National Parks Centennial: Glacier National Park

National Parks Centennial: Glacier National Park

Now is the time to cycle the spectacular Going-to-the-Sun Road and to visit the park’s dwindling glaciers By: Debbie Olsen
<p>There are more than 700 miles of trails in Glacier National Park, including the family-friendly Hidden Overlook Trail. // © 2016 Greg...

There are more than 700 miles of trails in Glacier National Park, including the family-friendly Hidden Overlook Trail. // © 2016 Greg Olsen

Feature image (above):  Lake McDonald, the largest lake in Glacier National Park, is a popular place to play on a hot summer day. // © 2016 Greg Olsen

Related Content

Learn when to go and what to do in California and Nevada's Death Valley National Park.

The Details

Glacier National Park

The Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana’s Glacier National Park is a narrow strip of pavement. It winds its way along the Continental Divide, hugging mountainsides with tight curves, sheer drop-offs and spectacular views. Traveling this engineering marvel is always rewarding, but there is an extra sense of satisfaction that comes from making your way up on two wheels — instead of four.

This spectacular roadway passes through such high elevations that snow makes it impassable to vehicular traffic until mid-June or even later. With almost no cars on the road, late spring is an ideal time for cyclists to enjoy it. 

Cycling the legendary roadway had always been a dream of mine, so my friend Patti and I decided to make it part of a girlfriends’ getaway. On our way to Glacier, we stopped by Great Northern Cycle and Ski in Whitefish to pick up rental road bikes and then enjoyed a little retail therapy in Kalispell, Mont. We used the next two days to take a few unhurried practice rides through the park.  

It was lightly raining as we began to cycle up the Going-to-the-Sun Road from Apgar Campground. During that time in early June, the farthest point open to cyclists was just past a section of road known as “The Loop” — so that became our goal.

The views were spectacular even on the lower elevations, and I kept stopping to take pictures of wildflowers and wildlife. Near a set of rapids on McDonald Creek, we spotted a harlequin duck bobbing in the fast-moving water. Of the 260-plus species of birds in Glacier National Park, the Harlequin duck is one of the most interesting: During the winter months, these small and colorful sea ducks feed in the turbulent surf along the North American coast. In spring, they migrate inland to breed and raise their young along the surging freshwater streams. Luckily for us, Glacier National Park is one of the best places in the lower 48 states to see this unique, relatively rare species. 

As we peddled up the road, we passed streams, creeks and cascading waterfalls. My quads were burning when we finally reached the overlook near The Loop and took in the magnificent view of Heaven’s Peak.  I never imagined I could make it to this height on a bicycle, but when I gazed out at the view, I knew it had been worth the effort.  

Global Warming and Glacier National Park
Glaciers are melting at an unprecedented rate in Glacier National Park, and you can already see the effects of global warming. In 1968, there were around 50 glaciers in the park but, today, there are only 25 ice bodies large enough to still qualify as glaciers, according to the United States Geological Survey. If glaciers continue to melt at this alarming pace, some scientists fear that in 20 years, there will be no glaciers left in the park. 

Hitting the Highlights
Glacier National Park was established in 1910 as a “public pleasuring ground,” and visiting this vast and rugged park is still a joy today. With more than 1 million acres of protected land and hundreds of kilometers of hiking trails, most visitors need to come up with a plan to hit the highlights during their visit. 

Many Glacier: Massive mountains, glaciers, sparkling lakes and abundant hiking trails make this area of the park a favorite for many visitors. Two of the top hikes to recommend to your clients are Grinnell Glacier and Grinnell Lake. The hikes can be combined with a scenic boat cruise. 

Going-to-the-Sun Road: Completed in 1932, the Going-to-the-Sun Road is a National Historic Landmark and a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark that is spectacular and should not be missed. Make sure your clients know that the road typically doesn’t open to vehicular traffic until mid-June. If they are uncomfortable driving this road, you can recommend a journey on one of the red jammer busses that run regularly between the historic lodges in the park.

Lake McDonald: Glacier National Park’s biggest lake, Lake McDonald, is 10 miles long and 472 feet deep. It is surrounded by mountains and is one of the prettiest spots in the park. Your clients can enjoy a scenic cruise on the lake, a walk around Apgar Village or one of the many day hikes in the area. 

St. Mary: Native American culture is strong in the St. Mary Valley, which is the eastern gateway of Glacier National Park. If your clients are in this part of the park, they should definitely take in the Native America Speaks program featuring local drummers and dancers as well as award-winning performing artists at the St. Mary Visitor Center.