For this July’s Backcountry Journeys Glacier National Park tour, our group would be chasing sunrises and sunsets amongst some of the most pristine and stunning alpine lakes this continent has to offer.
Ringed with rocky peaks and bathed in beautiful morning and evening light, we would have opportunities to photograph these incredible landscapes amongst a variety of conditions. We would experience nearly all the weather that the park has to offer, from the summer sun to thunderstorms, to blasting wind that kicked up three to four-foot waves on the lakes.
In addition to this, we would hike a total of over thirty miles throughout the week, experiencing this incredible wilderness in-depth and up close. By the end of the trip, we would leave with memories and images of this incredible ecosystem, as well as of interactions with grizzly bears, mountain goats, marmots, and a moose running full tilt up the Going to the Sun Road.
Day 1: Welcome to the Crown of the Continent
Glacier National Park sits nestled in the northwestern corner of Montana, straddling the Canadian border. The portion of the park that extends into Canada is Waterton Lakes National Park, and the two Parks together are known as the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. This ranging and diverse wilderness is called the “Crown of the Continent” ecosystem, and is a World Heritage Site as well as being designated a United Nations Biosphere Reserve.
The park has its own airport, which is in the town of Kalispell, Montana, about thirty miles from the park’s west entrance. For this reason, our tour always begins in the adjacent town of Whitefish, where we spend our first night at the Pine Lodge Hotel.
As is customary for all Backcountry Journeys tours, we kick off the tour with an introductory meeting and dinner. It’s an excellent opportunity to get to know our group and allow everyone to tell us their goals for the trip, photographically or otherwise. We would have three returning clients in this group of seven, which is always a pleasure to have clients we’ve worked with before and know.
Though two of our clients had already been in the park for a few days prior to the trip’s commencement, this would be everyone’s first experience venturing into Glacier National Park. The Glacier Trip is a special one in that it provides some incredible landscape opportunities, arguably some of the best in the world, while also being one of the two best locations in the lower 48 states to see bears, specifically grizzly bears. And, though everyone was there to shoot landscapes, it was a unanimous sentiment that seeing some bears was a must! And though we can never guarantee wildlife interactions, my fellow guide Kevin and I had just spent two days scouting our shooting locations and had seen something like eight or nine bears over the course of those two days. So, we felt chances were pretty good that we would be seeing some more bear action.
After our meal in Whitefish, we retired for the evening to prepare for a very early start. As often happens on our trips, the first morning out would be one of the earliest because we would be heading for a sunrise shot inside the park at Lake McDonald, which is about 40 miles from the hotel.
Day 2: Entering the Park and Lake McDonald
On the morning of Day Two, we met in the hotel lobby for a 4 a.m. start to head into the park and to our first sunrise setup on the banks of Lake McDonald. From the hotel in Whitefish, we headed east before turning north into the village of West Glacier and then into the park for the first time. Lake McDonald is accessed through Apgar Village, which sits on the southwest bank of the Lake. This point on the lake offers excellent vantage points of the rising sun to the east.
This being our first setup of the trip, we did a full composition explanation and walked everyone through their ideal camera settings to capture the sunrise. With the sun rising in our camera frame, we worked to capture the morning light before the sun broke the horizon. Then, as the first direct rays of light slipped over the mountain peaks, we stopped our lenses down to their smallest aperture to create a sunstar. Though we did not have the best clouds for this shot, the weather was great, the lake calm, and we were able to grab some excellent shots with backgrounds of blue-hued mountains and a perfect sunstar perched at their pinnacle.
After a hot breakfast at Eddy’s Diner in Apgar Village, we packed up and headed to the trailhead for our first hike. We would be hiking to Avalanche Gorge and then finishing the hike at the beautiful Avalanche Lake.
Avalanche Gorge is a narrow, but deep and craggy canyon lined with iridescent green mosses and foliage and filled with clear blue meltwater as Avalanche Creek surges through its cracks and crevasses. This was one of the photo locations I was most excited to reach, and we did so at the perfect time of day, just as the morning sun was just beginning to push through the trees at the top of the gorge. This allowed for some beautiful compositions, utilizing long exposure to soften the water into a cool bluish blur. And with the morning sun peeking through the forest above, it created an excellent contrast of color and composition.
From here, we walked the 1.7-mile trail to Avalanche Lake to take our lunch. The hike is a moderately challenging one, with some elevation gain. But, the hike is also a lesson in avalanche science, with huge swaths of trees and earth flattened from avalanches past.
Luckily though, it being summer, there was no snow to come crashing down the mountainsides and crush us. After lunch and a few photographs of the lake, we packed up and hiked back out the way we had come in. From here, we would be driving across the park to our hotel in the village of St. Mary’s. And our journey would take us over the Going-to-the-Sun Road for the first time of the trip.
This famous two-lane road meanders up the mountainsides and through the heart of the park before reaching its apex at the Logan’s Pass Visitor Center. From there, the road descends through some of the best scenery in the park. It follows a deep ravine ringed with rocky peaks that are bristling with countless wildflowers on their lower slopes.
This year was an especially good year for beargrass, a tall wildflower that forms a rounded club of little white flowers at its top. They bloom in profuse numbers every few years in the park and can cover a slope entirely with their white ball-shaped blooms.
Our last stop before arriving at St Mary’s Lodge for check-in was a meadow of wildflowers. Kevin and I had scouted this location for opportunities to shoot some wildflower closeups while we waited for check-in time at the hotel. But, we would not be there long, because nearly as soon as we stepped into the meadow, two of our clients began having an allergic reaction to the pollen in the field. Due to the quickness and intensity of the allergy attack, we would dub the pasture the “poison field,” and would not return for the rest of the trip for that reason.
After the morning’s excursions, we were able to check into our hotel rooms, take showers to remove all the pollen from the “poison field,” and have a bit of rest before heading to Wild Goose Island for our sunset shot.
Wild Goose Island is a small, pine tree-covered island in the middle of St. Mary’s Lake. It is also one of the most iconic shots of Glacier National Park. The famous angle is from a viewing area accessible from Going to the Sun Road. We set up there first, capturing our own versions of that famous image. Then, we took most of the group, everyone who was willing to make the short descent, down to the lake’s shore. Here, crystal clear waters reveal strange geometric rock formations just below the water’s surface, making for some excellent foreground.
We shot here until near last light, then packed up and headed back to the hotel for a short night’s rest before embarking again the following morning.
Day 3: Hidden Lake and The Bear Chase
The third day of our Glacier National Park tour would be a memorable one. That morning we shot sunrise in the Two Dog Flats area along the shore of St. Mary’s Lake, but it was our evening hike that would prove to be the most eventful.
For sunset, we would be hiking up to Hidden Lake from the Logan’s Pass Visitor Center. That afternoon, as we made the drive up the Going-to-the-Sun Road to the visitor center, we could see that the weather was changing. Dark clouds were rolling in through the valley, but we were ready for this. With rain gear and camera sleeves in our packs, we began the hike to Hidden Lake.
The Hidden Lake hike is slightly more difficult than the one to Avalanche Lake that we had done the day before. It is less than two miles to reach the viewpoint for the lake, but the trail is nearly entirely uphill. And though the incline is not too severe, it is certainly a workout.
We took on the hike at a slow but steady pace, working towards a shallow pass that sits between two peaks. The trail then flattens out and begins a short descent to a viewing platform that overlooks Hidden Lake. From here, there is a panoramic view of the lake and the 8,600-foot Bearhat Mountain dominating the background. But, we would be stopped in our tracks before reaching the platform.
The Hidden Lake trail is also one of the best locations for seeing mountain goats up close. The goats live up around the trail and are unafraid of people. They will casually walk past you or sit calmly watching you as you move past them on the trail.
As we neared the trail’s highest point, just before the descent to the platform, we got our first look at some mountain goats. There was a doe (female goats are also known as nannies) and a kid standing atop a high pile of loose rock gazing serenely across the valley. As we stopped to photograph the goats, the weather took a turn. What had been a foreboding cloudiness was now transforming into a small but active thunderstorm that looked to be right over the viewing platform a half-mile ahead. We stopped the group here before progressing on to the highest and most exposed point of the trail to see what the small storm system was going to do. The wind quickly picked up and light but stinging horizontal rain kicked in. We donned our rain gear, got our cameras protected, and waited a moment. I pushed on ahead of the group a bit to see what the conditions were like higher up, and I could see the system was moving off to the east. I radioed to Kevin to bring the group up. Just then, a mountain goat popped out of the trees just a few feet away and scared the bejeezus out of me.
We hiked on through the light rain and reached the viewing platform. There were two groups of mountain goats visible from the platform, one a couple hundred yards off to the left, and another smaller group only about 50 yards down below the platform.
The day prior, I had made a bet with the group that if anyone could spot a bear before me that I would buy them a beer at dinner. And, I was about to have to put my money where my mouth was. Ruth, a return client who had been to Alaska with BCJ, called out the magic word. “Bear!” Down to the left of the platform about 150 yards out, a grizzly bear emerged from the trees. This bear looked to be about six years old, not quite at its full size yet, but probably weighing between 400 and 500 pounds. The bear started walking in our general direction before breaking into a full run. It had spotted the mountain goats just below the platform and was making a full charge for them. Before this, I’d never seen a bear actively hunting large prey like a goat, and it was incredible to see how quickly the bear closed the distance.
In a full sprint, the bear went straight at the goats who were obliviously munching on the grass just below us. At first, it looked like we were about to witness an easy kill for the bear, as the goats did not seem to have any idea of their impending doom. The bear reached 50 yards from the goats, and still, they did not lookup. But, when the bear closed to within about 25 yards, the goats heard it coming, looked up and saw the charging bear and turned and bolted. The bear did not break stride as the goats ran in the opposite direction, moving behind a rocky outcropping and out of our view. The bear pursued them and soon was also obscured by the rocks. We sat silently listening for the death throws of a mountain goat, but no sound came. It appeared as though the bear had missed its target. But, we have no idea of knowing for sure just what became of the bear and goats.
Elated from witnessing such wildlife drama unfold in front of us, and still getting pelted by rain, we packed up and headed out before last light so we would get to the trailhead and parking lot before dark. It had been a dramatic evening, with crazy weather and wildlife viewing as no one could believe. So, we headed to bed to rest for an early start the following morning, perhaps dreaming of goats being sent to goat-heaven by hungry grizzlies.
Day 4: An Epic Sunrise at Many Glacier and the Hike to Grinnel Lake
On the fourth day of our Glacier National Park tour, we would be heading to the area known as Many Glacier for sunrise on Swiftcurrent Lake. We departed the hotel early, skies still dark with night, and made the 40-minute drive to the iconic Many Glacier Hotel. The hotel sits on the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake, and the best views of the lake and the arrowhead-shaped Grinnell Point (a 7,000-foot mountain really, not a point) can be had from the trail just below the hotel.
For this morning’s shot, we would be facing due west, making the best use of the warm morning light as it slipped over the horizon behind us. The best-known shots of the lake are usually taken during calm conditions when the crystal clear waters of Swiftcurrent Lake reveal the multicolored stones beneath. This, however, would not be the case for us. Strong easterly winds were blowing at between 15-25 miles per hour. The wind kicked the lake’s surface up into one to two-foot swells, moving straight for us. But, perhaps this could be better than a calm lake!
We experimented with different shutter speeds, utilizing longer exposures to smooth the surface of the lake into a matte reflection of the world above. I had the most success though with a shutter speed between a third and half a second. With my camera positioned as low as I could get it on my tripod, and the waves moving towards me, this faster shutter speed accentuated the motion of the white-capped waves breaking at my feet. I had to battle water droplets hitting my lens from the crashing waves. But, with diligence and some luck, I captured my favorite image of the trip, with Grinnell Point centered in the upper third of the frame and a wave spreading amongst the colorful rocks in the foreground.
The wind was strong and cold though, and even though the light was still good, the wind chased us into the hotel for cover. We had breakfast at the Many Glacier Hotel restaurant before embarking on our longest hike of the trip, the hike to Grinnell Lake.
The Grinnell Lake trailhead begins at the hotel and then follows the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake for about a mile. The trail then crosses a small land bridge between Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine beyond. This trail is nearly entirely flat, albeit a bit far to reach Grinnell Lake that sits just beyond Lake Josephine.
After several stops along the way, making use of an old canoe for foreground and photographing a grouse just off the trail, we arrived at Grinnell Lake. The lake sits in a bowl made of mountains and rocky ridges and is fed by an enormous waterfall fueled by glacial melt from Grinnell Glacier on the peaks above.
We broke here for a trail lunch and then worked along the lake’s eastern shore independently, shooting panoramas of the lake and mountains beyond. After a nice long break, we packed up and headed back to the Many Glacier Hotel, completing the 7.5-mile hike around mid-afternoon.
This evening, we would not be shooting sunset, but taking the evening off to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for a very early start the next morning.
Day 5: Two Medicines and The Going to the Sun Medley
The fifth day of our Glacier National Park tour would take us to the area of the park known as Two Medicines. Named for two adjacent lakes, the Two Medicines area looks in many ways similar to Many Glacier, with crystal clear lakes and shores lined with jagged peaks. Also similar to Many Glacier, the lower Two Medicines lake is known for the colorful rocks that make up the lakebed. But, again, the conditions would not be cooperating. The 20 miles per hour winds that had pushed us off of Swiftcurrent Lake the day before were now even stronger.
The swells on the lake were reaching nearly three feet, and keeping a lens dry was nearly impossible as the wind sent water spray into our faces and cameras. We battled it out as long as we could, before one by one, everyone ran for cover in our SUVs.
Though this composition was not as powerful as the one the day before, we were still able to get some interesting foreground of crashing waves and colorful reflections from above.
After getting a bit sandblasted by the wind, we headed over to Running Eagle Falls, also known as Trick Falls. The waterfall receives its nickname, “Trick Falls” because there are actually two separate waterfalls in the same location. During spring, run-off water rushes over the top ledge before making a 40-foot drop and obscuring the lower falls. However, as the volume of water decreases by late summer, and the upper falls “dries up”, water continues to rush through a sinkhole at the top of the cliff before flowing out of an opening in the cliff face. At the time of our arrival, the top falls were completely dry, and only the lower falls were producing water. But the lower falls was surging, flowing from a huge opening in the cliff face.
As we were photographing the falls, two trout fisherman arrived and began fishing just below the falls. At first, this seemed like it would end our photography session, but several creative clients found interesting angles to feature the falls with the fishermen, adding that all to the essential human element.
After the morning’s session, we headed back to St. Mary’s for a hot brunch and rest before the evening photo session.
For that evening, Kevin and I had planned what we dubbed the “Going to the Sun Medley.” During our scouting days, we had scoured the different turnouts and vantage points, looking for areas where the wildflowers were most prominent. We left the hotel with over three hours of light to work with, but before we could arrive at our first location, we ran into what I immediately recognized as a bear jam. Cars were backed up, and several others were pulled off the road. We were able to drive through the jam and saw a young grizzly digging for roots or grubs on a hillside up above the road. We pulled a U-turn at the next turnout and dropped everyone off at roadside to photograph the bear. Kevin and I then found parking 100 yards down the road and quickly joined the group. The bear didn’t seem to be having much success finding what he was searching for, and he eventually gave up digging and began walking up the hillside. He moved behind a ridge and out of sight, but we moved down the road and found him again when he popped out from behind the rocks. The bear casually moved off and out of sight again, and we loaded up and continued our Going to the Sun Medley shoot.
We shot in four different locations along the famous road, making use of meadows thick with beargrass, Indian paintbrush, and fireweed. We finished our last full day of the trip shooting until last light and having driven over Logan’s Pass to end at the Weeping Wall. With the last light of day dissolving, we headed back to the hotel for one more night of rest before our last morning in the park.
Day 6: A Final Visit to Wild Goose Island
The last day of our Glacier National Park would be a short one, as most everyone had afternoon flights to catch back in Kalispell. But, we would make the best use of the time we had by making one more visit to Wild Goose Island to shoot the iconic scene in morning light this time.
Arriving just before dawn, we chose our spots amongst a few other photographers who had gathered there. The wind had finally subsided, and the conditions were calm. There was a lack of clouds in the sky, but the light was sublime.
As we sat and watched the morning sun slowly lighting up the peaks around St. Mary’s Lake, I heard a commotion behind me. I turned just in time to see the last half of a moose running up the Going to the Sun Road! I jogged up to the road just in time to see her turn the corner, apparently continuing her morning jog up the road.
Though most of the clients did not see this spectacle, it for me still served as a perfect punctuation mark for a very eventful and beautiful week in Glacier National Park. To be able to surround ourselves with such immensely beautiful landscapes while also witnessing wildlife drama unfolding before our eyes as we did was such a treat and one that will last in photographic and memory form for years to come. Though conditions were not perfect (they rarely are), we made the best use of some incredible photographic opportunities, often finding that the conditions we were offered turned out to be superior to what we’d had in our minds. And that to me is what nature photography is all about; it’s about putting yourself in the best place at the best time possible, and then adapting to what nature throws your way. And our clients embodied this idea to the maximum, enduring sandblasting and micro storms while conquering every hike with excitement and appreciation for this incredible place, Glacier National Park.
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 a 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 the most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com