Our National Parks: Glacier National Park

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1992

Our National Parks: Glacier National Park
By Alston Chase and Debra Shore

West Glacier, MT 59936
Established 1910
1,013,598 Acres

The Big Picture: Human beings have always played second fiddle in Glacier. It's the only national park that still contains healthy populations of mountain lions, black bears, and grizzlies (at least 200), and it was the port of entry in 1982 for the Magic Pack, the first documented pack of gray wolves to return from Canada. Bighorn sheep, moose, mountain goats, coyotes, bald eagles, and mule deer all draw a sustenance from the park that it's never been willing to yield to the various human droves --Blackfeet Indians, prospectors, trappers--who've tried to tame it. Only a modern tribe, the kind that wears backpacks and hiking boots, has successfully explored the 48 glaciers, more than 650 lakes, 10,000-foot peaks, and alpine forests that make up the interior of Glacier and its Canadian partner, Waterton Lakes National Park--proof that this park can be accommodating, depending on what you ask of it.

Where Everyone Goes:
Traffic report: 2,096,966 total visitors, 22,909 backcountry visitors

The 52-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road, which crosses the park from west to east. The 20-foot wide road, finished in 1932 after two decades and $2 million, is a historic landmark of civil engineering. So many of the park's visitors stick to the road, which is usually open from mid-June to late October, because it gives the illusion of backcountry without the work. In a day you can drive (or bike on some sections) past glacier fields and 11-mile-long Lake McDonald, cross the Continental Divide at 6,646-foot Logan Pass, take a few quick hikes, and be at a lodge in St. Mary by sunset.

Where You Should Go: There are 62 designated backcountry sites in Glacier, and if you go far enough away from Going-to-the-Sun Road, you can almost always get a site at the developed campgrounds. Get a backcountry permit, stay on the trail (low impact is king here), and make sure you don't skip the what-to-do-if-you-meet-a-bear talk before heading out.

The northern section of the park is the least accessible and therefore the least visited. The 36.6-mile Boulder Pass Trail starts at the end of a dirt road in adjacent Flathead National Forest and follows the Kintla lakes up to Boulder Pass (pitch your tent at Hole-in-the-Wall, five sites in a cirque between Boulder and Brown passes). The trail winds down to Bowman Lake. Along the way you're likely to see black bears, wolverines, lynx, and white-tailed deer. If you don't want to go on your own, sign up with Glacier Wilderness Guides ($225-$470; 800-521-7238), which leads hikes on Boulder Pass and on the Dawson-Pitamakan Loop Trail in the park's Two Medicine area. Or start in Canada, take the ferry across Waterton Lake ($8 Canadian), and hike south from the Goat Haunt ranger station, past 10,466-foot Mount Cleveland (the park's tallest peak), over Stoney Indian Pass to Ptarmigan Tunnel, and down into Many Glacier Valley. The 32-mile trip takes three full days, and you'll see much of what Glacier is famous for: white-tailed deer, moose, two-tone glacial lakes, forests of western red cedar, and grizzly scat, if not actual grizzlies.

Glacier is also known for its 1,606 miles of rivers and streams: You can take half- to six-day rafting and fishing trips on the Class II-IV Middle and North forks of the Flathead River ($28-$900; The Glacier Raft Company, 800-332-9995).

Don't Forget: Your cooking duds (a knit cap and nylon shell). Hair and clothes absorb food odors, which attract bears.

Where to Bunk: Granite Park and Sperry chalets, two spartan limestone hostels built in 1912 and now on the National Register of Historic Places. Open July and August; cost is around $100 a night; reservations required. Call 406-888-5511 well in advance.

Food Is: Good, at Eddie's Café in Apgar Village and The Park Café in St. Mary. Anything made with huckleberries--a local crop--is recommended.

Park Lore: Here's something to mull over at the campstove: The only documented case in the United States of a person being consumed by a grizzly occurred at Elizabeth Lake in September 1980.

Your Park Service at Work: Last year the park effectively rapped the knuckles of Glacier Park Inc., its main concessioner. The company owns all of Glacier's lodging except the chalets, yet takes the bulk of its estimated $7.7 million annual profits back to its Phoenix, Arizona, headquarters at the end of every summer. The park is leaning on GPI to improve employee training and to get its operations up to speed earlier in the season. Another issue concerns the needed repairs, to the tune of $100 million, on Glacier's numerous historic buildings and Going-to-the-Sun Road. Traffic on the road is getting exponentially heavier each year; stay tuned.

Where the money goes:
Budget: $6,468,300
Science: 4.7%
Visitor services: 24.8 %
Maintenance: 42.1%
Other: 28.4%

Flashlight Reading: The Sun Came Down: The History of the World as My Blackfeet Elders Told It, by Bullchild (Glacier Natural History Association, $12.95); The Hiker's Guide to Glacier National Park (Glacier National History Association, $5.95); and The Grizzlies of Glacier, by Warren Hanna (Mountain Press, $8.95).

Fun Index: John Muir would (and did) approve. 5

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