Trip Report: Glacier National Park “hiker”

After a great first week in Glacier National Park with some really fantastic light and great people, Matt and I were especially excited for another week in one of our favorite parks in the country. Upon checking the forecast, we had high hopes for some great clouds and potentially dramatic skies throughout the week for our hiking based workshop. Unfortunately, great photo weather can often mean poor hiking weather, being that with clouds come rain and potential for lightning, especially in an area often referred to as the Crown of the Continent. Nevertheless, we had a group of photographers who were chomping at the bit to get out and hike long distances to shoot a variety of dramatic scenes.

As always, the first morning came way too early. We loaded up the vans and left our hotel in Whitefish at a still very dark 4:30 am, en route to Lake McDonald. We arrived at our first shoot just before 5:30 and were greeted by clear skies and choppy water. If you read Matt’s post about the week before, you’ll know that our Lake McDonald shoot provided some of the best conditions of the week. This time around, we would not be so lucky. The best thing about guiding in Glacier, however, is that the scenery does most of the job for us. Matt and I had it easy as we presented our guests with an opportunity to be introduced to a new park by way of sunrise in a beautiful location. I can’t imagine how it must have felt to experience such a beautiful and unique place for the first time at Mother Nature’s pace. Shooting the morning light over the lake as the sun crested the ridge allowed everyone to dial in their systems and work out the kinks before moving on to more time sensitive opportunities later in the week. I often say it’s hard to take a bad photo in Glacier, and that saying held true this morning as well, as we got some great reflection shots and got to play with polarizers to shoot Lake McDonald’s famous rocky bottomed lake bed.

As the sun made its way higher into the sky, we moved on toward Avalanche Creek and the Trail of the Cedars. This is always a fun place to shoot as the stream and surrounding cedar forest provides ample opportunity for very textural abstract photography, as well as some more intimate landscapes compared to the otherwise dramatic sweeping views that Glacier is so famous for. Our guests explored the riverside and canyons of Avalanche Creek before trying some depth of field shots looking up the bark of the cedars. One of my favorite abstracts of the trip, these shots can be really interesting, pulling the viewer into the top of the tree, and forcing you to ask, “What else might be up there?”

As we made our way toward St. Mary, we stopped along the way from time to time to shoot the various pull outs along the Going-to-the-Sun Road. A magnificent feat of human engineering, this road is as dramatic as they come, offering views that go on for miles, overlooking waterfalls, jagged peaks, and sweeping glacial cut valleys. If you haven’t been, there’s really no question, you have got to check it out.

After settling in at our lodging for the week, we made our way to Many Glacier and had dinner at the Many Glacier Lodge before spending the evening shooting wildflowers in a meadow looking towards Grinnell Peak. The light played with us for the rest of the evening, tantalizingly close to really going off, but never really quite getting going. We were able to still get some great images with a fairly interesting sky before the earliest start of the week the following morning beckoned an already tired group back toward the hotel.

Day two started at 4am with the group loading up and heading to the incredibly scenic Two Medicine valley. We would spend the morning shooting rocks in the lakebed, waiting for the light to materialize on Sinopah Mountain across the lake. While we were gifted with some really interesting clouds, the alpenglow never quite materialized. We were, however, visited by a moose calf who seemed to be curious as to what we were doing after walking out onto the lakeshore only about fifty yards away from Matt and a few of our guests.

The rest of our morning consisted of hiking to Running Eagle falls and a boat ride across Two Medicine Lake before hiking to the very scenic Rockwell Falls. All told, we hiked about six miles and got to see two very lovely waterfalls. A few of us also stopped frequently to try our hand at macro photography with the many different wildflowers that dotted the sides of the trail. Eric (one of our guests) would also gain a new nickname while at Rockwell Falls, “the big dipper”, given to him after he “dipped” his rental camera body in the water when crossing the stream chasing a shot of a dipper bird. Don’t worry, the body was fine and Eric was a great sport about it. Our group finished the morning with lunch at the Two Medicine general store and a drive back to the lodge at St. Mary for naps.

We would finish the evening with dinner and some unexpected visitors on our evening shoot. A few of the group members decided to take the evening off after an already impressively long day. Those that decided to stick it out were rewarded with an incredible sunset from the Highline trail overlooking the Going-to-the-Sun road.

While shooting the sunset, Eric and I were pleasantly surprised by a mountain goat who decided to sneak up on us. We had been shooting telephoto silhouettes on the opposing ridge line when Eric whispered to me, “He’s right here!”. I turned around to see a large mountain goat standing only a few feet away! My first thought was that he was too close, as I had been shooting with my 70-300mm lens. I asked the goat to politely hold still while I changed to my wide angle lens, and he was kind enough to oblige. Seconds after swapping lenses, the goat walked right between me and a truly incredible sunset. The shot that followed has become one of my favorite wildlife photos I have ever captured. Much thanks to Eric for keeping his head on a swivel! We were then fortunate enough to get to spend the next thirty minutes watching and photographing this very large mountain goat while he hung out and snacked on trailside bushes.

The following morning presented us with hazy conditions at the Wild Goose Island overlook at St. Mary’s lake and the flat light left us with something to be desired. Fortunately, as we began our hike to St. Mary falls, the clouds began to lift and we got some really dynamic looks at the nearby peaks, along with soft light on the falls. The whole group had a great time shooting the falls from a variety of angles and all tried to find just the right composition to balance an interesting foreground with such a dynamic background.

After a quick editing lesson from Matt, the group had dinner and made our way toward Logan Pass for an evening shoot at Hidden Lake. The Hidden Lake trail was closed after the pass, but we were still able to grab some great images from the Hidden Lake overlook. We had another visit from a mother mountain goat and her kid while waiting for sunset. Soon after, we had a storm blow through sending everyone running for their rain jackets and pack covers, and a few folks made for the van. As is often the case, those that stuck out the storm were rewarded with a beautiful, colorful sunset looking out over the Hidden Lake valley. We were also joined by a group of painters who added some comic relief to the otherwise cold and somewhat dreary evening. Waiting until the light had completely faded, the group hiked back in the dark, excited to see what our last full day would hold.

Yet another early start (anyone noticing a trend here?) brought us back to Many Glacier, this time in search of a sunrise shot overlooking Swift Current Lake. We found a nice calm cove that afforded beautiful reflections of Grinnell Peak and the Many Glacier Valley. We had a fascinating series of clouds move through that provided some really moody telephoto opportunities, as well as some dynamic wide angle landscapes. As the morning light became too harsh, we made for breakfast at the historic Many Glacier Hotel before setting out on our hike to Grinnell Lake.

The 7 mile round trip hike to Grinnell Lake brought many opportunities to photograph wildflowers, lakes and jagged peaks. We shot wildflower close ups and some rocky abstracts as we explored some of the Glacier backcountry. Before making our way back to the vans, a hiker pointed out a moose in the valley and we had fun arguing over whether what we were looking at was a moose or a bush. Too far away to photograph, we decided we would just make our way back to the lodge, leaving the moose for another time.

That evening, we made our way up the Going-to-the-Sun road again to photograph Lunch Creek. Everyone was able to snap a few more intimate waterscapes, before we continued to an overlook where the heavy cloud cover looked promising for an exciting evening shoot. While the light never materialized, most were just happy to have gotten another chance to take in the beauty of such an incredible place. We drove back to the lodge for the last time, glad we would have a few extra minutes to sleep in the following morning.

On the final morning of our trip, the full moon would be setting right over St. Mary lake, so we awoke early enough to get in position for a potential shot. While driving toward the lake, Matt’s van elected to stop and shoot the moon over the St. Mary valley, rather than going all the way to the lake, since it looked as though we would miss the shot behind the mountains. They were rewarded not only with some long range moon photos, but also with a grizzly bear and cubs who were casually walking down the road as they came to join the rest of the group at the Wild Goose Island overlook. While it was still too dark to get any photos, one guest was able to grab a video on their phone and shared it with the rest of us. An exciting start to the morning, and the sun hadn’t even come up yet!

We eventually got set up overlooking Wild Goose Island for the second time this week. The first try was too flat and the light never materialized, but this morning we were able to get a bit more color on the peaks and finally walk away with a satisfying image of a truly iconic scene. As we shot, the clouds played with the ridgelines and we were able again to capture some interesting telephoto landscapes as well. We then packed up and made our way back to Whitefish, where a delicious final meal together was enjoyed at the Swift Creek Cafe, before saying our final goodbyes and dropping everyone off at the airport. Another great trip in another beautiful location, and we can’t wait to do it all again next year!

Chris Gheen

Chris grew up exploring the mountains of North Carolina, originally with his family on weekend camping trips and later as a self taught rock climber and backpacker, leading him ultimately to a degree in Recreation Management from Appalachian State University with a focus in Outdoor Experiential Education. Immediately after graduating, Chris drove west, knowing the mountains and opportunities for adventure were much bigger. Since then, he has worked in a variety of guiding applications, from small leadership non-profits, to adolescent wilderness therapy, to commercial hiking and tourism guiding in California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, always with a camera in hand. Chris loves teaching and sharing his passions and experience with others and is sure to provide careful insight and education whenever the opportunity arises. Chris currently resides in Bozeman, Montana where easy access to Yellowstone National Park allows him frequent trips into the park to photograph wildlife and the unique geologic features of the area. When not behind the lens, he spends his time backcountry skiing, ice climbing, and mountain biking, always on the lookout for a new unique perspective to photograph. The mountains have always been a point of inspiration for Chris and he is excited to capture the beauty of the natural world in an effort to share the space he is so privileged to work in with those around him. For a look at some of Chris’ work, visit his website






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