Summer in Glacier, 2021

A billy mountain goat overlooks a smoke-shrouded Hidden Lake.

Just the photos: Glacier 2021 Gallery

In August 2021, we drove to Montana to “visit friends,” which is actually a creative way of saying “look for mountain goats.” I’d heard tell of Glacier National Park’s legendary numbers of mountain goats from Matt for several years. I was prepared to use pretty much any excuse to get up there as soon as possible. We left Seattle under relatively clear skies, but crossing the Cascades brought us into the heart of the wildfire smoke cloud that hung low over Eastern Washington and on to Montana. The summer of 2021 wasn’t the worst wildfire season we’ve experienced in the northwest so far, but it probably made the top five.

Left, one of the jewels of the beautiful Jewel Basin in the Swan Range; right, a white-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) feeding at dusk—a real test of usable ISO range for the R5.

Our first stop was Missoula, where we narrowly avoided the worst of the heatwave we were dreading on the way in. The smoke was heavy most days. Nevertheless, we had a great week hiking (and rafting) around with good friends and good dogs, from the Bitterroots (where we met a man booting his skis up to a couloir that had, to our eyes, a solid twelve foot run of skiable snow) to the low, brown, lettered mountains that loom over Missoula itself.

The next weekend, we meandered our way up Flathead Lake to the town of Kalispell, outside of Glacier National Park. We were lucky: the storm that we saw brewing on Saturday rained away the worst of the smoke from the fires burning in the Flathead National Forest. We actually had a (relatively) clear week.

On our first venture into the park, we left early in the morning with friends to try to beat the crowds. We drove directly into a viewless raincloud (negating the need to beat the crowds on that particular day) to the dulcet tones of Canadian voice actor Dave Pettitt describing the engineering marvel that is the Going-to-the-Sun Road. It rained steadily as we inched along west to east. We stopped at a handful of short waterfall trails along the way and got ourselves thoroughly soaked. My landscape (and particularly waterfall) photography skills have always left a lot to be desired, but with few animals to be seen besides a dipper bobbing around the Sacred Dancing Cascade, there was not much to do besides practice.

In the afternoon, as we crested Logan Pass again east to west, the rain had let up. We hiked up to the Hidden Lake Overlook, supposedly goat nirvana, where our VERY tolerant friends learned exactly how easily distracted a person can be by ground squirrels. On this day, our only goats were this nanny and kid scaling a distant ridge.

Not the goats I was hoping for—but ground squirrel nirvana, sure. Pictured are some Hoary Marmots and Columbian Ground Squirrels. Marmots in Glacier may actually rival coyotes in Yellowstone for how frequently they’re misidentified.

Snack the planet.

I wasn’t put off. I took off most of the following week to devote to what I now understood to be a Mountain Goat Odyssey. Each morning, Matt and I rose in the dark hours of the morning to beat the park curfew (during the high season that year, entry to the Going-to-the-Sun Road was limited to those with prepurchased tickets within normal daylight hours). Twice, we stopped on the way up to Logan Pass to hike to a small forest pond with the vague (and unrealized) hopes of finding moose in the pre-dawn. One morning we spotted a black bear walking along the road near the eastern shore of Lake McDonald.

Early morning wildflowers from Hidden Lake Pass. These “landscape photos” were made possible by Matt’s tireless parking lot circling while I went off hiking.

In any case, by the time the sun broke the horizon we were at Logan Pass. It was rare to find easy parking at Logan Pass, no matter how early we arrived. I can honestly say that I would have had no goats at all if not for Matt’s willingness to circle the parking lot, sometimes for hours, waiting for a spot to clear out.

A parking lot story, to break up the monotony of boring nature photography:

One morning, while Matt circled aimlessly, he watched from across the lot as two cars made to claim the same recently vacated spot. One car, having sniped just a bit faster, won the spot, which infuriated the driver of the other. This incensed driver proceeded to exit their vehicle, yelling at the other to get out of their car. When this did not work as intended, they produced a large wooden baton and began to bludgeon the other driver’s car with it, screaming all the while. The sheriff was called, the bludgeoner detained, and statements were given.

The moral of this story is to be sure to bring a chauffeur if you have a pressing need to get up to Hidden Lake Overlook at the break of dawn for the best goat photography opportunities.

Sunset over a field of fireweed from an overlook approaching Logan Pass from the west.

Marmot in repose.

Ultimately, I walked the Hidden Lake trail four times that week, often meandering back and forth across sections, becoming very familiar indeed with every turn, every divot, and every rock. The surroundings, of course, were beautiful, which made it a more pleasant stake-out than most. Wildflowers bloomed in profusion, and ground squirrels abounded. My second day hiking the trail was dominated by marmot sightings. Marmots never fail to delight me no matter what I’m actually looking for.

On the third day, I spotted a pair of bighorn rams climbing up the the scree towards the overlook. They tarried for a time to feed in the wildflower meadows, then moved off to rest. I was very prepared to be happy with that sighting, when who should I finally see, picking his way down the steep ridge…

My first good mountain goat sighting of the trip was this gorgeous billy in his prime, and in fact, he would turn out to be my only good mountain goat sighting of the trip. It only takes one cooperative animal to make an entire trip incredible for me. And, lucky me, I got that twice!

I was thrilled to see him on both of my last two days hiking Hidden Lake, where the lush meadows of the overlook make for prime grazing. Mountain goats are generally creatures of beautiful places, but I struggle to envision anything more stunning than this. Luckily, Matt did finally make it up, full to the brim of parking lot stories, to spend a good few hours watching this handsome fellow graze and nap as well.

It would be wrong to forget to mention that there were, in fact, marmots as well.

A bold golden-mantled ground squirrel at the Grinnell Glacier Overlook, high on the Garden Wall.

Midweek, I joined my friends again to hike the Highline Trail from Logan Pass to the Loop. The trail is beautiful, and the logistics are awkward. We took the shuttle from the Loop to Logan Pass, but barely made it on—we apparently arrived too early for the regular shuttle service, unbeknownst to us, and were probably only allowed to board because of the aura of sad desperation we exuded. On trail I spotted some pika in rockfields, and some friendly ground squirrels spotted me at various rest stops. The infamous Granite Park Chalet, site of one of the most paradigm-shifting grizzly bear attacks in national park history, is on the way a few miles above the Loop trailhead, but we didn’t see any grizzlies on this trip. My friend did manage to almost run directly into a deer I was trying to discreetly point out on the trail down.

A smoky sunset. An osprey nest is visible in the tall tree.

On Sunday, we bought a couple pounds of Flathead cherries and drove back to Seattle under the smoky skies. Between the great friends, great mountains, great parking lot stories, and GREAT GOAT (and for the dogs, who were hardly mentioned but who got their share of activity despite the park days: great swims and great snacks), what more can you ask for from a summer roadtrip?

…Maybe bears next time.

A mountain goat, and Bear Hat Mountain. The hat was the closest I got to any bears on this trip.

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