This past August, I visited Western Montana with my family. We stayed in Whitefish, Montana, driving into Glacier National Park and stopping at the National Bison Range, as well as playing in Whitefish Lake. From day tours to hikes and paddling, we had a blast in Montana!
Paddle a Mountain Lake
Our very first night in Whitefish, my sister and I grabbed a canoe to watch the sunset. Usually I prefer kayaks, but we had just as good a time exploring the lake in a canoe. It ended up being pretty windy, so we counted it as our workout for the day.
We paddled on Whitefish Lake, but the lakes in Glacier National Park are also great to paddle on, as well as Flathead Lake to the South.
Drive the Going-to-the-Sun-Road
We did Glacier’s Going-To-the-Sun Road twice—first through the Red Bus Tour, and then a portion of it on our own the following day. The Red Bus Tour was awesome—it took nine hours, but we saw a large portion of the park. While a part of the tour was spent sitting, we stopped regularly to explore scenic pullouts and hear about the park’s history and geology.
The Going-To-the-Sun Road takes you from West Glacier’s Pacific-Northwest-like forest, up to the alpine region near Logan Pass, then back down through the St. Mary Region. We followed the road up to the Many Glacier Region as well, where we saw three bears (one black, two grizzly, in the span of a half hour).
Swim in a Lake
It wouldn’t be summer in the mountains if you didn’t jump into a lake so cold that you couldn’t breathe! One of the best days of this trip was taking a moment to relax and swim in Whitefish Lake.
Go for a Hike
Glacier National Park offers some of the best hiking in the world—in Many Glacier the trails to Iceberg Lake and Grinnell Glacier let you hike out to real glaciers, and the Hidden Lake and Highline Trail are almost always listed as some of the best hikes offered in the country.
We opted for the Avalanche Lake Trail, which was about a 6-mile hike through the old growth forest, past Avalanche Gorge, out to Avalanche Lake. (We saw a grizzly here but it’s fine).
Visit the National Bison Range
Often passed over for Glacier, the National Bison Range was actually one of our favorite stops! As a wildlife refuge, it offers a 19 mile a scenic drive. We saw pronghorn antelope, coyote, mule deer, and bison!
I am going to tell you a story. It’s probably a familiar story—you’ve heard it from your mother, or aunt, or your older friend. It’s probably a story you will live if you haven’t already.
This isn’t the story of how I figured out what I want in life, because I haven’t, and it isn’t the story of how I woke up one day and realized what my “calling” is. It isn’t even the story of how you need to find yourself and follow your heart, because I’m not sure I believe that story either.
This is the story of how I realized what I don’t want in life. It’s the story of how I realized that whatever you are doing, you have to do it for you.
“Do what makes you happy”
People tell you that your whole life, and a few years ago I thought what would make me happy was medical school. I volunteered in the emergency room two years ago to get clinical experience, and ended up changing my mind about what made me happy.
I thought I wanted to help people and make a difference. Don’t get me wrong, I still do, but I changed my mind about how I wanted to help people after actually working with the sick and injured.
My worst shift in the hospital was bad— I got cursed at by a patient, cried with another whose wife had just died, and heard that the little girl who came in the day before and I had played with had died. I cried the whole way home and wanted to quit that job more than I’ve ever wanted to quit anything before. I didn’t quit, because I said I would work through August, so I was going to work through August.
A few weeks after that day, I had a run in with a patient’s family member who was not pleased with my coffee making skills—in his defense, I was not pleased with my coffee making skills either. I tried to avoid him, but ended up spilling another coffee all over myself.
A woman laughed at me from her hospital bed.
“Seems like you’re having a rough day,” she smiled. She was alone and kind, and had heard me get yelled at earlier. I came back to her room between coffee rounds and cleaning, and she told me about her son, about her grandkids living in Africa, about the novel she had written. She told me not to worry about grouchy people in hospitals, and that I was doing a good job and shouldn’t let it get to me. Then she told me about what it was like to grow up in a segregated Alabama, and a story about her brother jumping a fence and ripping his pants when they were kids. This stranger told me stories, and we laughed, and smiled, and connected. After that I didn’t hate the emergency room so much, and whenever I could, I would ask people to tell me their stories, because I loved to hear, and a lot of people need someone to listen.
Stories and listening made me happy more than syringes and the Krebs cycle, so I tweaked my life agenda a bit. Ultimately, I think stories make a difference and help people too.
I still haven’t got what I want to “do” fine-tuned, but I like to think I’m heading in the right direction.
5 am wake up calls always seem to hurt—I hate leaving a warm bed, I hate the feeling of my feet hitting a cold floor. But if I have my alarm set for 5, it’s usually for a good reason.
My good reason this particular time was trailhead parking in Glacier National Park—parking you won’t find much later than 10 am. Our goal was to be inside the park by 7.
I made myself a cup of tea, and eased myself into hiking boots before waking up my dad and sister. We made it inside the park around 7:30, with another half hour drive from the West Glacier Park entrance to the Avalanche Lake trailhead.
It was drizzling for the first time in a while, and smoke from the recent wildfires lingered in the Lake McDonald Valley while we tooled along the lowlands of the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
The entirety of Glacier National Park seems exceptional compared to the surrounding mountains—the creeks are bluer, the flowers bloom longer, the cliffs are more dramatic. Glacier seems a place apart. A little under 6 miles roundtrip, the Avalanche Lake out and back hike is no exception.
We started walking on the Trail of the Cedars, an old growth forest. From here, we split off alongside Avalanche Creek toward the lake.
Walking alongside the creek gives you the first view of Avalanche Gorge—where Avalanche Creek and its electric blue water have cut through red stone. Between the soft drizzle and the bright colors, it didn’t feel like the dry and very yellow Montana we drove through to get here.
After playing near the gorge for a few minutes, we moved up the trail, running into a couple. They told us that an earlier hiker had seen a black bear about a half mile up the trail.
In general, you won’t see bear on the Avalanche Lake trail if you hike in large groups around midday (11am- 3pm), when the trail is heavily trafficked. On the other hand, it’s hard to find parking at this time. Bear sightings and encounters are far more common in the mornings and evenings. Between easy parking and bear risk, we went for easy parking.
We didn’t see the black bear hiking up the trail, but we did meet up with a larger group from Chicago, as well as the hiker who did see the black bear.
By the time we reached Avalanche Lake it had started to rain for real, but it felt good. It was the kind of rain that feels clean, the kind of rain that you would play in as a kid. I snapped a few photos and we watched the clouds move in and out of the mountains across the lake.
It was after the rain let up that we noticed the bear. Only about 100 yards from us across the lake—too close—a large, dark bear was rustling around in the bushes.
At first we thought it was a black bear, and weren’t too worried. Don’t get me wrong—black bear can be dangerous too, but a black bear is a lot more afraid of you and seemingly predictable than a grizzly.
Then we noticed the hump—the difference between a black bear and a grizzly is not coloring. It’s the hump on the back.
And grizzlies are a lot scarier than black bear.
“One way to tell the difference between a grizzly and a black bear is to climb a tree,” a tour guide had joked with us earlier that week. “If the bear follows you up and eats you, it’s a black bear. If it tears the tree down, then eats you, it’s a grizzly.”
I thought about that while we talked in low voices and made our way back to the trees.
We walked back a little nervous at first—because if that grizzly got curious it could easily follow us up the trail before we knew what happened. But it didn’t (obviously, we’re all alive and well and un-mauled).
On the way back, we ran into a family of mule deer, probably looking for food from us. As cool as it was to get that close to the deer, it was kind of overshadowed by the fact that the animals were too close to us for their own safety, and that baiting wildlife with food led to these animals being too trusting.
It started to rain for real when we hopped back on the Trail of the Cedars, thick warm drops that rolled off of leaves and made everything look very green. People complain about rainy hikes, about how they are cold and muddy, but I honestly think I prefer the rain.
I don’t want to be the person to tell you that all mistakes are good, or that even the worst things you will grow from, because frankly that’s obnoxious. Maybe it is true that even the hard, sucky, parts of life make us stronger, but I don’t think telling anyone in the hard, sucky parts how they’re going to grow from it is necessarily helpful. They won’t hear you.
I don’t think that you can stop people from making mistakes either—you can’t look at someone you know, gauge exactly where they are going, and then tell them what they’re doing is a mistake. First off, you could be wrong. Second, even if you are right, there are a lot of mistakes people have to make for themselves.
I have stayed out later than I should have, and gone out with people I knew it wouldn’t work with, and forgiven people I shouldn’t have given a second chance. I have run farther than I should have, against advice, I have worked on projects I was told were hopeless. I have drunk near gallons of coffee past 7 pm. As a result, I have gotten overuse injuries, had whole projects scraped, and laid awake in bed wondering why the hell I needed a large black coffee at 7 pm anyhow. And honestly that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Here’s the thing—
Be it your 7 pm coffee or something much, much bigger, some mistakes are worth making.
Maybe it is a mistake to get up at 2 am and drive to try and catch the Northern Lights the night before you have to work. Maybe you’ll regret it in the morning. Maybe not though.
Maybe it is a mistake to pursue a relationship with someone you know is probably not the best choice. Maybe you’ll regret it in a year. Maybe you’ll regret it tomorrow.
Maybe you shouldn’t try climb that mountain, or hike that hike alone. Maybe you shouldn’t stay out late, and you should’ve gone to bed. Maybe you should’ve planned better or paid more attention, maybe you shouldn’t have invested so much in that particular person.
But maybe not—
If you didn’t make any mistakes, what kind of stories would you have to tell? And I know I’ve made mistakes, everyone has, but I don’t regret staying out too late, or drinking too much coffee, or blowing off sleep to look at the stars. I don’t regret some of the bigger mistakes too.
So you know what? Make your mistakes, because they are yours. You get to make mistakes, and you get to show up to class hungover, and you get to date boys your friends don’t like, and eat too much pizza, and blow off studying sometimes. You get to get lost in the woods and pull yourself out, and you get to have hard moments completely of your own creation.
Make the mistake. Some mistakes are worth making. And maybe some mistakes are not even really mistakes at all.
Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is known for its waterfalls, clear water, and of course, it’s cliffs. There are many different ways to experience the rocks, ranging from boat tours to backcountry hiking.
Last week, my brother and I spent a few days kayaking, hiking, and adventuring in the area. Here’s what we did, and what we would recommend!
Kayak Lake Superior:
Kayaking Lake Superior and the Pictured Rocks has always been a bucket-lister for me, and I am glad to have had the chance to check it off. Lake Superior can be unpredictable and choppy—record wave height on Lake Superior was 51 feet recorded in Whitefish Bay.
That being said, only sea kayaks should be taken out on the Lake—not canoes or recreational kayaks. Before you kayak on Lake Superior, check out the information available on the NPS site.
Rather than rent a kayak, we opted for a morning tour with Paddling Michigan. The waves were an average 3 feet when we went. We had a blast, paddling to Miner’s Castle from Miner’s Beach, then past that along the cliffs a ways further. Through Paddling Michigan, you can take a smaller, “soft” adventure tour—this is what I did with my younger brother, and it was plenty—or you can take longer, full trips or even overnight trips down the Lakeshore.
Kayaking offers a different perspective on the rocks, and the chance to see sea caves and waterfalls. You can get a similar experience from a boat tour, but a kayak gets you closer to the rocks and gives you the sense that you explored the rocks, rather than took a tour.
Visit Waterfalls/ Overlooks:
A good place to start water-falling is Miner’s Castle road. Here, you can stop at Miner’s Falls, a one and a quarter mile round trip hike from the parking lot. From here, driving farther down Miner’s Castle road, you can visit the Miner’s Castle overlook. If it is a hot enough day, Miner’s Beach is just off the same road too, and is a good place to picnic and swim.
Just outside of Munising is Munising Falls, a short hike with two different viewing platforms.
Chapel and Mosquito Falls can both be reached from the Chapel-Mosquito area trailhead, with a three mile round trip hike to Chapel Falls, and two miles round trip to Mosquito Falls. The two can be hit together in the Chapel Basin Loop hike, detailed below.
Hike the Chapel Basin Loop:
We took an afternoon to do this hike, but could have easily taken longer with all of the great places to take in the view or stop and swim! The loop is 10 miles roundtrip if you want to hit Chapel Falls, Chapel Beach, Mosquito Falls, and Mosquito Beach (NPS map linked here).
Chapel Falls is a cool stop, with an opportunity to get up close to the falls before they plunge of a rock shelf into Chapel Lake. The trail continues along to Chapel Rock and Chapel Beach. This is sometimes treated as an out and back to the Beach, where you can swim both in Lake Superior and Chapel Creek. Chapel Creek meets Lake Superior in a small waterfall that you can slide down and play in.
From here, you continue down the beach along the North Country Trail toward Mosquito Beach. This portion of the hike is along the cliffs, and one of the coolest stretches of trail I have ever hiked. There are countless scenic overlooks, and almost all of the 4.5 miles are along the cliffs.
When you reach Mosquito Beach, the trail becomes a little more difficult to follow due to poor signage and about 800 side trails leading to the beach and to the backcountry campsites. You are going to want to cross the Mosquito River, then follow the sign posts to Mosquito Falls rather than continue hiking on the North Country Trail.
Rather than hike the full loop like we did, I would recommend cutting Mosquito Beach and Falls, and hiking out to Grand Portal Point from Chapel Beach, and then returning via the Chapel Lake spur from Chapel Beach. The majority of the impressive cliffs were all before Grand Portal Point, and all worth seeing twice. After this point, the cliffs are less impressive, and the trail is muddier and less maintained. Hiking from Chapel Falls to Chapel Beach, then on to Grand Portal Point and then backtracking until the Chapel Lake Spur makes for a 9.5 miles roundtrip hike.
Hike to Spray Falls:
We hit this hike around 5 pm made it back to the car around 9, and the lighting was beautiful. Even in August, the trail was empty, and the Coves, a worth stop along the way to Spray Falls, offer some of the best swimming in Lake Superior.
Spray Falls plunge 70 feet from the cliffs into Lake Superior, and can be viewed from two different overlooks as well as from behind.
We started at the trailhead at the Little Beaver Creek Campground. From here it is a 1.5 mile hike out to Lake Superior, and then 2.5 miles out to Spray Falls, making for an 8 mile out and back. Check out the NPS maps here (scroll down; it’s the second map).
Swim in Lake Superior:
Lake Superior is cold even in the summer, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t swimmable! The water feels great after a long hike.
One popular location is Chapel Beach—a 3-mile hike in on the Chapel Basin Loop (above) offers a sandy beach, waterfall to play in, and backcountry camping sites nearby. Accessed from the same trailhead, Mosquito Beach is a rocky rather than sandy beach and can be slippery.
Miner’s Beach off Miner’s Castle Road is a popular kayak launch point as it is sheltered by cliffs, and an easily accessed swimming spot. From here, you can hike east to Miner’s Beach Falls (or Elliot’s Falls), a small waterfall on the Beach.
My favorite swimming spot we visited was The Coves, along the North Country Trail on the Spray Falls out and back. The water was clear and calm, and there were even good spots to jump off rocks into the water.
We didn’t get a chance to backpack, do a boat tour, or surf, but all of those are other adventures to have in the Pictured Rocks area. Check out the National Parks Service’s more comprehensive list of activities here, and visit Paddling Michigan for more information on Kayak Tours!
I was sitting on a spit in Torch Lake, screwing an ND filter on to my camera and setting up a tripod when I went to go switch my camera on.
I had driven three hours that day, and stopped up in Antrim to pick up my younger brother for a few days of hiking and kayaking in the UP, and packed in a bit of a hurry earlier that morning. Three days ago, I had moved out of the house I was living in for the summer, and most of my stuff was still in boxes, ready to be moved again in three weeks.
So I wasn’t necessarily surprised when I opened up my camera to find it missing a battery. Annoyed, yes. Disappointed, for sure. But packing was a mess earlier that morning. I was bound to forget something.
I hadn’t gotten a real chance to play with my camera in at least a good month, so I was bummed for that reason too. I seriously considered driving the three hours back to get it, or getting up early and driving into Traverse City to buy a new battery, but ended up deciding against both. Driving into Traverse would put us four hours behind schedule, and driving home overnight would just suck. Why did I need my camera so bad anyway?
I love taking pictures, I really do. I love playing with the settings on my camera, and taking long exposures, and I don’t even mind hauling a tripod and a backpack full of lens out four or five miles.
But the reason I like taking pictures is less about the image itself, and more about the story. I like being able to take an image, and use that image as a hook. Here is a mountain top, or a cliff, or a lake. Let me tell you what I did there, and why going out and appreciating nature is so important. Isn’t all this worth protecting?
That’s why I like photography. Not necessarily for the art of it, though I enjoy that too. Photography and stories can connect people to nature, and help inspire them to action.
So without use of a camera where did this leave me?
I still kayaked and hiked a total of 30 miles, got sunburnt, saw 5 waterfalls, and swam in Lake Superior. I still have photos, decent usable photos taken on my iPhone 5, pictured above. And I had a great time!
Not having a working DSLR didn’t ruin my trip at all– it just took away the pressure to take photos, and left room for a little more adventuring.
It’s not exactly a secret that camping, hiking, and road tripping have highs and lows. The feeling when you reach the top of the mountain is great, but first you had to climb it. And by climb it, I mean probably go a few days without a shower, scrape yourself up quite a bit, make a lot of mistakes, get in arguments with your group members, and probably get pretty lost too.
Good camping trips have bad moments, and even “bad trips” have good moments too.
So what can lead to a bad trip, and how can you avoid it?
Not being involved in planning
One of the things that I have seen negatively affect several people’s trips is not doing any planning and “just tagging along”. If you don’t know what the plan is or where you’re going, you might miss out on things you wanted to do, or end up doing more than you wanted. And if you didn’t help make the plan, or at least know the plan, you aren’t going to be as invested in said plan.
An easy fix to this is to, at the very least, know a rough itinerary. Better yet, actually get involved and collaborate with the people who are making the plan. I have found that sitting down, face to face, and telling people the things that you want to do or don’t want to do works best.
Being too involved in planning
This is a trap that I usually fall into—I am known for making an elaborate plan, down to the hour, running it briefly by other group members, and then getting frustrated when parts of that plan fall through. Realistically, you can’t plan for everything, and you have to be adaptable to have a good time.
Besides, as much as I love planning down to the hour, some of the best adventures I have had have been unplanned and spontaneous.
Expecting things to go smoothly
If you expect your entire trip to go off without a hitch, you’re a whole lot more likely to be upset when things go wrong. You can plan ahead for things that might happen—print out maps for when you lose cell service, bring extra food and socks, have a first aid kit—and all of that is a good idea, but that’s not really what I am getting at.
Having a backup plan doesn’t grantee that you won’t be in a situation you didn’t plan for. And that’s fine—just know that you are probably going to reach a point where you have to deal with something you didn’t expect. As long as you are okay with things going wrong here and there, and know that it is going to happen, those road bumps won’t seem so big.
Expecting things to go poorly
Recently, I went on a camping trip that I thought for sure I was going to hate. And for a while I was right—it was 90 degrees, I was trying to keep track and take care of people, lift heavy boxes, and take photos all at the same time. For the first day, I didn’t have any fun.
I realized halfway through that the reason things were going poorly was because I expected them too. Even before I showed up, I had already told people what a drag I thought this was going to be. Of course I was having a bad time—I had already decided too.
Once I realized that I was having a bad time because of my own attitude, things got a lot better—time passed quicker, I was more engaged and less tired, and I ended up having a pretty good time!
So the moral of the story? Attitude makes a huge difference .
Not doing any research
Spontaneous trips are fun, but not knowing the area you are traveling to can be more stressful than anything else. It’s good to know what campgrounds are in the area, what gas stations are around and open, what the terrain of the trails is, and what wildlife you need to be aware of.
Not taking time for you
Even when traveling with a group of people it is important to take time for yourself. Take the time to be alone for a second, take the time to make your coffee in the morning, and take the time to see the things you want to see.
Having a second to catch your breath can change your outlook on an entire trip.
Don’t listen to the concerns of your group members
It’s important to think about what you want, yes, but it is just as important to listen to the people you are traveling with. A lot of the arguments and bickering I have seen traveling were caused by miscommunications.
Make sure you are all on the same page about timing, what sort of hikes/adventures you want to have, and how long you are willing to spend places.
Go with people who have similar interests
Miscommunication aside, it can be hard to travel with just “anyone”. I am a fast-paced, early morning kind of person, and have traveled with people who are slower, and want to sleep in. It was hard for me to spend the morning hours waiting for them to be ready to travel.
Overall, a good camping trip is a matter of perspective. All trips have high points and low points, they just do. You can’t always change the situation, the people you’re with, the trail or even the weather, but you can change the way you react. Take a second to breathe, because you’re going to have a great time.