Photography In The National Parks: To The Sun And Beyond In Glacier National Park
No man has the right to dictate what other men should perceive, create or produce, but all should be encouraged to reveal themselves, their perceptions and emotions, and to build confidence in the creative spirit. -- Ansel Adams
Of course I wanted to go to the Sun in Glacier National Park - the very idea of capturing everything between earth and sky, with my camera and lens, filled me with the same visions that I experienced as a child, when walking into a candy store to choose just one piece of chocolate. I wanted them all!
The truth is that I didn't know about the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which takes park visitors over the Continental Divide and Logan Pass, at 6,646 feet, and through the heart of Glacier's high country, only that I wanted to visit another national park, see wildlife - grizzlies to be exact - and capture stunning landscapes. I did not know that the road was long, narrow, windy, steep and scary, only that it would take me into a world of high peaks, pristine aqua blue lakes and rivers, glaciers and hiking trails and vistas filled with waterfalls.
But, don't let that stop you from experiencing this amazing achievement of man, because millions of people have safely driven the Going-to-the-Sun Road since it was completed back in 1932. Going-to-the-Sun Road continues for 50 miles, covering the breadth of Glacier and connecting the west side of the park with the east side, or visa versa. But the portion that winds its way up the steep mountains to the top of Logan Pass and the visitor center, with plunging views, is only open for a few months each year, depending on weather conditions and snow depths, and many park visitors plan their vacation so they won't miss the Sun experience.
My first trip over Going-to-the-Sun Road, about three years ago, began at the park's West Entrance at West Glacier, meandering through thick forests of tall trees, water rushing in small streams and deer milling about. Everything was new, beautiful, and exciting, and both of my cameras were getting a work out, capturing landscapes and wildlife.
I was trigger happy and most of the images, though filled with wonder and joy when I look back at them now, were little more than documents of where I had been. In my enthusiasm I wasn't paying attention to the direction of the light and too often didn't take the time to get the tripod out and set the shots up. Snap happy! But, it was okay because I firmly believe that a first visit to a place that is so immense is for practice and if one is a little lucky, one or two good shots will come along.
Lake McDonald took my breath away, with heavy forest, campgrounds, and a beautiful lodge on one side and burned and bare land on the other. The Lake McDonald Lodge is worth a visit - be sure and check out the massive fireplace and walk out the back door to take in the lake. And, If you would like to sit back and savor the scenery, this is where you can catch one of the red tour buses that will take you around the park.
Glacier is filled with different outdoor activities, but my recommendation would be to plan a whole day to go to the Sun, at Logan Pass first, and have plenty of time to stop, take in the views and take a short or long hike away from the main road. (Please note: The official Glacier National Park page says that the drive takes about two hours with no stops, but be sure and take into consideration the ongoing construction/repair project that will slow the drive time.)
And, it would be near impossible to not stop and take in the views along the way, not to mention a chance to breath in the fresh mountain air and the perfume of the wildflowers if they are in bloom.
By the time we reached the beginning of Logan Pass, more than two hours had already gone by with stops at Avalanche Creek and taking in the views of Bird Woman Falls.
Glacier is a place of many stories, so be sure and check out the bookstores at the different visitor centers. Remember, knowledge of the history can make your experience richer and help your photos tell the stories that you encounter along the way.
I have had this thing about narrow, steep and windy roads my entire life, but thanks to photography, I have had to relinquish those fears that had always felt like good friends, even when they were holding me back from the finer things that life has to offer.
This was early season and the road had only been open for one day. The traffic was stop-and-go, as promised, because of the road construction, giving plenty of time to take in the views.
Plainly this has got to be one of the more spectacular places to drive to - into the wilderness on four wheels powered by an engine, makes Going-to-the-Sun an activity for all ages. The water was flowing down the side of the mountains, cascading into magnificent waterfalls that would dry up as the year progresses. Don't rush, take the time now, to capture all that you see. Weeping Wall, which runs next to the road, was like a car wash, with all of the water that was spilling over its side and onto the road.
The higher we went the harder that I gripped the steering wheel, but that was partially because portions of the road and small retaining walls were missing in some places because they were being rebuilt.
Those scary spots are long gone, so don't worry. As we got closer to Logan Pass, the road was only one lane in some places and the sides plunged straight below us. My passengers wanted to know if they should be driving, but no way was I turning my steering wheel over.
I gripped harder and tried looking straight ahead. My face was tense and probably white. And then the unexpected happened. There, on the edge of the world sat a yellow piece of big machinery and beside that, a curious bighorn ram getting into a box of debris. All thoughts of being scared went out the window and I picked up the camera and shot a few through the windshield as we went by.
Photography makes me brave. After that, though I was cautious, the tension and fears began to dissipate and I began to relax and have fun. After about three or four trips over the Going-to-the-Sun Road, all fears were gone and I have been able to enjoy the scenery time and time again.
Soon we were at Logan Pass where the visitors center was all but buried in snow that towered over our heads. We had gone from the green of spring to the white of winter in just a short time. People were heading out on the Hidden Lake Trail, using cross-country skis or snowshoes.
If you make it to Logan Pass after the snow has melted and the Hidden Lake Trail is dry, take the time to get out and hike, going as far as is comfortable. The hike from the Logan Pass Visitor Center is up hill, and the first part is best taken slowly. But the scenery that will unfold before your eyes will be spectacular, particularly if you make it all of the way to Hidden Lake where there is a viewing platform and some great rocks to sit on for a picnic.
The best part of this hike, for me, is the possibility of running into bighorns and mountain goats that often graze near the trail. Be careful not to get too close, they are unpredictable wild animals.
Because of the stunning landscape views and the many possibilities of wildlife viewings, I tend to carry a heavy pack with two camera bodies, two or three lenses, extra memory cards and batteries, and my tripod. This could be described as overkill, particularly given the climb during the first portion of the hike, but do think ahead about what your photographic goals might be as this is one place that you might not get back to several more times.
Shortly after we left Logan Pass is where my excitement over the views got a little out of hand and I had to be reined in. Just on the other side of the tunnel we stood on the edge, looking back at Logan Pass and the valley and rivers that ran through the meadows far below. The drop was virtually vertical. However, I decided that in order to capture the image that was in my mind, I needed to step off of the edge, just a few feet below the road. No problems getting down there and there were a few bushes below me, that I reasoned would prevent me from going too far.
I crouched down and felt my shoes slide downward. Uh-oh! I took the photos and cautiously began to try and crawl back up, but the earth was too loose and I kept sliding. That was when I realized that those bushes were flimsy branches that would hold nothing. And that photography would conquer all of my fears.
Moments before I could barely stand on the edge of the road and suddenly, in my eagerness to capture an image, I was needing rescue. Not one of my prettier moments but I lived to tell the story and warn folks, stay on the road!
I never lived this down. For one thing, during the first few minutes of our excursion into Glacier, I had knelt down to take a photo and ripped the rear out of my jeans. That rip only got worse as the day wore on and I had nothing to change into. Oh, the lessons I have learned along the way - each one a story and a teaching tool. Such is the life of a traveling photographer who has more enthusiasm than money.
Further on down the road we stopped at Sun Pointe Nature Trail and wandered around, taking photos of the many water features, such as Barring Falls, and also taking a short hike down to St. Mary Falls. And then for the grand finale, as far as I was concerned, arriving at the lookout for Goose Island on St. Mary Lake.
It was later in the afternoon and the sun was behind us and the sky was filled with clouds that filtered the light. The blue of the lake took my breath away. Because the scene before me was so immense, I took vertical panorama shots and came away with one of my all-time favorite images, still to this day.
Once past the St. Mary overlook, we continued on to the East Entrance at St. Mary where we had to decide if we wanted to go to Many Glacier or back to the west entrance and on to Kalispell, Mont., where we were staying. We opted for the entire experience and headed into Many Glacier, hoping for bears of course, and this area quickly became my favorite part of Glacier National Park.
Not that we saw any bears that day, but intimate scenery of Sherburne Lake, surrounded by tall peaks and the end of the road at the Many Glacier Campground, made this my special place. In the years since my first visit, I have hiked many of the trails that leave out of Many Glacier and each one has been spectacular.
On the way back to the park's main entrance at West Glacier, we stopped at Goat Lick along U.S. 2 where I saw my first mountain goats! This was a real treat and I highly recommend the stop, if you have time during your visit.
All in all it was one spectacular day in Glacier. Extremely long and exhausting, to say the least, but there was not one moment that I would have wanted to miss.
Before you go to Glacier National Park, check to make sure that the Going-to-the-Sun Road is open. The official website states that it will not open before June 21, but that depends on the weather. Take layers of clothing, extra batteries and memory cards for your camera, and have fun.