What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.~ Ecclesiastes 3:9-13 (ESV)
The open spaces and seemingly infinite views of the American west provide us with many iconic landscapes that encapsulate our nation’s deep seated spirit of independence and freedom. Our recent trip to Canyonlands and Arches National Park fully met, and perhaps even exceeded, my expectations of amazing vistas and endless photo opportunities. I have yet to decide whether these places are a photographer’s dream or nightmare, as incredible scenes surround you every step you take along the trail. The real challenge is deciding what not to photograph!
As we would pause on our hikes to gaze out upon yet another magnificent panorama, I could not help but reflect on the vastness of the wilderness that lay before us, and ultimately my thoughts would turn to my own smallness in contrast to the infiniteness of our mighty God who created all of this. What is it about scenes like the one in this photograph that give us pause and lead us to great moments of reflection?
Beautiful places like this serve multiple purposes in God’s sovereign plan. On one hand they are simply a gift from God given for our enjoyment and relaxation. On the other hand, they are also intentionally designed to stir deep feelings within us. As the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us, these feelings come from God, who “has put eternity into man’s heart.” God has made us in His own image, and part of that image is a mind that allows us to consider things beyond ourselves, beyond the physical horizons before us, beyond the moments in which we currently live, and eventually to things eternal.
And yet, while we may ponder the eternal, we will never have all the answers, in fact this passage tells us we “cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” We cannot know the mind of God, nor will we ever fully understand His ways, but thankfully he has given us hearts that desire eternity. Ultimately that longing we feel is a longing for God, a longing for a personal relationship with the Almighty Creator, Himself. In our fallen, sinful state, though, our desires lead us to pursue things other than God as we try to fill the void within us.
But praise God, because he has not only given us a desire for eternity, he has also given us a means to fulfill this desire! He has given us an amazing creation that points us to Him. He has given us his written word, the Bible, that tells us how to fulfill this desire. Above all He has given us the Living Word, His own Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ who, through His perfect life, undeserved death, and glorious resurrection, gives us the only way to fulfill this desire and spend eternity with Him beyond our brief and tiny lives here in this world.
Morning mountain reflection on the still waters of Swiftcurrent Lake in the Many Glacier area of Glacier National Park.
The vastness of Glacier National Park is incredible! Its beauty is impossible to capture in mere words, and photographs only partially convey the wonders we discovered in this amazing corner of God’s great creation. It really needs to be experienced in person to be fully comprehended!
Traveling to Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park is located in northwestern Montana and borders Waterton Lakes National Park (Canada) in the southwestern corner of the province of Alberta. If you plan to visit Canada bring your passport and do some research so you know what items you are allowed to bring with you going into Canada, as well as returning to the US.
The closest airport is the aptly named Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, Montana, about 30 miles from the western entrance of the park. Also, Kalispell is a large enough city to find any gear and supplies you might need for your adventure at reasonable prices. The tables and chart below will help orient you with the area, and also provide drive times and distances between major areas around the park, as well as to other airports in the region.
When to Visit
While you can visit Glacier any time of year, keep in mind much of the park is inaccessible in the winter, and the season when all the roads are open is relatively short. Going-to-the-Sun Road, the only road that fully spans the interior of the park from east to west, typically opens in early July and closes in late October; but, I highly recommend checking the Alerts and Current Conditions page on the official NPS website regardless of when you plan to visit as heavy snows and construction often affect the opening and closing dates. Also, peak visitor times and the best season for road construction typically coincide in many national parks; for example a major project in 2020 and 2021 will significantly increase travel times to and from the Many Glacier area during both of those summers. By planning ahead, arriving early, and taking park shuttles when and where available you can hopefully minimize the impact during your visit.
Where to Stay
Whether you plan to stay in one of the grand old lodges, a rustic cabin, a front country campground, or do some backcountry camping, there are plenty of options available. The one common element, regardless of your choice, is the need to plan well in advance of your trip. The lodges book early; and, while there is a mix of reserved, as well as first-come-first-serve campsites, you want to know what to expect. Rather than going into great detail here I suggest starting your research at the following pages on the NPS website:
Lodging: There is a variety of lodging options in and around the park, though the prime months of July and August book up quickly, so make reservations as early as possible. We booked in January for a mid-August trip and could only find openings in the East Motel of the St. Mary Lodge & Resort. The room was clean and adequate, but very small with no frills, and quite expensive! Remember you are paying for the location, and hopefully you haven’t traveled all this way just to sit around in your hotel room! The food and service were good and the stores appeared to have everything you might need at fairly reasonable prices, though we had stocked up in Kalispell before heading to the park, just in case.
Camping: There are 13 campgrounds with over 1000 sites.
Backcountry Camping: As with any national park, if you plan to go backpacking and backcountry camping many regulations apply and permits are required, so you really need to do your homework.
Glacier National Park is a vast wilderness and, depending on which trails you hike, the number of people you encounter can vary significantly. Even on the busiest trails we sometimes went a while without encountering other hikers. Also, do not expect to be able to use your cell phone to call for help as service fades quickly once you enter the park.
As with any mountain wilderness outing, you need to be equipped with proper clothing, gear, and supplies, including extra warm layers, raingear, a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen, some form of makeshift shelter, sufficient water and/or a way to purify water, food, first aid kit, flashlight or headlamp, whistle, emergency fire starting materials, and, finally, a good map and compass.
Grizzly bear eating berries along the Iceberg Lake Trail.
This is also bear country, home to both grizzly and black bears. We saw several of both during our visit, most from the safety of our vehicle, though we did encounter one grizzly, about 30 yards away, while hiking the Iceberg Lake Trail. Read up on bear safety, heed the recommendations to not hike alone, and have every adult carry bear spray. Also, be aware if you are traveling by air, you cannot transport bear spray in either your carry-on or checked luggage so you will need to purchase it upon arrival. All the stores in and around the park had bear spray for sale, though I did some research when we took our trip and found a used sporting goods store in Kalispell where we were able to purchase bear spray for $25 a canister and return it for a $10 refund (2012 rates), assuming the canister was not discharged. The store we used is now closed, but considering a canister of bear spray currently costs around $50, taking time to do some some online research and calling around could save you a bit of money.
There is a great shuttle system with numerous stops along Going-to-the-Sun Road that is available at no extra cost. This is a convenient way to do some point-to-point hikes along Going-to-the-Sun Road. It is also a great way to get to Logan Pass without the concern of finding a parking spot; plus, you get to watch the scenery along the way rather than the road and other vehicles. Pay close attention to the shuttle times, though, especially later in the day, as you do not want to get stranded at the end of a long hike without a way back to your vehicle, except a long walk in the dark.
In all, we hiked about 45 miles over seven days and barely scratched the surface of the 740 miles of trails Glacier has to offer. As I said earlier mere words cannot do justice to this magnificent place, so I will provide only brief technical information about each hike and let the my photographs do the rest. All the trails we hiked were well marked so navigation was not difficult, though having good topographic maps will provide an added measure of confidence.
Highline Trail to Haystack Butte from the Logan Pass Visitor Center; 7.2 miles out-and-back; some ups and downs along the way with a significant climb at Haystack Butte.
Bighorn sheep ram charging down the narrow Highline Trail and frightening hikers near Logan Pass.
Indian paintbrushes with Haystack Butte in the background.
St. Mary Falls & Virginia Falls from the St. Mary Falls trailhead (St. Mary Valley); 2.9 miles out-and-back; some minor ups and downs along the way with a moderate climb to get up to Virginia Falls.
St. Mary Falls.
Posing in front of Virginia Falls.
Siyeh Bend to St. Mary Falls from the Siyeh Bend/Piegan Pass trailhead on Going-to-the-Sun Road just east of Logan Pass; 5.0 miles one-way with a return trip via the park shuttle. There is about a mile of uphill hiking at the beginning of this route, but then it is all downhill except a brief, easy climb to the St. Mary Falls trailhead and shuttle stop at the end.
Todd the Hiker at the Siyeh Bend trailhead. (Photo credit: Leah Nystrom)
Deadwood Falls on Reynolds Creek in the St. Mary Valley.
Upper Two Medicine Lake from the Boat Landing on the west end of Two Medicine Lake; 4.6 miles out-and-back; this is a moderate uphill hike on the way to Upper Two Medicine Lake and downhill on the return. We chose to ride the boat out to the trailhead (for a fee); this is not required, though it is almost triple the distance if you choose to hike the whole route starting near the Two Medicine Visitor Center.
The windblown waters of Upper Two Medicine Lake.
I recommend a stop to see Running Eagle Falls on the way up to Two Medicine.
Iceberg Lake from the Many Glacier Visitor Center; 10 miles out-and-back; there is about a two thousand foot elevation gain on this hike, all uphill on the way out and all downhill on the way back. This is a tough hike so give yourself plenty of time, with margin built in to rest and take in the scenery at the top.
Beargrass and the incredible mountain views along the Iceberg Lake Trail.
Mountain meadow wildflowers with Iceberg Lake in the distance.
Grinnell Glacier from the Swiftcurrent trailhead (Many Glacier); 9.6 miles out-and-back; this is pretty much the same configuration as the Iceberg Lake hike, with about a two thousand foot elevation gain, all uphill on the way out and all downhill on the way back. This is another tough hike so, again, give yourself plenty of time to rest and take in the scenery at the top.
Fireweed accents the view overlooking the sparkling blue waters of Grinnell Lake.
Spectacular view from above Grinnell Glacier.
Hidden Lake Overlook from the Logan Pass Visitor Center; 2.6 miles out-and-back; this is a short and fairly easy hike, though it is all uphill on the way out and downhill on the way back.
Enjoying the view from the Hidden Lake Overlook.
Mountain goats in the snow above the Logan Pass Visitor Center.
Our time in Glacier National Park was an amazing experience! The most difficult task I faced in writing this post was deciding which of the over 1000 photographs to include. I hope the ones I chose provide you with the inspiration to take a trip there yourself, you won’t regret it!
No visit to Glacier National Park would be complete without a stop to snap a shot of the iconic St. Mary Lake and Wild Goose Island from the scenic overlook along Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides through the deserts; his name is the Lord; exult before him! ~Psalm 68:4 (ESV)
With only 316,953 visitors in 2013, Big Bend National Park ranked 42nd out of the 59 named “National Parks” at the time. When compared to parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone which both get over 3 million visitors a year, or Grand Canyon with over 4 million, you may begin to understand some of its appeal. (Source: complete visitor statistics for the national parks can be found at https://irma.nps.gov/STATS)
The lack of visitors is certainly no reflection on the beauty of this desert gem. In its harsh and rugged way, Big Bend is no less spectacular than any of the other national parks we have visited; and, I am quite certain the primary reason there are so few visitors is the park’s remote location. This is not a place you just “stop by” on your way through, unless of course your final destination is The-Middle-of-Nowhere.
Traveling to Big Bend National Park
Even if you are taking a cross country drive on I-10 (the nearest interstate highway) and head south on US-385 at Fort Stockton, Texas, it is 100 miles to the park’s northern entrance and another 26 miles beyond that to park headquarters at Panther Junction. Driving times (distances) to the north entrance of Big Bend National Park from some of the major south Texas airports are as follow:
Midland International Airport: 3 hours (195 miles)
Del Rio International Airport: 3.5 hours (214 miles)
San Angelo Regional Airport: 4.5 hours (266 miles)
El Paso International Airport: 4.5 hours (288 miles)
San Antonio International Airport: 6 hours (409 miles)
The road leading into the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend National Park, Texas.
Traveling between major areas within Big Bend is no walk in the park either! Driving times (distances) from Panther Junction to other major areas of the park are as follow:
Chisos Basin Visitor Center & Chisos Mountain Lodge (central): 30 min. (10 mi.)
Santa Elena Canyon via Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (western): 1.25 hrs. (43 mi.)
Boquillas Canyon (eastern): 45 min. (23 mi.)
Big Bend National Park is a serious, desert wilderness! This is not the place to cut your teeth when it comes to hiking. It is very remote, with harsh terrain and extreme weather. When we visited in late May of 2014 temperatures reached as high as 116 °F during the day and cooled so much at night that we needed a fleece jacket to stay warm. While these conditions are not surprising to anyone who has lived or traveled in the desert, to someone unfamiliar with this environment it is easy to come unprepared.
If you visit during the hotter season, like we did, I recommend getting up early and hiking during the cooler morning hours when temperatures are below 90 °F. Evening hiking works too, but there is less margin-for-error if you underestimate the time to complete your hike, that is, unless you want to hike after dark when the mountain lions and black bears are on the prowl. We did most of our hiking early then went back for a shower and an afternoon siesta…I now truly grasp and appreciate this concept. We found late afternoons were a great time to drive around in air conditioned comfort and scout the next day’s trailhead or find a perfect vista to enjoy the spectacular evening sunsets!
Sunset on the Window View Trail in the Chisos Basin.
We also experienced a couple of pretty severe late afternoon thunderstorms and were quite glad that we were not caught out on the trail during either of them! Thunderstorm forming over Casa Grande peak in the Chisos Mountains.
As you might expect in the desert, finding water is an unlikely prospect, so plan to carry all that you will need. Even if you happen to find water (like the Rio Grande River), it is most likely contaminated. Given the low humidity (10% or less) dehydration is a serious concern even in cooler weather, so carrying one gallon (4 liters) of water per person for a longer day hike is not unreasonable. Don’t forget the sunscreen, a hat, and proper clothing to protect you from the sun’s damaging UV rays, either.
A final note of caution that I cannot overemphasize, there is no cell service anywhere in the park and only spotty service on the main roads within 100 or more miles of the park, depending on which direction you travel. If you get lost while hiking or breakdown driving in or around the park there is no way to call for help unless you happen to have a satellite phone, which I suspect most people, myself included, do not. Traffic can also be very sparse, especially in the off-season, so your wait time for assistance from someone just passing by could be significant. Be aware, be prepared, and plan accordingly!
Where to Stay
One lesson we have learned from past trips to national parks is that staying in, or very near, the park has many benefits. Saving drive time to reach trailheads and being in close proximity to scenic spots for morning and evening photography, are two big ones. On this trip I did not even bother to research any lodging options outside the park due to the remote location.
We chose to stay at the Chisos Mountain Lodge and were very pleased with the accommodations, the staff, and the food in the restaurant. Wi-Fi service is available in the lodge, so you do have a means to communicate with family and friends. The park store in the Chisos Basin is well stocked with all the necessities and the prices seemed reasonable, though we brought everything we needed with us as we did not know what to expect.
The NPS website describes several day hikes of varying difficulty in three primary regions of the park, desert, mountain, and river. Our main hikes were in the mountain and river areas, though we did check out a couple of the old ranches (Sam Nail Ranch and Homer Wilson Ranch), the Hot Springs Historic Trail, and a number of the scenic overlooks in the desert area, though these did not qualify as hikes in my book as we were never more than a few hundred yards from our vehicle.
Trailhead behind the Chisos Mountain Lodge for the Window Trail.
Our first hike was the Window Trail. The trailhead is directly behind the Chisos Mountain Lodge where we stayed. Out the door and onto the trail, how much better can it get? This is a moderate 5.6 mile round trip hike that is all downhill on the way out and all uphill on the way back. This configuration did make it a little more challenging at the time of year we were there as the temperatures were over 90 °F by the time we finished the hike. This is a good hike to start with and the view at the end of the trail is amazing.
Typical trail view on the Window Trail (beware of prickly pear cactus when kneeling to take photos!)
There will be no doubt when you have reached the end of the Window Trail!
Trailhead for the Lost Mine Trail (the trail is only paved for a short distance).
Our second hike was the 4.8 mile round trip Lost Mine Trail. This is another moderate hike, but is has an opposite configuration to the Window Trail as it is uphill on the way out and downhill on the way back. The trailhead is less than two miles from the Chisos Mountain Lodge, so it was easy to get an early start on this trail, as well. The views along this trail, and at the top, make it well worth the time and effort.
View of the Chisos Basin, Casa Grande, and the Window along the Lost Mine Trail.
View looking south at the end of the Lost Mine Trail.
At the far ends of the park are two incredible canyons of the Rio Grande River, Santa Elena canyon on the west end and Boquillas Canyon on the east end. While the hikes into both canyons are short and relatively easy, about a 1.5 mile round trip for each, they are iconic of Big Bend, and a must do. These destinations require drive time if you are staying in the Chisos Basin, so plan accordingly and enjoy the rugged desert scenery along the way. One other note on these two trails is to make sure you listen for the call of the canyon wrens which were a common sound on both hikes.
Standing at the entrance to Santa Elena Canyon.
Enjoying the view inside of Santa Elena Canyon.
Do not be surprised in Boquillas Canyon if you are approached by locals from the village of Boquillas, Mexico who commonly wade across the Rio Grande River to sell souvenirs in this area. You can be fined for purchasing these trinkets as they have not been properly imported. There is a legal border crossing nearby, but you will need your passport if you want to visit Mexico to do any souvenir shopping.
The village of Boquillas, Mexico in the distance and some of the local wares for sale on the rocks in the scenic overlook parking area near the Boquillas Canyon trailhead.
Like any national park we have visited, there is a massive amount of information on the NPS website for Big Bend, and I recommend taking the time to do some research before you go. Also, even though it is one of the least visited parks in the park system, be sure to make reservations well in advance so you are not disappointed when you arrive, especially if you plan to travel there during the peak season between November and April.
One last thing that you cannot miss at Big Bend is to take advantage of the dark nights far from civilization to get out and see the stars. As the song says, “The stars at night are big and bright. Deep in the heart of Texas.”
Stars over the Chisos Mountain Lodge with Casa Grande silhouetted on the skyline.
Philippians 3:7-14 (ESV) – But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith–that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
A view looking west from one of the side trails along the unofficial Star Gap Arch trail. The furthest ridge in the center of the photo is our goal on this hike.
On a backpacking trip to Kentucky’s Red River Gorge early this fall, we decided to explore a trail that was new to us, the unofficial Star Gap Arch trail. Though I knew from our outrageGIS map and the description in Jerrell Goodpaster’s book, “Hinterlands,” that there were many spectacular views along the way, and at the end of the hike, there were still a few times we considered turning back. The hike was difficult at times, involving rock scrambles and thick brush; but, having a goal in mind and some idea of what lie ahead, were key to our perseverance.
A closer view of the end point on the Star Gap Arch trail.
Even though you may not get a complete picture of what to expect when hiking in a new place, or even on a new trail in a familiar place, it is worth taking time to do some research. Studying topographic maps, reading a guide book, or finding online reviews from other hikers, can give you motivation to both start and complete a new adventure.
The final climb up the ridge at the end of the Star Gap Arch trail.
In many ways our Christian walk is like a hike in the wilderness. Fortunately, God has given us the ultimate guide book for our journey, the Bible. However, the Bible is far more than just a simple guide book it serves a much greater purpose, pointing us to the ultimate goal, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Personally knowing the author who actually wrote the guide book is our best assurance of all. We will probably never endure the trials that Paul suffered, but we still need to realize there will be good times and bad, easy days and difficult ones in our lives, but with Christ we can be certain that we will make it to the end.
One of several spectacular views that awaits you at the end of the Star Gap Arch trail.
There is a price to taking a backpacking trip, we give up modern conveniences, endure difficult terrain, and occasionally suffer cuts and bruises, but getting to experience the beauty of God’s creation along the way and the spectacular views at the end of the trail make it worth the effort. There is also a cost to following Christ, the Bible makes this clear, but how much more incredible will the end of our life’s journey be when we “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”