On Monday August 18, 2014 Rachel and I traveled the Going-to-the-Sun Road to the Continental Divide at Logan Pass (6,646 feet/2,026 m). I asked for hiking recommendations at the Logan Pass Visitor Center, which has weathered intense winter snow and wind since it was completed in 1966. I had the Highline Trail in mind, but the rangers told me we had a better chance of seeming mountain goats on the trail to Hidden Lake (2.7 miles/4.3 km roundtrip to Hidden Lake Overlook). The trail starts on the hill behind the visitor center, initially heading west straight towards the handsome Clements Mountain. The best online guide to the trail is the Hidden Lake page on Hiking in Glacier.com.
The trail is heavily used, so the early part of the trail has some improvements- the beginning is paved, then transitions to boardwalk, and finally good old fashioned dirt. The boardwalk is undoubtedly a big help early in the summer when the snowpack has just melted and the alpine meadows are muddy. By late summer, the meadow was quite green and dotted with flowers; the density of wildflowers earned this area the name the “Hanging Gardens”.
We found ourselves getting hungry not long after starting the trail around 2:00pm MDT. There was heavy foot traffic on the trail and we didn’t want to trample any vegetation, so we figured sitting on a rock next to the trail was harmless enough. We pulled out some cheese and sandwiches purchased earlier from a grocery store in Kalispell. I generally have a kinetic approach to travel, preferring to keep moving and see as much as possible. Still, this was about as perfect a spot to sit and relax as any on Earth- warm sun, a nice breeze, and awe-inspiring views of the surrounding meadows and mountains. The panorama of the Garden Wall was particularly impressive. It had towered over us driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road, but the view was limited looking upward, especially in a car. From Logan Pass, on the other hand, it was obvious why people described it “wall”- it was mountain after mountain in a row.
We continued uphill as the trail entered a rocky area. Streams were flowing, probably still fed by snowmelt despite how late it was in the summer. Some hikers passing the other direction let us know that there were mountain goats ahead! We hurried ahead with excitement, but we need not have worried that they’d fly the coop- there were quite a few grazing in the meadows and rocky areas surrounding the trail.
Mountain goats are not technically goats as far as science is concerned. It seems you must be a member of genus Capra like the wild goat and domestic goat to be an official member of the true goat club. The mountain goat does share the next rung up the scientific classification chain, subfamily Caprinae (goat-antelope) with all those real goats, as well as sheep and muskoxen. And if the internet is to be believed, mountain goats do go “BAAA!” (though all the ones we saw were quiet). Apparently, the old adage should have gone “If it walks like a goat, and talks like a goat, then it is a
With their friendly dispositions, handsome woolen coats, and uncanny climbing abilities, mountain goats edged out the bighorn sheep, grizzly bears, and moose to become the symbol of Glacier National Park. Their hooves and dewclaws are adapted to climb nearly vertical rock faces, allowing them to find food and escape predators like the mountain lion. Especially early in the season, they often congregate at mineral deposits like the “Goat Lick” near the Izaak Walton Inn on US-2. The goats near Logan Pass don’t seem afraid of human hikers, but they don’t ask for handouts like the obnoxious ground squirrels that tend to appear wherever hikers congregate. Of course, as with any wild animal, the best practice is to give them a wide berth and enjoy them from a distance with binoculars or a telephoto lens; a person was gored to death a few years ago by an unusually aggressive mountain goat in Olympic National Park.
The goats grazing near the Hidden Lake Trail appeared to be females (known as nannies) with a single kid. The nannies have horns and beards like the males (billies), but the males don’t assist with raising the young. Most of the nannies had ugly radio transmitter collars; a sign near Logan Pass indicated the area was a mountain goat study area of some kind. Based on the collars, we saw at least four nanny-kid pairs on our hikes. One kid was substantially older than the others (judging by its well developed horns). Apparently his mother hasn’t booted him out to fend for himself just yet, though if he tries to nurse again with those long horns, she just might!
We arrived at the Hidden Lake Overlook around 3:20pm. We elected not to descend to the water’s edge in favor of having some more time in the St. Mary Lake area. The overlook wasn’t bad, but it was a rather hazy view to the west. I’m embarrassed to admit it took a lot more post-processing than normal to get a decent shot. Generally I prefer a minimum of Photoshop. I use High Dynamic Range (HDR) techniques usually only to restore detail that is evident to my human eye but that escapes the more limited dynamic range of a conventional camera sensor. My infrared camera could cut through the haze, but I found I had to process the file in Photomatix to get enough detail in both the clouds and mountains surrounding the lake. Here’s the resulting image:
Since I always prefer to get the result right in-camera rather than on the computer, I should mention that the light would probably be more favorable in the morning when the sun is behind the overlook to the east. So if you want good photos of Hidden Lake, I’d recommend getting an early start. You may even manage to snag one of the coveted parking spots at Logan Pass before the crowds arrive!
On the other hand, the afternoon light at the overlook was quite nice for viewing the subtle color details of the rock face on Clements Mountain nearby. We headed back through the mountain goat herd. A pair of nannies and their kids had stopped grazing and were resting in the shade of a tree.
We spotted two other residents of the alpine meadow on the way back: a hoary marmot (a kind of large ground squirrel) and her pup. Mama marmot and baby frolicked on a rock a short distance away. We were surprised that marmots carry their young in their mouth like a mother cat carries a kitten. From a distance I initially mistook it for a big tumor or something!
We descended towards the visitor center. Going-to-the-Sun Mountain was prominent on the other side of Logan Pass, past the Hanging Gardens. Arriving back at the visitor center, I noticed the play of light on the Garden Wall were providing interesting photo opportunities, especially on the wall’s most distinctive mountain, the Bishops Cap. The clouds cast the mountains on each side of the Bishops Cap into shadow. Although this looks nice enough in color, it’s particularly striking in infrared because areas in the shade reflect almost no infrared radiation.
Date: Monday August 18, 2014
Distance: About 3 miles roundtrip on foot including walk to the trailhead
Equipment: Merrell Chameleon hiking shoes
Duration: About 2 hours, 20 minutes including stops for lunch and goatwatching