Glacier National Park - Avalanche Lake

Melting in Glacier National Park

By Foot, Roving, , , , ,

At the back-country Granite Park Chalet in Glacier National Park, resting hikers mutter as an ominous plume of smoke builds on the horizon. One of the park’s three wildfires has just “exploded”, racing to consume thousands of acres.


Though far from the flames, we still feel the heat, especially as we descend the last four miles from the chalet to the Loop. A leafless forest shows the effects of the 2003 Trapper Creek Fire, and the colorful new underbrush provides no shade. With temperatures climbing into the upper 90s, heat pounds down from the sun above and radiates from the dust below.

Warmth is a pertinent theme in a park whose glaciers will be entirely gone within the next 15 years, with newer estimates predicting their disappearance by 2020.  A steep offshoot of the Highline Trail takes us to an overlook of Grinnell Glacier, one of only 26 remaining glaciers of the 150 surveyed in 1850.   Today, it’s mostly dissolved into an icy blue lake.

Grinnel Glacier 1940


This land is no stranger to change.  My cousin remarks that we’re walking in “a geologist’s wet dream”.  We run our fingers over ripples in ancient sea beds and count the layers of sedimentary minerals, built up in the Proterozoic Era 1600 million years ago and thrust up into the Rocky Mountains 70 million years ago.  During the great ice age 2 million years past, massive glaciers sculpted the landscape into dramatic cirques and horns and aretes.  Today’s smaller glaciers were only formed 6000 years ago and gained strength in the recent Little Ice Age.

That’s not to say that change isn’t sad, especially since we are witnessing a melt likely expedited by humans.  It may stress alpine wildlife and cause more intense wildfire seasons.  The glacier-ground rock flour in the lakes will settle and the lakes will fade to blander shades of blue. While still pretty, Glacier will lose some of its tourist-friendly pizazz.

Glacier-National-Park-Highline-Trail (2) Glacier-National-Park-Highline-Trail (1)

In short, don’t go to Glacier for the glaciers.  Do go for a protected mountain area made accessible by the Going-to-the-Sun Road that carries crowds straight to expansive views and wildlife.  We share hiking trails with ground squirrels, hoary marmots, grouse, white-tail deer, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep.

Though I use the word “share” loosely. We come across one ram who plants himself in the middle of the trail and won’t let anyone pass. Which is perhaps a defiant act born of necessity, since at noon the path to Hidden Lake is so crowded that a bighorn becomes separated from his herd and can’t find a gap in the stream of people to rejoin them.

Later, a ram stumbles into the Logan Pass parking lot and freezes only a few feet from where we’re walking. Bighorn is no misnomer, I think nervously.  A truck pulls up and honks, causing the sheep to shy. “***hole!” we shout, but it turns out to be a ranger doing his job. He jumps out of the truck and shakes a plastic bag at the ram, trying to scare him away.  The sheep clatters through the parked cars and walks off down the road.

Glacier-National-Park-Deer Glacier-National-Park-Hoary-Marmot

In the end, I’m not in northern Montana for the glaciers or wildlife, but for family. Relatives converge on a Glacier Raft Company cabin from all over: Hawaii, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Florida, and Spain.  They’re an interesting crew, swapping tales about everything from being mugged in Greece to close calls as a cross-country drug mule.  We cook communal dinners and lay out looking up at the Perseids Meteor Shower in the vaguely smoky night sky.


While I love hanging out with my family in small groups, eighteen people partying in a three-bedroom cabin short-circuits my senses.  This makes one of my favorite experiences sneaking into the park at sunset with just my mom.  We are practically the only ones heading in instead of out.

The short 4 mile RT trail to Avalanche Lake heads over boardwalks through cedars and alongside a stream that carved smooth whorls in pink stone.  My mom jumps at every sound, convinced a bear stalks us in the dusk.

I wade into the shallow lake at the end, sinking into the cool, soft, spa-like mud all the way to my knees.

Just as I’m starting to relax, a peal of thunder rolls out from the darkening clouds.  I yank my shoes back on over grimy feet and we run as the deluge of rain strikes, more thunder spurring us on like the crack of a whip.  I can’t stop laughing – the tree cover keeps off most of the rain but it still drips through, landing in puffs of dust on the parched earth and flowing down my summer clothes in a blessed coolness.

Glacier-National-Park-Avalanche-Lake (1) Glacier-National-Park-Avalanche-Lake (2)

There is no such respite from the heat on my return journey.  At a rest stop in Eastern Washington, I’m lolling in the shade when I hear a frantic shout: “Jesse! Stop! Come back!”

A collie trots past me, following a barbed wire fence along the highway with stoic determination.  His owner follows, clutching the leash of another collie and losing ground. Before I can fully process the scene, I find myself sprinting through the 100 degree desert, leaping over sagebrush and trying to outrace the escapee without startling him.  At last, I jump in front of the dog and throw my arms wide.

I must make a terrifying sight, flushed and gasping, since Jesse immediately turns tail and lets me herd him back along the fence. His owner clips on a leash and thanks me.  “You saved his life!  The last time this happened he was attacked by coyotes.”

I wonder what kind of life I’ve confined Jesse to, since he’s so eager to flee it.

Then it’s back into my vehicle where the overworked AC has given up.  I drive the rest of the way home with my shirt off, sweaty back sticking to the seat, dreaming of great icy glaciers.


  • Highline Loop Trail Guide
    11.8 miles one-way, mostly downhill starting across the street from Logan Pass visitor’s center and catching the park shuttle back at The Loop. Make sure to take the steep side spur 6.9 miles in to an overlook of Grinnell Glacier and the even shorter offshoot to the Granite Park Chalet.
  • Hidden Lake Overlook Trail Guide
    2.7 miles round trip, extremely popular and easy hike starting from Logan Pass visitor’s center.
  • Avalanche Lake Trail Guide
    4.5 miles round trip, moderate, starting from the Trail of the Cedars trailhead near Lake McDonald.
  • Glacier Raft Co Lodging
    Comfortable cabins in West Glacier close to the entrance of the park. We didn’t take advantage of the rafting offers that come with staying here since the water was too low for rapids.

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