Glacier NP

Montana, the Treasure State

Have you ever asked yourself "will this Park be really worth the visit"? When I do ask that question, the next natural thing is to go on Google and search for private websites or forums. The most reliable way to sort through those thousands of pages is to focus on those few where people really tell you what they think. In that sense, the passion with which people write about a Park is the single best predictor of the quality of the Park. Parks such as Zion fall into the category of "most beloved" even though there is maybe 1 Zion page for every 50 Grand Canyon pages. For this reason I was looking forward to a chance to visit Glacier NP, one of those parks with relatively few visitors, of which very few write about, but so easy to fall in love with.
Glacier is not the kind of park that travel agencies will try to convince someone to visit. There are other places easier to sell to tourists. But there is no doubt in my mind that Glacier is one of my favorite parks along with Zion and Yosemite. While Yosemite represents pretty much THE definition of Natural Park (green valleys, spectacular mountains, huge roaring waterfalls ...) and Zion is one of the most impressive "freak of nature" of the Southwest, Glacier is almost like a painting in which every single stroke amazes for originality and perfection. Every detail catches the eye in a unique way. Each snow-capped peak offers a reason for contemplation. Each stream flowing from the mountain to the valley provides an excuse to get out of the car and enjoy the view. All valleys are in tune but seem painted from a palette of slightly different colors.
Glacier is the place where time stops and a place impossible to enjoy at the rhythm of the twenty-first century life. For this reason and for many others, I would suggest no less than three days to enjoy this outstanding park.


St Mary Lake

Some info on the park

Glacier is located in northwestern Montana on the border with Canada. Glacier is relatively isolated and getting there will require a detour from more or less all the most common tours (Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountains, not to mention California and Southwest).
The park has four main entrances. One is located on the west side (West Glacier), three on the east side (from north to south Many Glacier, St. Mary and Two Medicine). The Going to the Sun Road connects the west entrance to St Mary (53 miles), while Many Glacier and Two Medicine are two other remote areas of the park.
The highways leading to these entries are the US 2 and US 89.
US 2 takes you to West Glacier then turns south, circumnavigates the park and joins US 89 on the east side (this is useful when the Going to the Sun Road is closed, usually from mid October to mid June).
The nearest airports are those of Kallispell (29 miles) and Great Falls (143 miles). The good news is that a park so isolated still enjoys a very good coverage in terms of motel and restaurants. On the west side West Glacier, which is a 5 minutes drive from the park entrance, is a great choice. Here I stayed at the West Glacier Motel, which offers no-frills rooms (two channels on TV) for a good price. Another option is the Vista Motel. A little bit further away from the park (33 miles), in Columbia Falls you can find many other accommodation, including a Super8. I had dinner at West Glacier at the West Glacier Restaurant where you can get burgers and fries for around $10 per person.
On the east side of the park you might try the Backpacker's Inn or Mountain Inn Motel. Many other lodges are available within the park, with rooms and cabins of all kinds (Apgar Village Lodge, Glacier Park Lodge, Lake McDonald Lodge, Many Glacier Hotel, Rising Sun Motor Inn, Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, Village Inn) starting from $100. Many of these structures close after the last week of September.

Going to the Sun Road

Glacier is crossed from west to east by one of the most beautiful mountain roads I've ever seen. Just as spectacular as the famous Yosemite's Tioga Road. The 53 miles long journey through Glacier starts in West Glacier, continues along Lake McDonald's shores and then begins to climb up to Logan Pass and then down to St Mary, passing around St Mary Lake. The opportunities are endless and all turnouts deserve a stop. As I said at the beginning, the views of Glacier are unique. The uniquely shaped mountains, the streams, waterfalls and rapids are pretty much everywhere you look… plus a very good chance of spotting wildlife. I visited the park in Fall when the trees were of an amazing bright yellow and I must say that in my life I have never seen anything like what Glacier offers turn after turn along the Going to the Sun Road. But, please, do not just drive through the park. Glacier is a paradise for hikers, with trails of all lengths and difficulty. Below are some examples of the trails.


The Going to the Sun Road


As I said hiking opportunities are pretty much endless in Glacier. Please remember one thing: Glacier is home of many Grizzly and black bears. This is their home, we are only visitors. Be careful and respectful. Ask the Rangers for updates on any trails closed for high bear activity. While taking a picture of a grizzly bear can be a beautiful experience, the general  advice is to take appropriate precautions and avoid bears.

Iceberg Lake (9.5 miles, 4-5 h, moderate/strenuous, round trip, 1200 ft elevation gain)
The Iceberg Lake trail is located near Many Glacier, perhaps the epicenter of the Bear Country. The trailhead is located near the Swiftcurrent Campstore. The way to Iceberg Lake is rather long, but given that elevation gain is spread over 5 miles, I don't rate this an extremely strenuous trail. The first part of the trail passes through a fairly dense forest that soon turns into a series of meadows that descend into the valley. The trail follows a ridge, offering beautiful yet a little repetitive views. After about two and a half hours you reach Iceberg Lake, a lake nestled among walls of mountains. In the lake you'll see several blocks of ice that will not melt even in summer.
The trail ultimately offers an excellent introduction to the Many Glacier area, beautiful scenery and a lovely view at the end. But what makes this an unforgettable experience is walking in the Bear Country, where at every turn there is the opportunity and risk of encountering a bear. I recommend this trail especially because of this experience, yet there are other overall better hikes in Glacier.

Mary Falls & Virginia Falls Trail (1.6 miles to Mary Falls / 3 miles to Virginia Falls, 2 h, easy/moderate, round trip, 1580 ft elevation gain)
This type of trail is what might be called a steal. This trail, east of Logan Pass, is short, easy and the waterfalls are just spectacular. Both Mary and Virginia Falls do not dry up throughout the year and this is another advantage. A short walk through a forest leads to Mary Falls, which during Fall is framed by red leaves. The trail then goes slightly uphill, following a creek. After many rapids you finally get to Virginia Falls, tall and powerful. Ultimately an excellent trail and a great opportunity to test your Neutral Density filter.

Avalanche Lake Trail (4 miles, 3 h, moderate, round trip, 500 ft elevation gain)
This is the trail that Rangers suggested as their first pick in the area of Lake McDonald. The trail also includes the short Trail of the Cedars (0.7 loop). Leaving the bridge of the Trail of the Cedars (also very interesting) the trail climbs through a very dense forest following the Avalanche Creek. Here the narrow rapids offer excellent photographic opportunities and are often portrayed in postcards of Glacier. After an hour's walk in the woods you finally get Avalanche Lake. The lake is surrounded by mountains and on the south-eastern slope three rivers form three tall waterfalls just a few hundred meters apart. You cannot get near the falls but Avalanche Lake, the yellow Fall leaves, the snow on the surrounding peaks and the blue sky are just as fantastic.


Mary Falls

Hidden Lake Overlook Trail (3 miles, 2 h, easy, round trip, 460 ft elevation gain)
Logan Pass is definitely among the most fascinating areas of Glacier in terms of views and the trail that leads to the Hidden Lake Overlook is definitely the best opportunity to enjoy all of this. The trail does not require a great effort and much of it consists of wooden platforms (snickers will do it). You can continue and reach Hidden Lake, adding 3 miles to the round trip.
In this area it's pretty easy to spot mountain goats and bighorns, but we haven't seen any wildlife (the Rangers told us that the intense activity of the bears in the previous days had frightened other animals). Anyways the views are the real attraction here. It's really hard to walk fifty yards without finding a good opportunitiy for a great picture. Picture after picture you finally get to Hidden Lake Overlook.
My advice is to continue for a few dozen feet. Sit on one of those boulders and enjoy a view just as beautiful but in almost total isolation (without the crowds that flock to the overlook). This is one of the places I mentioned at the beginning, where it is best to forget about time and simply enjoy these views that will fill your heart with nostalgia and your mind with unforgettable memories.