The trails of Glacier National Park in Montana's Rocky Mountains are alive with the sound of bells. Jingle bells, just like those on Santa's sleigh. Glacier is home to the fearsome grizzly, and the bells are supposed to alert any nearby bears of your approach so that -- in theory, anyway -- they will get out of your way.
I for one did not want a grizzly in my path, so I attached my bells gladly and added to the outdoor serenade. Apparently a good percentage of the visitors who venture onto Glacier's 700 miles of wilderness trails feel the same way. The jingles echoed across mountain lakes and down wooded slopes. I found the sound both comical and comforting. I wondered what the bears thought; they, after all, have to listen to it all summer long.
Glacier is one of America's largest and wildest national parks, so it is not surprising that some of us city folks should feel a bit apprehensive venturing very far beyond the park lodges or campgrounds, especially with those grizzlies lurking. Lofty, snow-tipped mountains rise abruptly before you -- dramatically scenic but also very formidable. The bells offer reassurance.
Glacier has a reputation as a hiker's park, a vast outdoor realm for the experienced backpacker willing, even eager, to invade the lair of grizzlies. Count me and my wife as among the non-eager, however. We admit to being intimidated. Instead of plunging into the heart of the Glacier wilderness, we mostly poked around its edges, content to enjoy the magnificent scenery more readily at hand.
Glacier is adjacent to Canada's Waterton Lakes National Park, and the two might be the same park except for the international border that divides them. Together, they offer more than one million acres and a multitude of attractions that make a visit inviting even if, like us, you don't plan an extended trek into the interior. Of the pair, Glacier is much the larger. Waterton Lakes is somewhat less intimidating but fully as beautiful. They share a unifying name, Waterton/Glacier International Peace Park.
Actually, motorists who have no interest in hiking Glacier's trails can get what must be as impressive a look at the park's magnificent interior as any backpacker. A narrow two-lane highway, the famed Going-to-the-Sun Road, slices through Glacier, providing what I found to be one of the scariest mountain drives in the country. From east to west, the 52-mile road makes a frightening cliff's-edge climb to Logan's Pass at 6,680 feet and then descends even more precariously. Any driver with wits will stop before trying to take in the views; behind the wheel, as I discovered, you have to keep your eyes on the road.
The scenery along the way is monumental -- rugged, treeless peaks soar above your head and glacier-chiseled valleys cut a deep path at your feet. The long, steep drop-offs are awesome. By comparison, Waterton Lakes National Park seems almost subdued, as it encircles a lovely chain of lakes that lap the edges of high, forested slopes. It is an inviting scene rather than a forbidding one.
In the midst of the lakes is the village of Waterton Park, which sits at the northern end of Upper Waterton Lake, the largest in the chain. Turquoise in color, the lake looks as if it had been plucked from a particularly spectacular region of the Swiss Alps. It is seven miles long and offers an unusual opportunity, which we took advantage of, to view Glacier's mountain wilderness by comfortable excursion boat.
The lake is shaped like a slender index finger pointing south into the United States. Most of it is in Canada, but the southern tip, called Goat Haunt, is an American outpost staffed by Glacier park rangers and immigration officers. The tour boat makes several round trips daily from downtown Waterton Park, dropping off backpackers in Goat Haunt who want to hike the remote northern half of Glacier National Park. Sightseers along for the ride can't get much deeper into the mountain wilderness unless they hike.
About 200 grizzlies make Glacier/Waterton their home, but a visitor is more apt to see other species of wildlife. As we began our descent from Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, we passed a small herd of shaggy white mountain goats nibbling by the roadside. Big-eared mule deer wander the streets of Waterton Park as if they are family pets let out to play. One old fellow took us by surprise. He ambled past as we ate an ice cream cone at a bench on the town's main street.
Each of the parks offers a historic lodge set to best advantage beside a clear, very chilly mountain lake. We organized our itinerary so that we could stay at both. The huge Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier, completed in 1917, is rather more Spartan, perhaps befitting its more isolated location overlooking Swiftcurrent Lake, a dozen miles inside the park. The Prince of Wales Hotel at Waterton Park, opened a decade later, is unquestionably more charming. Looking much like a large Victorian doll house, it perches elegantly on a bluff between Upper and Middle Waterton lakes with a gorgeous view in every direction.
The sedentary traveler might sit on the porch of either of these two lodges and be perfectly content with the splendid vistas -- and, of course, feel perfectly safe from the threat of a wildlife encounter. We decided we wanted to be a bit more adventurous -- to hike some of the lakeside trails not far from Many Glacier Hotel -- which is why we each acquired our own set of bear bells. (The park gift shop sells them, golf-ball size, from a big barrel.)
We spotted a bear, anyway, early into our morning outing. We could see it bounding up a steep rocky slope. The way it scampered from us, I figured the bells had done their job well. We could tell it wasn't a grizzly -- although another hiker on the trail said he wished it had been. I bid him good luck ahead -- and let him go first.
We approached Glacier from Great Falls, about 150 miles to the southeast, across rolling grasslands. From the moment we left the town, I expected to see the mountains ahead, since some of them rise above 9,000 feet. But Glacier plays a game of hide and seek until you are almost upon it. Then, suddenly, the park's cloud-draped peaks loom ahead, seemingly an impenetrable wall that defiantly marks the end of the prairie.
Glacier became a national park in 1910, and ever since then, a good many visitors have been misled by its name. Most people, I suspect, think the place must abound in glaciers. They are there, to be sure, about 50 of them, but they are rather puny. Easily accessible glaciers at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington and Banff and Jasper national parks in Canada are far more impressive. Glacier's name really comes from the spectacular peaks and long, deep valleys gouged by glaciers during a series of ancient Ice Ages. One geologist writing about Glacier suggested it should more accurately have been named "Glaciated Park."
Comparisons to the Swiss Alps come readily. The glaciers sculpted many of the peaks in the form of pointed "horns" resembling the solitary Matterhorn in Zermatt. As was their nature, the glaciers also carved rather straight valleys where long, slender lakes subsequently formed. You can stand beside the lakes and see the mountains at the far end clearly reflected in the water. Thanks to the Ice Ages, Glacier is wonderfully photogenic.
Canada set aside Waterton Lakes as a national park in 1911, the year following the establishment of Glacier. The two neighboring parks readily illustrate the differing national philosophies in the historic development of U.S. and Canadian parks. In the United States, the emphasis has been on preservation of the integrity of the wilderness. Canada has, at least until recent years, sought to tame the wilderness for relaxation and recreation. The result is that Waterton Lakes is more commercial.
Separated by only a political boundary, the two parks form a natural unity. In 1932, the U.S. Congress and the Canadian Parliament established Waterton/Glacier International Peace Park, the first of its kind. It symbolizes, according to a Glacier brochure, "the bonds of peace and friendship between the people of the United States and Canada." You might pass from one park -- and one nation -- to another without knowing it, except for the 40-foot-wide clear-cut strip that marks the length of the international border. (The strip can be seen from the cruise boat to Goat Haunt on Upper Waterton Lake.)
Both parks are grizzly country, and they are home, too, to the less aggressive black bears. Bear warnings begin as you pass through the entrance gates. The brochures handed out make their points clearly:
Remember that both species are potentially dangerous, unpredictable and can inflict serious injury.
Wear bear bells when hiking to avoid surprising the bears. Surprises anger them.
Don't run if a bear charges, because running may excite it. Instead, "remain where you are or retreat slowly."
Of course, the cumulative effect of these warnings is to scare many tourists from the trails. We fretted awhile, then concluded we should not be so timid.
We set out from Many Glacier Hotel just after breakfast, after deciding on a modest five-mile hike. Our path was a well-traveled one alongside Lake Josephine, which hides in a narrow valley at the foot of evergreen-clad ridges rising to more than 8,500 feet. The sky was an intense blue, the air fresh and the morning still cool.
From the sound of the bells, we could tell there were early hikers ahead of us and others behind. Surely, no bear could escape the noise. Our trail led us around Swiftcurrent Lake and through a stretch of woods to Josephine Lake.
We had been walking for no more than 30 minutes when we heard excited voices. The group of hikers ahead had spotted a large black bear crossing the trail well in front of them. We caught sight of it fleeing up the mountainside, a couple of hundred yards in the distance.
Some hikers turned back, but we proceeded to the end of the lake -- our planned destination -- jangling our bells louder than ever, just in case the bear had a buddy anywhere around. I suppose we were momentarily frightened, but this quickly wore off. Later, retracing our steps to the hotel, we made the most of our bear encounter.
"See any bears?" asked groups of late-rising hikers heading toward the lake with their bells ringing. "Well, yes we did," we replied nonchalantly, as if we had been exploring grizzly country all our lives. I won't swear to it, but I think their bells began to jingle more loudly too.
The only road that crosses either Glacier or Waterton is Glacier's Going-to-the-Sun Road, considered an engineering marvel when it was built in 1933. Much of its 50-mile length was cut from the side of steep, rocky cliffs, and today simply driving the length of the two-lane highway with your nerves intact is also something of a marvel. As someone who favors mountain vacations, I cannot remember traveling another road that clings for so many miles to vertigo-inspiring ledges. If you head from east to west, as we did, you are on the inside. The cars coming from the west get the scarier cliff side.
The drive can take three or more hours, in part because the traffic is heavy -- but also because there are many scenic pullouts and at least a couple of interesting hikes along the way. The road begins its climbs from St. Mary Lake through a thick forest and ultimately reaches a wide alpine meadow at timberline at Logan Pass, the summit. Though it was summer when we tackled the road, patches of snow remained at higher elevations, and youngsters tossed snowballs at each other. A hit was chilling, because everyone was dressed in shorts and T-shirts.
On the way up, we stopped first at Sunrift Gorge, an impressive water-carved gorge, and again a few miles beyond to hike an interesting mile-long trail to St. Mary Falls. At about this point, the road seems almost to leap into the sky. We paused at every turnout to take in the views.
At Logan Pass, a visitor center offers informative exhibits about the Arcticlike vegetation that manages to survive Glacier's long and harsh winters. A boardwalk leads from the center across the fragile meadow. Naturalists can study the alpine grasses and other plants at their feet. I was much too taken by the monumental grandeur of the peaks and ridges around me. It seemed I was standing on top of the world.
As I discovered, the drive down from the top of the world is as breathtaking as the climb. I could see the road stretching ahead, seemingly for miles, inching its way down the steep cliff in a long, wide loop. Early in the descent, which was slowed by a parade of trailers and recreational vehicles, we passed Weeping Wall, where a splashing waterfall spills from the ledge almost onto the road. At the bottom, the road concludes with a scenic run along the shoreline of Lake McDonald, another of the park's long, slender lakes.
If you are staying at Many Glacier Hotel, as we were, you can return by retracing your path back over the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Or you can take U.S. Route 2, a less scenic but quicker run around the southern boundary of the park. If you don't want to drive it yourself, round-trip narrated bus tours over the road are offered daily. The trip takes a full day, and you ride in the park's distinctive scarlet-colored coaches with roll-back tops that were built in 1936. The cost is about $35 per person.
We temporarily abandoned the thrills of Glacier for a more restful day in the relative calm of Waterton Lakes. We browsed the gift shops in the village, dodged the occasional strolling deer, took a couple of scenic drives to nearby lakes, sampled the local saskatoon berry pie and boarded the lake cruiser, the International, for the two-hour round-trip voyage to Goat Haunt.
The captain's assistant provided an informative narration on the outbound leg. We could not help noticing that the trees along the way have a definite slant, the result, he said, of steady winds of about 25 mph. Upper Lake Waterton has a reputation for good windsurfing. But one thing to keep in mind is that the lake is almost 500 feet deep, and the water temperature climbs only to a numbing 44 degrees in the summer.
High ridges rise above the lake, and the shore is lined with bays and inlets. Occasionally, we could spot a waterfall tumbling over the rocks. Outside Goat Haunt we crossed the international border into the United States, and our narrator informed any Canadians aboard that they might now consider themselves temporary "illegal aliens." Only hikers continuing south from Goat Haunt into Glacier must go through immigration and customs procedures.
A light rain began to fall as we docked at Goat Haunt, and the backpackers brought out their ponchos. Ahead of them was a rough 30-mile, three- or four-day trek through the heart of Glacier's wilderness to Many Glacier Hotel, the nearest point of civilization. By highway and boat, I had seen a sampling of the splendor of the two parks, but I knew the backpackers would see much more. Grizzlies or not, I envied them their hike.
WAYS & MEANS GETTING THERE: Glacier National Park is about 150 miles northwest of Great Falls, Mont., the nearest large city with good jet service from Washington. The airlines serving Great Falls are Northwest, Delta and United. Northwest currently is quoting a round-trip fare of $384, based on a 14-day advance purchase, Saturday stay-over and travel between Monday noon and Thursday noon. The ticket is non-refundable.
An excellent road, the Chief Mountain International Highway, links Glacier with Waterton Lakes National Park. The drive from Many Glacier Hotel to the village of Waterton Park is about 50 miles. WHERE TO STAY: Glacier Park Inc., a concessionaire, operates six lodges and motels at Glacier National Park in Montana and the Prince of Wales Hotel at Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. Rooms at any of them can be reserved through mid-September by calling (406) 226-5551.
At Glacier, I recommend staying at Many Glacier Hotel because of its splendid wilderness setting on Swiftcurrent Lake. It is a sprawling, four-story structure built of local timber in 1917. It was designed in the style of a Swiss chalet with overhanging roofs and balconies. Thick cedar logs ring the comfortably rustic lobby.
Many Glacier cannot, however, be considered a deluxe hotel. The rooms are basic, and service is minimal. Dinner can be something of a hassle because of long waits for seating. When we visited last August, the college-age staff seemed untrained and uninterested. Because of numerous complaints from guests, the hotel has strengthened its training procedures for this season, according to Jan Knox of the National Park Service. A room for two ranges from $68 to $79 a night.
At Waterton Lakes, the premier hotel is the Prince of Wales. The service is as outstanding as the hotel's setting above Upper Waterton Lake. Built in 1927, the seven-story structure also was designed in the style of a Swiss chalet. A room for two ranges from about $62 to $90 (U.S.), depending on the exchange rate.
Several motels also are available in the village of Waterton Park. The best of the lot is Kilmorey Lodge, an attractive two-story log structure in the village. A room for two begins at about $52 (U.S.). For reservations: (403) 859-2334. WHERE TO EAT: Both the Many Glacier Hotel and Prince of Wales Hotel have attractive dining rooms serving a fairly standard menu of steaks, chops, chicken and trout at moderate prices. Wine and beer are available. In Waterton Lakes, the Kilmorey Lodge offers one of the best menus in the two parks. The village also has several cafes. INFORMATION:
Glacier National Park, Montana: (406) 888-5441.
Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada: (403) 859-2445.
Waterton Park Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Association: P.O. Box 55-5., Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, T0K 2M0, Canada, (403) 859-2203.
-- James T. Yenckel