The remnants of dozens of glaciers still cling to the walls of great rock amphitheaters, which are called cirques, in the mountains of Glacier National Park. At lower elevations, glaciers have carved out the landscape of the park from layers of sedimentary rock, consisting of mudstone, sandstone, and limestone.
The park's two chief mountain ranges, the Livingston and the Lewis, form the backbone of Glacier. They began to be thrust up about 60 million years ago. Erosion, in the form of wind, rain, snow, and flash floods, started working on these ranges soon after. But the major carving of the mountains started about three million years ago with the Pleistocene epoch, during which four distinct glacial periods occurred. The last of these ice ages took place only 10,000 years ago.
The area of the park once contained 90 glacial remnants of this last ice age, but only about 27 remain. Two of the glaciers, Grinnell and Sperry, are easily accessible to hikers. Each is about 200 to 300 acres in size, and both are tucked into high shady hanging valleys where they continue their work of sculpturing mountains, valleys, and lakes.
Inhabitants and Explorers
The area's sheltered valleys and bountiful wildlife have lured people there for more than 10,000 years. Ancient tribes tracked buffalo across the plains, fished the mountain lakes, and crossed the high passes. The Blackfeet, whose reservation adjoins the park to the east, controlled the region during the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth centuries. The Kootenai and Salish Indians also lived and hunted buffalo in the western valleys, and their reservation is currently located southwest of the park.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition passed near to the borders of the park in 1806, and trappers searched out beavers in the area early in the 1800's. When the Great Northern Railway was completed in 1891, settlers began to establish communities in the surrounding lands.
The U.S. government acquired the land east of the Continental Divide in 1895 from the Blackfeet when prospectors clamored to tap the land's undiscovered resources. Neither gold nor copper were ever located in large amounts, and eventually visitors to the area began to appreciate the land for its spectacular beauty.
Straddling the Continental Divide in northern Montana, Glacier National Park remains an unspoiled yet accessible wilderness. The park is renowned for its diverse habitats, alpine meadows, mountain lakes, and granite peaks. Visitors to this "Little Switzerland" enjoy a one-of-a-kind North American experience.
©Publications International, Ltd.