What to See in Glacier National Park - Our Experience
Have you ever visited Glacier National Park?
Our Visit to Glacier National Park in Montana
In mid-July, 2010, my husband and I traveled to Glacier National Park in Montana, during its 100th year anniversary of becoming the 10th National Park of the United States.
We had awe-inspiring views of snow-covered mountains, glaciers and glacial valleys, and waterfalls while driving along the Going to the Sun Road, while hiking along a few of its over 700 miles of hiking trails, and while quietly sitting outside our lodging.
We saw a variety of wild-life, including grizzly bears (too close for our taste!), mountain goats, and marmots; saw a bald eagle and heard the beautiful flute-like song of the varied thrush.
We also learned about the many types of spring flowers blooming while we were there (spring comes late to Glacier National Park!), from the showy bear grass to the fields of glacier lilies.
Glacier National Park is one of the most spectacular places we've visited, and we hope to visit again.
All photos on this page are my own except where noted.
Going to the Sun Road
Traversing Glacier National Park
During our first day at Glacier National Park, we traveled the length of the winding 52-mile Going to the Sun Road, which is the only road that travels across the full width of the park.
The road is named after Going to the Sun Mountain on the east side of the park. The elevation on the road ranges from just under 3200 feet at Apgar Village at the west end, to over 6600 feet at Logan Pass on the Continental Divide.
We stopped numerous times at scenic turnouts and for short hikes, including the Trail of the Cedars, with Avalanche Creek Gorge (pictured) along the trail. Some other places to stop along the road include The Weeping Wall, with water cascading down the rock wall next to the road, and the Jackson Glacier Overlook.
Portions of Going to the Sun Road are open year round, but at the higher elevations the road is closed for the winter. This year (2010) the whole length of the road was fully open on June 24. We encountered road work while we were there, and had to stop and wait periodically, but the waits gave us the opportunity to better enjoy the views from the road of snow-capped mountains, glacial valleys, and numerous waterfalls from snow melt.
Ken Burns on Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park Lodging - Photo of Many Glacier Lodge
Years ago we would have backpacked and camped in Glacier National Park. But at this point in our lives (well, my life at least -- my husband enjoys "roughing it" more than I do!), we decided to stay in lodges and chalets within the park.
We stayed for three nights at Many Glacier Lodge (shown above and below), the largest hotel in the park, on Swift Current Lake. We were treated to gorgeous views in all directions, and comfortable lodging and good meals. There's a large fireplace in the center of the commons area, and people gather there to read, relax, and to visit with each other. There are great hiking trails accessed by walking out the door, or by driving a short distance. Besides hiking, people can take a boat ride across the lake, or a Red Jammer Bus tour through different parts of the park.
Many Glacier Lodge
From the Product Description, "From hiking through multi-color meadows filled with wildflowers to observing the Sperry Glacier, a victim of global warming that will vanish in less than two decades, Lomax knows the best ways to enjoy the park’s one million acres of wilderness. She also includes unique trip strategies for travelers with specific interests and restrictions, including a Wildlife-Watching tour and a whirlwind One Day in Glacier tour. Whether it’s biking up Going-to-the-Sun Road or watching a grizzly forage in huckleberries, Moon Glacier National Park gives travelers the tools they need to create a more personal and memorable experience. "
We hiked up to Granite Park Chalet, for the next three nights. I called this "backpacking light" -- we carried up our clothes and other personal gear in packs, while the chalet provided bedding and food for an extra fee. Guests cook and clean up for themselves in a well-apportioned industrial-sized kitchen, with the helpful staff nearby in case of any questions or problems.
Rooms are unheated which was a challenge the first night, since the high temperature for that first day was 37F (with a few snow flurries!). But there was a cozy fire going in the fireplace, and other interesting hikers to talk to. Our room was right across from the out house, making night-time visits a little easier!
There's no running water at the chalet. Guests can buy bottled water at the chalet, or hike 1/4 mile along a rocky path and across snow fields to collect their own water (photo of me with jug of water).
We did some day-hiking from Granite Park Chalet including a trip up to the Continental Divide overlooking Grinnell Glacier, and up to a look-out tower during a wild-flower workshop.
For more information on lodges and camping in Glacier National Park, check Lodges and Chalets in Glacier National Park and Campgrounds in Glacier National Park. Make your reservations many months in advance for lodges and chalets!
Photo of Granite Park Chalet, below, from the National Park Service in the public domain.
Granite Park Chalet
Hiking in Glacier National Park
There are over 700 miles of hiking trails in Glacier National Park. Some are easy, short trails that are accessible to most people, while others are steep, difficult trails crossing over snow fields, streams from snow melt, and rocky areas.
We're from Michigan, at a much lower elevation than anywhere in the park, and the uphills were tiring for me. I needed to stop often to catch my breath, but the views were worth it!
The photo above shows a few of us out on a wild flower hike, looking toward Granite Park Chalet, with the majestic Heaven's Peak in the background. It was a "slow-paced" hike, but still I needed to stop and catch my breath during many of the uphill portions.
Below is a photo of my husband on a huge snow field on the Highline Trail, the day we left Granite Park Chalet. The Highline Trail was my favorite trail on the trip, with the most varied terrain, from easy, flat areas to rocky or snowy terrain. We had views of mountains, glacial valleys, and waterfalls from the glacial melt, and saw a variety of wildlife and wildflowers along the trails. The Highline Trail is one of the more heavily traveled trails in the park, connecting Granite Park Chalet with Logan Pass.
Note the hiking poles! They gave us extra stability when trekking across slippery snow fields, crossing rocky, glacial-melt streams, or for stepping up and down from rocks. They also took some of the pressure off of hip and knee joints.
Large Snow Field on Highline Trail
Wildlife in Glacier National Park
There's plenty of wildlife in Glacier National Park, from grizzly bears to mountain goats and bighorn sheep, to squirrels and chipmunks.
We shared the Highline Trail with a few mountain goats. Notice how this one in the photo is giving us the "evil" eye! We couldn't get by him for awhile. He was bringing up the rear, with the mother and kid a little further up the trail, and anytime we got too close, he'd stop and glare at us.
We saw bighorn sheep in the Logan Pass Visitor Center parking lot, surrounded by tourists, and probably looking for handouts. The rangers tried chasing off the sheep, but that didn't look particularly successful.
There were many mule deer in the Granite Park Chalet area, grazing near the dormitory area and the outhouse. Also in that area, and at higher elevations we saw marmots (they liked trying to get into the outhouse and chewing on old pieces of 2 x 4s), Columbian ground squirrels, golden mantled squirrels, and chipmunks. None of the animals were particularly fearful of us, and the squirrels and marmots were quite bold when they could smell our peanut butter.
Can't resist peanut butter!
There are both black bears and grizzly bears in Glacier National Park. As we were driving into the park we saw a black bear along the road, with a few other cars stopped to take pictures. I prefer to see bears from the safety of our car!
But then out on a hike around Lake Josephine, in the Many Glacier Lodge area, we came around a bend and saw a grizzly mama bear about 35 feet away from us. She stood up on her hind legs to get a better look at my husband (I had just ducked back out of sight), but more out of curiosity than aggression. We retreated for a few minutes, continued on and shortly after we saw her and two cubs further down the trail, going off into the woods. I don't need to be that close to a bear again!
Grizzly bears are common enough in certain areas of the park that hikers need to be prepared for chance encounters.
Some hikers choose to wear "bear bells", to alert bears that they're approaching. (Those with a macabre sense of humor call them "dinner bells"....) Some hikers carry a "bear spray" made from hot peppers, to use in an emergency. One drawback of the bear spray is that people sometimes accidentally spray themselves. (Can you imagine pulling out your bear spray to thwart a charging grizzly, only to spray yourself in the face?? Maybe the screaming would scare off the bear.)
For most people, it works just fine to make noise along the trail by talking, singing, calling out, "Hey bear, we're coming, bear. Mr. Bear, are you there? Go away Mr. Bear". That was the option we chose -- my husband was calling out "Hey Mr. Bear, we're coming through!" before we walked around bends in the trail or if we were in low visibility areas. Apparently Ms. Bear didn't realize we were also talking to her.
Wildflowers in Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park was in bloom when we were there! We saw many varieties of subalpine and alpine flowers in every location we visited.
We took a day-long wildflower workshop, led by naturalist Janet Bones, while we were up at Granite Park Chalet, and we also enjoyed looking at wildflowers as we hiked on our own.
The most prevalent flower we saw in the Granite Park area was the Glacier Lily, shown above, interspersed with Spring Beauties. These two flowers are similar to a couple flowers that bloom in April where we live, but in Glacier this year, they were blooming in mid-July. Our wildflower guide acknowledged that spring in Glacier National Park was later than usual this year.
A striking subalpine flower that's common in Glacier National Park is Bear Grass (side photo). It's not a grass, and bears don't eat it, but the leaves are grass-like, and it's certainly growing in bear-country! The Blackfoot Tribe used the leaves to weave baskets and to make some clothing items.
Bear grass is in the lily family. For another view of bear grass, see the cover of the book Glacier National Park: The First 100 Years.
At higher altitudes, above the tree line, alpine wildflowers are small and close to the ground in order to survive the colder, windier, harsher growing conditions.
One of our favorite alpine flowers was moss campion, shown below. It grows in cushions that stay close to the ground, and each flower is only about a centimeter wide.
Moss Campion -- Alpine wildflower
Our trip to Glacier National Park was one of the most interesting, varied trips we've taken. It was visually stunning on all levels, from the expansive views of the mountains and valleys, to the small splashes of color of alpine flowers.
Parts of the trip were physically challenging for me, from the uphill hikes and mushy, slippery snow fields, to the occasionally very cold and windy weather, but the rewards always out-weighed the challenges.
When Glacier became a National Park, 100 years ago, there were about 150 glaciers in the park. Due to climate changes, now there are only about 25 active glaciers, and those are continuing to shrink. Most likely the glaciers in Glacier National Park will be gone 20 years from now. If you want to see active glaciers in the continental 48 states, plan your trip to Glacier National Park soon! But even without the glaciers, the park will continue to be a beautiful and stunning location to visit.
From the product description:
"C. W. Guthrie, author of four other books on Glacier National Park, details the astonishing changes the park has undergone since its designation in 1910. From the Great Northern Railway's Swiss-style chalets and lodges to the glorious Going-to-the-Sun Road, from the park's tragic first fatal grizzly attacks to its designation as an International Peace Park, Biosphere Reserve, and World Heritage Site, Glacier National Park has a story unlike any other."
Glacier National Park's "Highway to the Sky" - Going to the Sun Road
Product Description: "Traveling Glacier National Park's Going-to-the-Sun Road is an experience like no other. Laborers toiled for nearly 20 years to complete the 50-mile road that winds an impossible route through the heart of Glacier. One of the most scenic highways in the world, this marvel of engineering set the standard for all national parks. C. W. Guthrie tells the intriguing tale of the history and the construction of the epic Going-to-the-Sun Road. Includes more than 60 black-and-white historic and color photographs, maps."
More Useful Information if You Visit Glacier National Park
- Crown of the Continent | National Geographic Magazine
Glacier National Park in Montana, USA, and Waterton Lakes Park in Alberta, Canada include a stretch of the Rocky Mountains that's called "The Crown of the Continent".
- Glacier National Park (U.S. National Park Service)
Explore Glacier National Park
- Going-to-the-Sun Road - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Going-to-the-Sun Road is the only road through the heart of Glacier National Park in Montana, USA.
- Glacier National Park Information Glacier Park
Glacier National Park information has everything you are looking for including, photos, maps, hikes, wildflowers, hotels, services, campgrounds, hiking trails and stories about every part of Glacier National Park
Make sure you read through the last sentence.....
(Image found a few places online)