Glacier National Park has been on our bucket list since we first retired, but only now did we have time to make the 1600 mile trek to the park. So, in mid August we loaded up our Highlander and headed west.
We love driving west because the scenery is so different from home. It doesn’t take long to reach large rolling hills, then buttes, gullies and finally huge mountains. Just driving in the west is a vacation for us!
After 3 days on the road we pulled into Kalispell, Montana. This was to be our base for our exploration of Glacier. We quickly checked in, dropped off our bags and headed to the park. It wasn’t long before we decided that Kalispell isn’t the best base for Glacier as it’s a 45 minute drive with lots of stop lights. Not the best base, but it’s what we had.
Finally, we were at West Glacier, the western entrance to the park. Our first stop was at the Visitor Center. As soon as we got out of the car we were hit with the smell of burning wood. About 15,000 acres of the park were on fire so wood smoke was to be the norm for the duration of our visit. The fires also caused a lot of haze in the air so we weren’t able to see many clear vistas with blue skies.
A little background on Glacier National Park: The park was established in 1911 and covers over 1 million acres. The Going-To-The-Sun Road was completed in 1932 and is one of the primary attractions of the park. Along with its Canadian neighbor park, Waterton it was established as Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park World Heritage Site in 1995. Over 2 million people visit Glacier every year and most of those visits occur from June to Labor Day. Judging from the traffic and the over-flowing parking lots, many of those 2 million were here at the same time as us!
No matter the congestion and the smokey air…we were here to complete our bucket list item and that meant we had to drive the Going-To-The-Sun road. Off we go! The road starts out innocently at first with a gentle upward climb along Lake McDonald with lots of opportunities to stop and enjoy the nature. Most of those stops were filled with cars and most of the nearby hikes had loud hikers, I guess to ensure we didn’t encounter any bears. We stopped at one pull-off and took a hike through the forest. Lots of beautiful trees and plants but no wildlife, perhaps because of the loud hikers. Oh well, back to the road!
After about 10 miles the road begins to twist and turn as it climbed up the mountain. As we entered the Alpine section of the road the road dramatically narrows and the speed limit drops from 45 to 25. Here the road is chiseled into the side of the mountain, barely clinging on as hundreds of cars climb up. There are stones on the valley side of the road, but they don’t seem big enough to stop our car from a thousand foot drop. On the other side of the pavement the mountain juts onto the road; further reducing the width of the road and at times making it too narrow for two vehicles to pass each other. Yikes!
Mona was driving this stretch and I noticed her knuckles were white from gripping the steering wheel so tightly. I didn’t bother to comment because I didn’t want to distract her from the excellent driving she was doing. Besides, there were enough distractions, what with the potential of driving off the cliff or being crushed by falling rocks…which, by the way, small pieces continually fall on the road to remind you that their big brothers are up there waiting to fall!
After about an hour we finally make it to Logan Pass at 6646 feet. Here is a large visitor center, trails, and a mountain goat study area. Woot, we are finally going to see a mountain goat!!! But wait, no goats. No one is seeing any goats. None. The only visible wildlife is a super-fat ground squirrel who frankly creeped us out because of his panhandling.
We finished our fruitless search for wildlife at Logan Pass and continued our eastward trek. The road is not as dramatic on this side of the pass and we glide down almost effortlessly. About a couple of miles down the mountain we enter an area where there was a forest fire just last week, closing this section of road. The road is open now, but the fire’s devastation surrounds you and there are many areas where the fire is still smoldering. After viewing about 10 miles of burnt-out forest we turned around and headed back.
Now, I’m driving and a thunderstorm has found us. Now, it’s me with the white knuckles as I navigate the cliff-side road and try to avoid scraping the Highlander on the rocks jutting into the road. The drive back sure seemed a lot longer…wonder why?
The next day we took the drive south from West Glacier to East Glacier. This route follows the pass used by Indians for centuries and which they hid from white settlers as long as they could. This is a beautiful drive with lots a great scenery and gentle curves and climbs. We stopped by the Goat Lick where we were assured we’d see mountain goats. No goats.
At East Glacier we turned north and began driving the “scenic route”. We found that scenic route meant narrow roads, no guardrails, and rough roads. Luckily, Mona was driving again so I wasn’t bothered too much!
We came out of the scenic route near St. Mary and then took the highway up into Alberta, Canada so we could geocache in that province. Coming back we took several backroads to check out the scenery and to hopefully spot some wildlife. The scenery was great, but no wildlife to speak of. In fact, our wildlife score of this visit was three eagles and one fat ground squirrel. We did see lots of free-range cows and numerous horses but no goats, no sheep and no bears.
We even drove back on the Going-To-The-Sun road one more time in hopes of seeing goats. Nada. We talked to several people about their sightings and all had the same result. We also talked to the rangers and they said it was odd and it might be attributable to all the smoke.
We had planned to stay at the park longer and then to head north into Canada for a few days. However, all the smoke, the crowds and the lack of wildlife caused us to rethink our plans. Instead of north, we turned our wheels south and headed to Yellowstone and back to the Black Hills. We’re pretty sure we’ll spot some wildlife there!
Glacier National Park is beautiful and driving the Going-To-The-Sun Road is a thrill but in retrospect I’d change a couple of things about a future visit. First off, I wouldn’t stay in Kalispell; it’s just too far away. Secondly, I’d visit in early September; after the crowds and before the snow closes the road.
Look out Yellowstone. Here we come!