Difference between revisions of "Glacier National Park"
Revision as of 15:27, 30 April 2012
Glacier National Park borders Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada — the two parks are known as the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, and were designated as the world's first International Peace Park in 1932. Both parks were designated by the United Nations as Biosphere Reserves in 1976, and in 1995 as World Heritage sites.
Glacier National Park is a stunning display of the geological processes that changed North America over the last billion years. The rock formations in the park are almost entirely sedimentary, laid down between 1600 to 800 million years ago when this area was an inland sea. They were uplifted during the formation of the Rockies beginning around 170 million years ago, and today contain some of the best Proterozoic fossils in the world. The mountains were carved into their present form by the advance and retreat of glaciers during the last ice age, and the park, as its name suggests, contains an abundance of glacial features, including lakes, valleys, and remnant glaciers (although these have diminished significantly in the last century).
Flora and fauna
The park offers many opportunities to see wildlife, and its ecosystems are almost unchanged from what they were at the time of Lewis and Clark. Different trails offer visitors close encounters with animals from mountain goats to pine martens. The park is also one of the largest remaining natural grizzly habitats, and during late summer, grizzlies will often come to lower elevations to eat the area's popular berries and catch fish in the lakes. In addition to grizzly bears, the park is also home to two other endangered species: the Canadian lynx and the bull trout. 23 species of fish live in park waters, and fishing is a popular park activity. Birdwatchers will find many species of waterfowl in addition to larger birds of prey, including bald eagles.
Coniferous forest is the predominant ecosystem, although the forest is visibly different on the east and west sides of the Divide. Trails wind through subalpine meadows full of wildflowers and alpine tundras.
Weather at Glacier National Park is often different depending on your elevation and whether you are east or west of the Continental Divide. The western side of the park tends to receive the most rainfall, whereas the eastern side tends to have higher winds and more sun. The Rockies effectively disrupt the movement of air currents over the North American continent, leading to this disparity in climate. The National Weather Service issues separate weather forecasts for the two halves of the park, which may be accessed online  or checked a park information station before setting out. During the park's summer season, temperatures during the day can reach as high the 90s Fahrenheit (over 30 degress Celsius), but nighttime lows in the highest elevations can occasionally be around 20 degrees Fahrenheit (less than -5 degrees Celsius). Snow can fall during any part of the year, as demonstrated in August 1992, when a foot of snow fell on the northeastern corner of the park . If you are planning to visit the park during the winter season, expect most of the park to be snow covered, and make sure you have the right gear. Some trails and roads are closed off-season (and bridges removed). Always prepare for a variety of conditions and always bring rain gear. See also weather.
Wildfires are also a more or less common occurrence in the park. According to the National Park Service, 2003 was one of Glacier's hottest years on record, and large areas of the park were shut down as 144,000 acres burned. 
In recent years, the park has become an important case study for climate scientists studying climate change. Research performed by the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center constructed parallel models of glacial melting and ecosystem change in the park based on a linear temperature extrapolation scenario and a carbon dioxide-induced global warming scenario, and estimated that in the latter case, the park's glaciers would be entirely gone by the year 2030. 
If you have the extra time and want to see more of the country, the train is a good alternative for traveling to Glacier National Park. Since much of the early development of the park was led by the Great Northern rail company, the railroad is an integrated part of the park's history (and vice versa). Amtrak's Empire Builder train service runs from Seattle and Portland through northern Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin to Chicago. The Empire Builder westbound arrives in the evening, the Eastbound train arrives in the morning, daily at the three stations serving the park. Travelers should arrange accomodations and/or waiting time accordingly.
In addition, trains will stop at the Izaak Walton Inn at Essex Station (see under Sleep, below), by request. The train does not wait longer than 10 minutes, therefore passengers should be ready to board immediately upon the trains arrival.
As noted above, the train ride from Seattle/Portland is overnight and arrives in Glacier National Park in the morning; the train from Chicago arrives in the evening. The seats' ample legroom and lack of seat belts make them far superior to their airplane counterparts, and in combination with the train's Sightseer Lounge Car and reasonably-priced dining car contribute to a relatively comfortable journey.
Visitors to the park may fly to Glacier Park International Airport near Kalispell, Montana (IATA: FCA) (25 mi/40 km from West Glacier). It's possible to rent cars at the airport or take a shuttle (inquire first before making reservation to a particular airport if you do not wish to drive). Also, the destination of Missoula, Montana (IATA: MSO) is possible, though an additional 120 miles (190 km) must be driven. If you live near Los Angeles, San Francisco or Phoenix, there are non-stop flights to Missoula, so, unlike Kalispell, you won't have to connect. Big Sky Airlines went out of business in February 2008, and is no longer an option.
At Glacier Park Airport, U.S. Airlines and their connection cities include Allegiant Air (Las Vegas); Delta Air Lines (Atlanta (seasonal), Minneapolis, Salt Lake City); United Airlines (Chicago, and San Francisco -- summer weekends only and Denver); and American Airlines/Alaska Airlines via Horizon Airlines (Seattle).
Those already residing in the Inland Northwest have very few options besides driving or taking Amtrak. Airline service from Spokane (the largest city in the region) to Calgary and Kalispell has been suspended. To fly, you must go through Seattle on Horizon air, then on to Kalispell, It's quite costly (relative to the direct distance) to backtrack like that.
Alberta Canada has Calgary International Airport (YYC), just 4 1/2 hours north of Glacier National Park. YYC offer nonstop seasonal and year-round flights from Europe (Amsterdam, Glasgow, Frankfurt, London, Manchester, Munich, Paris, Zurich), Asia (Tokyo & Seoul) with Air Transat, British Airways, Air Canada as well as the major USA carriers. Car rentals are available or a one way airport "charter" van shuttle service with Airport Shuttle Express of Calgary to/from Glacier National Park, MT and Calgary, Banff or Lake Louise. If needed, be sure you have a mulitple-entry visa for Canada (if flying out from there), and a U.S. visa as well.
From the East: Take I-90 freeway to about 8 miles west of Missoula, then exit at US Hwy 93 north (Exit #96). In Kalispell, turn right at US Hwy 2 East (Idaho St.) From there it's 32 miles to the West Glacier entrance. OR, if you're approaching from North Dakota on US 2, it's a straight shot to Glacier Park. Heading west on I-94 across North Dakota, the shortest route to Glacier is exiting at Glendive to Montana highway 200s to Circle, then north on Montana 13 to east of Wolf Point, then west on Montana 25 to Wolf Point, then US 2 to Glacier Park. If coming from the South (Great Falls) or East (Havre) and your destination first is Waterton Lakes National Park, the fastest way is taking US 2 to Cut Bank, and then going north on Montana secondary 213 to Del Bonita, where it becomes Alberta highway 62. At the "town" of Del Bonita, Alberta (2 miles from the border) turn west on Alberta secondary 501 and go to Cardston, and then directly to Waterton Lakes on Alberta highway 5. This is signficantly faster than US 2/89 via Browning.
For East Glacier there are various routes including the I-15 Fwy (see From the South below). However, from the freeways, East Glacier via West Glacier is about the same time and distance. The best route for those wanting to avoid Montana's freeways and save over 250 miles is to follow I-94 just inside Montana from North Dakota and exit #211. State Hwy 200S becomes 200 (no turns) and later becomes shared with US Hwy 87. On the west side of Great Falls where the highway merges into the freeway, take I-15 North for 12 miles and Exit #290 in Vaughn. On US Hwy 89 go 105 miles to Browning in the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. At the museum, turn left and take US Hwy 2 into East Glacier. (If using I-90 you can join this route via Billings. Follow State Hwy 3 at Exit #450, which is later shared with US 12 & 191. Turn left at the end of the highway at "Eddies Corner" and follow as above going to Great Falls.)
Don't underestimate the huge size of the state of Montana (550 mi/880 km wide). Glacier Park is actually closer to Seattle than it is to far eastern Montana.
A slightly more ambitious (though fully paved) short cut is to stay on the I-90 freeway up to St. Regis, Montana (Exit #33). Then turn left on State Hwy 135 and go 21.6 miles, left on State Hwy 200 for 8.3 miles, right on State Hwy 28 for 46.7 miles, and left on US Hwy 93 in Elmo on Flathead Lake. In Kalispell, turn right at US Hwy 2 East (Idaho St.) This is a very scenic route along the Clark Fork River and Flathead Lake (which both contain all the waters of Glacier Park west of the Continental Divide) with farmlands in between. However, gas (petrol) and other services are limited between the freeway and Elmo.
Note: Using Hwy 200 east from Sandpoint, Idaho is not recommended, as all north-south connections with US Hwy 2 in between Libby and Kalispell are NOT paved! There's just no quick and easy way to get through the Cabinet Mountains beyond 15-20 miles from the Idaho border.
Note: The international border is closed overnight between Waterton and Glacier, so via Cardston is only way in (see below). Bring US/Canadian pasport, passport card or enhanced driver’s license. If bypassing Waterton, take Canada Hwy 2 south to Cardston and cross the U.S. border. This becomes US Hwy 89. The first park entrance is Many Glacier 17 km from the border.
From the South: Take freeway I-15 North to Shelby, Montana (Exit #363) and turn left onto US Hwy 2. From there it's 70 miles to East Glacier. A short cut would be to exit I-15 in Vaughn, Montana (Exit #290) and take US Hwy 89 to Browning in the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. At the museum, turn left and take US Hwy 2 to East Glacier.
For West Glacier, transfer to I-90 West from I-15 (Exit #121) just before Butte, Montana and see From the East above.
The Continental Divide Trail, a 3,100 mile United States National Scenic Trail, has its northern trailhead in Swiftcurrent Campground, accessible by car from Babb on Glacier Route Three. An alternate route starts from the Apikuni Trailhead, also located along Glacier Route Three. This trail exits the park at Marias Pass to the south and runs south along the Continental Divide to Mexico.
All private vehicles entering the park must pay a $25 fee that is good for seven days. Individuals on foot or on bicycle must pay a $12 fee, also good for seven days. A Glacier National Park Pass is available for $30 and allows unlimited entry for one year. The National Park Pass costs $80 and allows free entry to all national park areas for one year.
Seniors age 62 and over (must be U.S. citizen or permanent resident) may purchase a lifetime Golden Age Passport for $10 which also allows admission to others in the same vehicle (even if not seniors or U.S. residents). There is a 50% discount on camping and other fees. This is valid at all national parks in the USA.
Be sure to always have your receipt or permit card handy as there are multiple entrances to Glacier, and most people leave and re-enter several times. This is true even if they're lodging inside the park, and have no intention of visiting other destinations. Several popular locations such as Many Glacier, and Two Medicine are only accessible by car from the Going to the Sun Highway if you leave and re-enter. US Highways 2, 89, and 93 do not run through Glacier, but provide indirect access. (A small portion of US Hwy 2 and the Chief Mtn. Int'l Hwy are technically within the park's borders, but there are no services or entry gates there.)
Shuttles and tour buses
Getting around the different parts of Glacier National Park is easiest by car, although some shuttles and tour buses do run inside the park, particularly on Going-to-the-Sun Road. Shuttles can be relatively expensive ($10 for each major segment of the routes, which connect the Belton Chalet to St. Mary's Visitor Center and even cross the border to enter Waterton National Park in Canada, where they terminate at the famous Prince of Wales Hotel. Red tour buses called Jammers (so named after the old practice of jamming the gears in place to climb steep hills) are much more expensive but a beloved fixture of the park to many tourists. They have now been modernized to run on natural gas.
The National Park Service also operates free shuttles along the Going-to-the-Sun Road . These shuttles run every fifteen or thirty minutes. However, intervals may differ depending on road construction.
Visitors without cars should acquaint themselves well with the shuttle schedules before setting out as they run infrequently and often fill up fast.
Hitchhiking is also a viable way to travel among destinations along Going-to-the-Sun Road, but be sure to thumb vehicles down from a turn out or shuttle stop so that they can safely pull over to pick you up.
Bicycles are permitted on Going-to-the-Sun Road, and though the ride may be beautiful and rewarding, bikers should be advised that the elevation gain makes the route strenuous and many segments are along steep cliffs without shoulders. Some portions of Going-to-the-Sun Road are closed to cyclists during high-traffic hours of the day for this reason. Bicycles are not allowed on trails.
With over 700 miles of trails, Glacier Park is best enjoyed through hiking. A good waterproof topographic trail map of Glacier National Park and Waterton National Park is available from National Geographic, complete with GPS checkpoints. Major trailheads are located at the Swiftcurrent Motor Lodge, Logan's Pass, and at the Lake McDonald Lodge. Trails range from short, handicap-accessible paths to 8-12 mile day hikes to long extended backpacking trails. If you plan to camp at backcountry sites, reservations will be necessary (see Backcountry section). Popular trails include:
For visitors intending to hike extensively in Glacier National Park, the Falcon Guide Hiking Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks (ISBN 1-56044-718-4) is a comprehensive and invaluable guide, offering trail distances and thorough descriptions.
Note that during the winter, some trails and roads will be closed due to snow, and in the summer a one-way system may be in operation at busy times.
See Read for maps and other material to help you plan your trip.
Dollar Rent-a-Car has pick-up and drop-off at all the major train stations, and the Kalispell airport. There's no one-way fee, if for example, you arrive by train and leave by plane. All of the Dollar Rent-a-Car locations around Kalispell, Whitefish, and Glacier Park are run by the same franchise. Some aren't fully staffed and have a key drop. If you demand full-service, Avis has several staffed locations, but it's more expensive. Always check before taking rental cars into Canada, but most companies will allow. Also, inquire in advance if you plan on driving on unpaved roads and what the company's towing policy is. Unlimited mileage is almost a must in a big state like Montana, so check online first. In a pinch, there are also car rental facilities in the town of Cut Bank (see Get out section below).
If you wish to travel one way between Montana and Canada most car companies will not rent you a car. Round trip yes, but not one way. Canadians usually can NOT rent a car from Montana to Alberta Canada, one way or return. Airport Shuttle Express  of Calgary Canada does provide a one way charter van service between Banff/Calgary and Great Falls, Shelby, Browning, East Glacier, Essex, West Glacier and Whitefish.
From your car
Out of your car
Leaving your car for a day hike or extended backpack gives you access to the park's extensive trail system. Trails for all ability levels and time frames exist (see Getting Around section). Investigate the park at a more leisurely place and see its stunning geologic formations, lakes, waterfalls, glaciers, and wildlife for yourself. Sights well worth the effort include:
Several of the park lodges have restaurants, but better options may be found outside of the park in the towns of Babb, Polebridge, West Glacier and St. Mary. Note that if you want to purchase specialized backpacking food some of the camp stores in St Mary, Rising Sun, West Glacier, and other major points of entry sell a limited selection. By the end of the season (early September), however, be advised that most of these stores will be closing and your choices will be grim or nonexistent. Therefore, bring your own food if possible.
There are thirteen developed campgrounds located within the park. These campgrounds may be accessed by car. Unless noted as "primitive", all contain a disposal station for trash. The sites are generally for a maximum of one vehicle, two tents, and eight people. Payment seems to be mostly on the honor system (keep in mind, however, that the National Parks system doesn't ask much and needs more), though you must register within half an hour of arrival. Plan to keep your food and scented items in your vehicle. Campers without vehicles may find the larger developed campsites more like a suburban cul-de-sac with SUVs in every driveway than a wilderness retreat; if you backpack in you can feel outnumbered by other park visitors who brought their own firewood, fresh ears of corn, wine, cosmetics, and other heavy luxuries. Nightly fees are per campsite. All dates listed are for 2006.
Glacier National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the US for backcountry camping, and backcountry sites offer great opportunities for extended trips through some of the park's more remote areas. Backcountry camping permits ($4/night/person or $50 for the park for the year) are required and can be obtained from the any of the visitor centers before 4:30 PM and within 24 hours of your departure on a first come first served basis. To be issued the permit, the member of your party designated as the "trip leader" will have to watch a 15 minute movie about safety precautions in Glacier National Park. All of the backcountry sites require reservations, and some sites fill up months in advance (especially Gunsight Lake, Lake Ellen Wilson, and Sperry campgrounds, along the Gunsight Pass Trail, among others). Advance reservations can be made by calling (406) 888-7800. These cost extra. Trail status, campsite availability, and general information on Glacier's backcountry is available at a National Park Service website: Campgrounds generally have designated sites with tent pads and separate areas for cooking and eating, bearpoles (a convenient way to hang your food and scented items out of the reach of bears), and pit toilets (in which no toilet paper or other trash may be thrown). Campers are required to pack out all of their garbage; when you receive your permit a ranger will give you plastic bags for this purpose.
To ensure a safe and comfortable stay in the back-country of Glacier National Park, visitors are urged to bring their own backpackers' stove (not all campgrounds allow fires, and firewood may be hard to find in the winter), rope (about 40 feet to hang bags from bear pole), and water purification system (pump filter of 1 micron or less, chlorine or iodine tablets). None of the backcountry campsites have potable water. See section on Safety for more detailed information.
Outfitters in West Glacier can arrange guided trips for those who are less comfortable traveling through the park's wilderness.
Glacier National Park is the rare area of the United States where all of its pre-Columbian predators are still alive and well. The most dangerous of these are bears - both grizzly bears and the smaller black bears. The park is a great habitat for bears, and signs at every major trailhead warn that you are "entering grizzly country". Most hikers in the park prefer to buy bear spray (~$50, available at camping stores in West Glacier and St. Mary), which has a range of 30-40 feet and is known to deter a bear in the rare case that it becomes aggressive. The best precaution against bears, however, is to make noise while you are hiking to avoid surprising one and to allow it to identify you as human. When entering thickets or rounding corners, simply start talking to let any animals know you are coming. Some people carry whistles or bells to make noise on the trail, but others consider this measure useless or even counter-productive. Should you encounter a grizzly bear, avoid eye contact, turn sideways to appear smaller and less threatening, and slowly back away. It is rare that a bear would become aggressive, but if a grizzly bear charges, clacks its teeth, makes woofing or huffing noises, or waves its head from side to side, drop to the ground on your stomach or in the fetal position, protecting your face and neck (big backpacks are helpful for this). Most grizzly charges are "mock" charges, and while terrifying the bear normally turns away. During black bear encounters, gather your group together to appear as large as possible, and make noise to help the bear identify you. In the very rare case that the bear becomes aggressive, fight back. When you get your permit, you will be advised with up-to-date information about recent bear activity on your planned route. Pets are prohibited on trails because they may provoke bears.
Note that most bear encounters occur as a result of incorrect food storage. Bears are attracted to odors, so do not leave your pack unattended and be sure to hang any food, cooking equipment, scented toiletries, and clothes used for cooking from bear poles at night. Do not wash dishes or eat near your sleeping area as bears may come into camp looking for scraps. When leaving a car in the park overnight, remove all scented items (including toiletries) and store them in bear-proof lockers.
Other predators include mountain lions. While more reclusive than bears, mountain lions have still been known to maul hikers. If you encounter a mountain lion, make your self appear as large as possible and speak to it in a loud, firm voice.
It is essential to drink lots of water while you are hiking to avoid dehydration. Unless you are going on a very short hike, you should consider carrying at least 2 liters of water with you. If you will be going a long distance, make sure you know where you can get more water. Lakes, streams, and waterfalls are good sources but all water obtained in the backcountry should be purified with a hand pump (filter of at least 1 micron) or iodine or chlorine tablets to remove contamination by Giardia lamblia, a common parasite caused in Glacier Park mainly by beaver feces. Infection causes giardiasis, a type of gastroenteritis that manifests itself with severe diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Other symptoms can include bloating, flatulence, fatigue, nausea, vomiting and weight loss.
Weather can be unpredictable, and snow or rain are possible throughout the summer. Make sure to have a waterproof layer. In cold weather, bring a warm layer, and make sure if you're camping that your sleeping bag stays dry.
Rainfall can be frequent in the spring, late summer, and fall. The driest time of year is around the July 4th holiday. However, the highest elevations frequented by visitors normally have snow on the ground every month of the year except August (i.e. trail to Hidden Lake from Logan Pass). If you do come in August (the most popular month), have alternate plans in case it rains (see Get out section below). The east side has less rainfall than the west side does, so sometimes it can be wet on one side and sunny on the other. Go all the way east to the US 93 Hwy; just traveling a mile or two down the mountain pass is not sufficient.
Calling 1-800-226-7629 will provide you with information about weather and road conditions.
Wildfires are a natural part of the ecosystems in Glacier National Park. They are allowed but controlled by the National Park Service and fire response teams. Before you set out, check for fire warnings with a ranger. Trails in dry areas are sometimes closed due to high sensitivity to wildfires.
Day Trips: (in the early summer, the sun doesn't set until after 9:30 pm)