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From the pages of Camping Life Magazine
Mountain goats have earned a reputation for being especially sure-footed. You can see them on the steepest alpine faces, ambling along in single file, casually straddling knife-edge ridges and negotiating narrow ledges as routinely as we drive our morning commute.
At the end of our first day in Glacier National Park, as we readied our first camp, an extended family of these fascinating animals made their way over Lincoln Pass, some 500 vertical feet above, and wandered down to check us out.
Sometimes they find food this way, in the form of scraps left behind by hikers or even as outright handouts. Both are detrimental to the goats in the long run, not to mention prohibited in the park, so when they approached us, we had only empty palms and a clean site. But they were persistent!
On several occasions, the bravest would come inches away from my camera’s lens, as if to taste it. When I released the shutter, the noise startled the poor goat.
It then went tearing away like a cockroach caught in the light, falling clumsily all over itself in retreat. I felt terrible. After a short rest though, he regained his composure and returned for a few more photos; but the myth of the sure-footed mountain goat had been forever dispelled.
An exact headcount of the goats has not been made, but the odds are that you’ll see one on your visit to Glacier National Park. They roam the park as confidently and capably (at least most of the time) as anything else on the ground, and there’s a lot of ground to cover. The fourth-largest national park in the continental U.S., Glacier spans more than one million acres of rugged alpine terrain in the north-west corner of Montana. A section of the Continental Divide nearly 100 miles long divides the park into its eastern and western halves.
Glacier earned national park status in 1910 with the help of George Bird Grinnell, its greatest proponent at the time. “Nestled in a far-off corner of Montana,” he wrote, “is the crown of the entire continent.” The park takes its name from the impressive tracts of super-compacted snow that line the park’s highest valleys. Formed a few thousand years ago, the 50 glaciers seen today are actually quite young in geologic terms. These days, they’re receding, as they have been for the past few centuries; more snow and ice melts each summer that accumulates each winter. As the ice moves, at a glacial pace, it scours a path through the mountains, moving tons of rock and transforming the landscape.
Though the present glaciers are hard at work as you read this, we have to look a little further back to understand the forces that shaped the area. Geologists theorize that about 20,000 years ago the climate was cold and wet enough to fill what is now known as western Montana with ice so deep that only the very peaks of the 170-million-year-old Rockies remained above the surface. These giant rivers of ice are responsible for the spectacular hanging valleys, cirques, knife-edge arêtes and more than 200 mountain lakes in the park.
When a glacier recedes, it dumps the rock and debris it has collected in massive piles called moraines. These giant gravel mounds are the first part of the new landscape to develop lichens, moss and eventually soil. Today, in Glacier’s alpine meadows, there are over 1,000 species of flowers in magnificent colors, ranging from pale-blue forget-me-nots to glacial lilies and burgundy fireweed. In the lower elevations, coniferous forests dominate the terrain.
If the plant life doesn’t hold your attention, the animals surely will. In addition to the goats, there are elk, moose, bighorn sheep and mule deer. Coyotes, bobcats, lynx and mountain lions also roam the area along with marmots, squirrels and porcupines. In the sky, 250 species of birds have been counted, including the endangered bald eagle.
There is no better way to experience the natural wonders of the park than to overnight in the backcountry. WE spent four days exploring and our only regret was that we didn’t have more time. Beginning in the thick woods at Lake McDonald, we worked our way up Sprague Creek, climbing 3400 feet in less than 7 miles. At the end of the day we reached treeline, settling in for the night at Sperry Campground. Our “entrance fee” to the mountains had been paid.
Sperry Campground, like many of Glacier’s backcountry sites, is small, low profile and beautiful. The half-dozen tent areas were impeccably clean and well-spaced. From our sheltered spot we could view the entire Sprague Valley below. Completing the gorgeous camp, a mirror-smooth tarn reflected the peaks above.
The next morning we climbed the switchbacks up to Lincoln Pass and were overcome by the stunningly scenic country on the other side. Snowfields dotted the steep walls of the valley, their summer runoff cascading into the turquoise waters of Lake Ellen Wilson below. Our site was not 30 feet from its shore, and though the skies threatened to storm that night, the breathtaking clouds tore through the mountains without shedding a drop. It was a magnificent spot to spend the evening.
We were sad to leave, but we had a mountain range to cross the next day. Our lunch break was spent straddling the Continental Divide, and for fun we would have dumped some water in to the Pacific and Atlantic at once if it had not become such a precious commodity; temperatures had again soared into the mid-80s. Descending to Gunsight Lake along the valley’s southern wall, we looked across in awe at the massive scars the great glaciers left as they plowed through the area thousands of years before. As if the scene were a giant woodcarving, the sedimentary grain of the rock and the scouring by glacial debris jumped out at us wherever we looked.
A moderately long, but gentle, hike through dense woods completed our trip, one of the many great routes in the backcountry. For those with a little more time (plan at least 7 days) the Many Glacier loop would be ideal; shorter trips there, either. There’s a shuttle service along Going-to-the-Sun Road and hitchhiking is legal within the park’s boundaries.
Permits for overnight trips are required, and obtaining the route of your choice can be difficult without a reservation; we had to change our trip slightly as a result.
For car campers or RV adventurers staying in park service campgrounds, day hikes, both short and long, abound. Avalanche Lake Trail (4 miles round trip) and the Hanging Garden Walk (3 miles round-trip) offer waterfall, lake, and wildflower views. Iceberg Lake Trail is a long, 10-mile round-trip. But having lunch next to the iceberg-studded lake (and maybe a swim, if you’re really courageous) is well worth the effort.
If you plan on doing some day hiking and want to avoid the crowds, don’t overlook the Many Glacier area. There, you’ll find the trailhead to Iceberg Lake, in addition to some short nature loops. And if you really want to work those soles, there’s a naturalist-led, 11-mile round-trip day hike to Grinnell Glacier.
Cut in 1932, the Going-to-the-Sun Road, with its tunnels, switchbacks and hand-built stones arches, is an engineering spectacle and the only automotive route through the center of the park. The 50-mile journey from Apgar to St. Mary takes at least two hours. If you’re in a big hurry, use the more direct Route 2 at the southern end of the park.
Large vehicles and trailers are prohibited from the narrow, winding Going-to-the-Sun Road, though tours in antique canvas-top sightseeing buses are available, a good choice even for those without a big rig, especially if driving along precipitous drops make you uncomfortable.
At Logan Pass (on the Continental Divide along Going-To-The-Sun Road), a crowded parking lot mars an otherwise perfect scene. The visitor center there is worth a look, but the nearby peaks and broad vistas are the real attraction. You won’t want to linger up there though, since high winds often make it feel 20 to 30 degrees cooler than it really is. Between the many interesting turnoffs and the unhurried summer traffic, plan on spending most of the day on this drive, it’s one of the most enjoyable in all of the national parks. No matter how you choose to enjoy Glacier National Park, your visit to the crown of our continent will be an adventure you’ll never forget.
Waterton Lakes National Park
Glacier’s northern boundary is a section of the world’s longest undefended border: the 49th parallel between the United States and Canada. Alberta’s Waterton Lakes National Park, while far smaller than its Montana neighbor, boasts equally dramatic scenery. In 1932, the Waterton/Glacier symbolizes the friendship between the two nations.
By 1975, the intelligent and powerful grizzly bear had been nearly driven to extinction in the lower 48 states. Today, it is making a moderate comeback, especially in northwestern Montana, where approximately one-third of the 1000 or so grizzlies outside of Alaska and Canada make their home. Weighing as much as 600 pounds are able to sprint up to 35 mph, they command respect. More common (yet no less dangerous) black bears are also seen in the park; they wear either black or brown fur and are adept tree-climbers.
Though not naturally vicious (bears live on grass, berries, roots, fish and insects) a small number have lost their fear of humans and attacks have occurred.
During your visit, especially if you venture into the backcountry, keep the following tips in mind:
• Never, for any reason (including photography!) approach a bear.
• Never feed bears or leave food or garbage unattended; fed bears become aggressive toward
people (in order to get more food) and often must be destroyed by rangers.
• When hiking, make loud noises to avoid surprising a bear; most will move off long before
you know they are there. Avoid berry patches and dead animals; a bear will fiercely defend
these food sources.
• When camping, keep food tightly sealed and out of reach. In the backcountry, poles are often
provided to hang your food, but you must bring at least 25 feet of cord; eat only in
the designated cooking area and don’t spill on your clothes.
• If you encounter a bear, don’t run, or you may be chased. Avoid eye contact (eye contact may
cause the bear to think you are a threat), talk softly and retreat slowly.
• Pepper spray is an effective bear deterrent but not a panacea; firearms are prohibited in Glacier
Eight campgrounds within the park are accessible by paved road, and though nearly all of them accommodate large vehicles, there are no hookups. These developed sites cost $10 to $12 a night and generally fill by mid-afternoon. Reservations are not permitted.
Five primitive campgrounds are available along the park’s edges; inquire before towing a trailer on the rough gravel access roads. At the Saint Mary, Two Medicine, and Many Glacier areas, it is imperative you get a sheltered site since thunderous winds and the stake-proof ground can make tent camping unpleasant if not impossible.
Privately owned campgrounds on Route 2, near Apgar, offer hookups and well-kept washroom facilities.
When You Go
Although Glacier is open year-round, snow removal doesn’t begin on Going-To-The-Sun Road until late April or early May. The plowing, which triggers tremendous avalanches, is one of the park’s most popular events of the year. The road doesn’t actually open until mid-June and often closes in October. Wildflowers are in best form in late July and August, with the highest areas holding out until September.
Daytime highs (in high summer) can reach the upper 80s and 90s, but bring plenty of warm clothing anyway. Storms can brew suddenly and without warning, with heavy rain and high winds like only the mountains can deliver. For hiking, sturdy, waterproof footwear is essential. In the lower elevations, especially in the western half of the park, bug juice comes in handy.
For more information, contact Glacier National Park, Park Headquarters, West Glacier, MT 59936; 406/888-7800. Or check out its website at