“Crown of the Continent” ~ Glacier National Park

“A man who keeps company with glaciers comes to feel tolerably insignificant by and by.”  ~  Mark Twain

Imagine what the early explorers must have felt as they pushed their way across the Great Plains and saw a wall of mountains far in the distance.  Imagine their amazement as they moved further west and those mountains loomed ever larger, peaks bathed in sunlight, surrounded by long finger-like lakes and rushing streams.  As they moved deeper into the mountains, most likely bighorn sheep and mountain goats dotted the hillsides, while osprey and eagle glided overhead.  Huge glaciers clung to the cliffs of the Continental Divide, instilling a sense of awe and wonder.  Except for the swiftly retreating glacial ice, Glacier National Park still embodies much of this same spectacular scenery.

This was our first visit to Glacier and our 29th national park to add to our slow-growing list.  We have so much more to see!  This trip was long overdue, as two previously planned visits were thwarted due to family emergencies.  Our timing certainly wasn’t the best, this being the centennial – 100 years since President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation creating the new National Park Service.  Record numbers of tourists are descending upon the parks this year and Glacier was no exception. But neither the hordes nor the rainy weather dampened our spirits.

While perusing displays in a visitor center, we stumbled across some interesting and alarming statistics about the glaciers in this beautiful park.  In 1850 there were 150 glaciers; in 2010 only 25 remained. One placard we read claimed, “Current climate models suggest that all the glaciers in Glacier National Park will be gone by 2030.”  This is a powerful example of what will be lost without global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Changing Balance/Balancing Change” dancer superimposed on Sperry Glacier – photo credit nps.gov

Terry reminded me as I remarked about the high treelines on the mountains that this is yet another example of global warming.  As the treelines continue to rise, alpine areas will disappear. If this occurs, what will happen to the species that depend on them?  Certainly something to ponder.

One of the highlights of a visit to Glacier is traveling the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50-mile meandering road that combines both history and breathtaking scenery.  Many national parks we’ve visited have similar roads spanning their length and, while we have found all to be beautiful and unique, Glacier may take the top prize for those parks visited to date.

Plenty of time is needed to do this road justice, as the sights seem almost endless and the photo ops many.  The lush Garden Wall section will slow you down, as often there are vertical rock faces that jut out into the winding roadway, but it is a magnificent stretch of road, not to be missed.

Our top 3 picks of the park are shown below.  Granted, we didn’t see all this impressive national park has to offer, but everything we saw spoke to us.  What better way to describe such beauty than through photos.

1)  Going-to-the-Sun Road

Just a few magical moments found while “going to the sun”.

2)  Many Glacier

Situated in the northeastern corner of the park, it is often called the heart of Glacier.  It was our favorite and certainly touched our hearts.

3)  Hiking

More than 700 miles of trails meander through alpine meadows and creep up mountain passes.  Iceberg Lake Trail and Ptarmigan Tunnel were given high marks by friends.  Because both originated from the same trailhead and we had some gas left in our tanks after going to Iceberg Lake, we decided to trek to Ptarmigan Tunnel.  And boy, was it a trek!  This 15-mile combo trail, with about 3000 feet of elevation gain is a not-to-be-missed hike.  Be forewarned that once you get to Ptarmigan Lake, there is a series of long, steep switchbacks to trek before you arrive at the tunnel, but it would be a sin to stop at the lake.

We had also planned to hike to Grinnell Glacier, which has significantly retreated in recent decades, but time escaped us.  The wheels are already in motion for another Glacier visit. 🙂

Next Up:  Oh Canada, here we come!