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.
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.
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.
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,