“This place is called a Hostel,” a young mother explained to her two children, who were around 5 and 7 years old. They were just settling into the Family Bedroom at North Fork Hostel, in Polebridge, MT. “There will be other people, travelers like us, sleeping in all these upstairs rooms, and downstairs too, in the bunkbeds. We need to be quiet, and respectful, while we are here.”
“Someone should write a book about this place,” her daughter eagerly suggested. “They could call it ‘The Hostile Hostel’.”
“That would be a horror story,” her younger brother replied, as he tossed himself onto his bed. “I wouldn’t want to read that!”
Travel guide books are full of recommendations, for restaurants, recreation, and accommodations, when visiting Glacier National Park, and the surrounding area. Options range from $ to $$$$, and from “first come, first served” campgrounds to 4 star luxury resorts. Where you choose to lay your head, and whether there’s a pesky rock or a plush pillow under your head, can greatly impact the quality of your travel experience.
I won’t take any credit for the choice of accommodations on my recent trip to Glacier: we started out in East Glacier, heading over Logan Pass via Going to the Sun Road, then on to Polebridge, finally boarding the Empire Builder in Whitefish, taking Amtrak to Chicago. The credit goes to the planning committee. Three of the most experienced cyclists in our group, who were also no strangers to bike camping, laid out a general plan for themselves, for a nine day trip.
Everything was calculated, considered, and examined thoroughly, from weather patterns to the progress of snow plows, from camp sites to local bars, and from route maps to changes in terrain. The core group of planners then notified the rest of the cyclists of the route that had been mapped out, and left it entirely in their hands, whether they chose to mirror the trip or make alternate plans.
Deferring to the experience of the planning committee, I found myself staying in a variety of accommodations, including two group campsites, a hotel with laundry facilities & beautiful indoor/outdoor pool, and two hostels – one close to the train station in East Glacier and the other, more remote, in the small town of Polebridge, MT, where water and electricity were limited.
Brownies Hostel (East Glacier):
Full of excitement, we exited the train, lugging our backpacks and heading toward the luggage car, to receive our bikes. The 6 cyclists who had ridden the train with me for the last 30 hours climbed onto their bikes, ready to stretch their legs. We rode just a mile or so, breathing in the smell of pine and getting our first real sense of the scale of the mountains we’d be ascending, over the next 5 days. Our destination was Brownies Hostel.
The hostel was chosen just as much for the affordable price as it was for the presence of an onsite bakery, serving cinnamon rolls, hot breakfast sandwiches, and strong coffee. It was a plus that the hostel could accommodate our group of six, along with most of the other cyclists who had arrived a day ahead of us. A secure storage area to house the bikes overnight was an added bonus.
The Men’s and Women’s Dorms are just $23/ night, including a place to lay your head, access to a shower, and a locker to keep personal possessions safe. Rooms that sleep 2 start at $44/night, and larger, group rooms are available. I wouldn’t call any of the accommodations “Private”, as the hostel’s website declares: “Due to the thin walls of our historic hostel, some guests may prefer to bring ear plugs.” Indeed!
With our late arrival, the close proximity to food at a local Mexican restaurant with enormous portions, and the need to reorganize all of our gear, to prep for the next day’s ride, we didn’t spend a whole lot of time at the hostel. It was a good place to rest our heads, with a welcoming, community feel. “To keep costs low, we ask guests to give us a hand by making their own bed for the night, and then tidying up for the next guest. Thanks for paying it forward, and welcome to Brownies!” (hostel website)
We were getting an early start, so when I awoke the next morning, the bakery wasn’t yet open for the day. A coffee maker and a large canister of Folgers would hold me over, until I could get something a little stronger, along with a pastry and a breakfast sandwich, downstairs.
I stood out on the 2nd floor balcony, in the cool morning air, sipping my hot coffee and chatting with one of my fellow cyclists. I gave her a big hug and thanked her for making the trip possible for me – I’d be riding her Fargo mountain bike the entire trip, and she had lent it to me from Jan. through our July trip, so I could train, practicing my hill climbing, and increasing my endurance. I told her I was glad that she was on the trip, and that I appreciated her positive spirit and energy!
In the general store, I got my first glimpse of the array of Huckleberry souvenirs available. I suspected I’d see a lot of those, at every stop, and I wasn’t disappointed. The store was run by a friendly staff, consisting of young international students on break from university, exploring this beautiful region of the U.S. They brought their sense of humor to the hostel, along with their youth and sense of adventure!
Rising Sun Campground (Glacier National Park):
After the day’s last several miles, riding directly into a headwind, and drafting off of the stronger riders ahead of me, I was happy to arrive at Rising Sun Campground at the end of our first day of riding.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s not a real campsite without a campfire, so we were sure to purchase a bundle of wood. Inside the park, foraging for wood is, understandably, forbidden! With the volume of campers in the summer season, the forest could quickly be stripped of its undergrowth, along with fallen twigs, bark and clumps of leaves. This would completely change the experience of being in a National Park, so the restriction is appreciated.
The campground is ½ way along St. Mary Lake, which stretches over 7 miles, with the Going to the Sun Road paralleling the lake, along its north shore. The campground is first-come first-served, and we needed a place to stay that night. Luckily we had a couple of fellow riders in a vehicle, who would drive ahead and check us in, prior to heading out on their bikes for the day, on their own ride. At the end of the day, they made it back to the camp just ahead of us, parked their car near the campsite entrance, and applauded our arrival!
We made camp at a site located among the trees, setting up our lightweight tents, just small enough to be strapped to our bikes and just big enough to accommodate the 1 – 2 riders who would sleep there. Knowing how hard the next day’s ride would be, we were relieved to have lightweight air mattresses, just light enough to pack along and just substantial enough to make a difference under our sleeping bags. I’d used an inflatable pillow on the train ride, but it was rather uncomfortable when laying down on the ground, so I used my small backpack full of clothing as a pillow for the rest of the trip – it was just squishy enough for my head to sink comfortably into, at the end of the day, and just firm enough to keep my head off the ground
(Note: As a novice bikepacker, I’d packed and repacked my bags, removing items each time, to reduce the size and the weight of what I was bringing along. I thought I’d done a respectable job, until I tried to ride the bike with all of its bags and panniers attached, dragging me down. As a novice bikepacker, I was once again grateful to be traveling with a couple who had rented a vehicle, to help haul the items that I simply could not.)
The Park Ranger introduced us to the “Bear Box”, where we would store our food, and our drinks, and the plates, cups and utensils we’d be eating them on, along with our soaps, shampoos, lotions, toothpaste, and anything else with a scent! We were not interested in attracting the mama bear and 3 cubs that had recently been sighted in the area . . . except secretly we were hoping to see them . . . but from a safe distance, like maybe up on the ridge that was high above the tents, on the side of the mountain! That would be amazing!
The campground had a lot to offer, including nightly ranger programs, a camp store on site, and a restaurant just across the street. We were famished, and enjoyed every bite, especially the baked mac and cheese. This early in the trip, we felt we needed showers, before we could do much of anything else. This feeling would soon fade, by the third night of camping, and washing clothes in the sink, with camp soap. By then, we’d accepted the fact that no one in the group smelled much better than anyone else, and we’d be covered in the sweat of our exertion within moments of starting the climb up the first hill of the day.
Fish Creek Campground (Glacier National Park):
Our 2nd day of riding included 8 miles of continuous uphill climbing, requiring perseverance and knowledge of how to use the bike’s lowest gears. I started calling these my “Mountain Goat Gears,” early in the trip, and Going to the Sun Road required their extended use. I was once again grateful for my borrowed bike. My hybrid would have forced me to walk up many hills. With the Fargo’s amazing gears, I stayed in the saddle. I was moving slowly, but I was moving!
As the name of the road suggests, we were treated to some of the most amazing, panoramic, views on the trip. We were fortunate enough to be riding on the last day that the road was closed to motorized traffic, so we took our time, took lots of photo breaks, and relaxed over a leisurely lunch break, looking out at stunning landscapes. (See last week’s blog post for more details and photos. https://kathleenodowd.com/2017/07/11/not-exactly-forest-bathing-tree-lined-landscapes-knock-the-wind-out-of-you-at-glacier-national-park/ )
We rode 45 miles that day, which was the longest distance of the trip, with Fish Creek Campground as our destination. Every rider in the group had ridden longer distances prior to this trip, but the ascent was a new challenge for most. We were rewarded with 20 miles of descent, from Logan Pass, down to Lake McDonald, with views that rivaled those from the top of the pass. I could NOT have imagined navigating this long downhill amongst cars, motorcycles and shuttles, all stopping to enjoy the view, just as we were.
Fish Creek Campground is located approximately 2.5 miles from Apgar Village, and is the 2nd largest campground in Glacier National Park. I was told, by the planning committee, that the campground was approximately 1 mile from Apgar. This was after I’d been told, by those same cyclists, that Apgar was just at the bottom of our descent. By the time we got to Apgar Village, 5 or 7 miles of rolling hills past the end of our long descent, I was cranky and hungry, and the group had started to expand and contract, as slower riders tried to keep up with more experienced riders.
My group thought we’d get settled at camp, then ride back to Apgar for dinner with the other group of riders, at a deli, or one of the casual restaurants we’d seen in the tourist area, near the lake. There would be ice cream for dessert, I thought!
But the 2.5 miles to the campground included a section of gravel road, and then it switched to single track dirt path through the forest. I was on a mountain bike, but I was not accustomed to this terrain. When we came out of the woods, and back onto the gravel road, there was an unexpected hill, and a good one at that! One of my fellow riders pushed along, muttering “F*#k! F*#k! F*#k! F*#k!” as she rode. We were doing whatever it took to get up that last climb!
In the end, we made other arrangements for dinner, thanks again to our friends with a car. I was a return visitor to the restaurant at Glacier Highland Resort, in West Glacier, and indulged in the (free range) bison sliders, and craft beer. As we raised a toast to that day’s accomplishments, we were glad the others in our riding group – the ones that had stayed the night in cabins in Apgar Village – would have to come up that last hill, to meet us at our starting point, for the next day of gravel riding.
The campground itself is one of two in the park that is listed as taking reservations. Once those fill up, it’s first-come, first-served, but a glance at the July calendar shows that the camp sites fill up early! July 1st – 7th the campground was full by 7:40 am, and only one day in July still had sites open after 10 am. This isn’t a time to fly by the seat of your pants, unless your Plan B is to pitch a tent in an unauthorized area. But if you attempt that, you’ll have Bears and Park Rangers to contend with.
Our site, though not directly on the shore of Lake McDonald, offered a view of the lake filtered by large trees, which offered some privacy. I made several trips down to sit along the lake: tossing rocks into the still water, just to watch the ripples, snapping photos at sunset, while the red glow of the sun reflected on the snowy mountains, and sipping wine with a friend, sharing stories of the trip, and wishing it were not ½ over.
We spent two nights at the campground, and it was a relief to not have to break camp for just one morning, We took one day off from cycling, scattering to different parts of the park, to explore hiking trails, go on photo excursions, or relax in the hammock I’d brought from home, and hung between precariously between two trees – no one was injured when it crashed to the ground the first time . . . or the second. On my “day off” I climbed a mountain! But that’s a tale for another day!
North Fork Hostel (Polebridge):
On the gravel road to Polebridge, we were in nature, not observing it from a protected distance. We were getting our feet wet in the creek, swatting away bugs, pushing our endurance, navigating loose rocks under our tires, and scratching our exposed skin on low hanging branches. This was my most memorable day of riding, and one I would gladly repeat, as it exposed me to many new, unique and challenging experiences. It’s was no surprise that our lodging at the end of the day would be just as unique, tucked away behind the Polebridge Mercantile, and offering a truly memorable experience.
North Fork Hostel, Mission Statement: “Our mission is to provide the best possible experience and create a sanctuary for all people without causing unnecessary harm and educate and inspire our guests with solutions to our environmental and social crisis.” (hostel website)
Access to charging stations and Wi-Fi at North Fork is limited to one scheduled hour, and there are just a handful of outlets available, to charge electronic devices. This is made possible by a small solar powered system. The hostel advertises itself as “old-fashioned accommodation,” and that it is! The hostel website explains that propane lights will “brighten your nights (there’s no electricity in Polebridge).”
“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”
~ Henry David Thoreau
Our modest room was an interior room, with no windows, and decidedly the darkest room in the place. Our host insisted that we take a flashlight upstairs with us, each time we went upstairs, so that we’d be able to find the light switch upon our return. In typical hostel fashion, we were asked to carry out our soiled linens, and no shoes were allowed on the 2nd floor, to keep dirt and mud from being tracked upstairs.
In the kitchen, water is conserved by washing dishes by dunking them in a series of 3 plastic basins. Waste is disposed of in separate containers marked for Trash, Recycling and Compost. There are clear instructions posted in the shower room, directing guests to turn the water off when they are lathering up, and scrubbing behind their ears. Water is limited, and everyone wants a shower!
At check-in, guests are greeted by Oliver, the hostelmeister. Coming from Germany, he first came to North Fork as a guest, later deciding to buy the place. He knows about hospitality, and encourages guests to make themselves at home throughout the building, including the kitchen, exterior porches, and beautiful greenhouse. One member of our group had forgotten to make a reservation, and although the hostel was full for the night, Oliver welcomed him to pitch is tent on the grounds.
Several outbuildings offer additional accommodations, in the form of small, private cottages out back, and large, tepees on the lawn in front of the main building, able to be rented for the night. The bathroom consists of a pair of outhouses, covered with wall-to-wall decorations inside. The toilet claims to be one of the “spiffiest outhouses on the North Fork. (The interior art is interesting — look for John’s college diploma.)” (hostel Website)
Anchoring the Polebridge area, and drawing a constant stream of business, is the Polebridge Mercantile.
“William L. “Bill” Adair built the Merc back in 1914, just four years after Glacier Park became a park. He fished, using only one fly (the Coachman), and drank, and grew king-sized cabbages while his wife (and later, after she dies, a second wife) ran the store and lived in their homestead cabin, which is now the Northern Lights Saloon.” (Polebridge Mercantile website)
Upon our arrival to the unincorporated community of Polebridge , and again prior to our departure on our final day of riding, the next morning, we indulged at the bakery inside of the Polebridge Mercantile. We were there for the sweet Huckleberry Bear Claws, and savory spinach and feta scones. A sweet treat is free for anyone who arrives on a bicycle, and I can’t think of a better endorsement of travel on two wheels.
Pine Lodge Hotel (Whitefish):
There was relief, mixed with sadness, as we rolled into Whitefish at the end of our final day of riding. We headed straight to locally owned Sweet Peaks for ice cream, in hopes that this creamy treat would dampen the disappointment that our trip was coming to an end.
After five nights of hostels and campsites, tacked on to a night sleeping upright on the train, and in anticipation of another night on the train, on the way home, we were ready to check into a proper hotel, with access to a pool, a lounge area, cookies at the front desk and free breakfast in the morning.
Once we were settled in at the hotel, freshly showered and having a couple of loads of laundry underway, we headed out for one final group meal. At The Craggy Range Bar & Grill we raised our glasses and filled our bellies, eagerly sharing stories of the adventures we’d had that day. The core group of riders had split in two that day, depending on the number of miles, and amount of climbing, we wanted to tackle. Both groups had worked hard, pushed their endurance, and overcome intense sun and dusty roads, stirred up by passing motorists.
It was a delight to swap stories. Even those who had ridden together listened eagerly to the retelling of the day’s events. I heard again and again: “Did you see. . . ?” “Wasn’t it amazing when. . . ?” and “Wouldn’t you love to do it again?”
The Empire Builder:
After 5 days of intense activity, exploring, hiking and cycling, it was time to head home, on Amtrak’s Empire Builder. I set an alert on my iPhone, to prompt me to get up and move once an hour. This effort did not prevent my ankles from disappearing into my calves, with swelling. I’m not sure if this was the result of the physical exertion of the trip, the high altitude, the dry air, or hours in the sun, but I was ready to put my feet up. Sleeping sitting upright on the train, the night before, was certainly part of the problem. Next time perhaps I’ll book a sleeper car!
The 30 hours home on the train were a bit quieter than our trip out to Glacier. We were tired, but I suspect each of us was also reflecting on the trip, sorting through photos and posting comments to social media, dreaming of where we might travel together next year!
Join me on my next adventure,
Brownies Hostel & Bakery (East Glacier): http://brownieshostel.com/
Rising Sun Campground (Glacier National Park): https://home.nps.gov/applications/glac/cgstatus/camping_detail.cfm?cg=rising%20sun
Fish Creek Campground: https://home.nps.gov/applications/glac/cgstatus/camping_detail.cfm?cg=fish%20creek
North Fork Hostel (Polebridge): http://nfhostel.com/
Pine Lodge Hotel (Whitefish): https://thepinelodge.com/
Sweet Peaks Ice Cream: http://www.sweetpeaksicecream.com/
The Empire Builder: https://www.amtrak.com/empire-builder-train
The Craggy Range Bar & Grill: http://www.thecraggyrange.com/
Polebridge Mercantile: http://polebridgemerc.com/