For the past two years I have planned to visit Glacier National Park and each time a severe forest fire dashed those plans. This year, I decided to incorporate the trip in my plans to follow the Lewis and Clark Trail.
While Lewis and Clark never passed through what is now Glacier National Park, streams within the park are the headwaters of the Marias River which Lewis and Clark explored. Just west of Glacier National Park is a national historic monument at the site of Camp Disappointment where Merriweather Lewis and three of his men camped on the banks of the Cutbank River.
I purposely waited until the end of my trip to visit Glacier National Park hoping that Going-to-the-Sun Road would be open. The park service never lists a specific opening date because of the unpredictability of heavy late spring snowstorms. Maintenance crews begin in April to remove remove the 80 or more feet of snow that covers Logan Pass during the winter.Generally, the road opens in late June to early July and closes with the first heavy snow in October. Forest fires in the past two years have caused the road to close in September.
Construction of the monumental engineering project began in 1927 and was completed in 1932. The Sun Road, as it is sometimes called, is a National Historic Landmark. Driving along the narrow road, gazing up at lofty peaks and waterfalls and down over the steep canyon walls gives me more thrills than an amusement park ride.
This year, the road was scheduled to open June 22, but remained closed due to dense fog and clouds. The road opened the following day, but clouds and intermittent rain showers persisted. Several times I tried to take some moody photos in the mist and rain, but the mountain tops were hidden in clouds. Overnight the skies cleared and before dawn I packed my gear and drove along the Sun Road to photograph those incredible mountains and valleys before heading toward home.
At Glacier, the best way to avoid crowds and frustration is to travel as early in the morning as possible or in the late afternoon and early evening.
If you prefer to avoid white knuckle driving and just enjoy the view, a red bus tour is the way to go. The red buses are vintage-looking red park tour buses updated with modern safety features and equipment. The canvas tops roll back in good weather to allow excellent viewing.
During July and August, another option is to leave your vehicle at the campsite or parking lot and take a shuttle bus. The shuttles pick up and drop off passengers at shuttle stops throughout the park.
Going-to-the-Sun Road links West Glacier and Apgar Village on the west, and St. Mary and Many Glacier to the east. The west side of the park attracts the largest share of visitors and offers many more amenities.
In Apgar village and the town of West Glacier just outside the park, there are many gift shops, restaurants and equipment rental shops. A tour boat on Lake McDonald and the historic Lake McDonald Lodge are also popular attractions.
On the east side of the park, the scenic glaciers and access to high country trails are the main attraction. Many Glacier also features the historic and picturesque Many Glacier Hotel.
If you have your passport with you, visiting Waterton on the Canadian side of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park is definitely worth the hour drive from St. Mary. The historic 90-room Prince of Wales Hotel sits high above Lake Waterton and looks something like a set from a Harry Potter movie. The hotel was built in 1927 and still retains that last century old world flavor. The hotel offers picturesque views of Lake Waterton and the towering peaks beyond.
An area of Glacier National Park that is off the beaten path is the rugged and authentically rustic North Fork of the Flathead River on the northwest boundary of the park. The entry point for the remote lakes and prairies is the community of Polebridge and the Polebridge Mercantile.
The Merc was built in 1914 and is listed on the National Historic Register of Historic Places. The store is well known for bakery items — particularly its huckleberry bear claws and rolled fresh bread sandwiches. It also sells handmade crafts and souveniers. Next door to the Merc is an old cabin that is the home to the Northern Lights Saloon where backwoods enthusiasts gather to share stories of the days exploits.
By the time this article is published, I will most likely be home from my wanderings. I do appreciate everyone who has followed my adventures in the newspaper, online and on social media. In the next week or two, I will write at least one more follow-up column and recap some of the highlights of the month-long trip.
If anyone would like to share some of their own stories about the places I have visited, or have a question or two or a comment that you would like me to address in that column, please contact me at email@example.com
Joe Burns is a photographer for the Washington County Pilot-Tribune and Enterprise.