Montana is known as “big sky country,” and Glacier National certainly lives up to the nickname. With its stark, rugged mountains, crystal-blue lakes and seemingly endless stretches of skyline, you won’t know where to look first.
Facts and figures
• The park is massive, spanning 1,013,598 acres. (That’s bigger than the state of Rhode Island.)
• Thanks to its vast, largely intact ecosystem—and because water from the park ends up in the Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico and Hudson Bay—Glacier National Park is fittingly known as the “Crown of the Continent.”
• Situated in Montana on the U.S.-Canada border, Glacier contains portions of two mountain ranges (the Livingstone Range and the Lewis Range), 762 lakes and 563 streams.
• In 1910, President Taft established the area as a national park. In 1932, in a nod to the goodwill felt along the border, Glacier National partnered with its Canadian neighbor, Waterton Lakes National Park, to create the world’s first International Peace Park.
• In the mid-1800s, there were approximately 150 glaciers in the park. Over the last century, glacial ice has melted so rapidly, the fewer than 30 glaciers that remain are expected to be gone between 2030 and 2080.
The mountains of Glacier National Park began forming 170 million years ago.
When white explorers arrived here in the mid-1800s, they encountered Blackfeet Indians. In 1895, the Blackfeet people ceded their remaining lands to the government.
Just before the turn of the century, once railroad tracks were constructed, settlers capitalized on the area’s appeal and began offering rental cabins and guided tours to attract out-of-towners.
In 1885, anthropologist and acclaimed explorer George Bird Grinnell visited for the first time. So inspired by the area’s natural beauty, he dedicated two decades of his life to establish it as a national park.
Things to see and do
Take the scenic drive along Going-to-the-Sun-Road, the 50-mile two-lane highway that snakes through the width of the park. Stop at pullouts and viewpoints along the way to witness nearly every type of terrain the park offers, from large glacial lakes to alpine tundra.
If you’d prefer to play passenger, take a ride on one of the Red Jammers, White Motor Company coaches restored from the 1930s that offer bus tours throughout the park.
With 734 miles of trails, Glacier is begging to be hiked. The Highline Loop, offering breathtaking views of the Garden Wall, and the Grinnell Glacier trail, which leads to one of the park’s most well-known glaciers, are considered two of the best trails in the park.
The much shorter (1.7 mile) Apikuni Falls Trail is another must-hike, as it offers breathtaking views of a cascading waterfall.
Swiftcurrent Lookout is the highest point accessible by trail. Getting there will require a good bit of time and effort, but you’ll be rewarded with some of the park’s most sweeping views.
No trip to Glacier is complete without seeing the park’s namesake hunks of ice, so head to the Many Glacier area, located near the center of the park, for the best viewing.
You still have the park’s vast bodies of water to explore, so hop aboard one of the historic wooden boat tours, which takes passengers to see St. Mary Lake at Rising Sun, Lake McDonald, Two Medicine and Many Glacier.
Anglers can try to hook brook trout, bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout in the cold, crystal waters of the Flathead River and mountain lakes.
The park’s range of overnight accommodations—from historic grand hotels and mid-century “motor inns” to rustic cabins and backcountry chalets—invite guests to step back in time to experience what the American West once was. Those looking for a more primitive experience can choose from the park’s 13 different campgrounds and 1,009 sites. No matter where you stay, reservations are strongly encouraged during the summer.
Best time to go
Springtime tends to be cold and wet. Warmer, drier conditions make June, July and August the busiest months. Plan a visit in September when the crowds have thinned.