Going to the Sun at Glacier National Park

Welcome back to The Sedentary Explorer! Always ready to send you to the most exciting places accessible without overexerting yourself.

This month I will regale you with the magnificence of Glacier National Park. In their haste to enjoy time at Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, many people overlook this park. But this was not always the case. A century ago, people said that if you could not get to the Swiss Alps, go to Glacier National Park.

Remote, Remote, Remote

Glacier was deliberately placed out of the way, in Montana up along the Canadian border, to discourage the casual traveler. It is part of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. Regrettably, we did not have time to visit the Canadian side. But as I say, always leave a reason for going back. If you leave Yellowstone to visit Glacier, you will drive a full day north, going through a Blackfeet Indian Reservation to enter from the east, or climbing mountains to enter from the west. This park, like Yellowstone, generally lacks cell phone coverage and television service.

There are less than 100 glaciers left in Glacier National Park, but name is not based on their presence, but on their footprint. Ice Age era glaciers carved dramatic mountains and passes, leaving sheer cliffs and alpine meadows. It also sits in a unique three-way divide, providing drainage to the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and Hudson Bay. Glacier has hundreds of miles of backpacking trails and only a few roads, so the sedentary explorer must either psyche himself up for hiking or enjoy the view from the road.

Superb Dining

Our first evening’s meal was spent at Many Glacier Hotel, a Swiss Chalet styled hotel and restaurant with excellent cuisine and a priceless view of Swiftcurrent Lake. The massive Rockies and glaciers loomed in the background, providing a stunning sunset. This hotel provides a launching site for backpackers to venture into the mountains.

We stayed at the rising Sun Motor Lodge, a more budget motel overlooking Saint Mary Lake, also with fantastic mountains in the background. Our hotel provided hearty diner style meals including excellent breakfasts.

Our final meal was lunch at Glacier Park Lodge, a grand hotel built nearly 100 years ago by the Great Northern Railroad. The train still stops there today, allowing visitors to debark and walk through a lush garden to the hotel. Apgar Village and Lake McDonald also had quality dining, So no one should ever leave Glacier hungry.

The Going-to-the-Sun Road

The centerpiece of Glacier National Park is the Going-to-the-Sun road, carved through the park’s midsection nearly 100 years ago as an attraction to bring more visitors to the park. This epic road climbs up and over the Continental Divide at Logan Pass, giving the Sedentary Explorer magnificent views of the mountains and alpine lakes. Some of the best roadside views of glaciers and their impacts on the mountain will be seen along this road. A multiyear construction project is rebuilding the road, causing delays which become additional photo opportunities. The traffic will get heavy in the summer, so between the crowd and the stops be prepared to spend most of the day enjoying this road.

The prime stop along this road is Logan Pass, sitting atop the Continental Divide. This Visitor Center has restroom facilities but no food. Try to get here early because the parking lot fills by noon, and there are not many overflow parking options.

A challenging hike for sedentary explorers is the walk from the Logan Pass Visitor Center to Hidden Lake. It is one and a half miles uphill, but well worth it. The beginning is deceptively level before you start climbing steps and platforms. You will be thankful you brought water as you watch the Visitor Center become a tiny speck way, way, below. They claim the elevation change is only 400 feet, but it felt like much more. I was tempted to stop until I passed an elderly person wearing an oxygen tank coming back down, and was shamed into continuing. As I kept climbing and going around curves, this felt like the longest mile and a half I had ever hiked.

Then, when I rounded the final bend, I looked down on Hidden Lake. Tucked among massive mountains, with no sign of civilization except a goat trail, was the most magnificent alpine lake I ever observed. Crystal clear water reflected the mountains and nothing manmade was around me except enough people to keep the grizzly bears away. In addition to the welcome rest, it was hard to pull my eyes from the view.

As an added bonus to this hike, we saw numerous mountain goats on our way up to the lake, along with marmots and other mountain critters. Then on the way back down, some bighorn sheep posed dramatically in the alpine meadow so we could take numerous pictures.

Lake McDonald and Apgar Village

These two visitor areas are the prime feature of the western side of the Going-to-the Sun road. The lake stretches for about twelve miles, providing mountains for backdrop and numerous short hikes to waterfalls and other features. We used all our exertion climbing to Hidden Lake, but enjoyed the different views offered on this side of the pass. One area was used as a swimming hole, but even the climb down from the road was too much work, so we enjoyed watching them have fun from our car.

Apgar Village is a small settlement positioned at one end of Lake McDonald, and also used as a starting point for backpackers. It also has an excellent ice cream shop, but we had just eaten lunch and I could not persuade everyone of the need for dessert.

Due to the extreme weather in the mountains, only each end of the Going-to-the-Sun road is open year round. The central part which climbs over the mountains closes in October for the winter. As of mid-April, the plowing had not even begun, so do not expect to drive through to the other side of the park until sometime in May, and possibly even later. Like most roads out west, there are no guardrails, but they do have cute little stone walls which might slow you down before you plummet over the cliff.

Red Bus Tours

Glacier National Park has refurbished their classic red buses, 1930’s era touring buses with rollback canvas tops, for group tours in the park. They offer many tour options, including the Going-to-the-Sun road, in case driving narrow roads along cliffs without guardrails makes one squeamish.

We chose the Secret Valley tour, which combined a bus and boat tour, allowing us to see another section of the park. Leaving Glacier Park Lodge, we drove to a historic camp store and enjoyed a short level walk to a hidden waterfall. We then boarded our boat for a cruise on Two Medicine Lake. Arriving at the far side of the lake we deposited some day-hikers, who had to be sure and return for the afternoon boat ride or else brave the elements and local bear and wolf population.

I recommend taking a Red Bus tour. For the environmentally inclined, these buses have been converted to run on propane, which is much cleaner than gasoline. They also provide excursions not accessible by car or those not inclined to hike long distances.

Yet Another Park Underestimated

If I were to experience one recurring disappointment when visiting national parks, it would that I underestimate the time required to truly enjoy all the park offers. I am no longer inclined to take multi-day hikes into the wilderness, especially when the predators are larger than I am. But too often, I do not allow ample time to stop and enjoy all features a park offers even to sedentary explorers like myself.

Such was the case at Glacier National Park. We allowed two days, one of which was spent on the Going-to-the-Sun road and looping the bottom of the park. We could have spent more time in Apgar Village, or played the pitch-and-putt course at Glacier Park Lodge. We could have taken a day to visit Waterton Lakes Park in Canada. While we enjoyed every moment at Glacier, we could have spent more. From seeing an Osprey nest at our arrival, to leaving after a fortifying lunch at a classic hotel, our two days combined fun activities and restful moments viewing breathtaking scenery. I just we could have had more moments.

Because of its isolation, you must decide to go to Glacier National Park; it does not fall in your path on your way to someplace else. Do not let its reputation as a backpacker’s park dissuade the sedentary explorer from visiting. Even if your only detour from the road is the climb to Hidden Lake or a boat ride, you will appreciate the time you took to explore Glacier National Park.

Duncan, Dayton and Burns, Ken, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.

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