A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about wildlife

Empire Builder and East Glacier National Park

The train route to the mountains

semi-overcast 72 °F
View Glacier National Park on baecation2016's travel map.

After a bumpy nights sleep in our roomette bunk beds, we woke up to dawn with views of the plains of North Dakota.
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Example of a roomette and bed set up

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Example of the dining car

Some views of daybreak of the plains of York, North Dakota
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We made coffee in our French Press travel mugs and headed over to the diner car by way of the observation car for complimentary breakfast (all meals are free for sleeper car ticket holders).
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The food is variable and offers a vegetarian option. However, if you’re riding trains for more than a couple days as we did in our Lovebug Train Trip, the selection can get a bit repetitive.

As is Amtrak custom, we dined in a booth across from another set of passengers. It serves a dual purpose of accommodating more people with limited space and to encourage conversation among passengers. At breakfast, we dined with a Texan couple who were also headed to Glacier National Park and staying in Essex to access the park from the west side. At lunch, we met a couple traveling to Seattle to for their grandson’s 3rd birthday party. Since our train was set to arrive on time during dinner service, we were given priority seating so we would be able to eat before getting off the train. At dinner, we had our best pairing with a couple from Delaware also heading to GNP by way of East Glacier. Mike and Mindy (even their names are adorable) were self-proclaimed national park addicts. They recounted some of their most memorable trips as children with their respective families, as young parents with their own children, to now as empty nesters. We lamented over the overcrowding of the parks for those in pursuit of a “picture for Instagram," destruction of the trails, and tourists who do not respect wildlife. Their enthusiasm for NPs got us even more excited to continue pursuing adventure vacations just like this one!

Wildflower farm

The road to St Mary

As the train got closer to the park, the views transformed from farmland to mountain ridge lines. We viewed all this splendor from the observation car, accompanied by our Witbier growler.
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When we finally arrived in East Glacier Village, we could barely contain our excitement. Our new friend Mindy helped us snap our first official pic in the park.
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After picking up our rental car (Dollar is the currently only company at East Glacier) and a failed attempt at purchasing beer (alcohol sales were prohibited on this particular Sunday on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in observation of their tribe's holiday), we began our 1 hour scenic drive from the Two Medicine area of the park to St. Mary. Along the way, we encountered a herd of bison as well as several different groups cows on the roadside hills. Our first local bird, black-billed magpies, also made their first appearance.

The rivers and creeks were beautiful, but nothing compared to our first sight of St. Mary Lake, a massive glacial lake, is the centerpiece of this area of the park. It was breathtaking! The lake and its backdrop of mountains would be the perfect site for tomorrow’s sunrise landscape photography session.

Entrance to the St Mary section of GNP:
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After a brief stint on Going-to-the-sun Road, we finally arrived at the Rising Sun Campsite.
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This area is known for their motor inns and cabins dating from 1940s, which have been refurbished for modern use. Here are some photographs of our cabin:
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St Mary Lake Sunrise session

We woke up just as the day was starting to break around 5:30 am. After brewing and pressing our coffee, we grabbed the tripod and mirrorless camera to make our way to the viewing area spotted the night before heading into the camping area.
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This was a great spot; a Golden eagle (a life-list first for us both!) soared over the horizon and a rainbow emerged across the glacier mountain peaks.
We collectively took hundreds of photographs, but here are a selection of our favorites:
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We later found out that the field right behind us is a popular spot for bears to eat their breakfast. Luckily, we did not find that out on that morning!

Hiking to chase waterfalls

After a quick stop at the St Mary Visitor Center, which has excellent exhibits about the park's wildlife and the the three native American tribes who originally inhabited the area, we packed up our gear and made lunch (tuna wraps, our favorite) in preparation for our hike.
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Going-to-the-sun road
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We decided to hike to Virginia Falls, a short hike (about 4 miles) of moderate intensity (mostly uphill). It passes several waterfalls along the way, including St. Mary Falls. It was a beautiful hike with amazing views, cool mountain wildflowers, and wildlife.
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Thimbleberries
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St. Mary Falls
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When we finally reached Virginia Falls, we encountered another life-list first, the American Dipper. This bird is a small grey bird with long legs that frequents fast moving rocky streams. It bounces (or dips) as it pauses to feed along fast moving rocky streams, in this case the waterfall itself!

Virginia Falls
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American Dipper
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On our trek back down the mountain, we encountered a ton of tourists. Staying at East Glacier was an intentional choice; it’s less touristy (fewer people) and less developed than West Glacier. However, later in the day tourists are everywhere in this popular national park. The east side tends to be windier and cooler from a temperature perspective so the West side is more popular (and warm). A strong storm on the West side that afternoon brought a lot of people to the East that day.
The trail was temporarily held up by a deer and her fawn babies feeding on berries. Some tourists were trying to scare the mother deer off the trail, with limited success. She eventually moved to the side to continue her meal and the hiking groups were on their way.

After lunch and a short hike to Sun Point for views of Wild Goose Island, we headed back to our cabin site for celebratory local Montana craft beers.
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We dined on-site at Two Dog Flats Grill, a restaurant named after an area of rolling plains in St Mary known for its wildlife viewing. That evening we attended a campsite talk on the dying trees of GNP as impacted by climate change hosted by Park Ranger Rebecca.

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It was an informative and interactive presentation on the ability of the mountain pine beetle and western spruce budworm (native, not invasive species) increase their killing potential as warmer climates permit more life cycles than previously observed. These deleterious effects on the pine trees were glaringly apparent during our time in the park. So sad!

On a more positive note, tomorrow we plan to travel to Many Glacier, the “heart” of Glacier National Park, for more adventures.

We hope you’ll join us!

Claudia & Heidi

Posted by baecation2016 09:33 Archived in USA Tagged mountains parks wildlife park glacier sunrise national montana amtrak Comments (0)

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