No…this isn’t the newest romantic installment from Nicholas Sparks. You won’t find this post full of descriptions of some long lost love, or a daring and dashing guy sweeping some young girl off her feet. Nope. This is a real-life story. A description of breathtaking beauty and a couple of runs that left me completely and utterly breathless.
Last month, my family and I took a vacation to Glacier National Park in western Montana. In a word, this trip was AWESOME!
We saw some of the most majestic mountains that one can dream of. The Going-to-the-Sun road from West Glacier up to Logan Pass is perhaps the most scenic road in the entire country. This 50-mile road transects Glacier National park, and goes up and over the Continental Divide. The sights of big mountains and glacierly carved valleys is awe-inspiring.
We enjoyed a week of being outdoors and trying activities that really took us all out of our comfort zone. We learned how to skip rocks. We went horseback riding. We went white water rafting. We challenged ourselves on a high-ropes course. We went zip lining. We hiked to, and touched, a glacier. We saw tons of wildlife – including Grizzly bears, a black bear, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, deer, things that could have passed for meercats (I think they were ground squirrels), and a giant rodent called a marmant. We snacked on wild huckleberries and strawberries. We went to a rodeo (and were BY FAR the preppiest people there). We slept with windows open. We tried some of the most amazing local craft beers (Moose Drool, anyone?).
And we sucked wind.
See, my family and I live at sea-level. My house is literally 20 minutes from the Atlantic ocean. Whitefish, MT – the town where we stayed – is at 4500 feet elevation. Our hikes in the National Park took us close to 10,000 feet elevation (up inclines that seemed vertical). Air at this altitude is thin. Especially when you’re used to thick-as-mollasses, humid and salty air where I come from. I found that I was winded at even the slightest level of exertion…like climbing a flight of steps. Imagine what my lungs felt like on a 5.5-mile hike up to Grinnell Glacier that gained about 1600 feet – with the majority of that gain in the last two miles.
Perhaps nothing, however, impacted me quite as significantly as going for a run. Way back in ancient history, I used to love running on hills. I grew up in a moderately hilly part of North Carolina, My high-school cross country days were in the piedmont area of North Carolina – over some of the most ancient hills in North America. I went to college in the mountains of North Carolina and did a lot of cycling and running on mountains. I rode the Blue Ridge Parkway frequently. I would climb miles-long mountains. I became a fan of switchbacks and quite rapid descents.
Today, I live in a place where the terrain is as flat as your kitchen floor. Hills are man-made in my town. A typical net elevation gain on a long bike ride might be 100 feet, give or take. I’m just no longer used to running up and down.
So during vacation, I went on a couple of short runs (one was 3 miles; the other 4), but afterwards I felt as if I’d run a marathon. My legs were trashed. My lungs seared. I recalled quite quickly how easy it is to go really, really fast running down a hill, and how painful it is to even crawl up a moderate hill.
One of my runs had a half-mile climb at maybe 9% grade. For me, it was my death march. My pulse quickly approached 180. My breathing became one with Darth Vader’s rattled asthma. I just could. Not. Breathe.
Despite the lack of oxygen, both of my runs were totally enjoyable. People in cars were friendly – each waving and smiling (probably thinking I was an idiot). I found a nice trail on my second run. I rounded a corner and came literally face to face with a deer. He stood his ground and didn’t move until I was about 10 feet from him. I saw beautiful mountain flowers and streams.
All-in-all, the whole experience was absolutely beautiful, fun, and breathtaking.
Listed below are some hyperlinks for information about some of the things we did and where we stayed. If you are considering taking a family trip to the western part of the US, I’d STRONGLY recommend that you consider Montana and Glacier National Park. I know that Yellowstone & Yosemite get a lot of “press”, and are often very, very crowded. We found that Glacier was not crowded, that the people were amazing, and the sights incredible. This particular vacation is amoung one of our top three all-time vacations.
- Glacier National Park – National Park Service: This is the official NPS website for Glacier. Tons of information and photos here about the park, how the Going-to-the-Sun road was established, weather, animals you’d see, etc. This is a must-visit website!
- Whitefish Mountain Resort: We rented a two-bedroom condo at this resort. The condo was perfect – king bed in one bedroom, the 2nd bedroom had a queen bed and two twin-bunks. Perfect for our family of five. The resort has tons of summer activities – this is where we did the high-ropes course, zip lined, and did one of our hikes. We also went on an “alpine slide” – which is basically like a luge course on a skateboard. You can also mountain bike on the mountain (we didn’t). And – if you go to the mountain anytime after October, expect to ski (both alpine and x-country). The folks at the resort said that Whitefish is one of the top ten ski destinations in America – we aren’t skiers, so I can’t vouch for that.
- Horseback riding in Glacier: We used Swan Mountain Outfitters, and went out of the Lake McDonald Corral. These folks were awesome. The horses were well taken care of and certainly knew their way around a trail. We went on a two-hour ride (which actually became almost a three-hour ride because, well, horses don’t wear watches, and the ride lasts as long as they want it to).
- Whitewater Rafting: We went on a half-day float with Glacier Raft Company in the town of West Glacier. We floated the Middle Fork of the Flathead River – the rapids were mostly graded category 2 and 3. Our guide was excellent, and the ride was amazing!
- If you’re a fan of craft beer, there are lots of options – both in local draugh houses and available for purchase in stores. I really liked options from Big Sky Brewing (Moose Drool and Trout Slayer were my favorites), but I also really liked the Nut Brown and Sawtooth offerings from Bitter Root Brewing. We also dined at a couple of brew-pubs, but for the life of me I can’t remember which ones they were. One was in Columbia Falls, MT and I think the other was in Hungry Horse. It could have been in Whitefish. I’m just not sure. Either way – the beer in Montana is GREAT! And – by the way, Big Sky Brewing is a sponsor of professional triathlete Linsey Corbin. If that’s not enough of a reason to drink it, I don’t know what is! Unfortunately, for those of us east of the Mississippi River, you’re not likely to find many of the Montana brews. Word is that they aren’t pasteurized, hence they aren’t shipped that far. Too bad.