As I have been preparing these two posts on Glacier National Park, we have learned that there have been wildfires burning in the heart of Glacier. Fortunately, during our visit there were no fires, only smoke from fires in Canada impacted some of our days. As you will soon read, wildfires in this park were far from a possibility. Or so we thought.
It’s known as the dry side . . . and it has the vegetation to prove it. We had left the misty groves of cedar and hemlock behind, in the McDonald Valley. After making the drive around the southern tip of Glacier and crossing over the Continental Divide at Marias Pass, we were approaching Glacier’s east side. The more arid side—or so they claim. The warm, moist Pacific air gets trapped behind that formidable mountain barrier, putting the east side of Glacier in the rain shadow of those very mountains. The trees and plant life give testimony to drier conditions. At least it sounds good in theory . . . but from our point of view it was all wrong. Call it climate change or the vagaries of nature—our interim here was all about moisture. Plenty of wet stuff . . . dull metallic days and dismal drizzle. A hazy film of muted colors and indistinct shapes defined this Glacier landscape.
We settled into our St. Mary campsite, just inside the park’s East Entrance. At the eastern terminus of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, it did have a prime location. Providing easy access to all the picturesque spots east of Logan’s Pass, those scenic overlooks just weren’t in the cards for us this day. Fortunately, Glacier presents other options for inclement conditions . . . waterfalls plunging down from distant snowfields ranked top on my list. The scenic road outside our campground would be the artery leading to them.
Under better atmospheric conditions the Going-to-the-Sun Road that cuts through the heart of Glacier is one of our country’s most outstandingly scenic roads. The late journalist Charles Kuralt, who spent years reporting on the scenic places in our country, gave it his highest praise. Unfortunately for us, on this particular day, a more appropriate title might be Going-through-the-Clouds Road.
The idea of constructing a road over the Continental Divide in Glacier was conceived by park superintendent George Goodwin in 1917. The following year he was promoted to chief engineer of the U.S. Park Service, and in that capacity building the road became his primary project. Construction began in 1921. As the project proceeded, Goodwin lost influence with National Park Service director Stephen Mather, who favored landscape architect Thomas Chalmers Vint’s alternative routing of the upper portion of the road along the Garden Wall escarpment. Vint’s alignment reduced the planned 15 switchbacks to only one change of direction (known as The Loop) as well as the road’s visual and environmental impact, albeit at increased cost. With Goodwin’s resignation, Vint’s proposal became the preferred alignment.
In 1932, during late fall, the first automobile chugged over Logan Pass. Construction costs had tallied to about $2.5 million (astronomical costs in those days). The following July, over 4,000 people attended dedication ceremonies at the Pass, celebrating the road’s completion and ending with a peace ceremony for the Blackfeet, Kootenai, and Flathead people. Although guardrails, surfacing, and grading were not completed until 1935, nearly 40,000 visitors flocked to the road in its first year despite its rough tread and the Great Depression. Until the late 1930s, crushed rock covered its surface. Finally, in 1938, the National Park Service embarked on a 14-year project to pave the scenic highway—completed at last in 1952.
The road is only open for about three months a year. The rest of the year it sits entombed beneath drifts of snow that can be over 100 feet deep. Last summer followed a particularly snowy winter; the road wasn’t fully opened until July 2nd. This year was a different story—spring came earlier and was warmer. The road was fully plowed by June 11th. The latest it’s ever been opened occurred on July 13th, 2011.
The road is one of the most difficult roads in North America to snowplow in the spring. Up to 100 feet of snow can lie on top of Logan Pass, and more just east of the pass where the deepest snowfield has long been referred to as Big Drift. The road takes about ten weeks to plow, even with equipment that can move 4,000 tons of snow in an hour. The snowplow crew can clear as little as 500 feet of the road per day. On the east side of the Divide, there are few guardrails due to heavy snows and the resultant late winter avalanches that have repeatedly destroyed every protective barrier ever constructed.
There are enough hiking trails to waterfalls east of Logan’s Pass to quench the desire of even the most avid waterfall bagger and photographer. I got my fill in one full day, and Chris demonstrated his utmost patience (with the aid of a good book stored in his iPhone). Many a mile was covered that dreary day.
Virginia Falls gives you a twoferone. After dropping about 50 feet into a plunge pool, the water then continues to drop in a series of cascades.
The trail to St. Mary Falls leads through a fragrant forest of spruce and firs.
Glacial rock flour gives its water that beautiful shade of turquoise.
I’m happy to report we had a slight break in those overcast skies. Just as our waterfall tour was concluding, about the time we were reaching the highest elevations along the road, the heavy clouds parted and for a short interlude we actually saw the light of day. “Pull over at the next overlook!” I rather spontaneously cried out.
As good fortune would have it, that overlook turned out to be quite special . . . indeed, perhaps the most significant one of the entire park. At Jackson Glacier Overlook one is able to see the only glacier visible from a roadside view. What a coup!
In 1850, the area that is now Glacier National Park had over 150 glaciers. When Glacier National Park was created in 1910, there were still over 100 glaciers. Today, just over 100 years later, the number has shrunk to just 25 and they are melting so fast it is estimated they could be gone as soon as 2020 and by 2030 at the latest. As things stand now, most park visitors barely catch a glimpse of a glacier in the park as most are tucked away in places people don’t often visit. The exceptions are the Jackson and Blackfoot Glaciers visible from the Going-to-the-Sun Road and the Sperry Glacier above the Chalet on Gunsight Mountain.
The disappearance of the glaciers won’t mean that the park will need to change its name. Glacier takes its name not from the snowfields that cap its highest peaks, but from the dramatic geological activity that created its stunning landscapes. Ending about 10,000 years ago, the series of ice ages that cloaked much of North America still leave their mark on this mountainous region. The sheer cliff walls, gouged valleys and lakes, were all formed by these rivers of ice. Cirques, amphitheaters, hanging valleys, moraines and the huge, U-shaped valleys are the evidence of those ice flows.
The Many Glacier area, also on the east side of the park, held the promise of more waterfall hikes. When our second day forecasted more drizzly weather, we continued our waterfall quest up there. The drive from our campground was less than an hour to get there.
The Many Glacier area is arguable the most easily accessible, spectacular region of the park. Noted for having several trailheads to the more rewarding hiking trails in Glacier, it is a very popular location. The campground is continuously filled and both the lodge and inn supply a good number of rooms for visitors. The road leading in follows the banks of the churning Swiftcurrent River for 12 miles, passing by the northern shoreline of Lake Sherburne, where towering peaks rise at its far reaches, a precursor of what’s waiting ahead.
Surrounded by some of the park’s most starkly magnificent summits—one of whose cliffs drops an amazing 4,200 feet, farther than any in world-renowned Yosemite. The Many Glacier Lodge sits on turquoise-colored Swiftcurrent Lake, only one of the series of lakes fed by Grinnell Glacier. Painful as it is to relay, our experience that rainy day was not the potentially glorious experience it could have been. Heart-rending was the more accurate sensation.
With rain jackets stowed in his backpack, we hit our first trail of the day. Foreboding skies not withstanding, we looked forward to a good workout and promising waterfalls.
With the overhanging clouds finally breaking up, our last view of Many Glacier was more rewarding. Too late in the day to take one of those fabulous hikes, I grabbed a few shots before leaving.
Wouldn’t you know, Mother Nature bestowed her blessings on us the following day. On the morning of our departure (no less), I was awakened by a bright shaft of light. Heavy leaden skies were gone—dawn was breaking with a crystal clear sky. I shot out of bed like from a canon and was out the door in record time.
Early morning colors were illuminating Flattop Mountain, towering above our campsite.
And then, one last time, I headed back up that spectacular road leading to the best of Glacier. One last illusive sight, not fit for an overcast picture, was where my attention was now focused. One of the most iconic scenes in all of Glacier, Wild Goose Island with its mountainous backdrop, was finally lit with the pure light of day.
And Chris too was a happy camper, waiting for my return. No wet and soggy departure would hamper our packing up and moving out preparations.
With Glacier now behind us, we’re headed north, crossing over Canadian boundaries. Our sights are set ahead . . . to the Canadian Rockies now. We’re Alberta Bound.
But, as a last gesture to this wondrous national park of ours, I want to end with the words of John Muir, after he visited Glacier in the early 1890s, when it was more wild than you’d find it today.
“Give a month at least to this precious reserve. The time will not be taken from the sum of your life. Instead of shortening, it will indefinitely lengthen it and make you truly immortal. Nevermore will time seem short or long, and cares will never again fall heavily on you, but gently and kindly as gifts from heaven.”
Bedraggled and wet, but not disheartened.
Melinda and Chris