This summer, Backcountry Journeys played host to a total of four photo workshops at Glacier National Park. Two of these workshops took place in July, and two in August. Two workshops followed our ‘hiker’ itinerary, which involves anywhere from two to six miles of hiking each day, and two followed our ‘standard’ itinerary, which takes advantage of the easier-to-access spots inside the park.
Glacier National Park is great for either way of doing it.
Just to recap with some basic information on Glacier National Park – the park is located in northern Montana, it is bisected by the Continental Divide. It is one of the wildest parks in the lower 48 and remains to be my favorite National Park outside of Alaska. The weather is generally very good for photography year-round, there is a lot of wildlife in the park. Each season brings with it something different, yet fascinating, to photograph. 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. Although named ‘Glacier’ National Park, only 25 glaciers still exist in the park of the 150 that once were there. It is estimated that by 2030 the Park will have lost all of its glaciers. Unfortunately, Glacier National Park is not the best place to see glaciers, and I’d recommend traveling to Alaska if glaciers are your priority. However, the park offers so much else and is one of my top places to photograph.
In case you’re wondering, summer and fall are my favorite times to visit the park. Fall has really great color displays and some of the most dramatic weather of any place in the world. A friend of mine who is extremely well-traveled claims that autumn at Glacier National Park and in Patagonia are the two best places in the world for dramatic weather. Summer is great because of the amazing wildflower blooms that carpet the park. The Park experienced a super-bloom this year. Wildflowers were everywhere. It was also a super bloom for beargrass, one of the iconic flowers in the park. Beargrass usually blooms once every three to five years so every so often the Park experiences a huge super bloom. This was the year; the flower usually peaks mid-July though so we were just a little late for it this year. We still found a lot of Paintbrush, Fireweed, and a few daisies that were doing their best to hang on.
Before I dive into each specific day, let me just preface by saying this particular workshop was one of the most productive that I have been on. We really had it all, wildlife to fiery skies. That’s why I love Glacier…there’s always so much to shoot and when the weather comes together…buckle up!
On day one, we met in beautiful Whitefish, MT, as we do for all our Glacier National Park trips. Some folks traveled the day prior and had some time to explore the quaint downtown area before meeting us. I would equate Whitefish to like a mini-Jackson, Wyoming.
After all four of us guides introduced ourselves, we did a quick ice-breaker as a group and covered some logistics about the workshop. Discussing bear safety when at Glacier is always near the top of our list, and then of course and then went off to enjoy our first meal together at Ciao Mambo, a great little Italian joint in downtown Whitefish. As always, we ate our hearts out, but all looked forward to getting to bed ahead of our early start the next day.
We all jumped out of bed (right?) early on day two, packed up the vans, and got an early 5 a.m. start towards the west side of Glacier. We were headed for a sunrise from the shore of Lake McDonald. The forecast predicted clear skies, but there were actually some clouds building up so we were hopeful for a nice sunrise to start things off. We arrived at Apgar Village with plenty of time to spare. We ventured down to the shore of the largest lake at Glacier and scouted our shooting locations for the morning. It is really amazing how much a location can change based on light. A week prior I had been at Lake McDonald and it was misty, clouds everywhere, foggy…on this morning, there were great clouds forming over the mountains and the lake was dead calm.
We had an incredible, yet unexpected wildlife encounter at the gorge as well. As our group was getting ready to pack up, a marten popped out and actually ran right across the feet of our guide P.J. Martens are an incredibly rare sighting in the Park, and especially in an area of high human concentration like Avalanche Gorge. It happened in an instant so none of us got a great photography, but it was really cool to see a marten so close.
We headed back to the vans after that and started our drive across Going-to-the-Sun. We were greeted by mountains and beautiful weather on day two, and all jaws were dropped as we made our way towards Logan Pass. Up at Logan Pass we ran into another celebrity of the park, the mountain goat.
We saw a momma and her billy meandering across the meadows. We were able to pull over quick and get some awesome shots right from the vehicles. We were having a great wildlife day already, but that would be made even better when we traversed down to the east side of the park. Right around the Two Dog Flats area we saw some traffic congestion and that usually means one thing, bear! We circled around and were able to grab a parking spot and sure enough, we had a grizzly spotting on Day 2 already. We got some shots of the bear and watched it for a while, and as we lost sight of the bear and were almost packing it in, another bear ran across the road about 100 yards from us. Two grizzlies on our first day in the park, come on! With a marten, mountain goat, and grizzly on our first day, we had really lucked out with wildlife.
We ate lunch at Two Sisters Café and got checked into our lodging for the week. After a quick break, we gathered back for dinner and headed out to the shore of St. Mary Lake for a view of Red Eagle Mountain. Everything seemingly broke our way, we had some really nice sunset clouds over the lake and pretty calm water.
The lake was also dead calm, which is unusual. So, we lucked out with great light and a great reflection too. We shot long after sunrise and like a previous morning, we had a boat tour scheduled on Two Medicine Lake.
Our boat ride took us across the entire lake to the dock on the west shore. Our boat driver delivered great history of the Two Medicine Valley, as many of the peaks and lakes have significant names. We then cruised back to where we began and enjoyed the beautiful weather.
Day four was also our picnic day. We ate lunch at the Rising Sun picnic area on the east side of the park. The day before the nearby campground had closed due to a black bear peaking into tents…thankfully we had no encounter during our delicious lunch.
The weather looked promising once again in the evening so I decided to take the group back to the Many Glacier area. We did not have great light there during our first shot so I wanted to try it again. We headed back to the area and spent some time shooting Swiftcurrent Falls, a spot we had missed the prior morning too.
A mini-rain storm swept across the sky when we were photographing at Many Glacier, and we actually got some incredible light. The storm was about an hour early, but we still got some very dramatic skies in our photos. The light dissipated quickly after the sun set so we headed back after an action-packed day.
Day five was our last full day. We did a lot on day five, and ended up getting some of our best light. It didn’t happen for us in the morning though. We went up to Logan Pass and shot sunrise at one of the pullouts along Going-to-the-Sun road. Overcast skies and rain swept into the park, leaving us not much to work with. We were able to shoot some of the iconic peaks, but the sky was relatively flat. So, we decided to make it a processing day.
We worked on some Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop techniques mid-day and let the weather pass through. We specifically covered RAW processing, exposure blending, and focus stacking among other things. After processing, we took a quick break before dinner.
We went out immediately after eating in the evening. The weather looked great. Stormy skies and drama, what more could you ask for. We drove all the way to Big Bend for our final sunset shoot. It is one of the most beautiful spots along the road and usually has great wildflowers as well. We scouted around and setup our compositions and began to wait for that golden hour light. When we first arrived, conditions looked promising.
Light on the peaks, dramatic clouds, however we lost that quickly as the sun tucked behind a thick layer of storm clouds. Some of the group got discouraged and almost started packing up. The horizon looked clear and who knows what could happen, so we stayed put. The sun did indeed creep below the horizon and LIT UP the clouds and peaks.
We experienced some of the best light that I have seen in the past year. Just a perfect way to close out the last full day of our workshop. We also had little to no wind so we were able to use some of the beautiful flowers in our shots. Everyone was excited after day five, it doesn’t get much better for landscape photography.
On our final morning, it was hard to say what the weather would do. Clouds were stacked up in the east, but not much action looking west. We headed out to shoot from the iconic Wild Goose Island lookout over St. Mary Lake.
The clouds never did come our way, but first light on the peaks surrounding St. Mary Lake is always something special. After wrapping up, we drove across Going-to-the-Sun Road one final time and made a stop in Apgar Village. We had our final meal as a group at Eddie’s Café. It was great! After that, we headed back to Whitefish and called it a trip.
In summary, this was one of the most productive workshops that I have led. We really lucked out with both the light and the wildlife. Glacier National Park never disappoints.