Glacier National Park Overview | Geography and Geology | Getting Around | West Glacier + Lake McDonald | Logan Pass | Saint Mary + Rising Sun | Two Medicine | Many Glacier | Polebridge + Bowman Lake | Goat Haunt | Boating and Paddling | Backpacking | Wildlife | Weather | Pets
One of America's original national parks, and among the most visited today, is Glacier. The park was established in 1910, and it's no wonder that for more than 100 years people have found their way to this place in Montana's remote northwest corner. The mountains here, along with forests that drape them and lakes that reflect them, seem to hold a certain magnetism. The region is a long-time hunting ground and spiritual retreat for native people. It was frequented by explorers, scientists, and outdoorsmen in the late 19th century, and it has always been known for abundant wildlife, plant life, and rich geology.
Then there are, of course, the glaciers. As the name suggests, Glacier National Park is a stunning example of the power of ice on a landscape. The sculpted peaks and carved valleys are what's left of larger mountains that Ice Age glaciers chewed apart. Glaciers are masses of ice so thick that they slide downhill under their own weight, but ever so slowly. They form in places where more snow falls in a winter than can possibly melt before the next, and years' worth of snowfall aggregate into compressed layers of ice. As the mass inches downslope and inevevitably melts at lower elevations, winter continually adds snow to the top, and the glacier's flow is perpetuated. As they move, the grinding of ice and rushing of meltwater erode rock underneath, creating features like Glacier National Park's steep slopes, jagged ridgelines, deep valleys, and crystal lakes.
The massive glaciers of the Ice Age are no more, and the remnants left today are melting faster than they can replenish. At the turn of the 20th century there were approximately 100 glaciers in the park, but today only 25 remain, and all appear to be on their way out. Their size has generally declined since the Ice Age, but record-high average annual temperatures and steadily longer melting seasons have greatly accelerated their retreat over the past century. By 2030 the park's namesakes may be gone entirely. Though the time to see glaciers in Glacier National Park may be limited, it remains a natural wonderland with snowbound winters, blooming summers and every increment of seasons in between that streak the slopes with color any time of year.
In the vastness of North America's complex landscape, one major feature stands out as being more geographically significant than any other—a mountain range so stark and extensive that it physically defines east vs. west on this landmass. These mountains are the Rockies, which by their rugged crest form the Continental Divide. Any water that falls east of the Continental Divide flows toward the Atlantic Ocean, and all water on the west flows toward the Pacific. Thus, it is the demarcation of North America's two major watersheds.
Glacier National Park sits on an especially notable part of this divide, where a third major watershed enters like a huge slige of geographer's pie. This is the section of watercourses that empty into Hudson Bay, and it touches the Continental Divide at the top of the aplty named Triple Divide Peak in Glacier. Known as the "Crown of the Continent," Glacier is one a few places on Earth where three continental watersheds reach an apex. They are not the tallest mountains of the Rockies, but their position and lay of surrounding land makes them geographically unique.
The rocks that comprise this range are notable as well, particularly for the rich fossil record they bare. The peaks here were formed by the same major tectonic events that shaped the rest of the Rocky Mountains, but the great tectonic collision caused a unique effect here. A great swath of very old sedimentary rocks were pushed sideways, rather than simply buckling up, and they slid somewhat smoothly over top of younger rocks. Therefore, layers in Glacier suffered much less deformation than often happens in mountain building, and today they offer some of the best preserved fossils of early life on Earth.
The area has been inhabited by Native Americans for a long time, and the park's eastern boundary today is the Blackfeet Reservation, and the Flathead Reservation is nearby. The Lewis and Clark expedition passed just to the south in 1806, but extensive exploration by Europeans didn't happen until the mid 1800s. Many of those visitors were completely captivated by this place, and they were committed to spreading awareness among the American public. Settler James Willard Shultz and anthropologist George Bird Grinnell were two of the most influential. Willard first visited in 1885 as a client of Shultz's guided hunting trips, but they would together spend much time exploring in later years. Both were fascinated by native lifestyles, wildlife, and the landscape, and each wrote emphatically about the region in literature read nationwide.
What Grinnell in 1901 called an "unmapped corner" at the far northern bound of the U.S. Rockies easily awakened public imagination, and even though most could not reach this remote and roadless area, a movement began to protect it. Grinnell, Shultz, and several others convinced Congress and President William Howard Taft to designate Glacier National Park in 1910.
The Great Northern Railway company was actually a huge player in conservation of the area as well. They began to advertise Glacier's natural splendor upon completion of their railroad in 1891, which passed just south of what would become the national park. After the 1910 designation, Great Northern began funding many lodges, hotels, and chalets in and around the park, making it accessible to casual tourists while also bringing business to the railroad.
Very few roads led into the park, however, and the only way to access the interior of the range was by rugged trail. By the 1920s, increasing visitation and use of automobiles convinced managers that the park should be traversable by road. This would be a serious undertaking, and a true feat of engineering for the time. The National Park Service's chief engineer George Goodwin drew the plan and construction began in 1921, but it was slow going. Three years later, a young landscape architect named Thomas Chalmers Vint sparked a debate when he approached Park Service director Stephen Mather with an alternative plan. Vint's would have fewer switchbacks, lesser gradient, and much less visual impact in the climb to the west side of the Continental Divide at Logan Pass. Construction was underway at either end of the road, but had not yet begun on the climb to the pass, which would be the crux of the whole project.
To Goodwin it seemed absurd that Vint, who worked as an assistant in a lower office, would challenge his design, but Vint was confident and Mather took him seriously. Even though Vint's plan would be costlier, Mather admired his approach to laying with the land, rather than roughly cutting into it like Goodwin's switchback-heavy route. In the end Vint's design won, and Going-to-the-Sun Road opened in 1933, with only one switchback and a long, scenic traverse of the Garden Wall climbing steadily to Logan Pass. Today the road remains the only way to cross the park by car, and it is one of the most beautiful mountain drives anywhere in the country.
Around the same time the road was completed, conversations with Canada produced the world's first International Peace Park. Waterton Lakes National Park, just north of Glacier on the other side of the border, joined an agreement to establish Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park in 1932. This means the parks are administered separately and under respective national jurisdictions, but administrators work openly together on ecological management and visitor experiences. Since this designation, the two parks have also been recognized by the United Nations as Biosphere Reserves and World Heritage Sites.
Glacier National Park has several entrances, none of which are especially easy to reach from main transportation routes, but that hardly deters the 4 million people who visit each year. West Glacier and Saint Mary, at opposite ends of Going-to-the-Sun Road, are by far the most popular entrances, and the traffic/parking along this road can become a nightmare during the busy summer season. Unless you are entering especially early or late in the day, consider taking the park's free shuttle along Going-to-the-Sun Road. It stops at every major destination approximately every 30 minutes.
Other park entrances are isolated from Going-to-the-Sun Road and have only one way in and out. These have no shuttle service. Nowhere in Glacier is safe from filled-up parking lots, so try to arrive early to get a spot, be prepared to park farther away and walk, or have an alternative plan in mind.
Glacier is unique among most national parks in that it is served by Amtrak. There is a station at East Glacier Village and another at West Glacier. From the train station you can taxi, shuttle, bike, or walk into the park and ride the free shuttles from there. Bicycling is an increasingly popular way to travel Going-to-the-Sun Road, though tight turns, lack of shoulders, and heavy traffic make it unsafe during busy hours. During early season (before Memorial Day), the road may be partially or fully cleared of snow before it is open to cars. Bikes can travel freely during these periods, through caution is recommended because of water and ice on the road. Some campgrounds in the park also offer walk-in and bike-in sites that are available on a first-come, first-served basis, and they are almost always easier to get than vehicle sites.
West Glacier is typically the busiest entrance, and it is the site of park headquarters. It is close to the western end of Lake McDonald, the largest lake in the park. Like the others, it is a basin carved by a glacier that long ago advanced and then receded, leaving a giant pool of meltwater that today stays full with runoff from the mountains. The town of West Glacier has restaurants, shops, accomodations, and a small Amtrak station just outside the park boundary, and Apgar Village is a short drive beyond the entrance station. Apgar is the location of a visitor center, the backcountry office, a few shops, restaurants, campgrounds, and boat dock. Beyond Apgar are the accomodations, more lake access, and trailheads near Lake McDonald Lodge.
This is the point where Going-to-the-Sun Road crosses the Continental Divide at 6,646 feet above sea level. Here there is a parking lot, visitor center, and a few popular trailheads. This is one of the best places in the park to see mountain goats and bighorn sheep. They often hang out very near the parking lot, Highline Trailhead, or along the Hidden Lake Trail. Parking at Logan Pass is notoriously difficult during the summer season. You should try to get there very early in the day or ride the park's free shuttle from another parking area instead. The Loop is the one large switchback in Going-to-the-Sun Road, which has a parking area, overlooks, and one trailhead. It located west of Logan Pass before the road makes its long and narrow traverse of the Garden Wall.
Saint Mary is the park's east entrance, named for the large lake that fills the valley here. Though the west end of Going-to-the-Sun Road gets more traffic, the east end along Saint Mary Lake is often touted as even more beautiful. There are a number of popular trailheads, overlooks, lake access, and campgrounds on this side. Rising Sun is the spot about halfway along the length of the lake where there is a campground, motor inn, restaurant, picnic area, and boat tours. The outpost of St. Mary, just outside the park bounday, offers some amenities and accomodations. The small town called East Glacier, located farther south past Two Medicine, offers a bit more plus an Amtrak station.
This is one of Glacier's isolated areas, and it is not accessible from Going-to-the-Sun Road. It therefore gets less traffic than other park entrances, but it is well worth the visit and by no means unpopular. The road here runs alongside two beautiful lakes and accesses a campground, a store, a boat tour dock, and trailheads. Some of Glacier's longest and proudest hikes begin at Two Medicine Lake.
An isolated but well-known corner of the park in the northeast, Many Glacier is the site of Lake Sherbourne, beautiful Swiftcurrent Lake, historic Many Glacier Hotel, and a few popular trailheads. Parking can quickly fill up at the hotel and at trailheads, but it may be found near the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn or at smaller pulloffs along the road.
The Polebridge, or North Fork, entrance is tucked away in the northwest corner of the park. You can get there by Inside North Fork Road, which is an unpaved road within the park boundary, or Outside North Fork Road, which is a partially paved road west of the boundary. Outside North Fork is generally faster. Once in Polebridge, however, the only way to reach anything of note within the park is by a narrow, windy dirt road with two-way traffic. It is passable for any car in dry weather, but is difficult for large vehicles. Trailers are never recommended.
The most remote section of the park, Goat Haunt Ranger Station is only accessible by trail or by water. You can hike or horsepack here as a multi-day trip from Kintla Lake, Bowman Lake, The Loop, or Many Glacier area. The other access is an easy day trip across Upper Waterton Lake in Canada. Visitors beginning in Waterton Lakes National Park can take a boat tour or ranger-led hike across the international border to visit Goat Haunt. Backpackers can cross the border on trails unaccompanied if proper paperwork has been completed along with backcountry permit.
Watercraft are a great way to experience Glacier because of its many pristine lakes. In order to keep them pristine, however, there are a few important regulations to be followed by anyone bringing their own boat into the park. Boat tours are available for a fee on Lake McDonald, Saint Mary Lake, and Two Medicine Lake. Most lakes with paved road access have canoes available for rent. All lakes are open to personal nonmotorized craft from June 1 through September 30. Lake McDonald is open to all personal craft, including gas motor boats from May 12 through October 31. This is the only lake that allows trailered, motorized boats. Any craft entering Glacier, including paddle craft, must pass inspection. This is to protect the waterways from invasive mussels that have been introduced elsewhere in the Northwest.
During the open boating season from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., motor boats can be inspected at the public boat ramp in Apgar on Lake McDonald. The National Park Service will honor proof of Montana State, Whitefish Lake, and Blackfeet Tribal inspection. All nonmotorized craft must be inspected by National Park Service staff in the park. Inspectors are normally located at ranger stations in Apgar, Two Medicine, Saint Mary, and Many Glacier from 7:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Outside of these hours or outside of the legal season, you cannot get inspected and therefore you cannot launch. Note that there is no inspection station at Polebridge, so if you want to paddle on Bowman or Kintla Lake, you must pass inspection elsewhere first.
Much of Glacier is accessible by road, and the vast majority of visitors are content staying within 100 yards of their car, whether sightseeing or camping. The majority of the terrain, however, is inaccessible by road. There are more than 700 miles of trails, plus 65 backcountry campsites, a few of which are accessible by both trail and water. Trails are always open for day hiking, but backcountry camping requires a permit. These can be reserved in advance online or obtained as walk-in permits at any ranger station the day before or day of the start of your hike. Neither way is guaranteed; sites are limited and requests are processed in the order they are received. Reserving at least one month in advance is your best bet for getting the camps you want, but there is a nonrefundable $10 processing fee for reservations plus a $30 fee if your request can be fulfilled, then a $7 per person per night fee due when you pick up your permit on arrival. Walk-in permittees need only pay the per person per night fee, so it may be worth it to gamble on standing in line for a walk-in permit.
Backpacking in Glacier requires certain considerations that may not matter elsewhere, especially bear safety. All backpackers are required to watch a wildlife safety video upon checking in and picking up permits. Other factors that may come into play on some trails are water crossings, snow and ice travel, and international border crossing (if entering Waterton Lakes).
Glacier is known just as well for its wildlife as for anything else. Nearly all species that lived here prior to European settlers can still be found. These include top predators like black bears, grizzlies, wolves, and mountain lions. The latter two are rarely seen, but bears can pose significant danger to people in the park, especially hikers and campers. It is imperative to educate yourself and practice proper bear safety when visiting Glacier, even if you don't plan on straying far from a vehicle.
More benign residents include mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, foxes, eagles, and the extremely elusive Canadian lynx and wolverines. Goats and sheep are commonly seen near park roads and trails, especially around Logan Pass. As with all large wildlife, they can be dangerous if provoked, however, so be sure to keep a safe distance. There is also the alternative risk of them becoming too accustomed and potentially reliant on people, so the park enforces penalties for petting or feeding any wildlife.
Glacier is cold and snowy for much of the year, so the summer visitation season is rather short. Going-to-the-Sun Road does not typically open until Memorial Day or even later. Once the road is open, all services in the park open as well, and the park comes to life. Summer is understandably popular because of warm days, cool nights, and generally dry weather. Showers and thunderstorms pop up occasionally, especially in May and June, but they become less common in July and August. Weather cools and leaves start to change by mid-September, and fall colors last into mid-October or later at the lower elevations. Autumn weather tends to be variable, with more frequent rain and even snow beginning to fall. Lodging and other services within the park begin to shut down by the end of September.
These cold seasons see very low visitation, and for good reason. Most of the park is completely snowbound from November to May. Only St. Mary and Apgar visitor centers and camprounds are open, and with limited facilities. Lodging and most other services in the park are not available, and most concessions in small towns bordering the park shut down as well. Trails and backcountry campsites remain open all year, but they are not cleared or maintained in any way during winter, so snowshoeing and skiing are the best ways to get around in the park. Backcountry camping is free during the off season, but it still requires a permit.
Pets are allowed in Glacier, but they are restricted to certain areas. This is out of consideration for all visitors as well as park wildlife, some of which would pose a deadly threat in any encounter with a pet. Pets are allowed only along roads, in parking lots, picnic areas, frontcountry campgrounds, and boats on lakes where motorized watercraft are permitted. They are never allowed in park buildings, on trails, along lakeshores, or at backcountry campsites. Closed roads are considered backcountry areas, so pets are not permitted on roads when they are not open to vehicles. Dogs must be on a leash, attended at all times, and always cleaned up after.