You’re 22 years old, you’re living out your dreams in Montana – only 45 minutes to the closest entrance of Glacier National Park. You live with your best friend, you work with amazing people, and the mountains are your backyard.
That’s my life right now. And just a week ago, I did the best hike I could ever imagine.
Two Medicine is a section of Glacier National Park, and my roommate and I decided we’d take on our biggest hike yet – an 18.8 mile loop of the Pitamakan and Dawson Passes. We had just hiked the 11 miles to Crater Lake the day before… but we had NO doubts about doing this hike. Expecting to take about 10 hours, we began our trek at around 8am.
The view from the parking lot at the Two Medicine campground, where the North Shore Trail takes off.
We were so excited, and as it turns out, 1 mile into the hike we were also so sore. Maybe hiking 11 miles as a warm-up the day before was a little bit much for us. We hike a lot, but our longest hike to-date was 12 miles, and they’re usually even shorter.
But that didn’t stop us. Singing our usual T-Swizzle songs to scare away any unwanted animal encounters, we soldiered on through dense forest and “bear frequenting” areas. It seemed like every time we gained elevation, not even 10 minutes later we would lose it all. Reviews had told us that the last 2-ish miles of this first section are were we gain almost all 2,400 feet, and it was starting to feel like we were going to have to scale the side of the mountain.
This was only about 3 miles into the hike – staring straight into beauty!
We walked along the sides of mountains for 6 miles, looking at the valley and peaks just to our left nearly the whole way. We would periodically go through short sections of forest, finding large piles of bear scat. Nervous because a mother grizzly and two cubs had been spotted in this area recently, we kept noisy by talking and singing to the bears. Topics included: my (lack of) relationship problems, singing happy birthday, asking the bears about their lives, etc.
Eventually we made it to Old Man Lake, and the first of five sections was completed. We sat and enjoyed the beautiful alpine lake while we fueled up fro what we knew was going to be the most physically challenging section, and we looked over and saw daunting switchbacks extending into the sky… but it was fine. We just took our sweet, sweet time.
Old Man Lake – view from halfway up the switchbacks.
We stopped frequently and had conversations with the many other travelers who were also taking breaks on these leg-murdering switchbacks. One man was on a backpacking trip with his two adult children, and they were much faster than he. Another was a young man hiking the loop in a day, just like us, but all by himself. We also met a group of five 20-somethings who were on their fourth month of thru-hiking the continental divide trail – and that’s precisely when I realized we were on the continental divide trail.
Finally, we reached the top.
There was a large boulder at the top, preventing us from really seeing anything until we walked around it and got positively BLASTED by 30mph wind, and the most spectacular view I could have hoped for.
The start of section three – walking along the ridge of the continental divide.
The third section of the hike was the windiest, most spectacular, breathtaking section of the whole hike. We walked around the back of the mountain we just climbed, and then along the continental divide. At one point, we could see everything in a 360 degree span, and we just walked with our arms around each other because we fucking live here.
Relaxing in paradise on the continental divide.
We walked for approximately 3 miles along this unbelievable trail, seeing and feeling the mountains in our bones. We had to add layers and gloves and hats… and try not to get blown off the cliff by the wind, but it was worth it. All the wobbliness in our legs disappeared during this section of the hike, and we were in a state of complete bliss.
The trail with a teeny-tiny person for scale. The most amazing, and scary trail I’ve set foot on.
Eventually, it was time to start heading back down on the other side of the mountains, which meant we got brand new views! Everything was exciting and nothing could stop us now! We even met some bighorn sheep mommas and babies on this fourth section of steep downhill switchbacks.
I am only 22 years old, but when it comes to going downhill, I am 75. My knees, my ankles, my feet, were all immediately angry with me. But I pushed on, and on, and on. The downhill on this fourth section seemed to be much worse than the uphill – and isn’t it usually the other way around?
The fourth section – downhill – was steep and hard on the knees, but easy on the eyes.
Down we go and go and go. This was supposed to be the easy part, we already went up and across, now we should just be down and out… but it’s taking a lot longer than I feel like it should. I can start to feel my own heartbeat in my feet, and my knees feel like someone smashed a sledgehammer into them both – repeatedly.
After finally reaching flat ground, the fifth and final section. I think to myself, alright now it’s smooth sailing all the way back to the car. But we still have roughly 6 more miles to go, and that downhill was not kind to me. Turns out, this last leg was going to be the hardest, even though it’s technically the easiest.
We are nearly all the way back around to the start, and this is the view behind us.
My hips and legs felt like the formations at Stonehenge. I couldn’t even take a full-length stride, just short little steps. I swear I could hear my hips squeaking. We were both worn out, and I didn’t even have the energy to clap my hands or talk at all, so walking through the forest we were not making quite as much noise as we probably should have been. Luckily, we ran into other people making noise quite frequently, and every time there was a lag, one of us came up with the strength to yell something.
No bears were spotted on this hike, but with only 2 miles left I was really wishing that one would come carry me back to the car. I was thinking about my satellite rescue beacon, and how embarrassing it was going to be when I collapsed and had to be rescued 2 miles from the end.
But, I made it. My body is stronger than my mind gave it credit for. And as I sat down in the car seat and looked up at the mountain range I just covered, I felt a sense of accomplishment that I never have before.