27 Hours in Glacier Gorge

“We’ll have your permit and a bag for your waste at the backcountry office.”

This takes a moment to sink in.

“Isn’t there a privy at the Glacier Gorge campsite?”

“Not any more.  You’ll have to carry everything out.”

Another pause.

“OK, I’ll be there Sunday morning.”

Well, maybe I’ll be there.  For years, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Rocky Mountain National Park.  The mountains are spectacular, but the crowds and the regulations that come with crowds have kept me away, at least during the regular hiking season.  Somehow visitor centers, gift shops, entrance stations, fees, designated campsites, backcountry camping permits, and hordes of people diminish the feeling of wildness for me.  Sometimes it feels more like Rocky Mountain National Theme Park.

However, every year in the middle of October, the main rifle hunting seasons for deer and elk begin in the surrounding national forest lands.  Since I dislike the sound of gunshots and look terrible in blaze orange, the national park starts to seem more appealing.  But this new regulation may be a bridge too far.

Back at work, I discuss my dilemma with my co-workers.  Bill, an avid listener of AM talk radio, says he would never do it.

“It’s just another example of an overreaching government agency sticking it’s nose in your business.”

Patti, a frequent visitor the the national park, urges me to keep the reservation.

“You should go, Dondo. I’m dying to know how it all comes out.”

“How in the world do you enforce something like that?  Do they have rangers on patrol demanding to inspect your poop bag?”

“I think they’re now using hidden cameras.”

“I was just going to drop the bag off at the front desk of the visitor center on my way out.”

“It might be better just to mail it.”

The backcountry office is a small shack down a path at the rear of the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center.  The ranger on duty, Lyle, is listening to John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” as I walk through the door.  He even looks a bit like John Denver.  As much as I have a problem with authority, it’s impossible to dislike this guy.  He wears his position lightly, and his love for wilderness is evident. We discuss the unseasonably warm November weather, the bark beetle epidemic, and whether or not snowshoes will be necessary to get to Black Lake.  He hands me the permit and the potty kit and explains that there is a toilet seat set on a wooden frame near my designated camp site.  This doesn’t sound too bad, but I’m still uncertain if I’ll use it.

There are already a dozen vehicles at the Glacier Gorge trailhead.  The trail is very icy from snow melting and refreezing. Hikers wearing ice cleats are doing well, but those without are having a hard time.  One man slips and goes down hard.  To save a bit of weight, I’ve left my MICROspikes behind in favor of an untried pair of cleats from Target.  So far, they are working and soon I leave the hikers near the trailhead behind.

Near Alberta Falls

Into the gorge

Boulder and tree

Hiking on

My feet start to slip on the ice, and I discover that ten of the twelve spikes on my cleats have already fallen off.  So much for cheap gear from Target.  From here on out I’ll have to watch every icy step.  As I approach Mills Lake, I notice huge icicles hanging from the steep rocky bank on the other side of Glacier Creek.  Studying the terrain, there seems to be no easy way across to take a closer look.


Dark clouds pass overhead.  Strong winds suddenly come up.  A twelve-foot long icicle crashes into Glacier Creek.  Snow blows horizontally across Mills Lake and quickly covers the hood of my windshirt and camera case.  The camera gets put away, and I hurry up the trail past Mills and Jewell Lakes toward my designated campsite.  It will feel great to crawl into my shelter and get warm and dry.

When I get to the Glacier Gorge campsite, my heart sinks.  There are three two-man tents at the site.  A voice inside one of the tents tells me that they will be breaking camp in an hour or two and offers me a snow cave that he built nearby. I politely decline and keep on hiking upward through the storm.  At least movement will keep me warm.  The snow deepens,  and the snowshoes come on.  Soon I meet several groups of hikers retreating from the  storm.  They tell me that whiteout conditions prevail at Black Lake, that visibility is reduced to twenty feet.  Still, with no other options, I decide to keep climbing to the head of the gorge.

The trail steepens, the snow gets deeper, the wind blows fiercely.  Then, as quickly as the storm came in, it starts to dissipate.  Patches of blue begin to appear through the clouds.

McHenrys Peak

Glacier Creek

One last steep push up the gorge and Black Lake appears before me, coated in white from the storm.  The lake is now deserted, and I set out to explore it’s shores.

Black Lake

Above the ridge, clouds are swirling.  Soon the wind picks up, and the sky darkens.  I inhale the sights and sounds of Black Lake one last time before turning back toward my camp.

A look back

It’s cold and almost dark when I return to the Glacier Gorge campsite.  Last night’s campers are gone.  A side trail leads to the wooden frame and toilet seat which is encrusted in ice and snow.  It takes several minutes to knock the ice away.   Clearly, it hasn’t been used in a while.

After a hot dinner of couscous, beans, and dried vegetables, I enjoy a chocolate bar and hot tea.  It’s pitch dark now, and I retreat into my shelter for a long November night’s sleep.

Home sweet home

During the night, I awaken several times to the roar of the wind blowing high in the trees above.  There’s a half-dreaming  awareness of being part of something much more powerful than myself.

Predawn light. Nature calls.  The deed is done, and everything is sealed in a zip-lock foil packet.  That wasn’t hard at all.

Heading back down the trail, I set out to explore at leisure the terrain I hurried through during yesterday’s storm.

Dawn at Jewell Lake

The creek

Icy creek

The sky is turning lighter, and my stomach is growling, so I hike back up the slick and snowy trail to have breakfast at camp.

Glacier Gorge campsite

The sun finally peeks over the high ridge just as I’m finishing packing.  The sealed foil packet is put into a small red stuff sack, and the drawstring is hung over my snowshoes at the back of my pack.  With each step, the little red bag swings back and forth like a pendulum.  Without ice cleats, the going is treacherous now.  My feet slip out from under me, a trekking pole goes flying off to one side of the trail and the red bag the other.  Gathering both, I walk on.

Mills Lake

The first hikers I meet are a couple of ice climbers heading up to Black Lake.  They are a friendly pair, and we stand and talk for about five minutes.  I keep waiting for someone to scrunch up his nose or ask me what’s in the red bag, but no one ever does.  Two hours of very icy hiking later,  I emerge at the Glacier Gorge trailhead.  Putting down my pack, I look left and right, pull the foil bag out of the red stuff sack, and dump it into the trash.  Mission accomplished.

19 thoughts on “27 Hours in Glacier Gorge

  1. This was excellent Dondo. I’m selfishly glad you decided to concede to the the pendulum swinging red bag on Day 2, because otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to experience your beautiful photographs and continually uplifting backpacking ventures.

  2. LOL,Izzy, that was exactly my first reaction. While I can rationally understand the reasons for the policy, it doesn’t prevent me from seeing the absurdity of toting around your own waste.

    Thanks for your positive comments, Eugene. There were a lot of things that made my laugh about the experience, including the bag of waste swinging back and forth on the back of my pack.

    Thanks, John. It’s great to know that you’re still visiting here.

  3. On Denali you have to bag for several DAYS then drop them into a designated crevasse. Not so bad at those temps, but what would a few days be like fermenting in RMNP’s summer temps.

    • Hi, Pete. It’s great to hear from you. Hope you’ve been getting out lots since we met up in Lost Creek. It seems that bagging would have to be an absolute necessity on Denali and it may very well be in certain locations at RMNP. I read that coliform levels were rising in Glacier and Andrews Creeks and could become a health issue. As disgusting as it sounds, I didn’t find bagging and carrying waste to be that big a deal. But as you mention, it could get pretty ripe for a few days in warm weather.

  4. Some wonderfully poignant and vivid imagery – great trip captured superbly in words and photography. I’d love to spend some real time in the US but with so much on my own doorstep – Scotland, the Alps and Scandinavia, I don’t when I’ll have time to get over there! At least I can vicariously enjoy it through blogs like yours – thanks!

    • Thanks for your kind comments, Maz. From what I’ve seen on your blog, you have great wild areas close by. I’ll be adding you to my google reader list so I can keep track of your adventures and thoughts on gear.

  5. Beautiful pictures! I can feel the winter approaching…

    Just ten years ago I would have been much more negative with collecting the poo, but now after three kids and their diaper business it wouldn’t raise any strong feelings. Although I agree that during the hot summer months things might be different.

    • Maria, thanks for your comments. Checking out your blog, I’m impressed that you find the time to get out for a walk every day, especially as a mom with young kids. Judging from your photos of Helsinki and the surrounding areas, it must be very beautiful there.

  6. Dondo,

    The photos are absolutely stunning, and I very much enjoyed the trip report.

    I have hiked most of that route route you described in the summer. I hike Grand County and RMNP when I spend the summer in Fraser, and snowshoe Grand County and the west side of RMNP for a month or two each winter.

    I would have responded in the Backpacker Forum, but I lost my password a year or so ago, and I haven’t figured out how to keep my same Forum name that I’ve had since 2004 (or whenever the new system was set up).

    Dan Pickett

    • Thanks, Dan, I appreciate your comments. Looks like a good year for snowshoeing, on both sides of RMNP. Just got back from snowshoeing up to Loch Vale and the conditions are great for early December. It’s going to be a fun winter!

  7. Hi Dondo Yeah we did several days in Buckskin / Paria canyons last April and were given the bags for human waste . We were fairly skeptical about how they would work but upon using them were pleasantly inpressed. They sell them at Mcguckin hardware in Boulder.
    Can you give us a little info on your choice of footwear on this outting . How cold was it at night and what bag/ pad did you use?
    Phil and i were out in Utah exploring Dark Canyon in late Oct. My pics are on my Shutterfly site if you are interested.
    Nice trip report Dondo

    • Hi David, judging from your photos,it looks like the Utah trip was an amazing time. I especially liked your mudscapes.

      The footwear components used on the Glacier Gorge trip were (from inside out) Smartwool light hikers, Rocky GTX oversocks, Saucony Grid TR5 trail runners, and OR Rocky Mountain High gaiters. The snowshoes were Northern Lites Quicksilver 25s. My feet were warm enough while hiking but fairly cool while standing around in camp.

      Since that trip, I’ve been experimenting a lot with winter footwear on snowshoeing day trips to RMNP. My current favorite setup is very simple: just thick REI ragg wool socks, Saucony Grid TR5 trail runners a size longer and wider than my normal size, and NEOS Adventurer overboots. My feet have stayed warm and comfortable from temperatures in the single digits to the twenties both while on the move and while standing around taking photographs. I’m also gravitating more toward my original MSR Denali snowshoes, finding them better in steep terrain, especially while traversing across hillsides.

      The temperatures were fairly warm for November on the Glacier Gorge outing. I doubt that it got much below the mid-twenties at night. The sleeping bag is an older TNF down bag, the Hot Tamale. The sleeping pad is an Exped synmat pump 7. This combination kept me pretty toasty for the twelve hours I slept that night.

  8. HI Dondo,
    Its always an inspriration to read your blogs. I wonder what the pants are that you used for the Glacier Gorge trip? They look like they have some good outside storage pockets. Have you tried snowboarding pants for winter hikes? I was wondering if a person could get away with not having to use gaitors since the snow boarding pants have a tie down to ones boots.

    • Hi Robert,
      It’s great to hear from you. Thanks for your kind comments. Hope you’ve had a chance to get out a lot this year.

      For this trip, I wore REI Sahara Pants with a lightweight base layer beneath it. OR Rocky Mountain High gaiters closed the gap between the pants and my trail runnners. All the pockets is one of the reasons I like to use these pants year round. But snowboarding pants also sound like a great idea.

      In general, I feel that any item that you can eliminate, such as gaiters, is one less thing you have to fuss with on the trail. In winter, I think this is even more valuable, because your hands and your brain may not be operating at 100% capacity. On a a series of snowshoe hikes in RMNP since this report, I’ve been experimenting with different footwear for keeping my feet warm and happy. My favorite, so far, also eliminates gaiters. It’s just thick Ragg wool socks inside oversized trail runners, with NEOS Adventurer overboots.

      If you decide to try snowboarding pants, please post back here. I’m curious to hear how they work for you.

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