Spring can come slowly in the national parks in the Rocky Mountains, as evidenced by the many weeks it takes to open Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park and Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. And that slow transition of seasons requires you to keep your wits about you if visiting the parks in this season.
What follows are tips from Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow, but most could also be applied to visitors going to Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, or Rocky Mountain National Park.
'Visitors are encouraged to plan ahead and prepare for a visit to the park this spring. Visitors may encounter snow, cold and swift-running waters and changing weather conditions, as well as spectacular vistas and wildlife viewing opportunities," says Superintendent Mow.
Snow accumulations across the park are above average and there is still much snow at the higher elevations and locations on the east side of the park. Many areas in the park are prone to avalanches and snow slides, so caution should be used in these areas, including along the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
As the snow begins to melt, the rivers and streams begin to fill. The water is extremely cold and fast moving. Use caution when crossing or stepping near bodies of water, and be alert to areas with snow as thin snow bridges can be hazardous. Listen for muffled sound of running water under snow, moats, and avoid stepping onto snow cornices. River users should be cautious of avalanche debris along and in the rivers, and always wear a life jacket when boating.
Hikers and climbers visiting some of the higher elevations in the park should expect snow and ice, and be prepared for changing weather conditions. It is important to know the terrain you are about to hike or climb, and carry the appropriate equipment. When hiking may include snowfield travel, visitors should know how to travel in such challenging conditions, including knowing how to use crampons, ice axe and appropriate avalanche gear.
Layers of clothing, extra clothing and appropriate footwear are encouraged, as well as water, snacks and a map. It is a good idea to have a first-aid kit available, and always communicate to someone your planned route of travel and your expected time of return.
Since the park is home to black and grizzly bears, park visitors should be alert for spring bear activity and be familiar with responsible actions to maintain human and bear safety. Recreational visitors to the park should travel in groups and make loud noise by calling out and/or clapping their hands at frequent intervals, especially near streams and at blind spots and curves on trails. These actions will help avoid surprise encounters. Anyone recreating in bear country is highly encouraged to have bear spray. The bear spray should be readily accessible and the user should have knowledge on how to use it. Do not approach any wildlife; instead, use binoculars, telescopes, or telephoto lenses to get closer looks. Visitors are required to keep a distance of at least 100 yards from bears and wolves, and 25 yards from any other wildlife including nesting birds. Visitors should report any bear sightings or signs of bear activity to the nearest visitor center, ranger station or by calling 406-888-7800. For more information about bears and how to recreate safely in Glacier National Park, visit http://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/bears.htm.
Snow plowing activities on the Going-to-the-Sun Road continue with the west-side road crew working near the Haystack area located about five miles from Logan Pass. The east-side crew is near the Jackson Glacier Overlook. For updates and images of plowing activities visit http://home.nps.gov/applications/glac/gttsroadplow/gttsroadplowstatus.cfm.
Currently, about 17 miles of the Going-to-the-Sun Road are open to vehicle travel. Visitors can drive 16 miles from the West Entrance to Avalanche, and about one mile from the St. Mary Entrance to the campground area. Road rehabilitation work is taking place on the east side, with slump repairs near the foot of St. Mary Lake.
Visitors can hike or bicycle on the west side of the Going-to-the-Sun Road beyond vehicle closures. There is no hiker-biker access on the east side due to heavy truck traffic related to road rehabilitation. Pets are prohibited on trails, and on park roads that are closed to vehicle use.
In Glacier, the Camas Road, Many Glacier Road, and Two Medicine Road are open to motorized travel. For more information about hiker-biker access and road status, visit the park's webpage.
While Rocky Mountain National Park doesn't have any grizzlies that we know about, there are black bears there, so be alert for them. In the four parks, be alert for snowplows and other heavy equipment on park roads as well as areas of ice, slush, avalanche zones and fallen rock. Additionally, spring storms can cause hazardous driving conditions and temporary road closures, please drive with care.