Glacier National Park's 1,600 square miles, which make it almost as large as the state of Delaware, offer "the best care-killing scenery on the continent," in the words of pioneer naturalist John Muir. The mountains of Glacier are not especially high when compared with those in other national parks in the Rockies, but dramatic contrasts in elevation give the park its own special grandeur.
The park Park is renowned for its lovely mountain lakes -- Grinnel, St. Mary's, Two Medicine, and McDonald -- its cascading waterfalls (especially around Logan Pass), and its wilderness trails -- Avalanche Basin, Sperry Glacier, the Garden Wall, and Swiftcurrent Valley.
No trip to Glacier is complete without a drive up and over the Going-to-the-Sun Road, arguably the most beautiful drive in the entire national park system, with its vast expanses of tundra, falling cataracts, soaring peaks, and scenic valleys.
The highway provides a highlight tour of the park's major attractions: 10-mile-long McDonald Lake, the park's largest; McDonald Falls; Avalanche Creek, where there is a trailhead for a self-guided nature walk; the precipitous Garden Wall, a section of the Continental Divide created by glaciers on both sides of its ridge; Logan Pass, atop the divide; the lovely Hanging Garden Walk; and Jackson Glacier.
Glacier National Park Plants and Animals
Glacier's climate is dominated by cool, wet weather from the Pacific Northwest. The abundance of rainfall makes the forests lush, green, dense, and damp. The park's western slopes, which catch most of the moisture, are more lush than those facing east.
The vagaries of elevation and weather combine to produce four distinctive life zones within the park: grassland and prairie; the Canadian zone, with massive lodgepole-pine forests covering hundreds of square miles; the Hudsonian zone, a transition area with whitebark pine, alder, and other trees that are able to withstand long winters; and the Arctic-Alpine zone, with so-called krummholz, or "crooked-wood," forests of gnarled and dwarfed fir.
This unusually extensive range of topography supports a remarkable array of plants and wildlife. More than 1,000 plant species provide haven and food for 60 kinds of native mammals and some 260 species of birds.
Moose are the park's largest mammals. There also are white-tailed and mule deer, as well as elusive herds of elk and a variety of small mammals, such as badgers, rabbits, ground squirrels, pine martens, and coyotes. Mountain lions and rare northern Rocky Mountain gray wolves also have been spotted.
Grizzly bears, cousins of the smaller black bear, are the park's most famous residents. Considered endangered, about 300 - 600 grizzlies roam the park and neighboring wilderness lands. Distinguished by a hump on their shoulders, grizzlies generally eat grasses, berries, and roots, despite their reputation as aggressive predators.
Where to See the Plants and Animals
Visitors often spot small family bands of the elusive mountain goat near the trail to Hidden Lake on Logan Pass. Grizzly bears are frequently observed on the 14-mile trail along the Garden Wall, especially in the autumn when the huckleberries are thick at higher elevations. Black bears are sometimes spotted in the avalanche slides near the park roads. Shiras moose are commonly seen in the river and stream meadows at lower elevations.
The high country of Glacier is well known for its spring and summer wildflower displays, including bear grass (not a grass but a lily) with its tall stalk and gigantic cream-colored flower heads, avalanche lilies, purple gentians, larkspur, and Jones columbine.
This stunning wilderness realm offers more than 700 miles of trails for hiking and horseback riding. If you can find the time, you might want to follow John Muir's advice: "Give a month at least to this precious reserve. The time will not be taken from the sum of your life. Instead...it will make you truly immortal."
Glacier National Park Photo Opportunities
Glacier National Park presents the Rocky Mountains of Montana as you might imagine them: granite peaks with glimmering glaciers fitted into their gorges; fields filled with wildflowers; lakes as deep and blue as the summer sky; cascading waterfalls; grizzly bears roaming the rustic terrain; wooded slopes; and miles and miles of wilderness trails.
Be sure to bring a camera along, and don't pass up these amazing photo opportunities:
- Logan Pass: Mount Reynolds dominates the skyline at busy Logan Pass. Mount Reynolds is the classic glacial horn, a peak carved by glaciers. As the glaciers carved the mountainsides, they created a towering pyramid-shaped peak.
- Apgar: From the foot of Lake McDonald at Apgar, the Continental Divide cuts a jagged path along the distant skyline. McDonald is the largest of the park's lakes, at 10 miles long and just under 400 feet deep.
- St. Mary Lake: The view of St. Mary Lake on the eastern end of Going-to-the-Sun Road is spectacular. A sparkling body of water nestled in a valley below snow-dusted peaks, St. Mary Lake was created when the warming climate stopped the forward momentum of a glacier. The glacier dumped some of the rocky debris it had gathered, creating the terminal moraine that later formed St. Mary Lake.
- Swiftcurrent Lake: Located in the central eastern portion of the park, near Many Glacier, the tranquil waters of Swiftcurrent Lake reflect majestic Mount Gould towering above them.
Long before it was established as a national park, Blackfoot Indians inhabited the region. To learn about the history of this part of Montana, check out the next page.