I’d venture to say that I have visited more national parks and other National Park Service units than most folks. And it has nothing to do with my job.
My father and brother are both lifetime National Park Service staff. My pop served as a park manager, administrator and executive for more than 30 years. My brother has worked in more national parks than I can remember, doing everything from leading tour guides to fire jumping to rescue-and-retrieve diving to his current position as a law enforcement ranger at Manassas National Battlefield in Virginia.
Saying I grew up in the national park system is an understatement.
But even though I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest for eight years, I hadn’t made it to Glacier National Park, a mere 3-4 hours away from our region.
Well, that situation has been rectified, and it only took a pandemic to motivate me to get there.
Actually, my wife was the big motivating factor. My words are mere conduit for her stunning photography that accompanies this.
This isn’t going to be a tour guide – there are plenty of resources available that detail just about every explorable inch of the more than 1 million acres that make up Glacier National Park.
But as a first-timer, here are some impressions if you’re contemplating one last quick getaway this summer, or want to reminisce about the last time you went.
The first thing that hits you – well, hit me anyway – about Glacier’s main attraction, the Going-to-the-Sun Road is, “Why?”
I mean, as spectacular as it is, the 53-mile road is literally carved out of the side of a mountain. Who came up with that great idea?
Actually, the road was first conceived by superintendent George Goodwin in 1917 and completed by landscape architect Thomas Chalmers Vint, whose alternative routing of the upper portion of the road was preferred by then-NPS director Stephen Mather.
Vint’s alignment reduced both switchbacks and the road’s visual impact. The entire project was finally opened from end-to-end in 1933, at a cost of $2.5 million.
It is the only road that traverses the park, crossing the Continental Divide through Logan Pass at an elevation of 6,646 feet – the highest point on the road.
In 1985, the Sun Road was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, and there’s no wondering why if you’ve experienced it. If you’re squeamish driving on tight, twisting roads or afraid of heights, it’ll challenge your resolve at times.
But the views are breathtaking.
People move throughout the park in a multitude of ways: cars, tour buses, motorcycles, bicycles, feet – even rollerblades and scooters. Regardless of how you get around, you have to keep your head on a swivel.
At any time another vehicle, person or animal might move into your path. And in some places, there’s no way to avoid a collision other than to prevent the situation from arising in the first place.
On the Going-to-the-Sun Road, in many places there are no shoulders. And in some cases, there’s no place to go but several hundred feet down or straight into the water.
In Glacier, you really are driving right though nature, and with so much to take in at every turn, it’s an awesome experience to become immersed in it.
But you have to pay attention at all times when you’re on or near a road. Twice we saw folks nearly stray into oncoming traffic as their group walked along the side of the road, apparently so swept up by the views they forgot where they were walking.
Pro tip: If you’re interested in visiting the lakes along the west side of the park north of Polebridge, which are totally worth the effort, you will want to have sturdier rig than the midsized car we rented for the drive over. The 6-mile gravel access road to Bowman Lake was a challenge to our small tires and low clearance. I should have asked a ranger before taking it on.
Flora and fauna
One of the big attractions of the large western parks – especially those at elevation – is getting the chance to see plants and animals you don’t have access to every day.
Since our drive was during the middle of the day, and the road was fairly busy, our wild animal sightings were unfortunately limited a bit. We saw some deer going in and out of the park, and had several chipmunks dart in front of our vehicle.
No bears, sheep or wolves on this trip.
Our brush with the exotic was limited to a sole mountain goat on the west side of the Continental Divide just before Logan Pass. It stood on a bluff just above the Highline Trail and I’m not sure how my wife spotted it as we were descending from the top at 35 mph.
But she wasn’t driving, I was, and she was able to catch a glimpse of its white head and body moving against the brownish rocks behind it. We managed to find a turnout close enough to see it just watching the hikers go back and forth a few feet below.
It’s probably there every day, but we were happy it was there for our day.
On our expedition, my wife and I admittedly didn’t do a lot of hiking. It was a quick trip and we only had the day to drive the Sun Road, and we wanted to make sure we were able to see all of it.
Once we completed the round trip through the mountains, we did a couple of short walks back on relatively flat ground, including the charming Trail of the Cedars nature trail and the 3-mile trek to Avalanche Lake.
But with over 700 miles of trails throughout the park, there are more than enough places to wander with all sorts of difficulty levels and elevation changes. On our next visit I’ll wear sturdier shoes and budget for more time.
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