Glacier National Park, MT
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Glacier National Park, MT

See frozen-in-time sights along the famous 52-mile drive.

The Last Best Place

The folks in Montana like to call their state "The Last Best Place." If so, then Glacier National Park is "The Last Best Place in the Last Best Place."


Launch loading passengers
at dock, copyright Glacier
National Park

Established in 1910, this was land of rare, untouched natural beauty sculpted by ice millions of years ago. Only three roads wind through the park's 1,600 square miles of alpine meadows, forests, rivers, waterfalls, and 200 sparkling lakes -- not to mention 50 small glaciers.

With gas-belching RVs restricted to paved terrain, local wildlife seem more at ease here. In fact, it's not uncommon to see elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, bald eagles, songbirds, and deer roaming freely. The park is so pristine, it has been designated one of seven "World Heritage" parks in the U.S.

Indeed, Glacier's a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. But you don't have to be an extreme athlete to enjoy it. You can eyeball the scenery from big picture windows at Many Glacier Hotel, from the bow of a small cruise boat, along short hiking trails over a mountain pass, or even from the windows of your car.

Roadside Wonders


Family of backpackers,
copyright Glacier National
Park

If you only have one day to tour the park, the drive along Going-to-the-Sun Road is a must. This paved, 52-mile-long National Historic Landmark through the heart of Glacier crosses the Continental Divide at 6,646-foot-high Logan Pass. You'll be treated to breath-taking scenery -- roaring creeks, dark green forests, glacial lakes, windswept alpine tundra, and near-vertical mountain faces -- every mile of the way.

Prepare to make plenty of stops for photo ops. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Lake McDonald. From the west, the road follows the shore of this 10-mile-long lake, the largest in the park. Behind it are the sheer, snow-topped peaks (even in August) of the park's highest mountains.
  • McDonald Creek. Shortly after the road passes historic Lake McDonald Lodge, you'll begin climbing alongside McDonald Creek, a beautiful, frothy jumble of cascading water, rocks, and the occasional still pool.
  • The Loop. At Mile 24, the road makes a sharp turn to the right and literally clings to a sheer mountainside with a vertical drop of thousands of feet on one side. Roll up the car windows as you pass the Weeping Wall, a gushing waterfall that spills onto the road.
  • Logan Pass. You've gained 3,500 feet in elevation when you reach this dramatic alpine setting at Mile 32. Stop at the visitor center and follow the boardwalk to Hidden Lake Overlook. Along the way, you'll cross the Hanging Gardens, an area filled with lush meadows of wildflowers and surrounded by jagged peaks.
  • Jackson Glacier Overlook. Stop at Mile 36 to get the best view of a glacier.
  • Sunrift Gorge. A spectacular view of a water-carved gorge is just 75 feet from the Mile 39 pullout. Look for water ouzels in the creek; this slate-gray bird is often sighted along rushing streams as it forages for aquatic insects.

Other popular and highly scenic drives include the road along Lake Sherburne to Many Glacier, and the road to Two Medicine Valley, offering some of the most dazzling colors of rock and foliage in the park.

Beyond the Pavement


Gone fishing, copyright
Glacier National Park

Want to learn more about this remarkable park? Take a ranger hike. Several times a day, during the high season, the park's custodians lead simple strolls, easy half-day hikes, or vigorous all-day outings.

At night, major campgrounds run programs on history, geology, bears, and other topics. Also, slide programs are presented each evening at Fish Creek Campground, St. Mary Visitor Center, Lake McDonald Lodge, and Many Glacier Hotel. Pick up a copy of "Nature with a Naturalist" for a schedule of all ranger-led activities.

  • Hiking. Some 730 miles of trails range from wheelchair accessible Trail of the Cedars to rugged treks for experienced hikers only. Huckleberry Mountain, Hidden Lake, Sun Point, Running Eagle Falls, and Swiftcurrent nature trails are easy strolls that encourage family members to experience Glacier at their own pace.
  • Guided boat tours. Soak up the park's beauty from the deck of a boat chugging along Lake McDonald, St. Mary, Two Medicine, Swiftcurrent, and Josephine. One-hour, ranger-led tours operate in the high season.
  • River rafting. River rats should head to the Middle Fork and North Fork of the Flathead River. The Middle Fork contains some excellent white water suitable for all but the youngest children. Guided trips are typically two to three hours. The North Fork offers both fast and calm water, making it popular with all-day sightseeing tours along Glacier's Livingston Mountain Range.
  • Fishing. Five kinds of trout, whitefish, kokanee salmon, and Arctic grayling can be found in the park's lakes, rivers, and streams. All bull trout must be immediately released. A fishing license is not necessary but anglers should be familiar with park regulations and limits, available at any visitor center. You can bring your own gear or rent it at Lake McDonald, Apgar, Many Glacier, Cameron Lake, and St. Mary Lake.
  • Horseback rides. Outfitters offer guided rides, lasting anywhere from one hour to a full day, at the gateway towns of West Glacier and East Glacier.

A Few Words About Wildlife

Throughout the park, you'll see ground squirrels, marmots, deer, bald eagles, jays, ravens, and countless songbirds. Logan Pass and the Goat Lick turnout along Hwy 2 on Glacier's southern border are popular spots for mountain goats. Many Glacier Valley is home to bighorn sheep. And Two Dog Flats near St. Mary Lake and the forests around West Glacier are prime elk habitat.

Grizzly and black bears are a real and present danger throughout the park, especially on hiking trails and in campgrounds. Local shops are well outfitted with pepper spray and "bear bells," loud, metallic bells that can be tied to a piece of clothing. Make sure everyone in the family reads and follows the bear safety tips offered in park brochures.

Dashboard

Type of trip: Outdoor adventure, scenic drive

Best ages: 9 and up

Ideal trip length: 1-2 days, not including drive time from nearest cities.

Distance: Kalispell, MT (31 miles); Missoula, MT (136 miles); Bozeman, MT (312 miles)

Best time to go: Mid-June through September. Most of the park is snow-bound from late October through early April. Going-to-the-Sun Road opens sometime between late May and late June, once the road is plowed. The road generally closes the Monday after the third Sunday in October.

Weather: 80/45 degrees July and August (10-15 degrees cooler at higher elevations); 70/40 late May, all of June and early September; 55/30 late September and early October. The park shuts down November through March, though lower elevations remain open to cross-country skiing.

Squirm factor: None in the park; but you might get some during long drives to and from the park.

If You Go . . .


Highline Trail,
copyright Glacier
National Park

Glacier National Park Phone: 406-888-7800

 

Peaks reflected in
Sherburne Reservoir,
copyright Glacier
National Park

Glacier Lodging Reservations Phone: 406-756-2444 Note: Besides camping, Glacier has four lodges and three "motor inns." They are: Glacier Park Lodge, Many Glacier Hotel, Lake McDonald Lodge, Apgar Village Lodge, Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, Rising Sun Motor Inn, and Village Inn.

 

Boat tours Phone: 406-257-2426

River rafting Note: All rafting companies operate out of West Glacier.

Horseback riding Phone:406-732-4203 (in season) or 928-684-2328 (out of season)

Glacier Country Phone: 800-338-5072

 

Travel Montana

 

Side Trips

Big Stuff in Bigfork

About 30 miles southwest of the park, at the confluence of the Swan River and Flathead Lake, this exceptionally lovely resort town is bursting with art galleries, good restaurants, boutiques, and a fine little theater. The Bigfork Summer Playhouse (Call 406-837-4886 for more information) mounts classic Broadway musicals (check for schedules). Holidays are a big deal here, too. There's the cherry blossom festival, a whitewater festival, the playhouse's opening night on July 4th, and the Festival of Arts.

The Inside Scoop

Favorite local spots:

  • West shore of Lake McDonald. This flat, little-known trail starts at the Fish Creek Campground just outside Apgar and follows the shoreline. Take it as long as you wish and return the way you came.
  • Waterton Lakes National Park. This much-smaller Canadian park abuts Glacier Park north of the border. It offers the same spectacular scenery with a fraction of the people.

Best souvenir: Locally grown, wild blue huckleberry right off the vine. The berries taste even better as jam, preserves, or syrup. Buy a jar or two from any local gift shop. Once home, revive memories of your trip by eating it over vanilla ice cream.

Annual events: Nearby towns of Whitefish, Bigfork, and Kalispell each host a bang-up July 4th celebration, complete with parades, carnivals, fireworks, and other special events.

Traffic alert: Going-to-the-Sun Road is one of Glacier's most scenic and popular attractions -- and it seems as if every RV in the country drives it during July and August. Head out before the late-morning to mid-afternoon crush. And beware of restrictions on larger vehicles: The total length of your RV, including anything towed, cannot exceed 21 feet long or 8 feet wide, including rearview mirrors and bumpers.

Reviewed April 2004.

shim