Travel Tale: Glacier National Park and the Promise of a Highway

Candice Gaukel Andrews March 12, 2015 10
I learned over my weeklong explorations in Glacier National Park that it is every bit as awe-inspiring as Yellowstone and Yosemite. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

During my weeklong explorations in Glacier National Park, I found that it is every bit as wondrous as Yellowstone and Yosemite. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Before I took my first trip to Glacier National Park, I had pretty high expectations for one of its most famous features, Going-to-the-Sun Road. I would think that a highway with a name like that would carry me from the Earth into the sky—or at the very least, make me feel that way. And I imagined that the 50-mile-long, engineering marvel that winds through Glacier’s wild interior would have sublime scenery to match its lofty name.

I have to admit, though, that on the first evening after entering the park on its east side, I wasn’t wowed. Glacier National Park didn’t exactly make me drop my jaw like Yosemite National Park does the first time you drive into its almost unfathomable, rock-monolith-lined valley or when you first encounter the drop-to-your-knees beauty of Yellowstone National Park’s geysers and elk-, bison- and wolf-filled vales. I wanted more pizzazz from Glacier.

But I learned over my weeklong explorations there last summer that Glacier National Park is every bit as awe-inspiring as those other parks. Glacier just works on you in a different way. Rather than coming on strong like Yosemite and Yellowstone, it seeps into your soul, slowly and softly.

Rapid climate change has caused many of the park’s namesake glaciers to disappear. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Rapid climate change has caused many of the park’s namesake glaciers to disappear. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Lost glaciers but a kept name

Glacier National Park was named for the glaciers that have been creating this landscape for millions of years. In 1850, the mountains here on the Canadian border held more than 150 ice sheets, many of them several feet thick. Today, only 25 that are large enough (at least 25 acres in area) to be considered functional glaciers remain.

Since the last Ice Age ended about 10,000 years ago, there have been many climate fluctuations; and the park’s glaciers advanced and retreated in step with temperatures. But based on current trends in this period of rapid climate change, it is predicted that Glacier National Park will be without glaciers by 2030. Most of them will disappear before then, since several of these ice sheets are retreating faster than predicted rates.

Despite this impending loss, the National Park Service says that the park’s name will not change when the glaciers are gone.

An homage to ice, I guess.

Glacier’s vintage 1930s red buses are part of the human history and heritage of the park. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Glacier’s vintage 1930s red buses are part of the human history and heritage of the park. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

A road to our closest star

I’ve never been a fan of heights, so driving the whole length of the Going-to-the-Sun Road was going to be a badge of courage for me.

This famous highway was named a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1985 and a National Historic Landmark in 1997. I came to know intimately and viscerally why it is regarded as a “civil engineering” feat: the road alternately hugs the mountainsides and then borders—with a fine edge—steep drop-offs as it serpentines through tight curves.

But even for me, the high-places-averse, the scenery was far too breathtaking to keep my eyes straight ahead the majority of the time. Frequent side-glances were mandatory. On the route, I saw where meadows and mountains converge; where glacier-carved valleys and clear, mirrored lakes convene; and where black bears, bighorn sheep, grizzlies and mountain goats cross.

When Going-to-the-Sun Road climbed to an airy height over the Continental Divide, I feared it might be coming to an end. The sun hung so low and close over the jagged peaks that I was sure we’d be there in minutes. The glow created by that almost-touchable sun covered everything in the colors of the wildflowers on the meadows.

If this is a road to a star, I want it to keep going.

It’s easy to see why the Blackfeet called Logan Pass the backbone of the world. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

It’s easy to see why the Blackfoot called Logan Pass the backbone of the world. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

The backbone of the world

Four days into my trip, I got the chance to hike the trail at Logan Pass, the highest point on Going-to-the-Sun Road. At the trailhead, the boardwalk path and the numbers of people milling about had me convinced that this wouldn’t be much of a wilderness hike. I assumed the trail was way too developed and the crowds would scare any wildlife in the vicinity away.

But because I had arrived at the end of the day, most of those at the trailhead had just come down from the pass as I was about to ascend. And the dark storm clouds that were rolling in added to the commotion. I decided to start the hike anyway and see how far I could get before the weather forced me back.

About a quarter of a mile into the trail, I could see that this wasn’t going to be the easy, “boardwalk hike” I thought it would be. The slant of the upgrade was tough for a flatlander like me, and soon I was breathing heavily with the effort in the unfamiliar altitude. I paused frequently to catch my breath and take photos of the vertebrae-like mountainsides. It was clear on Logan Pass why the Blackfoot called the area that today is Glacier National Park the “backbone of the world.”

By the time I was about halfway up the trail, I was almost alone. I stopped for several minutes and watched as dramatic clouds filled Montana’s big sky. Silently, a marmot joined me on the boardwalk.

At the crest of the pass, I met mountain goats—my first—lounging on a field of snow.

My hike came to an end just before the trail started to descend to Hidden Lake. A grizzly was leisurely moving through, and a lone park ranger who was watching the bear through binoculars said I needed to keep my distance and return back to the trailhead.

I realized the unhurried and woolly bear was Glacier’s slow and soft seep; just the pizzazz I was searching for.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

Because of the boardwalk, the Logan Pass trail seems easy at the beginning, but it soon takes you into a wild world. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Because of the boardwalk, the Logan Pass trail seems easy at the beginning, but it soon takes you into a wild world. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

I stopped for several minutes and watched dramatic clouds fill the Montana sky. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

I stopped for several minutes and watched dramatic clouds fill the Montana sky. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

A marmot joined me on the boardwalk at Logan Pass. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

A marmot joined me on the boardwalk at Logan Pass. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

The mountain goat is a Glacier National Park icon. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

The mountain goat is a Glacier National Park icon. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

The Logan Pass trail takes you through a wide range of landscapes, from snowfields to alpine meadows. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

The Logan Pass trail takes you through a wide range of landscapes, from snowfields to alpine meadows. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

At Logan Pass in summer, flowers—and snow—decorate an alpine meadow. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

At Logan Pass in summer, flowers—and snow—decorate an alpine meadow. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

In Glacier National Park, almost 2,000 plant species provide food and haven for more than 60 native species of mammals and 260 species of birds.

Almost 2,000 plant species provide food and haven for more than 60 native species of mammals and 260 species of birds in Glacier National Park. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Montana’s Glacier National Park is part of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park: 1,800 square miles of what naturalist John Muir called “the best care-killing scenery on the continent.” ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Montana’s Glacier National Park is part of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park: 1,800 square miles of what naturalist John Muir called “the best care-killing scenery on the continent.” ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Forested valleys complement the mountain peaks in the park. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Forested valleys complement the mountain peaks in the park. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

A turnout along Going-to-the-Sun Road leads to a trail that reveals a stream of turquoise waters. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

A turnout along Going-to-the-Sun Road leads to a trail that reveals a stream of turquoise waters. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Glacier National Park is home to both black bears and grizzly bears. Contrary to their name, black bears also come in blond, brown and cinnamon, such as this black bear. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Glacier National Park is home to both black bears and grizzly bears. Contrary to their name, black bears also come in blond, brown and cinnamon, such as this black bear. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Early morning in Glacier National Park is one of the best times to spot moose, the largest antlered animal in the world. ©John T. Andrews

Early morning in Glacier National Park is one of the best times to spot moose, the largest antlered animal in the world. ©John T. Andrews

Montana is cowboy-and-horse country. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Montana is cowboy-and-horse country. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Tourists will need to share the rustic roads with Montana’s equine residents. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Tourists will need to share the rustic roads with Montana’s equine residents. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Glacier National Park doesn’t come on strong like Yosemite or Yellowstone; it quietly sneaks up on you. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Glacier National Park doesn’t come on strong like Yosemite or Yellowstone; it quietly sneaks up on you. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Glacier is where glacier-carved valleys and clear, mirrored lakes convene. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Glacier is where glacier-carved valleys and clear, mirrored lakes convene. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

 

10 Comments »

  1. Dale Stubbart March 22, 2015 at 4:07 pm - Reply

    Hi Candice, great article as always.

  2. PARTHASARATHI CHATTOPADHYAY March 21, 2015 at 7:09 pm - Reply

    Beautiful landscape & its varied denizens wonderfully captured through your lens! A very fitting tribute to this back country wilderness that beckons tourists & trekkers with infectious enigma! Many thanks for your wonderful travel photography!
    Are those horses wild? Methinks they are the breeds of those European settlers who once colonized the highland country. Am I right Madam or they are the original wild horses (Przewalski’s horses)?

    • Candice Gaukel Andrews March 21, 2015 at 7:40 pm - Reply

      The horses were spotted along a road close to a ranch. While it is unlikely they are wild, they do represent some of the Montana spirit, I believe! Thanks for the comment and question. — C.G.A.

  3. Pat Rosend, PLA, AICP March 21, 2015 at 7:07 pm - Reply

    Enjoyed the write up. Wow. The photos are amazing. I would love to visit.

  4. David C. Cruz March 21, 2015 at 7:02 pm - Reply

    Great pictures! It is unfortunate that the glacier sheets are predicted to melt away in the next 15 years, I hope I can find the time to visit the park before they do!

  5. Ymfr March 20, 2015 at 11:26 pm - Reply

    I am a professional dancer and a great lover of Glacier National Park.
    Extremely peaceful and powerful pictures of these mountains.
    I really feel like chatting with mountains while hiking. I made a video that I am sure you will appreciate. Cheers.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U471PIge39Q

  6. Hmmmmm March 16, 2015 at 6:40 am - Reply

    Thanks for the write up. I will put it on my list! The pictures are really amazing.

    One tweak, if you could put the location of the park in the first mention! I read thru thinking where is this park? (sorry I didn’t automatically know). I had finally decided it was in Alaska, when I saw in one of the photo captions it was really Montana.

  7. John Daly March 13, 2015 at 3:32 pm - Reply

    I love Glacier too. I also went to the Canadian side and enjoyed that too. I have to go back.
    This Sept. I went to The Grand Tetons and Yellowstone for the fall color. and the lack of people. Got some great shots.

  8. Jim White March 12, 2015 at 2:17 pm - Reply

    My adventure there will start in the summer, camera in hand and a grip on the car door handle…Great story, More More………

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