The glaciers have been melting in Glacier National Park long before anyone thought of global warning, but there's still time to see them, although some experts say the ice may not last beyond 2030. On a trip there a while ago, they inspired me with their size, despite guides telling me how much bigger they used to be. And it was discouraging to hear that where there were more than 100 a few decades ago, there are now only 27 glaciers remaining. Nonetheless, I was impressed not only by the beauty of the park, but by the care the rangers and volunteers were giving it, the better to preserve it while they can.
In summer only, you can cross over into Canada (or vice versa) to visit Waterton Lake National Park, adjacent to Glacier National Park along the binational boundary. Together, they constitute the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 1995). Waterton was made a national park in 1895, Glacier in 1910, and in 1932, members of the local Rotary Clubs petitioned the two nations to establish the world's first International Peace Park. (There are now 138 peace parks, worldwide, according to the park newspaper.) Glacier is said to be one of the most ecologically diverse parts of the Rocky Mountain West, and is sacred to the Blackfeet, Salish and Kootenai peoples.
Here you can see native animals such as wolves, trumpeter swans, grizzly bears, lynx, bull trout and long-toed salamanders, to mention only a few species. In fact, it's one of the few places in North America where all the native carnivores survive. The two parks are also Biosphere Reserves, since the 1970s. Near Logan Pass on the Continental Divide, raindrops falling to the left of your outstretched hand may end up in the Columbia River, those to the right in the Mississippi.
Highlights of Glacier National Park
Be sure to stop at one of the three visitors center for information, advice and late news, open from early May through September 30. At the west entrance is Apgar, at the east Saint Mary's and at the top of the road is Logan Pass.
You must drive Going-to-the-Sun Road, the term taken from the Native American name for Going-to-the-Sun Mountain, to the east of Logan Pass. It's a 50-mile drive that follows the shores of the park's two biggest lakes and runs alongside the cliffs below the Continental Divide as it crosses Logan Pass. Parts of the road are open year round, but portions higher up only after the winter snow is plowed away. In any event, the Logan Pass portion of the road is now closed to all public use for the fall 2007 and winter 2008 season. There are some restrictions on large vehicles, so check ahead if yours is longer than 21 feet, wider than eight feet or taller than ten feet. Most roads into the park are closed by snow in winter, so check ahead. Best of all, I think, is taking the bright red 1930s style buses, with the top down. Their "Crown of the Continent" ride takes from 8 to ten hours (depending on where you board) and costs from $65 to $75 (ditto, half for children. Contact Glacier Park Inc., a concessionaire here, tel. 406/892-2525, www.glacierparkinc.com.
Popular stops on the road include the Lake McDonald Lodge and Overlook, Avalanche Creek, The Loop (the road's only switchback), Bird Woman Falls Overlook, the Weeping Wall (a small waterfall down the road's cliffside border), Big Bend (great views), Triple Arches (the road builder's feat), Oberlin Bend, and at the top, Logan Pass, right on the Continental Divide. After that, going east, the Jackson Glacier Overlook, Sunrift Gorge, the Golden Staircase and Two Dog Flats are worth a stop each.
This is a great hiking park, especially if you make a lot of noise as you move, the better to warn bears of your presence and scare them away. The park says little tinkle bells are not enough, that you must shout and clap your hands to avoid surprising the skittish creatures. Beware also of lions, and remember to act aggressively when meeting a lion unexpectedly, the opposite with bears, the park says. The real danger is liquid, however: drowning is the number one cause of fatalities in Glacier, not bear attacks.
About half the park's visitors report taking hikes. Some popular trails include those to the Grinnell Glacier, Iceberg Lake, Granite Park Chalet and Avalanche Lake. There are at least six others, less crowded in summer, and 61 destinations on the park's special hiking map. There are three shuttle routes to get you near your trail departure point, plus two transfers between shuttles. Glacier Guides offers guided day hikes and backpacking trips. For details, phone them at 406/387-5555. Camping over night requires a backcountry permit, obtainable at the visitor centers. In addition to the fauna, check out the flora. In early July, for instance, yellow Glacier lilies abound at Logan Pass.
Jekyll and Hyde Towns
The nearby towns of Whitefish and Kalispell are a fascinating contrast in good and bad, making me think of the ancient (1946) Christmas-time film, It's a Wonderful Life, where the presence of Jimmy Stewart makes Bedford Falls a virtual paradise, his absence the hell of Pottersville. In Whitefish, a pretty little place, I met a roller-skating poet mayor, had local beer at a microbrewery and brunch at a cottage converted into a cozy restaurant with newspapers from around the nation to read while eating a local berry quiche. In Kalispell, I was appalled at the number of stores that had slot machines, in addition to those in bars and restaurants, at gas stations and, for all I knew, in the most unlikely places, maybe. It's also where a regional brew, Moose Drool, took on realistic overtones.
New in 2007 and 2008
Glacier has a new free shuttle bus service along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, the three routes serving a huge swatch of the park's area, operating from July 1 through Labor Day. They are free, no ticket is needed. In addition to running on the GTTS Road, the buses run between the Apgar Visitor Center area and Fish Creek Campground. There's also a fee-based shuttle system out of the St. Mary Visitor Center to East Glacier, Two Medicine, Many Glacier or Watertown Lakes National Park in Canada. The free Glacier shuttles run every 30 minutes from about 7am to 9:30pm.
Heavy fires in July 2006 and bad floods in November of the same year caused considerable damage to the park, but what man can repair has mostly been fixed by now, the park says, though Nature may take longer to replace trees and other aspects of the landscape.
It costs $25 for a Single Vehicle Pass, good for seven days, $12 if you walk in, bike or motorcycle in, also for seven days.
- The official website of the Glacier National Park is at www.nps.gov/glac.
- The site for the Glacier Natural History Association is www.glacierassociation.org.
- The site for the Glacier National Park Fund is www.glaciernationalparkfund.org.
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