Trip Reports: Belly/Mokowanis Backpack, Glacier National Park, Montana - July 2012
Glacier National Park had an above-average winter snowpack this year, so unfortunately most of the high treks we wanted to do were still closed in mid July – but we managed to figure out a nice 5-day backpacking route anyways. We started from the Chief Mountain TH, just yards from the Canadian border, and hiked up the Belly River valley, spending the first night at Elizabeth Lake. We then backtracked and hiked up the Mokowanis River valley for two nights at Glenns Lake and a final night at Cosley Lake.
In the previous days after extensive puzzle solving and backup planning we finally scored backpacking permits for this 5-day trek. It’s not easy getting these permits since half of the campsites are already reserved in advance and the others fill up quickly each day. And of course, as with most national parks you have to camp in the designated campsites when backpacking. So after repeatedly getting denied, I was stoked when I showed up at the ranger station promptly at 7:00am and the ranger said that we got our desired itinerary!
After a hike of about 10 miles, we arrived at Elizabeth Lake and enjoyed a nice afternoon and sunset. One unique characteristic about these mountains is their nearly flat valleys. The broad valleys are so flat that after our 10 mile hike into the mountains, we had only gained about 200 vertical feet!
I didn’t expect much of Elizabeth Lake, looking at the map. But I was surprised with the sheer size of the lake and the calm grandeur of the valley.
In the morning the weather was looking stormy and I took this long exposure to capture the mood. We hiked another 6 or 8 miles that day, mostly in the rain!
This is the typical hiking along the Belly and Mokowanis Rivers – the bushes are so thick and massive that much of the time you can’t even seen your feet on the trail. The hiking is also more tiring than usual because you have to always keep alert for grizzly bears ahead, and constantly shout and yell to give them warning (bear bells are not nearly loud enough to give a bear a good warning). In fact, one day Claudia was hiking in front and a bear was walking up the hill right near the trail! She had her bear spray out and ready to go before I even realized what was going on! Not sure if it was a grizzly or not… she just saw its rear end as it moved away.
We camped at upper Glenns Lake campsite for two nights. It would be an incredibly spectacular camping spot with the symmetrical Pyramid Peak towering overhead – except that the lakeshore is choked with willows which totally block any kind of lake side view. A day’s work with a hacksaw could turn this spot into one of the premier campsites in the park! Oh well.
While I normally despise the concept of mandatory designated campsites in the national parks, here in Glacier it makes a lot of sense, given the grizzly bear dangers. Each campsite has a designated cooking area and food-hanging spot – both of which are located away from the tent spots. This ensures that there’s no food residue and odors near the tents to possibly attract bears, and knowing that allows you to sleep a bit better!
Despite the willow-choked lakeshore, I was determined to get a nice shot of Pyramid Peak from the Glenns Lake campsite, which (if it weren’t for those damn willows) has a perfect vantage point of the mountain. This photo opportunity was the main reason I wanted to camp there for two nights, and in fact my main photographic goal of the 5-day trek! So, for two mornings in a row, I waded out barefoot into the water and waited there with numb feet trying to keep still to not disturb the reflection. The first morning was a bust with clear skies and boring light, but on the second morning my dreams came true with a spectacular sunrise and a still lake reflection! This was the photo that made not only this trek but the entire trip up to Glacier worthwhile for me and my camera!
During our spare day from Glenns Lake we hiked up to Mokowanis Lake - a spectacular location with its turquoise waters and soaring peaks.
We backtracked to Cosley Lake for our last night. Aside from various wildlife sightings, including the aforementioned bear encounter, a moose, a deer, and a black bear across the lake, our last day was uneventful and relaxing. With clear skies and windy weather on the last morning, we even finally got to sleep in before our long hike out.
Though this ended up being a wonderful trek, I hope to return to Glacier National Park another summer to do some of the longer, higher treks. I’ll be sure to get my permit reservations well in advance next time!