Glacier National Park has enough hiking trails in it to keep you lost (in contemplation if not in fact) for days, even weeks if you like. Some of my happiest teenage days began before dawn on summer mornings, frantically packing a lunch with the prospect of 10 to 14 hours of putting one foot in front of the other, in pursuit of a hidden lake high in the mountains, or a seemingly unreachable peak. To some, that might sound like drudgery. To others of us, bliss.
And to so many more, it speaks of a luxury of time and energy that tourists can rarely afford. Which is why Glacier, with its rare gift of space and accessibility, is such a fitting destination for those desperate for a sniff of the wilderness, but lacking the free time to go trekking. It also means that there are short walks ideally fitted to families with small children. Or those with whining children. Or those with whining adults, for that matter.
Two of the most popular hikes in Glacier are designed — by nature or artifice — to appeal to any travelers encumbered with either lack of time, or young companions with short legs.
The hike to Avalanche Lake is probably the most popular in the entire park. That means it’s heavily used, but somehow doesn’t feel crowded, even though you are never without people the entire two miles into the lake. The hike has its drawbacks — people are one, but the most noticeable is parking. While the trailhead is served by two ample parking lots, these are completely packed by midday, partly because the Avalanche Lake trail shares its head and parking with the even more popular Trail of the Cedars, a smooth paved circle through a dense forest of cedar and cottonwood, accessible to almost anybody.
It took us a good 15-20 minutes to find parking the day we decided to take family (including our 2-year-old son and 5-year-old niece) up Avalanche, our own fault as we arrived near noon rather than by 10 as we had planned. But once shoes were laced and water bottles stowed, the wait for a spot didn’t matter.
The attraction of Avalanche is mostly in its short distance (2 miles each way), but this wouldn’t matter if the end destination weren’t breathtaking on its own. People like me usually scorn such overpopulated, short walks, which means we miss out on the sight of the Rockies rearing steeply from the shores of Avalanche Lake, silent and still at the end of the 2-mile trek. The waterfalls rushing thousands of feet from the rocky peaks echo across the narrow valley.
And all you have to do to absorb what Glacier Park has to offer is walk a little further around the edge of the lake, out of reach of most visitors sitting on the pebbly beach, and breathe.
It was easy taking the 2- and 5-year-old up to Avalanche Lake. While the repetitive hills can be strenuous for children or those out-of-shape, my husband turned it into a game for our niece, challenging her to race him up to each rise and promising the chocolate from our packed lunch when we reached the lake. She loved it, and earned the proud title “Ellie the Mountain Goat,” which goes to show that any kid can thrive in the outdoors if you put a little work into it. Even our 2-year-old son hiked the first mile before passing out on my back in the Ergo carrier.
Aside from galloping children, you don’t, in fact, see any mountain goats on the walk to Avalanche Lake. For that, you need to go further, all the way up precipitous Going-to-the-Sun Road to Logan Pass, where a wind-blown boardwalk leads hundreds of visitors through a high mountain meadow to a lookout taking in the view that defines Glacier’s title “Crown of the Continent” and plunges down to a blue waterway aptly titled Hidden Lake.
Logan Pass is subject, again, to parking issues. It’s not so much a problem if you get there before 10 in the morning, but afterwards the best bet is to circle around slowly and wait when you see someone getting ready to leave (politeness never hurts, either).
This is where you’ll see mountain goats, tons of them. Rambling all over rocks and cliff faces, living at nearly 7000 feet above sea level, they appear to tourists to be amiable, nimble, fairly approachable creatures with an envious life in the mountains and wildflowers. But then, we don’t see them in wintertime.
The boardwalk up to Hidden Lake overlook is often called “easy,” possibly because it’s a trail built slightly aboveground, with steps to take the hiking out of hiking. Personally, I always find walking up stairs more irritating and harder on the knees than just tramping uphill with my boots on the ground. With the number of visitors, though, the boardwalk does cut down on erosion.
The overlook is 1.5 miles each way, and you’ll run into many people unused to physical exertion gasping over the last bit of the saddle that brings them around the mountain to the views on the other side (the picture shown here was taken from near the overlook). The hike that’s really worthwhile, however, is the one 1.5 miles further along than the overlook, down to Hidden Lake itself. The path, now gravel rather than boardwalk, winds along the shoulder of the mountain before dropping abruptly into several knee-straining switchbacks that bring you down to the valley floor in no time flat.
Even a little overcrowded, and even with the annoying buzz of a sightseeing helicopter once in a while, this is one of my favorite places on earth. Hidden Lake, cupped between rugged mountains of dizzying height, pristine, silent, bordered by meadows of beargrass and paintbrush flowers. Continue a little further around the lake, splashing through a minor stream, and you finally get that rare thing in this world: silence broken only by nature.
I love it because it’s a place I can practically drop into in passing, inaccessible to most people because they won’t make the effort. While sitting on a boulder on the shore, eating my sandwich, I looked longingly at the top of Mt. Reynolds, which I’d climbed one summer in high school. Someday, I promise myself, I’ll live here again, and my kids, when they’re old enough, will know the deep peace brought by scaling that mountain with hands and feet.
But for now Hidden Lake is just enough, and even Avalanche Lake keeps me grounded. Even if you’re unused to hiking, or don’t have much time, or have small children in tow, these hikes are worth it. They will remind you, if you give them a little time and effort, who you are, where you are, and why these wild places are necessary to us as human beings.