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Visiting Glacier National Park and the Flathead River
© Pat Middleton, Photos © Richard Middleton
Photos and Content may not be used in any format without the express permission of Great River Publishing.
The Chinese will tell you that a scenic arrangement of Mountain, River and Forest denotes a propitious .... or charmed .... location. There were once legions of professionals employed by Emperors to locate such rare locales. Somehow they missed Glacier National Park and the three forks of the Flathead River. We did not! Montana's Glacier National Park, one of America's last great wilderness areas, offers a multitude of recreational activities for every age.
Mountains were to be expected, of course ... but not as we found them, springing 6,000 to 9,000 feet upward -- peaked and snow capped from the flat Montana plains. We brought our hiking shoes, serious well-worn clunkers that would support our ankles on downward as well as upward elevations. For all their imposing presence, the sedimentary rock of Glacier crumbles easily, meaning hikers might find themselves on slippery slopes of talus better suited to raggedy mountain goats than traveling folks! Good hiking shoes, and plenty of drinking water are vital when hiking the 700 miles of trails within the park.
It was water ...in roiling streams, whitewater rivers, shallow floats, deep Glacial lakes, and tiny deep potholes...that drew us recently to pass two weeks in the National Park. The uplifted mountain range is surrounded by the three forks of the FLATHEAD RIVER which is fed by mountain streams flowing from the glacial lakes and snowfields of the mountain peaks. Even in August, we found the road crew at Going to the Sun Road working daily to clear an avalanche fall.
That water proves a major draw to Glacier is grimly recorded in the statistics. While grizzly sightings always take star billing, it is the waters that have proved most deadly to travelers. Bear attacks occur only rarely--perhaps two during the course of a year-- but there are several drownings annually as visitors try to traverse a stream over algae-covered rocks, explore a waterfall, or venture just a little further out into a treacherous current while fast water fly-fishing.
Hiking, boating and animal watching at Glacier require a special dose of common sense. Primitive areas are just that...don't hike in with a candy bar expecting to find a warm meal and fresh water at a back area camp. You'll be dehydrated and in serious straits. Similarly, hikers must be prepared to deal with surprised grizzlies who will attack when startled. If you hike in, you are going to have to hike out...bear attacks and twisted ankles not withstanding. Be in the habit of singing to warn the bears and watch your step on the hiking trail.
A plea for common [or UNcommon] good sense is the last warning that the rangers will offer. It is the sure ticket to an exceptionally rare and beautiful wilderness America experience!
Not to be Missed!
Not to be missed are the historic lodges at Glacier National Park. These lodges were built at the turn of the century as destination lodges by the Great Northern Railway in direct competition to the development of lodges at Yellowstone National Park.
[Click Here for lodging contact numbers.]
East Glacier Lodge
This imposing structure was the primary guest lodge seen by rail passengers upon arriving from St. Paul, Minnesota. Even if you aren't staying here, plan to stop for a visit to enjoy the massive pine columns in the lobby.
Belton Lodge at West Glacier
The restoration at Belton Lodge has been meticulous. Most of the furnishings are original. Steamboaters will enjoy the broad veranda deck and rocking chairs accessible from the spartan rooms. Note the Alpine gables and the logs on the roof--Swiss design intended to keep snow from slipping from the roof. This was a railroad station at the turn of the century and it still is today, we heard trains most of the night!
MacDonald Lodge at MacDonald Lake
Our stay at McDonald Lodge was one of my favorites. Our room in the main lodge overlooked the DeSmet cruise boat on McDonald Lake and it's protective ring of mountains. A perfect example of the impact of building your lodge right at the scenic spot! John Lewis built the lodge in 1913 for $48,000. Lewis was a furrier from Columbia Falls and most of the animal trophies displayed in the lobby are his. The artist Charles Russell was a close friend of Lewis and often used one of the first cabins outside the main lodge. His wife sold his paintings from the doorstep. The restaurant here, and most restaurants in the park, closed by 9:30 p.m.
Our recommendation is to pay a little extra and stay in the main lodge. The ambiance is far preferable to that of the motor lodge!
Many Glacier Lodge
For many visitors, a visit to Many Glacier epitomizes Glacier National Park. Berries were just ripening during our late August visit and grizzlies and black bears were abundant.
"Indicator species!" one of us would shout upon seeing a crowd of humans along the road. Doubtless we would find a perfectly harmless looking bear sitting on its haunches nibbling the berry bushes not too far away from its admiring gallery. That one of these bears could run the length of a football field in 6 seconds apparently had not registered with the crowd of observers.
The lobby of the lodge offers a tremendous view of the lake and surrounding mountains. From these windows this year, horrified visitors watched as a grizzly swam down a moose calf and killed it in the lake. The mother moose never even looked back.
St. Mary Lake Lodge
While I am a great fan of the historic aspects of any travel destination, in this case it was one of the newest accommodations just outside the East side of the park that we felt provided our most outstanding accommodation. St. Mary Lodge, like the others, overlooks a ten-mile long, narrow glacial lake running North to South. Goose Island and the surrounding peaks are considered to be the most photographed spot in the United States! Remember the Paramount Movie Mountain? It's there.
We stayed two nights at the Pinnacle cottages, resting above the main town and lodge. The view of the lake and mountains from the cottage deck was breathtaking. The brand new condo-like cabins have two bedrooms, a stone fireplace, kitchen and bar.
We felt it was the only Glacier accommodation that approached European levels of comfort--though it was at a fairly European price of $285 per night. The Pinnacle cottages can sleep six comfortably, so they are perfect for family reunions and other annual gatherings. The restaurant was also first class, prime rib was succulent, homemade scones, blueberry sourdough flapjacks, and Kaluha chocolate cheese cake. It was obvious that the chef was a cut above the ordinary...turns out he had cooked for the family of President George Bush and other families.
The Izaak Walton Inn
Located just outside the south end of Glacier National Park in Essex... 30 miles from either West Glacier or East Glacier entrances. This small alpine lodge was built by the Great Northern Railway in 1939 and is plumb full of railroad memorabilia! Amtrak stops here twice a day, so many guests come right off the train. The Jammers and several other tour operators will pick up passengers at the front door of the Izaak Walton Inn.
Going To The Sun Road
Going to the Sun Road is the primary scenic auto route through Glacier National Park. It is the park service's main condescension, or should I say "gift" to the "rest of us" who are unlikely to attempt wilderness hikes and backpacking trips.
The National Park Service forged this road through simply the most scenic mountain and valley terrain in the park. But travel it very early in the day. It can be laboriously slow and frustrating when clogged with traffic. And parking lots at Logan Pass are likely to be full by mid-day. In this photo, a fog bank rests just above the cut for Going to the Sun Road. We found fogs to be common during the day.
Today, building this road would cost close to 12 million dollars per mile. When built, it cost $80,000 per mile. Horses worked in the harness 'till they died and were launched over the side of the mountain. At night the grizzlies fed off their bodies.
Recreational Activities for All of Us
[Click Here for a list of recommended guided tours and outfitters]
Management of the National Park is a topic of constant scrutiny and discussion by locals living near the park boundaries. Concessionaires generally feel management has been very good: the Park Service has not closed any of the historic structures, or other major areas to public use. Nor has there been new development except for necessary accommodations to increasing tourism. While we were there, the historic red "Jammers" were condemned and pulled off Going to the Sun Road. Everyone (tourists, locals, and park managment) was in an uproar about that. Still, locals argue there is too much catering to tourism, and that the park should be maintained as a wilderness preserve.
Concessionaires at Glacier have done a commendable job of providing fairly safe and enjoyable opportunities for wilderness adventure available to participants at all levels of expertise. Backpacking trips on horseback, mule and foot are abundant. Whitewater rafting, dreamy floats, and guided fast-water trout fishing opportunities flourish. Even the artist, historian, and creative writer will find a home and camaraderie within the park.
Our two favorite activities both involved "schools." My own favorite activity was the Glacier Institute, a full-fledged summer program offering a variety of one or two-day and weeklong courses in everything from the history of tourism in Glacier National Park (my choice) to watercolor classes, bird studies and environmental classes. The field camp offers extremely reasonable ($15/night) cabin accommodations.
Dave Walker, a local historian, lectured my group on the history of the park. There were several issues central to the culture of Glacier National Park, he suggested: Use vs. Preservation issues, park development and the changing needs of tourism today; the growth of the Federal management since 1912 and the resulting tensions between Federal and private use of the park.
Certainly my husband's favorite recreational experience was the four-hour fly-fishing school provided by Steve Smith. Contact Steve by calling the Montana Raft Co. at 800-521-7238. This was a course that was as much about entomology as fishing! We learned the life cycles of nymphs, stone flies and other favorite meals of the cutthroat and rainbow trout which are common in the glacial streams. We learned to check under rocks to determine which stage the latest "hatch" was at, to "mend" our line in the fast flowing currents, and to stand solid in the knee-braces of our McKenzie boat and cast into "riffles" while Steve kept us upright in the boulder-strewn whitewater rapids.
Speaking of fast water, white-water rapids provide nearly continuous entertainment for visitors. I had declined opportunities to whitewater raft for nearly 10 years before finally taking the opportunity on the Middle Fork of the Flathead. August trips, I was told, are almost like floats because of the lower water.
"Just my kind of rafting trip," I smiled. As it turned out, summer rains had swollen the Middle Fork to Class 2-3 rapids and the "bone crusher" offered a roller-coaster thrill for everyone in our boat. In the spring, when the river can be 8 feet above normal, the Middle Fork of the Flathead river can have Class 6-7 rapids. It is the only "technical river" in the park.
Cruising the Glacial Lakes
Each of the lodges in Glacier National Park are located on finger-like lakes gouged out by glaciers some 10,000 years ago. They are approximately 10 miles long and 3-400 feet deep. While some may allow private boating, and some do not, a trip on a cruise boat is a must for visitors. We found the pilots to be very knowledgeable about the geology and natural history of the park. Ranger-led cruises are also available on a regular basis.
The Burch family which owns the boat concession has been there for three generations, since purchasing the DeSmet and other boats from the Great Northern Railroad. Scott Burch has run the company with other family members for the past 14 years, and claims it is the oldest park concession in the nation.
The cruise boats are uniquely adapted to the river, long and narrow so as to provide safe cruising even in the 80 mph winds that can rile the lake so that waves crash into the rock walls like the sides of a bathtub.
"I went out four times one day in the 80 mph winds," Scott Burch told me. The winds always blow the length of the lakes, so our narrow boats have the wind either at the stern or the bow. They are designed to plow comfortably through the waves."
Our finally stop before catching a return flight out of Kalispell was "Big Mountain" overlooking Whitefish. The gondola's of this popular ski area provided outstanding views of the Glacier mountains. We stayed at nearby Kandahar Lodge, with the huge lobby and delicious meals to be expected of a ski lodge. Trout fishing, and rafting, trail rides, float trips, bike rentals, etc. can all be arranged nearby.
What I treasure most in a vacation is coming back with new knowledge and insights that continue to enrich my life. At Glacier I met a personal goal to raft in fast water, saw wild bears in close proximity, and came back from fly-fishing school with an ability to use my new fishing skills in unknown waters and actually catch a nice trout! I liked that!
IF you go....
Travel Montana, 1424 9th Ave., Helena, Montana 59620
Gateway Plaza Hotel, Cutbank, Montana. 1130 East Main, Cut Bank, MT 59427 Call - 800-851-5541 | 406-873-5544. Located on Hwy 2 about an hour east of East Glacier. Very comfortable, pool, and hot breakfast inside for about $75/night, substantially less than the "great lodges" inside the park. Well recommended.
Izaak Walton Inn, Essex, Montana. email@example.com, Phone : 406.888.5700 Fax: 406.888.5200 Immediately south of Glacier National Park, 30 miles from either the East or West entrance. A "characterful" lodge built by the Great Northern Railway.
Glacier Park Lodge: 406-226-9311. Hwy 89 & 2
Village Inn, 2 miles from the West Entrance in Apgar: 406-888-5632
Rising Sun Motor Inn, located six miles from St. Mary's Entrance. 406-732-5523
St. Mary Lodge, St. Mary's Entrance on East Side of park 406-732-4431
Many Glacier Hotel, 11 miles from Babb on NE side of Glacier National Park... At the intersection of Going to the Sun Road and Hwy 89. 406-732-4411
Swift Current Motor Park, 12 miles from Babb, just beyond Many Glacier Hotel...406-732-5531
Prince of Wales Hotel, Waterton Lakes, National Park, Alberta Canada 403-859-2231 A beautiful historic lodge with an English touch!
Kandahar Lodge on the Big Mountain. PO Box 1659, Whitefish, MT 59937. Call 800-862-6094 for reservations.
Campgrounds in Glacier provide just over 1000 campsites. Most are available on a first-come, first-served" basis. For reservations call the National Park Service Reservation System at 800-365-CAMP.
There are limited sites available for motorhomes ranging from 26' to 42' feet.
Please remember that motorhomes, or vehicle/trailer combinations of over 21 feet are NOT ALLOWED on Going to the Sun Road.
Montana Raft Company. Whitewater rafting, scenic floats, fly fishing, horseback and backpacking outfitters. Kalispell, Montanta. 800-521-7238.
The Glacier Institute, 137 Main Street, PO Box 7457, Kalispell, MT 59904
406-755-1211, email firstname.lastname@example.org Web site: www.digisys.net/glacinst
Big Mountain Ski & Summer Resort, PO Box 1400 Whitefish, MT 59976 Phone 406-862-1900 or for reservations call 800-858-4157. Visit www.bigmtn.com or email email@example.com
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