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Wandering the West

Not to alarm you, but the glaciers of Glacier National Park are disappearing. I’m not going to go all Al Gore on you and blame global warming, since retreating is what glaciers do, but the rapid rate of snowmelt in Glacier Park lately has some scientists warning that Glacier Park will be glacier-less inside of fifty years.

Glacier is the first national park I ever saw and it remains a treasured place for me. Dad won a Cadillac Sedan de Ville in a sales contest long ago and loaded up the family for a grand road trip from South Dakota to the Seattle World’s Fair via Glacier Park. The first mountains I ever saw were Glacier’s peaks and I was hooked on the West the first day I saw a mountain rising from the plains. I couldn’t imagine a grander place and, many decades later, I still can’t. Although the peaks aren’t as lofty as the Colorado or Utah peaks, they rise from the Great Plains so they look enormous, and they are.

Glacier Park is connected at the Canadian border with Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. Between them, there’s easily a week’s worth of things to do, with hiking at the top of my list. There are 700 miles of established trails, and backcountry exploring in between. This is one of the biggest national parks in the system. There are big glacier-fed lakes and there are still enough glaciers remaining that you can hike up for August snowball fights. Actually, this far north and this high up, snow can and does fall in August, and every other month for that matter, so pay attention to the weather forecasts.

The wildlife here isn’t as apparent as a drive through Yellowstone, but look in the right places and you may spot a grizzly bear or two. Glacier has the largest population of them in the Lower 48. Just west of the park is where the first gray wolves reentered the U.S. from Canada to begin a natural repopulation of the once vanished species. Big-horn sheep and mountain goats abound at higher elevations, river corridors attract moose, and the wide-open spaces are where you’ll see elk.

Easily the highlight of any Glacier trip is the drive over Going to the Sun Road. It is 75 years old this July and bisects the park in spectacular fashion. I remember the first trip over it in Dad’s Cad and it scared a flatlander like me to death. It took 11 years to blast the road out of solid rock as it crosses the Continental Divide at Logan Pass. As I write this column, park road crews are still trying to clear snow near the summit to get the 50-mile road open. Take advantage of every scenic pullout and hiking opportunity along the way. This is one of America’s best drives.

There are 13 campgrounds and nearly a thousand campsites inside the park. The one by Swiftcurrent Lake is ringed by chain-link fencing to protect the campers from grizzlies last time I stopped by. Anywhere you camp, take every bear precaution in the book, and only read Jack Olson’s classic "Night of the Grizzlies" after you’re back home. If you read it beforehand, you won’t sleep a wink.

Glacier is one of America’s oldest national parks, dating from 1910, so it has several of the grand park lodges built by the railroads shortly after the turn of the century. Lake McDonald Lodge, Swiftcurrent Hotel, and Glacier Park Lodge are classics, fun to walk around and gawk in even if you didn’t reserve far enough ahead to get a room. Other great old railroad hotels are the Izaak Walton Inn outside the park’s southern border, and the Prince of Wales Hotel on the Canadian side. I recall sitting at the Prince of Wales Hotel patio having a cool one while taking in the mountains surrounding Waterton Lake as a pair of big-horn rams butted heads a hundred feet in front of me on the lawn. Now that’s a comfy wilderness experience!

Glacier is a long haul from Park City, but it has to go your life list. With its hanging glaciers, glacially carved valleys, big mountains, big lakes and big game and grand hotels, it is a world-class destination. The United Nations has declared it and adjoining Waterton as a World Heritage Site, and there are plenty of reasons why.

Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.

THE VITALS:

Park City to West Glacier, Montana: 686 miles

Web sites: http://www.nps.gov/glac/ http://www.nationalparkreservations.com/glacier/htm

Insider tip: Book a room (if you can still get one) at Sperry Chalet or Granite Park Chalet. Both are in the backcountry. You can hike in with a daypack and spend the night in rustic luxury. Bring a flashlight, as there’s no electricity.


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