Saturday, July 5, 2014

Early Season Backpacking in Glacier National Park

We've been running into a lot of this on the trip:

SNOW.  Or pretty white flowers, if I'm trying to fool myself.

What to do when the backcountry is still snowed in?  Hike up a few valleys and avoid the mountain passes.

We spent four days in Glacier's backcountry, hiking up and down the Belly and Mokowanis Rivers in the northeastern corner of the park on the Canadian border.  It's not as spectacular as the mountain passes, but it's a scenic early season option.  And yes, early July is still early season.

Day 1:  Hike from Chief Mountain Trailhead to Glenn Lake (Foot)

From Chief Mountain, the trail descends down to the Belly River, passing through lots of beautiful meadows.  If you're early in the season, the meadows will shine with wildflowers!

At the Belly River Ranger's Station, we headed west toward Cosley Lake.

It was hot, so I hiked all day in Chacos with a pack.  I felt that the hiking was very moderate, with ~700 feet descent and maybe ~250 feet ascent over the 10.3 miles.  Met a few people in camp who were knackered and carrying packs twice the size of mine.  Lighten up, people!

downside: dusty, dirty digits
We made camp in a designated spot by the lake.

Immediately, all our gear was swarmed with moths, seeking out salt from our sweat.

Day 2:  Up the Mokowanis to Margaret Lake, Down the Mokowanis to Cosley Lake

The next day, we packed up camp and stashed our gear to day hike farther up the valley.  This part of the trip was super pretty.

A pretty double waterfall past Mokowanis Lake camp is the official end of the trail, but we saw another alpine lake hiding behind it on the map.

TRAIL BETA to MARGARET LAKE:  at the base of the lower waterfall, continue on a herd path to the left of the falls.  Follow the creek bed past the cascades.  Keep the creek on your right as you walk up it, even though a large cairn is on the other side.

When the cascades peter out, continue up a tributary creek to the left of the main creek.  There are a few different ways to go (we took one going up and another coming down).  It shouldn't seem too difficult at this point.

You are aiming for a series of ledges to the left of the upper waterfall.  The herd path from the tributary creek passes in front of a very steep wall by trending right, then climbs a series of ledges with some running water.  Then you pop out at the upper left side of the upper waterfall!

drying out the boots and gaiters
We had lunch up here, enjoying the sunshine after the previous evening's rain.

margaret lake panorama

On our way down, we spotted a herd of bighorn sheep on the other side of the river.  They were just as curious about us as we were about them!!

losing their winter coats. kind of scruffy... like dave!
We retraced our steps down the Mokowanis to Glenn Lake, picked up our gear, and hiked a few more miles down valley to Cosley Lake camp.  Dave had a full river bath, but it was WAY too cold for me, so I stuck with the washcloth wipe-down.

minimizing trail grossness
Dave got some smoked oysters from another camper.  It's amazing how he attracts food.  Another camper shared some cinnamon whiskey, which is The New Official Tedeyan Backcountry Adult Beverage.

"hmmm not bad"
The water in Cosley Lake was oh-so-still, like a perfect natural mirror.

Day 3:  Cosley Lake to Elizabeth Lake + Side Trips

I had been thinking about the start to Day 3 since a few miles into Day 1, when I looked closely at the map and realized that I would have to ford a river.  As in, put my pack on my head and walk through the water.

I don't do water.  And in summer, I don't pack with an extra set of clothes.

But I also didn't want to walk a bunch of miles out of the way.  Sooo...  down to the skivvies.

uhhhh that looks cold
And here we go.

this photo intentionally vague to protect my modesty but included here as PROOF that i voluntarily went in the water
It wasn't that bad.

We dropped our gear at the foot of Elizabeth Lake.  

more alpine pretty
While I was eating lunch, a huge black bug landed on my face.  WTF?!  I brushed it off and it landed in my peanut butter wrap.  Argh.

I knocked it off my wrap and scraped off the PB.  Little jerk, ruining my lunch.

chocolate covered raisins, yoghurt covered pretzels, peanut butter covered bugs
Ever heard of the threat "I'll cover you in honey and leave you in the woods for the bears?"  No?  Whatever.  Dave wondered what would happen if the ground squirrels noticed the bug.


Dave's laugh was priceless, but I felt bad for the bug.

From Elizabeth Lake, you can continue up the valley to Helen Lake, or you can take a side trip up to Red Gap Pass.  Red Gap is one of the lowest elevation passes in the park and one of the first to open to non-technical travel.

We walked about halfway up the hill toward the pass, until the heat overtook me and I started getting sick.

elizabeth lake panorama
Back down at camp, we cooled off in the lake.

A few campers were fly fishing.  The fish were jumping like water on a hot skillet.  There certainly were enough bugs!!

evening light
Day 4:  Elizabeth Lake to Chief Mountain

We decided to beat the heat with an early start the next morning.  The hike ends with a 700 foot climb on a moderate, switchbacked trail - totally fine by our standards - but certainly more pleasant in the cool of morning.

belly river ranger station 
And then we were done!

belly river
Other random comments about backpacking these parts...

Many of the camps in these valleys have resident deer who like to steal sweaty hiking shirts, stinky trail runners, and expensive cameras with sweaty straps (no, really).  They'll also eat the grass where you pee.  They want your salt, so watch your belongings, pee on rocks, and keep a clean camp.

Hanging food bags is a valid wildlife (bear) management strategy in Glacier, which is SO COOL!  No bear can (subtract 2.74 lbs from pack)!  Can't do that in the Adirondacks!

this actually works here!
On the downside, the bears here are grizzlies, as well as black bears.  They don't take kindly to being startled, and they're even touchier when cubs are around.  We made ourselves hoarse with whooping, hollering, and singing to announce our presence.

Glacier gets TONS OMG SO MANY backpackers.  The park management has done a great job of mitigating the impacts of so many people tromping through the backcountry.  You can only camp in designated sites, and the designated sites have pit toilets to prevent the fields from being dug up for cat holes, plus poles or wires for hanging food to prevent damage to trees.  The designated camps also have designated food prep areas where people tend to congregate.  For "wilderness," it can be a very social atmosphere, if you want it to be.

cooking at cosley lake
I read somewhere, "Which is the prettiest backcountry camp in Glacier? All of them!" and I would tend to agree.  If you're planning a trip and don't get the exact camp you want, don't stress.  They're all great.

I ran into so many people on their first backpacking trip, or even their first time camping/ sleeping in the woods.  Very impressive!  This seems to be a bucket list type of place for people.  We were able to give some encouragement and suggestions to some.  Gave these nice (hitch)hikers a ride from Chief Mountain back to Many Glacier - was the first trip for one - hope he comes back for many more.

P.S.  I'm writing this trip report ~2ish weeks after the trip.  At the time, I wasn't super impressed with the trip.  None of the trail days were hard, and the secenry was very pretty but not spectacular.  I'm glad I write these trip reports, though, because this was a great experience in retrospect.

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