December 8, 2014

Off the boardwalk, finally, in Yellowstone Park


After running The Rut 50K at Big Sky Resort back in September - I know, I'm behind - we continued south to Yellowstone for our first stay in the national park.

We've been to Yellowstone several times - usually for a long weekend in winter or just driving through at other times of the year, staying in gateway towns. Considering how much we get out, it's odd that we've never really spent time there. Driving from home, after all, takes a similar amount of time as getting to the east side of Glacier National Park.

This time, we camped inside the park four nights and spent one rainy night in a hotel in Cooke City. And for the first time aside from our winter visits, we left the park roads and boardwalks behind for a few trails.

Our trip began in the Madison and Old Faithful areas, then moved to Norris and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, then the Lamar Valley before we drove home. Along the way, we saw some of the park's most popular sights and occasionally escaped the crowds.

Day 1

Monument Geyser Basin


Having raced the day before, we started with a short hike to Monument Geyser Basin after setting up our campsite at Madison.

The trail began along the west bank of the Gibbon River and continued north upstream for a fairly level 1/2 mile. Turning back southwest, we climbed steeply for a little more than 1/2 a mile, taking in views north across forest and meadows to the mountains at the south end of the Gallatin Range.


At the top of the trail, we turned west and continued a short distance to the small geyser basin at about 1 1/2 miles. After viewing the steam rising from rocks and cones, we followed the route back to the trailhead.

Here are more photos from Monument Geyser Basin.

Distance: About 3 miles out and back.

Trailhead: Drive about 8 2/3 miles northeast of Madison.. The trail starts at a turnout on the west side of the road, just south of a bridge over the Gibbon River.

Ice Lake and Little Gibbon Falls


From the Ice Lake trailhead, we followed the level trail west past the south end of the lake to a junction with the Howard Eaton Trail.

Here, we turned north and hiked along the west shore of the lake, past campsites then into the forest to a log crossing over the narrow Gibbon River. Once across, we continued uphill north to a junction with the Wolf Lake Trail at about 2 1/3 miles and turned southeast.


We followed the Wolf Lake Trail to a second log crossing, just above Little Gibbon Falls, then uphill a short distance to good views of the falls through the trees.

After taking in the falls, we continued down the trail through Virginia Meadows to the road. Back on pavement, we hiked about 1/2 mile southwest to the Ice Lake trailhead.

View more photos of Ice Lake and Little Gibbon Falls.

Distance: About a 4 1/2-miles loop.

Trailhead: The Ice Lake trailhead is about 3 1/2 miles east of Norris.

Day 2

Lower Geyser Basin


On the way to our hikes for the day, we drove through the Lower Geyser Basin and on a loop back to Firehole Lake.

From the road between Madison and Old Faithful, we could see across the meadow to a bison herd and the steaming geysers.


On the east side of the road, we turned onto the Firehole Lake Drive and wound 3 1/3 miles north, stopping for short walks at Great Fountain Geyser and Firehole Lake. The road was in the news last summer when it was briefly closed after heat from underground melted and damaged the surface.

Here are more photos from Lower Geyser Basin and Firehole Lake.

Directions: The Firehole Lake Drive begins about 9 miles south of Madison.

Lone Star Geyser


We chose the hike to Lone Star Geyser because it's known to have one of the more regular and predictable eruptions in the park, about every three hours. Unfortunately, we missed the main eruption, but did see a smaller one.


From the trailhead, we followed the nearly level old road south along the Firehole River, crossing it on a bridge after about 2/3 mile. The road continued along the river south, curving east to a junction with the Spring Creek Trail then west again to the geyser at 2 1/2 miles.

After watching a smaller eruption, we decided to hike a bit farther and turn back in time to see the larger one. The main eruption came early, however, and we just missed it. Rather than wait, we backtracked to the trailhead.

View more photos from Lone Star Geyser.

Distance: About 5 miles out and back.

Trailhead: The Lone Star Geyser trailhead is about 3 3/4 miles southeast of Old Faithful.

Biscuit Basin and Mystic Falls


We finished our second day with a hike up to the Biscuit Basin overlook and back to Mystic Falls.


We started west on the boardwalk, past the colorful, steaming pools of water, and continued onto the trail that led to the Little Firehole River. After a short distance, we turned uphill at a junction, switchbacking north to an overlook of the basin.

From the overlook, we continued west to a junction with the Fairy Creek Trail. Here, we switchbacked south down to a viewpoint for Mystic Falls, where the Little Firehole cascades out of a narrow canyon to the rocks below.


From the viewpoint, we followed the river east, back to the junction then the boardwalk.

Here are more photos from Biscuit Basin and Mystic Falls.

Distance: About 3 miles round trip with a large loop beyond the boardwalk.

Trailhead: Biscuit Basin is about 2 1/2 miles north of Old Faithful.

Day 3

Mount Washburn


After moving to the Norris campground the next morning, we started with an uphill hike to the top of 10,243-foot Mount Washburn.

The summit is most easily reached from two trailheads - Dunraven Pass and Chittenden Road. We chose the route from Dunraven Pass because it was about 3/4 mile longer.

The trail - an old road - started steeply to the east, with Dunraven Peak behind us. After about 2/3 mile, we turned north and began a series of long switchbacks up through and eventually above the forest. At the southern switchbacks, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone could be seen cutting through the plateau below; on the northern ones, the lookout could be seen atop Mount Washburn.


After the last switchback at about 2 1/2 miles, we followed a rocky ridge to a junction with the Chittenden Road and Washurn Spurt Trail. From here, we hiked the last short 1/3-mile loop up to the lookout.

The lookout is more modern than those we've been to on mountaintops around home, with an indoor observation room, an outdoor viewing platform, living space for a ranger and numerous antennas. (And full cellphone service.) It's also a fairly popular destination, and we saw numerous people at the top.


After a brief stop to take in the 360-degree view, we started down. On the way back, we hiked a short distance out the singletrack Washburn Spur, where we briefly found solitude. The trail continued down to the Grand Canyon, and will have to be fully explored on a future visit.

View more photos from Mount Washburn.

Distance: About 7 miles out and back to the top of Mount Washburn. We added about 1/2 mile on the Washburn Spur Trail.

Trailhead: The Dunraven Pass trailhead is about 4 3/4 miles north of Canyon Village.

Norris Geyser Basin


On the way back to camp that afternoon, we stopped at Norris to take in the geyser basin - one of the most surreal parts of the park with it's high concentration of thermal features. We briefly stopped at Norris in June, but were on a tight schedule so didn't see the entire area.

Two loops round the Porcelain Basin and Back Basin on trail and boardwalk. We started with the Porcelain Basin, highlighted by the jetlike Porcelain Springs, the Colloidal Pool and regularly erupting Constant Geyser.


The walk around the Back Basin Was highlighted by the Vixen Geyser and the bubbling Green Dragon Spring. Cistern Spring, which is connected to Steamboat Geyser, was blue when we visited in June. After an eruption of Steamboat two weeks earlier, however, it appeared muddy.


Here are more photos from Norris Geyser Basin.

Distance: Two loop trails totaling about 2 miles. A couple of short spurs can add about 1/4 mile.

Trailhead: At Norris.

Day 4

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone


The next day, we went to one of the most popular parts of the park - the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone - but we got far enough off the pavement to leave the crowd behind.

We started at Artist Point, taking in the view of the Lower Falls from the south rim of the canyon, and hiked to Sublime Point, about 1 3/4 miles to the northeast. Along the way, sunlight reached deeper into the canyon - highlighting the reds, oranges, yellows and whites of its walls - and eventually to the Yellowstone River at the bottom.


About 3/4 mile back along the rim, we turned south past Lily Pad Lake and continued about 1/3 mile to the Ribbon Lake Trail. After about 1 2/3 miles northeast, we reached the top of Silver Cord Cascade and Ribbon Lake, stopping on the shore for a break.


After hiking back southwest to Lily Pad Lake, we continued about 3/4 mile past a thermal area, taking in a bubbling mud pool and stopping again for a break along the edge of Clear Lake. At a junction a short distance past Clear Lake, we turned west are hiked to the Uncle Tom's Point trailhead, crossing the South Rim Drive.


After taking in closer views of Upper and Lower Falls, we followed the paved South Rim Trail about a mile back the Artist Point trailhead.

View more photos from the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Distance: About an 8 1/2-mile loop with a couple of out-and-back segments.

Trailhead: The Artist Point trailhead is about 2 1/3 miles south of Canyon, then 1 2/3 miles northeast on South Rim Drive.

Mud Volcano, LeHardys Rapids and the Hayden Valley


After hiking the Grand Canyon, we spent the rest of the afternoon driving south toward Fishing Bridge and Yellowstone Lake, stopping along the way for short walks at Mud Volcano and LeHardys Rapids and to take in the view in the Hayden Valley.


At Mud Volcano, a 2/3-mile trail loops up and back down the hillside, passing several steaming, bubbling and roiling hydrothermal features, including the namesake volcano, Churning Cauldron and Black Dragon's Cauldron.

South of Mud Volcano, we stopped at LeHardys Rapids after seeing some colorful trees on the opposite side of the Yellowstone River. Along the short riverside trail, we also found waterfowl paddling among the rapids and rocks.


On the way back to Canyon Village and the Norris campground, we pulled off the road in the broad, grassy Hayden Valley as storm clouds rolled above a herd of bison.

Here are more photos from Mud Volcano, LeHardys Rapids and the Hayden Valley.

Distance: The Mud Volcano loop is 2/3 of a mile. The walk along the river at LeHardys Rapids is about 1/4 mile out and back.

Trailhead: Mud Volcano is 10 miles south and of Canyon Village. LeHardys Rapids is about 3 miles farther south. The Hayden Valley is between the Grand Canyon and Mud Volcano.

Day 5

Blacktail Plateau, Lamar Valley and Soda Butte Creek


When we woke the next morning, it was obvious the day would be rainy. Based on the forecast, we had already reserved a hotel room in Cooke City, outside the northeast corner of the park, so we decided to drive that way - if the weather cleared enough, we would find a hike; if not, at least it would be scenic.

Over Dunraven Pass and west of Tower Junction, we began our sightseeing on the 7-mile, one-way Blacktail Plateau Drive. As rain fell, we saw a couple of bison and across the plateau to the Gallatin Range.

East of Tower Junction, we drove back and forth along park's north road, through the Lamar Valley and up the Soda Butte Creek drainage. We saw plenty of bison, as well as golden cottonwoods and aspens.


At one point, a break in the clouds seemed as if it would allow us to hike up toward Specimen Ridge through a petrified forest, but when we arrived at the trailhead rangers were temporarily closing the area due to an elk carcass that was attracting wolves and a grizzly bear. A ranger recommended returning the next day, when the carcass likely would be gone.


We drove back toward Cooke City, where we thought we could get in a couple of short hikes to waterfalls just outside the park, but thunder and lightning forced us to head for the hotel.

View more photos from the Blacktail Plateau, Lamar Valley and Soda Butte Creek.

Directions: The Blacktail Plateau Drive begins about 9 miles west of Tower Junction. The Lamar Valley is east of Tower Junction, between Slough Creek and Soda Butte Creek. Soda Butte Creek run between the northeast entrance to the park and the Lamar Valley.

Day 6

Petrified Forest


The next morning, we drove back west into the park and stopped to hike up to the Petrified Forest, before going home - the warning signs about the elk carcass having been removed.

We started south up the sage-covered hill in thick fog. Eventually, we could see the outlines of a couple of other people and bison beyond them. We stopped to talk briefly, then continued uphill, curving off the trail to keep the bison at a safe distance.

Up through a stand of trees, we turned west at a junction and soon found our first petrified stump. Hiking higher, we found several more stumps - their intricate rings crumbling in small, angular pieces - before reaching an open ridgeline.


After the fog cleared, we looped east then back north to the trail we came up, then went off through the sage to the west again to avoid the bison. After making our way around the herd, which had moved closer to the trailhead and begun to cross the road, we reached our car and departed for home.

Here are more photos from the Petrified Forest.

Distance: About 3 1/2 miles out and back, with a short loop up to Specimen Ridge. We hiked only about 1 mile up.

Trailhead: The Petrified Forest trail begins at a turnout about 5 miles east of Tower Junction and 3/4 miles west of the road leading to the Slough Creek campground, near a bridge over the Lamar River.

October 26, 2014

Running to new heights at The Rut

Over Lone Peak

After starting summer with my longest run to date, I finished the season with my highest and hardest run: The Rut 50K, with 11,000 feet of elevation gain over the 11,166-foot summit of Lone Peak.

Organized by Missoula's Runner's Edge store, the race took place in mid-September at Big Sky Resort, between Bozeman and Yellowstone National Park. Being the final ultramarathon in the 2014 Skyrunner World Series, some of the biggest names in the sport were there: Kilian Jornet, Sage Canaday, Emelie Forsberg, Kasie Enman and others.  (I can now add "skyrunner" to my bio, apparently; for a primer, see this Trail Runner magazine article and video.)

We arrived the day before the 50K and settled into the condo we rented before visiting with friends at the start/finish area, attending my race meeting and Jen's aid station meeting, then eating dinner. On the way back to the condo to go to bed, I noticed the light atop Lone Peak appeared as if it were a star.

Start here, run up there, then back

Early the next morning, we walked to the start and Jen departed with her aid station crew. After watching the first wave of runners get underway at 6 a.m., it was my turn five minutes later.

Starting to a pre-dawn elk bugle, the second wave of streaming headlamps made its way gradually uphill. I soon found myself among a handful of familiar voices in as we slowly made our way uphill in a line. At the top of the first climb near 2 miles, the sun had risen enough to see the footing.

The next 5 1/2 miles were downhill to the Madison Village, eventually running on trails and ramps between rows of houses. Turning uphill again, the course steadily rose for 5 miles past the first aid station at 7 1/2 miles and into the forest.

After another couple of short downhill stretches, I left the trees at about 14 miles and arrived at the first major climb for the day: Headwaters Ridge. Here, the course left the trail and scrambled steeply up the scree, rising a little more than 1,000 feet in a little less than 3/4 mile. At the top, a quick descent using a via ferrata line led to the narrow ridgeline and a fast run down 1,700 feet over 1 1/2 miles and into the forest. A couple of patches of snow left from a storm earlier in the week clung to the rocks, and careful footing was required as a misstep could send you tumbling downhill.

Follow the little yellow flags

Over then next 2 miles, the course climbed again into a sun-baked basin where the 18-mile aid station sat at the Lone Peak tram dock. Here, a small crew of Missoulians - including Jen - helped with drop bags, food and fluids. After refilling my hydration pack and eating some, I headed toward the start of Bonecrusher Ridge. In the end, Jen and the others would make it to the finish line before me.

A mile back down from the tram dock then slightly uphill, the course turned onto Bonecrusher Ridge, the highest climb of the day. In about 1 1/3 miles, the trail climbed 2,000 feet out of the trees and up the hot, rocky ridge - the tram dock directly below a nearly vertical drop to the side. On the steepest section near the top, it wasn't unusual to be on all fours in places. At the summit, it was nice to take another short break at the aid station to eat and catch my breath before continuing.

The view from the top of 11,000-foot Lone Peak

The 2,500-foot descent over the next 1 3/4 miles was the roughest part of the race on my the feet as the course took us over plate-sized slabs of rock that would shift underfoot on occasion. At the bottom, I stopped briefly to empty my shoes of gravel as well.

Back in the trees, the trail rain along the border of Big Sky Resort and the exclusive Yellowstone Club, dropping for a mile then climbing almost half a mile past one of the large homes. After two more miles of downhill, the course reached thicker forest and a 1-mile climb up muddy trails and over mountain bike ramps, occasionally aided by ropes. Near 27 1/2 miles, the trail reached the final aid station.

From there, the last 4 1/2 miles of the course were mostly downhill, crossing ski slopes, then rising slightly through the forest again. After passing behind one of the resort's large hotels, I arrived at the finish, covering about 32 miles in 9 hours.

A few post-race notes:

Slowest mile: Mile 21, with 1,424 feet of elevation gain, took 50:13. It also likely included some time at the Lone Peak aid station.

Fastest mile: Mile 4 - in the first downhill section - took 8:32.

Food: The spread wasn't as expansive as at the Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Trail Run (see notes), but the mini dill pickles atop Lone Peak were delicious.

They meant well: As a spectator, what you say might not be interpreted how you intend. "You're almost there - just around the corner," said one spectator. To me, those words of encouragement indicate the finish is nearby, not a ridge called Bonecrusher. "Just eight little hills to go," said another spectator in the last couple of miles. Nothing was "little" at that point.

The "medal": This being The Rut, the elk hide finisher's "medal" was a unique touch - just have to keep my dog from getting it.

Elk hide, of course - it's The Rut

All in all, it was a great experience - and a fun way to start a weeklong vacation to Yellowstone National Park. And while it was a difficult race, I'll probably return!

October 12, 2014

Celebrating wilderness with solitude in Rattlesnake


I spent a lot of time in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness this past summer, so it was only fitting that when we chose a place to hike two days before the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act it was there.

While the Rattlesnake is Missoula's backyard, accessed by most from the main trailhead on the north edge of the city, we hiked to Boulder Lake from the more remote West Fork of Gold Creek to the northeast and saw only two other people all day. The rough drive into the trailhead likely accounts for the decreased use - it's the only time the traction control light in our SUV has turned on on a dry road.


Once there, we hiked north on Trail 333 through an old burn, the Mineral Peak lookout visible to the south through the remaining snags and tall stalks of fireweed. The trail rose and fell gradually, crossed a couple of creeks, then entered forest just before a junction at 2 1/2 miles.

Continuing on Trail 333 to the northwest, we climbed a burned ridge, passing the wilderness boundary at 3 3/4 miles. From there, the trail continued up to a saddle below 7,293-foot Boulder Point. A short distance higher, we hiked a 1/4-mile side trail to the point, where we found the remains of lookout and views 800 feet down to the lake, north to the Mission Mountains and northeast the the Swan Range.


After returning to Trail 333, we continued up into the forest and a junction at 5 miles. Here, we followed the final steep switchbacks down 1 mile along a creek and past a marshy area, then down more to the lake shore and the point looming to the west.


After eating some food and letting the dogs swim and sniff around some moose tracks, we climbed up from the lake and hiked back to our car.

In Missoula, we truly are lucky to have treasures such as the Rattlesnake Wilderness - and the Selway-Bitterroot, Mission Mountains and Bob Marshall - so close.

Here are more photos from Boulder Lake.

Distance: 12 1/2 miles round trip, including 1/2 to Boulder Point and back.

Trailhead: From Bonner, drive about 8 3/4 miles east on Montana Highway 200, then turn northwest on Gold Creek Road, also known as Forest Road 126, and follow it 6 miles. Turn northwest on Forest Road 2103 and continue 5 miles, then turn onto Forest Road 4323 and continue 5 rough miles northwest to the West Fork Gold Creek trailhead.

October 11, 2014

Late-summer loop to Rattlesnake's Mosquito Peak

Mosquito Peak in the Rattlesnake Wilderness

Back in August, a friend and I set out early one morning on what would be our final long run before The Rut 50K, a 32-mile loop to Mosquito Peak in the Rattlesnake Wilderness.

The route took us up the Spring Gulch and down Rattlesnake Creek - trails we had covered earlier in the summer - linking them with the Wrangle Creek drainage. We had never been beyond Stuart Peak in the wilderness and were there on a smoky morning earlier in the summer; despite clouds overhead, we were rewarded this time with better views of the surrounding peaks.

Starting from the main trailhead for the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, we followed Trail 515 half a mile north then turned up Spring Gulch on Trail 517. We followed this trail north as it rose above Spring Creek and switchbacked to the wilderness boundary at about 7 3/4 miles. From there, we continued as the trail steadily rose and fell on and alongside the ridgeline, past the Twin Lakes below Stuart Peak, then McKinley Lake and Worden Lake.

Big Lake, below Mosquito Peak in the Rattlesnake Wilderness

At about 11 1/2 miles, we veered northeast off the trail for a rougher route along the cliff edge, over a false summit and to 8,057-foot Mosquito Peak at about 12 miles. We stopped here to eat and take in the view of Big Lake, Little Lake and Glacier Lake below, and Point Six to the west, McLeod Peak to the north and Mineral Peak to the southeast.

Glacier Lake in the Rattlesnake Wilderness

After our break, we continued downhill to the northwest and back to Trail 517, then north slightly to the junction with Trail 502 above Glacier Lake at 12 3/4 miles. Here, we turned northeast on 502 and continued downhill past Glacier Lake, then stopped briefly at Little Lake. Back in the forest, we encountered too many downed trees over the trail as we switchbacked into the Wrangle Creek drainage.

Continuing east along the creek, we left the wilderness at about 18 miles near the confluence with Rattlesnake Creek. After crossing a concrete bridge over the creek where it cut down through bedrock, we rejoined the main Trail 515.

From there, it was about 14 miles back along the wide trail as it dropped to Franklin Bridge, then rose slightly beyond Poe meadow. After passing only two other people in the first 18 miles, we encountered several mountain bikers and hikers, then a full parking lot at the end.

In 7 hours and 45 minutes, we gained nearly 5,300 feet of elevation over more than 32 miles. Three weeks later at The Rut, we would need to double the gain and reach the 11,000-foot summit of Lone Peak in the same distance.

September 3, 2014

On the Stateline above Heart, Pearl lakes


I've lost count of the number of times we've been to Heart and Pearl lakes near Superior over the years, but one thing we had never done until recently was hike the portion of the Stateline Trail between the two.

We began by climbing Trail 171 south gradually along the east side of Trout Creek for about 2 miles, then switching back up the side of the valley and turning west to a junction at about 2 3/4 miles, crossing a few streams along the way.

At the junction, we continued west on switchbacks above Heart Lake into a high meadow that held the bare stalks of what must have been a beautiful beargrass bloom a month earlier. The trail then switchbacked up to the ridge that forms the border with Idaho and the junction with the Stateline Trail - Trail 738 - at about 4 1/3 miles. Here, we stopped to eat and saw the first of a handful of mountain goats in the distance along the rocky ridge.


The Stateline followed the ridge southeast, passing a rocky point at 4 3/4 miles and a chute still holding snow at 5 3/4, both providing views of the lakes below. Along the way, we found plenty of huckleberry bushes filled with juicy, tart fruit.

At about 6 miles, we left the Stateline at a junction with Trail 620 and dropped northeast to a saddle between Pearl and Dalton lakes. From there, we continued down Trail 175 and back west around Pearl Lake to its outlet at about 7 1/2 miles, then down again and north to the first junction below Heart Lake at 8 2/3 miles, letting the dogs swim multiple times along the way.


After that, we retraced Trail 171 back east and north 2 3/4 miles to our vehicle.

See more photos from Heart and Pearl lakes.

Distance: 11 1/2 mile loop.

Trailhead: From Superior, follow Diamond Match Road southeast and Trout Creek Road southwest - one turns into the other - for 19 miles.

August 27, 2014

Huckleberry bounty on a Blue Mountain run

Ran up to the Blue Mountain lookout, then climbed a few steps higher

Earlier this month, a couple of friends and I ran the length of the Blue Mountain National Recreation Trail - 20 miles round trip from the bottom of the recreation area to the lookout and observatory at the top.

We couldn't have timed it better with regard to western Montana's huckleberry season. A little below the 6,455-foot summit, we found ourselves surrounded by bushes bearing big purple berries.

From the main trailhead off Blue Mountain Road at the south end of Missoula, we started running west up Trail 3.01 at about 7 a.m. At about 2 1/2 miles, the route entered an area burned by the 2003 Black Mountain fire. For the next 4 1/2 miles, the trail switchbacked up among gray snags with little shade from the sun to a ridgeline.

A short distance past the ridge, greenery returned to the trees overhead, providing some relief from the heat. At about 8 1/4 miles, the trail crossed the road to the top of the mountain and re-entered the forest. Here, we found ourselves in the thick of the huckleberry bushes.

Ran up to the Blue Mountain lookout, then climbed a few steps higher

After a break to taste the fruit, we continued up the final switchbacks to the top of Blue Mountain, gaining about 3,600 feet of elevation over 10 miles. At the top, we climbed the steps up the underside of the lookout, took in the view of Lolo Peak and ate some food, then ran a short distance east to see the observatory.

As we backtracked down the mountain, we stopped at the huckleberry bushes again and filled a small plastic bag that I carried in my pack. Four hours and 45 minutes after starting, we were back at the trailhead.

At home the next morning, I turned the fruits of our labor into a pancake breakfast!

August 23, 2014

In Glacier Park, Fifty Mountain's majesty


At the end of July, we made our annual trip north to Glacier National Park, and this year we took shuttling to its extreme.

In recent summers, we've become adept at using the park and private shuttle services to get to a trailhead, then spend a few days backpacking back to our vehicle. Usually, we'd board a shuttle in the morning and be on the trail within an hour or two.

This year, the only backcountry camping permits that were available for our preferred itineraries were at Goat Haunt and Fifty Mountain. After a short hike in the North Fork of the Flathead River drainage on the day of our arrival, we spent the entire second day of the trip in shuttles to Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta and on a boat back to Goat Haunt in Glacier, the start of our trail, by dinner.

Still, while we're not likely to try that much shuttling again, we ended up in a fairly remote part of the park and enjoyed ourselves once on the trail. Standing in a field of glacier lilies above the Fifty Mountain campground at sunset, the view certainly lives up to the area's name.

Day 1: Howe Lake and Rocky Point


The day we arrived in Glacier, we secured our backcountry permit, set up our tent at the Fish Creek Campground, then drove northwest on the Inside North Fork Road to the Howe Lake trailhead.

From the road, the trail climbs gently through forest burned in the 2003 Robert fire for 2 miles. Today, new trees stand head high among the remaining gray snags.

Once at the small, quiet lake, the trail continues to Howe Ridge, above the western shore of Lake McDonald. We followed it hoping it would skirt the east shore of the lake, but turned around after about 1/2 mile.


Later that evening, we walked the 2-mile Rocky Point nature loop from the campground, along the shore of Lake McDonald and back through the forest.

See more photos of Howe Lake and Rocky Point.

Distance: 5 miles round trip at Howe Lake; 2-mile loop to Rocky Point.

Trailhead: The Howe Lake trail begins about 5 1/2 miles northwest of the Fish Creek Campground on the Inside North Fork Road. The Rocky Point loop begins and ends in the campground.

Day 2: Shuttle to Goat Haunt


The second day of our trip was the most logistically challenging, needing to catch three shuttles to Waterton in time to board the last boat before border agents ended their day at Goat Haunt.

Waterton and Glacier make up an international peace park straddling the border with Canada, and Goat Haunt is the only location allowing trail access back to the United States. At this remote station, only U.S. and Canadian citizens with passports are allowed to cross south.

In the morning, we packed our vehicle and drove northeast on Going-to-the-Sun Road to The Loop, where we would be returning days later. From there, we boarded a free park shuttle and drove up the scenic road west to Logan Pass, on the Continental Divide. At the pass, we got off the west-side shuttle and on an east-side shuttle and continued down to St. Mary.

At St. Mary, we walked out of the park to the townsite and that afternoon took the paid Glacier Park Inc. East Side Shuttle to the Waterton visitor center near the Prince of Wales Hotel, crossing the border at Chief Mountain. From the visitor center, we walked to the dock on Upper Waterton Lake and bought tickets to take The International tour boat across to Goat Haunt. Before boarding the boat, we had enough time in the townsite to get a sandwich for lunch.


Aboard the 4 p.m. boat, we took a seat on the top deck and enjoyed the cruise south along the lake, viewing the logged swath and obelisks on each side marking the international boundary. Once off the boat, we walked a 1/4-mile path to the Goat Haunt ranger station and checked in with the border agents before returning to the camp adjacent to the dock.


That night, storm clouds moved in - a preview of the weather in the forecast for the next day.

More photos from Goat Haunt are here.

Day 3: Waterton Valley Trail to Fifty Mountain


The first day of the backpacking portion of our trip, we woke to cloudy skies, and soon after eating breakfast and packing up at Goat Haunt it began to rain.

We've learned from past experience - Scotland, Olympic National Park, Glacier, Iceland - that a good rain coat, rain pants and pack cover make all the difference, so it didn't really faze us. Having checked in with the border agents the evening before, we set out south through the forested Waterton Valley.


The first 6 miles were fairly uneventful - mostly hiking through the forest with little elevation gain, occasional creek crossings, and views of the mountaintops and the river. Occasionally, we got a break in the rain. At about 2 3/4 miles, we detoured west a little more than 1/3 of a mile and back to see Kootenai Lakes. At 5 miles, the trail over Stoney Indian Pass joined from the east.

The trail began its ascent toward the Continental Divide at a little more than 6 miles, switchbacking a couple of times before rising steeply to the southeast along a brushy mountainside. After turning east and switchbacking into and out of forest again, the trail reached its high point - a saddle above tree line at about 10 miles. Here, the clouds broke and we got our first real glimpse of the surrounding mountains.


A little more than a mile downhill from the saddle, across snowfields and slightly into the forest, we reached the camp. It had started raining again, so we quickly set up our tent. After dinner and some card games, we called it a night.

Here are more photos from the Waterton Valley Trail.

Distance: About 11 3/4 miles one way, with detour to Kootenai Lakes.

Trailhead: Goat Haunt, reached by boat at the southern end of Upper Waterton Lake.

Day 4: Northern Highline Trail


The next morning, I woke at sunrise - as is my habit when camping - and found the rain had stopped, but the sky was still filled with clouds. I wandered to the meadow above camp in time to see the first bright orange rays of daylight cresting Cathedral Peak.


In the camp's food preparation area after others woke, we watched a grizzly sow forage on a ridge near the saddle we hiked over the previous day. While we heard the bear had a couple of cubs with her, we never saw them.

After briefly questioning whether we should hike back to The Loop early instead of staying for another day of rain, it became clear the clouds were lifting. As the multitude of surrounding mountains came into view, we set out southeast on the northern Highline Trail for the day.


About 1 mile and one switchback above camp, we turned back northwest for a little more than 1/3 of a mile to the Sue Lake overlook. This notch in the ridge between Mount Kipp and Cathedral Peak provides views down to Sue Lake and over Pyramid Peak into the Mokowanis River drainage.


Back on the Highline, we continued southeast again, across rocky slopes and a handful of small snowfields into the Mineral Creek drainage. In the distance, we could see Swiftcurrent Mountain, the Garden Wall, the basin feeding Bird Woman Falls and Heavens Peak. About 2 1/2 miles from camp, we turned back.

That afternoon and evening, we relaxed by flying a kite and, after dinner, taking in sunset in the glacier lily-filled meadow.


See more photos from the northern Highline Trail.

Distance: About 5 3/4 miles round trip.

Trailhead: Fifty Mountain campground.

Day 5: Flattop Mountain Trail to The Loop


On our final day in the backcountry, we ate breakfast and packed up under scattered clouds.

After leaving camp, we hiked downhill southwest to Kooteani Pass, a low spot on the Continental Divide, then briefly followed Kipp Creek before rising a short distance up Flattop Mountain at about 2 miles.


The trail south across Flattop continued, rising and dropping slightly along the way, through forests of gray snags left after the Trapper Creek fire of 2003. At about 4 1/2 miles, we passed a series of ponds in an unburned area, then dropped into the Flattop Creek drainage, where tall stalks of beargrass bloomed among more snags.

A little more than 6 miles along, we detoured less than a 1/4 mile to the Flattop campground for a break. Back on the main trail below the camp, we descended steeply along the creek, past several waterfalls. After a series of switchbacks and several snags that had fallen over the trail, we reached the valley floor at about 10 1/4 miles. Here, Swiftcurrent Mountain looms to the east and Heavens Peak to the west.


A short distance later, we crossed Mineral Creek and continued about 1 2/3 miles southeast through the McDonald Creek Valley to a junction, then turned back northwest and hiked uphill toward The Loop. About 3/4 of a mile up, we reached the junction with the trail to Granite Park, turned southeast again and arrived at The Loop - and our vehicle - at 13 1/4 miles.


Our feet weary from all of the downhill, we stopped along the Sun Road to soak them in McDonald Creek on the way home.

Here are more photos from the trail over Flattop Mountain.

Distance: 13 1/4 miles one way.

Trailhead: Fifty Mountain campground.