Glacier National Park – A Crown Jewel of Montana
The most visited place in Montana, Glacier National Park is a crown jewel in America’s National Park System. The park derived its name from the more than 50 perennial ice fields within its 1600 square miles of pristine wilderness that spans the Continental Divide. The park has over 200 alpine lakes, 700 miles of maintained hiking trails and almost 1000 miles of creeks, rivers and waterfalls.
Mystical, primal forests, rugged majestic mountains and wildflower blanketed alpine meadows are all part of one of the largest, bio-diverse and intact ecosystems to be found in the lower 48 states. In 1979, the United Nations designated Waterton – Glacier International Peace Park as the world’s first International Biosphere Reserve. Further honors were bestowed upon the park in 1995 when UNESCO honored the park’s international significance by designating it a World Heritage Site.
For over 20,000 years glaciers have crafted and carved this majestic landscape. A glacier is a slowly moving mass of snow and ice formed when more snow falls each winter than melts in the following summer. The heavy snowfall accumulates and the weight creates pressure and forms the lower layers into solid ice. The bottom layer is flexible, allowing the glacier to progress. As glaciers move they pick up boulders, rocks and gravel which sculpts and scrapes the land it travels across. Over thousands of years, glacial movement forged the magnificent sharp mountain peaks, deep valleys and lakes that make up the extraordinary landscape of the park.
The dense forests of this vast pristine ecosystem are inhabited by more than 70 species of mammals including grizzly bears, wolves, cougars, big horn sheep, mountain goats, elk, deer, moose, beavers and wolverine. More than 260 species of birds ride the winds.
Exquisite wildflowers flourish in alpine meadows and prairie grasslands; over 1400 species of wildflowers bloom in the park. 28 of these are varieties that are found nowhere else but within Glacier National Park. Icy, sparkling clear, clean water; in Glacier Park there is water everywhere. Water covers over 2000 acres of the park. Glorious chains of waterfalls, hundreds of lakes and over 550 creeks and rivers. Sacred Dancing Cascades is a series of waterfalls that are favorites of all who visit.
Many people consider the Going-To-The-Sun Road, a spectacular 52 mile stretch of tarmac that divides north and south Glacier National Park, to be one of the most scenic roadways in America. Traversing the park from east to west, the “”Sun Road”” is considered an engineering miracle. The construction of this incredible roadway took over 11 years and tens of thousands of man hours to complete. The final segment of the Going-To-The-Sun Road, over Logan Pass, was finished in 1932 and today is a National Historic Landmark. The road allowed visitors by car to access the park and enjoy areas that previously had taken several days of horseback riding to reach.
Glacier National Park is actually half of the world’s first International Park. In 1932, to honor the friendly relations and neighborly bond between the two countries, the United States and Canada named Glacier and Canada’s adjoining Waterton Lakes National Park the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. The re-naming of the parks also honored the character of this massive wilderness and the cooperation and shared stewardship required to protect and maintain the park system.
Prior to the white man’s invasion of the American West, the Kootenai, Salish and Blackfeet Indian Tribes lived and hunted in this majestic wilderness. The entire region holds great spiritual significance for Native Americans who held its secrets sacred.
When their freedom was shackled and the tribes were forced onto reservations, the Kootenai and Salish were relocated southwest of Glacier. The Blackfeet Reservation adjoins the east side of the park. On Chief Mountain at the northwest boundary of the park, Plains Indian Tribes continue to hold prayer ceremonies and vision quests.
In 1806, the Lewis and Clark Expedition journeyed within 80 miles of the area that is now Glacier Park. In 1815, a fur trapper for the Hudson Bay Company of Canada, Hugh Monroe, (called “”Rising Wolf’ by the Blackfeet Indians), was the first white man to enter the area. Soon other trappers followed in search of the beaver pelts so much in demand in Europe.
Fueled by the discovery of gold, settlement of the west was expanding. When the Great Northern Railroad completed construction of the railway over Marias Pass in 1891, homesteaders settled into the lush valleys and small towns sprang up.
The United States government, under extreme pressure from settlers and miners, acquired the mountains east of the Continental Divide from the Blackfeet Tribe in 1895. The treasure hunter’s dreams were dashed when they failed to find a bonanza. Although some gold and copper was found, the mining boom only lasted a few brief years. Abandoned mine shafts and tailing piles are still found in several locations within the park.
By the turn of the century, the public started to view and value the land for its incredible, breathtaking beauty. Rather than just judging the land for its potential for financial exploitation, many factions moved to preserve the fragile ecosystem.
Many people, such as George Bird Grinnell, an early explorer of Montana, lobbied for the creation of a national park. The area became a Forest Preserve in 1900, but remained open to homesteading and mining. Grinnell and other dedicated conservationists petitioned for the added protection a national park would offer. In 1910, George Grinnell was delighted when all the hard work paid off. President Taft signed legislation making Glacier the nation’s 10th National Park.
Like glaciers all over the world, the glaciers of Glacier National Park are melting. Inch by inch, warming temperatures are consuming the ice masses. The change is not dramatic unless you compare today’s glaciers with those of 50 years ago. There are almost 100 less glaciers today than there were five decades ago. Scientists predict that if global warming is not curtailed, there may not be a single glacier left by 2030. If you haven’t seen Glacier Park go soon and take the grandchildren, the glaciers of the park may soon be only a memory.