Monday, October 10, 2022

Day 156: Tunnels and Ghost Towns!

September 23: I woke up especially early this morning since I needed to hike about 26 miles to the next campsite on my permit. I wasn't happy about this, but it was what it was. My plan had been to start hiking by around 7:00am, but it was still a bit too dark for me to take photos so I lingered an extra half hour before hitting the trail. The days are definitely getting short!

Fortunately, this morning was considerably warmer than previous mornings so at least I didn't have a bitter cold to deal with. I popped into Reality Check's campsite on my way out to say bye. She was hiking a different route to the Canadian border than I was and so we didn't expect to cross paths again.

Within an hour, I reached the Going-to-the-Sun road, the main road that crosses through the park. The trail passes under the road through a culvert, but I popped my head up at the road level to admire a distant glacier (Jackson Glacier) and the signs describing the disappearing and shrinking glaciers in the park. If you want to see glaciers in this park, the time to visit is now! If you wait too long, there won't be any left.

Anyhow, the biggest perk at the road was that there were trash cans available so I could throw out my trash. Lightening my load is always a nice perk!

I was very excited about finding this trash can to dump my trash along the Going-to-the-Sun road. =)

I pushed onward, up toward Piegan Pass. It was a steep and relentless climb, heading up over 3000 feet to the pass. I was surprised at the number of people I passed on the trail. They were day hikers who got particularly early starts to the day, but they weren't in any where near as good of shape as I was and I passed one after another. I can't say that the trail was crowded--but it definitely wasn't empty. I had figured it would largely be empty this early in the morning, and I was clearly mistaken. I wondered how busy it would get later in the afternoon.

The views from the top of the pass were absolutely stunning. There were patches of snow on the climb up and at the top of the pass, but the snow was quite a bit thicker on the back side heading down. Having a couple of relatively warm days helped melt a good deal of it, though. I imagined it was likely considerably worse a couple of days ago!

View looking back from the climb toward Piegan Pass. I camped somewhere near the bottom of that valley last night! That's the Going-to-the-Sun road cutting down the valley as well.

I stopped for a snack break at the top. In fact, snack breaks would be all I would stop for today. I didn't have time for a proper lunch break. I had a lot of miles to cover over very rugged terrain, and I needed to finish them before sunset and the days were becoming alarmingly short.

Once I got over the pass, I pretty much saw almost no one the rest of the day. None of the day hikers continued on beyond Piegan Pass. I was in backpacking territory now, and there weren't very many of those folks left this late in the season.

Down the far side, I had to deal with a bit of postholing--never a pleasant experience--but within a mile or so the trail descended below the snow level and my pace picked up.

Several hours later, I reached the Many Glacier area. Normally, this place would be full of people. There's an enormous hotel and parking lot, and the area is gorgeous. The hotel, however, was boarded up and completely vacant. I was told that the park needed to do some construction on the road that led out to here, so they closed everything up earlier in the season than normal. They could do the road work they needed without any silly tourists getting in the way.

But the hotel had the presence of a horror movie. Deserted, quiet and eerie. A stiff wind blew over the adjacent Swiftcurrent Lake. It felt to me like some horrible massacre happened at the hotel, and it was quickly boarded up and abandoned in the aftermath. That, of course, didn't really happen, but that's the kind of vibe it seemed to give off. It was a little unsettling. I imagined scenes from The Shining as I passed by.

The Many Glacier Hotel was boarded up and closed for the season, giving it a very lonely, desolate feel. (Well, technically, only the windows on the first floor were boarded up. The rest of the windows weren't. I'm not sure if that's because it was just to discourage people from breaking in, or if it's because the snow pack during the winter months might pile up high enough to break the first floor windows.)

Beyond the hotel, I veered off from the official CDT. The main red-line route ends at the Canadian border just south of Waterton, and, in fact, that's where I would have preferred to end my hike. However, due to COVID restrictions, I could not (legally) hike into Canada. Supposedly I could if I could get a COVID test within 48 hours of crossing the border or something like that, but there aren't exactly a lot of testing stations in the Glacier Park backcountry.

There is, however, an alternate route that ends at the Chief Mountain Trailhead, so that was my plan. And thus, I veered off the main red-line route for the final time.

Some hikers are so enamored with the thought of finishing at the "main" finishing point, they'll walk out to the Canadian border at Waterton Lake, then hike out on the US side of the border at Chief Mountain. (Or, even more rare, they'll hike out toward the west side of the park exiting near Bow Lake.) I wasn't feeling quite so ambitious, though. I just wanted to finish this trail. Anyhow, while thru-hiking the PNT, I had seen most of the scenery between where the red-line route ends and the Chief Mountain trailhead. This route I'd be following would be completely new for me up until the last few hours.

The views leading up to Ptarmigan Pass were awesome!

But even then, I didn't follow the "official" alternate route to the Chief Mountain TH. Nope, several hikers who had just finished the trail and showed up in East Glacier recommended that I take a route over Ptarmigan Pass where there was an impressive tunnel drilled through the mountain. It came highly recommended, and the photos I saw intrigued me. So I took an alternate of the alternate and headed up to the pass there.

On the climb up, I passed two rangers who were heading down. They stopped to check my permit and noted that I had a particularly long day of hiking today. There were two of them, and the guy did most of the talking while the woman mostly watched. I don't think they were being sexist, though. I kind of felt like he was the senior ranger of the duo, but I could be wrong. Who knows? She seemed to watch me like I had stashed a weapon that I might pull out and start shooting though, and stayed far enough back that if I whipped out a knife, I couldn't use it on her. Maybe I just stank really bad, though. It's hard to be sure.

But yep, I did have a long day of hiking, but I was still well on track to reach my campsite at Elizabeth Lake before sunset. I was tired, though. I hadn't been taking very many breaks or resting, and the trail was definitely very rugged.

I also asked if they were interested in taking one of the two bear sprays I now carried off of me. Maybe they had a hiker box somewhere they could drop it off or something. I really didn't want to carry it any further than I needed. I told them about finding it on the trail, and they said they'd be happy to take it off my hands. Without a doubt, they could find someone who'd find it useful. So cool. Got rid of that.

They also reported seeing a moose that had passed through the tunnel at the pass. Okay, that was interesting. I'll have to keep my eyes open for him. (Never did see him, though.)

We parted ways, and I continued the climb toward Ptarmigan Pass. In the last section, the trail switchbacked up a steep hillside, and I kept cursing the lack of the tunnel. Where was the tunnel? What's the point of a tunnel at the top of the pass?!

I finally reached the tunnel. The views were absolutely stupendous, but I was huffing and puffing and well out of breath. The tunnel looked like it was maybe 30 feet below the summit, and I wanted to kick it. Why?! Why?! Why wasn't it a couple of hundred feet lower down the mountain where it could have saved me a real effort getting over the pass?

I didn't know the history of the tunnel. I assumed it must have been created through the mountain before the park was created. Some sort of mining shortcut, to pull resources across the pass more easily, but once I saw where it was, that didn't make much sense.

The tunnel was just a stone's throw below the top of the pass. Why couldn't they have made it lower?!

Later, I looked up a bit of information and it was built in the 1930s, well after the park was established in 1910. It was actually meant for hikers to go through. I doubt such a mining operation would be allowed in this day and age in an otherwise pristine backcountry, but back then, it was normal to dynamite holes through mountains whenever it was convenient. Parks were for people, not the wildlife.

Each end of the tunnel had doors that would seal it off during the winter months, and I specifically asked the rangers while getting my permit if the doors would still be open. I didn't want to reach the tunnel then have to turn back because it was a dead end having closed for the season. They told me that it was expected to stay open for at least another week or so, so I was fine going in this direction.

From the far side of the tunnel, I could see Elizabeth Lake far below, deep in the valley that stretched out before me. It was a gorgeous view, but it was still miles to the bottom and that's where my campsite was located. *sigh* I was so ready to stop for the day, but couldn't... not yet....

I finally reached Elizabeth Lake at about 6:30pm, a full hour before sunset. My GPS had logged over 11,000 feet of elevation gains and losses--it had been a long, hard day! But my day was finally over!

At the campground, there were three other people there already, so I chatted with them for a bit and made a quick dinner in the common area before stuffing my food bags in a bear box and retiring to my campsite for the night.

It was, if everything worked out properly tomorrow, my last night on the trail.... Because from this point, I was now less than 10 miles from the end of the trail. Canada was near.....

My campsite for the night

That's Jackson Glacier in the distance, according the sign on the Going-to-the-Sun road that I passed.

There were still patches of snow at the top of Piegan Pass.

Many Glacier Hotel

Can you see the tunnel at the top of this pass? Yeah, neither could I.... But it's up there!

That's Elizabeth Lake at the bottom of the valley, and my campground is located along the shore at the far end of it.

There was one person fishing in Elizabeth Lake when I arrived, but I didn't walk out to him to introduce myself. =)

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