Glacier National Park, in northeastern Montana, isn’t just a jewel, it’s an entire crown.
It’s part of the “Crown of the Continent,” 28,000 square miles of wild, rugged Rocky Mountain terrain encompassing the corners of Alberta, British Columbia, and Montana. Its sister park, Waterton Lakes National Park, sits just across the border in Canada. In addition to these two national parks, the Crown of the Continent has several national forests and Indian Reservations and numerous Montana state and Canadian provincial parks.
We spent two nights in Glacier, a woefully inadequate amount of time, but we made the most of it. Here’s a little bit about our stay:
About Glacier National Park
There are 13 established campgrounds in Glacier, some more primitive than others, with over 1000 campsites total. That might sound like a lot, but it’s an incredibly popular park and the spots fill up fast. We arrived at the entrance around 10:30, and by that time a line of cars had already formed and half the campgrounds were full; fortunately, we secured a site in Apgar, the largest campground in the park and one of its most popular.
In addition to campgrounds, there are ten lodges, and all of the main park centers have shops, restaurants, and places where you can rent bikes, boats, and other outdoor equipment. There are also boat and bus tours.
About the glaciers
The Rocky Mountains were formed approximately 170 million years ago, the resulting upheaval of shifting tectonic plates. The park’s mountains were then carved up by enormous Ice Age glaciers that scraped away the rock, creating deep valleys and striking rock formations. We saw evidence of the glaciers’ handiwork everywhere—in the deep U-shaped valleys called cirques, sharp ridges called arêtes, toothlike horns, and large piles of rocks left by the forward movement and scraping action of the glaciers, called moraines.
There are 12 large lakes within the park and 700 smaller ones, and many of them are deep, water-filled cirques. The largest one, Lake McDonald, which was adjacent to our campground, is 9.4 miles in length, covers 6823 acres, and is 464 feet deep (the deepest lake in the park).
These mountains are also geologically significant: the rocks at Glacier contain evidence of some of the oldest life on earth. When these life forms were discovered, it demonstrated for the first time that life has existed on the planet for at least a billion years.
What we did in Glacier National Park
One of the main attractions is the scenic drive called Going-to-the-Sun Road, which traverses about 50 miles from the east border to the west. There are also hundreds of miles of hiking trails. Some, as short as a mile, take hikers along paved paths through enrichment centers; others traverse the rugged backcountry away from park infrastructure. I had chosen a hike to Avalanche Lake for our first day there, but since the park was packed and the hike was overly crowded, we drove Going-to-the-Sun instead and were rewarded with sweeping views of the mountains and lakes.
We drove to the opposite side of the park to Many Glacier, a much less utilized area, and did a short but beautiful hike to Redrock Lake and Falls.
The next day we got up early and hiked the Avalanche Lake trail, one of the most popular hikes in the park, and I can see why. It’s about 6 miles round trip if you go all the way to the end of the trail. The path first took us along a narrow gorge carved into the red rocks by a rushing river.
We then hiked through forest before finally reaching the lake. If you happen to go to Glacier and do this hike, go all the way to the end of the trail. The first entrance to the lake took us to a wide beach that was very busy, and the view of the lake was not spectacular. You have to follow the trail along the edge of the water to truly see it. The color was turquoise and the surface, glass-like, reflecting the sharp-horned mountains in the distance.
It was like a lagoon, except the water was probably less than 40 degrees F. An alpine lagoon, if there is such a thing. The trail ended at a much more isolated beach that gave us views of the glacier-melt waterfalls gliding down the mountains. These then turn into streams that feed the lake.
As we approached the end of the trail, hikers leaving the beach told us that a bear cub was on the beach eating berries, apparently oblivious to the gawking humans. There had been no sign of mama. By the time we reached the lake, the bear was gone, but we kept an eye on the dense foliage behind us for our entire time there.
We sat on the shore for over an hour, meditating, snacking, absorbing the view, and throwing pebbles in the water; the ripples that formed across the surface of the clear water mesmerized us. It was one of the most peaceful experiences we’ve had in a long time, and we started our return hike feeling completely full.
The state of Glacier Park’s glaciers
Every week, the park park rangers hold talks and guided walks, and Dale went to one given by Ranger Teagan, a geologist who had been with the park for nine years. She talked about the geology of the park as well as the disappearance of its namesake glaciers. The news is grim. In 1850, about 150 glaciers could be found in the park; only 25 now remain. If climate change continues at its current pace, all of the park’s glaciers will be gone by 2030. Glacial melt is a significant water source not just for the park but for the entire region, and the absence of glaciers will affect the area in dramatic ways, potentially changing the entire ecosystem. As one information sign in the park put it: “The park may look different on your next visit.”
We didn’t see any bears, but we saw mountain goats, a mother and baby, lazily grazing on the side of a mountain. The baby was nothing but a little ball of fur. Adorable!
Of course we were always mindful of the fact that we were in bear country, and we carried our bear spray everywhere. It was probably unnecessary; there were so many people in the park that I’m certain the bears didn’t want to be within 50 miles of such raucous, smelly creatures. Teagan said that bear activity is closely monitored by park staff.
Sadly, when a bear becomes accustomed to eating human food, it usually has to be put down. Relocation is typically not successful; the bear just finds its way back, and other parks don’t want problem bears, so they can’t be transferred to Yellowstone or Yosemite. So basically, the saying holds true: a fed bear is a dead bear. (This goes for other predators, as well). That’s why it’s so important for us humans to to be careful with how we store our food when outdoors. Usually, it’s the wild animals that suffer from too much human interaction.
Glacier National Park is a wonder, a treasure, a jewel. We enjoyed our time there so much. It filled us with awe and reminded us just how very precious our natural resources are. August 25 was the National Park Service’s 100th birthday, and I am grateful that, a century ago, the United States government started the practice of setting aside extraordinary lands for perpetual preservation. It is truly remarkable that Glacier and 58 other national parks (as well as almost 400 national monuments and historic sites) are in our backyard and accessible to us all. It may be the Park Service’s birthday, but the gift is for all of us.
If you have the opportunity to visit Glacier National Park, do it. Soon. There’s something for everyone, from hardcore backpackers to people who mainly want scenic drives and comfortable accommodations. Plus there’s a lot to see in the area, including interesting cities, historic sites, and several Indian Reservations. The park has a very short open season because of weather, so know that it will be busy no matter when you go, and if you want to make reservations, you should do so months in advance. A large number of campsites are first-come, first-serve, but show up early if this is your plan, because the campgrounds fill up fast. And if you’re interested in backcountry hiking permits, registration starts in January. The process is very competitive and based on a lottery system, so again, plan ahead.
When looking for online resources, I found the Chimani iPhone app. It was incredibly helpful, especially during times when we didn’t have cell service. It’s sponsored by Subaru and therefore free. There were Chimani apps for other national parks as well, so I would check them out if you plan to visit a park.
Finally, a little more about climate change. It’s real, and there’s no clearer evidence of it than the fact that the glaciers are disappearing. Park Ranger Teagan pointed out that climate change has always been a part of earth’s history, with periods of cooling and warming, as well as ice ages. Humans aren’t necessarily causing our current climate change, but we are contributing to and accelerating it. But we can also affect it in a positive manner. She said one of the easiest ways to reduce our footprint is to stop using plastic bags and stop buying bottled water. Plastic is the bane of our existence; it’s choking our oceans, killing animals, and filling landfills. And it takes more water to make a bottle than it actually holds. If you have a habit of using plastic, consider dumping it!