Glacier National Park, Montana
It was early afternoon when we arrived in the Many Glacier area of Glacier National Park, Montana. We checked into our room at the Many Glacier Hotel, checked out the view from our balcony, and then readied ourselves for a late start to Iceberg Lake. The trail to Iceberg Lake is 9 miles roundtrip and passes through prime Grizzly Bear territory, so it is not a good idea to be caught hiking after dark. We began our hike at 4:00pm, hoping to make it all the way to the lake (4.5 miles from the trailhead), but completely prepared to turn back if things seemed risky. We met several other hikers who told us they had not encountered any bears along the trail, so we felt confident to continue at a fast pace.
Iceberg Lake is an aquamarine jewel, which is surrounded on three sides by towering mountains. Ice-out often does not occur until mid-July, and icebergs for which the lake was named can be seen floating in the lake after the melt occurs. We had no idea if indeed the lake was still frozen, or completely thawed, when we set out on our journey, but we were psyched to see if we could attain our goal before the sun set over the mountains. The hike begins behind the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn and immediately starts climbing, rather steeply, for about 0.1 miles, where it then intersects with trail #167. We continued on, heading northwest, towards the lake. Along the way many wildflowers were gracing the hillsides with their delicate blooms including: fireweed, Indian paintbrush, monkeyflowers, and beargrass. We were clipping off the miles as fast as we could, when we rounded a corner and came face to face with a few fellow hikers. When I looked up from the rocky trail to exchange pleasantries I could hardly believe my eyes! Right there on the trail, about to shake my hand in greeting, was Jack Hanna. You might know him as "Jungle Jack," from his appearances on “The Late Show with David Letterman” , “Good Morning America” and his television show "Jack Hanna's Animal Adventures", or from serving as ambassador of the Columbus Zoo. He was the nicest person you would ever want to meet, and what a great person to encounter on a hiking trail in grizzly country. He introduced us to his friend Jim Dobbs and to their wives, posed for a picture, and gave us advice on hiking the trail. All four of them were extremely kind and a pleasure to meet; our hike was off to a great start!
According to “Jungle Jack” we were assured of making it to the lake, and he advised that we head back no later than 6:30pm. With an added spring in our step we trekked on through the south slopes of Altyn Peak and Mt. Henkel, with occasional glimpses of Wilbur Creek far below us in the marshy wetlands. Before we knew it we had reached Ptarmigan Falls at 2.3 miles, the time was 4:55pm and the only sign of bear activity was an occasional pile of scat. Although we knew the later it got, the more likely we might encounter a bear, so like a bunch of idiots we sang and talked and yelled “Hey Bear”, around every blind corner. By the way, grizzly bear scat makes for a rather large pile, causing the imagination to run wild with images of 8 foot tall bears ready to pounce on you at any moment…did I mention the singing? Any bear that heard us coming was definitely not going to stick around!
Just after passing Ptarmigan Falls, the trail turns southwest and follows the Ptarmigan Wall through some spectacular scenery. The glacial cirque that holds Iceberg Lake is now quite evident and the anticipation builds with every step. At this point we had passed many hikers on their way back to Swiftcurrent, but we had only met up with two other hikers heading our direction and it seemed as though they had stopped at Ptarmigan Falls. We didn’t necessarily mind being the last hikers out, but it would have been a little reassuring to know others had gotten a similar late start. Nonetheless, we were almost to our destination.
We descended into the valley that holds the lake and crossed a couple of footbridges to round a corner and catch our first view of the lake. What an incredible sight! Huge chunks of ice were floating about in the turquoise waters of the lake, and towering cliffs cast their shadow from 3,000 feet above its shores. The sun was fading fast as it set behind the high mountains, so we ran down to the edge of the lake to catch the last rays of sunshine. Along the way we met a couple who generously offered to take our photo with the lake behind us…thanks guys! We arrived at the lake at 5:39pm. Our goal had been obtained and it had far exceeded our expectations! I never would have imagined such a fantastic view! Unfortunately, we knew our time at the lake was short, so we splashed some of the icy cold water on our faces and then headed back on our return journey; all the while stealing glances over our shoulders.
Adding to the intense view was the fact that smoke from a distant forest fire was starting to cloud the sky above the cliffs. By the time we were half way back on the trail the whole sky had turned an eerie yellow, and the sun was a murky red ball of fire behind a curtain of smoke. The smoke was even starting to burn our eyes a little bit, but it was definitely adding a magical light to the scenery. As you will see in my photos it appears as though I had used a warming filter, this is no filter, it is simply the smoke diffused light of sunset.
True to Jack’s advice we left the lake at 5:53pm. Feeling good, but a little tired, we made good time back to Swiftcurrent Inn. Along the way we were grizzly free, but we did spot a moose grazing near Wilbur Creek. As we stopped to admire the moose we were met by a hiker named Gail, who was returning from Elizabeth Lake. The three of us shared the excitement of seeing the moose and continued our hike out together. Along the way we shared trail stories and exchanged some trail advice. Gail was a veteran hiker of Glacier National Park and made us feel much better about being in grizzly territory. Thanks for sharing a portion of the trail with us Gail! We ended our hike at 7:30pm, stopped in the camp store and bought some ice for our cooler, and headed back to the Many Glacier Hotel where we watched the sunset from our balcony. Another great adventure was under our feet, and we didn’t even get eaten by a grizzly bear! You can’t be unhappy about those odds! Enjoy the photos.