What to do in Glacier National Park while everyone else is hiking
Story & photography by Kay Bjork
First there were the glaciers, and then there were the Native Americans, followed much later by fur traders, explorers and settlers. And then there was Glacier National Park.
The establishment of the park in on May 11, 1910 was an exciting moment for Great Northern Railway, which was serving tourists bound for the Northwest. Great Northern ads promoted experiencing the wildness of the park while still enjoying “luxurious comfort” on railcars and in the grand lodges they built in and outside the park to accommodate vacationers for “The Vacation Thrill of a Lifetime.” Ads declared: “Imagine a new world of surpassing bigness, grandeur and natural beauty.” “Glorious Glacier.” “Great Northern Land is Adventure Land.”
The railroad called the new park the “Gateway to the Pacific Northwest” and promoted a stop there before continuing to other national parks, the Pacific Northwest, Alaska or California and then a return through Colorado.
Most visitors arrive by plane or car today, but Glacier Park is still marketed as a rail tourist destination by Amtrak, making it one of the last national park destinations with a railroad connection, something that was once common for park lodges.
Glacier continues to grow in popularity, setting a record in 2017 with over 3 million visitors. Covering over a million acres, the park’s vastness invites visitors to enjoy it in many ways. Famous for hiking, with 151 trails covering 745.6 miles, over half of Glacier Park visitors take a hike, but you can also delve deeper into the park experience through other means while capturing a glimpse into Glacier’s colorful past.
Visit the Historic Lodges
After Glacier Park was established as a national park, Great Northern Railway, led by James J. Hill and his son Louis Hill, started the Glacier Park Company to build and operate accommodations for park visitors. Marketing Glacier as the “American Alps,” Swiss-styled lodges were designed with gabled roofs, soaring ceilings and gigantic spaces wrapped by balconies. Exposed rustic posts and beams and massive stone fireplaces brought a sense of the great outdoors into the handsome lodges.
Glacier Park Hotel (now known as Glacier Park Lodge) was the first built after the park was established, located just outside the park’s eastern boundaries and right across the street from the train platform. The huge rock fireplace and unpeeled log beams and columns echoed the rugged wilderness. Unpeeled Douglas-fir columns, over three feet in diameter, were shipped from the Pacific Coast to support the three-story lobby, while unpeeled local cedar trees were used for the exterior columns. After 15 months of construction, the lodge opened. Upon being flooded with visitors, construction resumed to double the space. A nine-hole golf course added in 1928 was Montana’s first golf course. Today the lodge is owned and operated today by Pursuit’s Glacier Park Collection.
Lake McDonald Lodge was next, built in 1913 by ferrying building materials 10 miles up the lake. This Swiss-styled lodge, designed by Kirtland Cutter. Unpeeled logs, animal mounts and a gigantic walk-in fireplace helped create an atmosphere of an old hunting lodge. Native American phrases in a variety of dialects were etched into the concrete floors, including the welcome greeting “Kla-how-ya” at the lobby entrance. Visitors arrived by boat until the Going-to-the-Sun Road was built in 1932.
In 1914, construction began on Many Glacier Hotel in the northeastern corner of the Park. Composed of four-story building sections and a series of chalets with numerous wings and additions, the sprawling lodge is a grand sight rising from the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake.
Today’s Two Medicine Store is a remnant of the Two Medicine Chalet hotel and dining complex built lakeside in 1914. President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a radio address on Aug. 5, 1934 from the chalet while on a visit to Glacier Park.
Glacier Park Company also constructed lodging at Belton, Cut Bank, Sun Point, St. Mary, Gunsight Lake, and two backcountry chalets at Sperry and Granite Park.
You don’t have to stay at the majestic accommodations to enjoy the ambiance and admire the architecture, décor and artwork while visiting gift shops, restaurants, lounges and special events held at the lodges. Over the years, the lodges have been carefully preserved and restored, so you will feel like you are stepping back in time when you enter.
Horses became a part of the Glacier landscape after Native Americans confiscated them from enemy tribes in the 1700s, allowing them to cover more ground and expand their territory. Horses were also the first mode of transportation for early visitors arriving to Glacier Park on the Great Northern Railway over a hundred years ago. Park visitors often spent days or even weeks traveling through the park in horse-drawn coaches and on horseback to reach lodges and camps that were approximately a day’s trail ride apart.
The family-operated Swan Mountain Outfitters offers a variety of trail rides lasting from an hour long to an overnight trip. The rhythmic sway of a mellow horse and clip-clop of hooves will take you along the trail down memory lane.
Trail rides leave from Apgar, Lake McDonald and Many Glacier locations. Swan Mountain Outfitters is also offering guided tours to the historic Sperry Chalet on Saturdays and Sundays to observe the reconstruction of the chalet burned in the 2017 fire that swept through the area. This ride is recommended for advanced riders. Trail rides are offered in and around the park from mid-May until early October, depending on weather conditions.
Enjoy a History Lesson
Native America Speaks is an award-winning summer program focusing on the park’s natural and cultural history, held at various locations throughout the park, including at St. Mary Visitor Center, Browning, lodges and outdoor amphitheaters. The Native American interpretive program features Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter and Blackfeet tribal member Jack Gladstone, as well as other members of the Blackfeet, Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreille tribes. Blackfeet singers and dancers offer insight into traditional and contemporary Blackfeet culture and history through narration and traditional, fancy, jingle and grass dances. Most of the presentations are free of charge. More information and schedules are available online and at Glacier Park visitor centers.
For more information, visit www.nps.gov/glac.
Take a Bus Tour
Experience the splendor of Glacier on an historic red bus while a seasoned park guide shares park information and history. The 1930s buses’ rollback tops allow a closer look and a more sensory experience as you travel the thrilling Going-to-the-Sun Road.
The red buses were first built and introduced to the park in 1914 by the Cleveland-based White Motor Company. Many of today’s buses have been in service since the 1930s. The buses were last updated in 1999-2002 through a collaboration with Ford and are scheduled for more updates in the next few years, including an advanced fuel system that will decrease emissions and increase fuel economy by 25 percent.
The fleet of 33 buses in operation today is thought to be the oldest touring fleet of vehicles in the world. The buses sell out quickly and seat 17 snugly, so don’t come with gear that needs its own seat. Tours on the east side operate from June 8 to September 20 and from May 18 to October 20 on the west side.
The Sun Tours offer the comfort of modern air-conditioning, but also provide a journey into the past as interpretive tour guides who are lifetime residents of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation share insights into the natural and cultural significance of Glacier Park. Buses leave from St. Mary, Browning, Apgar Visitor Center, and various locations in East Glacier. Tours are offered from mid-May to the end of September.
For more information, visit www.glaciernationalparklodges.com/red-bus-tours.
Glacier’s classic wooden boats were built as early as 1926 by a Flathead Lake boat builder named Captain J.W. Swanson and have been owned by three generations of the Burch family since 1938, when Arthur Burch established Glacier Park Boat Company.
Getting on the water is a great way to get a different perspective and 360-degree views of Glacier Park while learning facts from the boat captain and capturing a glimpse of the park’s namesake glaciers. Traveling on water gives you unobstructed views of the rugged mountains that rise like nature’s skyscrapers from the sparkling lakes while you take in the great scent of the lake and surrounding forests. Glacier Park Boat Company offers wooden boat tours and small boat rentals at Lake McDonald, Two Medicine and Swiftcurrent lakes.
While touring Two Medicine Lake on The Sinopah (the oldest boat in the fleet) you can learn about the history of the Blackfeet tribes. Leaving from Rising Sun, Little Chief boat will take you to corners of St. Mary Lake not visible from the road, past the remains of Great Northern Railway president Louis Hill’s private cabin. The DeSmet leaves from Lake McDonald Lodge and cruises along Lake McDonald to the backdrop of the craggy peaks forming the Continental Divide. Leaving from Many Glacier Lodge on Swiftcurrent Lake, the Chief Two Guns tour takes you to a short hike to Lake Josephine, where you can catch the Morning Eagle boat for another lake excursion.
For more information, visit www.glacierparkboats.com.
A special note: Glacier Park visitors have increased dramatically in recent years, and despite closures due to wildfire last summer, there were nearly 3 million visitors in 2018, the second highest on record. Parks officials recommend that visitors have alternative options on their itineraries in case areas, events or tours are already full.