Montana 2014 Part 2 – Day 91 – Hiking the Highline Trail: This one is for my Dad

Monday August 18, 2014

My father has been excited about my visit to Glacier since I first told him about the Montana tour early this year. When I was home in Indiana, he described the trips he and my mom took there in 1999 and 2004. He has lots of funny stories and happy memories. Glacier is his favourite national park. He loves the scenery, the trails and the ever-present potential to see a mammal that could take your life. My mother is less enthusiastic about Glacier. Her memories are that it rains a lot, is cold, and there is an ever-present potential to be killed by a large mammal, particularly when your husband hikes far ahead of you.

The one item from my Dad’s Glacier bucket list that he has yet to accomplish is hiking the Highline Trail. Several parts of this trail stay iced-in until mid-late July each year, and it has always been too snowy and icy to hike when he was there. He doesn’t have the technical experience to go with cramp-ons, etc. So he is very excited for me that I should be able to hike the trail.

mom and dad
My parents on a trail in Indiana in 2005 back when they were still able to put down massive mileage totals each year. I wish I could share Glacier with them. I particularly wish I could do the Highline Trail with my Dad.

The Highline Trail is one of the most popular in the park. Most hikers start the trail at Logan Pass and hike down to the Loop via Granite Park Chalet, a distance of about 11 miles. The trail is carved out of the steep valley walls high above the Going-to-the-Sun Road for the first three or four miles. Then it crosses the Haystack Chute. Snow lingers here late into the year (there is still a patch to cross when I hike it) and is the source of many of the avalanches that close the road. After crossing the Chute and climbing steeply to the base of Haystack Butte, the trail carves along the valley wall, below the crest of the Continental Divide the rest of the way to the Granite Park Chalet. The terrain on the trail gets gentler again closer to the Chalet as it crosses lava pillows and meadows.

I’m very excited to do the trail – but mostly I’m doing it for my Dad. Its popularity means it is a little more peopled than I prefer, but at least it means I’m less likely to have a bear encounter than if I did another trail. But, this one is for my Dad, and he is in the forefront of my thoughts all day today. I absorb the immense scale and grandeur for him. I hold him close in my heart and imagine him taking a million pictures of where we’ve been and where we’re going. I try to take a bunch of these shots for him. For me, my goals for the day are to find fossil stromatolites in the Helena formation, the line of the Purcell sill in the Helena formation, the transition zone from glaciated to unglaciated rock on the valley walls, and a good long look at the Grinnell Glacier from above.

The Highline Trail is one of the most popular in the park. Most people start at Logan Pass and hike down to the Loop one-way (11 miles). My plan is to hike out and back from the pass to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook (about 15 miles). I’m doing this trail for my Dad – he’s always wanted to do it, but has always been here too early in the season.
You can see the transition between glacially carved lower slopes and the rocky, ice-wedged cliffs above on this mountain, too.

I set off at a rapid pace. There may be storms this afternoon, and my goal is to get out to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook and back to Logan Pass on this same trail, a distance of 15-16 miles, before the storms arrive. My plan is to book it out there, and hike back more leisurely. I’m still coughing up errant phlegm from the asthma adventure last week, but my lungs are pretty good. And I’m in good shape 4,000 miles into a bike tour. I’m almost constantly overtaking groups of hikers who are gasping along on flat bits ‘because of the elevation’ as their little bear bells jingle. I find it humorous that these are probably all the same people who blew by me in cars on the way up to Avalanche Campground, and now I’m blowing back by them on the trail. I love the feeling of pushing myself physically and working hard for the miles. If I went any faster, I’d be jogging. After feeling so incapacitated last week, it’s a joy to feel healthy and alive.

The cliffs at the start of the Highline Trail. If you look on the hillside ahead you can see where the valley walls are fairly smooth and transition into rockier, ice-wedged cliffs. This is the line of the glaciers that carved the valley. It shows how deep/high the glaciers were in this valley.
Cliffs on the Highline Trail. This is where a poor guy earlier this summer met a grizzly going the opposite direction. The guy got his 15 minutes of fame when he had to clamber down behind a rock and a person up near the pass switchback caught it all on camera. You can read about that incident here:

The scenery really is grand and immense. How privileged am I to be out here hiking this today! It is good, good stuff. A chick could get hooked on this sort of stuff. Who am I kidding? I already am. I’m long gone down the road of addiction to self-propelled travel.

Highline Trail weaving along through the Helena (Siyeh) formation.
The trail, in places, is not for those afraid of heights.
Spectacular example of a hanging valley over there with the thin line of Bird Woman Falls below.
Fog down in the Lake McDonald Valley.

The hike up to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook branches off from the Highline Trail within view of the Granite Park Chalet. The trail doubles back and climbs very steeply to the crest of the Continental Divide. I have to take a few breaks on this bit. Based on the look of a young-ish chick coming back down, the slippery, steep rock is no more fun going that way! As I climb, I watch bits of fog, which have detached and risen from the valleys, go flying through the gap above in wisps of white-out cloud. Once to the top, I find some shelter behind a rock and eat my lunch while enjoying views down over the lake and glacier. It is phenomenal to think about the forces and time scales at work here! You can even see little dots down on the rocks a couple thousand feet below that are people enjoying their lunch by the lake.

The trail up to the glacier overlook is quite steep. The fog is blowing through the gap up there in high-speed wisps.
Looking down on the sculpted landscape at Grinnell Glacier.
A different angle view down onto Grinnell Lake and Glacier. The ridge where I am taking the photo from is the crest of the Continental Divide.
Lunch is cut short by this very aggressive guy. I had visions of letting him crawl into my hand, which he would have done if I let him, then throwing him off the cliff.

I then discover a problem with hiking in the direction opposite to the dominant direction of travel on a very popular trail: you have to keep stepping off to let people by. Sometimes I feel like I’m standing more than walking! You also keep getting the question from exhausted and unfit people, “How far is it to the Chalet”? Some poor hikers thought it was going to be a downhill hike the whole way. Some of the people are ones I passed earlier who can’t believe I’m not hiking down to the Loop and that I’m already on my way back. One woman wants to know what my fitness plan is so she can do it, too. I laugh and say, “Well, I’ve been riding a bicycle with 35 pounds of gear on it nearly every day for about six hours a day for the past three months”. She looks at me, looks at her husband, and says, “Okay, I’m not doing that.”

Highline Trail heading south.
The trail curving around the rock. Most of the trail passes through the Helena (Siyeh) formation. Keep your eye out for the circular stromatolite fossils which can be found in a couple spots along the trail.
The guys want to bask by the little pond for a bit. I let them indulge while I have a snack and enjoy the view.
Best buddies – they’ve done more than 12,000 miles squished together in a handlebar bag.

Once I get back to Haystack Butte, most people’s turn-around point if not doing the whole trail, I start overtaking people on their way back to Logan Pass, even though my pace is much more leisurely now. The entire day, I’ve been getting lots of comments about Verne and Kermit. They ride in my Camelbak when not in the handlebar bag. Lots of people have said, “Love your mascots”, “Look she has a little turtle” and such, as I’ve passed them. Finally, one lady says, as I go by, “So you have to tell me the story about your little friends.” I reply, “Well, they go with me on my travels so I can take pictures of them, instead of me. They’ve done about 12,000 miles of bicycle touring with me and hundreds of miles of hiking so far. They’ve got a pretty big following among my family and friends. People get upset if I don’t do Verne and Kermit updates. My husband loves turtles and accidently won this little guy out of a crane game for me, and I’m a big fan of Kermit and the Muppets”. She thinks that is just so cool, and thinks it must be the greatest conversation starter. She loves it so much, she has to take my picture. It makes me laugh that the guys and I are now stored on someone’s computer in the ‘vacation pics’ folder!

Heading back toward Haystack Butte.
The Garden Wall, which the trail follows for some time, is aptly named. There is a profusion of growth and lots of colour through this section.
Some places might be a little sketchy on a day with high winds.
Going-to-the-Sun Road down below – we’ll be heading up and over tomorrow.
The mountain goats like to hang out here just below Logan Pass.

I don’t have to wait for a shuttle at Logan Pass, so I’m cruising back down to the campground fairly quickly. I can see why that trail is on so many peoples’ bucket lists. I have purposely not tried to describe the grandeur – it is too incredible for words, really, and it is just something you have to see for yourself. Or see for your Dad. Love you Dad, this one’s for you.

Leave a Reply