From the evidence that scientists have been able to gather so far, it’s believed that humans have been present in the area that is now Glacier National Park for more than 10,000 years. When the first European explorers came to this region, several different tribes—including Blackfeet, Kootenai and Salish—were inhabiting the mountains, plains and valleys in what is now the park. The majority of those early European explorers were searching for beaver and other pelts. They were soon followed by miners and then settlers.
By the late 1800s, though, influential leaders, such as George Bird Grinnell, began to recognize the area’s scenic beauty and pushed for the creation of a national park.
A gifted naturalist, editor of Field and Stream magazine and founder of a forerunner to the National Audubon Society, George Bird Grinnell first came to northwestern Montana on a hunting expedition. What he found was a land filled with more than 80 glaciers (according to the National Park Service, there are only 26 today) that capped rugged mountain peaks, turquoise lakes that dotted the high country and green forests that spread out as far as his eyes could see. He thought the land was so beautiful and majestic that he nicknamed it “the Crown of the Continent.”
The peacefulness of the surroundings caused Grinnell to return again and again, and it inspired him to spend the better part of two decades working to protect this special area as a national park.
Surprisingly, he found an ally in the Great Northern Railway. Following the blueprint created by the Southern Pacific Railroad at Yosemite National Park, the Great Northern hoped to stimulate sales of passenger seats by promoting scenic wonders, such as the area known today as Glacier National Park.
In 1891, rails crossed the Continental Divide at Marias Pass, just south of the present-day park boundary. That same year, George Bird Grinnell wrote in his journal that the land around Saint Mary Lake should be a national park. The Great Northern couldn’t agree more: they knew it would be much easier to deal with the federal government rather than negotiating with hundreds of private landowners.
Largely due to lobbying by Grinnell and the railway, the Lewis and Clark Forest Preserve was created in 1897. But Grinnell continued to pursue the idea of a national park. His efforts paid off when, on May 11, 1910, President William Howard Taft signed legislation establishing Glacier, the nation’s 10th national park. It was, said one senator during the park debate, an area “of about 1,400 square miles of mountains piled on top of each other.”
Going to the sun
Once the railroad was in place, upper-middle-class Americans flocked to the Western frontier and were catered to by the railway’s subsidiary companies. A preservationist, George Bird Grinnell stated that there would be dangers in store for the natural resources and wildlife of the United States if the “fallacy of the inexhaustible” was not disproved. He believed that tourism had ruined Yellowstone National Park, and he didn’t want to see the same thing happen to the Glacier National Park area.
But Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, had the opposite point of view. He understood that tourism was the only thing that could save the national parks. He knew that the parks needed to be made economically feasible, or the government would give in to the constant pressures from commercial interests, such as mining, logging and oil. Mather envisioned park roads as spectacular feats of engineering, an attraction themselves.
At Glacier, the goal became to build a road through the center of the park, across the Continental Divide at Logan Pass, connecting the lodges originally established by the Great Northern Railway. But Mather approved construction of a much more expensive route: one carved into the face of Garden Wall, a steep, rock spine that separates the Many Glacier region of the park from the Lake McDonald Valley.
Dedicated on July 15, 1933, and crossing the Crown of the Continent, Going-to-the-Sun Road still serves as the park’s main attraction.
For me, the 1,012,837-acre Glacier National Park will always be a place of peace. That feeling of serenity was made manifest when, on June 18, 1932, Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada united with Glacier National Park to form the world’s first International Peace Park. The parks retain well-defined borders and independent staffs, but they cooperate in scientific research, wildlife management and some visitor services.
Watch the 4K, ultrahigh-definition video below, filmed and edited by Milosh Kitchovitch. (I highly encourage you to use full-screen mode.) In it, you’ll see views of Glacier National Park’s Going-To-the-Sun Road, Highline Trail, Grinnell Glacier Trail, Scenic Point Trail and Iceberg Lake Trail. The soothing music was composed by Jai and Herrin Larkan.
National parks are a good idea that has only gotten better and a big idea that has continued to grow larger. The system now includes not just parks proper and national monuments, but also battlefields, scenic rivers, seashores, trails and other significant places that are recognized as national historic sites, as well as noteworthy forts, homes, schools and theaters.
Far from being just parcels of protected lands in the preservationist vein, they are places to find peace; spots that tell America’s story.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,