Glacier National Park boasts some of the most stunning mountain landscapes in the world. Rocky peaks jut high into the sky, adorned with glacial blue lakes and tumbling cascades. Mountain goats and marmots populate the alpine meadows, where in summer, wildflower blooms erupt in the millions. For the landscape photographer who ventures here, Glacier National Park offers an infinite array of epic vistas for those willing to explore the granite peaks and glacially carved valleys. For the wildlife enthusiast, the park is a venerable wonderland.
It is home to the highest density of grizzly bears in the lower 48 states, as well as being home to black bears, elk, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, moose, eagles, osprey, and my personal favorites, two species of marmot, the yellow belly marmot and the hoary marmot.
Created in 1910, Glacier National Park was named not for the few glaciers that still clung to many of its upper reaches, but for the glaciers that carved this incredible landscape. These glaciers were at their thickest around 20,000 years ago at the peak of the last ice age. As of 2015, only 26 glaciers remained in the park. But today, many of those no longer meet the criteria to be considered a glacier (0.1 km2). Perhaps as few as 18 remain, and these too will melt away some day soon. But, the legacy left behind by these great glaciers can be seen in crystal clarity by gazing upon the sheer granite mountain sides or into the deep glacial lakes that were carved by the gargantuan sheets of ice.
This year, Backcountry Journeys led four consecutive groups into this remarkable landscape to explore its beauty through a camera lens, in search of unforgettable scenery and the many species of wildlife that call this region home. I had the great pleasure of leading the first two groups with co-guide and scholarly gentleman, Michael Wichman. For this article, I will be relaying to you the experience of our first group of ten nature enthusiasts and photographers.
This week’s journey would not be without challenges, primarily relating to the conditions we were forced to contend with, the foremost of which being the wildlife smoke that hung thickly in the park’s valleys. The fires were burning to the west, primarily in Idaho and Oregon, but eastward blowing winds and forced the smoke into the national park, obscuring much of the landscape. There were days during which the smoke would dissipate due to wind or precipitation, and there were days that it was quite thick. But, we worked hard to time our destinations to coincide with the best possible conditions. We would be rewarded with some prime opportunities despite the smoke.
Our trip began in the town of Whitefish, Montana, from which we set out the first morning. Our first stop would be in West Glacier to photograph sunrise on the shores of Lake McDonald. The smoke was indeed thick this day, but it added a lot to the scene, giving it a warm glow, as well as diffusing the sun once it rose above the eastward peaks, giving it the look a glowing orange ball.
From there, we headed east over Going-to-the-Sun-Road. Few places leave the jaw agape as often as Going to the Sun Road, a vertigo-inducing two lane road that clings to the mountain sides as it snakes its way up and over Logan’s Pass and into the east side of the park. That evening, due to thick smoke, we went on a game drive through the east side of the park where we encountered what would be the first of many, many bear sightings. I’d heard talk online and amongst the rangers of changes in animal movement and behavior since the pandemic, as much of the park was shut down throughout last year. And perhaps the absence of a strong human presence throughout last year had contributed to this, but throughout the week, we would see more bears than I had ever seen in the park, a pattern that continued throughout the following weeks as well.
The following morning we photographed sunrise from the shores of St. Mary Lake, then took a guided boat ride past Wild Goose Island and to see one of the park’s many waterfalls. And that evening, we photographed sunset at Big Bend, a classic location for sunsets featuring wildflowers in the foreground and the peaks around Logan’s Pass in the background.
Throughout the following days, we chased sunrises and sunsets amongst some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the world, in places like Many Glacier, Two Medicine, and Wild Goose Island. Though in the afternoon, conditions would worsen in terms of smoke, the mornings were typically quite clear, even rewarding us with some fluffy clouds from time to time. And though the skies were often not ideal, the wildflowers were popping. Especially in areas up near Logans Pass and Lunch Creek, we found countless blooms of purple aster, Indian paintbrush, fireweed, and sticky geranium.
One of the highlights of the week was our moose quest down at Fishercap Lake. I’d received some intel that a moose cow had posted up there at the lake with a calf, and we couldn’t resist the temptation to head down there one evening and see if we couldn’t get a look at her. When we arrived, the shallow waters of the lake were absent of moose, but we found her just a couple dozen yards up from the lake chewing her cud with here calf lying at her feet. We spent the better part of an hour with her, patiently waiting on her to turn towards us for a clear photo. She eventually did turn, but not in the direction we had hoped. She head into the deep willows, pausing just at the edge of the lake, allowing us one more look at her before we headed back to St. Mary’s for the night.
Another evening I’ll always remember was the night were up photographing the cascades at Lunch Creek. As we worked the slopes, photographing purple asters set against the waterfalls, the conditions began to shift dramatically. Thick cumulous clouds began to accumulate above St. Mary’s Lake, making shafts of light shoot across the sky as the sun dipped low on the horizon. I knew we had to get to the Wild Goose Island overlook. I made the call and we hustled down to the vans and then drove down Going to the Sun Road to the overlook, one of the most famous vantage points in the park. And, it turned out to be the right call.
The sky turned to fire as the clouds lit up in oranges and pinks above the reflective waters of St. Mary Lake. We spent last light shooting there, enjoying some of the best sunset conditions I’d witnessed at St. Mary’s.
Though this week’s conditions presented its challenges, experiencing Glacier National Park under any conditions is an unforgettable experience. We traveled to almost every corner of the park chasing the lights, and were rewarded with some epic photographic conditions, despite the wildfire smoke that seemed to thicken with the afternoon light.
It was also a treat for me working with Michael Wichman for the first time, who proved himself to be an excellent guide, companion, and roommate throughout my two weeks there.
So, big thanks to him, as well as an awesome group of nature lovers who dove into this trip with zeal and enthusiasm, the kind that make my job such a joy.
Ben Blankenship was born in Nashville, Tennessee. As a young man he studied ceramics and fine arts. In college, he pursued filmmaking, writing, and photography. After graduation, he worked for nearly a decade in broadcast television as an video editor, photographer, and cinematographer. Over the last several years, he has transitioned into working full-time as a photojournalist and travel photographer. He has worked abroad in Costa Rica, Belize, and Uganda. His photographic passions include wildlife, conservation, travel, events, and documenting social and political events around the world. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Oregonian Newspaper, and by Photographers Without Borders. He currently splits his time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. See his most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com