Northwest

A Gathering of Glaciers – Glacier National Park

The Raw Grandeur of Glacier National Park Lures Visitors with Heart-stopping Scenery, Top Hiking Trails and Wildlife Galore.

Mountains that stab the sky. Alpine meadows studded with wildflowers. Black bears foraging for lunch, just outside your car window. Crystal blue lakes that mirror the heavens. Montana’s Glacier National Park is a land of superlatives — the scenery so big, bold and breathtaking, that every view seems more overwhelming than the last. For RVers, getting there is easier than ever aboard the park’s shuttle system, which takes visitors the full length of the legendary Going-to-the-Sun Road.

For decades, Going-to-the-Sun Road has trundled travelers into the heart of some of America’s most staggering geography – a land of jaw dropping natural beauty and raw, muscular charm. The 52-mile roadway is the central artery spanning the width of Glacier National Park, which hugs the Canadian border in northwest Montana.

It’s a rough, twisted little thoroughfare, a winding two-lane passageway known for falling rocks and cliff-hugging curves. Yet, to cross the park, it’s the only game in town.

RV in woodsLiterally carved into mountains, the humble road speaks to another time, when cars were small, and the idea of a 40-foot diesel pusher traversing these lanes unthinkable. Safety dictates that no vehicles over 21 feet long and 8 feet wide can take the road. So, RVers were often out of luck.

However, the park has recently introduced a free shuttle system that ferries visitors through the park along the famed Going-to-the-Sun Road. Commercial tours have long been available, for a price. But the free shuttle runs continuously throughout the day, allowing visitors more control over their own schedules.

The service has already won fans — from eco-minded hikers to budget-minded campers eager to save gas money to RVers happy to park their big rigs, leave the driving to someone else, and just enjoy the magnificent scenery.

New Way to Ride

First-time visitors John and Kate Finn, and their children, Clare and Lucas, were thrilled to have a new way to explore Glacier National Park.

The New York, family planned to visit both Glacier and Yellowstone national parks this summer in their pop-up trailer.

They decided to try St. Mary Campground on the park’s drier eastern side. “We liked the openness, the vistas, yet it was close enough to walk to the Visitor’s Center to catch some of the ranger programs,” Finn said.

The St. Mary Visitor’s Center is also a handy stop for the free shuttle bus, which offers 16 stops throughout the park. Riders don’t need a ticket, and service starts as early as 6:45 a.m.

On the park’s western side, Jim Hadlock and Sharon Brown, from Washington state, also planned to utilize the new shuttle.

The couple chose Avalanche Creek Campground, a shaded, woodsy setting, and took the shuttle to explore some of the 700-miles of hiking trails that lace the park.

“The shuttle system is great,” Brown said. “On a hike to Hidden Lake yesterday, we saw a magnificent nursery of mountain goats.”

On the Road

Glacier National Park has two main entrances, West Glacier and St. Mary, which anchor Going-to-the-Sun Road. Other entrances — Many Glacier, Two Medicine and Polebridge — lead to splendid scenery, but will not take you through the park. There is an entrance fee that is good for seven days.

RV glaciersStart your trek with a stop at the Apgar Visitor Center, where you’ll find maps and shuttle schedules. Grab a huckleberry ice cream cone and stroll down to the shore of Lake McDonald.

Going-to-the-Sun Road hugs the Lake McDonald shoreline for a bit, skirting forest of hemlock and red cedar. Along the way, many scenic pullouts beckon. It’s worth a stop at the Lake McDonald Lodge, where you can take an affordable boat tour, grab a buffalo burger and a cold beer, or just enjoy the lake view.

The deeper you plunge into the park’s interior, the more astonishing the scenery. As the roadway climbs, you’ll suddenly catch sight of “The Garden Wall,” a legendary jagged ridge. Be prepared for brief delays, due to on-going road maintenance. They provide a great chance to pause and enjoy the views.

Wildlife abounds here. Bighorn sheep, deer and elk, mountain goats, black and grizzly bears — all may be seen from roadways or near hiking trails. Just use your head and give wild animals’ wide berth.

Rising Above it All

Going-to-the-Sun Road is literally carved into the side of a mountain, and its sheer, vertical cliffs offer another good reason to take a shuttle.

After a slow climb (6% grade) along “The Loop,” the road emerges upon a panoramic vista — jagged, snow-dusted mountains and waterfalls that splash the roadway as they plummet toward the valley floor.

At Logan Pass (6,646 feet), the scenery is otherworldly — quite literally the high point of Going-to-the-Sun Road. Parking is a challenge, but do stop at Logan Pass Visitor Center. Catch Highline Trail or, just behind the center, pick up Hidden Lake Nature Trail. Both offer terrific high country scenery —wild alpine meadows, grazing sheep, shaggy mountain goats.

On your eastern descent, don’t miss the Jackson Glacier Overlook. You’ll catch a view of the park’s fifth largest glaciers.

These days, these glaciers are an endangered species. In 1850, about 150 glaciers were documented in the park — today, there are around 27. Due to climate change, researchers believe the remaining glaciers could be gone by 2030.

To the east, you’ll catch a glimmer of St. Mary Lake, 10 miles long and fringed with aspen, alder and birch. Mile high mountains frame this pretty spot, where sunsets can scorch the lake with vibrant colors.

Going-to-the-Sun Road ends at the St. Mary Visitor’s Center. Along the way, you’ll have passed at least five campgrounds, scenic overlooks, tumbling waterfalls and hiking trails galore.

The Best of the Rest

If time permits, make the short trek north along U.S. Highway 89 to Many Glacier, a magnificent region in its own right. The heart of Many Glacier is an alpine-inspired lodge, which sits along Swiftcurrent Lake and a fringe of craggy mountains. Bring binoculars and watch grizzly bears frolic along the flanks of the Lewis Range. Take a hike to Grinnell Glacier, or explore the region from horseback on a trail ride.

Don't ForgetThe campground here is among the parks most popular —heavily wooded, remote and one of the most sheltered in the entire park.

Glacier National Park has one of the highest concentrations of grizzly bears in the United States, and Many Glacier is known for its strong population. Campers should lock away food and supplies; hikers should never travel alone.

Continue into Canada to visit Waterton Lakes National Park. This park system abuts Glacier National Park; collectively, they are considered “The Waterton-Glacier  International Peace Park.”

Head back to U.S. Highway 89 and venture south to Two Medicine, once the hub of park activity and long considered sacred land by Native American tribes.

Today, Two Medicine is considered an off-the-beaten path destination, known for dazzling fall foliage and a quieter pace. But it has much to offer, with three lakes, a camp store, back-country hiking trails, picnic grounds, and waterfalls galore.

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