Hiking Glacier National Park in northern Montana recalls trekking the Himalayas, though the pervasive jingle of bells on trekkers' boots brings to mind St. Nick's reindeer.
White lace waterfalls drape Glacier's deep, green valleys, which rise sharply to glacier-topped rock peaks. Aptly dubbed the continental crown, the park encompasses more than 1,500 square miles of the Continental Divide along the Montana-Canada border. Glaciation and upthrust make this portion of the Rockies kin to the highest mountains in the world, though they don't soar anywhere near the 29,000-foot altitude of Mount Everest.
While the scale of the Glacier range is smaller, the relief nevertheless is as dramatic to the eye. From 3,153 feet at Lake McDonald, the terrain climbs dramatically to the 10,448-foot peak of Mount Cleveland.
"The thing I like about Glacier is a feeling of Gothic cathedrals -- that tremendous uplift," says Amos Eno, the National Audubon Society's lobbyist for wildlife and parks. "But at the same time, there is intimacy in the expanse." After visiting more than 50 national parklands, Eno ranks Glacier as his favorite, citing its "monumental mountains" as the deciding factor.
Glacier also is home to the densest grizzly bear population in the lower 48 states. Hence, the jingle of sleigh bells that periodically pierces the solitude of the back country. Depending on the degree of "bearanoia," hikers may tie one bell to each boot lace or sling a string of half a dozen around their backpacks in the hope of warning off any bears.
Wildlife biologists marvel that there aren't more grizzly-human mishaps in this up-and-down landscape, where trails make the easiest transportation routes for both species. Perhaps the popularity of "bear bells" deserves credit.
Glacier's 750 miles of back-country trails are linked to another 114 miles across the border in Canada's Waterton Lakes National Park. (The two parks combine to form a 2,188-square-mile area called the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.)
But if you're not inclined to tour the parks on foot, there is Going-to-the-Sun Road. Workers etched this narrow, winding precipice of a highway into a mountainside with pick, shovel and dynamite in the early 1930s. Going-to-the-Sun's 51 miles cross the park's heart from east to west over the Continental Divide, and offer what is probably the most stunning view of the Rockies from a car seat.
Motorists find themselves surrounded by jagged peaks, alpine lakes, weeping mountain walls and hanging valleys, much like those otherwise exclusive to the Rocky Mountain back country. Each year, the route's dizzying height freezes some drivers at the wheel in mid-road, requiring a Park Service rescue. Bits of Winnebagos clinging to sheer rock walls attest to the narrowness of the road's ledge.
Grizzlies and precipices can make a trip to Glacier something of an outdoor adventure. But the scenic rewards are great, and the park offers another welcoming attraction: rustic yet comfortable turn-of-the century lodges and back-country chalets.
Glacier's unique hotel system features four lodges and three inns, with a total of more than 700 rooms. In addition, two back-country chalets each provide space for 40 guests.
While the lodges have modern rooms, their lobbies still boast the grandeur of the early 1900s. The chalets, on the other hand, remain much as they were when the Great Northern Railway built them of log and stone during the same period -- except for the addition of restroom facilities nearby. Guests should expect metal spring beds in spartan rooms lit by kerosene lanterns.
One of these structures, Granite Park Chalet, a stone cottage perched above the thick green grasses and vibrant yellow-lily fields of Bear Valley, is one of the finest, and probably safest, spots for grizzly viewing. But getting there takes work, since it can be reached only on foot. Visitors either must hike 7 1/2 miles along the west side of the Continental Divide -- which bisects the park and is called the Garden Wall for the rainbow of wildflowers that blanket its flank in summer -- or climb the shorter but more difficult 4 1/2 grueling vertical miles up Loop Trail to the chalet. Grizzly sightings are almost guaranteed.
Grizzlies are attracted to Bear Valley because of its abundant food and water. So the bears can eat in peace, the area is closed to hikers and campers. The chalet's spotting scope, however, allows visitors an intimate look at bruin life styles from a mile away.
Granite Park also makes a nice day hike. Hikers start out early, can stop in for an a la carte lunch, explore a little and walk out again before sunset.
Across the park, about 12 air miles to the south, sits Sperry Chalet, clinging to a forested mountainside far above the clear, frigid waters of Lake McDonald. Like Granite Park, it can be reached only on foot. The two chalets are among the last hotels in the nation accessible only by hiking or by horseback.
The hike to Sperry is seven mostly uphill miles through forests. When the trees start thinning and the first trail-side mountain goat appears, the chalet's two-story structure -- built of random-size native rock and rough-cut timber -- should be in sight. While Granite Park's mascot is the grizzly, Sperry's is the Rocky Mountain goat. Dozens of the shaggy white creatures make Sperry their favorite hangout.
Pack trains supply ingredients for the chalets, which feature Old West home cooking. Though day hikers can stay for lunch, breakfast and dinner are reserved for overnight guests. Those who come for the night need bring only tooth-brushing gear and extra clothing. The chalets open July 1 and frequently fill to capacity until they're boarded up again following Labor Day.
These two chalets are all that remain of at least four similar structures that made up a chain of back-country lodgings completed by Great Northern Railway between 1913 and 1915. Use of the lodgings declined after Going-to-the-Sun Road opened the park to automobiles in the '30s, and all but Granite Park and Sperry fell to the harsh mountain elements. The park service bought them in 1954 for $1 a piece, and enlisted Ross and Kay Luding to run them. (The Ludings, owners of a Montana grocery store, were the only people to bid on the concession contract.)
Feisty Kay Luding, 70, still runs the show at Sperry. The petite, white-haired woman will talk into the night about her encounters with the park's wildlife and its officials. She's sometimes heard talking to the animals and some people suspect she still feeds them from time to time, despite park rules prohibiting this. "I've been called a witch by the Park Service so many times," she says, grinning like a mischievous child. "I like to tease people -- especially the Park Service. I like to squawk and scream and fuss."
Glacier's charming system of lodges provides a roadside answer to the back-country chalets.
Lake McDonald Lodge, with 101 rooms, sits amid the thick evergreens that line the lake near the park's west entrance. Neither the structure nor its atmosphere have changed much since J.E. Lewis built it as a private hunting lodge in 1913. Mountain goat, elk, moose and sheep trophies stare from the lobby's wood-paneled lobby. A fire burns throughout the tourist season in the massive stone fireplace decorated with pictographs said to be the work of famed western artist Charles Russell.
On the other side of the Divide, one finds a piece of Switzerland. The Swiss motif of Many Glacier Hotel, vintage 1914, looms along the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake and looks toward Grinnell Glacier. With more than 200 rooms, this is the park's largest resort. The hand-hewn lobby is frequently the site of musicals, concerts and sing-alongs presented by a staff recruited from college drama and music departments across the country.
Glacier Park Lodge, just outside the park's east entrance, enjoys a horizon panorama of the Rockies. The Blackfoot Indians called it "Big Tree Lodge" for the huge fir pillars that support its expansive lobby. The 60 immense timbers used in construction of this 155-room hotel were 500 to 800 years old when felled. The exterior recalls a Swiss lodge nestled at the foot of the Alps.
To the north, in Waterton Lakes park, the castle-like Prince of Wales Hotel, another grand old-timer, overlooks the length of Waterton Lake and the Rockies beyond. The 81-room gabled structure has a bay window three stories high and, in keeping with the English motif, serves high tea every afternoon.
Whether on foot or in a car, Glacier is a fascinating place to tour, both for its natural wonders and the vestiges of the Old West that can be found in remote corners adjacent to its borders.
Grizzly sightings are rare, except for those who hike to Granite Park. But most visitors see at least one of the park's other inhabitants, which include black bear, marmot, beaver, moose, bighorn sheep, white-tailed deer, elk, otter, marten and, of course, the ubiquitous mountain goat.
Backpackers can hike south from the town of Waterton to intercept the Highline Circuit, a high-country trail that winds through mountain meadows and along the Continental Divide past Granite Park and on to Logan Pass, the 6,646-foot summit of Going-to-the-Sun Road. This route is popular because of the mountain panoramas afforded from its 24-mile traverse above the tree line.
Waterton also marks the beginning of the trail to Crypt Lake, said to be the most beautiful day hike in all of Canada. After a brief water-taxi ride to the isolated trailhead, hikers climb up through lush greenery and king-size waterfalls. Nearly three miles of steep grade are rewarded at the top with a narrow rock tunnel and a cliff-hanging walk along a cable handrail to an eery mountain lake entombed in rock.
A feature first-time visitors sightseeing by car often miss sits near the park's northwest border. It's a holdout of the Old West called Polebridge. Thirteen bumpy, dusty miles from where Glacier's pavement ends, the red-and-white Polebridge Mercantile marks the town site. Next to this general store that is as much a museum as a grocery, rests a log cabin that is the Northern Lights Saloon. That's it, other than a youth hostel and a collection of rattletrap cabins. It still could be 1914, the year the place was built.
However, in this sleepy burg of a historical landmark, the nature-loving residents are fending off their development-minded neighbors' efforts to pave the road to their doorstep, hook them up to Montana Power Co. and make their town a thriving tourist center and strip-mine suburb. Polebridge is living the dichotomy of today's West as well as being simply a colorful place to visit en route to the less-traveled Bowman and Kintla lakes region of Glacier. Even the dirt road ends at this end of the park. Here, heavily forested mountains plunge toward their reflections in calm blue waters. Bowman Lake is known for its fishing, Kintla for its isolation.
"Unlike Yellowstone, Glacier and Waterton parks offer no freaks of nature -- no geyser basins, no boilings spring, no Old Faithful," author A.B. Guthrie Jr. once said. "No freaks, that is, unless one counts immensity as a freak . . ."
"The glories of Glacier National Park and its Canadian twin, Waterton Lakes National Park, are rated differently by different eyes. Some would cite the grandeur of the mountains, and some the incredible blue of the lakes, some the profusion of flowers; but all would grant that, taken together, they constitute a wild and beautiful world."
If anything, Guthrie's remarks are an understatement.