Saturday, June 13
I heard on the news a day or two ago that the timed entry passes for this weekend had sold out. I bought mine about a week ago, when there were still more than a hundred available. So, in theory, the Park would be operating at 60% of capacity. Shouldn’t be too crowed then, eh?
This is my first time using the pass, so I was curious how they were going to do it. They have a couple of rangers (one of whom was armed) posted on the road right by the entrance to the Beaver Meadows visitors center. They can check two cars at a time that way, and direct those lacking passes to turn around in the parking lot. At the entrance station, the express lane is closed. I’m a bit surprised at that, as using the express lane is contactless.
We got to the Bear Lake parking lot a bit before 8:00. The Glacier Gorge lot was full, and we got one of the last half-dozen or so spots at Bear Lake. While I was changing into my boots I saw a shuttle bus with two passengers, so I’m guessing there weren’t too many cars at the park and ride. Walking from the car I tried to get an idea how many visitors were from out of state. I didn’t count, but it looked to be about a third, which surprised me.
We didn’t decide where to go until we got there. Plan A was Black Lake, Plan B was the glacier knob by Half Mountain, which is #10 in Ed’s nomenclature. I told Chad we’d need the microspikes to visit Black Lake. He suggested we skip the spikes, so we went to Half Mountain knob. That was fine by me; there was little chance of finding solitude at Black Lake but nobody would go where we were going.
I’m not sure we ran into any other hikers between Bear Lake and the Fire Trail. If we did see any, it was just a few by the junction to the Glacier Gorge lot. On the Fire Trail we did see two hikers. There were a few more people between Glacier Gorge junction and Mills Lake. It took us almost exactly an hour to get to Mills.
From there we worked our way uphill, headed more or less toward the little saddle about forty feet below the top. It was pretty easy going and we made the summit in about twenty minutes. When we got there, it was absolutely calm. Chad made the mistake of remarking on this and moments after I pointed out one of the wind-twisted trees, the calm was over with a big gust.
We found a spot out of the wind with a view up Glacier Gorge. We sat up there for quite a while. There weren’t any clouds at first, but some high wispy ones developed. They didn’t particularly appeal to me, so I didn’t bother setting up the camera for a time lapse. After a short while, another hiker did show up; he told us he didn’t expect to see anybody up here. We empathized.
After lazing about the summit for a good stretch, we headed down the hill. About two-thirds of the way down, we found ourselves on a rock outcropping with a view, so we took another break. One of the nice things about short hikes is that you never need to be in a hurry. We discussed our options for the return trip: we could go back the way we came, or take the main trail and stop at Alberta Falls. I’m not sure Chad has been to Alberta Falls, so that’s what we decided to do.
But, after reaching the trail, we fairly quickly decided to forego the main trail. We found we couldn’t hike three hundred yards without having to step off the trail to let somebody by. It wasn’t just solo hikers or pairs, but lots of groups of four or five or six. Knowing that there’d also be traffic to and from the Loch, it was a no-brainer to go back down the Fire Trail. I don’t mean to sound paranoid, but these days I’d really rather not get within breathing distance of so many people. It was a good choice; we saw only one solo hiker on the Fire Trail.
From when we got back on the main trail until we got to the car, we were back on the “superhighway” and among the crowd. We got back to the car at about two. The parking lot wasn’t nearly as full this morning, perhaps two-thirds full.
It was a good thing I asked Chad this morning to remind me to stop at the backcountry office to pick up my permit for next month because I’d already forgotten. The parking lot at the backcountry office was full, but the Lotus is small enough I took a half spot on the end. There was a cone there, so I probably wasn’t supposed to park there, but so it goes.
You don’t walk into the office now, which makes sense. It’s pretty small inside and both workers and visitors would be constantly in close proximity. Instead, they blocked off the stairs and installed plexiglass on all the exterior windows. There’s literally a paper-thin gap at the bottom to pass paper through. I at first waited in a line by the first window. It was taking quite a while so I wandered around the corner and found two more windows and got served with little wait. I came for my July 12/13/14 permit, but due to COVID, they issued all three of mine so I wouldn’t need to go back.
Leaving the backcountry office, we got back on the road. There was a fair amount of traffic and I had to wait for a few cars to go by before I could get going. I’d not have been able to make a left turn here to go back to the park: the line of cars stretched from the checkpoint at the Beaver Meadows entrance down the hill to the junction with Hwy 66. This is 60% capacity?
Seeing so many cars lined up, I decided to drive through the village. I never go through downtown in the summer, but I couldn’t resist. The place was hopping. I didn’t see any empty parking spaces on the street, and I glanced only a couple of empty spots in the parking lots we passed. The sidewalks were crowded. There were enough pedestrians that they had police directing traffic. Most of the benches on the sidewalks were occupied, the shops looked crowded. Not everybody wore masks, and the usual (rather high) percentage of those with masks didn’t have them covering their noses.
Traffic on 36 was only slightly lighter than a normal summer weekend. We could go the speed limit until Pinewood Springs, where we caught a big line of cars.
My next permit is for a weekday. I’m wondering if the crowds will be any less.