Archive » August 6, 2009
BEST IN THE WEST: GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
By Leah Etling, Journal Correspondent
One of the purposes behind these many months of travel has been to find the best spots that are still preserved in Western United States. In other words, places that arenít too crowded, polluted or overdeveloped yet.
After visits to about a dozen major state and regional parks, Glacier National Park worked its way to the top as the most relaxing and enjoyable U.S. park to visit, even in the height of summer tourist season.
Located at the northern edge of Montana, flush against the Canadian border, Glacier offers the relaxing summer experiences of boating, swimming, fishing and hiking, and also the spectacular chance to come close to wildlife such as bears and mountain goats. Your breath is taken away by the mountain vistas and wildflowers.
Yes, there are people here, but they are not here in the thousands youíll find in Yellowstone National Park. Camping is accessible without making reservations, and even Going to the Sun Road, considered one of the most impressive examples of roadway engineering anywhere, is not a stressful drive.
For an extended adventure, itís easy to pop over the border to visit Waterton Lakes, the Canadian sister park to Glacier. Together, the two parks are among the most beautiful territory along the U.S.-Canada border. Remember, a U.S. passport is now required for citizens traveling to Canada.
Here are some of the highlights of a trip to Glacier National Park.
Located on the west entrance road to Glacier National Park, Lake McDonald is a lake with a view of Glacierís snow-topped mountains. Warm enough to swim in during the summer, but subject to quickly changing weather, the lake is open to boating, including motorboats. Renting a motorboat for a quick spin around the lake is one of the most fun things to do in the park. Rentals are $25 per hour at the Apgar Village dock and slightly higher from the McDonald Lake Lodge.
Though you canít get close to shore, the feeling of wind blowing through your hair as the boat speeds across the water is a truly freeing experience.
If piloting your own vessel isnít your thing, there are also daytime and evening tours of the lake on a vintage 1930s touring boat that departs from the McDonald Lake Lodge. Fees this summer were $15 per adult passenger. The narrated tour delivers a synopsis of area history and a chance to see birds and fish on the lake.
Though the Apgar campground, at the western end of Lake McDonald, is one of the most populated areas in the park, there is still wildlife in the area. A mother bear and cubs made their summer home along one of the bike paths leading to West Glacier village this year. Stay away from animals, especially bears, which can be dangerous. This correspondent had the chance to see the bears while jogging in the park, but instead decided to run the other direction.
A short but challenging hike into the foothills above Lake McDonald brings you to Avalanche Lake, a high alpine lake fed with snow runoff. At the lake, youíll see cascading waterfalls delivering that snowmelt on the far end, which is inaccessible to hikers. Youíre also quite likely to hear an actual avalanche.
The hike is approximately 2.5 miles one way and departs from the Avalanche Campground. A shorter route takes you through a cedar forest and by a rushing river. This is a safe place to walk without fear of bears; there are so many people using the trail that they typically stay away from the area.
Going to the Sun
Due to heavy snowfall in the winter months, Going to the Sun Road is open just a few months every year. This road transports you over Logan Pass and to the east side of the park, home to many more beautiful lakes. However, the drive and stops along the way are among the highlights in the park.
Constructed in the 1930s with Works Progress Administration labor, the road transports you over cliffs and around mountains, and crosses the Continental Divide at Logan Pass, where you can stop and take a hike to the lovely Hidden Lake.
This is where the mountain goats hang out. The hike takes you up a series of boardwalk staircases from the visitors center and then into the snow zone. Even in mid-July, there is up to two feet of snow standing on the ground here.
In the alpine tree line, families of mountain goats are enjoying the chance to eat tasty plants without having to root through the snow to get to them. We spotted more than a dozen goats, which although they were quite close to the path, seemed uncaring about the presence of people.
Another beautiful place to walk and camp, Many Glacier is accessed by a completely different road from the rest of the park, and you must travel through the town of St. Mary and a small amount of the Blackfoot Indian Reservation to get there. The extra effort, however, is well worth it.
Many Glacier is where the glaciers in the park are, including Grinnell Glacier, which you can hike to if youíre a hearty and experienced outdoors person.
For a more accessible route, the hikes around Swiftcurrent Lake, Lake Josephine and Grinnell Lake are recommended. This path is relatively flat, although it is at an elevation just under 5,000 feet, but the views and wildflowers are gorgeous here.
Many Glacier is one place where you might want to secure a reservation before visiting. It is perhaps the most popular destination in the park with the fewest resources, and campground and hotel reservations go fast for the summer.
The Many Glacier Hotel, built in 1914, is worth a stop even if you donít stay there.
On a previous trip to this park, I had hiked around these lakes and was stunned by their beauty and peacefulness ó and terrified at the large bear tracks in the trail mud. On this trip, there were no bears in sight, and fewer people on the trails than I remembered. It was really a walk through paradise.
Leah Etling is on an extended road trip through the Western U.S. and Canada. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.