Find pockets of the park all your own
Story & photography by Kay BjorkIt’s early morning in Glacier National Park and the little village of Apgar is still sleepy, waiting for shops to open, visitors to arrive and the sun to rise. The shore of Lake McDonald is empty except for a lone photographer gazing intently toward mountains that appear like cutouts against morning’s first light. A pinprick of light appears, followed by sun bursting over the mountain, its reflection shining like a star on the glassy lake.
It won’t be long before this quiet scene turns into a kaleidoscope of motion as the summer season kicks off and the stage is set for over 2 million visitors.
Glacier National Park had 4,000 recreation visitors in 1911, the year following its designation as a national park. This number grew to a record-breaking 2,366,056 visitors in 2015, pushing the total visits since its inception to over 100 million. Those landmark numbers earn a commemoration in their own right, but also coincide with the 100th anniversary celebration of the National Park Service, which is predicted to inspire even higher visitation to Glacier National Park this summer.
Traffic snaking up Going-to-the-Sun Road, flashing metallic reflections in the summer sun, along with swarms of hikers spilling onto trails with a clatter of chatter can in fact pull the wild out of the wilderness experience. It is the paradox of national parks: spectacular natural spaces preserved for the enjoyment of all at the risk of attracting so many people that they block or alter the wild experience. There are ways that you can avoid the crowds and purify your park experience – by choosing when, where and how you visit.
Wilder Ways: Go on a road or trail less traveled
The West Entrance is the park’s main gateway, and Going-to-the-Sun Road is its main artery. Areas along the North Fork and Middle Fork Flathead Rivers see significantly less traffic and offer their own unique features and magic.
Take U.S. Highway 2 to reach several trailheads along the way to East Glacier and Two Medicine. The trail to Scalplock Lookout is found in the Essex area, and the Lubec Trailhead to Firebrand Pass is below Marias Pass six miles before East Glacier. The centerpiece of East Glacier is the historic Glacier Park Lodge built by Great Northern Railroad when East Glacier was the major entrance to the park. The grand old three-story building is built around a lobby supported by massive log columns with their bark still intact.
Two Medicine Lake offers boat tours and rentals, a camp store and lots of hiking. Two Medicine Pass Trail offers Rockwell Falls, Cobalt Lake and Two Medicine Pass as destination options. The epic 20-mile Pitamaken-Dawson loop trail is one of those “feather-in-your-hat” hikes worth considering.
The North Fork includes a seven-mile section of gravel road to Polebridge that is a deterrent to some, but adds to the sense of adventure and remoteness. Take the Camas Road to the Outside North Fork Road and near the park entrance you will find the iconic Polebridge Mercantile and Northern Lights Bar, both great stops before or after a hike or outing. There are over a dozen day hikes here, including Numa Lookout and the Quartz Lake Loop.
Glacier National Park by the numbers (2015):
July 2015 traffic counts in West Glacier were 116,244 compared to 19,290 at Two Medicine and 7,121 at Polebridge.
West Entrance 313,783
Two Medicine 52,046
Cut Bank 3,000
Get there for a sunrise or sunset
Experience a different part of the day in the park in the drowsy dawn or dusk hours with their beautiful, changing light. You will also have a better chance at spotting wildlife.
Don’t wait for a perfect day
Clouds and fog can provide an exciting and dramatic landscape. Just pack your rain gear in case the clouds leak.
Do things backwards
It’s hard to stay away from the park in the summer with its rushing waters, wildflower-spackled landscape and bluebird days. One way you can avoid some of the congestion is to do things backwards. Go early and directly to the top of Going-to-the-Sun Road and make stops on your way back to improve chances of finding parking.
Avoid the heaviest used trails, which include Avalanche Lake, Granite Park Chalet, Hidden Lake Overlook, the Highline Trail, Grinnell Glacier and Iceberg Lake.
Do one-way or loop trails backwards. Most hikers prefer to hike to Siyeh Pass from Siyeh Bend because of less climb, but you can take the Sunrift Gorge trailhead for a more peaceful start to your hike. The Loop Trail to Granite Park Chalet is longer and steeper than the Highline Trail at Logan Pass, so it usually has fewer hikers. Once you reach Granite Park Chalet, continue on to Grinnell Glacier Lookout to lose most of the crowd and to enjoy a fantastic view.
Take a bus
Glacier offers a free shuttle July 1 through Labor Day with two-way service along Going-to-the-Sun Road between the Apgar Visitor Center and St. Mary Visitor Center, running every 30 minutes on the west side from the Apgar Visitor Center to Logan Pass and every 40 to 60 minutes on the east side. Buses fill up quickly during peak times so you might have to wait for the next bus.
Historic red bus tours are another great and fun option to reduce vehicles on the busy Going-to-the-Sun Road with the bonus of leaving the driving to someone else on what can be a harrowing drive for those unaccustomed to mountain roads. www.glaciernationalparklodges.com/red-bus-tours
National Parks Centennial – This anniversary party promises to be wild
One hundred years ago on August 25, President Woodrow Wilson signed an act that created the National Park Service. This federal bureau’s purpose is to conserve the scenery, natural and historic objects, and wildlife in areas known as national parks, monuments and reservations to ensure their enjoyment by future generations. Today, there are more than 400 national park areas covering over 84 million acres.
The centennial is being observed across the country as “a defining moment that offers an opportunity to reflect on and celebrate our accomplishments as we prepare for a new century of stewardship and engagement.”
John Muir is credited as one of the earliest and most influential spokesmen for the concept of national parks, as he believed that the experience they offer is essential to the human spirit. He wrote some of the most eloquent and articulate words capturing the beauty and spirit of the park experience. His words probably have only become more profound as time passes.
Go early or go late
More than half of visitors to the park come in July or August. Amenities and access on roads and trails can be limited in June, but it is still a spectacular time to visit the park, with peaks still cloaked in snow, cascading streams and waterfalls, fields exploding with wildflowers and the arrival of baby wildlife. Some facilities are closed after Labor Day, but September and October are also great months to visit the park when combined with less insects, moderate temperatures and brilliant fall colors.
Glacier National Park by the numbers (2015):