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.

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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.

Boating Under Hazy Skies

Smoke from nearby forest fires has made its way to the Flathead Valley and our usually brilliant blue sky is now overcast. This past week we headed to the northern end of the lake and the haze was so bad that it felt like we were canoeing at dusk even though it was noon.

The north end of Flathead Lake offers a stark contrast to what we are used to in the Lakeside area. The Somers end of the lake used to be home to a saw mill and railroad tie factory and the remains of industry can still be seen in old pilings and buildings.

Along the shoreline the water is very shallow and sandy compared to the rocky shore that we usually swim off at West Shore State Park. The Younger Fives had a ball jumping out of the kayak and running along the lake bottom while we floated along behind them.

With the overcast sky it seemed like we were canoeing along an ocean bay instead of on Flathead Lake. The bird spotting was thick along the shores of the lake with geese, gulls, and osprey spread out in the shade of the large cottonwood trees. We all enjoyed the change of environment even though we were still on the same body of water.

A Visit to the Flathead Lake Bio Station

The Flathead Lake Biological Station was established in 1899 making it one of the oldest active biological field research stations in the United States. This past week we were fortunate to take part in their open house. We had never explored the Yellow Bay section of Flathead Lake before and were astounded by the number of cherry orchards that we passed as we drove to the station. Even more exciting however, was being able to tour the Biological Station and find out more about the research projects taking place on and around the lake.

As we toured the grounds we met a variety of scientists both international and local that were more than happy to explain their research projects to us. We viewed and learned more about drones that are being used to map mountains and floodplains. The kids took part in a hands on experiment that helped them understand the many shapes (and their function) of plankton. At one display the kids were tasked with finding a representation of Nitrogen and Phosphorus in a large bucket of sand. This helped explain how little Nitrogen and especially Phosphorus there is in Flathead Lake. The Phosphorus in the lake is used so quickly that it is incredibly hard to detect in water samples.

After making our way through the Biological Station’s buildings we headed down towards the dock where we watched two dogs that were trained to sniff out invasive species. It was incredible to watch one of the dogs find a Zebra Mussel hidden in the motor of a boat within seconds of the scent hitting her nose.

For the grand finale of our tour we went out on one of the field station boats towards one of the monitoring buoys placed on the lake. The boat operator (a long-time researcher at the station) gave us a great overview of the work going on at the Flathead Lake Biological Station. The kids especially enjoyed the high waves that the boat encountered due to it being a very windy day!

All in all it was a fascinating open house and a great hands on look into the science being conducted just across the lake from us. It was especially wonderful to hear that Flathead Lake is a very healthy ecosystem and that a lot of work is being put into keeping it that way.