When it was great, it was GREAT! And, when it was not, it was a socked-in mess of clouds, wind, and steady icy rain.
Our September Glacier National Park in Autumn tour was a good lesson in weather and how weather can at the same time reward, and ruin, the goals of the landscape photographer.
For those who’ve toiled in the world of landscape photography, this is nothing new. The photographer needs, and wants, weather for exceptional photography. A “nice” day for landscapers is not necessarily a blue-bird day that most tourists love to see. We need clouds, we want color, we desire mood for our images to really be effective.
Mother Nature provided all of this to our Autumn in Glacier tour this past September. At times we found great success with some of the BEST colors and skies that we’ve ever seen, and other times that same weather that provided so much skunked out intentions.
We met for dinner and orientation on the first day of our tour at Latitude 48, which is a nice bistro on the corner of cute downtown Whitefish, Montana. Whitefish began in the late 1800s as a railroad and logging town, and has developed into not only a ski town, home to White Fish Mountain, but also as the gateway to Glacier National Park. At our meeting, we discussed our goals and experiences as photographers, had a delicious dinner, and then retired early so as to be ready for the next morning.
We set off in the dark in order to get to Apgar Village in West Glacier so as to shoot Lake McDonald with the morning sun rising in the east. Lake McDonald is the largest glacier lake in the Park. It measures 10 miles long, over a mile wide, and up to 472 feet deep. At its westernmost section is Apgar Village, where lodging services and a visitor center are located. This is where we love to shoot our first morning’s sunrise. Clouds on the horizon blocked our view of Gunsight, Edwards, Brown, Little Matterhorn, Cannon, Vaught, and Stanton peaks, however, winds were at a whisper making the lake glassy, and the clouds provided a dreamy setting on the shores of Lake McDonald, which was very pleasant.
We moved on towards the Trail of Cedars and Avalanche Gorge/Creek. The morning was perfect for these shots, overcast and just a tad damp. Situated on the eastern edge of the maritime climate of the Pacific Northwest, the Lake McDonald Valley also marks the extreme eastern limits for western hemlocks and red cedars. The humidity in this valley allows red cedars to grow to heights of 100 hundred feet, and diameters of four to seven feet. Some of the trees in this area are estimated to be more than 500 years old.
The water of Avalanche creek comes from Avalanche Lake, which sits at the end of a backcountry trail, a little more than two miles and 730 feet above. Sperry Glacier, one of the largest of the remaining glaciers here, feeds this lake as well.
After a few hours composing images of the gorge and creek, we stopped back at Apgar for lunch at Eddie’s before heading around the southern portion of the Park on our way towards St Mary. We traveled this direction because of a road construction project that closed off the famous Going-To-The-Sun road on the west side of the Park between Avalanche and Logan Pass. This was unfortunate for our group as we were not able to climb the historic road, built between 1921 and 1932. This is the main vein road that connects West Glacier to the St. Mary Valley on the park’s eastern side. The road is viewed as perhaps the finest stretch of road in the country. Our Glacier tours typically do focus most on the east side of the Park, so only one of our planned shots was affected by this road closure, but driving it once is definitely a highlight we missed on this occasion.
The drive around the southern portion, however, is beautiful in its own as some of the higher peaks had been dusted by snow. We enjoyed it quite a bit as we made our way across East Glacier, passed Two Medicine (which we would visit later in the trip) and then north towards St. Mary, our strategically placed lodging location for the next four nights.
Following a nice dinner at the Snow Goose, the restaurant located inside the St. Mary Lodge, we set out on the Going-To-The-Sun Road for the shores of St Mary Lake. This portion of the road was made famous -whether people know it or not – from the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, “The Shining.” We would follow that portion of the road several times over the next few days.
The winds were howling and clouds were building in the St Mary Valley, things could not have been set up much better for us. The atmosphere seemed to be sitting there, queued up waiting for the sun to lower before being blown over across the valley and into our compositions where we worked to frame Red Eagle Mountain directly across St Mary Lake. Slow shutter speeds allowed us to capture the emotion of the lake, which was feisty, to say the least. It was a beautiful scene, one we’ll not soon forget.
We were even lucky enough to see a bull moose run across the road. It was darker than we’d have liked and most of us were not ready for it, but George Fiore was able to capture an image so that the sighting was more than just a ‘fish story.’
The next morning started cold, windy and with what appeared to be completely clear skies. We were headed towards the Many Glacier portion of the Park, which is located about 40 minutes to the northwest of St Mary. This area is viewed by many as one that truly defines Glacier National Park. Its relatively small valley encircled by towering jagged peaks has led to its nickname, Little Switzerland. Here, the historic Many Glacier Lodge sits on the banks of Swiftcurrent Lake, with Grinnell Point keeping watch as the prominent feature. Grinnell Point, as well as Grinnell Glacier and many other things at Glacier National Park, are named after George Bird Grinnell. Grinnell first visited the area that later became Glacier National Park in 1885, and used his influence to help secure the establishment of this park in 1910. He was also a founding member of the Boone and Crockett Club, the Audubon Society as well as other conservation efforts. Nearby Grinnell Glacier is named in his honor, as he was the first to find it in the late 1800s.
The winds were still present, but so were some perfectly placed clouds hovering over the valley, just behind and on top of Grinnell Point.
Essentially right where Bob Ross would have painted them in there. Skies were clear to the east, and our expectations and hopes were high for the sunrise. Glacier delivered in an even bigger way on this morning as the perfectly puffy clouds turned magenta and pink and burned red as Grinnell Point captured the morning light perfectly! It could really not have been better.
Following back-to-back great skies for sunset and then sunrise its safe to say that our expectations for the remainder of the tour had been given a very high bar. Forecasts were indicating that a winter storm was due to drop temperatures here by 20 degrees two days after we depart. Oh, and 6” of snow expected as well. If the weather holds, we’ll get out of here just in the nick of time to miss the snow, as cool as it could be to add snow into our compositions.
For as good at the start was for us, nasty conditions greeted us the following day, doing us no favors. The weather was contained to the St. Mary Valley and just socked it in with rain, wind and low lying clouds that created impossible situations for us. The entire day. We made an attempt to shoot sunrise from Logan Pass, however, conditions that felt like a hurricane pushed us off of our perch. We decided to move down the hill to see if things would be better below the low hanging clouds. As we approached the Wild Goose Island viewpoint, a rainbow was presenting itself just to the left of the iconic island scene. We jumped from the car, and in the rain, we rushed out to the viewpoint where we scrambled to capture this seemingly once-in-a-lifetime shot! Only a couple of us came away with the shot as the rainbow was fleeting and the light was snuffed out quickly.
The remainder of the day was washed out as far as the valleys and the mountains were concerned. Clear skies prevailed to our east over the Blackfeet nation, but the mountains remained completely socked in. This was our planned “slower” day anyway, as we were quite tired out from all of the activity of our prior days, but the weather kept things even slower for us than we’d have wanted. We made attempts to find light, or wildlife, whatever might present itself, to no avail. We were able to sneak a nice peek at Jackson Glacier. Jackson Glacier is approximately the seventh-largest of the remaining 25 glaciers
Our sunset shot was planned back at Many Glacier, so as to get a shot of the waterfall that sits just to the east of Swiftcurrent Lake, with Grinnell Point framed in the background. Terrible weather and light conditions continued and washed out our shot. We returned to the warmth and dry comforts of our rooms for the evening, hoping for a better day to follow, understanding that this can happen from time to time.
Staying positive, we set out in the morning for a shot at Wild Goose Island. This is one of the more iconic National Parks scenes, and a can’t miss shot here at Glacier. We had stopped the day before, during a rainstorm and got to see a rainbow but were not really able to photograph it as it was fleeting. The atmosphere this morning looked great for us. The moisture and cloud cover was still present, but a bit more broken up. It looked promising!
Wouldn’t you know it? Not only did we get another rainbow, but for a brief moment, it was complete across the lake, ending on the road just behind us! Incredible. Then, it became a double rainbow for a bit. We battled through light rain that was spitting in our faces, which was difficult to keep lenses clean, but the moment was almost too much. One of the most amazing scenes I’ve ever seen. It will be difficult to beat, that is for sure.
Moments like these go beyond photography. And being able to share in something so incredible with new friends who appreciate it as much as you do is one of the things about Backcountry Journeys tours that is really special. We felt lucky this morning. Lucky to see such a thing unfold. Lucky to be there ready and waiting for it. Lucky to be able to photograph it. Lucky to feel it.
It was a busy day as we took advantage of pretty nice weather. The aspen trees in the Park were gold, so we stopped in a stand near the campground to get several images, including learning a new technique. Shooting aspen in a unique way is quite a challenge, so expanding on the classic images of these amazing trees is a good thing. Following this, we made the short hike through the burnt-out forest that lines St Mary Lake to St. Mary Falls.
It was certainly nice to get out amongst the autumn colors on the forest floor and to just get a little bit of exercise. The highlight, however, was the falls.
After our hike, we took a short break prior to meeting up for dinner. Our evening shot was from a perch high up Going-To-The-Sun Road, just below the East Tunnel. Conditions looked promising as golden hour and sunset approached, yet failed to deliver the real goods. We were still pretty jacked about the morning shot, so it was not a big deal that the skies didn’t light up as we’d hoped. We still came away with great images of Heavy Runner, Reynolds and Clements Mountains, complete with Reynolds creek pouring over the Hanging Valley that drops sharply into the U-Shaped, glacier-carved St Mary Valley below.
Our final morning took us to Two-Medicine for a chance at framing Mount Sinopah over Two-Medicine Lake and Rising Wolf towering above. All of the aforementioned moisture in the mountains had dusted Rising Wolf with snow, and conditions finally, here on our last day, calmed down. The sky had nicely broken up puffy white clouds and things seemed like they were ready to present us one last perfect sunrise.
This part of the Park was considered sacred ground by several Native American tribes including the Blackfeet, and it is here where they performed vision quests. It is the most sacred section of the park aside from Chief Mountain. During the early days of the Park, Two Medicine was a primary destination for travelers arriving by train. After spending a night at Glacier Park Lodge, visitors climbed on horseback to travel to Two Medicine for a night in one of several rustic chalets or canvas tipis built by the Great Northern Railway. From Two Medicine, a system of backcountry tent camps and chalets within the park allowed these adventurous visitors to live in Glacier’s wild interior. The lodge that was once here is mostly gone now. A boathouse here is on the National Register of Historic Places.
We had a nice sunrise at Two Medicine, but it didn’t blow up into what it seemed to have the potential to do. At the same time, we did finally get to experience some really delightful weather to welcome in the morning.
New friendships were made on this trip, and we were blessed with a lot of great opportunities for landscape shots, including what I would consider a shot-of-a-lifetime at Wild Goose Island.
Glacier National Park is a spectacular place to be, no matter the season. For landscape photographers, it seems to provide more often than it doesn’t. If you’ve yet to see the majesty of the “Crown of the Continent,” put it on your list of places you need to get to. I, for one, cannot wait to return to see what else might be in store.
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and has had several of his writings and photographs published in the Omaha World-Herald newspaper. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.