Glacier National Park in northwest Montana is filled with some of the most picturesque scenery on earth. With over 700 miles of trails that wind through pristine forests, alpine meadows, towering mountain peaks and spectacular lakes, it offers the ultimate getaway for adventurers seeking an authentic wilderness experience and the opportunity to relive the days of yesteryear through historic lodges, wooden boats and Native American legends.
The park is considered to be the center of one of the largest and most intact ecosystems on the continent. Driving Going-to-the-Sun Road and taking in awe-inspiring views over the Continental Divide are a must, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Getting out of your car and exploring on foot is the best way to discover its treasures, including turquoise pools, mountain goats and cascading waterfalls as well as glaciers that leave visitors speechless.
This region offers one of the few places left in the U.S. that is still largely untouched by civilization, with more wildlife than humans likely to be spotted in the backcountry. Here, it’s easy to imagine what it might have been like to be an American pioneer, exploring the untamed West. Hiking the trails – whether on a short day hike out to one of 25 active glaciers or on a weeklong backpacking excursion – is, without a doubt, the best way to experience this wilderness. Heading out on horseback with one of the area outfitters is another great option, providing an authentic Old West adventure filled with galloping across lush meadows dotted with wildflowers, passing through breathtaking mountain scenery and even visiting the site of an old mining boomtown.
From pitching a tent in the backcountry to staying in an early 1900s historic lodge or cabin set among the impressive Montana Rockies, you’ll find numerous accommodation options to suit just about anyone’s tastes. For those who are looking for the ultimate wilderness adventure vacation, backcountry camping is a must. There are 65 backcountry campgrounds containing between two and seven campsites. As the popular front country campgrounds tend to have campers packed in like sardines, particularly in the summer, backcountry camping is a completely different ball game with a better chance of tranquility and solitude. The park offers a free shuttle system on Going-to-the-Sun Road, and combined with fee-based shuttles on the eastern side of the park, there are numerous ways to get there.
Once you’ve pitched your tent and are ready to get out onto the trails, the choices for outstanding hikes are almost endless. The 7.3-mile round-trip Scenic Point trek from Two Medicine Lake provides sweeping vistas of Glacier’s peaks, the Two Medicine Valley and Bob Marshall Wilderness. It passes through dense forest, flower-speckled meadows and alpine tundra, following the Mount Henry Trail for the majority of the route. Swiftcurrent Pass is a fairly strenuous 14.7-mile hike with numerous rewards, and considered a must on any hiking enthusiast’s life list. Hike across the Continental Divide, skirting aquamarine ice-melt pools, fields dotted with brilliant wildflowers, and one of the most impressive falls in the entire park, Redrock Falls.
Thrill-seekers will find many other adventures to choose from in the park, including guided kayak trips through the glacial blue waters of the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Whitewater rafting trips offer an especially thrilling wild river adventure across glacial-fed waters that are known as some of the cleanest in the world.
Cycling Going-to-the-Sun Road offers one of the most exhilarating and challenging ways to see the park. This epic ride is not for the faint of heart, climbing nearly 3,300 feet over the 32-mile route from Apgar Visitor Center to Logan Pass. The majority of of the climb takes place during the last 10 miles where the road peaks at an elevation of 6,646 feet. This Category 1 climb is said to rank among the top 20 most difficult climbs of the Tour de France. If that sounds like a bit too much, there are a couple of other options, including the 14-mile ride along the Inside North Fork Road in the northwestern part of the park and the 28-mile gravel section of the same road just south of Polebridge, traveling through some of the park’s most pristine wilderness areas.
A more mellow, but certainly not any less satisfying excursion includes riding on one of the historic wooden tour boats, peacefully cruising the intense blue waters through the majestic mountains Native American tribes have called the “backbone of the world.” As you glide through some of the most incredible scenery on the planet, some of it may start to look a little familiar. The 1998 Robin Williams movie, What Dreams May Come, filmed its scenes of heaven near the Swiss-style chalet, Many Glacier Lodge, set along the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake, from which boat tours depart.
According to both archaeological data and Native American oral tradition, Glacier National Park has been visited by American Indians for over 10,000 years. When the first Euro-American explorers came to the region, Blackfoot tribes controlled the prairies just to the east of the park, using the mountains for hunting, ceremonies and plant gathering. Salish-speaking tribes, including the Flathead, Kalispel and Pend d’Oreille, as well as the Kootenai, lived in the valleys to the west.
Today, members of many of these tribes share their stories, including Native American culture and the region’s history, as part of the Native America Speaks program in the park. The free programs are offered in front country campgrounds, the St. Mary Visitor Center and through park lodges. Highlights of the program are artists like Grammy-nominated Blackfeet singer and songwriter, Jack Gladstone, who discusses and honors Native American contributions to American culture through his original live music, as well as the Two Medicine Lake Singers and Dancers who offer insight into traditional and contemporary Blackfeet history and culture.
A visit to Glacier National Park is sure to be one of the most memorable trips of a lifetime for adventure seekers of all types, and a must on your travel “to-do” list. Whether you’re looking for thrills and excitement or peace and solitude, Glacier National Park has a plentiful bounty to offer you.
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