Glacier National Park has drawn adventurers and inspired reflection for generations
written by Jayme Fraser
Before postcards featured Glacier National Park’s sky-scraping peaks, prospectors hunted for gold and railroad workers laid track west through America’s northernmost Rocky Mountains. Today’s adventurers pitch tents where the Blackfeet, Kootenai, Salish and Pend O’Reille tribes have traveled for centuries to hunt, fish and visit sacred sites.
The Backbone of the World has always been a marvel. Dense evergreen forests cover most of the park’s million acres, although the steep mountains mean visitors can explore numerous ecosystems, from grassy prairies to barren alpine tundras, within a single day. Elevations range from 3,153 feet at the shore of Lake McDonald to nearly 10,500 feet at the summit of Mount Cleveland. Glacial silt stains rivers and lakes a bright turquoise. In places, fallen, mossy logs paint a dark contrast, or the water is so still that you see dabs of red, brown and green from rocks on the bottom. Late-summer hikers often pick tart huckleberries and sweet thimbleberries as they climb into the many valleys carved by advancing glaciers. (there are inedible fruits that look similar. Be sure to carry a guide for proper identification.) Huckleberries are a favorite snack of grizzly bears, so make lots of noise as you munch to avoid bumping into one on the trail. Those who visit in early summer should expect some snow or mud at higher elevations. In 2017, the road to Logan Pass did not open until late June.
photos by Allison Bye
Sometimes, families celebrate the Fourth of July by snow sledding. With 734 miles of trails, people can pick a different view each day—a shoreline stroll of Saint Mary Lake, a moderate trek through the wildflowers of Hanging Gardens to reach the popular Hidden Lake, or a weeklong backpacking trip that covers dozens of miles to reach the most remote parts of the park. Permits are required for remote camping, so apply early or call the ranger station for details on how to secure a last-minute itinerary in person. Most visitors enjoy the hot summers and chill alpine lakes, but many locals drive to Glacier in the winter to snowshoe or cross-country ski. Those who bring (or rent) a bicycle can see a spectral version of Glacier with an early- morning or late-night ride up Going to the Sun Road during a full moon. Those who come early enough in the year will nd the road still closed to vehicle traffic, leaving it clear for people to coast down in the cool, crisp air. Daytime bike riders in the peak summer season share the narrow road with lines of cars, a hair-raising experience for most. Dedicated bikers can peddle into the park for a cheaper entrance fee than cars and RVs. While Glacier draws outdoor adventurers, serene views and alpine lodges also offer quiet vacations outside of cell phone range for those looking to disconnect.
For a leisurely trip, consider booking a night on Swiftcurrent Lake at the remodeled Many Glacier Hotel, whose lobby is anchored by a double helical staircase. If you don’t want to drive or y to the park, consider buying an Amtrak ticket to Essex, just south of Glacier. There, passengers disembark at the Izaak Walton Inn & Resort, which offers a few refurbished cabooses and luxury railcars as rooms in addition to those in the 1939 lodge. Those interested in learning more about the people who have cared for or sought to conquer the mountains of Glacier should visit the George C. Ruhle Library in West Glacier and the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning. If you stop at the Apgar Visitor Center, look for “Ranger Doug” Follett. He has led hikes in Glacier, offered recommendations and told stories about its history since 1961. If you have a few minutes (or hours), he will share tales of the days when most of the West looked like Glacier and what American can learn from those roots.