Friday, May 28, 2010

WEST GLACIER

1. May 26, Day 9, we left Duck Lake Lodge at about 10 am for Whitefish, a town not far from West Glacier of the Glacier National Park. Weather was good and it was a scenic drive next to Flathead River with the snow capped mountains in the distance. Along Highway 2 towards Whitefish, we could see that the West side was more developed than the East. There were more accommodation facilities which had just come alive and more recreational facilities (e.g. water slide, children playgrounds etc) which were still closed. In summer, I could imagine that this place would be buzzing with tourists.

2. We checked into Pine Lodge in Whitefish for 2 nights and took the afternoon to explore this small beautiful town of about 5000 which is also home to Whitefish Mountain Resort, a ski resort. As we drove around, we could see beautiful houses in the hills and around the lake. We suspected many were holiday retreats of the more well-off. Many shops along Central Avenue catered to the needs of tourists. Here we ate in a couple of restaurants that served excellent food. With the ski resort and the Glacier National Park nearby, tourism must had become an important part of the local economy, providing tourism business almost the year round for Whitefish.

3. May 27, Day 10, was a miserable day. It was gloomy, wet and cold. We were not in the mood to over-extend ourselves today. The comfort of the hotel room was just too contrasting. We decided to see the remaining section of the Going to the Sun Road on the West side which was open up to Avalanche, about 15 miles from the entrance. The Warden at the Visitor Center strongly recommended we trekked the Trail of the Cedars and continued to the Avalanche Lake if we have the energy for it. It's 2 miles back and forth, with height gain of 500 ft. We decided that these should be sufficient for the day.

4. We were somewhat disappointed with the drive along Going to the Sun Road, probably because we experienced the more scenic ones in the East. Driving with Lake MacDonald on the left, the scenery was largely shielded by the line of tall trees between the road and the lake. At any rate, most things appeared dull with the kind of weather we had. This was one of the better picture taken.

5. We stopped at Sprague Creek to see a cascading waterfall. Picture shows Asian tourists sharing their umbrellas.


6. Unlike most forested areas, the cedar forest around the cedar trail has not been burnt for more than 500 years, largely because of the dampness of the environment there. In the natural order of things, forests are burnt and rejuvenated regularly. As a result, we have here some of the largest cedar trees.

7. It was a pleasant walk among the cedar trees- a certain fragrance of natural wood and sound of running water. The 0.7 mile wooden boardwalk weaved and turned through the forest, completely accessible to the handicapped.

8. At the end of the trail was Avalanche Waterfall.
It's interesting to see how the rocks had been shaped and smoothed by the fast running water over many many years.
video

9. After Avalanche Waterfall, we started our climb to Lake Avalanche - about 2 mile trek up 500 ft, up hills that were thickly forested by cedar trees. We reckoned it would take us 2-3 hours. The climb was not too hard, although the wet and sometimes muddy tracks ensured that we could not go fast. It was a popular trail as many tourists were also making the climb. We were delighted to see some animals along the way, like the deer behind us (which happily continued its meal, ignoring us) and the fast small creature (don't know what it was) which I managed to capture with my camera.

10. We were happy to reach Lake Avalanche (about 3 576 ft high) but we did not loiter there long. If weather was good, it would have been lovely to have a picnic there. But, it was wet and gray though I could visualize its beauty.

11. On the way back, we stopped at Lake MacDonald Lodge for a warm cup of coffee. It's a lovely accommodation facility by the lake. We rushed in and out that we forgot to take a picture of this hotel.

12. With this, we ended our visit to Glacier National Park. Together we spent about 3 days here. It was mostly wet but we had enjoyed the various priceless moments of natural beauty. Some food for thoughts:

(1) A delay of 1-2 weeks may be better - possibly warmer, though weather is really hard to predict, and more facilities would have opened by then, including Going to the Sun Road.

(2) Could combine with the trip to Waterton Lakes National Park of Canada as it is adjacent to Glacier. This should be easy to do. We could not do it this time because Weiping could not leave the country as he was holding a student US visa and was still awaiting for his working visa/permit.

(3) When Going to the Sun Road is open, it may be better to stay West of the National Park, e.g. Whitefish, as there are more facilities there.

13. Our next destination was Yellowstone National Park.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

EAST GLACIER

1. Glacier National Park in northwest Montana, adjacent to the US/Canadian border, is a good 830 miles from Custer. To break the journey into smaller chunks, we decided to make 2 night stops: at Sheridan (Wyoming) and Helena (capital city of Montana).

2. On the way, we made a brief stop at Little Big Horn Monument. Here in June 1876, 210 US Army soldiers, including Lt Col Custer died fighting several thousands Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. Here, 2 monuments remember the US soldiers and Indian warriors who lost their lives.




3. The Glacier National Park encompasses over 1 600 sq miles and includes parts of the Rocky Mountain ranges, over 130 named lakes and more than 1,000 different species of plants and hundreds of species of animals. Of the estimated 150 glaciers which existed in the park in the mid 1800s, only 25 active glaciers remained by 2010. Studies had estimated that all the glaciers may disappear by 2030 if the current climate patterns persist.

4. We arrived at St Mary, a small town at the east entrance to the Glacier National Park at about 2 pm on 24 May, Day 7 of our trip. It was like a ghost town. There was hardly anybody. St Mary Lodge, a major lodging facility at the east entrance, was close. The small fuel station was close. Practically all the shops and accommodation facilities were close. After getting lost a little, we eventually found the Visitor Center. Fortunately it was open. From the wardens, we understood that we were a little too early for the season. For St Mary, on the east side, the season would only begin in June. Also, the scenic 50 miles Going to the Sun Road (completed in 1932), which runs through the Glacier National Park in a E-W direction, would only be fully open in mid June (this, we knew), as snow was still been cleared in the vicinity of Logan Pass, thus effectively separating the National Park into E and W. 13 and 15 miles of Going to the Sun Road were still accessible from the E and W respectively.

5. With the list provided by the warden of 3 hotels that were open for business in the vicinity of St Mary we checked into Duck Lake Lodge for 2 nights for US$99 a night. We had decided to stay 2 nights in the East and 2 nights in the West. The room at Duck Lake was squeezy, nothing to shout about, but we had few alternatives.

6. On the eastern side of the National Glacier Park, we explored Many Glacier on the day we arrived (24 May) and the Eastern section of the Going to the Sun Road and Two Medicine the next day (25 May).

7. Here are some pictures at Many Glacier with Lake Sherburne in the foreground. Scenery was excellent but weather sucked.

8. Weather was much better the next day. This picture of the Glacier National Park was taken from Highway 89 as we drove to St Mary. Lower St Mary Lake was as clear as a mirror. Weiping called this a million dollar view.

9. Here are 2 pictures taken along Going to the Sun Road with St Mary Lake and the Glacier mountain range in the background. The first picture also shows Little Goose Island in the background.

10. On the trail to Baring Falls we came face to face with 3 deers on their morning walk. After we took a few pictures, they gave way to us.

11. Pictures at Baring Falls:






12. Sunrift Gorge - an almost straight fast running stream between 2 vertical stone walls, looking almost like a man-made canal:



13. Trekked along the trail to St Mary and Virginia Falls.

(1) Pictures and video of St Mary Falls:

video







(2) Pictures and video of Virginia Falls:






video

14. Right are pictures at Sun Point. Here there is a semi-circle dial showing the names of the various peaks.

15. Some pictures at Running Eagle Falls, Two Medicine:













16. South of St Mary was a vast expanse of charred forest, apparently due to a forest fire in 2006.

17. Our plan next day was to drive to Whitefish where we would stay 2 nights to see the western side of Glacier National Park.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

CUSTER AND SURROUNDING AREAS

1. What attracted us to Custer, South Dakota, was Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The task of sculpting the faces of 4 US Presidents out of a granite mountain just seen so monumental; something we do not want to miss. We soon discovered that there were also other attractions around Custer that taken together would easily deserve more than the two days (20th and 21st May) we spent in the area. The whole area has clearly become a destination in its own right.

2. On the day we arrived, we managed to rush to the Jewel Cave, a short drive to the west of Custer, in time to join the 2.45 pm tour. First discovered around 1900, this 145 km of caves (reputedly the world's 2nd largest) are lined with jewel-like calcite crystals in various interesting shapes and forms. Amazingly beautiful. Unfortunately, my camera was not good enough to capture the details in the low light condition. Ably led by a young female warden, the scenic tour began with an elevator ride down 234 ft, then 1/4 mile of caves, up and down more than 700 steps, taking about 1.5 hour. It's well worth the visit.

3. Our plan next day was to first head for Needles Highway (Route 87) via Highway 89 from Custer, then south to Custer State Park (hopefully to see some animals), before looping northwards to Mt Rushmore National Memorial and Crazy Horse Memorial via Iron Mountain Road.

4. The drive along the 14 miles Needles Highway (Route 87) was especially scenic. It was slow driving, with many twists and turns, through rugged granite formations that protruded up like needles, along narrow roads and passing a couple of tunnels where only one vehicle could pass at a time.

5. Heading south, we had a nice leisurely drive through the 71,000 acres of rolling hills, forests and plains of the Custer State Park. Looking out for animals was one of the highlights of a trip for visitors there. Well, we manage to see a few - bison, white tail deer, mountain goat and etc.

6. At its peak, there were some 40-50 mil bison that roamed the plain of north America. With the arrival of the Europeans in the 18/19th century, they were hunted to close to extinction. With introduction of a few bison early last century, there are now some 1500 bison in the park. For the first time I saw a live bison. One can grow to 6 ft tall and weigh 2000 lbs.

7. Mt Rushmore's 60 ft carvings of US Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln were sculpted by Gutzon Borglum and 400 workers between 1927 and 1941 to represent the first 150 years of American history. On the choice of the presidents, Borglum said, "the purpose of the memorial is to communicate the founding, expansion, preservation and unification of the US with colossal statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt".

8. As a monumental project of the arts, this project was already worth a visit. What was also interesting was how a project originally conceived as a tourism project to uplift the economy of S Dakota had turned into an object of history lessons and the imparting of values for the young Americans. The guide we had very ably explained the choice of the presidents and what each meant to him.
Today, Mt Rushmore handles some 3 mil visitors a year, and tourism is the 2nd largest contributor to S Dakota's economy. One complication though - Mt Rushmore sits on land that's contested by the Indians.

9. The response to Mt Rushmore was the Crazy Horse Memorial, located a short distance away. Commissioned by Lakota Indian Chief, Henry Standing Bear, Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski was invited to undertake the world's largest mountain craving. Completely privately funded, he began work in 1948. Picture on the right shows the progress to date, with head of Crazy Horse completed. When completed it will show Crazy Horse on a horse with his hand stretched pointing to his land, standing more than 560 ft high. We hope it will be within our life time when we can come back and see the completed monument,

10. The next day (May 22), we drove south to Hot Springs to visit the Mammoth site. In 1974, in preparing the land for residential development, a mammoth tooth was discovered. Work was halted and excavation work led to discovery of bones belonging to 58 mammoths - 55 Columbian and 3 Wooly mammoths. It seemed 26 000 years ago the site was a sink hole which attracted animals seeking food and water and they must have fallen into the sink hole and were unable to get out. Apart from the bones, the Centre also had an good exhibition hall showing life during the mammoth era.

11. Here you see Weiping holding a femur of a mammoth. A replica of course.

12. After the Mammoth site, we headed west along Highway 18 towards Sheridan in Wyoming where we planned to do a night stop.