Pros: Historic Housing, Car Camping, Services, Historic Buses, Free Shuttles, Ranger Guided Hikes, Nearby Airport
Cons: Solo Hiker/Backpacker OUT OF LUCK, NOISY Hiking Required Due to Bears
John Muir said about this park at the turn of the century-- "Get off the tracks at Belton Station, and in a few minutes you will find yourself in the midst of what you are sure to say is the best care-killing scenery on the continent. Give a month at least to this precious park. The time will not be taken from the sum of your life. Instead of shortening, it will indefinitely lengthen it and make you truly immortal. Nevermore will time seem short or long, and cares will never again fall heavily on you, but gently and kindly as gifts from heaven."
I always look for a single word that describes my experience at a national park. Glacier is a TELLING park, with a story to share about global warming. During my 10 day visit, so many visitors said things like, "I was here 30 years ago, and WOW, this park has changed." The glaciers will be gone by 2020, a revision in July 2007 from the previous estimate of 2030. Visit the glaciers in Glacier National Park in the next 13 years, or never in your lifetime.
1) BACKPACK -- I was told that 75% of the parks visitors never wander more than 3 feet from their car! Is this really true! Glacier park is meant to be explored. It is a premier backpacking park in the NPS. The most frequented backpacking area is the BELLY RIVER area, located in the northeast section of park. A few years ago first lady Bush explored this area with her friends on a horse. Most backpackers I met called this their favorite area in the park to backpack, and guide services took 2/3 of their clients to this area. Wonderful scenery and many campsites to choose from. Trips can last from an overnight to a two weeks.
A more remote option and fun option is to hike back into the Glacier National park from Canada. This is a classic Glacier Park Backpack. You will enjoy a 3 Night/4 Day backpack hiking from the U.S. customs booth at Goat Haunt, over the BROWN PASS (often used by the Blackfeet Indians to cross the continental divide), to the parking lot at the end of Bowman lake. After getting your backcountry permits, get a lift though the red buses or a friend to the Waterton Lake Boat at our sister park Waterton in Canada. Be prepared for a rough 3 hour drive over rough Indian reservation roads (especially the rough Looking Glass Road) from East Glacier. Look for the sacred Chief Mountain on the parks eastern border where members of the Blackfeet tribe still send their young men for vision quests on top of the mountain. The first white men up the mountain found a bison skull there, suggesting that Native Indians climbed this unmistakable and distinctive mountain peak for hundreds of years. Remember, you will need your birth certificate (raised seal) and a picture ID during a 2007 visit, and in 2008 a passport. My friend only had her drivers' license, and she still got through and back, but don't count on it if you lack physical proof of citizenship.
After taking the boat, you will be at Goat Haunt and re-enter the U.S. side through border patrol. Enjoy the amazing waterfall at the Lake Frances campsite. On your way to the next campsite be sure to take a swim in the cold waters of Thunderbird Pond for a snack break.
On night two, avoid the infamous "Buggy Brown" campsite at the pass itself, if possible, and stay at "Hole in the Wall" campground. Perhaps the most talked about established campsite in the lower 48 National park system, this site is talked about in hushed tones. In 2007 the campsite first opened on July 15. Located in a "cirque", a large circular area carved out of a rock face, you are surrounded by 20 cascading waterfalls, a symphony of water sounds, yellow glacier lilies, wildflowers blooming in profussion after receding snows, and amazing views. One of these waterfalls appears to come out of a small "hole in the wall", from which the site gets its name. Look for the rare Mountain Ladies Slippers along the sloping side of the trail. Also notice the carnivorous "Common Butterwort" with the violet flowers and light green leaves that consume insects under overhanging rock faces that provide wet places for the plant to thrive.
On night three book at the Bowman Lake campground located at the foot of the Bowman Lake. Great swimming, kayaking, and fishing at all these sites.
On the way home be sure to stop by the famous Polebridge national historic site, the Polebridge Mercantile and Pastry shop. Also, get a brew at the Northern Lights Saloon and here the local bear stories. They also have great food for dinners in the evening, the locals stay. A pastry shop in the middle of the Montanna wilderness! Remarkable.
2) FIND ADVENTURE ON A WHITEWHITER TRIP -- Take a full day trip from West Glacier with a guiding company on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. They will provide you with a wonderful lunch, as well, for about $75. But ask for a kayak (which only cost $2 more) instead of riding on the boat with 8 other people. As a beginner, I enjoyed myself and felt very safe in the whitewater in early July. Few rocks. And if you should spill, there are always slow sections between the whitewater sections, where you can find a safe place to get back into your boat. Don't be alarmed if you kayak has holes in the bottom! It's supposed to, as it is a "self-bailing" feature that allows the water to leave the boat after being flooded when you go through the whitewater sections.
3) Visit WATERTON NATIONAL PARK -- For 75 years Glacier and Waterton have enjoyed a joint "Peace Park" status, the first in the world. Enjoy a meal at the historic and beautiful 7 story Prince of Wales Hotel. Best fish and chips I've had on this continent. Enjoy high tea from 2-5 P.M. for $38 if you're into fine china and scones and want a story to tell people back home. Hike the trail to Crypt Lake, some of which is U.S. and some Canadian waters. Ladders, tunnels and easy climbing required. One of the favorite hikes among the locals. At the end of the day be sure to enjoy one of a kind ice cream at BIG SCOOP in the town of Waterton (order the ROLLO ice cream special -- incredible!).
4) DAY HIKE the SIYEH BEND to SUNRIFT GORGE TRAIL -- I met five senior ranges who choose this hike on their days off. Rangers lead this hike every day, if you are by yourself. You will enjoy forest, open prairies, and alpine areas. Beargrass in profusion, but it blooms only ever 3 to 7 years in great masses. Also, look for the rare endemic Jones Columbine, a remarkable deep purple columbine, located around the false summit and in bloom the last week of June and the first week of July. We found a final bloom on July 13. Take the free shuttle back to your car.
5) ATTEND a RANGER PROGRAM -- Our ranges are the best. Hear a program on the glaciers, or the sounds of the night, or the stars, or the trees of glacier, or the grizzlies (about 300 in the park), or the wolves (4-5 packs are now in the park, coming here on their own from Canada), or on any number of topics. What you learn will make your experience in the park all the more meaningful.
6) TAKE A RED BUS TOUR -- For 70 years the open topped red buses have shown visitors the park. The same buses are still in operation today! Enjoy stories, meet new friends, and get a guided tour of the park from an expert and don't worry about the driving.
7) DRIVE THE 50 MILES LONG GOING TO THE SUN ROAD -- This incredible scenic road opens after the winter snows as early as May or as late as July 1 (as it did in 2007 due to flooding and avalanche repair work). Officials built a road that would maximize the scenic beauty for those who traveled it. One of the most famous scenic road in all the lower 48. It's middle is the Logan Pass Visitor Center with hundreds of parking spaces sometimes filled up by noon. Take the free shuttle if you can.
NOTE -- Save some time to enjoy a quiet, reflective walk on a wooden boardwalk that is wheelchair friendly though the "Trail of the Cedars" boardwalk. This unique rain forest area, typical of the U.S. northwest but not for Montana, has not experience a fire for over 500 years because it captures so much moisture on the west side of the Continental Divide. The area contains the largest cedars, hemlocks, and black cottonwoods trees in the entire park. Enjoy the boardwalk through this mighty forest and take time to sit in the seats provided along the way to feel the coolness of this place and its hushed sounds. If you camp next to the trail in the established campground, be sure to listen for the owls that inhabit this place, of find a flying squirrel during the dusk hours that frequent this small "forest within a forest". If you continue to a nearby lake, notice the glacial erratics along this Avalanche Lake trail, which continues on from the Cedar Forest boardwalk. These "erratics" are large boulders left behind by the glaciers.
Also, save some time to hike the 3 miles from the Logan Pass Visitor Center to Hidden Lake at Logan Pass and look for the incredible mountain goats on the edges of steep cliffs. Though in truth, you will just as likely see them in the middle of the road or a nearby parking area slurping up spilled antifreeze (they need salt in their diet). They will walk right up to you, for you to appreciate and observe.
8) ENJOY A BOAT TOUR -- Waterton Lake, Lake McDonald, St. Mary Lake, Two Medicine Lake -- it doesn't matter. Enjoy a one hour trip to appreciate the park from one of its turquoise blue bodies of water. If you take the Lake McDonald boat tour, the largest of the lakes, be sure to look for the "Shouting Indian" formation above the boat dock. It is a large mountain that looks like an Indian Chief on his back Shouting at the stars. It really does!
9) VISIT A GLACIER -- Rated one of the two best day hikes in Montana by backpacker magazine, day hike to the Grinnell glacier from Many Glacier Hotel. Be sure to ask someone who hiked this trail 30 years ago what they saw then. Or look at the old pictures. What a difference! And no, the park will not need to be renamed in 2020. The park is not named for its glaciers, but because the park's classic "U-shaped" bathtub shaped valleys were shaped by ancient glaciers.
Be sure to enjoy a Huckleberry patch along the hike. No they are not blueberries. Don't even suggest he comparison, if you value your life in Montana! If you want a blueberry go to Main or Michigan. Your in Montana. A huckleberry is a sweet berry which grow only wild in the mountains. And not in the same place every year in equal profusion. You can eat as many as you like from the bushes in the park during your hikes, though you cannot take them out of the park to sell them. In the national forests you can collect them, up to 10 gallons a day without a permit.
The first huckleberries were for sale along the roadsides for about $38 a gallon on July 13, 2007 (which is very early due to a very hot 2007 Montana summer). An often-told Montana story is about a man who asked to buy a gallon of Huckleberries and when told the high price, he shoved them back at the curbside seller in disgust and said, "I"ll go pick my own." After a few hours he returned, put the money on the table, took the Hucklberries and said, "Ma'am, you don't charge enough." At least try a piece of huckleberry pie before you leave the park. Enjoy!
10) LOOK FOR A GRIZZLY -- This is one of the best parks in which to see a grizzly bear in the lower 48. After spending weeks in northern bear states, I saw my first grizzly in the extreme northeast corner of the park, just two miles from the Canadian customs booth. One of the best places to hang out with your binoculars or scope is the Many Glacier area on the east side of the park.
A TELLING park, which tells the story of the need to reduce human impact on this planet. Ironically, I discovered that the park throws away glass and many plastics in the garbage cans to fill more land fills, because Montana doesn't have a very good recycling program, due to the large distances between towns and the lack of profitability in recycling. What did I do with my glass ice tea bottles I purchased in the park? I packed them up, brought them home, and recycled them. Lets all do what we can to preserve places as remarkable as this.
In 1983, environmentalist and the dean of western writers, Wallace Stegner, wrote the following words that now grace the visitor center at Apgar Village -- "National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst." May they be protected and preserved for the next generation.