Park History: Glacier National Park

Avalanche Gorge photo copyright Jane Timmerman.

One of the prettiest hikes in Glacier is to Avalanche Lake. The trail heads past this gorge the glacially-charged Avalanche Creek has cut down through time. Photo by Jane Timmerman.

I am in a small gaggle of tourists busily training our armament of camera lenses on goateed mountain goats as they graze contentedly on the wildflower-strewn emerald slopes that rise above Logan Pass in Glacier National Park.

The goats are so close and nonchalant they could be models strutting a runway. Pikas, furry rodents obviously jealous of our focus, keep up their shrill barking to distract us, while towering overhead are the cirques, glacial horns and snowfields that most often come to mind when Glacier is mentioned. Nevertheless, we fill our cameras with goats. There always will be time for scenery, but who knows what schedule the goats follow?

Not that it matters. There’s no loss in trading scenery for goats or vice versa in Glacier, a million-acre-plus park in northwestern Montana nudged up hard against the Canadian border. Weaving through this landscape are more than 700 miles of hiking trails that lead to backcountry lakes, streams, and, of course, glaciers. Also roaming this backcountry are some of the richest wildlife resources you'll find in the Lower 48 -- grizzly bears, wolves, wolverines, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, moose, deer and much, much more. Indeed, Glacier is a vital cog in the so-called Yellowstone-to-Yukon wildlife corridor that is necessary to ensure that wildlife in the parks, forests, and preserves that dot the Rocky Mountains do not become genetically isolated islands.

Though the park's glaciers are retreating — some scientists predict that, with current conditions, they could be gone in less than 20 years — their absence won’t make the park any less alluring, for its pristine lakes and forests and crags and wildlife are a breathtaking throwback to pre-colonial days.

Designated a national park on May 11, 1910, almost two decades after the Great Northern Railway brought its tracks and trains across the relatively low 5,220-foot Marias Pass just below Glacier’s southern boundary, Glacier tosses more ruggedness at you than just about any other park in the Lower 48. You can see that from atop 6,664-foot Logan Pass. The Going-to-the-Sun Road climbs up to, across, and down the pass. It’s narrow, and in places precipitous, in a constant state of repair due to the ravages of the freeze-thaw cycle. And it can be a viscous cycle year-round, as evidenced by the 8 inches of snow that fell on the park's high country one not-so-fine summer day in August 2005. To combat these ravages of time and nature park officials have launched an ambitious rebuilding program intended to gain the upper hand on both the mountainous terrain and the climate.

It wasn't always clear that the nicknamed Sun Road would run from West Glacier, up to and over Logan Pass, and down to St. Mary on the eastern side of the park. Early on there were debates over the best routing of a cross-park road, with some wanting it to run from Apgar to Many Glacier, others wanting it to run all the way to Waterton Lake in British Columbia, and others still arguing for it to go by Gunsight Pass. In the end the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads decided the current route made the most sense.

Logan Pass, the apex of the Sun Road, is pinched tightly between Clements Mountain and the southern tip of the Garden Wall, a massive rib of rock that carries the Continental Divide through the park’s interior. From this saddle the pass sends Reynolds Creek and Logan Creek in opposite directions as their waters cascade down massive U-shaped valleys scooped out during the park’s glaciated past. Farther north are the bulk of the park’s glaciers — thick sheets of ice named “Ipasha,” “Old Sun,” “Grinnell,” “Swiftcurrent,” “Thunderbird” and “Rainbow” — while to the south stands a maze of mountains, valleys, meadows and backcountry lakes that it would take a lifetime to know.

Many park visitors motor up to the pass aboard a Red Jammer, one of Glacier’s renowned fire engine-red, open-air touring buses that debuted in 1937 and quickly gained their nickname for the way drivers “jammed” their way through the gears. Along the way, the tourists struggle to digest this complex landscape that the Blackfoot Nation — the park’s original human inhabitants — calls the “Shining Mountains” and the “Backbone of the World.”

Here Bird Woman Falls spills 492 feet to Logan Creek, over there on the western horizon, ponderous Heavens Peak shimmers under streaks of its permanent snowfield, here’s a meadow of Beargrass and Glacier lilies. Weeping Wall showers west-bound Jammers with icy snowmelt, while the Highline Trail shuttles hikers, and the ubiquitous goats, 7.6 miles into the backcountry and the Granite Park Chalet, a rustic stone-built shelter that’s a throwback to the 1910s when pack horses hauled visitors across the park.

So massive is the park that it’s both a sin and a miracle that only the Sun Road slices entirely through the interior. A few shorter roads jog briefly into Glacier, but they are mainly the domain of locals who know best how to vanish into the landscape. Those Glacier visitors who only negotiate the Sun Road before heading elsewhere gain just a small sense of the park, with its many lakes and more than 700 miles of backcountry trails. To explore other areas of the park, you need to abandon the Sun Road and take more circuitous routes that trace the park’s exterior before snaking along two-lane roads that make brief forays into the interior. I find one such route at Babb, north of St. Mary. Here the simply named “Glacier Route Three” leads me 12 miles west back into the park to Many Glacier with its magnificent four-story lodge set along the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake.

Opened in 1915, the Swiss alpine-themed Many Glacier Hotel is ringed by craggy mountains. Though the rooms are small, cramped and desperately in need of renovation, the lodge still is a great base for wilderness forays, day hikes and paddles across the lake. Down at the dock, I find a scenic cruise is ready to embark on a trip across Swiftcurrent Lake, while a family launches a canoe and kayak into the water. On the far shore, a bull moose is knee-deep in water, taking his morning breakfast from the lakebed vegetation. I gaze at the surrounding mountains, longing to see more of this wondrous landscape. But the rest of Glacier is too expansive to fully sample in one week. Rather, like a rich chocolate mousse cake, the park is to be taken a slice at a time and savored.

And if you want to round out your vacation with some international flare, from Many Glacier you can continue on north on Montana 6 into Alberta and Canada's Waterton Lakes National Park. In 1932 Glacier and Waterton Lakes figuratively tied the international knot and launched a new frontier in national park cooperation by uniting as Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. Since that first Peace Park was designated, more than 135 others have joined the ranks. Their mission? Bringing together people not just to protect their shared heritage but to pursue opportunities for finding peace.

There is so much beauty in these two parks that it can hide the threats to this paradise. While proposed mining operations in British Columbia just north of Glacier (and just west of Waterton Lakes) could jeopardize wildlife migratory routes and sully the pristine headwaters of the Flathead River that flows along Glacier’s western boundary, the loss of the park’s namesake glaciers to climate change could drastically alter the ecosystem by changing runoff patterns, vegetation, and wildlife itself.

While we seemingly can't change the weather, efforts have been launched to protect Glacier from mining in British Columbia. Whether they are successful remains to be seen.

For now we can relish in this Crown of the Continent, its wildlife, and the escape it offers from the daily rigors of life. Your most difficult task in visiting Glacier, after driving the Sun Road, of course, is whether to head to Many Glacier, Two Medicine, or one of the park's many campgrounds. In truth, you really can't go wrong with any of these choices.