The Crown of the Continent: A Postcard from Glacier National Park
The Crown of the Continent: A Postcard from Glacier National Park - Majestic Mountainscapes of the Northern Rockies
Few places on earth showcase the truly majestic mountainscapes of the Northern Rockies like Glacier National Park. This crown jewel of Montana spans over 1 million acres and is brimming with rugged peaks, pristine forests, and breathtaking vistas. As you explore the trails and backroads of Glacier, it's easy to feel dwarfed by the sheer vastness and grandeur of the surrounding mountains.
Towering summits like Mount Cleveland, the tallest in the park at 10,466 feet, exemplify the breathtaking verticality of Glacier's landscapes. Sheer cliff faces, hanging valleys carved by ancient glaciers, and rocky ridges stretching as far as the eye can see make you feel as though you've stepped into another world. The Continental Divide runs along the spine of the park, and crossing it gives you a true sense of traversing the rooftop of North America.
Throughout Glacier's majestic mountainscapes, one can find over 700 miles of hiking trails to satisfy every ability level. For spectacular scenery, hiking Grinnell Glacier Trail allows you to view mirror-like alpine lakes, thundering waterfalls, and yes, even glaciers. The more daring can summit heavy-hitters like Mt. Siyeh or Mt. Jackson for panoramic vistas from more than 10,000 feet up. Going-to-the-Sun Road, a feat of modern engineering crossing the Continental Divide, offers car-accessible viewing of some of Glacier's most jaw-dropping landscapes.
In iconic areas like Logan Pass and Many Glacier, the jagged peaks and hanging valleys appear practically close enough to reach out and touch. Photographers flock to Glacier to try and capture the magic of dawn alpenglow hitting these epic mountainscapes. Others prefer to experience them at night, when the celestial show of the Milky Way reveals itself through dark skies untainted by light pollution. In the winter, fresh snowdrifts turn the park into a wonderland, with mountaineers flocking to ascend glacier-covered summits on skis and snowshoes.
What else is in this post?
- The Crown of the Continent: A Postcard from Glacier National Park - Majestic Mountainscapes of the Northern Rockies
- The Crown of the Continent: A Postcard from Glacier National Park - Discovering Glacier's Diverse Ecosystems and Wildlife
- The Crown of the Continent: A Postcard from Glacier National Park - Hiking the Trails: Epic Adventures Through Rugged Terrain
- The Crown of the Continent: A Postcard from Glacier National Park - Pristine Lakes and Rushing Rivers to Explore
- The Crown of the Continent: A Postcard from Glacier National Park - Visiting Historic Lodges and Rustic Charm
- The Crown of the Continent: A Postcard from Glacier National Park - Hitting the Road on Going-to-the-Sun Road
- The Crown of the Continent: A Postcard from Glacier National Park - Experiencing the Local Culture and Cuisine
- The Crown of the Continent: A Postcard from Glacier National Park - Planning Your Glacier National Park Vacation
- The Crown of the Continent: A Postcard from Glacier National Park - Breathtaking Beauty and Endless Exploration
The Crown of the Continent: A Postcard from Glacier National Park - Discovering Glacier's Diverse Ecosystems and Wildlife
Beyond Glacier's spectacular mountain vistas lies a diverse landscape brimming with life. This intricate web of ecosystems sustains a remarkable variety of wildlife species, from tiny pikas to towering grizzly bears. Exploring these habitats offers a glimpse into the park's living, breathing soul.
Few national parks encompass such ecological diversity. The Continental Divide bisects Glacier into east and west regions with distinct climate differences. Lush western valleys soaked by Pacific moisture transition into drier eastern prairies. I learned just how radically the scenery shifts when I crossed the Divide on Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Glacier's lower elevations host magnificent forests, including rare inland rainforests. Towering cedars, firs, spruces, and pines fill the air with that nostalgic evergreen scent. Hiking the Huckleberry Mountain Trail, I marveled at the hulking western red cedars exceeding 30 feet in circumference. Higher up, strips of stunted, twisted trees known as krummholz cling to existence.
Alpine meadows above tree line explode with wildflowers in summer. Hiking Iceberg Lake Trail in June, I wandered through waist-high meadows blazing with purple lupine and paintbrush, yellow arnica and glacier lilies. The delicate blooms poke through melting snowfields, racing to flourish in the short growing season.
Abundant snowmelt feeds Glacier's wealth of lakes, streams, and waterfalls. McDonald Creek's thundering cascades and crystal pools offer front-row seats to the park's aquatic habitats. Trout rise to snatch insects from shimmering surfaces. Dippers and harlequin ducks patrol rushing rapids, while moose wade in marshy backwaters.
For wildlife viewing, Glacier's mega fauna draws the most attention. Seeing my first wild grizzly remains an unforgettable highlight. Yet the park hosts nearly 70 mammal species, including wolves, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and incredibly cute pikas. Over 260 bird species fill Glacier's skies and forests. Watch for migratory gray-crowned rosy finches arriving in summer, and keep an eye out for stealthy spruce grouse ambling trailside.
The Crown of the Continent: A Postcard from Glacier National Park - Hiking the Trails: Epic Adventures Through Rugged Terrain
Glacier National Park is a hiker's paradise, with over 700 miles of trails traversing steep mountainsides, flower-strewn meadows, and breathtaking vistas. Exploring on foot allows you to fully immerse yourself in the wild beauty of this landscape. Just be sure to brace yourself for an epic adventure through some of the most rugged terrain around.
While Going-to-the-Sun Road offers easy roadside viewing, descending into the valleys on foot opens up a whole different world. Many trails start right from the road, then plunge down relentless switchbacks into the valley bottoms thousands of feet below. The swift change in elevation and scenery really emphasizes the radical topographic relief sculpted by ancient glaciers.
For example, the Highline Trail contours the steep Garden Wall before cutting across the Continental Divide. Hikers traverse narrow ledges with dizzying drop-offs, cross gushing streams, and navigate fields of boulders and scree. Your legs will burn powering up and down the nearly 2,000 feet of elevation change. Yet you'll quickly forget the pain when gazing at wildflower meadows dropping away from cliffs thousands of feet high.
Meanwhile, Piegan Pass cuts through the heart of glacier country, with views of colorful tarns and cascading waterfalls. Crossing the barren pass feels like entering an ancient landscape barely touched since the last Ice Age retreated. The 20+ mile round trip gains over 4,000 feet as you link together Siyeh Pass and Preston Park, marveling at the rugged grandeur all around.
For hikers willing to really earn their views, trails like Dawson Pass and Pitamakan Pass gain over 5,000 feet in under 9 miles. Grueling switchbacks lead to rocky moonscapes well above tree line, where merely standing upright can prove challenging in the thin air. But touching a historic cairn or surveying jeweled lakes while surrounded by jagged peaks makes every ounce of sweat worthwhile.
While copious switchbacks on most trails allow reasonably fit hikers to summit high passes, trails like Swiftcurrent Pass take the direct no-nonsense approach straight up the fall line. Scrambling up slippery scree with hands as well as feet, you'll be reduced to grunts and groans. Yet determined souls who survive the quad-burning punishment reap huge rewards upon finally topping out.
The Crown of the Continent: A Postcard from Glacier National Park - Pristine Lakes and Rushing Rivers to Explore
Glacier’s spectacular peaks and valleys cradle over 700 lakes, earning it the apt nickname “Crown of the Continental Divide.” Fed by snowmelt and mountain springs, these aquamarine pools range from milky turquoise tarns to deep sapphire gems. Their pristine waters invite exploration by boat, foot, or simply gazing from trails above.
While massive Lake McDonald draws crowds with its accessibility, hiking to remote gems rewards intrepid travelers with true tranquility. After miles of relentless switchbacks up to Lincoln Lake, I found sublime solitude gazing at the surrounding jagged peaks reflected on the calm surface. Tiny jewelry-like Sperry Chalet Lake stole my heart with its perfect picturesque setting.
Meanwhile, backpacking to Gunsight Lake led me through prime grizzly habitat, where my nerves kept me good company until reaching the massive lake. Watching sunbeams dance across the rippled surface with Mount Jackson mirrored in the blue-green waters washed my worries away.
Cracker Lake evokes the Canadian Rockies with its stark grey cliffs and cached jewel tone waters. Crossing the hydroelectric dam downriver made me appreciate the invaluable role of wilderness preservation in keeping such scenes intact. Trout Lake rewarded me with a swimming moose and a family of loons, reminding me of the symbiotic relationship between the land and its creatures.
While the lakes offer serenity, Glacier’s rivers churn with the furious energy of snowmelt rushing down mountainsides to the valleys below. McDonald Creek’s cascades crash and thunder through sheer rock chutes, invoking the raw power of unchecked nature. Hiking through fog along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, I glimpsed the river churning violently through the mist like a caged beast hungry for release.
Yet rivers smiling tranquilly through forested floodplains show a different mood. Floating the North Fork revealed moose napping in grassy banks as trout dimpled the lazy current. Running through sapphire pools glowing aquamarine, the river radiated the very essence of the park’s lifeblood.
The Crown of the Continent: A Postcard from Glacier National Park - Visiting Historic Lodges and Rustic Charm
Beyond Glacier’s natural wonders lies a touch of old-world nostalgia in its lodges, cabins, and chalets dating back to the early 1900s. When visiting Glacier, spend at least a night or two at one of these historic properties. Embrace the antique decor, crackling fireplaces, and creaky floors that transport you back in time to a simpler era of travel.
These lodges exude rugged charm and serve as treasures in their own right. Imagine curling up with a book by a stone fireplace built by the Civilian Conservation Corp under towering log beam ceilings. Each one has its own unique architecture and personality thanks to the varied craftsmen who left their mark.
Sperry and Granite Park Chalets impress hikers with their grand backcountry settings. After long days hitting high mountain passes, envision reclining in rustic quarters in the clouds as you bask in epic scenery through wide picture windows. Soak in the nostalgia of oil lanterns and shared dorms harkening back to the early 1900s. Granite Park even features its original 1914 construction despite being rebuilt after various fires.
Lake McDonald Lodge charms guests with its Swiss-style architecture, flower filled terrace, and commanding lake views. Relax in wooden rockers overlooking the water as you imagine guests from the early 1900s arriving by boat. Many Rooms restaurant dishes up local flavors like huckleberry pie in a cozy log interior. Enjoy lawn games or rent a boat for old-fashioned fun. Nearby, Rising Sun Motor Inn's worn wooden porches and comfy retro interiors embody laid-back 1960s Glacier vibes.
For most extravagance, the Many Glacier Hotel on Swiftcurrent Lake wows visitors with its towering lobby flanked by massive stone fireplaces. The 215-foot lobby feels like a grand ballroom with Douglas fir pillars, Balinese lamps, and colorful Swiss woodcarvings. Unwind on the lakefront deck in an Adirondack chair, or rent a canoe and imagine the elegant clientele of the 1930s out for a paddle. Treat yourself to afternoon tea or fine dining at the Ptarmigan Dining Room.
While staying at the iconic Prince of Wales Hotel across the Canadian border in Waterton Lakes National Park, you’ll feel whisked away to a Swiss alpine village. Its arched windows, peaked gables, and painted murals transport you to Europe without even needing a passport. After high tea on the covered porch, unwind in your quaint room paneled with knotty pine.
The Crown of the Continent: A Postcard from Glacier National Park - Hitting the Road on Going-to-the-Sun Road
Spanning 50 miles across Glacier National Park’s heart, Going-to-the-Sun Road epitomizes the breathtaking essence of this landscape. Constructed in the 1930s and chiseled into sheer mountainsides, this feats of modern engineering transports visitors into the very depths of the Crown of the Continent. Snaking up to 6,646 feet above sea level at Logan Pass and crossing the Continental Divide, the road serves up dizzying heights, thrilling hairpin turns, and jaw-dropping scenery around every bend.
My first reaction upon seeing the famous road was, “They built this here?” The narrow two-lane highway clings precariously to nearly vertical slopes, fully engulfed in the towering mountain scenery. Vertiginous drop-offs with no guardrails pucker the senses, especially when encountering recreational vehicles barreling around tight corners. Yet despite its audacity, Going-to-the-Sun Road offers easy, car-accessible viewing of landscapes most can only glimpse on grueling, multi-day hikes.
While buses and RVs traveling at a gentle pace take in the views, sports cars and motorcycles lean eagerly into the tightest turns with engines revving. Bicyclists huff and puff up the 4,500-foot elevation gain, instantly rewarded by downhill glides back to Lake McDonald. No matter your chosen wheels, riding Going-to-the-Sun Road guarantees an unforgettable experience in the depths of raw wilderness.
During my own drive, my palms grew slick with sweat gripping the steering wheel while navigating the most hair-raising switchbacks. But Glacier’s living spirit and vibrant energy enlivened all senses and pulled me from the edge of anxiety into profound awe. Approaching the Garden Wall’s cliffs, I glimpsedcollared pikas scurrying on boulder fields and mountain goats grazing thousands of feet above plunging vertiginous slopes. An American dipper teetered on a rock in gushing McDonald Creek, which dropped away in thundering cascades measured in manhattans rather than mere feet.
Reaching Logan Pass felt like breaching the threshold into Glacier’s inner sanctum. A short stroll leads to Hidden Lake Overlook, where boardwalks traverse meadows blazing with wildflowers in summer. Snow lingers year-round up here, where mountain goats laid claim to every visible ledge and pinnacle. I stood humbled at the Continental Divide, knowing all water flowing west joins the Pacific, east bound for the Atlantic. Grizzled hikers crossed my path, emerging from days-long treks through distant valleys unreachable from the road.
Continuing east, the vegetation morphed from lush western rainforests to drier prairie ecosystems. Pulling over at deserted Two Medicine valley revealed a peaceful landscape of grassy hills unfolding toward the horizon. Far from Going-to-the-Sun Road’s crowds, solitude reigns in this remote and mysterious corner of Glacier. Descending toward East Glacier, I caught last glimpses of the high peaks now distant yet still towering thousands of feet higher than I stood.
The Crown of the Continent: A Postcard from Glacier National Park - Experiencing the Local Culture and Cuisine
Beyond Glacier's natural splendor lies a vibrant local culture rooted in Native American traditions and hardy pioneer roots. Though the park attracts over 3 million annual visitors, its resident population numbers under 1,000. The small communities flanking the park offer visitors a chance to connect with locals who have called this rugged landscape home for generations. From Blackfeet traditions to hearty regional fare, Glacier's cultural offerings enrich any visit.
Browning, the seat of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, provides opportunities to learn about the tribe who once followed the seasonal rhythms of the land. The Museum of the Plains Indian displays a world-class collection of historical and contemporary Native American artifacts and artwork. Meanwhile, tours of the Blackfeet Reservation through incidental companies like Glacier Park, Inc. offer cultural immersion with stops at sites like Tipi Rings National Historic Landmark. Knowledgeable Blackfeet guides share stories of their ancestors who traversed Glacier's valleys and passes for centuries before white settlers arrived.
The small tourist outpost of West Glacier exudes an authentic pioneer vibe, with homey cafes and rustic storefronts dating back to the early 1900s. Kids of all ages will adore West Glacier Mercantile's old-fashioned candy selection and novelty gifts. Meanwhile, the handcrafted huckleberry fudge sold around the park makes a classic Montana memento. In the Apgar area near Lake McDonald Lodge, apologize for hearty family-style meals like Smoke House BBQ featuring local game in a cozy wooded setting.
For a refined evening out, Belton Chalet's upscale dining room conjures the romance of rail travel's glory days with fine regional cuisine. Train passengers once flooded this newly opened Swiss chalet when the Great Northern Railway first reached Glacier in 1910. Sip a craft Montana ale from Great Northern Brewing as you dine on grilled Flathead Lake trout or huckleberry duck breast married with seasonal wild mushrooms.
The Crown of the Continent: A Postcard from Glacier National Park - Planning Your Glacier National Park Vacation
With over 1 million acres of rugged natural beauty to explore, a trip to Glacier demands advance planning to make the most of your limited time. Torsten shares tried-and-true insider tips for crafting your perfect Glacier National Park vacation.
Advanced reservations are essential for lodging and popular activities in the peak summer season. For multi-night stays, historic properties like Lake McDonald Lodge, Many Glacier Hotel, and the Sperry Chalet book up 6-12 months out. Make reservations online via Glacier National Park Lodges or seek assistance from a travel agent specializing in national parks. For backcountry camping, permits go on sale 6 months before your trip. Compete with the masses vying for limited slots at the stroke of midnight MDT when the online system opens.
Once lodging is secured, book any guided tours, boat rentals, and Red Bus tours you hope to enjoy. These wildly popular options sell out weeks or months ahead, so plan accordingly. Leave time in your itinerary for spontaneity too. Torsten says some of his favorite moments came from pulling off on Going-to-the-Sun Road’s scenic turnouts and discovering unexpected gems miles from the nearest crowds.
Pack proper gear, clothing, and supplies for self-sufficiency in Glacier’s remote backcountry. Weather varies dramatically across elevations and valleys, demanding layers and excellent rain protection. Sturdy hiking boots and trekking poles ease long miles on knees and ankles. Bear spray provides peace of mind in grizzly country. Since phone signals are unreliable at best, download offline maps in apps like GAIA GPS for routefinding. Give someone your detailed itinerary for safety.
Fuel up on hearty breakfasts before long days on the trails, and pack high-calorie snacks to avoid bonking miles from food sources. Trailside streams generally offer potable water, allowing hikers to travel lighter. For multi-day treks, cache supplies via park shuttles ahead of time at strategic points. Popular routes like the Highline Trail have campgrounds with bear-proof food storage boxes.
Travel strategically to avoid hordes clamoring to snap that perfect Instagram shot at iconic areas like Logan Pass. Hit the trail at dawn to watch the mountains glow in dazzling dawn light before crowds arrive midday. Or visit late season once families with schoolchildren depart, when crisp air and fall foliage create ideal conditions for hiking and wildlife viewing. Just prepare for earlier nightfalls and potential cold snaps or snow at high elevations.
The Crown of the Continent: A Postcard from Glacier National Park - Breathtaking Beauty and Endless Exploration
With over 1 million acres of some of the most jaw-dropping scenery in the lower 48 states, Glacier National Park offers endless opportunities for exploration and discovery. As John Muir said, “The mountains are calling and I must go.” This irresistible siren song lures legions of outdoor enthusiasts to Glacier each year, drawn by promises of adventure, solitude, and renewal.
While Going-to-the-Sun Road and visitor centers concentrate crowds in a few heavily trafficked areas, backcountry travelers can lose themselves for days in Glacier’s remote valleys. Torsten suggests avoiding the masses on popular trails like Grinnell Glacier by venturing beyond the beaten path.Seek out lesser-known gems like Boulder Pass, where he had mountain goats to himself for hours while most congregated at Logan Pass just miles away.
Endless trails allow you to customize adventures matching your ability and ambition. For stunning scenery minus the crowds, try Iceberg Lake Trail, Ptarmigan Tunnel, or Piegan Pass. Challenge yourself on multi-day treks like the Northern Highline-Swiftcurrent Pass Loop to immerse yourself deep in Glacier’s wilderness heart. Experienced mountaineers can summit craggy peaks like Mount Siyeh, scraping the sky above 10,000 feet.
Glacier’s backcountry delivers ultimate solitude, but be ready to work for it. Trails deliver relentless switchbacks up and down mountainsides lacking trails or markings. Navigation skills and offline maps become essential with spotty phone service. Watch for Ribbon Creek's confusing maze of crisscrossing paths. Bears, snakes, lightning, and sheer cliff edges call for alertness. Test your limits or play it safe, but come prepared.
Backpacking Glacier’s backcountry creates life-changing memories for those ready to disconnect from digital distractions. One avid hiker described his first night camping at Upper Kintla Lake after 15 grueling miles through dense woods populated by nothing but mosquiotes, squirrels and his own racing thoughts. But waking to mirror-like waters reflecting the morning light on the surrounding peaks brought transcendent joy.
Others appreciate the forced slowing of pace, where each step becomes an incremental goal. As days unfold, a comforting rhythm sets in—cooking meals, filtering water, navigating terrain. Modern worries fade, replaced by focus on basic needs of food, water, shelter. Without phones buzzing, Glacier’s majesty captures full attention. Companionship comes from whistling marmots and curious mountain goats, fellow pilgrims on the path.