Glacier National Park is referred to as the “Crown of the Continent” because of its spectacular peaks and glacier sculpted bowls. It’s one of those places, like the Ocracoke Island, where you can’t there from here. It looks close on a map but there isn’t an interstate taking you quickly and efficiently to the destination. It sits astride the border between Canada and the United States with the U.S.’s Glacier National Park on one side and Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park on the other. As my boyfriend, Roy and I were journeying across the country, we arrived at the park from the east side having traveled through the grasslands and wind turbines of Montana. This ended up being fortuitous as most visitors arrive from Kalispel on the west side of the park.
Here are some highlights from the journey:
We found a hotel in Shelby, MT to stay the night before heading to the park. Shelby is mostly a railway center. It was established in 1892 as a junction between the Great Northern Railway and the Great Falls & Canada Railway. Besides miles of railroad tracks and a Main Street that has seen better days, there is not much to do for the 3,000 some inhabitants. Our hotel was right next to the railroad tracks, and I was amazed that I never woke up to the sound of a train or even a whistle during the night. I was really astounded when, in the middle of a pandemic, a passenger train arrived in town. Apparently, Amtrak has service between Chicago and Seattle. I can imagine that it must be a spectacular train ride as the only way to Seattle is through Glacier National Park. It’s off the beaten path, which practically everything east of the park is, but it was a nice spot to launch our travels into the park the next day.
In July of 2021, we had to have a reserved ticket to drive on the Going to the Sun Road that I had reserved 60 days in advance. If you don’t have a reservation, you must arrive early to get a same day pass. This two-dollar ticket saved us an immense amount of time, so make sure you “splurge” and get a ticket if you plan on taking the drive. I had a colleague who was in Glacier in early July and he was unable to go on the road because the spring…er summer plowing had not been complete. The road officially opens on July 8th in 2021 after the herculean task of plowing the 50 miles the road traverses. This has to be one of the most scenic roads in the world between the pristine lakes, shear granite cliffs and glacier laden mountain peaks. We traveled east to west which is by far the direction less traveled and was by far the best way to travel based on my acrophobia. When you head east to west, most of the ride is on the inside of the road but there are plenty of pull offs to enjoy the astounding views.
Saint Mary Lake
We entered the park and the Sun Road by Saint Mary Lake. This is the second largest lake in the park and sits at 4,484 ft of elevation. It is a stunning lake as the Sun Road rises parallel to the length of the lake with the Rocky Mountains on the opposite side. After a several days of riding through the grasslands of the mid-west, this was a stark contrast with Little Chief Mountain looming high above the lake. As we stopped at Rising Sun boat dock, dark ominous clouds rolled in and it started to rain. As suddenly as they rolled in, they almost immediately rolled out. There are boats that tour the lake and drop hikers off at trailheads. Because it is near the end of the Sun Road if you are traveling eastbound, there are very few cars and tourists. Just the drive along this 10-mile-long pristine lake was worth the price of admission.
Glacier has about 300 grizzly bears living inside the park boundaries. When we arrived in late July, it was prime berry season. Bears depend on berries to store up for hibernation. We pulled off at Sunrift Gorge to take a trail down to a waterfall. It was only about a mile down but Roy and I had left our bear spray in the car. As we headed down the trail, it seemed to close in with vegetation covered in berries. There were no other folks on the trail at the time. After about a half a mile I chickened out and Roy and I headed back to the car. There are so many warnings about grizzly bears in the park and at every trailhead, I felt like it would be impossible to not see a bear and we had no way to defend ourselves. At a pull out close to Logan Pass (the highest point on the road at 6,647 ft), a ranger had a skull of a grizzly and was showing it to onlookers and warned that bears were loading up on berries. Between the bear spray videos Roy and I watched on YouTube, the ranger and all the warnings in the park, I was too spooked to really enjoy a hike. No, I didn’t see a bear in the park.
Towards the end of the Sun Road are the clear waters of Lake McDonald. This is the largest lake in the park and it is the big draw for all photographers. Since most folks enter the road from this end, it was little bit more congested but it is a must stop. We stopped near Lake McDonald Lodge and walked along the stony beach. The water is crystal clear and the colorful stones carpet the bottom of the lake as it sits beneath a crown of glaciered peaks. As we walked long the shore a family of three deer came sauntering by. It was one of those moments in nature I will not soon forget.
As we left the park headed to Kalispel, we headed out the West Glacier entrance. The western end of the park has by far the most services both in and outside the park. It was about 4 PM and we passed a line of cars waiting to get in and on the Going to the Sun Road as least 5 miles long sitting at a standstill. We had such good fortune to be heading east to west, terrific weather, and no bear encounters. The Going to the Sun Road was worth being on my bucket list and I’m happy I was able to check it off.