The scenic vastness of the Rockies, sparkling lakes of wondrous azure and giant glaciers, glistening, rockbound, above Alpine meadows, flower-carpeted and timber-shadowed, lures you, tempts you, and brings you smilingly back to yourself. –from a 1921 Great Northern Railway ad
The Great Northern Railway didn’t discover the area we now know as Glacier National Park, but it can be credited with bringing this spectacular place to the attention of the American public, as well as providing a means of delivering the intrepid traveler into its realm. In the latter part of the 19th century, decades before it became a national park, the railway was bringing people in by the hundreds. Many more visitors than there were accommodations for. But still they came, sleeping under rugged, often primitive, conditions. Consequently, the Great Northern got into the construction business. Its structures standing the test of time, those lodges and chalets have become an integral part of the park today.
It was more than 20 years ago when we were last at Glacier National Park. Staying at all three of the old lodges, we had a much different experience than what was in store for us this time around. In their own ways, both visits were fulfilling and enlightening. You might say that we now have gleaned the full experience of what Glacier has to offer. And yet, we haven’t done it all.
Hudson’s Bay Company fur trappers were the first white men to penetrate this region; miners and ranchers followed. But Glacier’s ruggedness saved it from exploitation, at least until the railway began laying its transcontinental tracks. Once the Great Northern as well as the Canadian Pacific Railways learned what a geological jewel lay near their routes, they couldn’t ignore the financial potential it represented. A small outfitters lodge stood on the shores of Lake McDonald, but it wasn’t nearly adequate to house the tourists coming in on the trains. Renovations changed it into a primitive 12-room hotel, but that wasn’t sufficient. In 1906 ownership of the rustic hotel changed hands and the new owners built a cedar and stone lodge facing the lake. The Great Northern began construction of chalets in three different backcountry locations, between 1912 to 1914. With packed bunk-bed dorms and canvas tents outside, Granite and Sperry Chalets could house 144 and 152 guests, nearly four times the number that each can sleep today. Nevertheless, they became very popular in the 1920s as wealthy Easterners spent an average of 21 days in the park touring on horseback. However, the third chalet only lasted five years, being wiped out by an avalanche. In 1930, the Great Northern purchased the lodge along Lake McDonald from its owners, renaming it after the lake. Along with the two chalets, the Railway now owned three lodges within the park. After extensive renovations, those lodges are still hallmarks of Glacier today, and are considered to be prime examples of the Great Lodges of our national park system.
Having experienced one aspect of Glacier’s lodging style, we were now ready to try it from an entirely different perspective . . . a much more intimate, true to the character of the place kind of experience. Ah yes, this is what I had waited lo these many years for! Finally, we were truly IN Glacier now.
Paradise doesn’t always come without a few glitches. Before camp was even set up we were confronted by a sign. You can’t say we weren’t warned. Or unprepared. We both came equipped with our personal can of bear spray.
Seven glorious days had been set aside for our Glacier Experience. One look at the scenery as we made our way in foretold a week would not be enough. This was a place that held too much magnificence for a mere week. But with the help of some fair weather days and healthy limbs, we’d jump in and give Glacier are best efforts.
A spectacular lake was just 3 miles distant from our campsite. Not ones to dally, on the afternoon of our arrival we pulled on our hiking boots and hit the trail! For most of the way we closely followed the stream that flowed down from that alpine lake. More like a cascading waterfall, it brought beauty to our walk and provided plenty of photo opportunities. A common sight we were to learn in the coming days—plenty of streams gush out of Glacier’s lakes.
Avalanche Lake takes its name from the profusion of avalanches that slide down the snowcapped peaks that surround it. Coming out from the dense forest trail, suddenly the lake is before you. Mountain-rimmed and deep azure blue—it is truly a breathtaking scene.
Once the avalanche deposits melt, they become crystalline waterfalls cascading down those mountains—another sight to give you pause. High above and out of sight, Sperry Glacier is the source for all that falling water.
Rising from the edge of the Great Plains and stretching westward across the Continental Divide, Glacier National Park is the crown jewel of the Montana Rockies. Encompassing some 1600 square miles of mountain scenery where the Continental Divide meets the Canadian border, the park is known for its glaciated landscape of chiseled peaks—several of which exceed 10,000 feet, some 250 deep turquoise lakes, ad more than 730 miles of hiking and horseback trails. Panoramic landscapes of alpine glaciers, meadows of wildflowers, clear rivers, and waterfalls dropping from hanging valleys—these are scenes that are disappearing from our country. Here in Glacier you’ll find a microcosm of all those attributes and if you take only one trail while you are here (unfortunate as that might be), it should be the Highline. Everything that Glacier is can be seen from the seven miles of its length.
Not to be missed, we set out on our first morning. You want to start early, ahead of the casual strollers and ill-equipped walkers. The trailhead is at Logan’s Pass, the high point along Going-to-the-Sun Road.
The trail begins with a bang (of sorts)—a pathway some might call thrilling . . . or nerve-racking, depending on your perspective (and sensitivity to heights and steep drop-offs). The narrow ledge, barely room to pass oncoming hikers, will only last for a half mile or so.
Some might have feelings of trepidation . . . while others find it mightily thrilling.
And you never know who might be passing from behind—a common sight we’re told.
The Highline Trail follows the Continental Divide along the Garden Wall, which comes by its name honestly. If far-reaching views from precipices aren’t your cup of tea, then feast your eyes in the other direction. Wildflowers cloaking the mountainside will halt even the most callused hikers in their boots, if just for awhile.
The slopes soon lose their steepness, replaced by alpine meadows. Trails along ledges become pathways through the fields. Another treat awaits—the ubiquitous Glacier mountain goats. The Highline Trail practically guarantees you’ll come across scenes like this.
While far below and stretching out to near infinity you’ll see the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road. A magnificent road, an unbelievable marvel, you have the bird’s eye view from the Highline Trail.
One last uphill pitch awaits before arriving at Haystack Pass, the high point of the trail. Not exceedingly steep or unendingly long, you are reminded that nothing worthwhile is easily gained. And worthwhile is what this trail is all about!
The views open up . . . it is a spot to savor and contemplate.
Some chose their own spot to savor . . .
. . . following the example of the local fauna.
But there are other attractions to be found up on this windy pass,
I’ll spend my time capturing alpine
To each his own.
The Highline Trail leads on from here, looping around to eventually connect with Going-to-the-Sun Road. Rather than follow that path, we chose to double back, retracing the way we had come. The high point of the trail soon faded into the distance behind us.
But like so many trails that are an out-and-back route, the returning views look totally different. It was like seeing the trail for the first time.
The alpine meadows . . .
The far-off views . . .
The road lying so far below.
One more time that ledge was waiting—did it seem slightly less threatening this time around?
We spent our first four days on the west side of Glacier, and then packed up to move around to its east side. Two very different environments, but with one big common denominator. Those glacier-carved mountains would still be the backdrop to where we would be settling in.
Moving day dawned as perfect as you could hope for. Clear blue skies, cool temps and an early morning drive around a huge lake. Even those people who have grown accustomed to clear mountain lakes in the Rockies can be blown away at first sight of Lake McDonald. The end result of the retreat of a massive glacier carving this valley a few thousand years ago, Lake McDonald is one of the largest mountain lakes in the world. Ten miles long, more than a mile wide and over 450 feet deep, its waters are crystal clear and cold. And on this morning of our departure, she couldn’t have presented a more perfect sight. Halfway down the east shoreline I saw the opening, a convenient pull-off to accommodate our rig gave me the prime opportunity.
Melinda and Chris,