Glacier National Park 2021 Trip Report

By Eric Rock on Aug 02, 2021

When you imagine photographing rugged mountain landscapes towering over crystal clear lakes and multicolored wildflower meadows—all easily accessible from comfortable historic lodges—then Glacier National Park should immediately come to mind. This is exactly why we set off with our photo safaris adventures to photograph summer’s beautiful bounty here on North America’s continental crown.
Summer comes late here in the mountains of Montana—with Glacier National Park lying snuggly against the Canadian border. The park’s jagged and scenic peaks reach elevations over ten thousand feet, while elevations just over six thousand feet can easily be accessed by the Going to the Sun Road. With heavy moisture-laden air arriving from the Pacific dropping a thick mantle of fresh snow each winter, it’s easy to see why this high country doesn’t open until well into late June. We are here early in the season to take advantage of the fresh access to this stunning scenery.
Starting off after a timely meet-and-greet dinner and orientation at our comfortable first night’s lodging, we put White Fish, Montana in our rear-view mirror as we headed east. Spending time the first morning getting reacquainted with our camera gear (which many of us had not touched in a year since the pandemic started) we set out to photograph the multi-colored cobbles found along the scenic Lake McDonald shoreline. The best conditions here require calm water and good clouds—both of which worked to our favor. The afternoon of this day found us heading onto the east side of the continental divide and in place to spend the evening photographing at a traditional Blackfeet powwow.
Early in July is usually the time of the year for the North American Indian Days powwow, but with Covid-19 remaining a threat to the indigenous tribes, the activities were dialed-back to only include people of the Blackfeet Nation and a few guests for a weekend of traditional/social dancing. We timed our arrival to photograph the scheduled grand entry—and it did not disappoint. If you are interested in traditional cultures and have never attended a powwow you owe it to yourself to witness this cultural celebration. For photographers it’s important to find one that is photography friendly, as you will want to capture the energy of color, sound and dance that underlies the foundation of the identity that North American Natives have kept alive. The day ended with the heartbeat of the drums, traditional song, swirling ribbons, and billowing feathers all under the Montana evening sky.
We spent most of our overnight lodging near the photogenic areas of the park east of the continental divide. For the next six days we photographed much of the iconic landscapes and natural beauty for which Glacier National Park is undoubtedly famous.
The east side of the park provides access to most of the mountain valleys aligned to greet the sunrise on scenic lakes surrounded by piercing mountain peaks. This makes the eastern side of the park best for photographing in morning light. Mornings come early this time of year, so we were heading out between 4:30 and 4:45 AM each day to catch the alpenglow that paints the mountains as the sun begins to break over the eastern horizon.
After each morning alpenglow session, we explored more mountain vistas, often stopping to spend time photographing mountain reflections in the famous quiet waters of Two Medicine, Swift Current and St Mary Lakes. Something about clear water and its dynamic nature lends itself to making engaging images. Our water photography did not stop there. The tumbling mountain streams of the park provide many opportunities for scenic compositions comprised of waterfalls and cascades. Some of these are well known—some more hidden in out of the way locations.
Early summer is also the best time of year to catch the mountain meadows full of blooming wildflowers. Each year seems to provide a different array of colorful species, and this year was no different. Purples seemed to dominate the lower elevations this year, with fireweed flowers at their peak of bloom just as the wild geraniums were giving way to yellow blanket flowers that dotted the landscape.
Up in the higher elevations around Logan Pass, the early blooming yellow glacier lilies were still carpeting the wetter slopes as purple asters and monkey flowers were just beginning to come into their own.
During the quieter parts of the day, we would have mini workshop sessions  around different techniques for approaching Glacier’s photogenic motifs. We explored topics including how to create more dynamic landscape compositions and getting more from wildflower photography—as well as working with dynamic light and proper exposure to name a few.
This would be a good time to mention our wildlife photography encounters. In early summer, most wildlife is found scattered around the park often at higher, hard to reach elevations where getting to them to photograph can be difficult—if not impossible. We were very lucky that along with the ever-present ground squirrels, we had multiple occasions to photograph hoary marmots perched while they sunbathed on rocky outcrops. Marmots are especially easy to find around the trails and central area of Logan Pass throughout the day. This is also where we had a group of young bighorn sheep pass by us—just after our predawn arrival to catch sunrise.
For wildlife encounters, one of our best sessions was spent with a mother grizzly bear and her two cubs-of-the-year as they foraged through a grove of serviceberry bushes—a safe/comfortable distance from us as they were  bathed in great evening light.  Our other wildlife highlight was to arrive at one of Glacier’s more hidden lakes just in time to photograph three different moose foraging on the lake’s early seasonal growth of pondweed. The two younger moose provided for some interaction photography as they spent a little of their summer energy chasing each other around through the lake’s shallow water. As a bonus to the morning moose encounter, we were also treated to a fine specimen of a white-tailed deer buck visiting the lake along with a doe with twin fawns.
Most photography in Glacier happens during the daylight hours but the dark starry sky of this part of the earth should not be missed. A subset of our group managed to gather up for a midnight shoot of the Milky Way over St Mary Lake. Once we had our exposures dialed-in and composition framed it was a wondrous way to take in the night sky.
With our remaining time to photograph, we made one last early morning excursion to Avalanche Gorge before breakfast. Here in the relative quiet and shadowy light of early morning we could make long exposures of the silky waters of Avalanche Creek as it carves its way through ancient sandstone.
One of the many aspects that make these photo tours special is the group of photo travelers that choose to seek out these destinations, and this group was no different. Not only did we share some amazing mountain landscapes, wildlife, and sunrises during our travels, but we also shared a wonderful time photographing together.