WHAT IS IT? 1,000,000 acres of Montana wilderness. The numerous ruggedly steep U-shaped canyons that the Park is famous for were created by centuries of glacial erosion. Glacier NP lies at an ecological crossroads and boasts a dazzling diversity of plant life, birds and mammals.
BEAUTY (10/10) Even the most cynical visitors (sadly enough in Glacier’s case, us) cannot help but be astounded by the mountains’ jagged peaks, the shimmering blue lakes, the majestic lumbering of grizzly bears and the thick dirty white expansiveness of the dying glaciers.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (2/10) We found the Park’s historical pull to be dubious at best. We took a tour of the rustic Many Glacier Hotel and learned that the Park became famous though the promotion and inn building of robber baron Jim Hill. A few anecdotes about railroads and lodges, that is about it.
CROWDS (5/10) We presume that the September Glacier crowd is much different from the July and August crowd. We imagine that summer brings families, college kids and the average American vacationer. They were not in Glacier in September. We found mostly older, erudite easterners who were very vocally in awe of their surroundings.
So many people stopped us along the trail with “this is the most beautiful place in the world” and “you’ll never see anything as gorgeous as the view around the corner” that we progressively grew a chip on our shoulders despite the Park’s splendor.
Still, Glacier NP’s magnificence is hard to argue, especially when the sun is shining, the glaciers sparkling and every turn of the corner could find you face to face with a bear or moose. Most of the time the thing around the bend was a tourist; the hiking routes were very crowded. Crowd avoidance is difficult for two reasons: a) the backcountry treks simply connect the popular day trips and b) the warm weather visitation window runs only for a few months.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5) While remote, Glacier NP is accessible to the many different types of travelers. For the high-end visitor, there are historic rustic lodges in Lake McDonald, East Glacier and Many Glacier. There are affordable “Motor Inns” at both Rising Sun and Many Glacier. Thirteen campgrounds provide over 1,000 sites to pitch your tent. Some even allow for reservations. Two backcountry chalets are available for the overnight hiker who does not want to carry a tent.
Despite the proliferation of overnight opportunities, finding a place to stay is difficult due to Glacier NP’s short season and legendary popularity. Snow melts in June and returns in late September. You have three months. July and August are manic and September weather hugely unpredictable. We chose the first few days of September and were rewarded with the “nicest weather we’ve had in weeks”. They last week of August was so rainy, cloudy and miserable that no one was able to even see the peaks.
Even though the September crowds were low, we still could not freely pick and choose a backcountry trek. The requisite campgrounds along the popular hiking routes were all reserved. If you want to backcountry hike, plan ahead, know your route and spend the $20 reservation fee. We had no trouble getting a car camping site at midday, but they did fill by nightfall. If we had not gotten a campsite we would have been out of luck; the rustic lodges were full.
Getting to Glacier NP is a trek. Technically, the nearest airport lies 25 miles away in Kalispell, Mont. but most of the people we talked to had flown into either Missoula or Great Falls and rented a car. Missoula is 150 miles to the south of Glacier’s western entry point, Apgar, while Great Falls is 150 miles to the southeast of the Park’s east gate, St. Mary. Choose your poison.
The road from Apgar to St Mary is the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road. The road is stunning and provides vehicular access to the Park’s forbidding peaks. Be careful. The road is difficult driving and is subject to rockslides, flooding and constant repairs. Two days before we arrived, collapsed rocks closed down the road. Glacier NP’s website provides daily updates.
Your car must be less than 21 feet in length to travel on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. No RV’s allowed. One night we camped next to a Pennsylvania family that had rented a 24 feet RV unaware of Glacier NP’s restrictions. As a result they detoured over 100 miles around the southern border of the Park to get from one end to the other where they took the famously retro red-car tour of the Going-to-the-Sun Road. They seemed pretty bummed.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (4/5) Glacier NP bookstores focus on Glacier specific titles with much success. Between the myriad coffee table photography books and ‘where to hike’ titles, there is room for little else. The lodge-run gift stores fill in the blanks with stuffed animals, t-shirts, sweatshirts and knickknacks.
COSTS (2/5) Entry is $20 per vehicle, but free with the National Parks Pass. Campgrounds are moderately priced at $15 per site. Backcountry permits run $4 per person per day. An advanced backcountry reservation inquiry costs an additional $20. Lodging costs range from $71 at the Apgar Village Lodge to $155 at the Glacier Park Lodge. A spot at the backcountry Sperry Chalet runs an unbelievable $255 per night. That place must be nice. Boat tours along the Park’s lakes are available for a modest charge. The Hiker’s shuttle that runs along the Going-to-the-Sun Road costs a surprising $8 per leg. If you want the convenience of the shuttle and your trek takes you to scenic Many Glacier it’s going to cost you $24 per person. We balked at the steep price.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (5/5) Glacier NP is well staffed. Our questions at all five Ranger information stations found quick and responsive answers. Ranger-led tours are numerous and popular. Three leave per day from Many Glacier. Two last all day, one going 10 miles to Iceberg Lake and the other traveling 8.5 miles to Grinnell Glacier. The tours that we attended and/or passed on the trail all included over 40 people. If there were more hikes, they would undoubtedly find eager participants.
TOURS/CLASSES (7/10) We found refuge on our first rainy night at the Many Glacier Hotel. After we sufficiently warmed by the fire, we joined a Ranger tour of the hotel which promised to discuss the history of the hotel and its present day renovation.
At one point, the group entered into a fascinating discussion about who really owns the hotel, how public/private partnerships with hoteliers work and how our tax dollars are or are not being used to fund renovations. Sadly, this was cut short by one tour participant who, unlike the dozen or so people actively participating in the conversation, felt that we were straying too far from the advertised topic. “I’m not interested in politics; I’m interested in the history of the hotel.” The Ranger conceded, but offered to continue the conversation with anyone interested after the walk was officially over.
Over the course of several days, we encountered a number of Ranger-led walks on the more popular trails near Many Glacier. It was not unusual to see at least 30 people on a tour, and more than one Ranger. We stopped to chat with some participants of a day-long Ranger-led hike to Grinnell Glacier. They were tired, but very pleased. “He (the Ranger) told us everything about everything. It was cool. It was kind of like school,” was the evaluation of one of the hikers. This group had been led out on to the glacier by the experienced Ranger, a feat that we were too timid to try on our own.
Visitor Centers at Apgar, St. Mary’s and Logan Pass did not carry much in terms of museums or displays. There is no need when it is all outside. The Logan Pass Visitor Center rests on the Continental Divide, halfway across the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Trailheads to several easy walks begin here. It was too crowded to spend any amount of time there. We took our obligatory photo next to the Continental Divide sign and continued down the road.
FUN (8/10) We were reluctant to enter Glacier NP for a number of reasons. We were unsure of what accommodations would be available, we didn’t know if summer crowds had subsided just yet and clouds were still ominous as we drove through East Glacier. The ice storm we had encountered at Yellowstone was still fresh in our minds and we weren’t sure if we were in the mood to camp in bad weather again. Glacier had a lot to prove to this set of bad attitudes.
As the days went on and the sun stayed shining, we couldn’t help but be won over by Glacier’s landscape and residents. Friendly conversations with other people on the trails enabled us to focus on getting to the top of Swiftcurrent Pass where steep ledges and unobstructed views of the valley below were both beautiful and a little dizzying.
Trails at Glacier range from easy to strenuous. We had no trouble finding ways to keep busy, especially during our stay near Many Glacier, our favorite part of the park. The campground at Many Glacier was comfortable and conveniently located next to one of the Motor Inns, a camp store, and trailheads to two of our chosen hikes.
The Going-to-the-Sun road is as beautiful as advertised. However, we couldn’t help thinking how beautiful Glacier’s wilderness would be if it were more wild.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (9/10) The park’s namesakes will not be there forever. As we were hiking to the Grinnell Glacier, one of the largest remaining in the park, we passed a set of young geologists who had kayaked out to the base of the glacier to measure it. It has shrunk almost 300% in the past three years. At this rate, Glacier National Park is anticipating its final glaciers to melt within 25 to 40 years. There is a bit of urgency if majestic ice forms are what you aiming to see.
Only at Yellowstone and Isle Royale National Parks have we come as close to the large wildlife we saw here. One morning, a black bear surprised our campground using it for a leisurely shortcut on its way to the woods. We surprised a large bull moose and two of his female friends that same morning as we were hiking towards Iceberg Lake. Glacier was full of pleasant surprises for us, the most pleasant being that we enjoyed it. We entered Glacier National Park thinking, “this had better be spectacular…” To our delight, it was.
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