After picking up our car in Dubois we headed up to Glacier National Park to clean up some “unfinished business”, the last part of the trail from “Many Glacier” north to the Canadian border. We were looking forward to finishing in the trail on a high note, hiking through such incredible country. We were also hoping to be able to do the Highline Trail; and finish at Waterton Lake. We had heard that the Swiftcurrent Trail, which connects Many Glacier and the Highline Trail was closed due to Grizzly Bear activity. When we stopped at the back-country office to get our permit we found out that the Swiftcurrent Trail was reopened – good news! Unfortunately, neither of the designated campsites we would need to use were available for another 3 days, and the weather forecast was for rain (not chance of rain, but simple rain for each of the next four days (with snow quite possible in the higher elevations.)
Once again, the CDT was throwing us an unexpected curve and, as we had learned before, it’s best to roll with the punches. So, we choose the official early/late season alternative route via the Belly River to Chief Mountain Customs Station. The Ptarmigan Tunnel was still open, so we were able to access the Belly River via that particular climb.
We started out Thursday morning, in a light but steady drizzle, with dramatic dark clouds surrounding the peaks that normally tower over Many Glacier. Rain tapered off and the sun even made a few brief teasing appearances as we climbed the valley towards Ptarmigan Lake and Tunnel, a steady climb of 2,400 feet in just under 5 miles. In the upper reaches of the climb, across the valley, we watched a large grizzly intent on feeding, tossing huge rocks aside to roll and crash down the canyon, searching for delectable treats hidden underneath. Above the lake we saw a heard of Bighorn Sheep, ewes and lambs munching on the still green grasses, paying only slight attention to the hikers.
Once over the pass we dropped down to Elizabeth Lake, were we had to make a mile and half detour to the head end to get to our campsite. But the extra miles paid off as we watched mountain goats frolicking in the mist of waterfalls cascading over cliffs and a large black bear foraging in the forbs. Not a bad day of hiking – bears of both kinds, mountain goats and big horn sheep. Were were happy to back in Glacier, finishing with such wonderful wildlife shows! It even made us forget the off and on afternoon rain and increasing cold.
As we went to bed, a steady rain began to fall. In the middle of the night it turned to a mixture of heavy snow and rain. Water seeped in under the tent and heavy condensation dampened everything inside. When we started to pack up in the morning, it actually started to get colder and snow, not rain, began to fall in earnest. By the time we left camp we had a couple of inches on the ground and enough falling that visibility was limited. We kept a brisk pace up, mainly to stay warm. And now we were intent on simply getting the last 12 miles done. By the Pelly River Ranger station the falling snow had let up, but we had about 6 inches of snow on the ground, turning the trail to a muddy, slushy mess. It often felt more like we were skating or sliding than walking.
As with most of our long hikes, the end of the trail is bittersweet: there’s satisfaction in completing a goal, but sadness at leaving the journey behind. But now, we were glad that our route only included the one night of camping. It is doubtful that we would have been able to dry out tent or sleeping bag and the thought of another night out sleeping in wet stuff with temps falling below freezing was enough to make the end of the trail appealing.
With one final push we marched up the 700 foot climb out of the valley to the border – somehow fitting to finish the CDT on an uphill laden with slush and mud. The trail challenges to the end.
We are now back home and trying to get used to the idea that the hike is over, we’ve completed the Triple Crown (Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail.) And getting adjusted to the idea that returning to work lies. BUT getting very nicely aquainted with warm toes again!