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Exploring Glacier National Park With Insider Tips From The Glacier Fund

Glacier National Park is a big place with many sights to see and things to do. Take these insider tips from the Glacier Fund with you when you head to the park.

Rivers of ice that once slowly wrenched their way down from rocky mountains, now are in retreat, revealing jagged bands of rock that form the Continental Divide.

These glaciers nourish the land below. Their melt waters fill streams and feed lakes that infuse alpine meadows with vibrant wildflowers and enrich thick forests in a landscape roamed by grizzlies and wolves.

Tucked far north in Montana, hard against the Canadian border, Glacier National Park is a rumpled and craggy masterpiece. Within the park’s 1 million acres rise rustling aspen glades, stands of an unusual evergreen—larch—that loses its needles in winter, even a temperate rainforest of Pacific red cedars, hemlocks and Pacific yew.

This is the kingdom of grizzlies and wolves, wolverines and lynx, species that for many exist only in books, magazines, and nature documentaries.

Stand atop Logan Pass and you can see, hear, even smell this wildness. Jagged peaks knife the sky, sculpted basins reflect past glaciation, fields of snow remain from winters past, and mountain goats loll.

The goats you encounter on the pass are so close and nonchalant they could be models strutting a runway. They seem to pose in the meadows framing the trail to Hidden Lake.

Exploring Glacier’s rugged, wild heart is challenging and demanding and definitely not for neophytes. But there are numerous front-country vistas and day hikes to entice the novice. On a day hike to a lake, you can reconnoitre a dense forest along a crashing creek filled by cataracts of ice-melt tumbling some 4,000 feet.

Or make your way across an alpine meadow flecked with dainty lupines, showy asters, and tall bear grass. You can paddle across one of the park’s 131 named lakes, or count goats back on Logan Pass.

Spend time in a true wonderland, Glacier National Park—where wispy waterfalls like Bird Woman Falls will draw your eyes as readily as the Jackson Glacier—and you won’t be disappointed. The native Blackfeet people called this area the “Shining Mountains” and the “Backbone of the World,” fitting descriptions for the globally-renowned landscape you’ll find in Glacier National Park.

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Mountain goats are ubiguitous in the park's higher elevations. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Here are some suggestions from the Glacier National Park Fund on where to go and what to do during your visit to the park:

Explore the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Ongoing construction work might slow your progress over the Continental Divide, but this 50-mile route gives you a highly personal connection to the park’s landscape. From it you can spy glaciers, head down the trail, or simply soak in the beauty of the mountains.

Searching for a memorable photograph? Snap one of Wild Goose Island in St. Mary Lake, one of the most photogenic shots in the country.

Visit the Many Glacier Valley. A lot of visitors hug the Going-to-the-Sun corridor and don’t reach Many Glacier, but it’s one of the most scenically spectacular areas of Glacier and is great for spotting wildlife. You can book a room at the Many Glacier Hotel, paddle a boat, or head into the backcountry from this area.

Take a hike. With more than 700 miles of trail, Glacier has a path for you, from short, ambling walks to longdistance treks. The Avalanche Lake Trail near Lake McDonald and the Hidden Lake Trail on Logan Pass are two easy leg-stretchers suitable for young and old.

Spend time on Logan Pass. The views are breathtaking in all directions, the wildlife (mountain goats, mainly) are in your face, and easy hikes lead you across colorful wildflower meadows.

Coming Wednesday: Learn what the Grand Teton National Park Foundation is up to. 

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Took Amtrak from St.Paul to East Glacier with my wife in mid-June. Everything about the trip was fantastic! Day hiked for 4 days. Will take bear spray next time, since we has a close encounter with a couple of grizzlies who had just killed a moose calf!

Do you recall where you were when you ran into grizzlies? We are coming to Glacier in less than a month...

Here are my comments as someone who spent 9 days in Glacier in August 2009 and 10 days in August and September 2010. I was asked to give comments by Randy Johnson in another thread. I assume Randy did not win over 300 games in the major leagues. I’ll try not to go on and on.

1. The first thing you should prepare for is rain. You can prepare for other weather as well, but it rained 6 days for me in 2009 and 5 days for me in 2010. You can live with light rain, but heavy rain on a hike or trail ride may not be some people’s cup of tea. Heavy rain messes up any photography, both in terms of getting a good shot and protecting the equipment from harm. One of the reasons I went back in 2010 was to have some hikes in the sun, and in that I succeeded. I also note that Glacier is one of the few areas of the US not affected by the current drought.

2. I stayed at the Many Glacier Hotel both times. There are many more organized activities and mega fauna there. The hotel rates are not any worse than a lot of other popular tourist destinations. However, the Many Glacier is undergoing renovations and is supposed to be fully reopened in 2013. There are other places to stay in the park and just outside the park. Others may have a different opinion, and I did not stay there, but it appears that staying in the vicinity of the main (western) entrance will provide the visitor with a much lower-key experience, with fewer activities, less-challenging hikes, and flatter terrain.

3. For those who wish to take it easy, I recommend the Watchable Wildlife events at the Swiftcurrent Inn (near Many Glacier) every day from 4:30 to 7:00 PM. There are also ranger and Native American talks at the Many Glacier Hotel and Swiftcurrent campground. I would also recommend the Red Bus tours. The drivers are knowledgeable and there are a variety of tours.

4. Logan Pass must look great at least some of time, and provide great views some of the time, but all three times I took a Red Bus tour there, and the two times I drove through, it was foggy or rainy. The flowers were all gone by the time I got there, and the visitor center is sorely in need of an update. You can see the Logan Pass area in the mountains from the St. Mary’s entrance, but most of the time from that distance it looks like Mordor from The Lord of the Rings.

5. Wild Goose Island must be the most overrated view in the United States. Then again, I never saw it with the sun out.

6. If heights make you nervous, don’t drive on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Or, drive only on the north side, which is what I did. For a large portion of the south side, it’s straight down. Large rocks serve as guard rails, not the aluminum rails that we see in the East.

7. I never had a chance to ride horses until I got on one at Many Glacier. They strongly encourage people to wear helmets, but for Easterners who don’t play polo, this is your chance to ride and get the full Western experience. (OK, maybe not the full Western experience).

8. D. geyer above may well have had a good experience, but I have not spent that much time at East Glacier.

As you should for any big national park trip, check the NPS web site for ranger-led activities, since they know more than the visitors. You should also check this (NP Traveler) web site. Also check at least one book on the park, and for this park look at the Glacier Park Inc. web site. They manage many of the lodgings and the Red Bus tours. I had a good experience with them. Finally, you should also take all the animal warnings seriously. There have been animal incidents and human deaths at other parks recently, but at Glacier the rangers have succeeded to getting that safety message across.

Here's one circle I haven't be able to square:

For me, the perfect Glacier NP trip is to backpack the North Circle Route and end with a stay at Many Glacier Hotel. But I've had to book my night at Many Glacier well in advance of the backpacking lottery in April. Because getting a permit to hike this popular route requires flexible dates, it's been tough to get them to line up with my Many Glacier booking. If anyone has a formula to make this trip happen, I'm all ears!

Justin, one approach would be to reserve a number of dates in the general ballpark of your planned backpacking trek, and then once you have your dates in hand, cancel all the reservations except the one that works. Since many lodges will refund your reservation deposit up until 24 hours before your arrival, this might work.

Great! That definitely improves the odds. Thanks, Kurt.

Great tips! This is wonderful place and tips you are sharing will definitely help people visiting Canada. Photos of glacier national park are excellent.

I can't describe the excitement of my wife and I as we finally head to Glacier in two weeks for our first ever trip. We have both hiked/backpacked for almost 35 years, and have covered everything from the Blue Ridge and Smokies to the Tetons, Olympic, Yosemite, Ansel Adams, Mesa Verde, and Yellowstone. That said, we have been thwarted on two previous occasions over the years (for personal reasons) after making reservations to head to Glacier. In fact, I'm taking leave without pay to make this trip. I know it will be worth it.

Rain or shine, we plan on making the Highline-Swiftcurrent Pass Trail with two nights at Granite Park, Preston Park, Iceburg Lake, and the grand finale trip from Logan's Pass to Lake McDonald via Floral Park. In case of trail closures to due bears, we have some backup routes.

As for Many Glacier/Granite Park/Sperry/etc. vacancies, it's always good to check back frequently. It took us 6 weeks of daily checking back in the fall to finally get us two nights at Granite Park. The staff was great, and actually cheered when I finally called in one morning and snagged the second night (probably so he could be rid of me, lol). Another place to keep a lookout seems to be the Glacier Chat message board. They frequently notify people as openings come available.

Hope to see ya on the trail.

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