Glacier National Park
You don’t cross Montana without finding a way to get to Glacier National Park. Coming to Montana without visiting Glacier is basically a waste of an opportunity to see The Crown Of The Continent, one of the most amazingly beautiful places we’ve ever seen.
Given that, we decided that our trip to Alaska would entail visiting Glacier just before crossing into Canada to visit Banff and continue our journey.
Pristine, Natural Beauty
Glacier National Park has been maintained as a pristine wilderness environment. There is only one main road through the park, meaning that most of the park has to be explored on foot.
The range of climates in the park makes for an incredible mix of flora and fauna, from grizzly and black bears to Canadian lynx and mountain lions to numerous species of ungulates (deer, moose, elk, etc). In fact, the park has been retained in such a great naturally pristine condition that:
Virtually all the historically known plant and animal species, with the exception of the bison and woodland caribou, are present, providing biologists an intact ecosystem for plant and animal research.
There are 62 documented species of mammal residing in the park. If you’re into birds, there are plenty of those too, with 260 species documented. This includes Bald and Golden Eagles, along with species of falcons, hawks, osprey, and owls, to name a few. Add in 23 species of fish and a few types of reptiles and amphibians and you get one incredibly diverse ecosystem.
The entire park is virtually pollution free since there is little in the way of population density in the area or heavy industry.
Glacier National Park Recreation
As you’d expect in a huge park with only one road, hiking is a major recreational activity. Unfortunately, there are lots of grizzlies and other large mammals in Glacier National Park, so you can’t take your furry friend on trails with you. For that reason (and the rain we had every…single…day), we didn’t actually get to hike in Glacier.
If it’s too cold and snowy for hiking, there’s cross-country skiing, at least at lower elevations. With over 700 lakes, boating is also a major activity. Motor boats aren’t allowed in all areas, but most of the larger lakes allow them. According to the Glacier National Park website, fishing is very popular and some of the best fly fishing in the nation is here.
Swimming, on the other hand, is not a suggested activity. The water is glacially cold. It’s frigid. Hypothermia is a concern year-round. As Scott put it, it’s scream-like-a-girl cold. There’s a reason that drowning is the number one cause of death in Glacier National Park. If you are unlucky enough to fall into one of the rushing streams, you’ll likely be too shocked by the sub-50 degree water to fight back, should you even be conscious after being tossed through a set of ferocious rapids. Seriously, watch your footing when viewing the gorgeous scenery and don’t push your luck.
Finally, there are several campgrounds in Glacier National Park, along with plenty just outside of the park gates (like Glacier Campground).
Going To The Sun Road
There are only two ways to get from the eastern edge of Glacier National Park to the western edge, short of driving a few hundred extra miles. You can take US-2, which runs along the southern border of Glacier and the northern border of connecting Flathead National Forest. While US-2 is a gorgeous drive, running through a forested valley and alongside the Flathead River, it pales in comparison to Going To The Sun Road, a winding mountain road that crosses the Continental Divide at Logan Pass.
Going To The Sun Road runs east-west through the entire park and has some of the most incredible scenic views you’ve ever seen. When we first arrived, we were more than a tad disappointed that the road was still closed for post-winter repairs. We were told that it might open on Wednesday, the day we were planning to head north into Canada. As luck would have it, it opened Tuesday afternoon, giving us the chance to drive the entire route on our way up to Canada.
It was a foggy 40-degree day and there was still road construction, but the drive was incredible and worth the 2.5 hours it took us to cover about 50 miles. Obviously, you shouldn’t go this way if you’re in a hurry.
If you have the option, drive the road from east to west, which will put you on the side of the road closest to the mountain about 75% of the time, rather than the side closest to the sheer drop-off into oblivion.
Waterton Lakes National Park
Glacier National Park borders the much smaller Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada. Together, they form what is known as Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, a designation dating back to 1932 when they became the world’s first international peace park.
We only visited Waterton Lakes briefly on our way to Banff. We were told to visit the Prince of Wales Hotel for tea, but that proved to cost $30 per person, so we passed. In the hour that we spent in the park though, we can tell you that it, too, is incredibly scenic. It’s definitely worth visiting to see the idyllic hotel overlooking the deepest lakes in the Rocky Mountains.
Glacier National Park is in northwestern Montana, in the region formed by the Canadian border, Interstate 15, and Interstate 90. Kalispell, about 30 miles west of the park, is the nearest airport. Great Falls on the eastern side is about 2.5 hours away.
If you haven’t gathered, Glacier National Park is unbelievably gorgeous. There is a reason that it’s known as The Crown of the Continent. Here are the pictures we took in an effort to do the area justice.
If you’re as lucky as we were, you’ll get up close and personal with a little bear cub in a tree while winding across Going To The Sun Road. Just remember, where there’s a youngster, there’s usually a mother that is far less likely to be cute and cuddly.