Glacier National Park rests in the northern reaches of Montana, on the border of British Columbia and Alberta. It is one of the wildest parks in the lower 48 and remains to be my favorite national park outside of Alaska.
The park includes over 1 million acres of protected wilderness, over 130 named lakes, some of the most jagged peaks in North America, jaw-dropping waterfalls, more than 1,000 species of plants, and 62 species of mammals. That’s just a quick rundown of the highlights. Glacier National Park and the surrounding region are referred to as the, ‘Crown of the Continent.’ Amazingly, the park has retained all of its species richness and diversity since Lewis and Clark skirted the park over a hundred years ago.
For landscape and wildlife photography, the park is one of the rare gems in the United States. The landscapes are some of the most inspiring, and the wildlife spotting’s can be numerous. Early summer and fall are my favorite times to visit the park. In summer, meadows around the park are carpeted with wildflowers and grizzlies can be found foraging on huckleberries. Fall brings extremely dramatic weather and skies, along with richly colored foliage.
I recently led two back-to-back Backcountry Journeys Glacier National Park workshops. Each tour was unique, as well as very productive workshops. We came away with a ton of quality images. This report will focus on the first trip, which was the Glacier National Park (hiker) workshop from August 11th to the 16th.
All of Backcountry Journeys’ Glacier National Park trips start in the beautiful Montana city of Whitefish. It is a quaint little mountain town, with a Jackson Hole-esque feeling. Our group met for an orientation at the Pine Lodge, where we discussed the itinerary for the week and trip logistics. From the first few minutes of introductions, I could tell that I had an advanced group of photographers to work with for the week. I was excited to put them on some great spots in the park where they could use some more advanced photography techniques, like focus stacking and exposure blending. After orientation, we ate dinner in downtown Whitefish at Latitude 48, where we discussed final logistics related to our take off in the morning. Orientation is always great, but let’s be honest, all of us come for the action! The group was excited to get into the park and get their first chance at photographing the place. After a great meal, alarms were set for 4:30 a.m. and some sleep (albeit brief) was in order.
Whitefish is a great place to start our Glacier National Park workshops because of its close proximity to Glacier’s west side. A quick 40-minute drive will get you to the shores of Lake McDonald. And to start off Day two, we did just that. We parked at Apgar Village and made our way to the shore of Lake McDonald. Our goal was to capture an epic sunrise with some of those incredibly colored rocks that are found in the lake.
We got to the lake and were greeted by an unusual scene for August – wispy clouds around the peaks at the end of Lake McDonald and stormy conditions. Those conditions would remain a staple the rest of the week, which is very unlike mid-August in Glacier (usually August is dry and has clear skies, with an occasional thunderstorm). After some shooting, we moved further along the lake to shoot Avalanche Gorge.
The gorge features turquoise blue water and beautiful, polished rocks. The misty weather continued and after the gorge, we visited a few more waterfalls to take advantage of the overcast weather.
Our highlight for the day was slated to be the 50-mile drive across Going-to-the-Sun Road, one of the most incredible engineering marvels that I have ever seen. The views are insane and the road is very exposed at some points. Today, we marveled at the clouds and mist as the mountains peaks hid from us. We finally made it to the east side of Glacier National Park. St. Mary would be our base for the remaining days of the workshop. We packed a lot into the morning so we grabbed lunch at a local favorite, Two Sisters Café, and then checked into our rooms for a quick break before dinner and our sunset shoot.
We met back up for dinner and I decided to take the group up to Logan Pass to see what the weather conditions would be like. It looked stormy and I was hopeful for some dramatic light. We got to Logan Pass and it did not look good, socked in and high winds. I decided that I would take the group back down to shoot from the shore of St. Mary Lake. That’s when our night experienced a shocking and very unfortunate event. Just as we left Logan Pass, we came to one of the first tunnels heading east and noticed traffic was backed up. The word was there was a rockfall and there were a few injuries just on the other side of the tunnel. I left the vehicle and went to check out the scene with a ranger. I ran through the tunnel to see a Dodge Ram with its windshield absolutely smashed, and a massive amount of rock overlaying a section of the road. Three first responders were in the back seat of the Dodge Ram assisting a girl who I assumed had been hit by one of the falling rocks through the sunroof of the truck. One of the responders told me that the girl potentially had a skull fracture and was having trouble breathing. The family was off to the side crying and it was a really traumatic event to witness. I felt a pit in my stomach and hoped for the best for the girl and the family. The ranger notified me that they were going to land a chopper nearby so we headed back up to Logan Pass. We waited for about three hours and watched everything unfold. A chopper came in but did not take off immediately and then an ambulance rushed up and down the road a little later. The road was eventually cleared and we made it back down to our lodging late that night. The next day we would find out that the girl was too unstable to fly and she passed away in the ambulance on the way to the hospital in Kalispell. It was a very sad and tragic event, and also totally unpredictable. If that vehicle would have passed by a split-second earlier, maybe everyone would have been fine. It was a freak accident and all of our group couldn’t help but feel this tragedy, sending thoughts and prayers out to the family.
We began our morning at the shore of St. Mary Lake with a massive view of Red Eagle Mountain. Red Eagle Mountain is one of the widest and most massive mountains in the Park, and it towered over us on this morning. Skies were relatively clear for us, but there is no denying the beauty of first light on Red Eagle Mountain. We experimented with some reflections and some of the scattered wood on the shore. After sunrise, we took a quick hike to the two-tiered St. Mary Falls. Harsh light had made its way onto the falls by the time we made it there so we decided to enjoy the hike and potentially come back to visit the falls later in the trip with better conditions. It is one of my favorite waterfalls in the park though, the two cascades mirror each other and provide lots of photographic opportunities.
We spent the rest of the day searching for wildlife. Although renowned as a place for landscape photography, I have actually seen more wildlife here than in Yellowstone. We spotted a grizzly off in the distance but hoped to get a closer sighting. We again grabbed lunch and took a quick afternoon break before our afternoon session.
With skies looking clear, I took the group to shoot one of my favorite wildflower spots in the park, Big Bend. Big Bend offers great wildflower blooms at all times of summer and it has to be one of the best views in the park. Mount Oberlin and Mount Cannon tower over the scene and are dissected by the 500-foot Birdwoman Falls. The clouds never graced us on the evening this day, but we again pledged to come back when conditions looked better.
The following morning we drove over to the Many Glacier area of the Park for our sunrise shoot. Many Glacier is home to some of the best hiking trails in the Park, yet also boasts the amazing Swiftcurrent Lake and Swiftcurrent Creek. We spent sunrise shooting both Grinnell Point over Swiftcurrent Lake and Swiftcurrent Creek flowing into the rising sun. All of the major lakes in the park feature an iconic mountain that catches great sunrise light, and Swiftcurrent Lake is no different. We shot well after sunset, as the light continued to be very good. After sunrise, we went moose hunting. We hiked out to Fishercap Lake and Redrock Lake. No luck during our hike out so we spent a lot of time shooting Redrock Falls and the surrounding mountains. We shot a lot of waterfalls this week, and one of our members even dubbed himself, ‘The Unofficial National Parks Waterfall Photographer’. We got our shots of the waterfall and on our hike back, we hit the jackpot. A mama moose feeding on vegetation in Redrock Lake and her calf off on the shore. We were able to get some great shots with our long lenses and mama moose was posing non-stop for us. It was a great, great morning.
We stopped in at the historic Many Glacier Hotel and ventured back to our rooms for a quick break before an evening hike.
After dinner, we headed up to Logan Pass and hiked to the Hidden Lake Overlook. This is one of my favorite hikes in the park and the overlook offers one of the best views. Wildflowers looked really promising and the weather…oh, the weather looked fantastic.
A storm passed through and great light and clouds were passing through already at 6 pm when we arrived at Logan Pass. We started our hike and the light seemed to get better, we were all ecstatic. Well, the theme of the week would be “storms pushing through and getting us excited,” and then, “another storm coming in to crush our dreams.” This night was no different. We made it to the overlook and another storm pushed through, blocking our golden light. However, we were able to enjoy the view of Bearhat Mountain and we even spotted some bighorn sheep on the trail. We hiked back out in the dark with our headlamps shining and made it back to our rooms late. All of us were exhausted, but excited for what the next day would hold.
Our sunrise spot for day five was Two Medicine Lake. Two Medicine could be my favorite sunrise lake in the park. I have fond memories from my first photography trip to the park many falls ago. I had incredible conditions and I always have special memories when I return to the place. We were up early, as the drive is one hour, but we arrived at twilight and began shooting immediately. It would be another full hour until sunlight would grace the top of Sinopah Mountain and we would continue to shoot much past that. The light at Two Medicine Lake continues to keep giving hours after sunrise. We decided to take the short hike to Running Eagle Falls or Trick Falls. The falls are great, but the area around the falls is also very scenic. We had a great view of the running rapids of Two Medicine Creek and the surrounding mountains. After a few hours of shooting at Two Medicine Lake, we headed back to St. Mary and took our afternoon break.
The weather looked promising for the evening, so I took the group back up to Big Bend. I wanted to get some nice clouds over the amazing fireweed bloom that was occurring up there. We definitely got the clouds, but winds had picked up big time making it very difficult for us to freeze the motion of the flowers. We did our best though and we got a really nice light show over Mount Oberlin and Mount Cannon.
Another night in the books, it was hard to believe that we were on to our final morning the next day.
We awoke on our last day to howling winds and clouds all over the sky. I was excited because the conditions looked incredible. We jumped in the van and headed to Wild Goose Island, one of the most iconic photography locations in the park. This was by far our best sunrise. The light started and seemed to go on forever. First, we got the pinks and reds in the clouds and sky, the light then transitioned to the peaks, and eventually, the entire landscape was lit up. Waves were crashing all over the shore of St. Mary Lake and we really got lucky with the amazing conditions on the lake. We decided as a group to skip breakfast on our final morning and we quickly hiked out to St. Mary Falls.
Conditions were perfect. The cloudy skies provided us the shade we needed and we captured some great images of the falls. We hiked out and reminisced about the trip all the way back to Kalispell. It was a great workshop. Excellent people at one of the most incredible parks in the United States.