The morning light had just started to break over Lake McDonald. Morning fog dances across the pristine waters. Dense clouds cover the mountains. This is how I remember September in Glacier National Park. Crisp mornings with the first hint of fall, the fresh forest smells, wrapped in my blanket, photographing sunrise.
Sunrise at Lake McDonaldCotton candy sunrise reflects over the calm waters of Lake McDonald at Glacier National Park.
It isn't long before more photographers start to arrive. Each of us finding our own angle to watch the colors change on the horizon. Just before sunrise, more than two dozen photographers line the shore, more than usual for this time of year. Chatter and the sound of equipment being set up breaks the peaceful quiet. A portrait photographer began calling out posing directions for a happy couple celebrating their upcoming nuptials. The hum of traffic echoes through the valley. Eager visitors start pouring into the park, hoping to get a parking spot at the trailhead of their planned hike. More than 30 cars wait in construction traffic in Many Glacier, before the sun is even up. Avalanche Parking area and Logan Pass Parking areas are full by 9 am. In years past, Labor Day signaled the end of busy season for many summer parks, but not this year.
As COVID-19 changed the workplace landscape, more and more people are working from home or exploring a new career path. Many students have taken to online learning. The start of the new school year hardly means the end of summer's busy tourist season.
I lived and worked in the Glacier area back in 2017. I am so grateful it was the 2017 version of me that was here. Almost every weekend I was hiking new trails. Often leaving Columbia Falls around 9 or 10 am and starting my hike in Many Glacier around 12. I never had any trouble finding parking and on longer hikes, the trails were almost empty. It was my first season in my camper and the first time I had been to Glacier. I was in awe of the statuesque mountains, vibrant blue waters, and graceful wildlife. I was full of energy and motivated to cover as many miles on the trail as possible.
Sunrise in the Many Glacier ValleyMount Grinnel towers over Swiftcurrent Lake at sunrise in the Many Glacier Valley.
That is not the case this year. The 2021 version of me sees long hikes as a luxury. I never felt like I had enough time during my quick trips to Glacier this season. Spending 5-10 hours on a trail was time I just didn't have. This version of me isn't ready to be around people yet. My old favorite viewpoints for watching the clouds and waiting for wildlife are interrupted by hordes of people roaming off-trail and trampling the beautiful wildflowers I just photographed. I am disheartened by cars parking half on the road, half on vegetation, shouting and climbing over each other, just to catch a glimpse of a grizzly. And all I can think is that poor bear just wanted to eat. Parking lots are full, cars are double-parked at scenic viewpoints, and lines of agitated visitors fill the mountainsides. Even if I had time to fit in a hike, I wouldn't be able to park.
As much as the park has changed, much has stayed the same. I am still in awe of the statuesque mountains. I still became entranced watching clouds move through the peaks and valleys. I still found enjoyment watching the waves crash along the water's edge. I still found quiet watching the colors of sunrise and sunset change the landscape. I wasn't ready to leave four years ago and I wasn't ready to leave this summer. And my love for the park was completely undiminished.
Birdwoman Falls, Logan PassBirdwoman Falls towers over dense clouds in the Lake McDonald Valley of Glacier National Park.
I still believe Glacier National Park is one of the most amazing parks in the National Parks System. The Going-to-the-Sun Road is an engineering marvel and, to me, one of the finest examples of how humanity can blend almost seamlessly into the landscape. The road passes through some of the most iconic views in the park and offers visitors endless opportunities to enjoy the beauty of these mountains. The reservation system implemented this year to drive the road was intended to help reduce intense parking congestion. When I realized my only remaining opportunity to visit the park was just after the reservation system ended, I knew I might be in for a bit of a headache.
Part of me knows there are thousands of people out in nature hand-feeding rodents, taking selfies with massive wild animals, and disobeying rules to get that perfect Insta post. But part of me is ecstatic that more people than ever have the freedom to travel and experience these beautiful places. I know that Glacier National Park will find its way into the hearts of many new visitors, like it did mine so long ago. I remain hopeful that by going to these parks, people are learning how quickly our glaciers are melting, how important it is to conserve water, and the necessity to keep wildlife wild.
Sunrise at Swiftcurrent LakeMount Grinnel towers over Swiftcurrent Lake in the Many Glacier Valley. Storm clouds roll over mountains in the distance.