Last week, Thom and I went out for our annual tradition: a fall backpacking trip to… somewhere. We’d originally hoped to hike the Grand Canyon, but missed the window of opportunity to apply for permits, so we couldn’t secure one of the coveted campsites at the bottom of the Canyon. Now that we know we need to be ready six months ahead, we hope to make that our 2017 destination.

After the Grand Canyon fell through, we tossed around a few other ideas and landed on Glacier National Park. By late September the crowds have dispersed (although we discovered there are still quite a few visitors!) and the fall colors are showing in all their glory. Of course it means the weather is a little cooler, but as it turned out, the temperatures were just about perfect: 50-60 during the day, and 30-40 at night.

I flew out to Seattle where Thom picked me up at the airport. We stopped in at REI to see Katie and have lunch, and then we began the long drive across Washington, through the narrow neck of Idaho, and into northwestern Montana. It was fun to take an honest-to-goodness “road trip” with my favorite brother. We chatted and listened to music (mainly R.E.M. and Pet Shop Boys, as I jokingly pointed out) and enjoyed the scenery.

I borrowed Brian’s camera for the trip; it’s a really nice Nikon D90 DSLR: far better than any cameras I’ve ever owned. He’s been hoping to convince me to buy it for a couple of years, but I’ve been hesitant because it seemed too complicated for me, and I wasn’t sure if my photography skills were up to the task. As it turned out, I learned a lot of the settings quickly and had a great time shooting. I have a few hundred raw images that I need to learn how to process, so the photos I’m including here are just JPEG’s from the camera’s automatic conversion, with minimal cleanup. Hopefully the “good stuff” is still to come.

One of the things I was playing around with on the camera was avoiding the “program” mode– which figures out all the settings for you– and working more with shutter and aperture priority modes. An obvious application of this is using a slower shutter speed to capture moving water. Here are a few examples that didn’t turn out too badly:




Thom correctly pointed out that there are times when the flowing water effect is a bit “too much”. It’s nice for smallish waterfalls, but not as good on rivers or wide falls. So this is a technique I’ll continue to practice.

On our first full day in Glacier, the weather was overcast and brooding. Although it looked menacing, the temperature wasn’t bad and there were a lot of opportunities to capture clouds. They were moving across the tops of the mountains, always providing a changing panorama of smoky grey. For example:


We’d originally planned to grab a backcountry permit and head up on a few of the longer and more remote trails, camping somewhere in the backcountry, but learned a surprising lesson: at Glacier, you can’t get a campground permit for a single night. Instead, they expect you to have a multi-day itinerary prepared, with multiple campsites along the way. Keep in mind that you can’t reserve any campsite in Glacier (except Apgar), so I guess you just hope to get lucky that your multi-day hike works out. It’s very odd, and not something we expected. As a result, we had to change our plans from a backpacking trip to more of a day-hiking trip. Bummer.

One thing I remember about Glacier from past visits (almost exactly 15 years ago, actually) was the magnificent views of mountains and lakes. Thom mentioned that he read something about how many outdoor lovers are “mountain people” or “water people”. He’s definitely a mountain person. I’m actually a bit of both: although I love the mountains, I also love the ocean. In Glacier, there’s a pleasant mix of the two. Here’s a shot of St. Mary’s Lake, which I recall learning (long ago) is one of the most photographed lakes in the country.


Up at Logan Pass, there’s a fantastic view across the glacial valleys.


And over on the eastern edge of the park, the view from our campground:


In a word, day two was windy. I’m not talking about “a bit breezy”– I think the wind was howling at around 30mph sustained, perhaps gusting to 40mph or more. It was crazy. We decided to hike along trails in the forest, rather than out in the open. Here’s a stop along the highway to the Many Glacier area:


Another photography technique I was practicing was aperture-priority work to bring certain things into focus. Here’s an example using some rocks on the shore of a lake:




Thom’s heading up the trail toward brooding clouds at Swiftcurrent Pass.


The fall colors were spectacular, with a nice mix of aspen and even some larch amongst the pines.


Back at camp I practiced some night photography. I was able to capture the cozy feel of our tent, but couldn’t get a good shot of the Milky Way as I’d hoped.


On day three we hiked through the burned-out forest near St. Mary Falls. There are many areas of the park that have been devastated by fire in the last decade– some encompassing thousands of acres– but this one was a relatively “fresh” one, so there were still many burned trees standing. It was kind of eerie.


At St. Mary Falls I practiced my water technique again, and I think the result shows a little improvement:


Here’s a shot of a river… in Thom’s sunglasses! Hah.


(I fully expect him to make that photo his new Facebook profile picture or something.)

As we continued through the park, we stopped often to take pictures of the mountains in the distance. Glacier is definitely a place where there’s a new amazing vista around every turn!


Hidden Lake, up by Logan Pass, was stunning. Had we planned a little better and brought some supplies (instead of just jackets and cameras), I would’ve liked to continue the hike down along the lake.


We stopped by a little lake along the road and decided to take a break and soak our feet. Not surprisingly, the water was bitterly cold– within a minute or two I couldn’t even feel my feet! Still, the sun was warm and it was a great spot to just relax for a bit.


On our way out of the park, we stopped at Lake McDonald to contemplate it…


… and also to skip rocks. The water was very still, and there were some great skipping stones. Thom made fun of my technique, which I think I’ll call “The Crane”.


His form was much more reserved, but he definitely beat me with the number of skips.


Finally, we stopped in Kalispell for dinner at The Hut.


Of course eating pizza is a tradition for us, although I learned that both of us never eat at Pizza Hut except on our fall trips. Funny.

All in all, it was a fabulous time and despite the last-minute change of plans, a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the beauty up in Glacier. Thanks, Thom, for another great fall trip.