Established in 1910
The stunningly gorgeous Glacier National Park can be admired from the dizzying heights of Going-to-the-Sun Road, a remarkable feat of engineering that winds along the cliffside, offering jaw-dropping views of the wilderness and a reminder of how powerful nature can be.
Located in the northwestern region of Montana lies Glacier National Park. This iconic park spans over 1,000,000 acres across the state and was established in 1910. Throughout the expansive park lie two subranges of the Rocky Mountains, glaciers, over 700 lakes, and seemingly endless species of animals and plants. The rugged and diverse landscape of the park covers much of northwestern Montana and extends north up to the Canadian-United States border. The early establishment of the park has helped preserve the landscape while protecting the native species that inhabit its various ecosystems.
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Native Americans inhabited the region long before the park was ever established. It is estimated that humans first came to the region over 10,000 years ago. The Cheyenne, Flathead (Salish) and Kootenai, along with the Shoshone people lived in the central and western sections of what is now Glacier National Park. However, the Blackfeet tribe inhabited in eastern slopes where the reservation is currently established.
In the 1850s, colonizers Lewis and Clark came near the mountains of Glacier National Park though the land was not explored by white settlers until later expeditions. George Bird Grinnell explored the rugged peaks during the 1880s which inspired him to work to establish a national park. The Great Northern Railway was established in 1891 as it crossed the region, now marking the southern border of the park. In efforts to increase visitors along the railway, the beauty of the terrain became more widely known.
Prior to being established as a national park, the land was designated as a forest preserve in 1897. A short 13 years later, President Taft signed the bill to transform the forest into what is now Glacier National Park. In the first few years after the park was established, numerous chalets were built to encourage visitors to the sparsely populated region. Lewis Glacier Hotel, later named Lake McDonald Lodge, along with the construction of the Going-to-the-Sun Road through the park allowed for an immense increase in visitors to the area. Today this 53-mile road is a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. The iconic road received it’s largest repair to date back in 2010 in honor of the park being 100 years old.
Geology & Geography
The rugged peaks that make up the park have been carved out by massive glaciers that were present in the last ice age. However, due to the natural cycles of earth, along with climate change, nearly all of the glaciers in the park have disappeared. The wide valleys and steep peaks are dominant features of how the glaciers have shaped the landscape. Research conducted in the mid 20th century documented over 150 glaciers throughout the park. Yet in 2010 only 37 glaciers remained, all which are expected to greatly diminish or completely disappear by 2030. As the glaciers continue to rapidly melt, the biodiversity of both plant and animal life is threatened.
The northern portion of the park, that runs along the Canadian-United States border, shares its border with the Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta. Glacier National Park also shares part of its northern border with British Columbia’s Flathead Provincial Park and the Akamina-Kishinena Provincial Park. While there are estimated to be over 700 lakes in the park, only 131 have been officially named. The largest lake in the park, Lake McDonald, lies in the western region. At just over 10 miles long, the lake covers over 6,900 acres.
Subranges of the Rocky Mountains run from north to south throughout the park, extending into both Canada and US states that lie south. The Rocky Mountains were formed over 170 million years ago. An overthrust, a fault in the earth’s crust which thrusts older rock above younger rock, can be seen throughout the peaks of the park.
Flora & Fauna
Because of the sheer size of the park, coupled with how early it was established, Glacier National Park is often referred to as the “Crown of the Continent Ecosystem”. Over a century of protection in the region has allowed for nearly all native species to continue to thrive.
While the park is home to over 1,100 plant species, much of the terrain is characterized by coniferous forest. These vast forested regions are made up primarily of subalpine fir, Engelmann spruce, and Douglas fir trees. Lower elevations in the park are more likely to have aspen and cottonwood trees near water sources. The forests in the western region of the park are more densely populated because of the increased rainfall they received compared to the eastern slopes.
At higher elevations, above the treeline, coniferous forests give way to wild grasses and wildflowers. Common wildflowers in the park include Indian paintbrush, fireweed, glacier lily, monkey flower, beargrass, and balsamroot.
While nearly every corner of the park is full of beauty that attracts visitors from both near and far, a few spots within the park are popular amongst nearly all who pay the region a visit. Lake McDonald, the largest lake in the park, has accommodations, bus tours, boat tours, and is surrounded by hiking trails of varying levels of difficulty. The Trail of Cedars is wheelchair accessible and gently winds through the lush forest for about a mile, making it a picturesque glimpse into the surrounding wilderness. Along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, visitors can stop at Logan Pass, located about halfway along the iconic road. Visitor centers and even more accessible to hiking trails, make this high mountain pass a popular destination.
The most popular activity in the park is by far hiking. There are nearly 700 miles of trails that run throughout Glacier National Park. While there are numerous well known hikes in the park, one of the most notable is the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. The trail runs through the park from north to south, spanning 110 miles. A newer trail, known as the Pacific Northwest Scenic Trail, passes through the park for over 50 miles. Traveling east to west, the trail eventually leads to the Puget Sound and out to the Olympic Peninsula.
While the backcountry of the park is sought after for many hikers, it is inaccessible during the winter months. Popular hiking and backpacking trails include Avalanche Lake, Grinnell Glacier Trail, Highline Pass, Hidden Lake Trail and Overlook.
The NE ridge of Mt. St. Nicholas is the most classic multi pitch route to a major summit in all of Glacier. The rock quality is far superior to what you usually encounter in Glacier’s alpine. Where’s Jack? is another multi pitch route that follows crack systems and lines of weakness up the southwest face (above Snyder Basin) of the Little Matterhorn.
Rock climbing within the park boundaries isn’t extensive because of the loose rocks that make up the region. However, many people set out to climb the five most rugged peaks within the park and climb all the peaks above 10,000 feet. Nearby climbing spots can be found along Highway 93, known as Point of Rocks, Stryker, and Berne Park.
Besides hiking, Glacier National Park is known for its world-renowned fly fishing. Trout are abundant through the pristine waters of the park. Guided trips often lead visitors to the North and Middle Fork of the Flathead River, and occasionally back into the Bear Mountain Wilderness. Visitors do not need a permit to fish in the park but should note that bull trout are not allowed to be caught.
Because of the rugged peaks of the park, winter activities are far less accessible than summer ones. The lower elevations of the park offer trails for cross country skiing and snowshoeing, along common hiking trails.
Camping is allowed at the park throughout the year at both the St. Mary and Apgar campgrounds. The Many Glacier campground is located on the east side of the park. Besides these major spots, there are numerous other campground sites that are open during the summer months.
The closest major city to Glacier National Park is Kalispell. The population is around 93,000, making it the largest city in northwestern Montana. Kalispell is closely located to an abundance of outdoor adventure. Not only is the city near Glacier National Park, but also very close to Flathead National Forest and Hungry Horse Dam. While these places provide an abundance of summer activities, the city is also a hub for both Blacktail Mountain Ski Area and Whitefish Mountain Resort. Local cafes and shops make it the perfect spot to visit after a long day in the mountains.
Glacier National Park is a beautiful and remote wilderness that has no shortage of outdoor activities. The rich history, coupled with the abundance of wildlife make it the perfect destination for exploration. Whether you’re looking for a multi-day backpacking adventure into the deep wilderness, or a scenic ride along the Sun Road, the beauty of the region is sure to leave one coming back for more. As the landscape continues to change, it’s worth taking a trip in the coming years to witness the wild lands of Glacier National Park.
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