Crown of the Continent
Visiting the natural sights and splendor of Glacier National Park
I read that in an estimated 12 years, Glacier National Park’s glaciers could be gone for good. In 12 years, our kids would be off to college. My wife, Jen, and I took the coincidence as our cue. For a family who lives in the moment but is always looking ahead, the call of the wild coming from the “Crown of the Continent” could not be any louder.
Gone to the wild
With its Swiss-chalet-inspired architecture, Many Glacier Hotel looks straight out of The Sound of Music. But the vista from our room’s balcony, overlooking Swiftcurrent Lake, had no hills. Instead, the Rocky Mountains were alive with the sound of loons. They serenaded the rising sun as it cast its first rays of the day on Grinnell Point. Lit up, this distant pyramid of rock glowed a reddish-orange so striking that it could make even the biggest blood moon green with envy.
“No wonder this is the most photographed spot in Glacier,” Jen remarked.
It was this view that made making reservations months in advance mandatory at this 113-year-old hotel. If Apple adopted it for its next operating system’s desktop image, I wouldn’t be surprised. I also wouldn’t know about it until we got home.
Like all the lodges in Glacier National Park, Many Glacier Hotel advertises million-dollar views, not free Wi-Fi. Theirs is the rare breed of hotels where bellhops carry binoculars. As we headed out to the dock for kayaking, one of them invited our kids, Marley and Aiden, to peer through for a view. Passing the binoculars to Marley, he pointed to two figures in the distance. It was a moose and her calf feeding along the lakeshore—clearly unbothered by the trout fisherman casting nearby. By the time we’d paddled out to that fishing hole, the moose duo was long gone; instead, there was a black bear foraging for huckleberries.
Wildlife sightings in Glacier are so common they tend to be the go-to conversation starter. Who discusses the weather when you’ve just seen a mountain lion feeding on an elk carcass, or stopped for a herd of bighorn sheep crossing the road? Glacier’s famous Going-to-the-Sun Road bisects a wildlife corridor comprised of more than a million acres. At the Logan Pass Visitor Center—halfway along this 50-mile-long “highway to the sky” and the highest point on the continental divide—our kids heard how the park’s glacier-fed flora and fauna lent themselves to a thriving animal kingdom.
Sightseeing in Glacier—where hairpin turns beget a winding caravan of white-knuckled drivers—is best done via an open-air vehicle piloted by a professional tour guide. The buses we jumped into at Logan Pass are fire-engine red. They’re referred to within the park as the “Rubies of the Rockies,” and some date back to the 1930s. All of them seat 17 passengers, allowing them to scan the picturesque views (including a few glaciers far off in the distance) and tune in to the commentary and facts pouring out of drivers who are called “jammers.” We learned that the nickname comes from the sound of a standard transmission engine cranking its gears to drive up to 6,650 feet.
“I’ve been rained on by a glacier!” Marley announced as we drove by the Weeping Wall. Here, the road hugs a high cliff covered in cascading snowmelt. Aiden wiped the waterfall spray out of his eyes and waved at the hikers refreshing themselves in the cool runoff.
“Hiking tomorrow!” he said. We all knew the Going-to-the-Sun tour was for getting our bearings. Our boots would be hitting the trails soon.
For even the most seasoned alpinists, discovering Glacier for the first time is like hitting the granddaddy of all hiking jackpots. What the park lacks in paved roads, it more than makes up for in footpaths winding into ethereal forests. More often than not, they end in grand finales starring snow-capped summits or glacial lakes so pure you’ll be tempted to take a polar plunge.
On our first foray into the woods, we followed a raised boardwalk along a creek winding through a temperate cedar rainforest. Passing a stump with a diameter nearly equal to his wingspan, Aiden stopped to count the rings. When he lost count, Marley finished the count for him. “One, two, skip-a-few, 99, 500.”
Wonders through time
Glacier’s 500-year-old, 100-foot-tall cedar trees are impressive. But it’s the park’s 7,000-year-old glaciers that deserve all the credit for carving out geological gems like Avalanche Gorge. Here, at the climax of our hike, we were rewarded with a waterfall of turquoise tumbling down a craggy rock ravine, cloaked in moss so green it looked mythical. The kids were bewitched by the water, which had a hue they likened to toothpaste.
Rangers like to reference Triple Divide Peak when explaining why Glacier is considered to be home to North America’s headwaters.
“Theoretically, when a drop of water falls on this peak, it can go one of three ways,” explained the ranger, pointing at this defining peak on a raised map. “It can travel toward the Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico, or the Hudson Bay.” Of course, some of the water stays within the park—where it competes with the surrounding mountain peaks for the MVP of majesty.
At Two Medicine Lake, we boarded the historic wooden Sinopah. Glacier’s oldest tour boat—named for the daughter of a respected American Indian chief—is just one of the park’s testaments to its close relationship with the neighboring Blackfeet tribe. During much of the 45-minute cruise, our guide wove Indian legends into the narrative, giving us a new perspective on the origins of what we’d seen so far. Fittingly, during the story of Bear Woman—about a member of the Blackfeet Nation who became a bear after falling in love with one—we spotted the undeniable hump of a grizzly, eyeing us from shore.
Anywhere else in the world, it would have seemed eerie or, at the very least, coincidental. But this is Glacier. Here, not even the melting of the ice can prevent another memory from being frozen in time.