GLACIER NATIONAL PARK – Jagged peaks, a lucky glimpse of a bear or moose, and, of course, glaciers – these sights are just the tip of the iceberg at Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana.
Red, blue, yellow and white wildflowers fill the alpine meadows, even into August, and a few mountain goats or bighorn sheep may be grazing, too. The melting snow and rocky terrain create plenty of waterfall photo ops, and the glaciers carved out several large, windy lakes where visitors can take a boat cruise or try fishing for trout.
The park, which sits on the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountain Range, borders Canada's Waterton Lakes National Park, and the two are designated an International Peace Park, Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site. Clearly, this place is special, compelling some visitors to return year after year.
The area is a mountainous mecca for hikers, campers and backpackers, but there's also a network of historic lodges for those who prefer a comfy bed and indoor plumbing.
The lodges are an integral part of the history of the park, which was established in 1910. The Great Northern Railway built several grand hotels and smaller chalets in the early 20th century to promote the park – and rail travel to see the "American Alps." It's still possible to arrive by train, thanks to Amtrak's Empire Builder, which picked us up in downtown Milwaukee, chugged across the Great Plains and deposited us across the street from the Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier, Mont.
The lodges, with huge wooden beams holding up the structures, have different themes, such as American Indian at the 1913 Glacier Park Lodge and Swiss chalet at the 1915 Many Glacier Hotel, and were built a day's ride by horseback away from one another. The lodges are rustic and pricey (our small room ran $200), but the ambience is a big draw, offering a sense of history and a reminder of genteel days of yore.
But don't dawdle – rooms already are limited for July and August, according to www.glacierparkinc.com. Campers may have better luck: Most campgrounds are first come, first served (though campers are advised to arrive by 8 a.m. to snag a site at the highly coveted, wooded Many Glacier Campground), but the two that take reservations still list plenty of open sites at www.recreation.gov. Although the park is open year-round, most facilities don't open until May or June.
If Glacier is on your "bucket list," don't put it off too long. The Grand Canyon isn't going to disappear, but the glaciers are receding, so consider moving the park up a spot on your list. The area had 150 glaciers in 1850. Now there are 26. A computer-based model suggests that if the warming trend continues, the largest glaciers could be gone by 2030; at least one researcher says it could even be 2020.
Many visitors will want to see one of the park's glaciers. A few can be seen from the road, but most, including the popular Grinnell and Sperry glaciers, are visible only to those who put on their hiking boots or rent a horse.
Jackson Glacier is visible from an overlook on the east side of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, the 50-mile main road through the park. The road is a must-see: It goes over Logan Pass and crosses the Continental Divide.
It's a narrow, winding road with no guard rails much of the time, so think about letting someone else do the driving while you enjoy the scenery. And don't even think about taking your RV over it – vehicles over 21 feet long are prohibited.
The park operates a free shuttle service that runs from the St. Mary's Visitor Center on the east side of the park to the visitor center at Logan Pass, making stops at a campground and trailheads along the way. Buses also depart from the Apgar Transit Center on the west side to take visitors to the pass. Hikers can get on and off at specified stops.
At Logan Pass, elevation 6,646 feet, Deb Williams keeps the lines of tourists waiting for shuttle buses orderly. Deb, who hails from Minneapolis and proudly claims former Bucks player Jon Leuer as her nephew, is one of the park's 1,000 volunteers and has been working there for 21 summers. "Look at my 'office,' it's so beautiful up here," she said, standing in the parking lot, pointing to the peaks and meadows around her.
Visitors looking for less hiking and more history can go over the pass in one of the iconic Red Buses, 17-passenger vintage touring coaches that offer narrated tours. The cars, which date to the 1930s, have been restored and run on cleaner-burning propane. The cost starts at $30, depending on the tour.
If you decide to drive, note that the parking lot at Logan Pass is usually full by 10:30 a.m., the park says.
And you'll definitely want to stop at the pass, for the view and a hike.
The 1.5-mile hike to the Hidden Lake overlook is one of the most popular in the park, and for good reason. It begins as a boardwalk crossing a large meadow of spectacular wildflowers, with steps going up the natural terraces. Eventually the boardwalk ends, and visitors can walk past any remaining snowbanks, and through an area where mountain goats romp, to the delight of kids (human, that is) and adults alike. They're tame enough that visitors joke they're on the park payroll.
After gaining 460 feet in elevation, the trail reaches the overlook, which provides a stunning view of Hidden Lake below and a great spot for a sack lunch.
The trail continues – downhill – to the lake, but when we were there it was closed because of bear activity – apparently the fish were spawning so the grizzlies were in ursine heaven.
Bears are both a draw for visitors and a safety concern. The park is home to about 300 grizzlies, and management takes them seriously. Trails often are "posted" for bears if there is significant bear activity going on, and sometimes they're closed, such as if a carcass they're feeding on lies nearby.
The tinkle of bear bells on tourists' daypacks and the sight of a can of bear spray (a type of pepper spray) hanging on hikers' chests are common at Glacier. Campground hosts give new arrivals friendly reminders about keeping a pristine camp – all food and cooking utensils go in a hard-sided vehicle when not in use. (Bear boxes are provided for backpackers and bicyclists.) Luckily, these aren't Yosemite bears that have learned to get into cars.
Despite the warnings, we never saw any bears on the well-traveled trails, only scat, and a retired bear biologist who was hiking behind us on the Iceberg Lake Trail didn't expect to see any with all the people on the trail. Still, hikers are reminded to take all the precautions and talk or sing along the trail to let the bears know they're there, especially in areas with dense vegetation or tasty patches of huckleberries, which are similar to blueberries.
Young backpackers Chris Huston and Amanda Roberson, who boarded our train in La Crosse, Wis., also reported no bear or mountain lion encounters on their five-day trek, though they did see a cow moose, marmots and ptarmigan. Even in the backcountry they said they saw a fair number of people, except the day they went 13.8 miles and up 2,080 feet to get over Triple Divide Pass.
As challenging as the 46-mile trip was, Chris wrote in an email after he was safely home in Rochester, Minn., "It is an amazing feeling to be able to look down upon everything from the top of a mountain."
Hikers willing to fork out the cash to spend the night in one of two historic, primitive backcountry huts can make the trek to see Sperry Glacier. Spending two nights at the Sperry Chalet, a steep 6.4-mile hike from the trailhead near Lake McDonald Lodge on the park's west side, is the best way to see the glacier, which is an 8-mile round trip from the chalet. Plan on booking by November, though.
Within easier reach is Grinnell Glacier, which is a 5.5-mile hike from the Many Glacier Hotel on the park's east side. Or you can cheat as we did and take a boat ride across two small lakes, trimming the round trip to about 8 miles, with a 1,600-foot elevation gain.
The boat ride ($24.25) hooks up with a free ranger-led hike, which provided both fascinating commentary and enough chatter to scare away any bears. Although the hike is listed as strenuous, the group of 20-plus included three generations of a North Carolina family, with the young kids leading and grandparents bringing up the rear.Ranger Bob Schuster, 70, knows the trail well: He first started working in the park in 1967. Bob grew up in Sun Prairie, Wis., and got a biology degree from St. Norbert College before moving to Oregon. He used to teach high school biology and geology during the winters, so he was happy to name the flowers and explain that Grinnell Lake's lovely turquoise color results from "glacier milk," suspended fine rock particles ground up by the moving glacier.
After a lunch stop with a few trees for a windbreak, we climbed over the moraine and up to the glacier. Young and old alike – bundled up tight after feeling the breeze off the ice – were impressed to see the glacier up close, well, pretty close.
Bob, who has seen the glacier shrinking over the decades, said the lake at its foot has grown dramatically, and hikers no longer can step onto to the glacier because there's too much water to get there safely.
He says the glaciers are definitely receding, though 2020 may be a little early for extinction. "They're going to be gone."
"As far as saving the glaciers, it would take major change," Bob said.
Even if you're not thinking about global climate change, weather is a big concern at Glacier. It can change quickly in the mountains, so being prepared with adequate clothing, gear and food is key.
Bob was careful not to underplay the bear danger – just be aware. But, he said, "weather surprises some people."
According to the park newspaper, the No. 1 cause of death there is from drowning. It warns that stream and river crossings can get slick at times, and falling into the water can also lead to hypothermia.
Indeed, the weather can change dramatically, even in early August. We had one night not much below 60 degrees when we were only half in our sleeping bags, but after a storm blew through two nights later it got close to 32, and the day of the glacier hike it was cloudy and in the 50s – maybe.
But the T-shirts and shorts returned a day later when we did the 9-mile round-trip hike to the stunning Iceberg Lake, which true to its name had plenty of icebergs left, sheltered on three sides by jagged cliffs.
On the way we saw our second moose, this time a bull. Moose also can be dangerous, but he continued to browse, head down, about 40 feet off the trail, despite the dozen camera-happy hikers trying in vain to get a good shot.
Not far away, we spotted a few remaining white beargrass flowers in one of the lush meadows, but not a bear was in sight.
The only grizzlies we saw were from the road, including one that ambled across the highway outside the park in broad daylight on our last day as we headed out for huckleberry pie (a must-try, according to the bear biologist, who apparently knows the food preferences of homo sapiens, too).
And that's just the tip of the iceberg at Glacier.