We were in the parking lot of the Logan Pass visitor center in Glacier National Park on Going to the Sun Road, the most beautiful scenic drive in America according to everyone who ranks these things. It was 6:30am, and we weren’t the only visitors there. And I don’t just mean the 30 or so other humans who had woken up at 5am or some God-awful dark and peaceful hour to drive and secure a parking spot before the late morning 7am chumps arrived. I was headed up to check out the map for the trail we were about to start when an enormous big horn sheep popped up from behind a tree about 15 feet away. We nodded hello and he resumed his patrol of the place that is probably only his for sunrise before the day’s crowd arrives. He and I finished checking the trail map and we got on with our morning.

This wasn’t the first close encounter with an animal for me on this trip. Nor was it the closest—or most heart pounding. In fact, it wasn’t even the first bighorn. Only a few days prior, we had been on an offshoot trail after summiting Mount Washburn in Yellowstone. We were the only ones on the trail at the time when we spotted a momma bighorn about 50 yards away. We took a few steps forward to get a better view of its adorable baby—not too close, though—we wanted to stay on the path because of alpine meadow preservation and we wanted to stay at the recommended 25 yard distance. Right at that moment, around 15-20 other momma bighorns and babies crested the hill to our left and surrounded us eating the delicious meal of grass around the trail. We watched for about 20 minutes while they went about their day. We snapped a few pictures while debating what these things actually were—none of them made themselves obvious like the ram we’d see a few days later in the parking lot. We threw around pronghorn sheep, mountain goats, and bighorn only because our friends had said that this is what we’d see on this trail.

This is exactly what this trip to national parks was about, though. You visit and it forces you to ask questions and be willing to be the uninformed idiots you are so you can learn more. One stop at one site will bring up a thousand questions like, Why is that hole in the ground spewing out boiling water? Why does it happen at intervals? Why is it muddy? And doesn’t it look exactly like cocoa puff cereal milk when you finish the bowl? (Then, if you’re us, you start debating hard about what it looks like the most, and after a while you start to think the intervals of the heaviest blows are timed to match who the mud pot agrees with the most, since every time Husband Wally offers his opinion it hisses and spews harder, clearly the mud pot agrees with you.)

Aside from the curiosity these trips inspire, of course, the point of the trip is also to see nature being nature. Not only did we see the herd of bighorn sheep on that hike (confirmed by a ranger later in the trip—these were the females), we got to see what they do during the day in the place where they like to hang out. Some were filling up on the grass we weren’t supposed to trample, and others were just laying at the top of the hill, looking out at the epic view that had brought us up here for the day. If I think about it right, these particular bighorns get to do my vacation views as their every day. They are doing life right. If you know my travel style, I’m in it for the lunch spots. We may just be eating PBJ I’ve assembled in the back of our minivan, but we will eat it while watching a bison dive-bomb the ground repeatedly to get at his back itch, or high up on a lake, or seeing what these sheep see. PBJ tastes very good after climbing to 10,243 feet of elevation.

Back to the Logan Pass parking lot—we were there to hike the Highline Trail, an 11.8 mile trail that follows Going-to-the-Sun road but from higher up. Until I did the hike, I didn’t understand the fuss—don’t you see all this from the road as well? But anyone who has hiked will tell you that hikes are full of the unexpected. On this hike you get to do the views from slightly higher—and you get to do them slower—some even while gripping a cable in the wall to feel safe while facing the sheer drop off that gets your heart pounding. While holding it for security I laugh to myself that my upper body strength might not be up to the challenge of keeping me on this ledge should I trip. Also, since the trail is actually around 4 feet wide before the drop off, I’m pretty sure it’s just a reminder that you are on the ledge and this is the safe side. The cable keeps you touching the wall while you look the other way at the dizzying view that you don’t want to miss for a second.

While on the trail, you also get to see the tiny habitats and life that persists at every level of this beautiful place. It is so much more than the blur of stone and green that my eyes see from below. You see mini waterfalls and weeping walls all along the way, including some moss covered 1 foot carve outs that look like the perfect place to set up a fairy garden. You see meadow after meadow of wildflowers that would put any Midwest garden to shame.

 

And of course, you see animals. On this hike a marmot popped right out of a bush at our feet along the trail. He studied us for a strangely long time and then climbed on his way up the trail. We wondered why he chose us instead of another group that came along before or after us.

We particularly loved this because Vivvi, who is 10 years old, had fallen in love with prairie dogs on our first hike. In the first national park visitor center she picked out a prairie dog stuffie, her souvenir for the trip—only to later discover that it was actually a marmot. To rescue the situation, we made up a back story about the newly dubbed Marmee—he was an unusually large prairie dog who wanted nothing more in life than to be a marmot. All week, to pass the time or when hikes got tough or to keep talking when we were in heavy bear territory, we had been telling stories about what Marmee was doing in the car. He got up to all sorts of antics—unpacking all our stuff to build a mound, trapezing with peach rings, watching Hunger Games and rigging a bow and arrow to shoot plastic knives out of the car, riding big horn sheep to go whitewater raft, getting thirsty and drinking our beer and whiskey. He also would get worried about Vivvi and send spies to check on her. This was clearly one of them.

 

Needless to say, this trip has changed Vivvi’s favorite animal into a Marmot. It has also changed my favorite animal because of a close encounter. As I’ve pointed out, animals were always popping up out of nowhere on this trip. Come around a bend on particular hikes and a bear will be eating huckleberries 3 feet away. We tried backing away from this little guy but the berries he wanted were the ones by us, apparently. Back and back we went til he was satisfied and went on his way.

While parked at a pullout to check out bison in the distance in Yellowstone, I noticed people on the other side of the road taking pictures of something a little behind us. Then I realized it was truly only a little behind us…a bison was approaching our car from behind and passed around us in the next lane like he was another car out on the road.

These weren’t the favorite-list changers for me though…while hiking the trail to Iceburg Lake in Glacier, we were surrounded by thick sloping forest on either side. Husband Wally led our pack and I took the back—always wanting to see all my ducklings in a row. Husband turned a bend in the trail and immediately was back in our our space with wide eyes. “Go back go back go back!”

“What is it?” we insisted on knowing while back pedaling. What fresh terror was headed our way?

“A moose!” he yell-whispered. “A…a…male one! A bull!!”

“On the trail?!” I shrieked, needing to know. Wally Ben and I had thoroughly enjoyed reading Hatchet a few years ago—a book that lets you know how urgent it is when you have a bull moose a few yards away heading your direction and thick trees on either side. This was his trail, no use in negotiating.

“Yes, go go go!” Wally pushed us along as I remembered learning at the trailhead that the best thing to do was to relent the trail to oncoming animals and head on up into the woods. I looped back around the bend and darted up into some tight knit trees where a big rack couldn’t go, praying the kids would trust us and follow me up. We huddled together 3-4 feet higher than the trail, about 10 feet of trees between us and the trail we had just been on. Moments later the beast wrapped around the bend in front of us at a clip. Likely also a little rattled, the moose trotted on from our right, around in front of us, and finally noticed us out the corner of his eye as he passed to our left, grunting his disapproval at our nearness and the interruption to his efforts to get wherever he was going.

We don’t have a picture of him, because we were busy living. But I read later that the tallest moose in recorded history was 7 feet, 8 inches at the shoulder. In my memory, this fellow surely rivaled that at around 12-15 feet tall total, burly and majestic and grumpy in the most exciting, heart-pounding way. He was big enough to rip our waterpacks from our backs and shake them to shreds with his powerful neck and spit the pieces into the woods. Big enough to bellow and shatter all of our bones with the deep vibration of the sound. Big enough to smash us all into a family grave, 6 feet deep, all of us at once, in one blow. Seeing him so close, seeing him pass, hearing his grunt—it was everything. Getting to run from him with my family, and to escape him—it was the best moment of my life.

Thank you moose, for not killing us. And thank you for being there, on that trail, on that day, and sharing that moment with my family. In fact, thank you to all of the animals who shared your space with us on this trip. You really made it quite the adventure.