Postcard views. Need I say more? Before our visit, I didn’t know that Glacier is one of the most popular, most heavily visited US National Parks, despite its remote location in northwest Montana. The peak season is barely three months, and some years less.
Visitors are down 58% this year. BUT, visitor levels in August (right now) are just about back to last year’s levels, and only the western half of the park is open. As the result, the open portion of the park is more crowded than ever. We were hoping to visit during a slightly less crowded time (Nope). August is a fabulous time to be in Montana, probably the best month of the year. Visitors seem to be aware of this fact, and put up with the crowds.
We left home at 7:30 am, and arrived at the park at 8:45 am. Purchasing our America the Beautiful Lifetime Senior Pass ($80) went very quickly. The park attendant was behind a plastic shield, and no signature was required when using a card for payment. We drove to the Apgar Visitors Center, where there is a coffee shop and a park ranger answering questions. I was hoping for a wonderful gift shop in this popular park, but Covid 19 has ruined the shopping experience. There are a limited number of items sold, and only at an outdoor table. I think a much wider variety of Glacier Park souvenirs can be had online (bummer).
Traffic was light at first along Lake McDonald. On Going-to-the-Sun Road, it was not difficult to pull over to look at the lake, read informational signs, and see trailheads. As we went along, we passed more and more parked cars, and it became clear that hikers who want to spend the day on a specific trail really do need to be in the park around 7 a.m. (as guidebooks suggest) if they want their choice of parking spots. By 8:45 a.m., most parking spots at trailheads were full.
The drive was glorious and the day was perfect. We had cold weather all week, and the forecast was for hot weather (90s!) for the following week. We visited on the perfect day, clear skies and a high of 78o. The mountains appear to be much higher in the park than along the road to our house and in the Kootenai National Forest around us, I’m not sure why. The jagged gray teeth of young mountain peaks at Glacier are impressively threatening.
Heaven’s Peak is the first of the mountains that the road passes, followed by many others, each with its own name. Every inch of the park has been hiked and climbed by visitors since the days when only the Blackfoot lived here.
We intended to stop at the Logan Pass Visitor Center and take a walk on the Hidden Lake Nature Trail. The parking lot was a shifting scrum of SUVs jockeying for spaces that weren’t available. Some vehicles stopped mid-lane and put on their flashers to wait for a spot. We didn’t stay, deciding to push on until we found a less mobbed area. We saw our only wildlife by the Logan Pass Visitors Center, a mountain goat. (The photo is a mountain goat at Glacier National Park from the internet.)
We stopped to look at the Jackson Glacier. Statistics indicate that the park’s glaciers are disappearing, making it a pleasure to see one that is still present. Around every turn, a new vista of trees and mountains opened up.
At Sun Point we found our spot. There is a large parking area and plenty of spaces were available. The trail to Baring Falls gave us a short hike to a beautiful spot, just what we were looking for. We took our masks along, just in case, and it was a good thing. There were people all along the trail. After a few hundred yards of mask-on-mask-off-mask-on, I left my mask on. The path paralleled the shore of Lake St. Mary with views over the lake and the mountains. I would have liked to go down to the shore, but it was a steep scramble, and I stayed on the trail. We arrived at Baring Falls, a cascade that drains into Lake St. Mary. Visitors lounged on the shore, youngsters climbed on logs that crossed the stream, and others waded in the shallow, icy water.
Back at Sun Point after our walk to Baring Falls, we found a picnic table in the shade and ate our lunch. From there we continued to the end of the road at Rising Sun. There are signs and cones the direct cars to turn around here and head back. In other years, Going-to-the-Sun Road is open all the way across the park to the St. Mary Visitor Center. From there, visitors can make the return drive around the outside of the park. Though the return route is much longer, the time is about the same, as 2/3 of the trip is on Rte. 2, the major highway. You trickle along Going-to-the-Sun Road, come out of the park in the town of St. Mary, and drive another 1-1/2 to 2 hours around the perimeter of the park to get back to West Glacier. Some visitors choose to base themselves in East Glacier to hike the popular trails on that side of the park. Not this year.
The eastern portion of Glacier National Park is controlled by the Blackfoot Tribe. This year, the tribe decided that they did not want the risk that tribal members would contract the virus from visitors, and the east side of the park and that portion of the road are closed. They may reopen next year, based on the tribe’s decision next winter. When you consider that Native Americans have been badly affected by the Covid virus, the Blackfoot decision is understandable. In previous years, more than one million people visited Glacier Park. That’s a lot of potential virus-carriers.
The portion of Glacier National Park that is open is filled with spectacular views and lots of places to visit. Despite the ups and downs of the Year of the Pandemic (What animal should represent this year? A poisonous snake?), it’s a great place to visit. So many gorgeous vistas!
Post Script: I thought about finding a less visited area for a second visit to Glacier National Park, and Polebridge, MT looked like just the place. It’s a sort of side entrance, and there are several lakes to visit. I read about it online and found that I am not the first person to think of this. In 2020, entries to the park through Polebridge are up 40%. Instead, we are hiking on the trails around lakes near our house where we are usually the only ones out.