Glacier 101

The park's history, getting there, and when to go

A sacred place for Blackfeet Indian vision quests, Montana’s Glacier National Park can be painted in colors: green Lake MacDonald, red brick wall bordering the Going-to-the-Sun Road that bisects the park, the startling blue Birdwoman Falls plunging into the green hanging valley below, the white-capped peaks with names like Heavy Runner, Siyeh, and Triple Divide.

The 1,600-square mile park―dubbed by explorer George Bird Grinnell as “The Crown of the Continent” ―can also be painted by numbers. Formed more than 1.5 million years ago by an inland sea, a mountain-building event, and glaciers, Glacier National Park features 185 named mountains, 762 lakes, 68 species of mammals―including black and grizzly bears―277 species of birds, and 700 miles of hiking trails.

Thinking of visiting? Better not wait. As of 2013 only 20 glaciers remained, and current estimates expect the park to be completely glacierless due to rising temperatures in 2030.

The park's history: Blackfeet, Salish, and Kootenai travelled through the area―Blackfeet and Kootenai have creation stories set here. In 1910, President Taft established the area as a national park and in the next decade, construction workers hauled in logs to build Swiss-style lodges chalets for the Great Northern Railway. American, Swedish, Austrian construction workers and “powder monkeys” as well as Russian stonemasons toiled for eleven years to complete the 48-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road in 1932. Countless visitors have arrived by stagecoach, train, wagon, bus, and finally automobile, to see the lodges, lakes, wildlife, and the grandeur of the mountains the Blackfeet called the “Backbone of the World.”

While much has changed since the first visitors came to Glacier, it is possible to relive some of Glacier’s early history. You can take a horseback ride like an early visitor. Miles of hiking trails follow routes first used by trappers in the early 1800's. Several hotels and chalets, built by the Great Northern Railway in the early 1900's, house summer guests to the park.

Getting there: Glacier lies north-central Montana. Nearest airports are in Kalispell, 25 miles west of park headquarters in West Glacier, and in Great Falls, 150 southeast of the East Glacier. Amtrak serves both East and West Glacier. The Logan Pass section of the Going-to-the-Sun Road generally opens in late May or early June.

When to go: Glacier is mostly a summer park: summer highs run in the 70s. Autumns are beautiful, although park facilities begin shutting down by October. Winters are intense, with 4-feet snowfalls and temperatures in the 10s and 20s. Compared with other parks, Glacier seldom feels crowded even in midsummer, except in the Logan Pass area. But if you can swing an early September visit, you get the best of all worlds: Everything’s open, weather is great, and crowds are sparse.

First-time essentials: Going-to-the-Sun Road offers 50 miles of occasionally scary but mostly awe-inspiring twists and turns and views. Logan Pass, at the road’s crest, has an engaging visitor center and serves as starting point for Highline Trail hikes. Another classic day hike leads from Many Glacier Hotel to Grinnell Glacier—the bonus here is that you can arrange to start the hike with a boat trip across Swiftcurrent Lake, then make the moderately steep climb up to the glacier. Other must-dos: Cruise Lake McDonald on the historic wooden boat, DeSmet, or tour the park on one of the beloved red open-top buses. Boat tours $16; glacierparkboats.com. Bus tours from $30; glaciernationalparklodges.com.

Beat the crowds: Two Medicine Lake, on the park’s eastern side, doesn’t get the attention Lake McDonald does. But it’s a quiet place to spend the day, with hiking and rental boats. Canoes from $18/hour; glacierparkboats.com.

Visitor centers: Rangers are on hand with information, plus there are bookstores, maps, and nature programs at these visitor centers: on the west side near Lake McDonald (Apgar Visitor Center), midway on Going-to-the-Sun Road (Logan Pass Visitor Center), and on the east side off U.S. 89 (Saint Mary Visitor Center).

For more information: 

Glacier National Park Service: (406) 888-7800 or nps.gov/glac

Park entry is $25 per vehicle