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Glacier National Park, Montana

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 wildlife.

The Park

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 east side).

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:

Wildlife

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.

Park Trails

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 KM).

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.

Hotels and Campgrounds

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 accommodations.

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 Babb.

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 (Canada).

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 Waterton Lakes.

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, (406) 888-5700.

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) 888-5484.

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 well ($).

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.

Nearby towns and attractions
go to
Bigfork, Missoula, Seeley Lake,
Whitefish, Great Falls

Montana Destinations

Bigfork

Billings

Bozeman

Butte

Gardiner

Glacier National Park

Great Falls

Helena

Missoula

Red Lodge

Seeley Lake & The Swan Valley

West Yellowstone

Whitefish

 


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