Here on Handstands Around the World, I’ve decided to start off 2018 with a saga. The saga of one of my favorite places in the world: Glacier National Park.
If you haven’t been to Glacier, it needs to be added to the top of your list. It’s hands-down the most beautiful national park in the lower 48, and an absolute highlight of Montana. It’s gorgeous. Lakes, waterfalls, wildflowers. Towering mountains that make you feel tiny, and fresh air that makes you feel alive. Not to mention the hundreds of miles of hiking trails and the abundance of wildlife.
It’s also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site, as well as comprising half of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, the first in the world of its kind. Glacier has been dubbed the “Crown of the Continent” and rightfully so – not only is the entire park absolutely stunning, but it’s also home to many unique animals and ecosystems as well as 25 glaciers.
I’ve been to Glacier five times, and the list of hikes I want to do is still longer than the list of the ones I’ve accomplished. I could spend an entire summer in Glacier and probably still not see everything. Most of it is way off the beaten path, which is why it’s so unspoiled, but it also makes accessing these backcountry locations much more difficult. There’s also the tiny fact that Glacier is home to the largest grizzly bear population anywhere else in the lower 48, so backpacking here isn’t excessively high on my priority list. Someday I’m probably going to have to get over it if I ever want to see half of what Glacier has to offer.
Anyway, I’m getting a bit off topic here.
To start things off, we’re going to enter the park at West Glacier, just outside of Columbia Falls, Montana. This marks the west end of Going-to-the-Sun Road, the only road that travels all the way through the park from east to west. Going-to-the-Sun Road was completed in 1932 and is recognized as a feat of civil engineering. It’s easy to see why; each time the road curves, you can look back and see where it has been cut into the mountainside.
The road took 11 years to build and involved blasting tunnels through mountainsides and building up a roadbed from the steep walls of the valleys below. Because it’s steep and narrow in places, large vehicles aren’t allowed on much of the road.
Going-to-the-Sun Road climbs up and over the Continental Divide, which marks the line between two watersheds: water on the west side of the divide flows into the Pacific, while water on the east side drains into the Gulf of Mexico. In the case of Glacier, the Continental Divide also effectively splits the park into an east half and a west half. Today, we’re going to focus on the west half.
Entering through West Glacier, we arrive almost immediately at the Apgar area, located along the western edge of Lake McDonald. Here, you’ll find a visitor center, campground, picnic area, trails, a boat launch, and amenities.
From Apgar, Going-to-the-Sun Road hugs the south shore of Lake McDonald for about 10 miles (16 km), passing by Sprague Creek Campground as well as numerous pullouts and trailheads. There are backcountry trails all over Glacier and pretty much any trailhead provides the opportunity to head way back into the mountains if you so desire.
The next stop is the Avalanche area, where you’ll find a campground, picnic area, the Trail of the Cedars nature trail, and the Avalanche Lake trailhead. Trail of the Cedars is a nice short interpretive walk through some old-growth forest. There were forest fires in this area last summer so I’m not sure the current status of it but some of the ancient trees may have succumbed to the flames.
The hike to Avalanche Lake is about 2.5 miles (4 km) in each direction and the trail parallels Avalanche Creek up to the lake. This beautiful little lake sits in a cirque dotted with waterfalls. It’s one of the most accessible backcountry lakes in the park and provides a chance to get off the beaten path a bit and experience one of the mountain lakes for which Glacier is so well known.
Beyond Avalanche, the road really begins to climb up to the Continental Divide and Logan Pass. A sharp hairpin turn called The Loop provides a great place to look back at the road and how extreme it is.
Further ahead is the Weeping Wall on the left and the Triple Arches, which are a manmade feature built for the purposes of supporting the road. One last little bit of climbing, and we arrive at Logan Pass and the Continental Divide, which I’ll talk all about in my next post.
A few years back they started a free shuttle that runs the length of Going-to-the-Sun Road. I highly recommend this because the entire length of the road is extremely scenic but looking away from the road while driving basically guarantees you’ll either run into a rock wall or slide off a cliff.
(Okay, maybe I’m being a little dramatic. But it’s a narrow, winding, steep road that warrants one’s full attention while driving it.)
The shuttle stops at all major destinations and provides a chance to take in the excellent views without having to pay attention to the road. So if you’re planning to park at a trailhead or just looking for a day of sightseeing, the shuttle is definitely the way to go!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: The village of Apgar is located 20 miles (32 km) northeast of the town of Columbia Falls in northwestern Montana
- Fees & passes: $30 per car for a 7-day pass; Interagency Annual Pass accepted
- Camping: Apgar is the largest campground in Glacier (194 sites, $20 per night, reservations NOT accepted); Fish Creek (178 sites, $23 per night, reservations accepted), Sprague Creek (25 sites, $20 per night, reservations NOT accepted), and Avalanche (87 sites, $20 per night, reservations NOT accepted) campgrounds are also in the Lake McDonald area. Remember, this is bear country, so all camping rules and regulations are strictly enforced.
- Hiking: I mentioned Avalanche Lake (4.6 miles/7.4 km round-trip, easy) and Trail of the Cedars (1.4 miles/2.2 km round-trip, accessible) in this post; however, there are many more options. A full trail map of the area can be found here
- Other: a visitor center, full accommodations, and all amenities are available at Apgar; plan ahead, as there is no gas and very few other amenities and accommodations further inside the park