As I turned towards the mountains in the distance I took a breath and sort of absorbed the scene unfolding all around. It was about 7:00am – in the summertime and I was high on the Northwest shoulder of Boulder Peak in Glacier National Park. In just about every direction jagged peaks exploded from their granite roots and rose like craggy cathedrals from deep lakes below. The soft morning light was gently illuminating the Livingstone Range to my west and bouncing off of a partly cumulus cloud-cover. What a spectacle being at 10,000 feet in Glacier is first thing in the morning. I setup my tripod and took a photo. Not this one – but the first of quite a few.
I had just finished a photography workshop and was out on a three-night backpacking trip in Glacier with my cousin Jack and my girlfriend Crystal. We we’re doing a 37-mile loop on the western slope of Glacier, starting at Bowman Lake then up and over Browns & Boulder Passes to finish at Kintla Lake a bit further north. We had been intending on crossing over into Waterton Lakes on the Canadian side but one of our group had forgotten their passports…
There are quite a few good photo opportunities along this route but the Boulder Pass area sticks out in my mind (and in my photographs) as really being the highlight of this trip – at least photographically. The Boulder Pass backcountry campsite is the highest backcountry campsite in Glacier National Park at 7600 feet in elevation. In the summertime this pass is with little waterfalls and cerulean melt ponds – it is typically one of the last place in Glacier to become snow free. When we visited in late July it was absolutely covered in alpine wildflowers.
The image above was first attempted after setting up camp in the valley below Boulder Peak – a fairly inconspicuous yet well placed peak with incredible views from its easily attainable 8500-foot summit. There is no trail to the top yet you can easily just walk up the alpine tundra with a daypack as it’s all above tree-line. From the summit of Boulder Peak one can see practically all the way to Missoula to the south and far into the Canadian Rockies to the North – it is spectacular to say the least. Glacier’s Lewis and Livingston Ranges dominate the scene with their glacially carved spires and formidable walls. The image above is of Kinnerly and Kintla Peaks with Numa Ridge and lovely pocket lake down in the valley.
There is even a throne on the summit of Boulder Peak made of stones which is a pretty spectacular vantage point. I had a moment up there where I felt like I was Thor – the Norse god of Thunder hanging out in his lofty realm above everything else.
The wind, however proved to be the biggest hurdle that night as I was aiming for the grand, sweeping landscape shot. I wanted maximum depth of field to keep all the interesting mountains I could see from the summit in focus. I also wanted a low ISO to keep noise to a minimum and so in the fading evening light it was hard to keep my shutter speeds less than 1-2 seconds. This didn’t work so well in the wind and my images came out softer than I wanted due to tripod shake.
I returned to meet my friends down at our camp. We had a great dinner – Jack’s famous mashed potato & bacon backpacking bowl and hung out by the fire. After relaxing in seriously one of the most beautiful places on Earth we hung our bear bags and retired to our tents.
I was able to get my images the following morning as the wind had all but stopped. Waking up early and making the trek up Boulder Peak once again, the light from the rising sun was also illuminating the Eastern faces of the Livingston Mountains – perfect. As I got higher on the peak a few puffy white, cumulous clouds rolled in to add some depth and drama to the scene – even better. I parked my tripod on the shoulder of Boulder Peak, added camera, lens, polarizing filter and composed my image. Click. All in a day’s work and all before breakfast! I headed back down the mountain.
Today we were packing up camp and heading down to lower elevations to a destination along the shores of Kintla Lake one of Glacier’s largest lakes.
Backpacking in Glacier
Glacier National Park is without a doubt one of the most intensely beautiful places I’ve ever seen. I return every year to try and hike or raft a different corner of the park. Everything about this place draws me – obviously the photographic opportunities, the jagged peaks, the countless lakes, the raging rivers, the wildflowers, the wildlife – it’s all part of the package.
One of my favorite things to do is go backpacking in Glacier. You can spend anywhere from just a few nights to a few weeks out exploring the backcountry trails of this park. There is still quite a bit of it that I haven’t fully explored.
It is popular in the summertime, being a mountain environment and the National Park service does a good job regulating overuse. It can still seem “crowded” in July & August for a backcountry wilderness but it’s all relative. You need a permit for overnight backpacking in Glacier which are attainable online starting March 1st of the year. Luckily, the park also reserves a large portion of available sites for walk-in folks as well. That’s how we were able to get our Bowman to Kintla permit last minute – and it worked out fine. Months outside of the summer are much easier to get permits for but then you need to be prepared for snow, cold and poor weather conditions. September is a great time to hike Glacier National Park as most of the crowds are gone and so are the mosquitos. If you try and go earlier than July, most years there is still snow in the higher elevations making many of those passes impossible to cross safely. As in any mountain environment, backpacking in Glacier requires a certain level of preparedness. It is an alpine wilderness and there are certain exposures for which you have to prepared.
Photography and Backpacking
When traveling in the backcountry you really have to focus on what you need. If you don’t keep it lightweight you’re going to regret your choices in the end. I use a similar setup on most of my backpacking trips as I find it lends pretty well to most outdoor photography scenarios.
A chest pack that can also fit inside your main backpack is a fantastic way to keep your camera ready at a moment’s notice. When you know you aren’t going to use it for a while – stash it in your pack. At the time of this writing I’ve been using the Mountain Smith Descent.
I carry one body – at this time of this writing it is the Canon 5D SR, a wide-angle zoom and a longer telephoto lens for wildlife. The telephoto works well for intimate, close-up landscapes and macro shots as well but you can leave this at home if you are only into landscape photography.
All of this gear fits in my Mountain Smith Descent chest pack along with my filters, micro-fiber cloth, memory cards and two batteries. As for a tripod I usually stick with a lightweight aluminum or carbon fiber tripod that attaches to my pack.
Photography and backpacking is a juggling act. I could probably go lighter by bringing a smaller camera or only one lens but for me the photography is paramount. If I’m traveling to far flung destinations I better be coming back with excellent images! There are also a few more things that I would rather have out there but this is backpacking and everything you throw in that pack adds weight to your back! I always remember the old saying, ounces=pounds and pounds =pain!
Don’t Miss the Next Session of BCJ “Live”
Backyard Bird Photography: Simple Techniques for Wildlife Close to Home
with Russell Graves
Tuesday, March 9th, 2021 at 11 am (Mountain)