Great Scenic Locations · National Parks

Visiting Glacier National Park, Part 3

St Mary Lake and Goose Island, McDonald Lake Dawn, Glacier National Park, Montana.  Here is a better one, the first picture on my website.  

This is part three of a three part article on Glacier National Park, part of our series of articles on Glacier National Park in Montana.  There are also some pretty boring comments of how professional landscape photographer deal with high contrast scenes.  If this doesn’t interest you, by all means skip this part of the article.

I ended part two of this article leaving Logan Pass and heading down the eastern side of the pass toward St. Mary’s Lake.

As you head down this part of The Going To The Sun Highway, there are a number of wonderful places to stop along the road and enjoy the alpine wonders of Glacier National Park. One of the nicest is Sun Rift Gorge where there are wonderful river views on both sides of the road and another is the trail to St. Mary Falls. The walk to the Falls is a mile or so but they are quite scenic and make it all worthwhile.

Shots of the rivers and falls in both of these spots can be very spectacular. However, photographing these spots is not easy. The problem is that both spots are very contrasty for most of the day. In other words they contain both bright highlights and dark shadows, often mixed all together. This is a sure receipe for horrible pictures.

Colored Mudstone, small creek near McDonald Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana.

If you are photographing scenes like these, one way to eliminate the contrast is simply making sure the scene you are shooting is entirely in the shade. If you include both sun and shade, you can be pretty sure that the resulting photograph will be worthless. Neither film nor digital cameras can deal with extreme contrast like your eye can. The scene will look great to your eye but horrible in the picture. Try to get the whole picture in the shade, or even better, shoot on an overcast day when all the tonalities are about the same. This later solution is sometimes the only solution that really works.

Another approach to high contrast situations like this is to do your photography near or before dawn or near or after sunset. This is often a very good solution if you have Photoshop and know how to use it. This is one of the situations for which Photoshop is made.

Usually you get the dark, shady foreground in the lower part of the picture and the bright higher peaks and dawn/sunset sky in the top part of the picture. Without Photoshop, the shadows will be way too dark, usually pure black, and the sky way too bright, often pure white. The camera just can’t adjust to all the contrast.

Fixing this problem in Photoshop is very easy. Use Image>Adjustments>Shadows/Highlights and then lighten the shadows with the shadows slider. Then darken the sky. To do this, select the sky, feather the selection, and then darken the sky using Levels. Most of the time this will work just fine. If not, there are a bunch of more complex techniques that will work. If you are not a Photoshop user, this probably doesn’t make any sense at all, so just skip it.

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Mountain Goat in Hanging Gardens on Logan Pass, , Glacier National Park, Montana.

If all of this Photoshop stuff does sound like Greek to you there are two paths you might take. If you want to be a serious photographer, and are willing to invest a good bit of money and time, then it’s time to buy Photoshop and learn how to use it. And this really isn’t cheating. I use Photoshop to fix pictures that the camera cannot capture well. For me, fixing pictures means returning the picture to the way my eye saw it. Cameras can see only a very minimal amount of contrast but the human eye can see ten times as much contrast easily. Learning to use Photoshop to return pictures ruined by the camera to the beautiful scene your eye saw is perfectly honest and a lot of fun besides.

Indian Paintbrush, wildflowers and forest.  Logan Pass, Glacier National Park, Montana.

The other possible route to follow when confronted with problems like this is simply take the best picture you can and forget about trying to capture the whole scene. In practice this means shooting the shadowed areas in one picture and the bright sky scenes as a second separate picture. Shadowy scenes with no bright sky will often be very beautiful. Ditto for bright dawn skies with no dark foreground included.

Anyway, whatever, you do, don’t mix bright and dark together in one picture, as in a complex scene of many spots of light and dark in the middle of a sunny/shady forest. This will all look great to your human eye, but God-awful in the picture. Nothing can fix a scene like this; not even Photoshop.

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Goose Island in St Mary’s Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana.

And I speak from much experience, in both The Sun Rift Gorge and at St Mary Falls. I have wasted untold film, digital card space and hours of time. I finally got a very nice St Mary’s Falls shot by shooting it all in the shade, but I’ve never gotten the Sun Rift Gorge right. This is an aptly named spot; it has very dark shadows cut with many rifts of bright light. I could do it if I really worked at it, but often, trying to force a picture like this to work sort-of succeeds, but the results never seem quite as nice as a scene where the natural contrast is low and soft.

One new way of taking pictures of contrasty scenes like this is to take a whole series of pictures at different exposures and then blend them all into one picture with perfect exposure everywhere using a special area of Photoshop or other very sophisticated software. You take the series of ten or so exposures and the software does all the rest. Somehow this is just too much trouble for me. I’d rather come back when the light is better and capture the scene that way. The trouble is that the light is never better at Sun Rift Gorge. So I don’t have a picture of that one. So it goes.

Soft dawn light on Logan Pass, Glacier National Park, Montana.

Continuing down the East side of Going To The Sun Road, the scenry just keeps getting better and better. When you get down to St. Mary’s Lake be sure and stop at the Goose Island Scenic turnoff. This is the place to take the famous picture of St. Mary’s Lake with tall pines in the foreground, tiny and scenic Wild Goose Island in the middle of the lake, and a background of the most scenic peaks you have ever seen. If you take one picture in Glacier this is probably the one to take; the best time is either sunset or dawn when there is a chance of getting color in the sky and water.

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Here is that picture of tiny Goose Island in the middle of St. Mary’s Lake.  Here is an even better version of that picture. 

However, if its midday and the light is blah, one the nicest places in the Park is the lake shore directly below the Goose island scenic turnoff . The shore line is a good bit below the highway and the trail down to the lake is primitive, but this is quite a beautiful spot that only a miniscule number of people who stop at the overlook above actually reach. The number of people who actually take the trouble to walk down to the shore is pretty much zero.

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Showy Daisies, Glacier National Park, Montana.

At this lake shore spot there are a lot of nice shots of Goose Island and the surrounding mountains from the shoreline and an interesting peninsula to walk around on. This is the spot where the famous landscape photographer David Muench shot the cover photograph of his book, “The Rocky Mountains” which is, by the way, quite a good book.

At this same spot on the shore of St. Mary Lake, look closely into the water right along the shore. There are thousands of thin little flakes of rock like miniature playing cards of various shapes and colors and sizes that wash ashore here and which are then sorted by the wind and waves into intricate little patterns of similar shapes that are astoundingly beautiful. These patterns constantly shift and change and re-sort themselves into new designs and patterns. The rocks are quite small and mostly underwater right by the shoreline and you have to look closely to see them. Joan and I once spent hours watching these little rocks sort themselves into different shifting patterns and trying unsuccessfully to take pictures of them. It may have been the high winds and big waves that were causing this phenomenon the day we were there, but I’ll bet there are many days when you can see this happening.

Aspen leaves lining the western shore of Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park, Montana.

In my opinion the best campground in the St. Mary Lake area is the one situated at the far eastern end of the Lake; it is only a mile of two from the eastern end of Going to the Sun Road where the eastern Visitor Center is located. This campground is very different from the one at Apgar at the Western end of McDonald Lake. The Western campground is swallowed up so tightly in a huge aspen grove as to be almost claustrophobic. This campground at the East end of the park is spread out on a wide open hillside with great views of St. Mary Lake and the distant mountains. You can sit in many of the campsites, especially those high on the hillside, with a cup of morning coffee or a cold evening beer and gaze over hundreds of square miles of some of the best scenery in Glacier National Park.

Many Glacier is a third area of the park that is located North of St. Mary Lake; it is about twenty miles or so by car (and perhaps five miles as the crow flies) north of St. Mary Lake. It is one of my very favorite parts of Glacier National Park and definitely not to be missed. When you get out of your car in the parking lot, the famous Many Glacier Hotel will be right in front on you so you might as well spend a few minutes checking it out. This hotel has got to be the grandest of all the grand National Park lodges. It contains several restaurants, a number of little hidey-hole bars, a grand lobby large enough for a steam locomotive and a fire place that could easily accommodate a Volkswagen. The views out the mammoth plate glass windows facing Swift Current Lake are a panorama of some of the most spectacular mountains in the world and guaranteed take your breath away.

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Sunset on the trail to Grinnell Glacier, Glacier National Park, Montana.

Many Glacier is a hiker’s and photographer’s heaven. Probably the best hikes leave from the hotel and head up the valley toward Grinnell Glacier (which is no-where near as large as it used to be when I was a kid but still very much worth visiting) . This hike which is roughly an 11 mile round trip up to the glacier and back is a wonderland of rock, snow, ice, Bear Grass, spectacular wildflower meadows, and falling water. It is also possible to take a cruise boat across Swift Current Lake and then to the far side of the next lake in the chain of lakes that fill the bottom of the Many Glacier valley and then begin hiking from there. There are tons of great pictures just waiting to be taken on this hike. I would say this is the most photogenic hike I have ever taken. It is best early in the morning or late in the afternoon or evening when the shadows are long and the light is soft.

The really ambitious hiker can begin at Swift Current Lake and take another trail to the top of Swift Current Pass and on to the Granite Chalet, a hiker’s back-country lodge and campground, and then on to the Going to the Sun Highway. This is probably too long for a one day trip for most people as it is about 12 miles one way (and up a pretty big hill).

An even better way to do this hike is to begin at The Loop on the Going to the Sun Highway, walk to the Granite Chalet and then walk to Swift Current lake which is mostly down-hill going in this direction. If you do this, get a very early start and be sure you have a map. Usually there is a shuttle at Swift Current Lake that will take you back to your car on Going to the Sun Highway but check this out before beginning.

Look at a hiking guide before getting started on any of these hikes as there is a maze of trails between Swift Current Lake and the high country including all kinds of wonderful and scenic side trips you won’t want to miss.

Looking back to the West from Going to the Sun Highway, , Glacier National Park, Montana.

There are grizzly bears in the Glacier high country so be aware that it is possible to encounter one. It is something to keep in mind when hiking or backpacking in some of the more remote Glacier areas, but if you are on major trails and there are a lot of other people around, you are very unlikely to run into one. However, if you are walking lonesome trails high in the wilderness, or walking the trails at dawn or dusk and there are few other hikers around, it is very possible to run into a Grizzly. If you are on lonely or early trails, it is good if there are several people in your party and you make as much racket as possible to warn bears of your approach.

It is important not to come on grizzly bears suddenly and surprise them; talk loudly while you walk, wear bear bells on your boots or whistle or sing or do something that makes noise. Be especially careful if you are walking into the wind as bears won’t be able to smell you.

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Underwater rocks, St Mary’s Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana.

If you are camping in the back country the best way to avoid bear trouble is to do all your cooking and dish washing at least a hundred yards or so away from your camp. Also keep all food, soap, tooth paste and other strong smelling items in a bag that you suspend between two trees, along with your food a good distance from camp. Be sure you have nothing bears might be interested in eating in your tent or anywhere near your campsite. After you do all this, don’t worry about bears, it is very, very unlikely that you will have bear trouble. You actually have an far greater chance of getting injured in your drive up to the park than from bears.

Glacier National Park is one of those places, like the Tetons and the Wind Rivers in Wyoming, that I keep coming back to again and again. I guess there must be a reason.

Fred Hanselmann

First Published: 1-24-08
Updated: September 2013
Updated: June 2017

See all of our Glacier National Park Photographs

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