Glacier National Park: Beyond Superlatives
|July 22, 2017||Filed under Glacier National Park, Montana|
The “OMG” moments are nonstop in Glacier National Park, Montana – dramatic cliffs, mirrored lakes, wildflower riots, arrogant waterfalls, and wildlife ready for their close-ups. Established in 1910, GNP covers over a million acres, encompassing and flanking the mountains of the Continental Divide. A week in the Park is barely time enough to behold some of its scenic highlights and experience a few of its 730+ miles of trails. At over 7,100′ altitude, reached by a 1.3-mile uphill hike from the Logan Pass visitor center, the view from Hidden Lake Lookout pictured above took my breath away, literally and figuratively.
In 1850 there were 150 glaciers in the Glacier National Park area; today, there are only 25, many located in the self-denominating Many Glacier region. The fast retreating Grinnell Glacier sits around 6,500 feet elevation. After a 1,800+ foot, 3.5 mile climb, I was elated to stand on an actual mountain glacier, but saddened to know that unabated climate change would render its disappearance in just a decade or so.
“Bear Danger” signs are plentiful in all parts of the Park. With an estimated population of 300 grizzly and 600 black bears in GNP, trails are often closed because of bear activity. Hikers are advised to carry bear spray and observe the top of the food chain at a distance. Although I did not encounter any bears on my day hikes, I saw plenty of other wildlife, including herds of mountain goats, tons of inquisitive pikas and chipmunks, a few grouchy grouses, several bighorn sheep on faraway cliffs, a shy moose, and even a white-striped garter snake (very few reptiles in this alpine environment).
Rivaling the beauty of the dramatic mountains is the elegance of the glacial lakes of GNP. Of the over 700 lakes in the Park, the 10-mile long McDonald Lake to the west is the largest. St Mary Lake on the east side of the Park sits higher in altitude and is perhaps the most scenic, although I also found Swiftcurrent Lake in the Many Glacier region to be rather lovely. Concessions provide lake tours on traditional wooden motor boats.
What makes GNP so easy to navigate is the impressive 50-mile east/west Going-to-the-Sun Road. Completed in 1933, this engineering marvel hugs the sides of the mountains, accommodating cascading streams and falls. It crosses the Continental Divide at Logan Pass (6,647′), and is often not totally open to traffic until July due to lingering snow. With multiple scenic pullouts, the Sun Road is definitely worth traversing, but seasoned park goers know to leave behind personal vehicles at lower parking areas and simply take the efficient (and free!) Park shuttle buses. Pricey “Red Bus” tours are also available (but who wants to be stuck in a station wagon all day?).
The popular 11.8-mile Highline Loop Trail from Logan Pass to the Loop shuttle stop affords impressive vistas and, this summer in particular, exuberant fields of bear grass with its white pom-pom blossoms. The wholly exposed trail along the Continental Divide offers no shelter from the elements. Tips: 1. get an early morning start for some shade along the “Garden Wall,” a part of the Divide; 2. for those fearing heights, beware of the short stretch of vertigo-inducing cliffs about a quarter mile into the hike; 3. an out and back of about 7 miles round-trip to Haystack Butte from Logan Pass is just as rewarding as the entire trail.
In 2003, during one of the most significant wild fire seasons in the Park’s history, approximately 136,000 acres were burned. Fires occur almost every year, simply a part of a forest’s lifecycle. Nature rapidly regenerates after each occurrence, with wildflowers often leading the way such as the aptly-named fireweed pictured above. Various tree species have evolutionary adaptations to survive fire, from thick bark to withstand heat to disbursement of seed pods for rapid regrowth.
Starting with a long view of Lake St Mary from the Sun Point, an easy 4-mile round-trip walk passes three waterfalls: Baring Falls, St Mary Falls and Virginia Falls. The short but somewhat steep climb to Virginia Falls is well worth it, with the 50-foot cascade crashing right at your feet and its mist cooling you down on a hot day.
Even in mid-July, snow fields often cover well-worn trails. On the Grinnell Glacier trail, a “Snow Hazard” sign, complete with a silhouette of a poor guy falling off a cliff, deterred many hikers from going further. After observing fellow adventurers ahead of me successfully crossing one such field, I decided to push on with caution, traversing both snow and waterfall obstacles along the way. What’s a few scary moments when you can climb to a glacier?
Huckleberry is a local obsession… pies, scones, cobbler, jam, souvenir shops, and even “wine”! A favorite of both man and bears, huckleberry is a close relative to the blueberry, but grows only above 3,500 feet and usually in steep ravines a few years after a wildfire. In addition to this seasonal delicacy, after a long day of hiking, I dug into a variety of other local specialties. Alas, no food styling is sufficient to render a picture of an elk sloppy joe or a chunk of bison meatloaf worthy of posting.
The 200-room Many Glacier Hotel perches by the ridiculously photogenic Swiftcurrent Lake and nearby mountain peaks. Also within a short walk of the Hotel is Lake Josephine and the Grinnell Glacier Trailhead. As with other lodging inside the Park, the rooms are booked far in advance. Luckily, I was able to snag and splurge on a balcony room for a night. With the window blinds open, I awoke to a soft glow. Sleepily, I stumbled onto the deck and gasped at nature’s morning tableau of dawn-kissed mountains reflecting in the lake’s steely mirror. I returned to bed, wondering if it were a dream.
Glacier National Park is indeed dreamlike with its natural wonders. Unfortunately, GNP and other National Parks are currently under threat by reckless politicians, who would all do well to remember the words of John F. Kennedy, speaking at the World Conference on National Parks in 1962:
“National parks and reserves are an integral aspect of intelligent use of natural resources. It is the course of wisdom to set aside an ample portion of our natural resources as national parks and reserves, thus ensuring that future generations may know the majesty of the earth as we know it today.”