Buried in the Southern Rockies of Montana, Glacier National Park is so much more than just a park. Over a million acres of Rocky Mountain range, a three way continental divide, four forest biomes each with unique ecosystems, it’s a world heritage site, the first international peace park, it houses one of the largest populations of black and grizzly bears in the world, and of course it’s home to some of the few remaining glaciers in North America. The park itself is over one hundred years old, and sadly, only a fraction of it’s glaciers still remain. Global warming has taken a toll on this magnificent landscape, which, at the time of it’s founding, had almost one hundred and fifty active glaciers. Now it has only twenty five. Even so, travelling through Glacier National was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life, and it’s status as one of the top rated National Parks in America is beyond well deserved.
I could talk about the technical details pertaining to the park for days. How a peak resting on the continental divide just south of Logan’s pass can determine whether a single drop of rain becomes part of the Columbia, Mississippi, or Saskatchewan river systems simply depending on a few inches of difference. How the four biomes of the Northern Rockies, Southern Rockies, Pacific Northwest and Great Plains all meet in the center of the park, giving it one of the most diverse collections of plant and animal life to be found anywhere in the country. How it offers hope of recovery for endangered species of bear, water fowl, and rare insects. Or even how it’s shrinking glaciers tell a tale of our impact on the natural world, and serve as a warning to all of us. But I won’t. You can find that online, or in a book, or a documentary, or even a magazine.
Instead, I’m going to tell you about how mind-bendlingly amazing it is, how a drive through the park can literally change your life, creating a scene you will undoubtedly remember for the rest of your life. Even without the glaciers, the park still possesses some of the most breathtaking scenery I have ever had the good fortune to lay eyes on, it’s peaks and valleys painting a picture of cataclysmic force, whilst maintaining a sense of calm and serenity that can only be found here in the National Parks. Our journey into the park started out near the west entrance, leading towards the famous “Going to the sun road”. By far the most popular attraction in the park, the roughly fifty mile road takes you almost seven thousand feet into the air, winding along the peaks of the Southern Rockies and through the valleys below. Unlike other mountain ranges which arose purely due to tectonic forces, pushed up from the ground over millions of years, the mountains in Glacier were carved out of the ground like a massive sculpture, their slopes and valleys infinitely more dramatic than can be described in words. The force of trillions of tons of ice, slowly crushing its way through the pre-existing Rockies formed a landscape unlike any other, and it’s been preserved that way ever since.
As you first enter the road, you will become eclipsed on either side by the towering Rocky mountains, which dwarf the Sierras and make the Tetons look like the work of a child in a sandbox. Their peaks effortlessly piercing the sky, it’s almost as if the clouds have given up fighting them, and are content to exist in harmony, floating listlessly around the mountain tops, hiding the true glory of the mountains from view. Much of the time, as you look up from the valley roads towards the sheer faces of rock, all you can see is a grey haze of heavy fog, which on rare occasion will slide away to reveal an extra thousand feet of mountain previously obscured from vision. It’s almost impossible to get a true scale of their size from the ground below, you have to strain to see what you believe to be the peak, until you catch a glimpse of stone from behind a passing cloud only to realize that what you’re seeing is actually no more than halfway up, the true peak almost taunting you to travel further upwards, to know it as it knows the heavens.
The mountains themselves are covered in the same dense coniferous rainforest that blankets the land throughout much of the park. The trees fight desperately for ground, claiming all that they can before meeting their match as the mountains outreach them, the sheer lines of rock forming bands of grey against the constant field of lush green foliage. Rivers, lakes, and waterfalls populate the valleys, a product of the rain and snowmelt flowing from the high ground on it’s odyssey towards the ocean. Many of the rivers have picked up so much speed on their downward journey that they form vicious rapids in the lowlands, the crystal clear water flowing over everything in it’s path at savage speeds. As you near the start of the incline towards the Logan’s pass center, you will pass a smattering of lakes unlike any you can find outside of the sheltered Rocky Mountain ecosystem. Their waters are a brilliant blue in the shallows, transitioning in hue as the depth rises and falls with the sculpted ground they cover. The occasional tour boat can be seen out on the lake lining the early section of the road, it’s massive hull appearing no bigger than a speck against the gargantuan backdrop rising up all around it.
After the trip through the first third of the road, which travels mostly at ground level through the valleys, you may find yourself thinking that the views literally could not be any more amazing. You’d be wrong, as they are about to improve tenfold. With the end of the valleys comes the beginning of the mountains, as the road begins to rise some seven thousand feet off the ground and into the clouds. Much like any other national park with such scenic views to be found just off the road, “Going to the sun” comes equipped with an ample supply of pulls offs and vistas, turning what could be an hour long drive into literally a full day’s worth of sightseeing. Every new corner presents an even more impressive view, looking back as you travel along the twenty five mile stretch of road which straddles the very top of the mountains you can see ever increasing tunnel views; essentially gazing backwards into each new stretch of valley you pass over, adding to the miles and miles of scenery that can be seen stretching out back along the path. Occasionally you can catch a glimpse of sun from inbetween the mountains, illuminating the forests below a golden yellow, and glancing off the massive sheets of ice like a great mirror in the sky. The road is as breathtaking as it is treacherous, often times leaving no more than a single foot between you and a drop of a few thousand feet. This can be especially tricky to deal with as it’s more than difficult to keep your eyes on the road when presented with such grandeur, but with parking spots lining much of the road most of the better views can be seen without too much hassle. Even if you have to wait for a spot, which is highly likely, it shouldn’t prove too much of a nuisance for anyone, as nobody is really in a hurry to leave, and personally we appreciated the stoppage as it gave us time to take in some of the more taxing view points.
Do note that the trip up the mountains can only be taken in a vehicle shorter than twenty two feet, as anything longer is restricted due to an incredibly sharp hairpin turn known as “the loop”, about halfway through the journey. If you are coming in an RV or larger vehicle, park at the visitor centers near the base of the mountains, and take one of the many tour buses that travel constantly back and forth along the length of the road. Also something worth mentioning is the fact that the Logan’s Pass visitor center is almost always packed to the gills. A constant stream of cars circle through the parking lot at what is essentially a basecamp in the clouds, serving as the starting point for many of the park’s more scenic trailheads. It took us nearly twenty minutes to snake into a spot, and we got lucky. If you are dead set on taking one of the trails leading down from the center, but can’t find a spot, it’s also possible to park at one of the larger vistas which can be found relatively close to the pass and hike up the road from there. However this option should only be taken as a last resort, seeing as much of the road is comprised of blind turns and tight straightaways, with very little room for pedestrian travel.
After leaving the visitor center, which is the second of three to be found along the road itself, you will come to one of the few overlooks where a glacier can be seen from within the relative safety of a vehicle. The Jackson glacier. One of the smaller glaciers in the park, it’s still quite a sight, and though parking along the overlook is usually full, it’s more than worth the wait to see. As most of the park’s glaciers rest much higher in the mountains, far to the north and south of the road, Jackson glacier is one of the most popular spots in the park, providing the most accessible views of the great ice sheets anywhere in the country. The remnants of a force which once molded the very mountains to it’s will, Jackson glacier now resembles a single spot of perpetual winter, resting neatly inbetween two mountains just south of the road itself. Covering almost a mile of mountain terrain, the glacier casts a stark contrast with the barren rock on which it sits, it’s recession so gradual that life still hasn’t had a chance to reclaim the land it once lost to this unstoppable sheet of ice. Jackson Glacier also marks the beginning of the descent back into the valleys below, it’s overlook positioned roughly at the two-thirds mark along the road.
After coming down from the “Going to the sun” road, I would highly recommend that you tackle one of the hundreds of trails offered up by the park. Many can be quite time consuming if you wish to complete them fully, with actual basecamps positioned in strategic points, allowing experienced hikers and climbers to spend weeks out in the wilderness tackling some of the most beautiful and rugged terrain our country has at it’s disposal. That being said, the trails can be enjoyed no matter how much time you have to spend, as long as you keep track of time there’s no reason you need to see them to the very end. Almost every trail has an immense array of attractions dotted across it, many within just a mile or two of the trailhead, the treks varying in difficulty from a simple jaunt in the forest to a grueling hike up into the mountains. No matter where you go however, be sure to bring bear mace, as Glacier National is home to one of the largest bear populations in the hemisphere.
We decided to hike out from the basecamp at Many Glaciers, a point which can be reached by exiting the park from the “Going to the sun” road, then doubling back onto the park at the town of Babb, heading east until you find yourself nestled comfortably back amongst the snowy mountains. We set out west towards the Salamander glacier along on of the many trails stemming from Many Glacier, and it wasn’t even twenty minutes before we had an encounter with a bear. As we walked down the heavily forested path, a passerby warned us that a bear had been spotted not far from this location, and that he was most likely still in the area. Sure enough, not but a minute later we spotted him, a young black bear perhaps fifteen feet away from us, just down the hill from where we were standing. Most bear encounters are non-threatening, most instances of fatalities being when a full grown male is on a hunt, or you encounter a mother with cubs. Even then these encounters can turn out for the better if you follow proper precautions, which include making a lot of noise and increasing your size as much as you can. A bear won’t pick a fight it doesn’t think it can win, and most are easily scared off without much trouble at all. Even so, all wildlife, bears especially, can prove dangerous given certain conditions, and it’s much better to come prepared than to end up facing down a grizzly in the middle of nowhere. That being said, much of the wildlife in the park can be viewed safely from a distance, and our three bear encounters that day proved quite rewarding, each time the bears seemed completely uninterested in human activity, quite content to go about their daily lives as we hurriedly snapped as much footage as we could.
As per usual, I could go on talking the park and our experiences for hours and hours, but I’d hate to wear thin on any of our readers out there. The goal has always been to inspire you to take off for yourself, to find adventure just as we have, and to experience the wonder of our world first hand. In my opinion, there’s no better place to do that than Glacier National. It offers more than any other park I’ve ever been to, Yellowstone included. The raw power exuded by the landscape puts all else to shame, whilst still being able to offer countless places to simply get lost in nature and just enjoy life. Though it may be a little less tourist friendly than others, being geared primarily towards serious hiking, climbing, and camping, the views from a car are still more than worth whatever journey it takes to get there. The rivers, mountains, waterfalls, and wildlife all culminate in one of the most awe inspiring experiences you could ever hope for, and it’s sad to say that the glaciers housed within it won’t last very much longer. It’s truly a privilege to see them, and an honor to have walked among them, but most of all, visiting has inspired me and so many others, to try and protect them. It may not seem like much, but donations and simple awareness are what help keep this park alive, and just as it sustains some of the most endangered mammals in our hemisphere, so must we help sustain the park. After all, we’ve done it for over one hundred years, surely we can go on hundred more.