Montana’s Glacier National Park is a rugged 1,583 square miles reserve of glorious snow-capped mountains, pristine coniferous forests and rolling alpine meadows that features almost 800 picturesque lakes (only 130 named), 1,132 plant species and over 500 species of wildlife. Despite welcoming almost two million tourists annually, very few ever venture into its wilderness; most visitors congregate mainly on the developed tourist facilities on its edges. As a result, Glacier National Park remains largely untouched and almost unchanged since it was first explored two centuries ago by the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
The park is an important part of North America’s 16,873 square miles Crown of the Continent Ecosystem, which stretches from northern Montana to British Columbia in Canada. It is also part of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park alongside the neighboring Canadian Waterton Lakes National Park. It is considered by many as one of the big four national parks in the United States, with the others being the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite. The park is named in honor of its ancient architects – the gigantic, slow-moving glaciers which carved up the earth’s crust and young mountain ranges beginning from approximately 170 million years ago and ending at the end of the last ice age about 26,500 years ago.
Geography and Climate
The vast size (it is larger than Rhode Island) and varying elevation of Glacier National Park give it a variety of microclimates. However, it is generally divided into two climate zones, namely the Pacific Maritime and Arctic Continental.
The mountainous region is largely coated with late Proterozoic era sedimentary rocks unearthed by giant glaciers. The region still has 35 glaciers embedded into its landscape, of which 10 are considered ‘active’. However, at the current rate of global warming, ecologists anticipate they will completely melt away by 2030. The park is dominated by three mountain ranges – Clark Range, Lewis Range and Livingston Range – and contains over one hundred peaks that scale above 8,000 feet. Mount Cleveland, at the northern edge of Lewis Range, is the highest peak in the park at 10,479 feet.
Flora and Fauna
Glacier National Park boasts of rich and diverse forests and plant species unlike anywhere else on earth. Its meadows, valley and foothills are populated by thick coniferous forests consisting mainly of pines and firs. During summers, the most visible species of plants among the over 1,100 documented species here are wildflowers, such as monkeyflower, glacier lily and beargrass, which delightfully blanket most open terrains.
With the exception of the extinct woodland caribou and bison, the park’s animal life has been in existence since the last ice age. Grizzlies, mountain lions and bighorn sheep are some of the more recognizable animals here. The bird population at the park is also notable, with more than 260 species thus far identified, including the pied-billed grebe, snow goose and grey partridge.
The fastest way to experience the entire park is by traversing on the 50-mile long Going-to-the-Sun Road, which spans across the park from St. Mary in the east to West Glacier on the opposite end. A short distance from West Glacier lies the beautiful Lake McDonald; it is the largest lake in the park with a 10.6 square miles surface area. Several hotels and lodges are located here, and they serve as the starting point of most commercial hiking, wildlife and fishing tours. Be extremely wary of licensing and permit requirements before committing to any tours.
However, after all said and done, there is really only one way to truly experience Glacier National Park – by putting on your explorer hat and hiking along portions of the over 700 miles hiking trail crisscrossing the park. As far as man against nature goes, there are few more challenging and satisfying hikes on the planet.
Song of the day: John Denver – Rocky Mountain High