Saturday, July 23, 2016

Going-to-the-Sun, Glacier National Park, 7/21/2016

After a long drive (for us) from Spokane, WA, to Kalispell, MT, we headed out to visit Glacier National Park the next morning. I have wanted to see this park for years! We woke to a bright, sunny day; had breakfast; started dinner in the crockpot; packed a picnic lunch; and we were out the door by around 8 am

Knowing the park would be crowded this time of year, we wanted to be sure to get a relatively early start. Our RV park is only about 8 miles to West Glacier and the West Entrance is only a short distance from there. 

Our first stop was at the Apgar Visitor Center.

Glacier National Park (founded in 1910) located in Montana and neighboring Waterton Lakes National Park (founded in 1895) located in Alberta were declared by the United States and Canada as the world's first International Peace Park in 1932. The two sections are managed by its native country, but work closely together on wildlife management, scientific research, and some of the many visitor services. The entire park is 1,800 square miles of mountain peaks, u-shaped forested valleys, over 700 lakes25 glaciers, rolling plains, subalpine and alpine areas. There are over 700 miles of trails for hikers and horseback riders. 

We already knew that we wanted to drive the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road that winds through the park to StMary's on the eastern boundary (50 miles). Our first stop was at one of the many pull outs along Lake McDonald. In the morning light, it was gorgeous.

Our second stop along the Lake provided access to the shores. The stones on the bank and in the lake are various hues of red, brown, and gold. The lake has little organic matter (algae, weeds, etc.) making the water very clear. This is characteristic of the first phase of a lake's lifecycle and typical of lakes created after a glacier disappears. 

During the Pleistocene Epoch a 2,000' thick glacier moved down the valley here. Ten thousand years ago it receded, leaving rock and dirt that formed a dam, creating Lake McDonald. The lake is 9.4 miles in length, 1.5 miles wide, 472' deep with clarity to 50'. The Going-to-the-Sun Road follows along the shores of the lake to Lake McDonald Lodge. Some of the touring cars were here and can be seen throughout the park. 

The hotel is built in the Swiss chalet style with an impressive 3-story lobby. It was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1987.

Boat rentals and guided tours are available from the dock at the rear of the lodge. And the beauty of the lake is mesmerizing.

As we walked back to the parking area, we saw several prairie dogs popping their heads out of their holes. What interesting critters! During our travels, we have seen several huge prairie dog towns in other national parks and we have, also, heard people complain about them causing damage on their property  

McDonald Falls was a quick stop where you can walk down a short distance to the observation deck. Some of the oldest rock in Glacier National Park is exposed here. 

At Avalanche Creek we found a parking spot (shuttle buses run during the busy summer months in Glacier NP as there is not enough parking for the seasonal crowds). The Trail of the Cedars can be found here. It is an easy .8 mile (boardwalk) loop trail through a forest of primarily western red cedar, black cottonwood, and western hemlock trees. 

The trail crosses Avalanche Creek and there are lots of interesting, moss-covered rock formations along the way.

Continuing to drive east on Going-to-the-Sun Road (which is an amazing engineering feat in its own right), we stopped at several pull outs to admire stunning views of Heavens Peak (8,937'), Birdwoman Falls (on McDonald Creek drops 492'), and the McDonald Creek Valley

Our next stop was at Big Bend where there is a parking area a short distance past Weeping Wall. The photo below does not adequately show the amount of water that falls onto the road along a stretch of the highway. If your windows are open, you will get wet!

From this location is another spectacular view of McDonald Creek Valley. On the other side of the road (be cautious crossing it!), is another waterfall that tumbles down steep the rock wall. 

Logan Pass sits on the Continental Divide at an elevation of 6,646'. The Visitor Center was so busy when we got there that John could not find a parking space. I ran in to get my National Park book stamped and snapped a couple of photos of the peaks visible from here. There are alpine meadows and the Hidden Lake Trailhead here. 

Jackson Glacier (snow mass in center of photo) is 4.5 miles away from this overlook on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. This glacier is the 7th largest of the 25 glaciers still remaining at Glacier National Park. It is predicted that all of the glaciers will be gone (i.e, melted) by 2030 due to climate change. 

Spectacular views of Sunrift Gorge are only 75' from the parking area. The short trail leads under a stone bridge to the creek. The colors of the rocks in the water were so lovely.

StMary Lake (9.9 miles long and 300' deep) is the second largest lake at Glacier NP. In frequently freezes over in the winter with a 4' thick layer of ice. The water rarely gets warmer than 50 degrees F. There are lots of pull outs along the Going-to-the-Sun Road providing beautiful views of the lake and surrounding mountains.

We continued a short distance and pulled over at the Wild Goose Island overlook. This tiny island on St. Mary Lake is one of the iconic views in the park. 

From this viewpoint the Triple Divide Peak (center) can be seen. It is more than a two-ocean Continental Divide. From its three-sided pyramid peak, rain and snowmelt travel to three major river systems and enter the Pacific Ocean, Hudson Bay, and Gulf of Mexico.

At StMary Visitor Center, three flags are flown: flag of the US, the flag of the Blackfeet Nation (their reservation is adjacent to the park), and the flag of Canada. As you can see, the flags are flying at half mast to honor the victims of the attacks in Nice, France. 

Inside, park rangers are available to provide information about hiking trails, backcountry passes, etc. This large telescope is used for night viewing programs as the sky is very dark here due to its remote location away from city lights. 

A theatre shows videos about the park and there are exhibits about the Native Americans who have lived in this region for centuries. The yellow line in the topographical map below shows the Continental Divide (where water on the west side flows to the Pacific Ocean and water on the east side flows to the Atlantic Ocean). Indigenous Native Americans called it "the backbone of the world."

The Going-to-the-Sun Road ends at StMary at the boundary of the Blackfeet Reservation. We retraced our journey (50 miles) back to West Glacier. This trip took 8-9 hours, so plan on a full day if you want to traverse the entire road in one day.  Expect delays along the way due to construction and heavy traffic during the busy summer season. We were thrilled to see a juvenile black bear crossing the road (too bad we did not have a camera ready in time to catch a picture of him!) If you are planning any hiking at Glacier NP, be sure to be "bear aware" and carry bear spray with you at all times. Some of the hiking trails are closed periodically due to bear activity. This information is available at all of the visitor centers or on-line.

Admission to Glacier National Park is $25/vehicle for a 7-day pass. For additional information about Glacier National Park, check out their website.



  1. We bicycled over the Going-to-the-Sun on the cross country trip years ago.

  2. Wow, I don't think I would have the stamina for that kind trip, even years ago! We did see lots of bicyclists there though.