In the past 100 years, grizzly bears have disappeared from 98 percent of their original range. Glacier National Park is a swath of their shrinking habitatan estimated 400 bears live in the northern Continental Divide ecosystem, which includes Glacier. A good place to try spotting this threatened species is the park's less-crowded Many Glacier region.
I'd just finished breakfast and was checking out the gift shop at the West Glacier Restaurant ("Family Dining Since 1938") when I bumped into my first bear bells. Were they kidding? There were handhelds (like sleigh bells) for sale, as well as walking sticks with tinkly bells. While bear bells might make charming souvenirs for some of Glacier National Park's 1.8 million annual visitorsonly a tiny percentage of whom come anywhere near actually bumping into a bearI didn't think I'd march my kids down the trail without at least stocking up on pepper spray.
The thing about Glacier is that although it may be bumper to bumper on the famed 52-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road, which spans the park between Lake McDonald and the town of St. Mary, step out of your car and there's a serious wildernessful of adventures to be had. During a one-week visit last fall, I spent a few action-packed days in West Glacier, then drove across to the less-visited eastern side of the park before looping back on U.S. 2, along the southern boundary. I joined a family field seminar at the Glacier Institute and went mountain biking, rafting, fly-fishing, and horseback riding, but the most exciting thing, in the end, was plain old hiking.
Some 730 miles of maintained trails crisscross the park, all running through country that's spine-tinglingly wildjust knowing that grizzlies are out there makes rounding each bend that much more interesting. It isn't often you find yourself encouraging your kids to be noisier on the trail, but that's what you need to do when you are, frankly, lower on the food chain and don't want to surprise anyone outranking you.
We learned the ins and outs of hiking in Glacier from Bill Schustrom, a retired science teacher who's worked in the park for 30 years and now gives campfire talks. During the summer months he plays the ukulele and sings songs like "Bats Eat Bugs, They Don't Eat People." The chorus, "Nothing in this park / Wants to eat you for a meal / Because if they do / They know how sick they'll feel," cracked us up and calmed our nerves. Another hit was communing with the park's smaller denizens at the Glacier Institute, a nonprofit outdoor-education center that offers family field seminars. Our Teva-clad teacher, Chris Gibson, led us down to the Middle Fork of the Flathead River and set up an impromptu classroom before outlining the basics of aquatic insects. "Here's how to tell the difference between insects on the river: A stone fly has two tails and armpit hair. Mayflies have three tails and a hairy butt," he instructed, eliciting giggles from preteens and parents alike. Looking for bugs turned out to be better than it soundssort of like a treasure hunt. What you do is crouch along the edge of a stream and turn over stones, looking for anything interesting hanging on. Once you find a live specimen, you shake it into a bucket to examine later under a microscopeand recall that the park has incredible diversity, from tiny stream creatures to large mammals. Glacier is one of the few places in the world, we learned, where all native predators and virtually all their prey still survive in the wild.
Our Glacier game plan was to mix a steady diet of hikes (which my husband and I love) and other outdoor activities with some requisite drives (which are so spectacular that even the kids stayed awake). Thus the field seminar was followed by an afternoon rafting the Middle Fork of the Flathead, ideal for families because it's mostly flat, with a handful of Class III rapids. Another day we rented mountain bikes and cruised the banks of the Middle Fork on deserted trails, then drove the Going-to-the-Sun Road in the sweetest of rides: one of the park's fleet of restored 1936 "Jammer" buses (nicknamed, it's said, for the sound of drivers jamming their gears up and down the highway) with the canvas top rolled back and wool blankets tucked under our chins. Another morning was spent horseback riding before heading up to the Many Glacier region in hopes of spotting a grizzly.
Sure enough, we came across hopeful visitors with spotting scopes trained on two tiny specks that were supposedly bears (they looked like rocks to me). We had given up the search and started back when one of our young companions shouted, "There's a bear!" A hundred yards up the scree field to our left, we saw a hefty, cinnamon-haired griz. It stood sniffing the air for a moment, then lumbered into a patch of huckleberries.
We wondered aloud about the sixty-something couple we'd just watched hike up the same slope. "What's he eating in those bushes?" someone joked, laughing nervously.
Now that we'd encountered this truly wild thing roaming the park, an awestruck hush settled over the group. I thought about the bear talk that Bill, our Jammer driver, had delivered.
"Do you know what to do if we spot a griz? Gather together in a tight circle, and make sure your driver is in the middle!" he'd quipped.
Call me chicken, but I'm with Bill.
GETTING THERE To reach Glacier National Park (406-888-7800, www.nps.gov/glac), fly into Kalispell's Glacier Park International Airport or drive 25 miles from Whitefish, Montana.
LODGING Glacier Raft Company Cabins (800-235-6781, www.glacierraftco.com) is a half-mile from the park's west entrance. One-bedroom cabins, with log beds, kitchens with Franklin stoves, and front porches, sleep four and cost $195 per night in peak season. Doubles at the historic Glacier Park Lodge (406-892-2525, www.glacierparkinc.com) start at $135 a night. Doubles at The Resort at Glacier's new Great Bear Lodge (800-368-3689, www.glcpark.com) are $170. Along the southern boundary, the Izaak Walton Inn (doubles from $108; 406-888-5700, www.izaakwaltoninn.com), built for railway workers in the 1930s, is a great findkids will love sleeping in a retrofitted railcar.
OUTFITTERS Daylong seminars with the Glacier Institute (406-755-1211, www.glacierinstitute.org) cost $30 for adults, $20 for kids. Glacier Raft Company (800-235-6781, www.glacierraftco.com) runs half-day ($40 adult, $30 child) and full-day ($65 adult, $48 child) rafting expeditions on the Flathead. Rent mountain bikes from the Glacier Outdoor Center ($29 per day for adults and $15 per day for kids 12 and under; 800-235-6781). Glacier Wilderness Guides (800-521-7238, www.glacierguides.com) runs top-notch fly-fishing trips on the Middle and North forks of the Flathead (from $225 for two people). For horseback riding outside the park, try Montana Ranch Adventurestheir motto is "Real Cowboys Don't Ride Single File" (half-day rides, $65 per person; 888-338-3054, www.montanaranchadventures.com).
FOOD Don't miss the Two Sisters café (406-732-5535) on U.S. 89, outside Glacier's east entrance, where the ceiling is hung with Elvis memorabilia, and the comfort food (spicy chili, burgers, buttermilk chocolate cake) is surprisingly great.