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Conquering Glacier: Part I

Conquering Glacier: Part I

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I've been so close so many times before, but Glacier was always just out of reach. I like to call it the National Park on the way to nowhere. You don't just pass through it, you have to make it your destination and that's just what I did this past August. On October 29th, join me as I take you through the most amazing 92.5 miles Glacier National Park has to offer.


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Sometimes you just end up in the right place at the right time. I had spent five terms over two and a half years working with satellite data and geographic information systems through the NASA DEVELOP Program and it finally paid off. DEVELOP’s program adviser at Ames Research Center (click to zoom) had just acquired funding for a research project looking to implement many of the new technologies I had the opportunity to work with while at DEVELOP. The DEVELOP project (click to check out our 5 minute video) is one of the reasons I had decided to commit another full year to the program, but certainly not the sole reason I stayed at Ames. There’s a level of commitment and passion that Ames has that fit my goals and values. It was an environment that really gave people opportunities to succeed. As a result, I had the opportunity to acquire the skills and earn a position working under the funding our adviser had just acquired. It also turned out that funding was not going to be available till after the end of my final term with DEVELOP allowing for a perfect transition into my new position with a week off. So where does one go with one week to chase adventure?


For me, the answer to that question was simple. Glacier National Park. I could have gone a number of places, but I insisted that it had to be too far away for me to be able to visit it over a weekend, but it needed to be close enough that I wasn’t spending half the trip trying to get to my destination. Having been to Olympic National ParkYellowstone National ParkCraters of the Moon National Monuement, and all over Utah, I had always been just out of reach of making a visit to Glacier. You can usually string a couple of National Parks together, but the reality is Glacier is on the way to nowhere. You have to make it your destination, and to be honest, the park is entirely worthy of that kind of commitment.


Transportation & Points of Interest

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As I previously mentioned, the people I worked with at DEVELOP were awesome. Which in turn means everyone wanted our project to be as much of a success as possible, so we all worked a LOT of hours. As a result, I didn’t even give my week off a second thought until the last minute. As 7 days was not enough time to take my time driving up there, I looked into the costs of what it would take to maximize my time up at Glacier. Flying is easily the quickest way to get up there, but what about getting around? I only need transportation the first day and last day right? Well, through a number of web searches that combined suggestions from TripAdvisor and National Geographic, as well as a number of other websites, I decided my points of interest were…

1) Dawson Pass, located in the less visited Two Medicine section of the park
2) Gunsight Pass, a favorite of many
3) Swiftcurrent Pass to Many Glacierwith the intent to have a one day layover to visit a number of lakes/glaciers in the area before hiking back to the main valley (I later found out staying two nights in Many Glacier's backpacking site is not an option).

This left 2 days of travel and 5 days on the trail. The National Park offers a free shuttle that travels along the Going to the Sun Road, so options 2 and 3 seemed reasonable. However, I would have to hire a shuttle to get to and from the park, as well as one to get to and from Dawson Pass, and Dawson Pass was definitely near the top of my list. On top of all that, I had no idea what campsites I was going to be able to stay at. Fortunately, Glacier has a fantastic system that allows walk up reservations for those unable to make super advance reservations so I was likely to have sites to camp at, but I had no idea where in the park they would be. This made the decision easy to look into a rental car for the week, yay being older than 25! It also meant that if worst came to worst, I’d at least have a car to sleep in.

Let the Journey Begin: SJC to MSO

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I ended up getting a Delta flight out of San Jose, CA to Missoula, MT with a layover in Salt Lake City, UT. My rental was through National. They gave me a free upgrade to a Subaru Forester upon arrival. After a quick stop in Missoula to get fuel and food, I was on my way up to Glacier! Missoula wasn’t the closest airport to the park, but the rental and flight to Missoula was cheaper. The difference was a 2.5 hour drive instead of a 30 minute drive to West Glacier, but the extra two hours wasn’t going to make much of a difference on my travel days. I was still going to have to sleep in car the first night.


The previous night I stayed in the Subaru just outside the entrance to Two Medicine. I figured it’d be less crowded compared to Apgar, the main visitor center for the park (later on I would find out this was the right move). The next morning there were 3 of us at the Two Medicine Ranger Station. The ranger that worked there was entirely prepared to help us get those sites ASAP. He provided us with a list of the available backcountry campsites a few minutes before 8 am (when they could open). Of course none of the sites I wanted were available the first or second night, but this was partially expected. Here are some things to know about walk up reservations for the Glacier backcountry…

 1) Available sites can be reserved the night of your arrival or the following night.


2) Once you establish your first night in the back country, you can backpack to any other available campsite as long as there is a trail that connects the two campsites. The number of days you can string together is not limited. Typically, once you get past the first two (maybe three) nights, most of the campsites open up.


3) Let the ranger know what locations you are trying to visit. They may be able to overbook you at certain campsites.


Campsite Dash!

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I first attempted to acquire the last site near Granite Park Chalet, unfortunately, by the time we got into the computer system, the site was taken. This left zero sites available in the regions of the park I had planned to visit (a good sign that I’m targeting good locations). Since I planned to do Dawson Pass in one day, this was not an issue. I moved onto the second night. Fifty Mountain Campground had 3 sites available and was the closest to anything I wanted to see so I had the ranger quick grab that site. Looking beyond Fifty Mountain, Granite Park Chalet, Many Glacier, and all the sites along the route to Belly River were booked. It was looking like I might have to do a layover day only one night in until the ranger had remembered I was trying to get into Many Glacier. That’s one of the sites they can overbook. He made the phone call to make sure that was an option and night 4 (2nd consecutive in the backcountry) was booked. Since they don’t allow two nights of backcountry camping at Many Glacier, this positioned me to make a run at Gunsight Pass on night 5, getting me back to the car by the final night. I did it! I hit all three of my main targets….I just had to double the mileage I was hoping to do. No biggie…

Final itinerary:
Day 1: Dawson Pass Day Hike (19.5 miles)
Day 2: Backpack to Fifty Mountain (12 miles)
Day 3: Backpack to Many Glacier (19.5 miles)
Day 4: Backpack to Gunsight (20 miles)
Day 5: Backpack to Lake McDonald to catch final shuttle back to Packers Roost (13.5 miles)
Day 6: We’ll see how I feel…


*At the conclusion of the Conquering Glacier series I'll collect all the routes and provide novice and intermediate suggestions for those that want to do less hiking (e.g. I have two suggestions for Dawson Pass. One is approximately 15 miles in length for 1 or 2 days. The other focuses on a 3 day assault of Dawson Pass.)

Dawson-Pitamakin Pass Loop Preview

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Two Medicine to Dawson Pass:
Distance One-Way: 3.7-6.7 miles (9.4-13.4 miles RT)
Elevation Gain: 2,450 ft (7598 ft)
Comments: This route gets you to the pass for one of the most amazing views in the park. Take the boat across the lake to shave off 3 miles (possibly 6 miles RT).


Dawson Pass – Pitamakin Pass Loop:
Distance: 18.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 2935 ft (8099 ft)
Comment: For the physically fit, this can be done in a single day. This route can also utilize the boat to shave off 3 miles dropping the total down to 15.8 miles. Those looking to take 2-3 days to do this loop can stay at No Name Lake and/or Old Man Lake.

**Other small detours can be added that can increase mileage to 21+ miles.


Conquering Glacier: Part II

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The route is planned, the sites are scheduled, and I'm getting ready to take my first step of what will be 92.5 miles throughout Glacier National Park. Come back on November 5th to catch part 2 of the Conquering Glacier series where I'll convince you to make this less visited portion of the park a must see on your next visit.

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