After visiting Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada, we of course had to visit the U.S. side of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. And perhaps using the title Glacier (less) National Park is too harsh, but it reflects some astonishing facts we learned about the park.
In 1850, there were 150 glaciers on the mountains in Glacier National Park, today only 25 of those remain. But even more concerning is this: it’s estimated that the remaining glaciers will be gone sometime between 2020 and 2030.
Those are chilling facts (pun intended). So to those that would like to see some of the glaciers, I say – visit the park sooner rather than later. As for what impact the disappearance of all glaciers will have on this ecosystem, I don’t know but I do know that researchers are trying to answer that question.
And it is yet another absolutely stunning place. Towering mountains, wildlife, lakes, waterfalls… We are huge fans of the national parks (U.S. and Canada), and the ones we’ve visited recently are some of the most magnificent. I feel like I’ve been living in a postcard.
We stayed on the West side of the park, and, shortly after we arrived, we realized that we probably should have stayed on the East side. Mainly because we are wildlife enthusiasts and there is more diversity of wildlife on the East side of the park.
The weather forecast was for sunny, somewhat warm weather for most of our stay. And, Hector, who hates buses, informed me that he wanted to take one of the Red Bus Tours of the park. Knowing that he’s a history buff and he’d been intrigued by the Yellow Bus Tours back when we were in Yellowstone, I wasn’t too surprised. And even though I wasn’t as interested as he was, I went along.
So we took a Red Bus Tour as our introduction to the area. On the morning of our tour, there were eight people that the company didn’t show reservations for, including us. The scheduled buses were full and one of the drivers was working to find a solution. Then he asked if anyone could take the tour another day and I volunteered, thinking that some of these folks might be on a one-time vacation. To which Hector added, “we’ll do it, but we are not amused”. He is so funny.
But they somehow found another driver who could take our group out. Now we were happy knowing that we’d be a group of eight where normally there would be sixteen. Ha!
We set out on the Going to the Sun Road, a famous and spectacular road. The story of the buses is fascinating: the first group of buses began service in 1914 then were replaced in 1927 by new buses. The red buses now in use all date from the 1930s. Amazingly they continued operating with their original technology until 1999, when they were taken out of service due to safety concerns. But the red buses had become part of the landscape of the park, and were much missed.
All was going well with the tour. Our driver informed us that the best was yet to come since the east side of the park was even more spectacular than the west (okay, rub it in). Suddenly, he had to stop and pull over while he had a coughing fit. This is when I realized that this guy had probably called in sick and was asked to come “rescue” our group. Oh, oh.
Next we stopped at the Lake McDonald Lodge. This historic lodge was built in 1914, a Swiss chalet style structure, partially built of stone. With an open lobby area that extends to the third floor, balconies all around on the second and third floors, a massive fireplace, mounted animal heads and beautiful leather lanterns, it is quite a stunner when you enter.
Especially interesting were the lamps and the fireplace. The lanterns are reproductions of original lamps crafted by members of the Kanai Nation from Southern Alberta. The fireplace also has some native etchings, although the original fireplace was destroyed in a fire. This was my favorite hotel lobby, very cozy. And behind the hotel was the beautiful Lake McDonald, more on that later.
The young (and sick) man who was our guide put up a valiant effort but there were long gaps of time between narration. So, our “luck” at being a small group was kind of offset by a less than wonderful narrative.
But our group was really nice; we enjoyed their company and the scenery was spectacular. And the cars are pretty cool with open tops that allow you to stand up and look at and photograph the views.
Our next stop was Logan Pass, a little less than 2/3 of the way to the east side of the park. This area is known for mountain goats and big-horned sheep, and we caught a glimpse of some mountain goats. Then after the pass is an area where some glaciers are viewable from the road.
Our final destination and our lunch stop was at the Many Glacier Hotel on the East side of the park. Another Swiss style hotel with an impressive structure and massive stone logs inside but in my view not as cozy as the Lake McDonald Lodge.
But from the back porch of the hotel, across from the road we spotted a cinnamon colored mama bear with two black cubs walking up the mountain. Apparently they are frequent visitors to the Swift Current Lake just behind the hotel.
On our return trip, we had more time to appreciate the engineering marvel that is the Going to the Sun Road. On the east side of the park, the road is precariously perched on the side of very steep cliffs. There is a very interesting story about the two proposals for the road – one had 15 switchbacks, the other had only one switchback. The choice of the one switchback was daring, but the right choice. Read more here.
At the end of the tour, we gave the sick driver a good tip, he did after all “rescue” us. My last comment about the tour is that I’m not sure I would have enjoyed being in the same bus with fourteen other people instead of six others.
One of two trails that we did hike was the Hidden Lake Overlook, over on Logan Pass. The roundtrip hike to the overlook is three miles but the trail continues on a steep downhill to the Hidden Lake for about 3 more miles roundtrip.
We hiked in the late afternoon, when the trail was a bit less crowded. The first mile or so is developed with a number of sets of steps. On the way up, there are fields of flowers all around. Then towards the top, there are a number of ponds and creeks, some of which run across the path.
Our first wildlife sighting was a marmot. Hector loves marmots and is always looking for them in the mountains. They have cute front teeth and look like stuffed toys. We also saw some cute ground squirrels running around.
From that point on we continued to see mountain goat, there seemed to be several families throughout the mountain. We’d never seen mountain goats at this low altitude (around 6,000 feet), the last time we saw some was at the top of a 14,000-foot mountain in Colorado.
Several of the adult mountain goats were collared. The babies were adorable with their soft fur and sweet faces. And someone on the trail was saying that the rangers have not been able to figure out why the mountain goats stayed so close to the trail this year. Curious.
Then, down at the bottom, near an interpretive walk by the visitor center, we saw a small crowd. And, about 100 yards away was a young grizzly bear, furiously digging. Huge clumps of dirt were flying out behind him. We identified him as a grizzly because of the hump on his shoulder, the “dish-shaped” face, and the extremely long claws.
He found what he was digging for – a ground squirrel – and pretty quickly ate it. Then he continued digging – apparently for the squirrel’s cache as we later discovered. Black bears don’t typically eat as much meat as grizzlies, and they don’t dig because their claws are shorter and more curved – better for climbing trees.
At this point, about twenty people had gathered to watch the bear and he never even glanced at us. He knew he was the top predator here. Then when he finished digging, he set off, easily overturning huge rocks along the way, looking for more grub. The closest we’ve ever seen a grizzly bear and very cool.
The lake is very picturesque. It also happened to be close to our campground, and adjacent to Apgar Village, the largest tiny settlement in the vicinity.
Our next hike, Avalanche Lake, was on the West side of the park. About five relatively easy miles in a lovely forest. And once again, we went hiking in the late afternoon to avoid crowds.
It was pretty cloudy and we had a moment of wondering whether we should turn back as the sun appeared to be going down much earlier than we expected. But we continued.
And we reached another lovely glacial lake, this one with some very deep green tones. We walked around the lake for different views. As we changed our point of view, the color of the lake changed, at one point much deeper. Beautiful.
On another short drive with Angel we stopped at an overlook to a beautiful swimming hole in the river. We heard there was a bear by the river and found the crowd of bear watchers. He was a young black bear looking for food. Munching on various plants and stretching to try to reach some higher branches. Very entertaining.
Our last wildlife sighting was at the Many Glacier area. A group of people were peering up at a mountain with scopes and binoculars at a grizzly bear that was walking in and out of trees far above us. Although he was very far up the mountain (too far for photos) he looked like a very big grizzly and his golden coloring and darker face reminded us of a panda.
And we found them: a moose family standing in the small lake. Mom, dad and baby.
They were chomping on plants underwater – moose can actually dive to 20 feet and remain underwater for two minutes. And the baby nursed for a bit. Then they went off into the woods and we drove home across the park in beautiful evening light.
This is definitely one of the most beautiful national parks we have seen and the wildlife sightings were great. There are many great sounding hikes, especially on the East side of the park. And for those interested in visiting, come soon if you want to see any of the remaining glaciers.
Note: We found a wonderful resource for detailed information on hikes at Glacier National Park – www.hikinginglacier.com. It lists over 60 trails with general features i.e. waterfalls etc., roundtrip distance, elevation gain and difficulty ratings. For most of those trails they also include a description, latitude and longitude of the parking lot, average elevation gain per mile, highest elevation and more.