Seeing Through the Fog: Hiking in Glacier National Park

No one ever hopes for a rainy vacation in the mountains. No one wishes for wet campfire rings or soggy backpacks or muddy trails. Ideal outdoor vacations take place under blue skies, gentle breezes, and abundant sunshine.

The latter scenario was my hope for my week-long stay in Glacier National Park last month. But when it comes to the outdoors, you’re not owed anything.

The first two days were filled with either intermittent rain or steady downpours, leaving me anxious about completing all of the long hikes I’d wanted to do that week. The park is huge, and I’d quickly realized that six days was nowhere near enough time to explore it.

My boyfriend and I had managed a few short hikes during the first days, but the hike we really wanted to do – the 11-mile Highline loop trail – had been postponed.

On the third day, the weather was forecast to be clear. Finally! At 6:30am we rolled out of our sleeping bags and headed to the shuttle stop. The morning was a bit chilly, but the skies were blue at St. Mary campground as we headed out. The bus wound its way up the narrow Going to the Sun road, skirting St. Mary Lake and picking up more eager hikers along the way.

As we made the final ascent up to Logan Pass, fog descended and then grew thicker. By the time we stepped out of the bus at the visitor center, visibility was hovering around 20 feet. It was 43 degrees. It was windy. It was summer in the alpine.

The Highline trail is well-known for two things: the Garden Wall, a steep arête that traces the Continental Divide, and the trail’s extensive exposure. It begins along a narrow path blasted directly into the rock face, with a sheer drop below and incredible views of the glacially-formed valleys in all directions.

We waited ten minutes. Fifteen. Maybe the fog would lift? Eventually it became clear this was not just a passing cloud, and we might as well get on with it.

As we set out, it killed me that we were walking some of the Highline’s most scenic sections, and we could only see a wall of white. There were supposed to be magnificent vistas! Extreme exposure! The most beautiful hike in the park! And yet.

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The opening section of the Highline trail, enveloped in fog.

We kept on walking. The Garden Wall lived up to is name despite the lack of vistas, and the trail was as lush and green as anything in the Pacific Northwest. Every so often we’d encounter a waterfall tumbling across the path and hurtling thousands of feet down to the valley floor; melting snow obeying gravity’s pull.

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The Garden Wall, living up to its name.

The trail eventually climbed above the treeline to talus slopes and snow-covered fields. Stone walls towered above us, their tops shrouded in fog and mist. At one point, I turned a corner and my boyfriend was there, motioning to me silently to come look. Two bighorn sheep stood 30 feet away, casually munching on grass, until the clouds rushed in and swallowed them up again.

After walking nearly six miles, I started to wonder why I hadn’t seen any marmots yet. It was prime hoary marmot habitat, and I’d read that they were everywhere along this trail. I’d nearly given up hope of spotting one, given how gloomy the day had begun, when I nearly tripped over something moving. I let out a yelp before realizing it was indeed a furry marmot. He stayed with us for a while, munching on plants and getting close enough to say hello. Pretty much the best moment of the whole trip, for a marmot lover such as myself.

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Cuteness overload.

That one marmot begat more, and soon we were spotting them everywhere, scampering around, playing, fighting, and posing for the camera atop windswept rock piles. With more rain clouds approaching, we made our way to the backpacker’s chalet for a quick snack break and then continued down the trail to the shuttle shop.

Despite not getting the magnificent views of the Highline trail I’d hoped for, it was a reminder of something I continue to learn in the wilderness: you’re not in control of your environment, and any effort exerted to make things any other way than they are is wasted.

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Inklings of what’s beyond, hidden among the clouds.

Hoping won’t make the rain stop. Wishing won’t make it sunny. Fog is fog, and the views are there or they aren’t. This idea echoes a Taoist teaching that I try to remember: Once you accept how things are, you can begin to work with them, instead of against them.

Be like the forces of nature: when it blows, there is only wind; when it rains, there is only rain; when the clouds pass, the sun shines through. (#23, Tao Te Ching) 

We could have cancelled our hike and tried to go another day, with better weather and more visibility. But instead, we hiked a usually-crowded trail with little company; we had ephemeral glimpses of bighorn sheep; we made a marmot friend amidst barren, rocky slopes; and we realized that the far-off view isn’t everything, when there are surprises around every corner.

 

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