Thursday, December 15, 2016

Granite Park

Glacier lilies below the Garden Wall at Granite Park
8 miles round trip, 2500 feet elevation gain
(11 miles round trip, 3500 feet elevation gain to Grinnell Glacier Overlook)
Difficulty: Moderate- fairly hefty elevation gain but do you notice when everything is so beautiful?
Access: Glacier National Park entrance fee ($30 in 2016), paved road to trailhead, vehicles over 21 feet prohibited on Going-to-the-Sun Road

Granite Park is paradise: it is every dream of alpine bliss, a landscape composed of moments that one can only wish would last forever. You could successfully argue to me that there are many equally or more beautiful places in the world; but in two and a half thousand miles of hiking, I may have never experienced a more extraordinary and moving landscape than that of the alpine meadows along the Continental Divide near Glacier National Park's Granite Park Chalet. This is an exceptional place deserving of every phrase of seeming hyperbole that it has inspired.

I can't promise you the magic I felt: I've read that this hike is often substantially more crowded than when I visited. I came on a day with overcast weather with the cloud layer sufficiently high enough for me to see all of the surrounding summits; I hear that Granite Park sees much more visitors in better weather. Additionally, the Highline Trail, which is the more popular access route to the area, had not yet opened from Logan Pass; this perhaps mattered substantially because many of the beautiful meadows I saw were just southeast of the Chalet off the Highline Trail and I had these meadows all to myself.

I hiked to Granite Park from the Loop Trailhead on the very first day of my trip to Glacier National Park. I arrived in Kalispell after setting out from Seattle the previous night; the morning of my hike, I drove out from Kalispell in the early morning, following US 2 east to West Glacier, and then turning onto Going-to-the-Sun Road and entering the park. There was little hint along the approach drive of the spectacular scenery in the park; most of the mountains west of the park were forested and looked fairly modest. Yet as soon as I entered the park and drove Going-to-the-Sun Road along Lake McDonald, everything began to change. The forest became ever greener, denser, and more damp; the mountains went from glorified foothills to soaring fins of sedimentary rock. Going-to-the-Sun Road itself also became spectacular after crossing Logan Creek and beginning the ascent up the Garden Wall. The road was blasted into a cliffside, hugging the mountainside as it ascended to the Loop, a sharp switchback in the road with reasonably ample parking and a pretty view of Heavens Peak and the hanging valley bordered by Oberlin and Clements Mountains.

The trail left from the sharp turn in the switchback, across the road from the parking spots. A sign at trailhead reminded hikers to be vigilant for bears. This isn't a warning to take lightly: grizzly bears are plentiful at Glacier National Park, and while most bear encounters are nonconfrontational, you don't want to be on the receiving end of a bear attack! A few days before I drove out to Glacier, a mountain biker was mauled by a grizzly bear near West Glacier; the bear had still not been caught at the time of writing this post. The trailhead sign discouraged solo travel and travel near dawn and dusk hours and also encouraged all hikers to carry bear spray. While I chose to hike alone, I also traveled at midday and kept bear spray within convenient reach.

The trail delved into a burnt forest and quickly crossed a tumbling stream on a well-built bridge. The first third of a mile of the trail was either flat or downhill, heading north until the trail merged with the Granite Park Trail coming up from Packers' Roost. This is a critical junction to note on the way back: if you miss this intersection while coming down and head towards Packers' Roost instead of the Loop, you'll end up far from where you parked.

Cascading creek near Loop Trailhead
The trail began a gentle climb after the intersection, making its way through the graveyard forest left by the enormous Trapper Fire in 2003. Heavens Peak made occasional appearances through the forest of burnt trunks. About a mile into the hike, the trail made its first switchback, cutting back towards the east as it continued climbing. At this point, the dead trees in the burn area began to clear out; good views of Heavens and Longfellow Peaks emerged. Even more impressive were the rocky, glacier-carved cliffs of Mounts Clement, Oberlin, and Cannon.

Granite Park Trail with Mount Oberlin, Clements Mountain, and Mount Cannon
A little over two miles in, the trail made a second turn high above a ravine. Here, I spotted the spires and cliffs of the Garden Wall for the first time. I continued uphill through the slopes that were both open but extremely brushy. Soon after, the trail entered a forest for the first time; seeing live trees with needles was a nice change from the constant burntness of the prior landscape.

The trail occasionally emerged into small grassy clearings with views of Heavens Peak or other nearby mountains. The climb was constant but not terribly steep. At three and a half miles, the trail passed a junction to the left for the Granite Park Campground; I took the right fork to continue towards Granite Park Chalet. By this point, I often had views to the right of the trail of Logan Pass to the south, the rocky Garden Wall, Reynolds Mountain, Clements Mountain, and the many other glacial-carved fins and aretes.

Views of the Garden Wall from Granite Park Trail
After passing through a patch of blooming yellow glacier lilies alongside the trail, I came to an intersection about four miles away from the trailhead, where the Granite Park Trail met the Highline Trail. The trail to the right was the Highline Trail towards Logan Pass; the trail heading straight was the Highline Trail towards Swiftcurrent Pass. I took the trail to the left, which led to the stone structures of the Granite Park Chalet, a high country mountain lodge.

Granite Park Chalet and Heavens Peak
Granite Park Chalet was built by the Great Northern Railway during the heyday of close relationships between western national parks and transcontinental railroads. The railroad ran along the southern boundary of the national park, following the same route that now carries US Highway 2; the company built multiple lodges within the park and advertised the area as "America's Switzerland" to attract tourists from the East Coast. While lodges such as the hotel at Many Glacier could be reached by road, visitors hoping to stay at Granite Park Chalet could only gain access by foot or horse.

The front porch of the chalet had sweeping views of Heavens Peak and the valley of Logan Creek. As it was a cloudy and cold day, I decided to duck inside to eat my lunch and check out the inside of the chalet. A large common area with long tables was open to the public; snacks and drinks were for sale, but there was no hot water and thus no hot drinks. Visitors lucky enough to snag reservations at the chalet can hike in and stay overnight and spend more time exploring the network of alpine trails emanating from the chalet.

After leaving the chalet, I hiked back to the junction with the Highline Trail and followed it in the direction of Logan Pass. This stretch of trail is one of the most famous in all of Glacier National Park, but I experienced the beauty in nearly complete solitude: few hikers were on the Highline as an area near Logan Pass was still closed due to snow. Just past the trail junction, I entered a perfect meadow: tiny brooks flowed through a field of blooming glacier lilies, with evergreens dotting the edge of the meadow and snowy sandstone peaks rising behind that. I sat on a rock next to the trail and gazed contentedly out at the scene for nearly an hour.

Glacier lilies at Granite Park
After leaving the meadow, I continued along the Highline Trail, which descended briefly before flattening out as it followed the rocky southwest side of the Garden Wall. The reason for the trail's name became quite clear here: the Highline Trail cut through a stunning alpine environment just below the sharp ridgeline of the Continental Divide. Every step delivered jaw-dropping views.

Highline Trail leading south from Granite Park Chalet
Two-thirds of a mile from Granite Park Chalet, I came to the junction with the Grinnell Glacier Overlook Trail. While the Highline Trail continued its fairly level traverse towards the southeast, the Grinnell Glacier Overlook Trail headed up steeply to the left of the Highline Trail, aiming for a gap in the cliffs of the Garden Wall.

The trail was very steep, heading straight up the talus along the base of the Garden Wall and climbing nearly 1000 feet in just under a mile. The small rocks on the trail were very loose in places, making for sometimes unstable footing; at one point, the trail had more or less disintegrated into loose scree. Towards the top, the trail followed a series of rock ledges where hikers might want to use their hands. However, the path was generally not hard to follow and was made easier by the expanding views of the Continental Divide behind me and Granite Park below me.

The Highline Trail and the Continental Divide
I spotted three hoary marmots on the Grinnell Glacier Overlook Trail, including one at the overlook itself that pestered me continuously, presumably for a food handout. To discourage further begging behavior from the marmot, I kept my food to myself, but a few minutes later I turned around to see that marmot chewing on the handle of my hiking poles! I shooed it away and am still curious what nutritional value it found in hiking poles.

The most stunning view from the overlook was on the other side of the Continental Divide. The sheer cliffs of Mount Gould rose above a snow-covered cirque that contained the last remnants of the Grinnell Glacier. The snowbanks under the cliffs just below the overlook covered the Salamander, another rapidly shrinking glacier. In early July, snowmelt had not yet revealed the full forms of either glacier; the lake at Grinnell Glacier was still frozen over. Visiting in later summer would give a better idea of the extent of ice retreat at the glacier. Photographic comparisons of the Grinnell Glacier now to its state in the early 20th century are remarkable: it's immediately clear that over three-quarters of the glacier has been lost. The most striking realization of the extent of glacial retreat occurred when I realized that the Salamander and Grinnell Glaciers were still connected as a single glacier covering over a square mile at the time of the park's founding. The two ice masses are now separated by a distance of at least a third of a mile. The effect of climate change on the park's glaciers is unlikely to slow or reverse; nearly 90% of the glacial volume in the park has been lost since Glacier became a park. The park's permanent ice is not expected to last past 2030.

Grinnell Glacier Overlook, Mount Gould
To the southwest, I saw a unique view of Lake McDonald framed perfectly by Mount Cannon and Heavens Peak; the Grinnell Glacier Overlook is the only trail accessible spot in the park with this particular view angle.

Lake McDonald seen from the Grinnell Glacier Overlook
The overlook was quite cold due to the winds sweeping across the Continental Divide, so after enjoying the views and contemplating the accelerating effects of climate change on the park's glaciers, retraced my steps back to Granite Park Chalet, taking in the Rocky Mountain views en route. I spent much of the rest of the afternoon lounging about the meadows of glacier lilies near the chalet before hiking back down to the Loop.

Continental Divide peaks at Glacier National Park