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Autunn frosing on Mt Gould in Glacier National Park
Autunn frosting on Mt Gould in Glacier National Park

Glacier Park Autumn


Fishing boat, Two Medicine Lake

Glacier National Park, oh how I love that place, if I could tear my way away from the Greater Yellowstone I’d move there. Working in the tourist industry around Yellowstone I never can get away to travel during the summer months as we make most of our annual money when the visitors are here.  My first trip to Glacier was on a real estate shopping trip in 1992, Kalispell was very nice but my wife and I didn’t find the property we couldn’t live without. This was an April trip so very little of the park was accessible because deep winter snow I didn’t get to see Going To The Sun Road.  Despite not being able to access the crown of the continent the grandeur of the towering peaks above the expansive lakes from the valley bottoms was a stunning experience; I had to return at a time where more of the park was accessible.

My next attempt was a very tardy 2011 when I returned for a fall colors photo trip. It was spectacular, but Going To The Sun Road was closed early because of snow which allowed me to dig deeper into the impressive and colorful landscape of the east slope of Glacier’s Lewis Range in autumn – certainly a worthy endeavor.

Lake McDonald Reflection

This fall (2012) I wanted to go a bit before peak fall colors so I could shoot Going To The Sun Road.  Chronically short on time because of too many projects I got out of the house for my trip a bit late only to find I had a leaky tire so my first stop was a 40 mile detour to the Big O Tires where I lost several hours. My tire was fixed at 11:30 am and I had an eight-hour drive to East Glacier; I hoped I could arrive in time to catch the setting sun.

Approaching the park from Browning I was treated to a forest heavily laden with an early autumn snow, the wind had blown out some of the early fall color but It sure was pretty despite the winter onslaught on the autumn foliage. I had hoped to arrive by mid afternoon but because of the dang tire I didn’t arrive until the sun was touching the peaks of the western horizon obscured by a blanket of clouds – oh well.

Did I mention my chronic time shortage? I only had a few days and I had to make the most of it. I shot the last light at St. Mary Lake over Wild Goose Island; the overcast sky illuminated the snowy landscape beautifully but without the warm color of sunset. I then checked to see where the roadblock was on Going To The Sun Road so I could plan my morning shoot. I then drove over to Many Glacier, the next accessible canyon north hoping to shoot the Milky Way over Swiftcurrent Lake. Miraculously by the time I made the 45 minute drive the clouds had disappeared to reveal a star studded sky, the Milky Way didn’t line up with my landscape though but a full moon rising in the east lit up the new snow around the lake adding great detail to my evening shoot of the star studded sky. The fatigue of the drive and the annoyance of delays melted away as I filled my memory card.

St Mary Lake Reflection

A photographer’s day starts before the sun so an hour before dawn I found myself at a vantage point to shoot the stars above Chief Mountain, a revered spot of the Blackfeet Indians. A stunning sunrise was sure in the making because of the wispy cirrus clouds that were sure to capture pinks and oranges of the approaching dawn. After capturing the stars above Chief Mountain, it was time to hightail it to St. Mary Lake for the hoped for reflection of the towering peaks at Goose Island overlook.

Along the lower reaches of Going to the Sun Road beside St. Mary Lake a bugling bull elk was minding his harem, I reluctantly passed them by as this was a landscape trip not a wildlife one. Somewhere short of Goose Island I ran into a roadblock five miles east of the roadblock of the night before. In someone’s deluded brain they closed a road that was perfectly safe when I left the previous evening around ten PM, so my sunrise opportunity was ruined despite my due diligence. A ranger wanted the gate shut, and so shut it was for no good reason at all. I wish I had stayed to capture the sunrise over Chief Mountain or headed to Swiftcurrent Lake instead.

Elk grazing in a snow meadow

Plan B included a much inferior spot at the Marina, but I got a nice photo out of it, I then hoped the herd of rutting elk would still be in the meadow I had passed earlier. They were still there and putting on a good show, and the herd made a cool landscape shot with the morning sun hitting the peak behind them. I was then off to Many Glacier for some late morning landscape scrutinizing and capture.

To my surprise, the aspens of Many Glacier were a perfect golden yellow and it made some beautiful juxtapositions with the wintery landscape. Many stunning landscapes met my eye; I then introduced them to my shutter. I bumped into the Grizzly Bear photographers staked out strategically by Lake Sherburne hoping for the elusive bear. A young grizzly had been working berry patches on both sides of the road and he was appearing regularly. I successfully fought off the urge to join them. It was a tough argument with myself though because I love photographing grizzlies so much, but I rationalized, I can shoot grizzlies at home, I can’t photograph the outstanding landscape of Glacier National Park anywhere but here.

Black Bear Family

As I worked my way to Swiftcurrent Lake I happened upon a black bear boar then shortly thereafter a black bear sow and two cubs. I shot for a bit then uncharacteristically moved onto the less exciting, but absolutely stunning landscape opportunities.

Swiftcurrent Falls beckoned, and I answered, I’m glad I listened, falling water intersected with golden leaves accented by a towering Mt. Grinnell, oh yes!

Swiftcurrent Lake was lit up like Christmas under a cobalt blue sky surrounded by evergreen trees hosting a heavy load of autumn snow. This was a treat for the eyes and my anger over the unnecessarily closed road which put a kibosh on my sunrise plans melted away. I eagerly shot up the scene. [caption id="ps_captionIns" align="alignleft" width="300"] A setting moon over Mount Wilbur. Click on photo to buy print or to license photo[/caption]

The setting moon was approaching the peaks to the west so I took a little hike down the east side of the lake to see what kind of a landscape I could line up with the moon. When shooting the moon I like to find a terrestrial object I can line up with the moon and be able to compose a nice landscape to shoot with my 500mm lens to enlarge the moon. I found some intriguing opportunities. I had also brought along my other camera body with a shorter landscape lens; it came in handy.

Swafi Current Lake

High noon is the worst time of day to shoot, but I was still turning up compelling landscapes. I returned to the outlet of Swiftcurrent Lake and to my delight the wind was going on recess. I sat and watched as a rare midday reflection of Mt. Grinnell, Mt. Gould, and Mt. Wilbur developed on the mirrored surface of Swiftcurrent Lake. Serendipity, the photographer’s friend was smiling upon me.

It was now time to move on but where to go?  I returned to St. Mary Lake to see whether they were going to open Going To The Sun Road as was their intention, but it was not to be so what the hell, I figured I’d go take a look at Waterton Lakes National Park, the sister park to Glacier right across the border in Canada.  The shortcut was closed for the winter so the trip would be a couple of hours longer as I routed through Cardston Alberta.

Waterton Lakes

Cameron Lake, Waterton National Park
Cameron Lake, Waterton National Park

Waterton Lakes National Park was a disappointment because it was so small and half of it was closed because of snow. Arriving in mid afternoon the light wasn’t great, but I grabbed some record shots of Prince Of Wales Hotel and Vime Peak. Upper Waterton Lake was beautiful, but the road ended where the lake started. The Lake cruise would have been cool the following day, but the border crossing at Goat Haunt was closed so you couldn’t get off the boat.  I was less than inspired at what I was turning up so I went to where I could go.

The road to Reynolds Lake was open so I drove up to take a look, along the way I met a black bear in the center of the road that insisted on filling my frame for a moment while I snapped away. Reynolds Lake was pretty, and I got some OK shots along the north shore but it would make a much better morning shot.  Discouraged I decided to return to Glacier.

Waterton National Park Elk
Waterton National Park Elk

On the way out of the park at 5pm I found a herd of elk that wanted to be photographed and I was happy to oblige. It was a beautiful scene, backlit elk with the Canadian Rockies in shade behind them to accent the rim lighting around the elk, I was happier now. The lady at American customs was wonderful, she saw my 500mm on the seat next to me and quizzed me about photography and sent me on my way.  I got back to Glacier after dark.

I headed straight for Two Medicine Lake to shoot the stars and hopefully the Milky Way over the lake. I was pleased to find the stars of the night reflecting in its waters begging to be recorded for posterity. It was good.

I returned before dawn and Two Medicine Lake was still in perfect reflection revealing a stunning landscape including a couple of different Mt. Sinopah, the one in the sky and the other in the lake.

There was another shot I wanted to get in early morning light a short distance away so I left maybe a moment before I should have as the was just starting to illuminate the mountains.

Running Eagle Falls known to some as Trick Fall is where Two Medicine comes out of the side of a cliff after going subterranean a little way up stream, a cool place, and a worthwhile spot. I was satisfied with my decision to leave Two Medicine Lake a bit early.

It was time to see whether the park service had opened Going To The Sun Road, so I started photographing my way to St. Mary Lake to see if the road was still blocked.  There were a few interesting vistas along the way hosting golden aspens shrouded in snow.

Virginia Falls, autumn snow
Virginia Falls, autumn snow

Going To The Sun Road was still closed so again it was time to make lemonade with my lemons.  On my places I have wanted to go in Glacier was St. Mary Falls, someone along the way told me don’t go to St. Mary Falls without doing the dogleg up to Virginia Falls; it was duly noted.

The road block for Going To The Sun Road was close to the trailhead for St. Mary Falls, it was about a 1.5 mile hike to the bottom of the canyon to the falls and St. Mary Falls was dang pretty but wanting to see Virginia Falls I didn’t dawdle long. I thought Virginia Falls was almost another mile up, but in no time at all I was at some really pretty cascades so I stopped and shot the heck out of them – what a pretty spot, but I was a bit underwhelmed because of the build up I was expecting a little more.

I saw some hikers pause for a second then continue up the trail then it dawned on me this might not be Virginia Falls. I caught up to the hikers, a tough job for this old round guy but I did it and they confirmed I was still way short of Virginia Falls.

Virginia was certainly worth the extra effort; it was stunning in its icy splendor. That said I am glad I didn’t charge past the beautiful cascades of Virginia Creek that have no name.

After climbing out of the canyon I cornered a ranger who was in route to check Going To The Sun Road to see whether it was safe enough to open, I offered to ride along for a second opinion, the ranger declined.

Mountain Goat at Logan Pass on a later trip.

Me and Cyril Albrecht, a destined to be famous photographer from France that does nothing but 800 megabyte photo stitch panoramas, waited for the ranger to return with is verdict.

I had bumped into Cyril repeatedly over the last few days and shot with him some and our dead time waiting for the verdict on whether the road would open or not gave Cyril and I time to compare our work on our laptops. The body of work of the American West this Frenchman has captured at 800 megabytes really made me feel like a slacker. See Cyril's Website

The ranger returned and gave us news that was terribly disappointing, and I had grown tired of waiting as well as being tired from non-stop shooting and driving so I decided it was time to head for home.

A short trip full of highs and lows, I was disappointed about not getting up to Logan Pass at the top of Going to the Sun Road but the many surprises and turns in the road produced a bumber crop of keepers for such a short photography trip.  Someday I will have to create of window of time in August so I can someday actually make it to Logan Pass. I am always happy that there is always a good reason to return to this alpine gem.


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