Saturday, September 25, 2021

Hiking Glacier National Park: Dawson Pass/Pitamakan Pass Loop (Part 3)


This is the third and final post about an epic backpack trip in Glacier National Park on the Dawson Pass and Pitakaman Pass loop in early September 2021. You can read the first post here and the second post here.

When I awaken on this third morning of our Glacier National Park backpacking trip, I notice the air is warmer than yesterday, even though we're at a higher elevation at Oldman Lake. Summer isn't over yet here in the Montana Rockies, even though the park ranger told us there used to be sleet and snow already by this time of year.

On this day, it's mostly all downhill, except a short uphill near the end of the trail. And, thankfully, it's a much more gradual descent than yesterday's descent to Oldman Lake from Pitamakan Pass.

In the early morning light, the first thing I do is grab my camera and head down to the lake. There's a gorgeous pink glow that's not visible in the harsh glare of midday.

Oldman Lake

Oldman Lake campsite trail, morning light

We gather at the campsite cooking area for a hot drink and breakfast and pull down our bags of food from the high bars provided at each campsite. In grizzly country, the protocol is strict: Before even going to your campsite to drop your pack and pitch your tent, pull all your food and lotions/toothpaste out of your pack and hang them in a bag at the top of a 12-foot + bar. 

After a light breakfast of hot tea and a KIND bar, I go back down to the lake while shooting another short video. (My shadow makes an appearance in the video linked below.)

After saying our goodbyes to the other hikers, we pack up and head on down the trail. This day is sunny, warm, and mellow compared to the strong wind and drama of being up on Dawson and Pitamakan passes. This day is just fine by me.

 Occasionally we stop and take a look back from where we came.


Back below timberline, we're seeing brilliant fall color in the huckleberry and other shrubs.

Passing through what appeared to be a grove of dwarf aspen

Seriously, the trail grade is so mild for most of the 6+ miles we hike this day, it hardly feels like we're losing elevation. After crossing a mostly dried up stream (Dry Fork Creek) over a small log bridge, we take another look back.

By this time, we're like horses headed to the barn. We do have a long drive back to the Spokane area (about 5 to 6 hours) tonight after finishing, so we're moving along at a pretty steady pace through alpine meadows, then forests, before finishing the loop.

Just as we can see the parking lot, suddenly we come to an abrupt halt. About 10 yards ahead is a cluster of bighorn sheep (I call them goats, but Mark corrects me) on the trail. They seem to be wary of the people down on the river below watching them. We're wary of them. They're also wary of us.

Bighorn sheep. Photo by Mark Beaufait
After a few minutes minutes, the sheep finally all descend to the river below, and we scoot past to finish our hike.

The first thing Andy and I do is tear off our hiking boots and walk over to Pray Lake, where we both soothe our battered feet in the cold water. (My taped up feet and ankles make an appearance in the video below at the lake).


And then it's over, this hike planned for months. Mark got the reservations in January through a lottery, although some hikers told us they showed up the day of and got permits. 

Happy Hikers. The End.

Regardless, it was challenging, spectacular, and very rewarding. We covered 15 or 16 miles overall and gained and lost about 3,000 feet in elevation, peaking out at about 8,100 feet at our highest point; many do this loop as a day hike now. Gotta say, it would be much faster going without a full backpack, even with ultra light tents and such.

I'm happy to have seen a new corner of the park (and world). I'm slower than I was as a young woman, but I'm not much bothered anymore when faster, younger hikers pass on the trail. It's all worth it, no matter your pace.

Many thanks to Mark for planning this trip, and Mark and Andy for being so generous and including me. Old friends are gold, but old friends who like to get out and do fun outdoors adventures together are platinum.

I'd love to hear in a comment below if you'd done this hike too, or other similar adventures.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBookTwitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.



Friday, September 17, 2021

Hiking Glacier National Park: Dawson Pass and Pitamakan Pass (Part 2)

 This is the second post about an early September backpacking trip in Glacier National Park. Read the first post here.

On this second day of our trek, we hiked through a stark, glacially carved landscape where mountains meet the sky. After a relatively easy first day, this second day was more challenging, but the payoff was absolutely worth it.

After packing up and leaving No Name Lake by mid-morning, my hiking buddies Mark and Andy and I hiked up switchbacks a couple miles to Dawson Pass (elevation 7,600 feet) on the Continental Divide. For this lowlander (I live about 300 feet above sea level), I actually didn't feel the elevation that much.

Along the way, we passed above timberline into a dramatic landscape of shale and scree (Mark, who has a geology degree, would describe the rocks/formations more precisely).

Approaching Dawson Pass, Two Medicine Lake behind and below.

Wildfire smoke blew in and tamped down the dramatic views, a minor downside on an otherwise spectacular day hiking. We'd been warned about the winds at the pass, and sure enough, as we crested the pass, wind raced across, prompting us to pull out windbreakers when we stopped for lunch.

Windy Dawson Pass. Mark Beaufait photo.

Smoke obscured the views on the other side of Dawson Pass

After lunch and hiking up a few hundred feet above the pass, the real drama of the day began. I'd read about the relatively narrow ledge portion of the trail that skirts beneath Flinsch Peak, but I didn't realize this narrow goat trail (or so it seemed) continued over 3 miles.

The trail continued past and around the backside of the second peak in the distance.

Let's be clear: The trail was pretty exposed in some places, where a misstep on the loose scree could lead to an unstoppable fall/slide down a 3,000 foot mountainside. Have I mentioned that although I like being in high places, I'm not a big fan of heights?

But onward we trekked because, of course, there was no going back. A couple times rock steps on the trail were so tall that it was a challenge to step up with a heavy backpack (once with an assist from Andy). And some wind gusts were so strong that I was pushed sideways and had to stop to steady myself.

We passed beneath the glacial horn of Flinsch Peak shown here. M. Beaufait photo.

One of the widest stretches of the ledge trail. M. Beaufait photo.

The trail at times. M. Beaufait photo.

Walking the ledge for that distance required complete focus with every step, at least for me. But the views, even with the smoke, wow! I felt a sense of expansive space, like being in an airplane and looking around and down at the world below. 

Starting the descent down to Oldman Lake, our destination for the night.

M. Beaufait photo.

As we neared Oldman Lake, we passed through big scarlet patches of low-lying huckleberry bushes heavy with sweet ripe berries. We also passed some very large piles of berry-infested bear scat; we'd heard from other hikers that grizzly bears had been spotted near the lake and even wandering through our upcoming campsite.

While black bears aren't that scary to see, grizzlies are another matter. Fortunately the bears decided to forage elsewhere that night. Perhaps they were scared off by our pack of hikers (nine of us) at the campsite, most of us from Seattle.

Oldman Lake  

A rustic gray-bearded, solo man (trail name, Stormwalker) showed up at camp later than the rest of us and told us he'd done many epic thru hikes since the 1970s (Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), Nepal, New Zealand...). On this outing, he was seeking CDT thru hikers to give them advice and $2 bills. In some parts, that's still good for a cuppa (not Seattle).

Evening light at Oldman Lake.

Fellow hikers we met at our two campsites were all fun, friendly, and engaging. Maybe that's partly why I'm drawn to the outdoorsy. We swapped stories and laughs in the designated cooking areas (away from our tents to deter bears) and then wandered off to our tents as it got dark.

Perhaps the grizzlies were hunkered down due to the persistent strong wind, with occasional big gusts. Who knows. But regardless of the bear factor, I slept well again. Being "good" tired makes for good sleep.

 Just too many more photos to share to cram them all into this post, so check back in a couple days for the third and last post of our backpack trip on the Dawson/Pitamakan Passes Loop.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBookTwitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.


Sunday, September 12, 2021

Hiking Glacier National Park: Dawson Pass and Pitamakan Pass Loop (Part 1)

As I sit down to reflect and write about hiking the spectacular Dawson Pass/Pitamakan Pass Loop in Montana's Glacier National Park, I still feel a lingering sense of awe. This hike was different than my usual treks in the Cascades of Oregon and Washington. 

There were plenty of big mountains, big views, and big sky. The sense of space and chiseled (rather than Cascade craggy) mountains dominated. Despite a smudgy blanket of wildfire smoke that subdued the views somewhat, it was still all that and more.

With so many shots to share, this is the first of a few posts about this early September road trip/backpack. While many hikers do this 16- to 19-mile loop as a day hike now, some of us opt for a more leisurely trek, with a few days on the trail. Yes, I'm old school, but I don't want to rush through paradise.

Road Tripping

You don't want to hear much about the car troubles I had as I drove east from Seattle to meet friends north of Spokane. I'm grateful for AAA and managed to barely make it to a truck stop in George, Washington, where I charged up my dead smartphone to call for help since my clutch died. Enough about that.

After a good night sleep at the home of my friends' relatives north of Spokane, we took off mid-morning for the 5+ hour drive across northern Idaho and on to East Glacier. My friends Mark and Andy splurged on a big room for us at the historic Glacier Park Lodge, vintage 1913, before we started our 3-day backpack.

Glacier Park Lodge lobby

I love these big old lodges built for guests traveling by rail. This lodge was along the Great Northern Railway, and you can still arrive by train today.

We had dinner and breakfast in the lodge dining room, where the food was tasty and the portions were very generous. I gave half my breakfast to Andy, and it was plenty for two.

Day 1 on the Trail

We needed to be up and out early to pick up our two-night permit (pre-reserved) at the Two Medicine Lake ranger station when it opened at 8 a.m. It was fun to chat with some of the other hikers in line ahead of us at the ranger station. One middle-aged woman was thru-hiking the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) solo and down to her last 3 days. 

Two Medicine Lake    

We hopped on the historic shuttle boat that traverses the lake to the trailhead, and enjoyed the gorgeous morning as we cruised across the lake. (Some hikers start near the ranger station and hike an additional 3 miles along the lakeshore to the trailhead, but we opted for the scenic boat ride. See the short video below for a taste of the ride.) The boat is on the National Register of Historic Places and was originally built in 1926.


Historic Sinopah shuttle boat

All the other passengers dispersed pretty quickly up a few shorter trails as we slathered on sunscreen, shed layers, and threw on our backpacks. Our first night destination was No Name Lake, a short warm-up hike only about 2.2 miles away and 900 feet higher.

While hiking up a somewhat steep trail with a heavy-ish backpack can be a slog, I tend to do better on the uphills because they're easier on my aging feet and knees. We stopped once for a water/snack break and to enjoy the increasingly spectacular views.

Looking back down to Two Medicine Lake where we started.


Our best weather was this first day, with clear blue skies and mild temps. Since it was such a short hike, we arrived at the lake by early afternoon and had our pick of the three campsites.

And then we chilled all afternoon after setting up tents. Thankfully, this late in the season mosquitoes and other pesky bugs aren't a problem. 

No Name is a lovely alpine lake tucked close against the base of a steep cliff wall that juts upward abruptly a few thousand feet. Mark spotted a couple snowy white mountain goats lounging on some steep scree at the toe of the cliff, far above.

No Name Lake

We'd been warned to be on the lookout for grizzly bears and carried bear spray wherever we went. So when we heard a loud huff and something crashing through the brush coming our direction, I got a quick rush of adrenaline.

Soon two BIG moose came trotting toward us and then split around the three of us standing close together, passing within less than 10 feet on either side. These beasts can do serious harm if annoyed, so we (outwardly) kept calm.

After dinner when we were sitting on the beach at the lake, fellow campers Maggie and Rowan yelled to us that the moose were headed our way (four of them this time). I looked up to see a moose headed right toward me about 20 feet away, so we quickly scrambled sideways and back to camp, keeping an eye on them the whole way.

As I lay in my tent at night after dark trying to fall asleep, I heard moose thrashing about loudly in the brush, getting closer and closer.  

It was cool to hear the clacking of their antlers together as they jousted, but I really couldn't sleep until they wandered away. Then I slept a good sleep in all that mountain fresh air (thanks in part to a light warm sleeping bag and inflatable mattress).

In the early light the next morning, the cliff behind the lake glowed pink as the sun was rising, and I scrambled out to snap a few shots.

After a quick breakfast and packing up, we set off for what would be a much longer, more dramatic day ahead. You can read the second post here to join us as we hike up to Dawson and Pitamakin Passes.

 Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBookTwitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.

Colorful stones and a hint of autumn at No Name Lake