Belly River Backpacking
In the summer of 2014, Lagena and I decided we needed to backpack on our trip to Glacier National Park. We eventually ended up picking the Belly River Trail, which was perfect for the two of us.
There were two elements of backpacking in northern Montana that were new to us. One was grizzlies. They are scary and even though both of us had backpacked in bear country before, grizzlies are a whole other level of being “bear aware.” The other was picking a trail before hand that we hoped would be clear of snow – even in mid-July. A map of the backcountry campsites and trails in the park can be viewed here.
Lagena also had never hiked above the tree line, and a long drop off the trail with no trees to catch you, left her desiring trails at lower elevation.
I initially pushed for us to do a trail that would take us through the famous Ptarmigan Tunnel, a man-made passageway through the mountain, to Elizabeth Lake. I talked it up to Lagena, and hoped she would not notices how steep it was going to be, and how straight of a drop it would be if she tripped. I’m a bad friend; I know this now.
Fortunately that trail was still covered in snow and the tunnel was not opened. With the help of a very sweet and knowledgeable ranger, we chose the Belly River Trail, a southbound route on the other side of the mountain to Elizabeth Lake. She assured us it would not be too difficult and the views would be breathtaking.
One nice thing about Glacier National Park is they offered a shuttle service from our trailhead, so we had the choice to hike one-way or do an out-and-back hike. We chose not to be on a set schedule and simply hike 10 miles in and back out the same route.
Most national parks require you to register your trip with a ranger so you can reserve your backcountry site. It also aids in your safety by letting the rangers know where you should be in the backcountry and how long to expect your car to be at the trailhead. It is always advisable to have a backup trail picked out in case all the backcountry sites at your desired location are taken. We were fortunate and did not have a problem reserving our site.
Lagena and I began our hike on the Belly River Trail at the Chief Mountain Customs trailhead. We were literally steps from the Canadian border, however we were heading south.
I assumed Montana would be arid and dry; however, the east side of the mountains in Glacier are humid with thick vegetation, at least at the time of year we were there.
The Belly River Trail first led us through a thick forest with nearly waist-high lush-green understory.
This understory, we would discover later, without the canopy of the trees grew even thicker and higher causing us to have to search a little for the path. I was glad this was not Arkansas, because the chiggers and ticks would be awful in vegetation like that. Although Montana did not seem to have much in the way of those blood suckers, the mosquitoes were scary, large and hurt when they bit you. This is also a place you want to make noise so you don’t surprise a bear in the thickets.
The trail descends about 700 feet from the trailhead and as we made our way down to the mountain meadows, Lagena and I knew we were going to have a tough hike on the way back. This thought was confirmed by the numerous hikers we met on the incline taking breaks. The ranger that advised us about the trail warned us that that part can “get hot.” Our response was “we are from Arkansas, we know hot.”
The trail opened up into a beautiful mountain meadow. We stopped for lunch overlooking a large pond with mountain peaks in the background. This was one of my favorite lunches because of our view.
The guide book we were following said when we came to a campground that had been washed away in a flood in the ’90s, we would be at mile three. We never – ever – saw such a place that we could identify. We began to panic that we had not even made three miles, which would mean we had at least seven miles to go. I knew we would not make it before dark … in grizzly country.
There were a few small stream crossings, but the park had placed logs to cross so we did not have to get our feet wet.
We finally came to a trail marker that told us we had not only gone the first three miles, but six miles. We were so relieved!
The Belly River Ranger Station is located around mile six. We were fortunate to be there when they had horses near the station, which made the scenery even more gorgeous. I loved the wildflowers that bloomed in the mountain meadows. It was almost like it was manicured.
Shortly after the ranger station, the Belly River Trail follows closer to the river, and gives you wonderful views of the river.
Human voices are one of the best ways to keep from surprising a bear and sparking an attack. We were told to speak loudly and clap our hands. As we grew tired in the day and ran out of conversation, Lagena started singing “If your happy and you know it clap your hands!” Sometimes I would sing with her, sometimes I would just clap.
One problem we had while we were there were wildfires in Washington State that put a thick haze around the mountains. Because of this, viability toward distant peaks was not the best.
The trail then crosses the river via a swinging bridge. Lagena was very impressed with the bridge.
My energy was fading fast around this part and I was ready to be off the trail. We came to an amazing waterfall, Dawn Mist Falls, but neither one of us had the energy to walk the short spur trail to the bottom of it. We took in the view from the top, and continued on to our backcountry site, Elizabeth Lake (foot).
Backpacking in grizzly country you are advised to eat, cook, brush your teeth, and store your food, toiletries, and anything with a smell 100 yards away from where you sleep.
Fortunately, Glacier National Park’s backcountry sites are set up with this in mind. The bear lockers and “kitchen area” is set up far from where we set our tent. It is also advised to not cook in what you are going to wear to bed.
Lagena and I made our dinner as we sat on log benches provided by the park. There was another group of guys camping at the site, so we eavesdropped on their conversation because they were more experienced in the backcountry than we were. They were nice and smiled at us, but for the most part our two groups did not socialize.
Right after dinner we heard a thunder clap, which drove us all into our tents. One mistake I made was, to save weight in my pack, I left the outer bag of my tent in the car. The next day all the water on my tent from the storm dripped out of my pack, down my legs and into my boots. Not fun.
The next morning there was thick mist coming off Elizabeth Lake, and deer eating around our campsite. Lagena said she heard a landslide from the mountain surrounding us the night before. I must have been really tired, because it did not wake me.
The Belly River Trail continues to Helen Lake, however we turned around at the foot of Elizabeth Lake.
After breakfast we made our way back to the trailhead, this time stopping to take pictures with the waterfall. We still did not go to the bottom because the view from the top was so nice we felt satisfied.
The hike back to the car on the Belly River Trail was just as perfect as the day before. We even made better time hiking out, and that included that 700-foot climb.