Hiking The Highline Trail – Finally!

Since the fall of 2014 we have been trying to hike the Highline Trail at Glacier National Park. Unfortunately, road closures, swarms of visitors, and snowy weather have gotten in the way. But finally the stars aligned on the last week of September and we were met with a sunny, uncrowded day to head out along the Highline Trail.

Due to an active forest fire in the park the Going-to-the-Sun Road was closed from Lake McDonald to Logan Pass meaning that we had to drive an extra hour and a half to reach Logan Pass from the St. Mary Lake entrance. However, the extra drive time was so worth it considering the conditions that we met once in the park.

Even though there was snow at the top of Logan Pass the sun was shinning, the sky was a brilliant blue, and there were hardly any other people visiting the park that day. In addition having the Going-to-the-Sun Road closed from the west made the Highline Trail super quite and peaceful as the trail winds on the rocky cliffs above the road for the first mile or so.

The Younger Fives really enjoyed hiking along the ledge at the beginning of the trail and looking down at the sheer drop. It is a good thing that none of us have a fear of heights as the hand cable that provides some extra security had already been taken down for the season. Once off the cliff section High Five discovered that the trail side plant species were covered with seeds just waiting to be caught by the wind and he spent the rest of the hike helping to disperse seeds. At times he released so many seeds that we were completely covered with seed fluff and looked quite ridiculous.

As we progressed along the trail we could see smoke from the Sprague Fire, but it didn’t affect the air quality where we were hiking. However, as we made our way up Haystack Pass we were met by hikers returning from the other direction that said the other side of the pass was getting pretty smoky. At that point we decided that we would rather hike in the fresh air and decided to turn back.

Turning back before Haystack Pass left us with enough time before dark to stop at Two Medicine Lake where we picnicked and enjoyed the scenery. The lake was really cold but felt great on our feet after hiking.

The Autumn scenery throughout the drive and hike was absolutely amazing and it was hard to think of this as being one of our last visits to Glacier National Park for the time being. Wildlife viewing for the day was also really great as we saw a mama Grizzly Bear and her cub, an American Pika (these guys are amazingly adorable), Mountain Goats, and a large heard of Big Horn Sheep that walked within feet of our picnic table. All in all it was very hard to drag ourselves away from the park at the end of the day and we all agreed that our Highline Trail experience was definitely worth the wait.


Cedars and Falls – The Best of Montana

On our recent trip to the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness we stopped off at two of Montana’s most amazing wilderness attractions. The first was the Ross Creek Cedar Grove very close to the Bull River Guard Station where we spent the night. This 100 acre National Forest protected area is home to an old growth cedar grove. Some of the western red cedars in the grove are over hundreds of feet high and can be as wide as 12 feet in diameter.

We hadn’t seen old growth trees like these since our time on Vancouver Island and we spent an entire morning exploring the grove. Some trees were hollowed out (yet still standing) and the Younger Fives had a blast climbing into the dark cavities. Other trees had fallen completely making massive play structures and slides. Most surprising during our visit to the cedar grove was the dry creek bed where previous visitors had erected hundreds of stone cairns. We took the time to add our own cairns to the arrangement, some of us building on top of fallen cedar trees. Overall the Ross Creek Cedar Grove is an amazing piece of wilderness that is a must see for anyone venturing to Western Montana.

Our next stop was the equally stunning Kootenai Falls where we were presented not only with views of the largest undammed falls in Montana, but also with a live movie shoot. Completely unexpected to us we ran across the cast and crew of Radioflash which was filming at the falls. This included seeing Dominic Monaghan (better known as Merry from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy) in costume with bloody makeup on his face. Having the cast and crew of a movie production along with their camera drones whizzing through the air was a little bit of a distraction in a place with such natural beauty. However, we did the best that we could to ignore the film production and concentrate on the awesome power and beauty of the falls.

We especially loved the swinging bridge that allowed us to walk directly over the falls. The bridge is not for those with a fear of heights, but it gives you an amazing view up and down the falls. On the other side of the river we spoke with a member of the Kootenai Tribe from Elmo, Montana who was there to make sure that the film crew didn’t disturb the area. The falls are a sacred site to the Kootenai Tribe and a place of much spiritual importance. While we could have done without the trucks, drones, and equipment of the film crew we were glad that we were able to visit Kootenai Falls as an end to our trip.

Overnight at the Historic Bull River Guard Station

Precipitation finally found its way to Montana helping to damper the forest fires and clear out most of the smoke. Eager to get out and explore more of the state before we move on in a few weeks we packed up the car and spent a few days in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. Five String has been interested in staying at the Bull River Guard Station for a while now and lucky for us it was available for the weekend.

The Bull River Guard Station was built in 1908 and served as a ranger station for the forest service until the 1970’s. The structure was designed and built by Granville ‘Granny” Gordon (a personal friend of President Theodore Roosevelt) and has a ton of history. The guard station underwent restoration in 1989, but it still retains the original layout. You can still see the 1910 era newspapers that were used to paper the walls when Granville, his wife, and three daughters lived at the guard station.

The inside of the guard station now features electricity, heat, a stove, and a refrigerator. The only amenity lacking is running water and an indoor bathroom (there is an outhouse just off the back porch). The Bull River Guard Station was way bigger than our family needed with four bedrooms, a sitting room, and a kitchen. Being an older structure situated in the wilderness it definitely attracts its share of rodents and insects. Five Spice spent the first hour sweeping away dead bugs and rodent droppings. We choose to do most of our cooking and eating outdoors and store our food in the car, which helped make sure that we didn’t attract the attention of “furry creatures”.

The view of the Cabinet Mountains from the guard station is stunning. The Bull River can be accessed in just a short walk and across the road is a huge grove of cedar trees. The weather cooperated and we spent most of our time hiking, walking along the river, and playing under the cedar trees. The number of hikes accessible from the area is amazing and we can see why the Bull River Guard Station is usually booked by guests throughout the year. We spent the ride home imagining all the other recreational possibilities that the guard station offers if we visit again in the summer or winter.

Badlands Moon Rising

Our last major stop on our East Coast Escape Road Trip was Badlands National Park in South Dakota. We arrived in the evening just in time to head into the park for some star gazing. A huge full moon made star watching difficult, but lit up the surrounding landscape giving the night a truly magical feel.

The next day we were in the park bright and early to try and get some hiking in before the temperature rose. Most visitors to the park only drive the loop road stopping at the scenic overlooks, so once you get off the road you pretty much have the park to yourself. We decided to hike towards Deer Haven and didn’t encounter any other visitors.

Hiking through the badlands is like being on the surface of another planet where someone made hundreds of dribble castles out of sand. There are a variety of formations and the colors can be quite spectacular. The Younger Fives had a blast climbing the various outcroppings, but soon found out that even though the formations are highly prone to erosion (The Badlands average one inch of erosion per year) they are very rough and can really scrape up your skin.

As the sun moved overhead the valley floor quickly heated up and all too soon it was time to return to the car and continue on towards home. As we drove away from the Badlands we all agreed that this national park ranks as one of our top favorites, and we all hope for a return visit.

Reconstructing the Prairie – A Visit to the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge

Several years ago when we were living in Maine Five String checked a book out from the library about the grasslands that once covered much of North America. Prairie Builders: Reconstructing America’s Lost Grasslands illustrates how much of the country used to be prairie and what happened to that ecosystem. The part of the book that really caught our attention all those years ago was the story that Prairie Builders told about the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. At that time we really wanted to visit the refuge and see what we had read about first hand. However, our travels took us in another direction and visiting was pushed to the back of our mind. So, it was with great excitement this past summer when we realized that we could finally visit the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge on our trip across the country.

The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1990 with the mission to bring back the tallgrass prairie to 5,600 acres of land just east of Des Moines, Iowa. The process of reconstructing the prairie is really fascinating from readying the land to finding native tallgrass prairie seeds. The book Prairie Builders does a great job of describing this process. However, visiting the refuge and the Prairie Learning and Visitor Center was really amazing. This was especially true after driving by miles and miles of agricultural land on our way across the country and finally getting a sense of what the land would have looked like in a more natural state.

The Prairie Learning and Visitor Center was one of the best visitor centers that we have been to in a long time. It was super engaging for both children and adults and did a wonderful job of explaining the history, importance, and science of the prairie and how it is being reconstructed at the refuge. The Younger Fives loved the hands-on exhibits and were thrilled at being taken into the “seed laboratory” by a park employee and shown the process by which the seeds are collected and processed to be used to replant the tallgrass prairie.

After we took in our fill at the learning center we had several trails to choose from that would take us up close to the reconstructed tallgrass prairie. It was amazing to be in the midst of the tall grasses! We were able to view flowers and butterflies while the wind made everything sway. The abundance and diversity of life that the prairie supports is staggering when compared to a field full of corn or soybean. We took this video to remind us of the beauty of this wonderful ecosystem that so many people worked tirelessly to bring back to North America.