Glacier Trip: Avalanche Lake, Lake McDonald Lodge

Note: This is the 3rd in a series of entries in my Glacier National Park travel photo journal. If this is new to you, please start with the first one for the full story of our adventures.

September 8th. Ate breakfast in camp, then packed all the food back in the van. I forgot to mention, you never leave food out; bears are everywhere, it seems, and not hesitant to dine on human cuisine. The rangers are very strict about this. They have metal food boxes installed by the camp sites, or you can do as we did–move all the food back into the van each night. (In bear country, camping out of a van has profound advantages over tents.) We then proceeded to Apgar Village for more information and firewood.

Our explorations began in this region of the park, from the West Entrance (bottom left) through Avalanche Lake (upper right). A very small chunk of the full 1600 square miles of the park.

We had registered our camp site at Apgar only for last night. Our original plan was to camp this evening at Avalanche, up Going-to-the-Sun Road, where we were to spend the day. But it turned out the Avalanche camp site was closed for the season, so we came back to Apgar and got a new camp site. A lot of things begin to close in early September; they begin shutting down various park services, roads, lodges and restaurants in stages. We didn’t know this, and there were more than a few very cool experiences we very nearly missed. Something to keep in mind if you visit.

The famous Going-to-the-Sun Road bisects the park east-west. We took it eastbound from Apgar along Lake McDonald to our destination, the Avalanche trailhead. We intended to do plenty of hiking in Glacier, and Avalanche is a nice little starter trail.

The parking situation at the trailhead was not good. It pays to get there early, way early. Luckily I found a spot that didn’t quite look like one, so it was still unoccupied. I took the risk. Every other space had a car, and unparked people were hovering over them, waiting.

We sprayed on sunscreen, put on our hydration packs and hiking boots and took off. (Great hiking boots are crucial out there, they make all the difference.) The hike to Avalanche Lake and back is about 6 miles round trip; short, not all that crazy steep and, well, gorgeous. I think the photos speak for themselves.

Not far beyond the Avalanche trailhead. (Click to enlarge.)

(Note. I’ve posted all photos in their original resolution; to see it, just right-click on the photo and save it. If you see one you like, take it; it may make a nice desktop wallpaper or screen saver image.)

Just behind Heather.

The trail to Avalanche Lake cuts through coniferous forest, and parallels a small stream, part of which cuts deep into the rock.

Mountain streams, formed by melting glaciers, feed into the lake.

The trail is easily accessible and popular. We saw plenty of people on it, but it wasn’t overly crowded. About half way up the trail, I saw a big group of people heading down. Apparently there’d been a bear sighting. I was told it was a black bear, one of the two kinds found in the park; the other being grizzly. Of the two, most would prefer encountering a black bear, if they had to choose. Grizzlies can be nasty. I talked to several of the returning people about what happened. Apparently, they just saw it on the trail as they were heading up, so they just turned back. The bear followed them for some distance; that must have been invigorating.

The news provoked most of the hikers to return back to the trailhead, but I wasn’t willing to do that unless I had to. I didn’t know much about bear country dos and don’ts, but I wondered if this was an overreaction. This was our very first hike, and I didn’t want to call it off on account of someone seeing a bear. I had bear spray with me–out there, you’d be nuts not to–and bears really aren’t that aggressive if you don’t surprise them. And the prospect of seeing a wild bear was exciting. So we kept going. I scanned the forest all around me, looking for bear shapes or motions. I kept the bear spray very handy. My senses were alert, almost tingling. Knowing a huge, potentially lethal animal is out there, somewhere, really brought the hike alive for me.

The mountains behind Avalanche Lake.

Up the trail we went, surrounded by superb natural beauty. Soon we saw Avalanche Lake. It has the clearest water we’d ever seen, a rich cyan. We lounged at the lake for about fifteen minutes, cooling bare feet in the icy-cold glacier melt water, then returned down the trail.

Avalanche Lake.

As it turned out, we saw no bear. Someone said it had bounded off the trail and gone down the hillside. I stopped and searched for several minutes, but apparently, it was gone. And that was the closest I got to a bear on the entire trip. Despite all the extensive precautions–bear-proof food boxes and dumpsters, nagging rangers, bears spray, bells–we saw not even one. And they’re supposed to be all over the place in Glacier. I guess we were just unlucky. Or lucky. Or both.

We hopped back in the van and drove back to Lake McDonald Lodge, which we’d passed on the drive up to Avalanche. There we had an early dinner. I had an emu burger for the first time. It was a little dry. Afterwards we explored the rocky shore of Lake McDonald nearby.

We then drove back to our camp site, unloaded the van, set up camp and built a big fire and had some drinks. The stars were bright that night, and the air was so cool and clean.

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