At the top of Montana -- hard against the
Canadian border -- sits what pioneer conservationist
George Grinnell called "The Crown of the Continent." Two
national parks form this crown, Glacier in Montana and
Waterton Lakes in Alberta, Canada. Together, they form
the Waterton/Glacier Peace Park. Glacier Park itself was
created by an act of Congress in 1910. 4,000 visitors
came to the park in 1911. In recent years, visits have
been at the 2 million mark.
This is a region of such beauty that it is hard to
describe. Superb and magnificent are only two of the
possible adjectives for this corner of the world. There
are high mountains, many active glaciers, clear lakes,
rushing mountain streams, waterfalls and abundant
Glacier National Park covers more than three million
acres of mountainous country. It has 700 miles of walking
and hiking trails, 11 campgrounds which are used by car
travelers (only one is not suitable for trailers) and six
hotels and lodges within the park. There is also a hotel
at Waterton, on the Canadian side. A long-standing
tradition in Glacier Park is the scenic tour using red
1936 coaches with roll-back tops.
As you might imagine, the landscape of Glacier
National Park has been much affected by the action of
glaciers over several million years. The most spectacular
of the mountain peaks have been exposed by continual
glacial action and erosion. In many places along the Going to the Sun Road, you can see exposed layers
of sedimentary rock. Volcanic action deposited lava
fields to form a black band atop the limestone layers
which were then covered with thin layers of more
limestone and siltstone. The final adjustment to the
topography came several thousand years ago when huge
slabs of earth moved as much as 30 miles eastward.
Most of the glaciers in the park are shrinking,
causing meltwater to run down the mountain slopes,
depositing silt in the lakes, giving them a blue/green
color. Glacial erratics, the large rocks carried along by
advancing glaciers, have created several hanging valleys
in the park which appear as large terraces in the
mountains, some of them connected by waterfalls. The Glacier Natural History Association has published a
series of books which not only tell the geological story
of the park but provide detailed field guides to the
interior of the park, the trails and plant life. These
books, along with detailed topographical maps and other
booklets, are available in the main information centers.
Leading through the middle of Glacier National Park,
Going To the Sun Road provides a spectacular route by
which to begin to explore the park. Completed in the
1930s, this road has opened the wilderness to everyone,
at least during summer months, and provides 50 miles of
non-stop spectacle as you cross the park from west to
east, or vice-versa. There are vehicle restrictions on
this road. Vehicles longer than 21 feet or wider than
eight feet -- including mirrors -- are not permitted past
Avalanche Peak (on the west side), and Sun Point (on the
The park opens its entrance stations at St.
Marys and West Glacier around May 20th with
the Many Glacier Station opening a week later. Here are a
few of the highlights:
Walking through wildflower meadows brings visitors
close to many species of alpine and sub-alpine plants.
The east side of the park has plants which thrive in the
prairie landscape, including geraniums (red and white)
asters, Indian paintbrush and gaillardia. The more
mountainous western side has hardier species such as
heather, gentian, beargrass and glacier lily.
The animals of the park include mountain goats,
bighorn sheep, elk, wolves, whitetail and mule deer and
black bears. There is a bison herd on display in a
paddock in Waterton Lakes National Park. You may
see beaver in Waterton Park and, on the high rocky
slopes, there are marmots and pikas sunning themselves on
warm summer days. The bald eagle lives in both parks,
along with ptarmigan, osprey and the golden eagle.
There are 114 miles of backcountry trails leading
through the park interior. All backcountry hikers must
register with the park information center at St. Mary or
with the park headquarters. There are, however, more than
70 trails suitable for day-hiking and they are located
throughout the more accessible areas of the park,
particularly along the Going To The Sun Road. The St.
Mary Area on the eastern side of the park has a
number of trails which lead along St. Mary Lake, to St.
Mary Falls and Florence Falls and up the mountain on a
trail which leads past Siyeh Pass to Piegan Pass.
Two of these hikes, the Red Eagle Lake Trail (7.5 mi.) and the Beaver Pond Trail (1.2 mi.), begin at
the 1913 Ranger Station, near the St. Mary entrance
station. The Piegan Pass/Siyeh Pass trailhead is
on the Going to the Sun Road, 15 miles (24 KM) west of
St. Mary. The trailhead is signed and there is a pullout.
The trail passes through three different ecological zones
along sub-alpine meadows with views of several glaciers.
Siyeh Pass has an elevation of 8,240 feet (2,512 meters).
The Many Glacier area in the northeast corner of
Glacier Park has several interesting day-hikes including
the self-guided Swiftcurrent Lake Trail which
leads 2.4 MI (4 KM) from the south end of the Many
Glacier Hotel. The same trailhead also has a lake trail
leading to Grinnell Lake and the Grinnell
Glacier. This trail passes Josephine Lake and then
climbs 200 feet to Feather Plume Falls. The Glacier
Trail also uses the Josephine Lake Trail and then
branches off to the glacier. The hike is 5.4 miles (8.7
The Lake McDonald area at the western end of
the park features a trail along the northwest side of the
lake, from Lake McDonald Lodge to the Fish Creek
and the North Fork Road. This walk is 6.7 miles (11 KM). The Trail of the Cedars provides a shorter walk
(.8 mi., 1.3 KM) through a forest with trees more than
500 years old. It is a boardwalk trail which also gives
the option of continuing on another trail to Avalanche
Lake (another 2 miles, 3.3 KM). This trail winds
through Avalanche Gorge and climbs 500 feet (152 meters)
to the lake.
Near the Park
Those traveling to or from Glacier National Park
usually find themselves staying overnight in one of the
nearby towns. Kalispell and Columbia Falls are both less than an hour's drive south of the West
Glacier entrance and offer a selection of motels and
hotels for overnight stays. Kalispell (about a half-hour
from the park, Columbia is closer) is a large town with a
full range of visitor services including modern downtown
hotels, many motels, campgrounds, and a variety of
restaurants. Kalispell also seems to be the casino
capital of Montana.
The resort town of Whitefish is nearby, located five miles west of Columbia Falls.
This is a ski resort and during summer months, Whitefish
is renowned for its fishing and other outdoor pursuits. Bigfork, a delightful little
resort village on the eastern shore of Flathead Lake, is
a short drive from the West Glacier entrance.
There are communities which are closer to the park,
and lie just outside the park boundaries. These towns and
villages cater to park visitors with stores which sell
camping supplies and motels and campgrounds for those who
are not intending to stay inside the park. Near the park
headquarters, West Glacier has a lodge, several
small motels and an RV park with golf course. This is a
handy place to stay if you're about to enter the park at
the southern entrance and work your way through the park
on the Going To The Sun Road. There are four campgrounds
within three miles of the village.
For those driving outside the southern park boundary
on Highway 2 the Izaak Walton Inn is an historic
hotel with a wonderful ambience. During summer months
this hotel caters to travelers and during the winter it
is the center for what is probably the best cross-country
skiing in the nation. The inn is in the small community
of Essex, where there are also other
East Glacier is just outside the park border at
the southeast corner. Here is the historic Glacier
Park Lodge, built by the Great Northern Railroad for
park tourists and now operated as a summer lodge (see
below for reservations information). There are several
other places to stay in the East Glacier area including
the Bear Creek and Bison guest ranches, as well as
several motels and cabin operations. There are also
several campgrounds in the area, including one in
Browning, 10 miles west.
The village of St. Mary is at the eastern side
of the park, next to the park Visitor Center and the
eastern end of the Going To the Sun Road. St. Mary
Lodge is a large, modern motor hotel operation with a
restaurant, lounge and store. There are three
campgrounds, including a KOA.
Babb is the village at the junction of Highway
89 and Many Glacier Road. This community has three
motels. Only the Chief Mtn. Motel is open
year-round. The road into the park from Babb leads to the Many Glacier Hotel. There are three campgrounds in
Details of these lodgings are found below.
Staying in the Park
Of the seven car-campgrounds, only Sprague Creek
Campground is not suitable for trailers. The large
campgrounds at Apgar and St. Mary are near
the two main park entrances and are open year-round with
primitive camping outside of summer months. Many
Glacier and Two Medicine campgrounds have park
services during summer months and then are open as
primitive campsites until snow closes them. The
campgrounds at Bowman Lake, Cut Bank and Kintla Lake are reached by rough roads so large
RVs and trailer units are not advised to travel to these
sites. All campgrounds are operated on a first come,
first served basis. Private campgrounds are adjacent to
the park, near the major entrances including West Glacier
and St. Mary.
The authorized concessionaire for the park, Glacier
Park, Inc., operates several hotels, inns and lodges
inside the park. Because of the short season here
(usually early June to early-to-mid September),
accommodations fill up quickly and reservations are
generally required months in advance. Rates vary from
under $40 to more than $100. Other accommodations near
the park are as follows. Below are the hotels operated by
the concessionaire and others on the edge of the park as
well as in the neighboring Waterton Lakes National Park
Glacier Park Lodge, the original railway hotel
is an absolute gem, located at the southeast corner of
the park, about a half-hour from the St. Mary park gate.
This is a summer-only operation.
Lake McDonald Lodge, a hotel complex beside the
lake on the west side of the park, with lodge & motel
rooms and cabins.
Many Glacier Hotel, on the shore of
Swiftcurrent Lake, is the park's largest resort with more
than 200 rooms & suites.
Rising Sun Motor Inn, with rustic motel
accommodations, near St. Mary's Lake.
Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, in the center of the
park near Swiftcurrent Lake & the Many Glaciers
Hotel, with motel and cabin accommodations.
Prince of Wales Hotel, in Waterton Lakes
National Park (Alberta) is a deluxe hotel overlooking the
For information and reservations contact Glacier Park
Inc.: From the U.S.: (602) 248-6000, from Oct. to
mid-May; (406) 226-5551, from mid-May through September.
From Canada: (403) 236-3400, year-round
Two rustic high-mountain chalets can be reached only
by walking alpine trails. Granite Park Chalet and Sperry Chalet are historic mountain lodges, built
by Jim and Louis Hill of the Great Northern Railway
around 1914. Reservations for July & August are taken
only in writing to Belton Chalets, P.O. Box 188, West
Glacier, MT 59936.
Staying Near the Park
Izaak Walton Inn, PO Box 653, Essex MT 59916,
One of the most fascinating places to stay in the
Rockies, this inn was built in 1939 by the Great Northern
Railway to accommodate their service crews. Even today,
helper engines stand by to push the trains (15 to 20
freight trains daily, plus the Amtrak) over the
Continental Divide. Railway buffs understandably love
this place, and others may find themselves becoming train
enthusiasts. There is even a train caboose which sleeps
four available as part of the accommodations. Open all
year, in winter the inn is a renowned cross-country ski
center ($ to $$).
Apgar Village Lodge, West Glacier MT, (406)
Located near the west end of Lake McDonald, facilities
include motel rooms and cottages ($ to $$).
Polebridge Mercantile and Cabins, Polebridge
MT, (406) 888-9926.
These rustic cabins, available year-round, are located
along the scenic north fork of the Flathead River and are
listed on the National Register of Historic Places as
Glacier Campground, (406) 387-5689.
One mile west of West Glacier on US 2, attractions here
include volleyball and a barbecue.
Firebrand Pass Campground, (406) 226-5573.
A restaurant and playground are found here, plus full
hook-ups. It's 3 miles west of East Glacier on US Hwy. 2.