Friday, March 9, 2018

Mount Goats in Glacier National Park

Located in Montana at the border with Canada, Glacier National Park is a 1,583 square mile wilderness area with jagged peaks and icy, glacier fed rivers.  Established in 1910, Glacier National Park is home to breath taking mountain peaks, amazing wildlife and abundant wildflowers.  During the summer of 2017 my family planned a multi-week camping trip that would take us through Glacier National Park and on to Banff National Park in Canada.  Often referred to as the Crown of the Continent, this ecosystem encompasses the the Continental Divide from Montana into the southern Canadian Rockies of Alberta and British Columbia.

Although we have visited Yellowstone National Park several times, we never drove further north to visit Glacier or Banff.  We initially planned to travel to Yellowstone during 2017, but quickly had the thought that we should extend our plans further north and explore some of the most amazing National Parks that we hadn't yet stepped foot in.  We set aside time, bid for vacations from work and set dates at the end of July to beginning of August.

With camper in tow, we traveled nearly 3,000 miles through some of the most amazing scenery in the world.  I have grown up in Colorado and love the mountains and high altitude playground that we have in our backyard.  The amazing thing to me is how visiting the Rocky Mountains in another part of the country can look so similar, yet so different.  Mount Rainier National Park was another place that I remarked how the forest surrounding a 14er could be so much different than the 14ers I have climbed in Colorado.

Mountain Goat Nanny, Glacier National Park, Montana.
In some ways, Glacier National Park seemed similar to parts of Colorado.  Here on the edge of Canada, however, the peaks seemed more jagged and imposing.  They edges of the mountains were steep and cut off, evidence of glacier activity carving out the valleys that we were now driving through.  Something that I found slightly amusing was the fact that many of the peaks, despite their impressive appearance, were relatively low in altitude in comparison to many of the mountains of Colorado.  

We rode one of the park service shuttles up to Logan Pass, which sits at a somewhat low elevation of 6,647 feet above sea level.  While that elevation barely encompasses the foothills around Denver, walking out from the visitor center at Logan's Pass, you are most certainly in an alpine environment.  In fact, the highest peak in Glacier National Park is Mount Cleveland at 10,479 feet.  That is about the elevation I would expect to start seeing the alpine environment back here in Colorado, but further north at the edge of Montana and Canada you see glaciers and barren slopes.  

One of my favorite animals to see at higher elevations are Mountain Goats.  Though not very big, these majestic white mammals are best suited to cold, harsh climates.  It is very rare to see them at lower elevations, so most people only ever see wild Mountain Goats when visiting remote and high altitude parks like Glacier, Banff and Rocky Mountain National Park.  

Around Logan's Pass and while hiking to Hidden Lake, we were rewarded with dozens of mountain goat sightings, including several goat kids with their mother, or nanny.  Several of these goats were accustomed to the thousands of tourists that regularly travel the trails along Going to the Sun Road.  We had several, like the one pictured above, that seemed to be perfectly comfortable walking within a few yards of the trails and the people on those trails.  I was able to get the photo above and the one below with a simple Canon 15-85mm IS lens.  Using a wider angle lens and walking so close by these amazing animals gave me the opportunity to get some awesome photos with dramatic views in the background.
Mountain Goat Nanny and Kid, Glacier National Park
If you decide to head up to Logan's Pass, I would definitely recommend either going very early, or taking the park service shuttles to get up there.  Because we were traveling with a camper and had driven to the park with a full size pick-up, we were too long to drive up to the visitor center our selves.  Although I would have liked getting to the top earlier for better light, it was nice riding on the shuttle and being able to actually look at the view as we drove up.  Once at the top we noticed that even by 8 or 9 in the morning there were lines of cars trying to get into the parking lot and find a parking spot.  It was certainly nice not having to worry about that, but I have a feeling that if you were arriving at the top in time to photograph the sunrise, you would probably not have any issues finding a spot.

There were also throngs of people milling around and through the visitor center.  Each time a shuttle or tour car would come by, even more people would pile out.  We decided to walk to Hidden Lake, which is about a 5.4 mile round trip from the visitor center.  Most of the hike is fairly easy, but the last part of the trail drops steeply to the lake, which of course, means an initial steep climb back up to the top of the ridge on the way back.  The trail starts out with a number of boardwalks and wide paths designed to keep visitors off of the fragile alpine ecosystem.  We were luck enough to spot a Grizzly Bear on the edge of treeline a few hundred yards from the trail.

As we continued along the trail, those large groups of tourists started to get thinner.  Few people were able, willing or interested in actually traveling the length of the trail to Hidden Lake.  I would estimate that somewhere around 1/4 to 1/2 of the people on the beginning of the trail made it to the overlook over Hidden Lake.  Maybe 1/10th or less of the people actually continued on pass the overlook to actually hike down to the lake.

When we made it down to the lake it was clear, with a turquoise hue and very cold.  We say on the edge of the bank with our feet in the water for awhile, enjoying the beautiful landscape surrounding us.  A few, more adventurous hikers were jumping into the lake, but few swam far in the frigid water.  We had a Billy (male mountain goat), materialize out of the trees behind us and lay down under a tree a mere 30 yards away.

After awhile we decided we should probably head back.  We were getting close to the time that the park shuttles stopped operating for the day and we certainly didn't want to get left at Logan's Pass with no way to get back down.  The start of the climb up from Hidden Lake was hot and steep.  We powered through it and were able to enjoy the much easier stroll from the overlook back to the parking lot.  The hike to Hidden lake is a popular hike, but we still enjoyed getting out away from some of the bigger crowds and seeing a part of the park that was just out of reach from the roads and parking lots.  

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