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Admiring the majestic mountains; Photograph by Graeme MacPherson

Montana by Dirt: Hiking Into the Wild in Glacier National Park

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Hiking up 9,553-foot Mount Gould in Glacier National Park, Montana; Photograph by Max Lowe

Even the insects in their silence seemed to know that 4 a.m. was not the time to be up and about, but there we were waking up again before the sun had even blinked an eye. As the morning stars flickered through the pine forest canopy over our campsite, we quickly made breakfast, packed up the car and rolled silently out of the sleeping campgrounds in west Glacier. Driving the Going to the Sun Road is a different experience this early. As our headlights illuminated the precipitous and winding turns, alone on this highway into the sky, the immensity and grandeur of the landscape around us slowly manifested as the first light of day softly brought the mountains and valleys of Glacier National Park from shadow.

We readied our backpacks in an empty parking lot. It would be full and teeming with visitors upon our return.

“Most people who are climbing Mount Gould hike along the Highline Trail. But we’re taking the shortcut and going straight up from the road,” said our friend and local alpinist David Steele.

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Brody Leven and Joe Johnson take in the view on a trail run in Glacier National Park; Photograph by Graeme MacPherson

As we bushwhacked up and along what could barely pass as a trail, which crisscrossed a cold mountain stream but eventually led us directly to the base of our climb, it became apparent that David knew where he was going around these parts. The day prior our friend Joe Johnson, who had joined Brody for an evening run in Glacier, had pointed out countless peaks and fitful ribbons of snow that David had climbed or descended.

“Working at two of the backcountry lodges here in the park for a few years gave me some serious ‘down’ time during my days off to explore the park pretty extensively,” says David with a laugh when we mention this to him.

Leaving the very popular and well-traveled Highline Trail that skirts some 20 miles along the Continental Divide, we started our scramble up scree fields and along rocky outcroppings leading to the ridgeline below 9,553-foot Mount Gould, the highest peak on the Garden Wall. As we climbed in the shade of the ridge, the sun slowly flooded across the world behind us. Crossing the threshold from shadow to light, we walked into the day and out across an immense field of high alpine wild flowers. A snack of oranges, chocolate, and trail mix was shared, while we sat looking down the steep, 4,000-foot east face of the ridgeline and out onto Salamander Glacier and Grinnell Lake in the distance. Looking out across such immense country from high on the flanks of a peak in Glacier, we felt infinitely small.

After another several hours clambering through chimneys of loose shale and chasing a knife-edge ridge that dropped off thousands of feet to the East and West, we arrived tired and dusty to the summit. As we sat quietly absorbing our surroundings and eating our packed lunch, I read through some of the signatures in the summit register. As much as being in such an extreme and remote place makes you feel alone with your thoughts and companions, the pages of the register—which were full of entries from people from across the world as well as locals—say otherwise. This brings to bear the fact that we live in a place where access to wildlands is achievable.

The draw and appeal of the wild and untamed corners of our world is undeniable; we romanticize it without end. Here in Montana and similarly in many other places across the U.S.—thanks to national and state parks, and the maintenance of millions of miles of roads, dirt and otherwise—we have good access to places where we can experience wilderness and the purity found there. Looking back along our quick ten days traveling across Montana, and the numerous wild places and experiences therein, all thanks to the winding roads that brought us there, my assurance in the undying American adventure road trip is vindicated.

For Montana by Dirt, Max Lowe, Brody Leven, and Graeme MacPherson take on 400 miles of dirt roads to find extraordinary adventures from Yellowstone to Glacier. See all Montana by Dirt posts.

The Adventurists blog series is sponsored by Toyota, which provided a Toyota 4Runner Trail vehicle.