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Movable Feast for Wilderness Lovers

Known as the Crown of the Continent, Glacier National Park’s scenery rivals the European Alps for beauty and variety.

 

Glacier National Park on the Montana-Canada border is a moveable feast for wilderness lovers; the delightful scenery and abundant wildlife is all the more satisfying because Glacier is a relatively underappreciated (and undervisited) park. Guests won’t find an abundance of glaciers, though. Global warming is quickly shrinking these icy remnants from the last Ice Age.

Don’t let this dissuade you from visiting: Glacier actually got its name because millions of years ago ancient glaciers carved the peaks and valleys of this magnificent landscape, leaving in their wake hanging valleys with ethereal waterfalls; powder-blue lakes cloudy with “glacier flour” (suspended particles deposited by glaciers that give the water a milky quality); and dramatic peaks that are perpetually topped with snow.

Glacier National Park is open year-round, but summer is the only truly accessible season. Facilities and roads are generally open from late May through early September. Plowing the poetically named Going-to-the-Sun Road, the mountain pass that cuts through the heart of the park, begins in April and isn’t done until mid-June.

Despite the harsh, snowy conditions that prevail most of the year, summertime ushers in the most impressive showing of wildflowers in this country; there are more than 1,000 species of flowers in the park. This is also one of the best wildlife-spotting areas: An hour’s hike away from the main roads all but ensures that visitors will encounter wild mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer, moose, and even grizzly bears (close encounters with the latter can be a real danger; look for signs along established trails warning of recent bear activity—and if you come across such a notice, make a U-turn).

From wildflowers to wildlife, here are some must-see Glacier National Park attractions:

Going-to-the-Sun Road

A drive along this 50-mile stretch of road—a curvy mountain pass straddling precipitous drops—is the highlight of any visit to the park. Along this roadway, expect to see dozens of waterfalls, impossibly blue lakes, lovely mountaintop meadows and thanks to plentiful rain, nearly ubiquitous rainbows arching up from the valleys far below. White-knuckle drivers will want to check out the Red Bus Tours. Climb aboard one of the restored 1930s fleet of red buses and let someone else deal with the gear jamming. Highlights along the Going-to-the-Sun Road include:

  • Bird Woman Falls is a ribbon-like fall that stretches nearly 500 feet and is visible from several miles of the road. The falls are fed by snowfall and can dry up in late summer, but in the heyday of late June and early July the falls tumble down in flowing veils of white froth.
  • Garden Wall is a knife-edged slice of cliff that was honed by two glaciers that ground down both sides. The ridge is part of the Continental Divide—a geological division where waters on the west flow into the Pacific Ocean and waters on the east flow to the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Jackson Glacier, one of the easiest glaciers to view in the park, is visible from the road about four miles beyond Logan Pass.
  • Logan Pass, the highest point on the road, falls along the Continental Divide. Park here and catch the Highline Trail (a scenic path along the cliffs that overlooks frightening drops) or the easier Hidden Lake Nature Trail, a three-mile roundtrip that begins modestly on a boardwalk and increases in difficulty before it culminates in a stunning view of Hidden Lake. Look for mountain goats traipsing through the wildflowers and patches of snow (often piled up just off the pathway well into July).
  • Weeping Wall is a whimsical waterfall that seems to seep out of the pores of a cliff that is only feet from the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Depending on temperatures and snowmelt, the wall alternately sobs gently or wails wildly (folks traveling in convertibles should plan to get wet).

Many Glacier Region

With snow-capped mountains surrounding a valley filled with pristine blue lakes and a shoreline accented with chalet-style architecture, the Many Glacier region in the high country is as close to Switzerland as any U.S. visitor can get without a passport. This is my favorite part of the park, because there are plentiful easy trails, an abundance of wildlife and the scenery is among the loveliest I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world (including the Swiss Alps!).

To make the most of the scenery, check out the following:

  • Swiftcurrent Nature Trail. Catch the trailhead for this 2.5-mile loop around Swiftcurrent Lake at the shore just south of Many Glacier Hotel for serene views of the lake and for a good chance to see resident moose (look on the far side of the lake, away from the hotel).
  • Swiftcurrent and Josephine Lakes Boat Tour. Catch the views of the surrounding mountains and the pretty Many Glacier Hotel by taking a boat tour (departing from the dock adjacent to the hotel) that runs the length of Swiftcurrent Lake. Boat guides—usually college students—offer interesting historical facts about the nearby hotel and share hiking tips. Guests debark at the far end of Swiftcurrent and then make a brief trek through the forest to catch another boat waiting on nearby Josephine Lake. It’s possible to continue by foot beyond, to pretty Grinnell Lake, a particularly milky blue pond fed by the melting Grinnell Glacier, but the trail can be horribly buggy.

St. Mary Valley

St. Mary Valley is east of Logan Pass, along the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The high elevation offers tremendous views of snow-capped peaks, and the area is dominated by the lake of the same name. Don’t miss these sights in St. Mary Valley:

  • Saint Mary Lake. Blue and reflective (and very cold!), this is the second-largest lake in the park, and stretches to the easternmost border of Glacier National Park. Look for tiny Wild Goose Island, which according to a Romeo-and-Juliet-esque legend was named after young lovers who were transformed into wild geese so that they could be together despite familial objections.
  • St. Mary Falls and Virginia Falls. These roaring falls are accessible via a 1.8-mile (one-way) trail that begins at Sunrift Gorge off the Going-to-the-Sun Road. About a mile into the trail, the thunderous water heralds St. Mary Falls, a two-part waterfall that plunges into a breathtaking gorge. Another half-mile of the trail hugs a series of hills that ultimately reach Virginia Creek. The hike terminates at the gentler, but no less stunning, Virginia Falls, which tumbles from a hanging valley into myriad pools.

Lake McDonald

Close to the West Entrance of the park, the southern portion of the Going-to-the-Sun Road traces the contours of the lakeshore of this long, narrow lake. At 10 miles long and nearly 500 feet deep, this is the park’s largest lake, and is a destination for fishing, hiking and wildlife viewing. The access to water and the nearby foothills of the Apgar Range make this prime bear country: Look for both grizzlies and black bears. Be sure to see the following:

  • McDonald Falls. A tumultuous 25-foot cascade falls about a mile north of the lake. Although the falls aren’t visible from the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a good view is possible via a short hike along the start of the McDonald Creek Trail, beginning near the McDonald Creek Bridge on North Shore Road.
  • Trail of the Cedars. This easy 0.7-mile hike along a level, combined boardwalk and paved trail (accessible for wheelchairs and also perfect for babies in strollers), winds through the cedar and hemlock forest that surrounds Avalanche Creek.

Two Medicine Valley

In the southeast of the park, Two Medicine Valley is much less frequented than other parts of the park—but visitors who witness the area’s beauty are at a loss to understand why. The valley is surrounded by commanding peaks and offers huckleberry meadows, colorful geological formations, crystalline lakes and dramatic waterfalls. Look for bighorn sheep grazing on the grasslands. My favorites in Two Medicine Valley are:

  • Running Eagle Falls. Because the bottom portion of the two-part falls is quite a bit wider than the upper portion, it’s also known as Trick Falls. In late summer, the upper portion dries up entirely, but the lower portion still gushes from a hole in the cliffs (the water emerges from an underground cave). Catch the well-marked trailhead near the Two Medicine Entrance to the park.
  • Two Medicine Campground. This campground on the shores of Two Medicine Lake has my vote as the loveliest place to pitch a tent in any national park. Amenities like potable water, fire rings and picnic tables offer just enough comfort for city slickers like me, but the setting will satisfy anyone’s craving for living (temporarily) in the great outdoors. Individual campsites are private and surrounded by evergreens, and many offer commanding views of the pristine lake and the surrounding mountains. To check campground availability, access the national park’s Web site.
  • Two Medicine Lake. This lake is a favorite with paddlers. There are two boat docks on the lake, and it’s possible to catch a guided boat tour from the historic Two Medicine General Store (a souvenir outpost that was once part of the Two Medicine Chalet, an early park lodge built by the railroad). The pretty Two Medicine Lake Trail that rings the northern shoreline is an alternative way to explore the area.

Waterton Lakes National Park

Separated by an international border that crosses lakes and mountain ranges, the Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada is part of what is now considered the first International Peace Park (comprising Waterton and Glacier). Although the two side-by-side parks are maintained and administered separately, they cooperate in wildlife management and educational research—and the geographical proximity means it makes good sense to visit both if time permits. Access the Canadian Waterton Lakes Park to the north via a small border checkpoint.

Note: U.S. citizens (including children) and foreign nationals must have passports to cross the border. Once in the Canadian park, check out these attractions:

  • Cameron Lake. Guests can rent paddle boats and canoes at this small lake south of Waterton Village. Skirt the shoreline and watch for bears and moose or head for the southern end of the lake, where you can actually paddle across the international border.
  • Prince of Wales Hotel. Even if you aren’t staying at this fairytale castle-like structure adjacent to Upper Waterton Lake, duck in for a peak at its commanding views.
  • Waterton Village. The tiny home of some hundred year-round residents who are employed to maintain the park offers a handful of quaint cafés with peaceful views of Waterton Lake.

Destinations: Montana, Glacier National Park

Themes: Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Hiking, Camping, Sightseeing, Boating


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