Filled with excitement, I awaken at 5:30am and am immediately ready to hit the trail. Knowing that I have to get to the permit office before it opens, I drive to the visitor center to officially start my first solo backpacking trip. As soon as I arrive, I lay out all of my gear in the parking lot, and start to get my pack ready for the backcountry. After only a few minutes I see a line start to form, so I decide that I need to join the fellow backpackers who are also looking to get first dibs on a site. With me, I have a folder which has a printed out topo map, details on my trail, and potential backup campsites in case mine happened to get booked. Everything up to this point has gone even better than I could have imagined, so I’m hopeful this trend will keep on rolling.
Seven o’clock hits and the doors finally open. I’m about ten people back in line, but quite a bit more behind me so I’m feeling pretty good. That is, until I see just about every group in front of me being overcome with a look of panic when, I assume, they are being told the site at which they were planning to stay is full. For the first time on the trip, I feel a wave of nervousness come over me and I realize that I could be in big trouble.
Holding onto what little hope I have left, I step up to the counter and pull out my maps. The ranger, a tall and lanky, stoner-looking guy who couldn’t have been out of college, quickly confirms that my fear is going to be reality. Not only is the campsite that I have been planning and looking forward to for the last month full, but every campsite in Logan Pass (main area of the park) is also full. FUCK!
“OK, so what are my options?” I ask while trying to keep my cool. I tell him that I’m looking to go about 20 miles give or take, which he returns with a blank stare while pulling out a map to show the very limited selection of available campsites. My original trail had me finishing on the west side of the park, close to Lake McDonald, so I figure backpacking on that side makes the most sense. “Any recommendations out of these? I’m looking for as scenic as possible.” (you know, photography). The ranger couldn’t have been less helpful and replies with, “uhh I don’t really know. I’m not familiar with that side of the park and I don’t backpack”. Awesome. I see a spot on the map that’s alongside three big lakes, ending at a campsite called Grace Lake. It’s a thirteen-mile point-to-point, so a little longer than I wanted to go, but there’s less elevation change than I was planning and with about forty people anxiously waiting in line behind me, I hesitantly confirm, “Grace Lake it is”.
I must have looked up hundreds of trail reviews before the trip, but I made the personal executive decision to not look up any reviews for this hike. No turning back now, I think as I get in the car to start the three hour trek over to the west side of the park.
Bummed that I can’t do the trail I was originally planning, which is one of the most scenic backpacking routes in the country, I decide to do a quick hike on the east side of the park, before starting my already too long overnight trek. During my research, I noted on my itinerary that the St. Mary waterfall hike is one of the most well reviewed in the entire park. It’s only a total of 3.75 miles and before hitting the trail, I think to myself, 'a short hike to a couple of waterfalls, how great can it be?'