"Come and experience Glacier's pristine forests, alpine meadows, rugged mountains, and spectacular lakes. With over 700 miles of trails, Glacier is a hiker's paradise for adventurous visitors seeking wilderness and solitude. Relive the days of old through historic chalets, lodges, transportation, and stories of Native Americans." --National Park Service
Glacier National Park is located in the northwest corner of Montana and borders the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. In fact, the park is part of a larger world heritage site known as the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. Glacier encompasses over 1 million acres, two mountain ranges, and more than 1,000 species of plants and animals. Established in 1910, the park sees over 1 million visitors a year.
There is no doubt: Glacier National Park is remote. Our October 2013 road trip to Glacier was part of a larger road trip that included stops in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Utah. We approached from the west, coming from Spokane, Washington and crossing over the tip of Idaho.
From the West
Near the communities of Kalispell, Whitefish, and Columbia Falls, the West Entrance provides access to the Lake McDonald area, Park Headquarters, the Apgar Visitor Center and is the west entry point to the Going-to-the-Sun-Road. From Kalispell, take Highway 2 north to West Glacier (approximately 33 miles).
From the East
St. Mary, Two Medicine, and Many Glacier Entrances – Closest to the town of Browning, all three entrances can be reached by taking Highway 89 north from Great Falls to the town of Browning (approximately 125 miles) and then following signage to the respective entrance.
On our way up to Kalispell, we stayed the night at the Super Eight in St. Regis, Montana. St. Regis is a small town just over the border from Idaho on Interstate 90, which hosts several hotels and restaurants. There was already snow on the ground in October as we made our way up Highway 135, US 90, and around the Flathead Reservation to Kalispell. As we drove, billboards dotted the roads warning visitors and citizens, "Don't Do Meth. Meth is bad."
The drive is quite beautiful as we passed by the National Bison Range and Flathead Lake. Before getting to the park proper, we made a grocery stop in Kalispell, a relatively well developed city.
Places of Interest
Depending on the time of year, Glacier provides ample opportunities for beautiful drives, hiking, and outdoor activities. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived in October the Going-to-the-Sun road, which the park is famous for, already closed due to snowfall.
The park can be divided into the following areas: Goat Haunt (seriously spooky goats), Lake McDonald Valley, Logan Pass, Many Glacier, North Fork, St. Mary Valley, and Two Medicine. We were limited by time, the season, and the dog.
Lake McDonald Valley
Our first stop of the trip was Lake McDonald Valley, the hub of activity on the western side of the park. Situated here is Apgar Visitor Center, several campgrounds and the picturesque Lake McDonald. Dogs were not welcome in the area, so we had to leave the poor boy in the car and our time at this stop was limited.
The water was incredibly blue and clear. The mountains snow capped and surrounded by emerald green forests.
We drove up from the lake as far along the Going-to-the-Sun road as we could. The tranquil teal McDonald Creek with grey rock slabs like something out Picasso's Cubism period borders the road. I'm enamored with the colors and shapes of this creek.
Seriously, the color of this water is surreal.
St. Mary Valley
The drive from Lake McDonald Valley to St. Mary Valley is full of hairpin turns and grand vistas. Speed limits in Montana appear to be suggestions, especially in this rural of an area and during the park off season. We drove behind an RV that was topping 60 mph around curves that in California would be suggested at 15 mph. I suggest pulling over to the side at Goat Lick Overlook to spot mountain goats, one of the many animal species to be found in the park.
This trip imprinted on me why Montana is referred to as Big Sky Country.
We car camped at St. Mary campground. It was noisy and well developed; we were one of the few people in tents. We cooked some asparagus in salsa, ate leftover spaetzle and pig knuckle from our Portland stop, and drank hot cocoa in the quickly plummeting temperatures. This was our coldest night of the trip at around 19 degrees.
Many Glacier was the highlight of our trip to Glacier. It was here that we saw Grizzly Bears. They were far up the mountainside, fattening up for winter. With a mountain side and road between us, a large dog, and their occupation with ample food supply, we were very safe.
It was at Many Glacier that we finally had the opportunity to hike with the dog. We took a short hike around Swiftcurrent Lake on Swiftcurrent Nature Trail. From here you can view Grinnell Glacier and Many Glacier Hotel.
Grinnell Glacier is considered to be the heart of Glacier National Park. Named for George Bird Grinnell, an early American conservationist, it rests on the north flank of Mt. Gould. The glacier has significantly retreated over the years and has lost almost 40% of its acreage. Worst estimates state the glacier could be completely gone by 2030.
Grinnell Glacier can be accessed via trail from Swiftcurrent Lake. It's a 6 mile hike from the trail head.
Many Glacier Hotel
Many Glacier Hotel is a historic, Swiss chalet style hotel located on the eastern shore of Swiftcurrent Lake. Originally named the Glacier Park Lodge, the hotel opened on July 4, 1915. The hotel maintains its historic character in part by not placing televisions in guest rooms. In my opinion, it looks like something straight out of The Shining.
Montana's Glacier National Park is a gem of the national park system. It was definitely worth the two day drive it took us to get there. If you want untarnished wilderness, wildlife viewing, or want to stay in a beautiful, if slightly menacing, historic hotel with views of a rapidly melting glacier than this a must see to put on your list.