Entering the east side of Glacier National Park at St Mary Lake is what most visitors coming from from West Yellowstone do. There are several recreation area campgrounds along the Madison River in Montana heading north, which are perfect after a long day at Yellowstone. The distance from this southwest Montana location to Glacier National Park up by the Canadian Border is still about one full day's drive, so it is best to plan on camping somewhere near St Mary Lake later in the afternoon. St Mary Lake is where the main Glacier National Park touring route begins and getting an early start will present better opportunities to find parking spots at the hiking trailheads.
Highway 89 is the final leg of the trip to the Glacier National Park East Entrance and there are a few camping options along this route. One in particular is a remote back country tent site campground in the southeast end of the National Park that can be accessed with a with an average ground clearance passenger car. The Cut Bank Campground is way down a dirt road in the Rocky Mountains and there are plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities along the way. There are also a few camping options along Highway 89 that are better suited for RV campers. Blackfeet Tribal trading posts and a few interesting interpretive sites can be found along this road too.
The community of St Mary offers modern amenities, so this is a good place to stock up for a Glacier adventure. The National Park Visitor Center is close by and this is where maps and back country permits can be obtained. The Visitor Center is also an education center, so a lot can be learned about the creation of this park back in the ice ages. St Mary Lake is a very large glacial lake right next door, so exploring this majestic wilderness area will like be the first activity of the day!
There are several hiking trails that go to points of interest around the 10 mile long St Mary Lake. The Going To The Sun Road runs west through the park next to this lake and the scenic overlooks are breathtaking to experience. The forests are thick in this mountainous region and wildlife can often be seen feeding in the lakeside meadows. Wild Goose Island has been featured in Hollywood movies and it is one of the main attractions. St Mary Lake is a great place to do some birding and wildlife photography, so be sure to bring a good camera along for the ride!
St Mary Lake is navigable, so boaters are in luck till the water freezes over when winter rolls around. The water is never warmer than about 50ºF, so swimming sessions will likely be brief! There are boat launches and a marina along the eastern shores. Boat and light watercraft rentals can found in the local lakeside communities. Better still, large boat tours of this vast wilderness can be booked locally too and the captains know where the best views can be found. Fishing is the main boating activity in this lake and the trout fishing certainly is world class.
Mid summer does offer fantastic weather at Glacier National Park. On the other hand, touring Glacier during early autumns can be a roll of the dice as far as the weather goes. Foggy heavy overcast days become more frequent with the change of seasons this far north and the towering Rocky Mountains always seem to attract thick clouds like a magnet.
The photos of St Mary Lake were taken during my first visit to Glacier, which was on a foggy heavy overcast day. The evening the day before was clear with no clouds, so it is easy to see just how fast the weather can change in this park. After getting to where I could read a forecast, I gave up on the first Glacier tour because the foggy weather was not going to clear up for a few days. I actually ended up touring Glacier National Park a second time one week later on a clear sunny day, so the entire journey was not a dud.
Experiencing Glacier National Park on a foggy autumn day is not exactly an uplifting experience, however the level of intrigue does increase. Fretting over the beautiful mountain peaks that cannot be seen is overridden by thoughts of dangers that cannot easily be seen. There is nothing like suddenly encountering a big Brown Bear in thick foggy woods to get the adrenaline flowing and just the thought of this will keep the nerves on edge when doing the hiking trails. Exploring the St Mary Lake wilderness in glacier National Park in the fog certainly is an experience in itself, so if you are up to it, then go for it! Be sure to bring a camera along because foggy day wilderness photos at Glacier certainly will look dramatic when back home!
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