Going to the Sun

From baby-blue lakes to glacier-carved trails, Glacier National Park offers an unparalleled wilderness experience.

By Ian Shive

The road into Montana’s Glacier National Park winds through towering spruce, cedar, and lodgepole pines and follows the shores of Lake McDonald like a child led by curiosity. It’s a slow, meandering trip that makes stops along the way—at a waterfall, a peaceful shoreline, and a cold pool of water—perfect for a summer swim. The route, Going-to-the-Sun Road, is a parkway as literal as it sounds, winding its way up mountains and into the sky. From its highest point just above 6,600 feet, the depth and perspective of Glacier’s landscape are incomprehensible. Jagged mountains cut sharply through clouds, their peaks encircling the earth like majestic points of a crown fit for a king. It’s no wonder they call this place the “Crown of the Continent.”
A hike through such landscapes may conjure notions of following in some great explorer’s footsteps—and you wouldn’t be far off. Lewis and Clark missed Glacier by a mere 20 miles on their famous westward journey two centuries ago, and that’s a shame, because the scenery here stands alone.

Shaped by the melting, refreezing, and sluggish advance of mammoth glaciers millions of years ago, this land is best known for the icy giants that remain. But that scenery is changing. Of the original 150 glaciers documented in the park in 1850, only 26 remain today; scientists estimate that Glacier will be glacier-less by 2030 as a result of accelerated global warming. At the same time, hotter temperatures are forcing mountain goats, hoary marmots, and other high-altitude species farther up mountain peaks with little ground left to go. Such threats of a final curtain call may be driving visitor interest now more than ever before, but don’t let the possibility of crowds scare you away. If you time your visit correctly and are willing to explore beyond the beaten path, you’ll find a wilderness devoid of the human footprint.

Day One: Grinnell Glacier

At Glacier National Park you’re operating under the ticking of a geological clock, so be sure to check out Grinnell Glacier before it makes its exit. Located on the northeastern side of the park in the Many Glacier region, the 12-mile trek around the glacier can be slow going, with each new step offering a new view for the camera-obsessed. Lower Grinnell Lake is in sight for most of the hike, and its stunning turquoise waters make it hard to keep your eyes on the trail—but that’s okay, it’s not a technical path. As you approach the Grinnell Glacier overlook, keep your eyes peeled for elusive wolverines. This member of the weasel family is an extremely rare sight, but if you’re one of the lucky few, you might just glimpse its bear-like frame padding across the rocky terrain.

Eventually, you’ll reach Grinnell Glacier and its vast, sprawling basin. The intense blue color of Upper and Lower Grinnell Lakes is a result of glacial silt, which refracts light through the meltwater, giving it a surreal, unearthly hue. As for the glacier itself, there’s just not much left. So take your time, soak it in, and budget at least a full day for this hike (with plenty of water and snacks to keep you going). Because it might not be here when you come back.

Day Two: Continental Divide

Glacier’s landscape rivals some of the wildest terrain in the National Park System, but there is no better way to experience it than on foot, and you don’t have to be a seasoned athlete to do so. Try out the Highline Trail, located at the center of the park at Logan Pass where the streams all flow east to the Atlantic or west to the Pacific—hence the term “Continental Divide.” If you must drive, park at the Logan Pass parking lot (in summer, arrive by 7:30 a.m. to get a spot)—but the park’s free shuttle bus is a environmentally-friendlier option. Just across the street you can take in sweeping views as you mingle with snowy-white mountain goats. But don’t be fooled by their friendly demeanor; they’re wild animals, and should be respected as such.

In a national park known for its mountains, the Highline Trail is about as flat as a trail can get, making it accessible to visitors of many abilities. End to end the trail stretches 11 miles, and even though it’s called a “loop,” it actually dumps hikers at the lower end of Going-to-the-Sun Road, so you’ll need a shuttle back to Logan Pass. If you power through the whole distance, you’ll be rewarded with glistening snowfields, endearing wildlife (picture plump, furry marmots), and wildflowers so colorful you’ll think you’ve landed in Oz.

One of the brightest gems on this trail isn’t a landscape, however, it’s the Granite Park Chalet. Located 7.6 miles from Logan Pass, the tiny stone lodge was built in the early 1900s by the Great Northern Railway and is the last of Glacier’s two backcountry chalets that remains open to travelers. If you don’t spend the night, at least treat yourself to a drink of fresh, mountain spring water and enough time to enjoy the 360-degree views. After this hike, you deserve it.

Day Three: Quick Trips

Lake McDonald in West Glacier is the first body of water you encounter when you enter the park. In the early morning and on calm evenings, the surface is a giant mirror, perfectly still except for the ripple of a trout rising to feed on a summer hatch. The lake has plenty of pullouts right along the road, making it an ideal place to read a book, meditate, or enjoy the view with someone you love.

Nearby at Avalanche Creek, a mellow, paved trail leads you to a waterfall whose sapphire hue is simply mesmerizing. The crisp, clean air blowing off the water feels purer than pure, thanks to the abundance of conifers filtering toxins around you. Water from the falls trickles down into a gorge, and eventually into a lake filled with rocks so brightly colored they beam through the crystal-clear water.

Once you’ve had your fill, consider a trip back to Many Glacier to explore a historic hotel built in 1914. If you think the place has a familiar feel, you’re probably right—Many Glacier Hotel inspired the setting for Steven King’s novel, The Shining, and although it wasn’t actually in the movie, it’s often referred to unofficially by the same name. Despite its haunting association, the hotel is a warm and welcoming four-story masterpiece with 240 guest rooms. If you don’t spend the night, at least rent a canoe or kayak and spend the afternoon paddling Swiftcurrent Lake, adjacent to Many Glacier. The cone-like shape of Grinnell Point is a constant backdrop here, and for a moment you may feel more like you’re boating China’s Yangtze River than a lake in Montana.

As you make your way back down Going-to-the-Sun Road and out of the park, lingering images of crystalline waterfalls, rugged ridgelines, and a long, winding road settle into the quiet reserves of your mind. And that’s when you realize that even though you’re leaving Glacier, Glacier will never leave you. 

Travel Essentials

The closest airport to the park is Glacier Park International in Kalispell, and Amtrak offers scenic rides directly into West and East Glacier—but you’ll need to rent a car or take a taxi to get to the Apgar Visitor Center. July and August are the park’s busiest months, but crowds die down in September. Before you set your travel dates, be sure to check for any road construction that could shut down parts of the park.

An “orientation” drive along Going-to-the-Sun Road is a guaranteed way to see stunning views without leaving your car, but the beauty of Glacier is that you don’t even need a car. Park instead at the Apgar Visitor Center and hitch a free ride on the new, environmentally friendly shuttle bus that stops at various locations. Or hop aboard a historic red bus instead—a 25-foot-long coach with a canvas roll-back top that offers views from an entirely new perspective. Each bus—cleaner, greener copies of the original 1930s fleet—carries up to 17 passengers, and can be reserved for private parties.

The historic Belton Chalet at the west entrance of the park offers classy but casual lodging and dining (888.235.8665; www.beltonchalet.com). Outside the park, the quaint but lively town of Whitefish features the family-owned-and-operated Buffalo Café (“The Buff” to locals)—try their Hungarian mushroom soup and salmon-huckleberry tacos (514 3rd Street; 406.862.2833; www.buffalocafewhitefish.com). Just up the street, the Great Northern Bar & Grill boasts live music, quick eats, and a local brew called “Moose Drool”—don’t worry, it tastes better than it sounds (27 Central Avenue; 406.862.2816; www.greatnorthernbar.com).

Bear Country

Rangers, visitors, and signs posted all over the park will constantly remind you that when you’re in Glacier, you’re in bear country. But keep a level head about it; the bears aren’t out to eat you. If you visit in August when huckleberries are in their prime, you’re likely to encounter a grizzly or black bear. Simply make noise and let the bear know you are there, but remain calm and enjoy the opportunity to witness one of the most charismatic animals in America. Speak loudly on hikes, especially in the early mornings and evenings when the animals are most active—but avoid ruining other visitors’ solitude with “bear bells.” Most studies have found them ineffective; if you’re looking to protect yourself, bear spray (a potent pepper spray) is available everywhere and much more effective. Respect the animal, and it will respect you.

Side Trip: Waterton Lakes National Park

Curious how Canada compares? Take a short drive north of the border to explore Glacier’s sister park, Waterton Lakes National Park. Waterton and Glacier were designated a joint International Peace Park in 1932 and a World Heritage Site in 1995, honoring their dramatic scenery and abundant biodiversity. You could easily spend an entire vacation exploring Waterton’s trail system—but if you’re short on time, top priority should be the Prince of Wales Hotel, an iconic Rocky Mountains structure whose perch on a hilltop makes it an architectural beacon.

Ian Shive’s book of images entitled The National Parks: Our American Landscape will be published by Palace Press this fall.

This article appears in the Spring 2009 issue.

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