Glacial lakes and mountain majesty provide stunning views and exploration opportunities at this northern Montana preserve.
By Sally Weigand
Mountain peak after mountain peak, like a line of pointed hats, fill the horizon, while far below an azure glacial lake sparkles in the sun. After a gentle walk along North America’s Continental Divide, hikers arrive at this scene at Hidden Lake. Meadows of alpine wildflowers color both sides of the trail where woolly mountain goats nibble greens and ground squirrels romp. The soft sound of flowing water adds its music to carry visitors to a natural Rocky Mountain high.
“Waterfalls National Park” could be an appropriate alternate name for Glacier National Park, located in northwest Montana, which in 2010 celebrated its 100th birthday. Meltwater from the park’s 25 or so remaining glaciers (it once had more than 150) creates streams, falls, and lakes at every turn. White patches of glacial ice contrast with the stark granite. Powerful water gushes from atop high peaks, narrow ribbons force their way through rocky crevices, and mountain streams rush down in roaring tumbles — all creating beautiful cascades.
Humans share the park with elk, moose, mountain goats, bald eagles, bighorn sheep, wolves, grizzlies, and black bears. Glacier National Park has the densest concentration of grizzly bears in the contiguous 48 states. Munching on berries, the humpbacked mammals can be seen meandering from bush to bush.
You may come upon a trail closed to hikers, because a bear has chosen it as a temporary residence. Rangers are very serious about bear precautions and urge hikers to wear bells so as to not startle a bear. The animals can sprint up to 35 miles per hour so you can’t outrun them.
Mountain goats demonstrate their incredible agility by swiftly clambering over near-vertical mountainsides. Their thick winter coats hang tattered during the summer. Moose, elk, and deer inhabit the flat river valley known as the North Fork Area on the less-populated northwestern side of the park.
Exploring on foot. More than 95 percent of Glacier National Park is designated as wilderness area, so hiking and horseback riding are the only ways to penetrate it. This park has an astounding 700 miles of trails. Do some online research prior to your visit to choose trails that are appealing, or buy an inexpensive hiking guide at a park visitors center to help you select those that are of interest and within your ability. The trail to Hidden Lake (mentioned above), for example, is an easy three-mile route that begins at the Logan Pass visitors center. It takes 45 minutes each way. Hoary marmots’ shrill whistles and the squeak of ground squirrels accompany you. By descending 800 feet from the overlook to the lake, you can follow the shoreline along its clear, cold water. From the relatively level Highline Trail on the opposite side of the road, hikers take in panoramic views of the park, as it is above timberline.
Hikers are rewarded with views of broad valleys that can be cloaked with abundant wildflowers. Tall creamy-white stalks of bear grass, queen of the park’s wildflowers, sprout on hillsides. Because of an individual plant’s once-in-seven-years blooming cycle, in some summers an abundant display of bear grass delights visitors, but other years its appearance is sparse. (Bears do not eat their namesake plant.)
From Trail of the Cedars, the walk to Avalanche Lake takes about an hour along rushing Avalanche Gorge on a trail with soft, green moss, where wild mushrooms push through the forest floor and dappled sunlight shines through huge trees. Sperry Glacier, almost 2,000 feet above the lake, creates waterfalls that drop from a hanging valley. Walk another mile to the end of Avalanche Lake to view the falls up-close.
Minerals and salt come to the surface of the rocks at Walton Goat Lick Overlook, which attracts mountain goats, especially in late June and July.
Split into two halves by the Continental Divide, the park offers different vegetation and weather, depending on where you are. Abundant rainfall produces lush, green growth in the western half, while on the eastern side, dry, sunnier weather brings more brown tones and sparser growth.
Many hikes begin at trailheads located along Going-to-the-Sun Road, the only highway that crosses the park. It has been called one of the choicest scenic drives in the United States. Up, up, up the narrow two-lane road climbs to the top of the Continental Divide. As the road descends the opposite side of the mountain, meltwater spills onto the road, and wildflowers in delicate shapes and pastel hues paint the rocky backdrops. At each end, facilities and campgrounds supply necessities.
Going-to-the-Sun Road is a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Each year it opens only when it can be free from snow, and in 2011, it did not open until July 13. For 2012 info, check the park’s Web site, www.nps.gov/glac/. The speed limit is low (25 mph in the region with the largest drop-offs and tightest turns), and vehicles clog it during a midsummer day. Visitors stop frequently to enjoy viewpoints or park at the trailheads.
Most motorhomes cannot be driven on the road between Avalanche Campground and Sun Point parking area, for vehicles longer than 21 feet and wider than 8 feet are prohibited. You can drive an RV from the west entrance to Trail of the Cedars and from the east entrance to Sun Point. Visitors whose vehicles do not fit the allowances and those not wishing to concentrate on driving make use of the red buses, called Jammers, which have become fixtures in the park. Or, enjoy bus excursions called Sun Tours, provided by Blackfeet Indian guides, who offer their perspective on the area. A shuttle service also is available, which offers point-to-point travel along the road.
Extremely snowy winters create a challenge for park staff to clear drifts of 60 feet from Going-to-the-Sun Road. Bulldozers are taken to the road beginning in April, with the work continuing through May and June — and the opening date goal is not met in some years. With the park’s biodiversity comes weather diversity; be prepared for warmth and sun, cold and rain, plus fog — and perhaps even some summer snow.
To get a much different perspective of the park, a lake cruise can be ideal. Glacier Park Boat Company tours take passengers out onto Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine in the Many Glacier area, or Lake McDonald, St. Mary Lake, and Two Medicine Lake. You also can rent a boat, kayak, or canoe at some locations. Or, join a guided rafting trip or a combination hike and raft.
Lake McDonald is the largest of the 762 lakes in Glacier National Park. From the boat dock behind Lake McDonald Lodge, tourists board the 57-foot historic wooden boat DeSmet (built in 1930) to participate in park history while enjoying the views around Lake McDonald. The company has several other wooden watercraft that it uses at other lakes in the park.
The park’s Many Glacier boat tour involves taking a boat that departs near Many Glacier Hotel several times a day during summer. You cross Swiftcurrent Lake, hike 1/4-mile, then board a boat on Lake Josephine. As the boat traverses Lake Josephine, you get the full view of Grinnell Glacier. From there, you take an easy hike to Grinnell Lake. A bevy of wildflowers brighten the Ptarmigan Falls trail, 2.5 miles long with a gradual elevation of 500 feet.
You can become acquainted with the area on a narrated cruise on Two Medicine Lake that is combined with a hike to Twin Falls, or rent a boat for your own tour, or explore on horseback.
East of Logan Pass, the aspen and cottonwood groves of the St. Mary Lake area glow with radiant color in autumn. Take a boat cruise and naturalist-led hike to St. Mary Falls from the Rising Sun boat dock, or take a 20-minute walk from St. Mary Lake to the falls; then, in another 20 minutes you can reach Virginia Falls. Stair steps formed by the layered stone along the stream in this area make it easy to climb down to each cascade.
When you reach the town of St. Mary, drive north to Babb, then back into the Many Glacier area of the park. Relax in the lobby of the imposing old Many Glacier Hotel, on the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake, and soak up the view. (I spent a drizzly morning here alternately reading and using binoculars to watch a bear foraging on an open hillside while my husband did a strenuous hike to see a grizzly, although none appeared.) Visitors also try horseback riding and canoeing to experience the area. Bighorn ewes and lambs frequent the cliffs above the trail to Apikuni Falls.
Activities of varied levels all come together to create a superlative vacation experience at Glacier National Park. Adjoining Glacier to the north is Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park, so you will likely want to go there as well. (The combined park acreage is known as Waterton/Glacier International Peace Park.) Whatever you decide to see, and however you decide to see it, Glacier National Park is for you.
Complete trip planning information is available at www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/brochures.htm. A number of documents in PDF form can be read online or printed out for your records. Or, contact:
Glacier National Park
P.O. Box 128
West Glacier, MT 59936
Other helpful contacts:
Glacier Country Montana
Glacier Park Inc. (Red Bus tours)
Glacier Park Boat Company
Sun Tours (Blackfeet Indian tours)
Camping without hookups is available at the national park itself. For details, contact the park using the information listed above. Vehicle length limits and other restrictions may apply, so be sure to ask before you arrive.
The following commercial campground list is a sampling. Please check your campground directory or the RV Marketplace, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at FMCA.com, for additional listings.
Columbia Falls RV Park, C11840
(FMCA commercial member)
103 U.S. 2 E.
Columbia Falls, MT 59912
12070 U.S. 2 W.
West Glacier, MT 59936
Glacier Haven RV & Campground
14297 U.S. 2 E.
Essex, MT 59916
Glacier Park Motel & Campground
7285 U.S. 2 E.
Columbia Falls, MT 59912