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Glacier National Park  


Introduction

Park History

Mountains

Lakes

Going-to-the-Sun Road

Wildlife

Buildings

Plants

Creeks, Waterfalls, Glaciers

References

More Mountains


Glacier National Park, one of the largest of the national parks in the lower 48 states at 1600 square miles (1,013,598 acres), is located in the northern section of Montana near the Canadian border. The park is known for spectacular mountains, including 6 peaks over 10,000 feet, glaciers, lakes, and a diverse variety of wildlife. Much of the park is backcountry and wilderness, crossed by over 700 miles of trails. Despite its remoteness, the park draws over 2.7 million visitors a year.




Glacier might very well be the most beautiful of America's national parks. John Muir called it "the best care-killing scenery on the continent." The mountains are steep, snowcapped, and punctuated by stunning mountain lakes and creeks. Much of the land remains wild and pristine, a result of its remote location and the lack of visitation in the 19th century.


Park History

The Glacier area has been visited and inhabited by human beings for 8000 years. In more recent times the area was used by a several Indian tribes, although the fearsome Blackfoot tribe controlled access to the area during much of the 18th and 19th centuries. Other tribes, such as the Kootenai, Kalispell, and Flathead on the west side of the mountains and Stoney on the east, occasionally visited park land. Blackfoot domination was ended by the end of the 19th century by war, whiskey, smallpox, and the disappearance of the buffalo upon which their economy largely depended.


For potential visitors, ParkVision recommends "Story Behind the Scenery" guides and "Trails Ilustrated" maps.


The first white man to visit the park area was David Thompson of the Hudson Bay Company, in the 1780's, and the park was also spotted by members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition as well although overcast skies prevented them from seeing the mountains of the area. The first white man who traveled through the park lands themselves passed through in 1810, and the area was later mapped by a survey party led by A.W. Tinkham in 1853. A railroad south of the park was established through Marias Pass, the lowest altitude pass through the Rockies between Canada and Mexico, in 1891. Although some prospecting and mining activity took place in the park area, these activities in general were not successful and disappeared.

Additional attention to the features of the park was gathered by the work of artist James Madison Alden, who accompanied a surveying party in 1860. George Grinnell, a journalist, who came to the area to publicize the impoverished plight of the Blackfeet in the late 19th century, wrote an article about the park area in 1891 for Forest and Stream, helping to spread the word about the natural wonders in the area. Grinnell, called the "father of Glacier National Park", and Charles N. Pray, a Montana congressman, championed the idea of creating a national park in the area. Glacier National Park was finally created on May 11, 1910. In 1932, as a result of an effort by the Rotary Club, Canada's Waterton National Park across the border and Glacier were together named as the first "international peace park." The two parks cooperate on wildlife management, scientific research and some visitor services, although the parks themselves are separately administered.


Mountains

The mountains in Glacier must rank as some of the most beautiful in the world. The Glacier area was called "the backbone of the world" by the Blackfoot Indians and the "crown of the continent" by 18th century writer George Grinnell. They are high, steep, and carved in unusual shapes by the actions of glaciers and other agents of erosion. A prime example of this appearance is Heavy Runner Mountain which rises above the valley of St. Mary's Creek and Lake. This type of mountain is called a "horn", formed when glaciers carved away the rock on several sides.



The rock in the mountains of the park are some of the oldest and best preserved sedimentary rocks in the world. Most of this land was formerly under the sea but was thrust upward ages ago. The result of this upward movement of these rocks is accentuated by their rise above the flat surface of St. Mary Lake, seen in the picture below.



Another picture of St. Mary Lake is shown here.



The eastern portion of the park is drier, receiving less precipitation than the western section (approximately 18 inches a year versus 28 in the west). As a result the eastern area is less heavily forested, as can be seen in the picture below as well as in the picture of the park sign at the eastern entrance of the park above. This is a shot of East Flattop Mountain, north of St Mary Lake near the eastern border of the park.



Another view of the eastern portion of the park is this picture of the Apekuni Mountain (elev. 9068 feet), featuring meadows, wildflowers, and scattered forest. This mountain is also on the eastern border of the park, north of Sherburne Lake.



A bit further west is the Many Glacier area, named for 6 glaciers which lay on surrounding mountains. A sequence of lakes (Sherburne, Swiftcurrent, Josephine, and Grinnell) lies in a valley which pierces the mountain range. Below is a view looking west across Swiftcurrent Lake.



There are additional pictures of Glacier Park mountains on another page.


Lakes

Many of the park's most beautiful mountain peaks can be viewed across sparkling mountain lakes which reflect the sky, the clouds, and the peaks. Glacier National Park contains 650 lakes. One of the loveliest parts of the park is the Many Glacier area where a variety of peaks are visible across Swiftcurrent Lake (as seen above). Here is a view of Grinnell Point, directly east of the lake.



The next picture presents a view looking slightly further southwest of the one above. In the left center of the picture one of a number of boats which carry visitors across some of the park's large lakes is visible.



A few miles south is St. Mary Lake, one of the largest lakes in the park. Named by a Catholic missionary/priest, it is a long, narrow lake lying in a valley which cuts into the mountains on the east edge of the park. Views across the lake, such as the one looking west below, provide views of some of Glacier's highest peaks reminiscent of the Tetons. The tiny speck of forested land visible in the center of the picture is Wild Goose Island.



The largest of Glacier's lakes is McDonald Lake which lies at an elevation of 3153 feet in the western part of the park on the other side of the continental divide. Gouged by a glacier which was 2,000 feet high, the lake itself is 10 miles long and 427 deep at its deepest point. It was called "Sacred Dancing Lake" by the Kootenai tribe.



Anohter picture of McDonald Lake is shown here



Here, on the western side of the mountains, the park receives more rain, and as a result this area is wetter and more heavily forested. This view of McDonald lake faces northeast.



Going-to-the-Sun Road

The only road which crosses the park is the Going-to-the-Sun road which runs 52 miles from the east entrance at St. Mary across the continental divide to the west entrance at West Glacier. The road was a spectacular engineering feat, constructed between 1921 and 1932 and costing $3 million. The engineers spurned the usual approach of creating multiple switchbacks, electing instead to follow a gradual route up the side of the mountains. This road provides some of the most spectacular views of mountains and lakes in any of America's national parks.



Below is another view of the road on the east side of the divide. During the winter the road is usually covered by snow which may attain a depth of 70 feet. As a result, the road is usually open only from mid-June to mid-October. The remnants of a winter snow which can be see in the photograph, taken in late June soon after the road was opened.



For much of its route the road snakes along the side of mountains far above the St. Mary Valley on the west side of the divide and the McDonald Valley in the west. Below is a view of the road as it approaches the continental divide from the east. That's Going-to-the-Sun Mountain (at 9642 feet the highest peak in the park) on the right, Mt. Clements (elevation 8180 feet) on the horizon, and St. Mary Falls directly below it.



The precipitous nature of the road can be seen below in the remaining three photographs. The first picture on the provides a view of the road (visible as the "slash" along the face of the mountains) as if descends to the west from Logan Pass, its highest point at about 6646 feet.


Here the road can be see runing down into the McDonald Valley a little further to the west.



A closer view of the road west of the divide shows just how precarious its route is at the higher altitudes.


Wildlife

Glacier provides a variety of diverse wildlife habitats, and as a result there are many different kinds of animals which can be viewed in the park. In fact, there are 272 species of birds and 63 native mammals throughout the park area.

Some of the most visible animals are the small ones. Below is a pika, a member of the rabbit family which lives in rocky areas.



This photo shows a golden mantle ground squirrel, a common inhabitant of many national parks.



Three more of the smaller members of the park community can be seen below. First is the Columbian ground squirrel, below.



Next is a chipmunk.



Finally there is another golden mantle ground squirrel. The chipmunk and ground squirrel are similar in appearance and often confused but are actually easy to tell apart. The chipmunk has stripes on its face while the ground squirrel does not.



A close-up view of another Columbian ground squirrel lurking in the grass near McDonald Lake can be seen below. A burrow dweller, this animal is especially recognizable by the blaze of red fur on the face and the shrill whistle it emits when alarmed.



Marmots can be seen in a number of national parks. This hoary marmot, seen below, may grow to 30 pounds, eating a great deal in the summer to store fuel for a long winter hibernation. When the long winter sleep is over it may tunnel through 10 feet of snow to reach the surface. The animal, named for its silver crest of fur, is sometimes called the "whistle pig" for the shrill sound it sometimes makes. It is the largest member of the squirrel family.



Unquestionably the most famous animal in the park, and the one which most visitors hope to see, is the magnificent grizzly bear. Although there were once tens of thousands of these animals in North America, only about 900 currently remain. Glacier contains approximately 200-300 of these animals, the largest concentration of grizzlies in the lower 48 states. Nevertheless, the vast majority of visitors to the park never catch a glimpse of one of these animals, although for those who do it is unquestionably an unforgettable experience.

The solitary animal below was seen foraging for food near Siyah Bend at about the 6000 foot level of the park. These animals consume buds, leaves, roots, the blossoms of glacier lillies, moths, ladybugs, as well as carrion and huckleberries. Each animal may cover as much as 70 square miles in search of food.



The grizzly bear is especially recognizable by the large hump on the back behind the head, made up of powerful muscle. The Blackfeet called this animal "real bear." Adult grizzlies usually weigh between 400 and 600 pounds, but despite their size can sprint up to 35 mile per hour.



Although these bears usually stay away from humans, they are truly wild animals and may be extremely dangerous; on infrequent occasions they have been known to kill or injure hikers or campers.



At higher elevations mountain goats can be seen scrambling along cliffs and foraging for food. These goats may remain active and on the cliffs year round, living alone or in groups of 2 or 3 animals. These animals, which are really not goats but a kind of mountain antelope, have incredible balance, enormous shoulders for pulling themselves up cliffs, rubbery pads on their hoofs for traction, and very rough hair which helps them resist sliding when they slip. They are generally not aggressive but can gore with their horns. The fellow below is clambering in the rocks and snow near Logan Pass at approximately 6600 feet. There are about 2,000 of these goats (symbol of the Great Northern Railway) which live in the park, foraging for grasses, sedges, mosses, and lichens.



The park also has its share of deer, such as this one headed off to pursue its own business.



Buildings

There are a number of beautiful and historic buildings in the park, including hotels and inns. The largest is Many Glacier Hotel, located on the east shore of Swiftcurrent Lake. This magnificent building was built by the Great Northern Railroad as part of a system of camps, hotels, and backcountry chalets. Finished in 1917, it required 3 years of construction by several hundred construction workers. It is one of 5 chalets and lodges preserved as National Historic Landmarks. Here's a view of the front of the "Swiss-style" hotel looking westward.



The setting of this hotel is absolutely spectacular. This view of the hotel from the north shore of Swiftcurrent Lake shows the lake and surrounding mountains.



Plants

The picture below shows some of the conifers which grow throughout the park.



Among deciduous trees aspen are well represented in the park. This picture of one aspen was taken in the eastern section of the park.



Creeks, Waterfalls, Glaciers

Water plays a big role in Glacier National Park, and in addtion to the various lakes it can be found in abundance in some 561 creeks and in frozen form in snow and glaciers. In fact, water covers over 2,000 acres in the park. Below is Baring Falls north of the western section of St. Mary Lake, pictured in a late June snowfall.



Below is McDonald Creek east of the divide.



A better view of McDonald Creek and the McDonald Valley is seen below looking east toward the continental divide. The creek can be seen running through the center of the valley. The creek is surrounded by climax forest of red cedar and hemlock trees which flourish in the wet climate in the western part of the park where 2/3 of the park's forest grows. This area resembles the Pacific Northwest more than the Rocky Mountain environment.



There is an additional picture of the McDonald Valley on another page.

In thenext picture the perspective is reversed, looking east up at the mountains from McDonald Creek itself. That's the "Garden Wall" at the top of the mountains in the background, a section of rock on the Continental Divide carved by glaciers on both sides. This sort of formation is called an arête.



Just southwest of the previous view McDonald Creek flows over McDonald Falls, the most massive in the park, seen in the next picture.



Although Glacier National Park is named for the prehistoric glaciers which carved its spectacular scenery, about 37 glaciers exist currently in the park. However, both the size and the number of these glaciers is decreasing as the climate has become warmer; in 1850 approximately 150 were present in the park. The view below shows Grinnell Glacier in the center of the picture with Grinnell Point on the right and Mt. Gould (9553 feet) on the left.



References

Information about Glacier National Park has been drawn from personal experience, data available in the park itself, and a number of other sources, including:


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  • All photographs ©Patrick Holleran, Shannon Digital Imaging, 1994-2013

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