October 1, 1952, when President Truman (having arrived by train) flipped the switch.
An arch dam construction, similar to Hoover Dam in Arizona, is arched on the “front side” that you see but is vertical on the “back side” which provides tremendous strength for the structure.
This location was the fourth in consideration, but ultimately selected because of its natural terrain as well as lack of any migratory fish, which would have been negatively impacted by the structure. It is the first of 20 dams in the Columbia River Basin. The reservoir it created is 500′ deep and 120 miles of shoreline.
Hungry Horse Dam is 2,115′ across at the top, which is more than twice as wide as Hoover Dam, but only 330′ at the bottom (1/3 the width of Hoover Dam). It is 564′ high, which is 200′ shorter than Hoover.
While primarily built for flood control, it is a hydroelectric dam. The three generators produce 320 megawatts of power, sufficient for 270K homes. The reservoir was also targeted to provide irrigation to the area, but in reality, that is a very small component of its value.
The “morning glory” release spillway is used to release excess water from the reservoir should winter runoff and rain exceed the safe level for the dam. It is the largest of its size, dropping the water 490′ to the bottom of the dam/reservoir floor.
The release spillway has never been needed, thankfully, but was tested twice – 1954 & 1991. In the 1954 testing, they did an “uncontrolled” release by immediately lowering the ring as far as possible. It dropped the level of the reservoir by 12′ in 20 minutes! They learned NOT to do that again!
As is often the case, these huge man-made structures dim in comparison to the natural beauty and miracles around us! We had arrived just before 3:00p, which was the last tour of the day – and we were the only two on the tour, led by Abby (a first year worker for the Department of Reclamation at Hungry Horse) and Hayley (an intern and a recent high school graduate). It made for a very enjoyable and memorable experience. As is often the case, the discussions turn to where are you from, how long have you been here, etc. Abby is originally from Fredericksburg VA but had just graduated from the University of Colorado, Boulder in elementary education. When we shared that we were from Western North Carolina, she asked, “do you know where Brevard is?” She attended Rockbrook Camp from 2012-2017!
We eagerly anticipated our whitewater rafting trip the following day – and we were not disappointed! We gently floated and then were challenged down the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. We had seven in our raft – and a “helms-woman” that was from St. Petersburg FL! The downside, of course, is taking a camera is high risk, so we will have to just keep those experiences captured in our mind’s eye. The photo op from the rafting company just didn’t make sense to us!
The next day, as we did at Yellowstone, we headed out early to leverage our single day on the western side of Glacier National Park. We had purchased a Scenic Boat Tour of Lake McDonald that included one-day access to Going To The Sun Road. The GTTSR limited-access system controls all access on the west side of Glacier – and, unfortunately, it is a confusing and frustrating experience for most. Our boat trip was at 1:30p, but we were able to get in the Park by 7:00a and made good use of our time!
We went as far up the Going to the Sun Road as possible. It was July 9 and the road has not yet been open for the season. They anticipated July 13, having missed the first two targets (June 28 & July 4) as the amount of snow to be cleared was immense.
A very popular hiking destination, we elected to do Trails of the Cedars and let the crowds have Avalanche Lake!
We headed back down and stopped at John Lake Trailhead, which we thoroughly enjoyed. One thing that surprised us was the presence of mosquitoes! At home, we rarely see a mosquito above 2,800′ of elevation (Dry Dock is above that), so having them swarm around us as we hiked was such a surprise at 3,500+’ – and locals say they survive at 8,000′. A very hearty breed of mosquito indeed.
Unlike Avalanche, there were few people on the trail. It was a lovely and fairly gentle walk through lush forests and then the magic of McDonald Falls and Sacred Dancing Cascade. We had started the day at 520F – the sun was a warm partner in our journey!
Lake McDonald Lodge, built in 1913 on the eastern shore of Lake McDonald, is a hub for many activities, so it was buzzing the people. And people watching and discovering is always a joy for us. Originally attracted to the vehicle because of the name “Mountain Mamas”, we admired (though did not participate) in the ingenuity of the bride or her friends!
When we were with Brother Roger in Coeur d’Alene, he was telling me about the white bus and how much he had enjoyed the “Going to the Sun Road” on the white bus. So, of course, I go to the internet to investigate arranging a white bus. Boy, was I surprised when the White Bus is RED! We laughed and laughed, because I had no idea that White Motor Company was the manufacturer of the vehicle, not the color!
The distinctive touring car, and its predecessors, have been taking passengers through Glacier National Park since 1914. By the mid-1990’s Ford had acquired the automobile division of White, and in 1999, they had all the vehicles shipped back to Detroit to be totally refurnished. There are a total of 33 of these red touring cars scurrying around Glacier. Unfortunately, with Logan Pass still not open, we were unable to “Do the Road” as Brother Roger had suggested. These busses, in different colors, can also be found at Yellowstone (yellow in color) and the Gettysburg National Battlefield.
Lake McDonald and a scenic cruise was a highlight of the day – especially for Captain Bill, who is always happy when he’s on the water. We were aboard DeSmet, a wooden vessel built in 1928. It is the largest of the Glacier Park Boat Company’s fleet holding 64 passengers. A family-owned & operated business within the Park, they have been providing tours since 1938. DeSmet went through a major overhaul last winter and received a brand new Bowman 2 stroke 65 HP engine. She sliced through the calm waters in beautiful style.
Lake McDonald is 10 miles long and averages 1 mile wide with an average depth of 460′ and covers 6,823 acres. Home to numerous species of fish including cutthroat, rainbow, bull and lake trout, whitefish and kokanee salmon (landlocked sockeye salmon). Duncan McDonald, a trapper, was attempting to get to Canada with his load of furs and was being chased by the Kootenai Indians. He diverted his route and discovered the lake as a hiding and resting place. Carving his name deep into the tree, the lake took on his name to the “whiteman” but not to the Kootenai, we’re sure.
The western slope of the lake was devastated by the Howe Ridge Fire in 2018. Originally thought to be a “small fire with little threat to people or structures” that was ignited by lightning on August 11, a change in the winds brought it swiftly down the western slope. It ignited nine propane tanks located at the Frank Kelly settlement and was said to be quite a monumental fireworks display. The guests of Lake McDonald Lodge and everyone along the west side of Going to the Sun Road were evacuated beginning at 1:00a on that horrible night. The fire burned 14,522 acres until the first snow on September 28, which finally extinguished the frames. Thirteen residences and 14 other structures were destroyed, but no loss of life.
In everyone’s life, a little rain must fall – and our last day at Glacier proved it once again. We had decided to make the hour-plus drive around the southern border of Glacier to explore the eastern slopes. We started early and stopped at Izaak Walton Inn in Essex MT for a delightful breakfast.
Built in 1939 by the railroad, it housed maintenance personnel and railroaders between trains. The Inn boasted 29 rooms and 10 bathrooms along with a kitchen/dining room and social rooms for relaxation during off hours.
Essex and the Izaak Walton Inn are still a stop on the Amtrak route and it is the only one remaining as a “flag stop”. That means if the flag is out (for arriving or departing passengers), the train stops. Otherwise, it keeps going!
The current owners have expanded the hotel to include cabooses and railcars as “luxury” accommodations, as well as a lovely restaurant. Being almost equidistant from East and West Glacier, it is a haven for summer tourists and skiers (both downhill & cross-country) in the winter.
On through the rain and clouds, we arrived at East Glacier to find an entirely different feel to the same National Park. The east side is much more pastoral and the controls for access are much less evident.
Our first stop was Running Eagle Falls. Running Eagle lived long before Europeans found this beautiful land in the 1700’s. Her life story was handed down generation to generation by Pikuni elders. She was the only young woman to fast for four days – to suffer, dream, pray and “find her medicine.” She was a leader and a warrior of the Blackfeet Tribe and the only woman given a man’s name in the tribe. This sacred waterfall was named to honor Pitamakan or Running Eagle.
To get closer to the Falls, we traversed a sweet little bridge. We took note of its construction as a thought for Dry Dock!
An off-short of the trail to Running Eagle Falls was an enjoyable Nature Trail.
Two Medicine Lake is the southern most center of East Glacier. By now, the temperature had continued to drop and the winds increased. We stopped in the General Store, just for fun and warmth – and had a delightful chat with Albert. He, his wife and son are all working at Two Medicine this summer, from Central Florida. He shared that after they arrived in mid-May to prepare to open June 1 for the season, they had a snowfall that produced drifts that exceeded the height of the windows in the building. Now, he had seen snow before – but his 16-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter were not so happy in their camper! Daughter is too young to work this year, so she cares for their two dogs. The store will close August 31 and they will head to North Dakota to harvest sugar beets before journeying back to Florida via Texas. He’s a service mechanic for Hyundai – and the dealer told him he has a job whenever he comes back!
We had, all along, an ulterior motive for stopping at the Izaak Walton Inn for breakfast. We had plans to meet a new friend and her sister for dinner there. Lesley Valerio, from our days at Wolf Lodge Campground in Coeur d’Alene, and sister Gretchen had arrived in the Glacier area that day and we all wanted to connect, if only for a few hours.
We arrived back a bit ahead of our planned rendezvous, allowing us to savor the environment and a well-drawn draft beer while we watched the trains go by. Trains, as we have said many times, are so endearing to us and at least Admiral Jann never tires of seeing and hearing them!
After a delightful dinner with Lesley and Gretchen, we headed back to Contessa to prepare for our travel day the next morning. Next stop – Canadian Rockies!