Tips and suggestions for a quick trip to the national treasure in our own backyard
48˚ NORTH STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAY BJORKWe stride through the Logan Pass parking lot to reach the Hidden Lake Overlook boardwalk that will lead us to a less-traveled trail through a wildflower-spackled meadow and along a steep slope littered with scree. Voices fade in and out as if we are channel surfing while we pass young parents with children in tow, white-haired couples snapping photos of craggy peaks, and backpackers plodding up the trail. English, Chinese, French, German, Russian, and Spanish – like varied genres of music – rise into the crisp clear day, a reminder of the draw from across the globe to this spectacular place.
This summer a family of four from Paris will probably spend at least $8,000 for airfare and 24 hours on two or three different jets to reach Glacier Park International Airport. Expenses for a family will easily double when hotel, food and ground transportation are added. Cost for a Flathead Valley family to reach Glacier National Park is around $10 in gas, less than an hour drive and a seven-day park pass for $25.
More than 2 million people from around the world visit Glacier each year. That fact can be both off-putting and seductive with the knowledge that this extraordinarily beautiful wilderness is right in our big backyard.
Almost everyone has summer guests, which is a perfect time to revisit the park – or for the first time if you haven’t already been there yet.
With more than 1 million acres of wilderness, 740 miles of trails, 762 lakes, a myriad of activities including hiking, fishing, biking, horseback riding, boat tours, ranger-led activities, and dining at historic lodges, it can be difficult to decide where to go and what to do. Here are a few different park “menus” as options for a day-trip to Glacier.
First things first – when possible, leave early. It can mean a completely different kind of park experience. After 9 a.m. the roads are more congested and you might have a tough time finding a parking place at some of the more popular areas of Avalanche Creek, the Loop and Logan Pass.
Another option is to let someone else do the driving. The Going-to-the-Sun Road is narrow and its path winds up sheer cliffs, which can be daunting, especially for those from the flatlands. Another piece of advice – plan the ride so that the queasier members aren’t on the cliff side of the car.
The Red Bus tour provides a ride through the park in vintage 1930s red buses with an interpretive tour by knowledgeable park veterans. Rollback tops offer an expanded experience letting in the sounds of cascading falls, a smorgasbord of alpine scents, and nearly unobstructed views of majestic mountains and wildlife. 855-SEEGLACIER (855-733-4522)
Glacier also offers a free shuttle service to help alleviate traffic and reduce pollution, and also serves as a great amenity to visitors. The transit system provides two-way service along Going-to-the-Sun Road between the Apgar Transit Center and St. Mary Visitor Center. On the west side from the Apgar Transit Center to Logan Pass, buses run every 30 minutes and on the east side every 40 to 60 minutes. Buses fill up quickly so you might have to wait for the next bus. If you are at one of the visitor centers it will afford an opportunity to look at the displays and visit with a ranger. If you are at one of the other stops, just relax and enjoy the view.
Sun Tours, based in East Glacier, offers guided tours on air-conditioned buses that highlight Blackfeet Indian culture. (800) 786-9220
About Glacier Park
Here are some interesting facts to make you sound savvy if you take on the role as tour guide.
• George Bird Grinnell was instrumental in the 1910 designation of Glacier as the 10th national park.
• Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park became the world’s first International Peace Park in 1932 due to efforts between the two nations’ rotary clubs.
• Going-to-the-Sun Road was completed in 1932.
• Recognized in 1995 as a World Heritage Site.
• Over 1 million acres with more than 93 percent managed as wilderness.
• 762 lakes comprising 25,622 acres (1,583 square miles).
• There are 743 miles of trails.
• 2,865 miles of intermittent and perennial streams inside the park.
• 175 mountains – the tallest is Mount Cleveland at 10,448.
• Logan Pass is located at 6,646 feet.
• Located at the headwaters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Hudson Bay drainages.
• Glaciers carved the mountains and valleys 10,000 years ago.
• At the end of the Little Ice Age in 1850 there were an estimated 150 glaciers in Glacier Park. By 1968, the number dwindled to around 50. There are 26 glaciers remaining in the park today, many of them greatly reduced from their original size.
• The Big Drift snowbank on the east side of Logan Pass has been measured over 98 feet high.
• Lake McDonald Lodge celebrated its centennial on June 14 this year.
• Lake McDonald is the largest lake in the park with a length of 10 miles and a depth of 472 feet.
Glacier Park 101
For first-time and possibly one-time visitors, a tour on the Going-to-the-Sun provides a crash course along the main artery of the park. The full 50 miles of the road usually opens sometime around the third week in June until Sept. 21. The road begins at the valley floor where it travels along Lake McDonald through old forest fires, lush cedar forests, past avalanche chutes and water features before it begins winding up the mountainside. There is a sense of other worldliness with colors that appear to be Photoshopped, layers of jagged mountains, steep snow banks and sweeping snowfields that remain well into the summer and the storybook, crooked little trees on the timber line known as krummholz. This road tour is possibly one of the most beautiful in the world.
First stop after entering the park should be in Apgar at the Lake McDonald boat launch. The stunning view across the lake to the dramatic mountains that curtain the landscape is like looking into a window of the park and a great preview of what is to come. Stop at the mountain range map where you can point out Reynolds Peak near Logan Pass. You can dazzle your guests and family when you inform them that in an hour or two you will be over a mile high at this mountain pass.
You might want to save a visit to the new Apgar Visitor Center and some of the stops along Going-to-the-Sun highway for the return trip so that you can reach the summit before the parking lot is full. We have found that if we leave Apgar before 9 a.m. traffic is reasonable, and parking is still available.
Make sure everyone visits the rest area in Apgar before heading up the road since it is your last chance for flush toilets until you reach the pass. There are state-of-the-art outhouses at Avalanche Creek and the Loop if nature calls before you reach the top.
There are plenty of outstanding features on the way up to the pass – highlights such as the Weeping Wall, ever-changing views of the mountains above and the valley below. Wildlife sightings are not unusual along the road, including bears, mountain goats, bighorn sheep and deer.
Once you reach the pass you can stop at the visitor center and take a walk up the boardwalk. The 1.5-mile walk to Hidden Lake Overlook is a perfect way to stretch out and see some of the most spectacular scenery in the world with vast wildflower meadows, rugged peaks still blanketed in snow, and streams and waterfalls gushing through meadows and rock faces. You might want to continue on another 1.5 miles to Avalanche Lake, but keep in mind that you have to climb back up.
Depending on time allotments, you can continue on the road for 18 miles to the east entrance of the park near St. Mary Lake. Vast meadows afford outstanding views of the turquoise lake and surrounding forests and mountains.
On the return trip there are several stops to consider. In complete contrast to the wide-open meadows at the pass, you will find the lush cedar forest at the bottom of the road. Stop at Avalanche Campground to take a quick walk on the Trails of the Cedars and stop at one of the most photographed spots at a mauve rocky gorge sculpted by Avalanche Creek. A two-mile hike leads to Avalanche Lake, one of the most popular hikes in the park.
There are also several pullouts where you can view snowmelt unleashed as it roars down McDonald Creek over colorful rocks. Watch for old avalanche chutes along the road, where the destructive force of snow has left heaps of trees and rocks.
Just a few more miles up the road is Lake McDonald, a log lodge built with native western cedar and local stone by Great Northern in 1913-14. This stop can be tailored to your schedule. Take a stroll to learn about the history and observe details such as Native American etchings in the flagstone floor and a massive fireplace, and then refuel at the charming bar or restaurant. You can also take a one-hour boat tour from the Lodge on the DeSmet, a historic wooden boat operated by Glacier Park Boat Co.
For those who have already made the trip to Logan Pass, there are numerous other options in this vast park. You will find the North Fork, Goat Haunt, Many Glacier and Two Medicine regions of the park less traveled because of the longer travel time to reach each of these unique areas.
Everyone’s perspective and appreciation of the park will be a little different. A geologist might be consumed with the rocks, a hiker with summits, a historian with the buildings and founding story of the park, and a botanist with the diversity of plants and trees in the park.
The park’s expansive website is bulging with information and facts that can help you plan your trip: nps.gov/glac/index.htm.