Hiking: 10.9 mi / 3500 ft. climbing
Home: Rising Sun Campground at Glacier National Park
After a couple hike-free days, it was time to get back on the trail. First order of business was a restaurant-breakfast fuel-up. Their menu was quite limited, because they were awaiting their weekly restock coming later today and had sold out of a lot of items. We faced the same issue getting groceries at Many Glacier; the logistics of getting supplies into this remote region, and then trucked up these narrow roads, is an understandable challenge but one we’re not used to thinking about. In Many Glacier one of our unexpected excitements was seeing the big Sysco truck pulled into the motel parking lot five hours later than expected.
Part of the reason for the restaurant breakfast to make it easier for us to get to the shuttle bus stop right when they began running in the morning. The problem was, we didn’t know exactly when that was. The newspaper and web say Express shuttles start at 7am, but those don’t stop at Rising Sun, so we’d be getting one of the regular shuttles that start at 8am. When we got to the stop at the Rising Sun boat dock, I believe the sign there said the first bus actually arrives to that stop at at 8:40am, which makes some sense, since if the route starts running at 8am, it takes some time for a bus to get from its start point at St. Mary to Rising Sun. But…it also doesn’t make sense since it shouldn’t take 40 minutes to drive the 6 miles. And more importantly, put that info on your damn website! Once again, you have the information on this expensive printed signboard, it should be super-easy to also have it on your website, especially since the website already has a section with detailed information about each stop!
Anyway, that meant we’d be sitting on the bench at the stop for a while. The first bus may have shown up around 8:40am, but he was full, and essentially was doing a check to see how many people were waiting. He radioed in to dispatch to ensure the next bus would have space for the six of us now waiting. 10 or 15 minutes later we were on our way.
The next confusion was about the transfer stops. The newspaper and web very explicitly say non-express shuttles require transfers at three points along the end-to-end Going-to-the-Sun Road route. Sun Point is the transfer stop on the east side, and even though we only wanted to go a very short two stops, Sun Point is unfortunately right between those stops. But we’d gotten a few reports from other riders who said they went all the way to Logan Pass without needing to transfer. Just luck, or…? Finally we could ask the driver! The answer (so obvious to him that the question was almost confusing) was that no, they aren’t doing transfers at Sun Point this year. Ok! Good news for us! But again, please put that information on your damn website!!
A guy (George) who we could immediately tell was an experienced Glacier hiker, was sitting in the passenger seat and asked what we were hiking today. “Siyeh Pass Loop”, I replied, and it got a strong endorsement. The “standard” way to do the hike is to start at Siyeh Bend and finish at Sunrift Gorge, which is 1000 ft. lower elevation on Going-to-the-Sun Road, and then use the shuttle to return you back up to your parked car, or in our case, the campground. George brought up the idea of doing it in reverse, saying “that’s the way Charlie does it!”, pointing to our driver and explaining that more-uphill and less-downhill is better on Charlie’s well-used knees. It was an idea I’d also had (our knees aren’t too bad, but we do generally prefer uphill to downhill), though I hadn’t discussed it much with Rett before this moment. Upsides: no one else on the trail going the “wrong” direction with us that we’d need to leapfrog (Rett really hates leapfrogging), sun on our backs at the shadeless morning start rather than beating much hotter in our face at the end, tree cover at the end, and finishing at higher (cooler) elevation later in the day. Downsides: we have to climb 3,500 ft. to the pass (more elevation than we’ve ever done on a hike), vs. 2,300 ft. doing it the “standard” way. But climbing fitness isn’t really a problem for us, so with Rett still adjusting to the idea, I for once was the relatively-impulsive one and decided that we should both jump out as the Sunrift Gorge stop appeared.
It almost immediately felt like the right decision. It’s a relatively-unpopular trail in Glacier no matter which way you do it, but we didn’t see a single other person until more than an hour in. On the whole trail we encountered fewer than 50 people, all going the other way, and all somewhat amazed that we were doing it the “hard” way. But for us, the further we went, the more-convinced we became that ours was actually the easy way. The views seemed better too, being able to face the high valley walls of the glacial bowl on the way up, and then getting closer and more-dramatic views of new mountains as we exited the valley on the other side of the pass.
At our 9:15am start we were sweating profusely even with the sun behind us. As we gained elevation, the temperatures may have moderated a bit, but that was countered by the gut-busting effort we had to do on the second set of switchbacks that took us straight up the wall for the final ~800 ft. of climbing. It was “pause every 30 steps to catch your breath” climbing that we haven’t faced before, and I suppose one area where the “standard” hikers may have a point (but coming down a slope that steep isn’t fun either!) So we were thankful that the cool breeze coming across the top, with views down into three diverging valleys, had us much more comfortable at lunchtime than we had been several hours earlier, and we felt bad for the hikers who had thus far only known this cool (and shaded!) side of the trail, and now would need to descend into the inferno.
There are really two saddles that separate the three valleys; the first, higher one separates the valley we had been climbing up northwards from the two east/west-aligned valleys on the other side. Once over that first saddle we got a unique view down to the second saddle, a bare expanse of yellow-brown rock field where two streams began not far from each other, but flowed in opposite directions as the saddle began sloping downward on each side. It’s not an especially monumental divide (the waters reconverge just outside the park up near the Many Glacier entrance), but definitely the most-explicit view I’ve seen of the division of waters.
Rett had really liked the other “pass” hike we’ve done (Swiftcurrent Pass), I think partly because you enter a completely different scene when you cross the pass in sort of a 2-for-1 deal, so that’s why I thought this would be a good hike for us too. And yes, there they were, a whole new group of glaciated mountains for us to hike down towards. But on top of that, the Siyeh Creek Valley was spotted with the most-magical alpine meadows we’ve ever seen. Rett was in love, and sang and danced and smiled most of the way down. The only thing missing was any sightings of large animals, but the grouse was new, and the marmots are always funny.
A short walk on Going-to-the-Sun road brought us to the Siyeh Bend shuttle stop, where our side thankfully had a bench where we could rest our weary legs while waiting. And then it wasn’t a long wait, and this time the first shuttle had plenty of space for us (we’d hoped our 3pm mid-afternoon finish would be a bit a quiet period). It was interesting (again sitting right behind the driver) to hear her radio in at every stop (even ones in the opposite direction) to report how many people (if any) were waiting, and any other details that seemed relevant as we drove along. My first thought was “wow, they must have some really sophisticated software (even artificial intelligence?) to take this input from all these drivers all along this mountain road and synthesize it into a form that dispatch can use to direct buses optimally. My second thought, half a second later, was “LOL”. There’s no way this park, that can’t update its website, or manage campsite bookings without Internet service, uses any computer system to manage its shuttles! Obviously my brain was fried from an exhausting hike. So my third thought was that they had lucked into employing a transportation-fascinated autistic savant at the dispatch office, acting as a human version of that theoretical software. Ok, not likely either. So my fourth and final thought (after hearing more of the chatter over the radio, including another driver just throwing a poll out to the ether on whether he should take a lunch break now) was that there isn’t any centralized control at all, and each driver operates independently, and can choose to take any of the info they hear into account on-the-fly. Almost Uber-like. And hey, maybe that is the optimal way to run a system like this after all!
Back at Rising Sun (where the driver let Rett, and then a bunch of others, off the really hot bus near the campground entrance short of the official stop), we got some Pad Thai boxes at the store, and cooked them up with some supplemental noodles just before rain started falling, so we ate in the tent literally leaning on each other back-to-back.
We had a new cyclist show up, and unlike our last few site-sharers, Cee was so easy to talk with, so it was great to have some of that cyclist-commiseration return to our camp. One TMI example: she asked if we had a bobby pin or paper clip. Hmm, we don’t really think we have either of those things. But, instead of asking for a thing, maybe tell me what you’re trying to do, and we might have a solution. After the briefest hesitation, she shares that she needs to dig out earwax. Ah ha! We do have tools for that: the tip of a Bic pen cap! And it turns out she already has one of those, so thankfully we don’t need to discover whether freely sharing bodily-function knowledge extends to sharing bodily-function equipment, but either way we’re both happy to have passed along a “gross” outdoor-living tip of the type that we have been on the receiving end several times through similarly unembarrassed discussions.
Last night’s rain didn’t last too long, but then this morning we had rain again at 6am, which is something new and goes against the late-afternoon/early-evening rain pattern we’ve become used to here at Glacier.
After camp breakfast I rode over to the restaurant/motel to use their WiFi, and there walking down the steps toward me was Eve! A surprise meeting for a second time in reception-challenged Glacier, and, freakily, both times occurred just outside of a motel registration desk! While not entirely unexpected, this meeting was definitely less-planned than our Many Glacier version. At Many Glacier we talked up Rising Sun enough that she’d been convinced to stay here and maybe meet us again, but our attempts to text our status updates had failed. It turns out she had actually been camped at the other end of our loop last night, and was expecting to leave today, but now decided to stick around another day (which at Rising Sun is something that’s surprisingly possible to do on a whim!) Yay!
We had been hoping to do a short and easy hike to Virginia Falls today (a “rest” before we would tackle Going-to-the-Sun Road on our bikes), but the rain continued on and off through the morning (mostly light enough where I could sit under our new tent’s extended awning), and it was cold, so a hike whose main purpose was to have been to allow a cooling dip at the falls didn’t sound very enticing. On previous campground days, we would need to move our chairs around regularly to keep them in the always-moving shade, but today we sought the opposite, the warming patches of sun. But the strong wind was moving the clouds across the sky incredibly quickly, so it was impossible to keep up. Thus, at 3pm on July 11th, I was wearing a hat, gloves, both of my jackets, and still needed to join Rett in the sleeping bag for a bit to warm up. Unbelievable! Thankfully the campground itself stayed remarkably wind-sheltered, because it was even colder when stepping outside its protection.
We went to the restaurant together with Eve for dinner (where she sneakily got the bill, grrr-thanks!), but then it was early to bed because we had a 4:30am alarm waiting for us.